In our capitalist world, success in business (and, by extension, life as a whole) is measured almost solely by financial profit. Companies that make some of the most dangerous and unhealthy products, like weapons and cigarettes, are exceedingly profitable and thus by this measure "successful," even though their products diminish our quality of life. And our media culture upholds this definition of success, celebrifying the likes of the Krocs, Waltons and Trumps, with scant attention paid to the environmental, public health or social costs of their enterprises.
And shoring up this business ethic are organizations such as the Center for Consumer Freedom and the Washington Legal Foundation (whose paid advertorials appear regularly on the New York Times Op-Ed page). These groups oppose virtually any effort to hold corporations accountable—and usually in the name of personal freedom, a seductive "false flag" for what is really corporate freedom. Consumerfreedom.com even opposes the work of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, if you can believe the human race can sink that low. (Activists reading this: Check out www.consumerfreedom.com/activistcash; you may uncover a way-out interpretation of your own work and mission.
In E‘s May/June 1999 issue (archived at: emagazine.com/may-june_1999/0599feat2.html), we looked at the efforts of Rethinking Progress and the Center for a Sustainable Economy (now merged) to persuade economists to abandon the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in favor of a new, truer measure of social health, a Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). The GDP merely adds up everything we spend and is then compared to previous years to decide whether the economy is on an upswing or in a downturn. It doesn’t distinguish between good and bad spending, positively factoring in expenditures for wars, oil cleanups and medical expenses (because they create jobs) and discounting the non-market economy of household work, volunteerism and tax dollar-sponsored education. It also doesn’t factor in negatives like poverty, lack of healthcare coverage, income disparities and environmental degradation. The GPI, by comparison, takes the same expenditures as the GDP, but then factors in non-market positives and subtracts the negatives, including natural resource depletion.
Conducting business with social and environmental progress rather than financial profit as the bottom line is something we’re very familiar with here at E. As a nonprofit environmental magazine, we’ve struggled—even in our relationship with the foundation community we depend upon, which understands well the non-financial "return on investment" we provide—to overcome the perception that monetary gain is the only measure of success.
As we were launching E in late 1989, in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, many were heralding the "Dawn of an Environmental Decade," proclaiming that the 80’s mantra "Greed is Good" was being transformed into "Green is Good." I hope that the very encouraging growth of socially and environmentally responsible investing that you"ll read about in this issue is a sign that that transformation continues.