Have the Great Lakes and environs become a subsidiary of corporate America?
Are they just another asset on a balance sheet or a tool in the corporate marketing tool box, in the parlance of cookie-cutter business consultants?
Not literally, at least not yet.
But we are moving closer to surrendering them to de facto corporate control.
- In his 2009 book Great Lakes for Sale, Dave Dempsey chronicled how the Great Lakes Compact came to contain a loophole that allows a mega-corporation, Nestle, to mine, bottle and export water in Michigan. (Quick disclosure: I’m quoted in Dempsey’s book)
- Ohio last year enacted the most liberal water withdrawal laws in the region. The legislator who championed the law’s passage is an executive of a bottled water company.
- In Wisconsin the just passed mining bill that threatens the headwaters and wetlands of the Bad River near Lake Superior was written with significant help from mining interests and next to none from conservation groups.
- Michigan’s Senate Bill 78 is sponsored by a former timber industry executive and the bill is seen to benefit that industry at the expense of protecting the environment.
On it goes.
In Milwaukee, the Water Council is dominated by corporations and exists to use Lake Michigan as a marketing tool to attract business. In Illinois a well-organized chemical industry led coalition called Unlock Our Jobs prevailed in its effort to keep locks open in the Chicago waterways system, a prime vector for Asian carp.
In all of these instances the basic premise is prioritization of business interests over those of natural resources…. the primacy of consumption over conservation.
Nestle is a multi-billion dollar Swiss company that can be hugely successful selling Kit Kat’s and Hot Pockets. It doesn’t need to sell Michigan’s water. It does it because it can, and it’s profitable.
Desperate for a way to toss off the rust belt image, business has begun to market the region’s water abundance -as if a business in water-challenged Atlanta doesn’t know that Milwaukee and Cleveland have water.
Where’s the pushback?
Surely elected officials are wary of the creep toward corporate influence on natural resources, right? It’s their job as those resources are held in trust for the people by the states.
When Michigan citizens challenged Nestle, then Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm talked tough in her support but quickly backed off when the Swiss food giant started tossing sharp elbows.
A key component of Ohio’s water withdrawal law is it disenfranchises citizens in favor of corporations.
Milwaukee’s Water Council is supported in its marketing effort by its Mayor Tom Barrett, one of the more progressive mayors in the region.
What about environmental groups? Isn’t it in their DNA to stand up to corporations?
Many of the big environmental groups in the region are reluctant to challenge corporate interests and many times align with them. The National Wildlife Federation, working with the Council of Great Lakes Industries, blessed the bottled water loophole in the Great Lakes Compact.
The Alliance for the Great Lakes made only a few mild statements of protest when Milwaukee offered discounted water rates to corporations who would relocate.
Local groups in Ohio challenged the water withdrawal law but there was no full court press by the national groups the way they rallied to support passage of the Great Lakes Compact. The Ohio law essentially thumbs its nose at the Compact.
There are exceptions.
A few years ago when BP wanted to increase pollution to southern Lake Michigan there was an uproar. But that was a layup as an oil company is a popular target. A food company that bottles water under names like Ice Mountain or Pure Life? Less so.
Besides, check the donor lists of your favorite Great Lakes environmental group. I’ll bet you see big corporations listed right next to the $10 donations.
Heck, The Nature Conservancy’s top guy, Mark Tercek, has the title of president and chief executive officer and he came from Goldman Sachs and its culture. That’s about as corporate as it gets and the Conservancy has a reputation for being close to companies like Dow Chemical. Dow is hardly seen as a pillar of environmental responsibility in the Great Lakes Bay region. Those close corporate relationships can tarnish the good work the Conservancy does with land stewardship.
What about me?
I bring 30 years of corporate baggage to environmental writing.
I worked for United Airlines before engaging in Great Lakes issues and then writing about them. My own views are surely influenced by my corporate experience.
That’s why this isn’t a rant about corporate evil. Corporations are important and at their best are valuable to society.
But if you care about how corporations interact with the environment there are two things to know:
- Corporations will always put the interests of their owners — shareholders — first. It’s how they are hardwired, how the executives are paid and it’s required by law. And shareholder’s interests are not necessarily environmental interests.
- When corporations give you money, they want something in return — even when it’s unstated. They want you to consider their viewpoint and to have an influence on your decisions. They want to trade on the goodwill associated with your organization’s name.
Corporate influence on public policy is increasing as more elected officials look to corporate partnerships to solve problems they’ve been unwilling to take on. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel doesn’t want to tell citizens they have to pay to rebuild Chicago’s infrastructure. Instead his plan hinges on public-private partnerships.
But engaging with corporations on environmental issues is a little like driving in a lake effect snowstorm at night. You can do it but it’s easy to end up in the ditch if you’re not careful.
We’re rightfully fond of referring to the Great Lakes as a national treasure.
But we need to be on guard so they don’t become part of the corporate treasury of a de facto company called Great Lakes Inc.