Peter Buffett, one of billionaire Warren Buffett’s sons, published a brave, thoughtful op-ed piece in the New York Times the other day. In it, Buffett takes to task what he calls “the Charitable-Industrial Complex,” the philanthropic crowd who piously seek to save the world, as long as the R.O.I. is sufficiently rosy and the status quo is not upset.
Buffett knows he sounds like a class traitor here as he proffers this description of “Philanthropic Colonialism” (his term):
“As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.
“But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.”
Buffett says he’s “really not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism…. It’s time for a new operating system,” he declares. “Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up. New code.”
Buffett says that philanthropy should be dedicated to “trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market. Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner? No. It’s when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. But as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.
“It’s an old story,” he concludes; “we really need a new one.”
Yes. And philanthropy is not the only sector of our society that needs to reinvent itself.
Although I respect Buffett for his willingness to sound what will be taken as a heretical note in his own social circles (at one point he adds self-consciously “now I’m going to upset people who are wonderful folks and a few dear friends”), I don’t think he goes far enough.
I don’t want to see a merely “humanist” social system, I want to see humans develop an ecological understanding of our place and role on the planet.
I want us to repudiate our colonialist mindset, which persists not only in our tendency to give “humanitarian aid” with one hand while seizing economic control of a country’s most valuable resources with the other, but also in predatory capitalism at home and abroad—the debt bondage that the majority of people on the planet who buy into the system find themselves lashed to, laboring to pay the bank without ever being able to accumulate enough capital, social or financial, to buy their way into the promised land of security and ease.
The “new story” I’d like to see us live by would rewrite human attitudes towards other animals, insisting on the rights of every living being on this planet to a decent life.
That doesn’t mean a pig needs a condo with a swimming pool, but she does need enough space to breathe and move around in, healthy food and a clean, sanitary living environment. Her wastes need to be disposed of the same way human wastes are—not sent into the rivers to create dead zones the size of states out in the sea.
Every aspect of the planet, from trees to minerals to water to fossil fuels, should be seen as precious resources to be safeguarded and cherished for the good of all who rely on them, not merely as sources of income for the few who sit on the boards or own stock in the mega-companies that develop, extract, exploit, and sell before moving on, leaving the devastated land as “collateral damage”— someone else’s problem.
The question is, how to get through to the corporate titans who are very happy with the status quo?
These are the folks who live their whole lives in such a fabulous cocoon of wealth and privilege that they have the illusion that they and their families can remain entirely insulated from the shocks of our poisoned, over-populated, over-heated planet.
If even in their philanthropy these people are thinking in terms of R.O.I., it must be a totally foreign concept to them to imagine conducting business in terms of gross social gain rather than gross individual profit.
Andrew Harvey, in his book The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism, recounts a lunch conversation he had with one such business tycoon, “the head of a major agribusiness corporation.” The businessman chews Harvey out for being a “naïve do-gooder” who does not understand how the real world functions.
“Most of you that I have met truly believe that if the CEOs—like me, for instance—really knew what harm their corporate policies were doing, they would rend their Armani suits, fling out their Rolex-wreathed arms, burst into tears and change. This is madness and shows how little you dare to know about what is really going on. And how can you even begin to be effective until you understand what you are up against?
Of course, the businessman then enlightens Harvey on what he and other “naïve do-gooders” are up against in the quest to change the world for the better.
“You are up against people like me,” the man says. “I know exactly what my company is doing and what devastation it is causing to thousands of lives. I should know; I am running it. I know and I do not care. I have decided I want a grand gold-plated lifestyle and the perks and jets and houses that go with it and I will do anything—bend the law, have people ‘removed,’ bribe local governmental officials, you name it—to get what I want. I know, too, that none of my shareholders care a rat’s ass what I do or how I do it, providing I keep them swimming in cash.”
I thought of this blunt, self-satisfied description of the view from the top of the capitalist heap when I read recently about how the American electricity industry is responding to the rising popularity of home-based solar panels.
Rooftop solar panels are being compared to cell phones, which, if you remember, created a major sea change in the telecom industry. In the end, the telecom giants made out like bandits, after initially having spent a lot of money and political capital to try to put the brakes on what was perceived as a threat to the traditional landline phone system.
Today it’s the turn of the electricity industry, which is terrified of losing market share if every homeowner can make their own energy on their own roof.
If homeowners are no longer paying the fees that subsidize the public grid, industry officials argue sanctimoniously, how will this public system be maintained?
No where in the New York Times article about this, which appeared in the Business section, was there any mention of the broader social, global benefits of distributed solar electric generation as compared to fossil fuels or nuclear electric sources.
No mention of the many reasons why every government on the planet should be encouraging homeowners and businesses to convert their energy sources to solar, along with wind, hydro and geothermal, just as fast as they possibly can.
When are the CEOs who are so busy buying off Congressional delegations and creating expensive self-advertising campaigns going to realize that what they really need to be worrying about is not thrifty homeowners taking advantage of tax incentives to install solar panels, but the mega-storms, wildfires and floods that will be coming our way every year, increasing in intensity the longer we wait to make up our minds, as a global society, to give up our addiction to fossil fuels?
Apparently most human beings can only be swayed by self-interest.
OK—we can work with that. It’s quite clear that it’s in the interests of every human being on the planet to develop a sustainable relationship with our Mother Earth.
If we don’t, she will just give a great shrug of her climatic shoulders and be done with us.
Where will the R.O.I. be then?