Social media erupted and blazed, resonating with the forest fires that ravaged across the Amazon. As debate flared discussing the root cause of the fires, it was soon settled that local ranchers, farmers and possibly loggers were responsible for stoking what should’ve been controlled fires, as opposed to the more intuitive environmental reasons. This caused a wave of sentience that rippled as further investigation tied these annually carried activities with the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro’s politic rhetoric and ineffective environmental policies. His apathy while the fire was scorching the lungs of the world only flared global criticism. His retort as he received heavy condemnation, “We preserve more [rainforest] than anyone. No country in the world has the moral right to talk about the Amazon. You destroyed your own ecosystems,” did not help much.
What is striking is that despite the environmental, social, political or economic angle which Bolsonaro could have referred to, he spoke of morality. One can be curious as to what Bolsonaro really means when he says nobody has the ‘moral right’ to discuss Amazon. It implies that Amazon is under Brazil’s jurisdiction. But that would not explain why global audiences reacted as if it was their personal loss. In this turmoil, everybody is ascribing blame to different parties, not realizing that real problem lies at the breaching of ethical and moral values due to conflict of personal gains versus what is best for the society. This merging of personal and social urges one to delve into the nuances of how decision making is interrelated to ethics and how one’s decisions caused unintended positive or negative effects to third parties – what is termed as externalities.
Businesses and corporations are considered as legal entities, separate from the employees and managerial board that runs it – corporate personhood. They enjoy legal rights and responsibilities as individual citizens do. This means that on the behalf of the organization, one can take legal actions following law infringement, the same way one files a case against an individual. The liability of the lawsuit goes to the owner of the company, however, the idea that legal responsibilities are ascribed to artificial entities is powerful as a concept.
It binds the corporate to the social and infiltrates into the decision-making processes of organizations since anything they exercise as an organization affects the population. This ensures corporate ethics are seen as important if a firm is to operate successfully. Any organization that fails to see the interconnectivity of ethics and decisions will not be operational in the long-run.
In light of this, the environment is an important aspect towards which corporations are morally bound to respect. Any decisions that businesses take will, in some way or the other, relate to the environment. With regards to sustainability, it is an important concept to embrace since our actions not only affect the current population but the future generations also. ‘Earth jurisprudence’ is the concept that the Earth should be treated as if it were a living person in order for society to be sustainable.
Similar to corporate personhood, this is a vital idea that ideally should be incorporated while making ethical judgements to finalize a decision taken by any organization. This is because, it helps weigh the costs and benefits of a judgement and closes the gap between corporate, and therefore personal gains versus negative externalities to the environment caused due to their action. When organizations, as a goal-oriented market, are forced to decide between corporate ethics and environmental ethics, it is not surprising to find that corporates visualize short-term financial returns at the expense of long-term profits of sustainable decision-making.
This ultimately leads to violations of policies that cause unprecedented harm to the environment and sustainability. However, research has also shown that once a firm moves towards sustainable actions, it’s long-term profits can be up to 25% higher than non-sustainable actions.
One can however, argue that in the case of the Amazon fires, the forest loggers, farmers and the ranchers, being largely independent in illegal mining, deforestation and land clearing using fires, had the ultimate goal of self-sustenance over environmental stability and as humans, shouldn’t one prioritize their economic uplifting over environmental degradation.
The Brazilian economic and (lack of) efficient environmental policies can answer that for us- The Special Secretariat of Environment (SEMA) was the first major action taken by the government towards protection for the environment. Then other agencies started emerging around the 1980s with the Federal Constitution being recognized around the world for having sound environmental laws and policies. Having such policies that, on paper, protect the environment, one cannot help but wonder what went wrong. But again, it is only laid out in a utopian way on the paper. Practical applications seem to have derailed far from what was promised as duties to not only the citizens, companies and institutions, but also to the government.
While initially the balance was given to both environmental conservation and economic development, the scales started tipping to the latter at the expense of the former when Brazil started to slip into economic recession. As a developing country with the macroeconomic goals of stability and general target of economic prosperity, policies started prioritizing industrial expansion, infrastructure, mining of minerals and heavy emphasis was laid on agriculture with growing global competitiveness. Agricultural modernization and industrial expansion thus forced settlers from the Centre-South region of Brazil to the larger cities and some moved to forest lands in hopes of owning property. Therefore, migrants began to encroach into public and private lands and the policies being designed in favor of economic expansion, no authority oversaw environmental degradation as a long-term consequence. Here again, in similar ways to a business organization, the goal of short-term versus long-term begins to conflict, with the much delusional short-term targets prioritized.
The government is no different from business structures in terms of how decisions taken by the authorities or leaders in positions of power are to be adhered by every other employee following the code of conduct. Bolsonaro went as far as firing the agent from the Brazilian space agency that released new satellite data that showed a 278% increase in deforestation in July as compared to the same period last year. He also fired an agent who had previously fined Bolsonaro for illegal fishing. When such policies from the government show overt prioritization of economic gain, regardless of the consequences it causes third parties, should we really be in a position to blame the citizens (farmers, loggers, and ranchers) who are following their ethic by following orders as authorized by the government?
Here’s an alternative scenario: had Bolsonaro, from the start of his term in January 2019, given equal importance to the environment and economic development and therefore revised policies that ensure environmental protection and healthy economic growth, perhaps the Amazon fires could have been avoided. However, this highlights the flaws that business ethics has when applied to pragmatic scenarios. It is implicitly understood that good business ethics is to be rigorously adhered to, by every person in the organization, regardless of their relative power in the organization. Practically applying it however, clearly shows that this is not the case.
The ones who have been vying for reform of environmental policies are situated on the lower ranks of the hierarchy of power of the country: namely the NGOs, the environmental activists, the indigenous people who have been affected by modernization, among other social groups. Looking within businesses itself, this includes those employees as well who might personally respect nature and the environment but are forced to work against it because their organization permits so.
Ultimately the power of the decisions taken, lies in the hands of that person, or those people, who are on the top of the pyramid: the President, and the chief executive officers of business organizations. Their word becomes law that trickles down all the tiers and is adopted by its employees, with or against their will. And this has implications for all those in and order the decision-makers.
Since businesses are legally bound to the laws of a particular country, in the case of Brazil, the decisions that are taken by the agricultural businesses, industries, social groups, that allow for environmental degradation technically cannot be held accountable since their government says it is right and acceptable to do so. In such scenarios, can people really be blamed for their actions? Should such immense power be wielded by one person in a country whose decisions can lead to detrimental consequences? Is the business structure of following ethics intrinsically flawed? Or does all of this inherently mean that environmental laws and policies being respected is just an utopian dream that is not possible to achieve in this dystopian world?
By Tejaswini Vondivillu
Illustration credit: Stephane Peray, Thailand. Via- The Mercury News,