At a conference recently I happened to overhear a conversation between one of the speakers, a vice-president of Nestle Corporation, and a college student who was questtioning the VP’s glowing portrayal of Nestle’s social and environmental policies.
The student bravely interrogated the VP about their leading beverage category, bottled water. “Do we really need such a thing?” she asked. And, “I understand you are using 40% less plastic per bottle, but wouldn’t it be better to use no plastic at all?”
To each query, the VP had a persuasive, thoroughly reasoned response. Bottled water meets a real need in a society on the go. And did you know that raw ingredient for making the plastic bottles is a byproduct of producing gasoline from petroleum? If it doesn’t go toward bottles, it will end up as some other plastic product or dumped directly into the environment. Glass uses way more energy to produce. And tap water is no longer pure.
The VP’s obviously believed what she was saying. I was impressed not only by her evident sincerity, but also by her patience, her attentive listening, and her lack of animosity in the face of what must be frequent attacks. Nestle, after all, is notorious among activists as a corporate villian: the target of a decades-long boycott over its marketing of infant formula to indigent mothers, and accused of over-pumping from mineral springs, collaboration with the Burmese junta, union-busting in Colombia, buying cocao from farms that use child labor, and so on. The contrast between this reputation and the VP’s fervent, heartfelt exposition of Nestle’s environmental virtues was such that a few left-leaning folks had to step out of the auditorium.
How to explain this contrast? Let’s try three theories.
(1) The woman is a glib liar paid well to make the company’s case. Either she is cynically aware of the truth obscured by her lies, or in a state of deep, self-serving denial. Either way, she cherry-picks a few positive gestures toward the environment (“Nestle protects orangutans!”) and draws from reams of biased, tendentious evidence that the company’s PR department compiles to make anyone who questions the company’s practices seem naïve.
(2) What the woman says is true. The company has learned from its mistakes to become a leader in social and environmental responsibility. There are many well-meaning people who still criticize the company, but that is because they don’t know the true story: not only is Nestle leading the way toward sustainability, but the industry as a whole is improving its practices. There are still challenges to deal with, but everything is moving in the right direction. The people in industry care about the environment just like you do. They get it now, and with your help they will continue making progress.
I hope I have done justice, in (2), to the Nestle VP’s viewpoint. I had a conversation later on with her, and found her to be whip-smart, good-humored, and affable. My impression is that she deeply and truly believes in her company and her work. So let me offer a third explanation:
(3) Not only does she sincerely believes everything she says, but it is irrefutable from within her frame of reference. If we take for granted the endless acceleration of modern life, then the convenience of safe bottled water is indeed a boon for people who otherwise would drink sugary soft drinks. It is a boon as well if we take for granted the continuing deterioration of municipal tapwater, its chlorination and chemical contamination. And if we take for granted our current petroleum-based economy, it is for all I know true that plastic bottles don’t add much harm.
The VP’s positions are unassailable unless we can expand the scope of the conversation. We have to ask questions at the level of, “What role do plastic bottles play in the accelerating pace of modern life, why is this acceleration happening and is it a good thing?” “Where does our busyness and need for convenience come from?” “Why is our tapwater becoming undrinkable?” “Why do we have a system in which it is OK to produce waste products that are unusable by other life forms?” And, “Is the ‘sustainable growth’ championed by Nestle possible on a finite planet?”
I believe the conversation must go deeper still. What that Nestle VP did to justify her company, others can do to justify our whole civilization, as long as we grant them certain premises about the nature of life, self, and reality. For example, if we gtrant the premise that primitive life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” then any doubts about the overall beneficence of technology run into a brick wall. Similarly, if we grant the premise that nature bears no inherent tendency toward organization and that life is just a random collocation of lifeless, generic building blocks bumped around by purposeless forces, then clearly we need have no scruples about seeking to conquer nature and turn it toward human ends. And finally, if we grant the premise that each of us is a discrete, separate self seeking, at bottom, to maximize genetic self-interest, then ultimately there is no arguing over the broad legal and economic parameters of our society, which seek to overcome that wanton nature and channel it towards pro-social ends.
The Nestle VP’s views are more or less sound within the framework I have described above, the framework of “making life better through technology,” of the progressive conquest of inner and outer nature. Her views will not change until that framework crumbles. They are completely at home within the paradigm I call “the ascent of humanity.”
That paradigm, however, is indeed crumbling around us. The overall message I got from the Nestle presentation was, “Things are basically OK, we’re working on it, we’re making steady progress toward sustainability.” But looking around the world, it is becoming harder and harder to ignore that things are not at all OK, but rather that our problems – political, economic, medical, ecological – are proliferating faster than our technology can remedy them. More and more, the can-do promise of technology falls short, and we get the feeling that the world is falling apart around us.
It is that experience – of the world falling apart – that will change the views of corporate executives who genuinely believe they are doing good. Because within their operating paradigms, they ARE doing good.
My very dear reader, if you are not a corporate executive, if you are not a willing participant in the story of the triumph of technology, I would like to alert you to another dimension of that story that may inhabit you as it often inhabits me. It is the story of (1) above, in which the problems of the world are to be blamed on those awful corporate flacks who cynically lie and steal to gratify their own selfishness. This is the story of good versus evil, another expression of the will to conquer. It urges us into battle – a doomed battle, because the corporations have all the power. You are left isolated and powerless, at the mercy of hostile forces, and can ultimately only play along with the game and protect you and yours. Either that or you can become a martyr – but why, if the cause is hopeless?
A tiny, separate self, buffeted by vast impersonal forces, a victim, resentful, will of course seek to carve out a little space of security in this hostile universe. Story (1) plays into that feeling. But it is precisely that alienation from the rest of existence that underlies the very institutions we are trying to bring down. Acting from alienation, can we hope to create anything but more alienation?
In fact, the corporations don’t have all the power at all. They only do within the framework of a universe of force. In a universe of love, things are not at all hopeless. If we see the VP and people like her as people just like ourselves, then they can change as we have changed. If we see them as in (1), there is no alternative but to fight them. Maybe there is a time for fighting, for matching force with force. But I think if we carefully examine our victories in social and environmental justice, we will find that it was the power of conscience, compassion, and love that powered those victories.
My delightful acquaintance, the Nestle VP, is no different from any of us, living inside a story. We use the story we inhabit to justify all we do. Or perhaps it would be more accurate and less redolent of blame to say that these stories inhabit us, and use us to fulfill their telling. The story of the ascent of humanity is almost complete now, and a new chapter of the human narrative is ready to begin.
Geoffrey Charlton says
Looking forward to the imminent new chapter. It is the end of the world as we know it – and I feel fine.
Great perspective. Thoughtful analysis. Thank you!
Also, curious to see if you have seen the movie “Thank You For Smoking”. The lead character possesses many of the attributes you describe in the Nestle VP. And the movie examines, with an excellent sense of humor, how smart, successful, likeable people rationalize their actions, even when those actions do great harm.
Thank you for transcending the “us” vs. “them” duality and pinning down why I feel uneasy when confronted to such a situation when I know there is something wrong in the argumentation but can’t find the words for it.
This piece is powerful, redemptive even and a joy to read. It reminds me of what I’ve come across reading, that beliefs create behaviours and that “no one does anything inappropriate given their model of the world”. Those (e.g. the Nazis) whom history charges with perpetrating the most unconscionable horrors, had from their standpoint a justifying model of the world…when we create change at the level of human belief, behaviour will necessarily change. Human beings are in a transition to living with a totally different model of the world which no longer sees us as separate from each other, separate from the earth and from the Divine. Nb As well as being a great overall documentary, Flow; For the Love of Water recounts Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation’s challenge to Nestle’s taking of water in the area for their bottled water brand, Ice Mountain. Also, while it doesn’t tackle the problem of unregulated tap water, but we could carry a flask or even keep just one plastic bottle and refill it before we head out
Many of us are the Nestle lady and we speak the corporate line which we know is never the whole truth. It is just the convenient truth. Our hope is that by working inside, we may be able to change the whole. But this never happens. Corporations are alternate and always less than perfect realities, excluding more than they are able to create. To re-connect with love, it is always necessary to leave the corporate world.
Ron Shook says
wildgirlwildworld, Not exactly is it always necessary to leave the corporate world, but it may be necessary to leave specific corporations or more likely to speak the truth and be canned. There’s a large and growing corporate world of worker owned or family run enterprises, co-ops and non-profits who’s goals are not the enrichment of the exploitation class. You don’t necessarily have to be your own entrepreneur to be a part of a loving, sustainable and valuable corporate entity. You do have to discriminate, however.
Ron Shook says
An apostle of love tells a modern story, that we can all learn from. Excellent, excellent, excellent! I’m passing this on.
But please Charles, flip this website. The black background is sinister and comments are very difficult to read. Black text on an off white background is far more friendly and loving.
Philip Tuuta says
Yes Charles very hard to read
Ainslie Kincross says
I like this exploration. Another way to talk about “story” is identity, a viewpoint in consciousness composed of collection of beliefs about self and the world. Everything encountered is held up to that lens.
Don Kerr says
I love how you see things, Charles. I do however believe that technology can be used wisely, and that it is a reasonable extension of the human spirit. For instance, I could choose to live off the grid to make a statement about the energy industry, but I feel that now is the time to make a better grid. Someday we may have a completely waste-free energy grid. Pitting the old ways against the new ways is another ‘us vs them’ viewpoint. The power of the internet is one proof that technology can bring people together to further the common good, we just have to see past all of the spam.
What does that even mean: “a waste-free energy grid”? We are all subject to the laws of thermodynamics and entropy. Waste heat is part of what happens.
Noah Heninger says
Charles, I consider you one of my greatest inspirations, but I also identify as a Transhumanist. I’ve tried to present your ideas to my fellow Transhumanists, and they’re not buying. I do not fully understand your anti-technology approach, and neither do they. Yes, we do use technology as a means of emancipating ourselves from nature. I believe this is why Transhumanist art tends to be so bleak and cold. I tirelessly warn my Transhumanist friends of this. However, is there not an alternative to using technology to conquer nature? I would argue that technology HAS done a great deal to alleviate pain and suffering. That is, the growth of technology has been a process of trial and error, but I do not believe technology itself is bad. I do not long for a world devoid of hospitals and automobiles and micro-processors. I don’t think you do either. I maintain that the problem with technology is not technology itself, but how it is used. If we could shift from raping the Earth, to being husbands of the Earth–seeing her not as a “dumb bitch” who needs to be beaten into submission, but a generous mother who wishes to be cultivated and made beautiful, I think technology would prove vital in the philosophy you promote. You often state that we are “falling in love” with the Earth, and I don’t see why technology–putting scientific knowledge into practice–can’t make us better husbands.
Lavender Blume says
This sounds like a straw man argument, to be honest. I don’t believe Charles has actually said that technology itself is a bad thing – if you feel he does, I’d be very interested to hear more. Can you share a quote or passage to that effect?
Lyle Gunderson says
Anyone who thinks there is no valid purpose for bottled water has never tried to drink water with lots of sulfur or iron in it, or is otherwise nasty-tasting. I love reading stories written by people who think if they don’t have a particular problem (say, lack of safe or palatable water), nobody does.
Josh A. says
To those who are wondering about Charles’s take on science & technology, have you read his Ascent of Humanity? Doing so should clear things up for you.
mike daniel says
Thanks for your story of the “The Lovely Lady”. So much of what you say/write about teaches me to experience life and be in life in a wholesome way . Seeing nature and each other in this way is beautiful and loving.
Interesting post, here.
I definitely believe as you do, Charles, that the Nestlé lady… believes wholeheartedly in what she is doing, and that most people working for corporations are also… sincere in their beliefs that they are doing.. the right thing.
On the plastic bottle…
It is a form of evidence that our ideas inform the entire human world we live in, and that this process is visible.. from the bottom up, and not… the top down.
Being visible from the bottom up is also evidence that our social structures, contrary to what we would like to believe ? remain organic.
So… what can be seen in the plastic bottle ?
A world where people increasingly eat and drink.. outside the home, “on the go” (mobility), and need to eat/drink.. FAST (to work more, and be.. PRODUCTIVE ?).
A world which, until very recently, set great store on the word “artifice/artificial” as an indication of man’s power and mastery over his environment. The Enlightenment mindset.
On love… here I do not agree.
While I believe that it is important to remember that the Nestlé lady is every bit as human as you and I, well… the idea that love is the answer, well, I think that, as a dear anonymous person said millenia ago, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
I have seen the atomic destruction that love can produce (did.. Jesus see this ?? if he had, perhaps we would have been spared a lot in our civilization…).
There is a convenient.. solution that leads one to SEPARATE OUT the negative effects of love from the positive ones, but, those who are not into separation should not ignore the.. underlying unity.
Illumination of the week : why do we persist in believing that when we take the scissors to the top part of the fabric we can avoid cutting.. the underside ?
Impatient people have called me a nihilist, but no, I am just.. a pessimist who believes in building life from the bottom up.
James Souttar says
There is, of course, a fourth possibility (and I’m sure many more, as well). The woman is paid to do a job, and she is professional and decent enough to want to do it as well, and with as much integrity, as she can. But it’s not her job to rethink the deep assumptions on which our society/societies are based. Nor, indeed, is it Nestle’s. A company is there to create a business opportunity through identifying customer demand in the present and near future. And this is exactly what you describe Nestle as doing.
The issue that your (excellent) piece highlights is that the role of corporations is often overestimated by those who want to see a societal-wide change of direction. They present easy targets because they tend to have a high profile, and because their strategies can be shown to be short-term, opportunistic and self-serving. However, there is no reason why they should be anything else. We ask that they be good corporate citizens, which is a perfectly reasonable demand. But we forget that they are not there to be citizens, or environmental stewards, or pioneers of ethical behaviour or to work for social change.
The trouble is, we don’t have institutions that are committed to the things that we criticize corporations (and for that matter, governments) for *not being*. Institutions that take a long and holistic view, and that are committed to bringing about changes in understanding, attitudes and behaviour. The role of activist and critic is, by comparison, an easy and more glamorous one: one can point the finger, but nobody can point it at oneself; one can accuse others for not taking responsibility, without having to carry that one responsibility oneself; one can talk about what is not being done (or being done wrong) without having to come up with viable and acceptable answers. I would go so far as to say that activists are, in fact, temperamentally and experientially *unsuitable* for these roles.
These days, we all know what’s wrong (and, if we don’t, we can easily find out). What we need are the blueprints for this new world that we have to build – blueprints that spell out the detail that the activists and critics have trouble engaging with. Blueprints that are robust and resolved enough to inspire the confidence needed for individuals to put tens of thousands of hours into making them happen.
Hello Charles and Community,
First, thank you Charles for this essay and thank you for the many gifts you have given the world. Your writings have had a profound affect on me. From this piece, I just wanted to comment on your urging of us to follow the path of love rather than force, and to not fall into the good vs evil dynamic. I want to know what you think of the value of a Gandhian struggle of nonviolence. According to Gandhi, resisting structures such as the corporation is a struggle based on soul-force, also known as love-force. In their movements of resistance, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. always insisted that we love the opposition, and the struggle is never to be intended to dominate or defeat the other, but rather to transform the other through awakening their conscience (or love-force, or higher perception of interconnectedness). Changing our perceptions from separate to interconnected beings, and becoming the most loving beings we can be I think should be our highest priority, but I think we will be most effective if we direct our love towards a committed struggle against the corporate-capitalist system and every other injustice which exists. You mention that it was love and compassion which has fueled social and environmental victories, so perhaps I’m saying we need to explore that a bit more and not reject the idea of a fight or struggle, because struggle does not need to based on violence and an us-vs-them paradigm. As Gandhi and many others since have shown, the struggle can be based on love and it can be very, very effective.
Leila Bruno says
it’s so deeply needed, and so important all around, for us to be able to identify the “story,” the “dream” or trance, we’re living in so we can get out of the worldview of separation — thank you Charles for naming this again and again — we all want to wake up! (and P.S. please do shift to a light background for easier reading(. Many thanks!
Josia Nakash says
We need to create a completely different environment in society because the environment determines everything about the creatures living in it. This should be our #1 priority because it is clear that the current environment is toxic for us all and especially our kids.
I believe it will be up to the corporate executives such as your lovely lady from Nestle to get new messages out to the world without changing anything about their business. Eventually they will understand that this is more worthwhile than any standard CSR program. We need to replace all the superficial messages around us with meaningful insight and guidance about the new stage humanity is entering.
Charles I wanted to tell you that it is such a pleasure reading every single word you write. I actually just made a post about Sacred Economics on my new site:
Deb Lashever says
She may have been wonderful but Nestles only stopped killing Third World babies for profit because they were MADE to by international laws. There is still controversy over their dishonest marketing and give a way programs that some say still persist to this day. http://www.businessinsider.com/nestles-infant-formula-scandal-2012-6?op=1
Michelle Adjua Martin says
Thank you. During the last few weeks, I have been feeling like that isolated, hopeless person wringing her hands at the world crumbling around her. Reading this renewed my hope, vision, and journey. I understand how I need to adjust my MIND and the frames I construct that confine others to the limited motives I attribute to them and the limited, alienated way in which I still unconsciously perceive myself. Whew. What a lovely Christmas gift this was to read. Thank you and thank you for renewing my sense of hope in the universe. ^_^
‘Be the Change you want to see in the world…..’ Live the Change …. then inspire others to ‘Be’ also…. congratulations Charles on inspiring the creation of the Change
Regina St Clare says
article is very good and thought provoking; but it is very hard for aging eyes to read the comments in light grey on black….
I don’t even put tap water on my plants. I woduln’t put bottled water on them either. Rain water or water from a well that I know has been tested for purity is all I will consider.
Andrea Tosi says
First I agree to flip the design to black or grey on white. Long articles are hard to read on black… it’s a physiological fact.
Second. I agree with your analysis. I would add that the VP has many reasons to fit her stories in her worldview, first of all her salary. There is no way any intelligent person in such a position can possibly be deluded that much as not knowing where the reality of a limited world clash with the reality of endless growth. As a psychologist I can see how cognitive dissonance is hard at work to make such individual live a life with less personal conflicts. It’s nice to know that the crumbling paradigms you mentioned are making it more and more difficult for these corporate slaves to appease their inner conflicts and the shift in consciousness is happening, and it is fueled by compassion. But I tend to believe that you may overestimate the capacity of the middle man in being a conscious actor in the shift. The shift can only be shaped by ideas able to mobilize the collective consciousness, materialize that sense of WE, as humans, voters, living beings on earth, caring people, that is needed to evolve.
Charles, I’m loving every single minute of reading Sacred Economics and I am more inspired than I have ever been to use my gifts, thank you. In this blog you sound like the new Martin Luther King, fantastic, and just as compelling. I am working on three plans to create the more beautiful world I know is possible and I’d like to chat to you about them at some point.