Business as usual: confronting the denial at the heart of the climate crisis

Image by Dominik Vanyi, sourced- Unsplash. ID 632134

Climate change has become the ever-present reality of human experience. Late last year a procession of record-breaking hurricanes battered the US and Caribbean, huge wildfires burned through California, and in Australia, despite the death of up to half of the Great Barrier Reef in back-to-back coral bleaching events, politicians renewed their support for new mega-coal mines and coal-fired power stations. While there is now a clear scientific consensus that the world is on track for global average temperature increases of 4 degrees Celsius by century’s end (threatening the very viability of human civilization), our political and economic masters double down on the fossil fuel bet, transforming perhaps the greatest threat to life on this planet into “business as usual”. This raises the question why, given what is at stake, have we been unable to mount anything approaching a meaningful response? Why, to paraphrase environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert, would a technologically advanced society choose to destroy itself?

In our research into global business responses to the climate crisis, Daniel Nyberg and I argue that global capitalism is locked within a process of “creative self-destruction”. By this we mean our economies are reliant upon ever-more ingenious ways of exploiting Earth’s fossil fuel reserves and consuming the very life-support systems we rely on for survival. This is evident in the rush by the world’s largest companies to develop new sources of fossil fuels such as deep-water and Arctic oil drilling, tar-sands processing, new mega-coalmines, and the “fracking” of shale and coal-seam gas. This is occurring at the same time as crucial carbon sinks such as the world’s forests and oceans are being further denuded. While many global businesses promote a message of “action” and “leadership”, this ignores the deeper problem of how our global economy is locked into a cycle of promoting ever more creative ways of exploiting nature and destroying a habitable climate. Despite the fashion for “sustainability”, “corporate environmentalism” and “green growth”, humanity’s degradation of the environment has in fact accelerated.

Of course, a key question is how large corporations are able to continue engaging in increasingly environmentally destructive behaviour despite the disastrous consequences for human society and a livable climate? We argue that corporations and their spokespeople are able to achieve this by incorporating criticism and reinventing the daily ritual of “business as usual” as a perfectly normal and sound process.

For instance, through the narrative of “green” capitalism, corporations and markets are portrayed as the best and only means of responding to the climate crisis. As business tycoon Richard Branson has proclaimed “our only option to stop climate change is for industry to make money from it.” Many companies have established new roles and practices aimed at improving their eco-efficiency, greening their supply chains, producing new green products and services, marketing and branding their environmental worthiness, and reporting on their “sustainability” upon a range of industry metrics. This sparkling image of business sustainability falsely promises no conflicts and no trade-offs; that it is possible to address climate change while continuing the global expansion of consumption. In contrast to the blinding evidence of ever-escalating greenhouse gas emissions, this comforting political myth promises no contradiction between material affluence and environmental well-being. We can have it all and, according to the myth of corporate environmentalism, avoid climate catastrophe!

Moreover, citizens are called upon to enrol in this mythology as active constituents in corporate campaigns, as well as consumers and “ecopreneurs” in the quest for “green consumption”. We have become the brands we wear, the cars we drive, the products we buy; and we are comforted to find the future portrayed as “safely” in the hands of the market. The supremacy of “business as usual” thus exacts a powerful grip on our daily thinking and actions. It is a grip strengthened by the promotion of every new “green” product, a grip tightened through the establishment of sustainability functions in business and government, and a grip defended with every “offset” we purchase for a flight to a holiday destination.

Of course, this is also a vision that fits well with the dominant economic ideology of our time; neoliberalism. Alternatives, such as state regulation and mandatory restrictions on fossil fuel use, are viewed as counterproductive and harmful. This is why the alternative to “business as usual” is much harder to imagine and easier to dismiss as the enemy of social well-being – what critics so often characterise as going back to living in caves or a return to the “dark ages”. Indeed, those environmentally aware citizens who argue that we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels “in the ground” are demonised as extremists, green terrorists, and a threat to national prosperity.

The reality is that climate change is a systemic problem requiring systemic regulatory solutions. Corporate environmental initiatives, while appealing, lack both this broader impact and are inevitably compromised by the immediate needs of market return. We need to visualise an alternative future that goes beyond the comfortable assumptions of corporate self-regulation and “market solutions”, and accepts the need for radical (and likely painful) economic change. This includes the dramatic decarbonisation of energy, transport and manufacturing and the mandatory regulation of fossil fuel extraction and use.

To state such conclusions is of course heresy. We like to believe “business as usual” can continue and that nothing radical can or will change. The irony of this belief of course is that if we continue as we have, everything will change. Maintaining “business as usual” presents an unimaginable future of large tracts of the Earth rendered uninhabitable, the collapse of global food production, mass species extinction, the acidification of the oceans, dramatic sea level rise of many metres, and storms and droughts of growing ferocity. This will be the future we bequeath our children if we fail to wake up from our collective climate denial.

Christopher Wright is Professor of Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Business School and is the co-author, with Daniel Nyberg, of Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-Destruction. Their recent article in The Academy of Management Journal explains how corporations translate the grand challenge of climate change into business as usual.