The Risk-Monger

Can you be bought?

This is the first part of a summer series on ethics and environmentalism.

In a lobbying course I have just finished, I posed the question to my students: Can you be bought? The answer was easy; the challenge was “How much?” The more disquieting question I then threw at them was: “Should you sell your network?”

One of the main criticisms environmental NGOs level at their fellow lobbyists representing business is that industry people only do it for the money – mercenaries who sell themselves at a price that is sufficient enough to legitimise their polluting the planet and destroying human health. All business people think about is money and profits, NGOs often think – they must have no moral conscience. Who, after all, working for the chemical industry, would actually believe that they are improving society with new products, saving lives with drugs and innovations, and making continual progress in solving challenges facing humanity and the environment? These poor naive people had been brainwashed by an exploitative machine that only exists to poison babies and pollute the planet!

Environmental activists who have judged me in such a manner in the past, often see themselves as noble, heroic under-dogs standing up to this evil machine to save the planet. They have passion and commitment for their cause, which is good, especially as their revolutionary zeal must make up for not receiving any financial compensation. When they do accept contributions, they don’t consider that they are being bought. They convince themselves that they are remunerated at a modest rate from public donations given by supporters who applaud and reward their sacrifice (rather than those who profit from and pollute citizens). The reality is that NGO activists are working for money and their organisations are usually run like businesses with variable revenue streams. Yes they are bought as well, but the perfume of the nobility of their cause covers up the stink they judge in others.

They should not be ashamed to admit it – we are all bought. We are not only bought for money, salary or favour – we can be attracted to position, influence and leadership opportunities (a microphone has value). We use ourselves, we sell our dignity, for something we judge to be opportune (I am afraid that is human nature).

I have problems though when we sell or use others. This was the second question I threw at my innocent students: Should you sell your network? I taught them that their network is their most valuable asset (but it has a worth, not a price that can be exchanged – please go back and read Immanuel Kant for the difference). We should not sell others for our gain or treat others as our ends (they are ends in themselves). Here though we have another human exploitation concept: commoditisation.

Credibility and public trust are commodities – environmental NGOs have a surplus while most industries have a deficit (in measures of public trust, industry has been pasted so much and have the stink of profit motive that they are basically worthless in this regard). But environmental NGOs have recognised the value (price) of their good public standing. When you have a surplus of credibility and alliances, there is the temptation to profit from it. WWF sells its panda logo to brands who want to use it to “buy environmental credibility”. The Green 10 in Brussels uses the combined credibility of its partners to expand their voice on environmental campaigns. They are essentially using their networks to gain influence beyond their real value. Corporate Europe Observatory acts as a mouthpiece for Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace through another front organisation, ALTER-EU, to create moral obfuscation and outrage which they then use to raise further funds. Using other networks to create noble perceptions: there is a value there to be sold!

If environmental NGO activists think, seriously, that they are morally superior because they feel they have not been bought, they have to take a closer look at how they sell their worth and their networks, and question the morality there.

Let us take an example. Suppose I have been publicly recognised for performing a good thing (saving a life, helping the poor, providing a social good …). I know I have worked for industry in the past, but please withhold your judgement on the likelihood of such probabilities and play with me on this one. If I then try to use this public good will for some sort of profit or gain, I would hardly become a better person for it. In fact, I would probably lose credibility. Why then do environmental NGOs talk up their moral righteousness as fodder for their fundraising campaigns? Do they not see the vulgarity? Does Machiavelli rule here (saving the planet justifies any moral impropriety)?

Can you be bought? Yes, of course. Should you sell perceived worth and the good standing of others for some sort of influence and gain? If people saw through the moral smokescreen of such nobility as “saving the planet”, they would answer: of course not.

My next blog, probably when I am up in the mountains, will address the morality of biodiversity: Does the planet have rights and dignity?

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