Can Capitalism be Harnessed to Save the World?

Photo via CGI

The Clinton Global Initiative is a fascinating, often-perplexing, headline-dominating event. The driving idea is that it creates a forum to encourage businesses to partner with governments and nonprofits to do various good works around the world. Dozens of billions of dollars are raised for such projects as bringing health care to the poor and developing renewable energy sources in depressed regions. I've covered the event for the last two years to focus on the climate, clean energy, and conservation projects engendered therein -- and there's always been a question lurking in the back of my mind: Is this the best way to create lasting change? Is turning the engine of capitalism towards traditionally philanthropic goals a good model for forging progress?There's no doubt that the private-public hybrid efforts made under the former president Clinton's watch do indeed accomplish a lot -- safe water and disease prevention brought to millions, aid given to subsistence farmers, clean energy projects jumpstarted in the developing world, and so on and so forth. But is this sort of philanthropy 2.0 really good at bringing the sort of paradigm shifts required to say, adequately address climate change, or preserve the world's forests?

Can Public-Private Philanthropy Drive Large Scale Change?
On the second day of the Clinton Global Initiative, NYTimes columnist Tom Friedman remarked that the kind of bottom-up initiatives fostered here would be worthless if they amounted to mere hobbies. To be truly effective, these projects must be both scalable and sustainable in the long term. Otherwise, you might as well be gluing together model airplanes, he said.

It was an interesting thing to bring up at CGI, an event where some argue that titans of industry offer a tiny sliver of their profits in donations to aid groups or partnerships with nonprofits for the chance to be photographed having Important Conversations with the president and to grab some easy PR for do-gooding efforts. This is not a slight to Bill Clinton -- the Initiative is undeniably a major force for good (methinks Clinton anticipated the unprecedented publicity and political opportunities being a draw) and he has spearheaded an organization that has reached hundreds of millions of people.

But many of the commitments do appear to amount to what Friedman cautioned against -- corporations dumping some cash into a headline-grabbing model airplane that, while perhaps sponsoring some really great stuff (say, bringing a certain number of clean cookstoves to Kenya, or funding a documentary about rainforest loss in the Amazon) will be neither scalable nor around in the long term. Others, however, like a pilot program to reduce Charlotte, NC's energy costs by 20% by adopting smart meters and efficiency training, could be both. But along with these questions, there are more fundamental concerns.

The Consumerist's Conundrum
For example, take the problem with the world's forests -- namely, that 50% of them are gone, many thanks to the same multinational corporations now giving charitable donations at CGI. Conservation groups have done good work to prevent that percentage from being a few pegs higher, but by an large that sort of preventative action has failed. A panel at CGI argued that we have to find new ways to invest in forests to prevent them from being mowed down -- that we need to find salable benefits to offer investors and companies as an alternative to simply using forests to harvest wood from, or as potential grazing land for cattle.

And this strikes to the heart of the question -- is that even possible? The companies sitting down at CGI (Wal-Mart, Proctor & Gamble, Coca Cola, etc), with their current business models, will all need more forests to provide their products to the burgeoning populations of consumers around the world. Is there a market-based solution to prevent them from using them?

There could be, though it doesn't seem immediately clear what it is. The two leading, feasible pathways to major, internationally coordinated action today -- the kind of action required to save the planet's forests or to halt climate change -- are through international diplomacy and policy agreements, a la the UN, or massive market based solutions, a la CGI. Neither have yet been exceedingly successful. I realize this post probably raises more questions than it answers, but that's kind of the point. So kudos to Mr. Clinton for using his savvy of the global commercial and political landscape to work within the current framework to affect major change -- but to get at the roots, I'm not convinced that the market has the answers.

More on the Clinton Global Initiative and Capitalism
The 7 Best Green Initiatives From Bill Clinton's 2010 Summit
Is 'Conscious Capitalism' an Oxymoron? (Video)
Thousands of Students to be Trained as Citizen Journalists in Gulf (Video)

Tags: Bill Clinton | Conservation | Consumerism | Global Climate Change | United States

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