Last month I blogged about mining companies as Gollum. I suggested that human society finds it impossible to choose between having its cake (sustainability) and eating it (natural resource-based development), and that mining and oil companies are our Gollum (the character in JR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings who is torn between morality and greed), somehow representing our inability to choose a sustainable development path.
Having spent time with a mining company over the past couple of weeks, I realise I was partly wrong. Not about the cake – or perhaps to be faithful to the Gollum metaphor I should say the ring: we certainly hold development and sustainability goals which aren’t currently compatible; we certainly want national revenue growth and local autonomy; and there are also competing desires in mineral producing nations for market pragmatism and resource nationalism.
What I was wrong about was the identity of Gollum. I said in my earlier blog that the mining and oil/gas companies were our Gollum, wrestling with the competing desire for sustainability and wealth. A more accurate picture would draw ourselves – human consumer society – as Gollum, wrestling collectively and constantly with the decision about whether to keep our cake or eat it. It is inescapably difficult for individuals, families, communities or politicians alike to choose between the better way of life which strips the earth of its resources and contributes to dangerous climate change, and a more environmentally sustainable approach which allows for less (or slower) improvement. Why should poorer communities and nations wait for a better life if they can have it now? Why should those with a better standard of living sacrifice it? So it’s no wonder we put this decision off, effectively asking future generations (and others alive today we cannot see) to solve it and live with consequences of our choices.
So if we are ourselves Gollum, wanting to possess the golden ring, even though we know how dangerous that will be, where does that leave the mining and oil/gas companies – the diggers and drillers?
In my previous blog I suggested they need to see themselves as mediators – mediating between our difficult options – and develop the appropriate skills and approaches to play this role. I’d go further now. Given that our desire for goodies and an improved standard of life seems to outweigh our sense of responsibility to future generations, and given the role of miners and oil/gas companies in supplying the coal, oil and gas which fuel both development and climate-changing pollution, it seems they have to take on at least part of the leadership role in society which we and our politicians will not.
This is a deeply unfair burden to bestow on corporations, especially since – as was explained to me recently – they have no real, material existence beyond the obligations between shareholders and company officers. But given we have so bestowed it, responsible companies have little choice but to accept it as part and parcel of corporate responsibility.
It is for each company – or at least its directors and senior staff – to define how it meets this leadership challenge. But in general I would suggest that each company needs as a minimum to define publicly two things at a high level:
- The ethical framework within which it will require its directors and staff to make decisions where the trade-off between sustainability and development is present.
- Its role and contribution as a development actor – so that it can use this to help it understand the positive societal benefits it creates, and set these against the negatives.