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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

A thought in the dark
April 13, 2010 - 6:23pm

As my clock-radio switched on NPR this morning, I was treated to two seemingly similar stories, one right after the other. The details may have differed (my mind at that hour not being capable of appreciating, much less retaining, much detail), but the overall gist was the same.

One item touched on Massey Energy, and its higher-than-average incidence of safety violations, and the fact that Federal statutes/regulators/courts had failed to achieve any noticeable change in behavior. Twenty-nine West Virginia miners lost their lives, but corporate bigwigs insist they weren't putting profits ahead of safety.

The other spoke of Washington Mutual, the demise of which was triggered in large part by fraud and malfeasance. Again, Federal regulation (such as it existed) was quite inadequate to keep misbehavior in check. As one result, there are a lot of former homeowners in places like California and Florida. They're "former" homeowners because they were encouraged to buy more home -- and to sign up for higher interest rates -- than they could reasonably afford. As another result, there are a lot of investors who paid good money for bad securities -- that's where the "fraud" part comes in.

Then, shortly after getting vertical, I read a brief item in New Scientist about how some instances of brain damage distort moral judgment. For whatever reason, it reminded me of the book/film The Corporation which, through interviews with corporate CEOs, etc., makes a pretty compelling case that if we want to consider corporations to be legal "persons", we better get used to the fact that those persons are, by design and increasingly by legal requirement, often sociopathic.

None of which is directly related to sustainability, if you think only about ecological sustainability. (Massey, of course, has a pretty strong indirect relationship -- albeit a negative one -- to ecological sustainability.) But if economic and societal sustainability are brought into the discussion, the connection becomes pretty obvious. An economy based more on finance than physics needs to do a better job of regulating the marketplace than we've seen of late. And a polity which purports to serve the public good might want to remind itself that when "We, the People of the United States, . . . " was penned, corporate personhood was far from the authors' minds. (Indeed, the founding fathers had little good to say about 'corporations', although the term had a somewhat different meaning at that time.)

Here at Greenback, getting runaway corporate power under control can't be something our sustainability efforts mention explicitly. Indeed, many of our more ambitious undertakings require (or will require, to get off the ground) some sort of corporate partnership. If we can attract outside money, the projects go forward. If not, they tend to age along with the rest of us.

But short-term financial considerations aside (and I'm not discounting the short run -- in the long run, we're all dead (Keynes, I believe)), restoring some sort of functional authority and independence and moral force to government's efforts toward the public good seems an absolute requirement if American society is to sustain itself. And the public good can't be defined just in terms of GDP. GDP may be relevant, but if it's the whole story then that story won't be a very long one.

Most Greenback students arrive at campus with the idea of getting qualified to land lucrative jobs. Future money may not be the only thing on their (and their parents') minds, but it's quite a ways ahead of whatever's in second place. We don't yet do a good job of assuring that our graduates are capable of real critical thinking. If we did, we might narrow their future employment prospects -- no job at Massey, or WaMu, or Enron for you! -- but we'd still be doing them, and their children, and their children's children, a favor.

Or, at least, so it seems to me at oh-dark-thirty on any given morning.


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