Friday, December 30, 2011

On CSRwire Talkback: Top Seven CSR Stories of 2011

Top Seven CSR Stories of 2011: Halos and Horns

by Francesca Rheannon
This post first appeared on CSRwire Talkback on December 28, 2011
2011 could well go down in history as the year that CSR began to go mainstream.
But not because all of a sudden the term “CSR” came into vogue (it didn’t), but because the issues that CSR has placed front and center – sustainability, democracy, human rights and economic justice – roared onto the world stage in an unprecedented manner. The conversation changed irrevocably and the CSR community is being heard like never before. In fact, the adage that crisis equals danger + opportunity could just well be the touchstone for the year.

1. The Rise of Civil Society

When Time magazine chooses “The Protestor” as Person of the Year, you know the zeitgeist has shifted.
It perfectly encapsulates both the singular and collective elements of creating social change. The Protestor is one person, but (s)he is legion – a reminder that change begins with any one of us and, sparked by the right tinder, can move a world.
Halos go to two individuals: Whoever (allegedly Bradley Manning) released thousands of low-level secret cables from the U.S. State Department to Wikileaks, thereby introducing transparency (a CSR value) into global politics. Back in January 2011, Foreign Policy called the Tunisian protests that toppled the ruling kleptocracy the “first Wikileaks Revolution.”
The second halo goes to Mohamed Boazizi, the Tunisian street market vendor who set himself on fire to protest against injustice and thereby sparked the Arab Spring. That movement spread to Europe (Spain, Greece, Portugal, the UK), became the Israeli Summer, the American Fall, and now the Russian Winter (with rumblings growing even in China.)
Horns: To those corporations, like Paypal, Amazon, MasterCard and Visa, who decided they had the right to effectively censor Wikileaks by preventing payments from supporters to go to the site. When private corporations take it upon themselves to decide which customers are allowed to use their services and which are not - and therefore effectively stifle the people’s right to transparent government - then we are all in trouble. (Remember, even the State Department admitted that Wikileaks did not harm the national security of the U.S.)

2. The XL Keystone pipeline

The pipeline story isn’t over yet. But the saga so far has showed what can happen when green advocates stop preaching only to the converted and build alliances with the grassroots, including ranchers from Nebraska.
The pipeline hasn’t been stopped, but it has gone from being a foregone conclusion – despite the warnings from the world’s most eminent climate scientist that deploying the pipeline would be “game over for the planet” – to being on hold, at least for the time being.
It’s part of a smart new shift in strategy in the environmental movement’s fight against global warming, as the New York Times reported:
“Focusing on immediate, local concerns; reinvigorate the grass roots through social media and street protests; and renew an emphasis on influencing elections.”
A halo goes to Bill McKibben, founder of, for inspiring thousands to join him to stop the pipeline, march day after day in front of the White House, and risk arrest (1,000 people, including McKibben and Hansen, got arrested.)
Horns go to the U.S. Senate that buckled under the blackmail from the Republican members of the body. They made “fast-tracking” a decision on the pipeline a condition of extending the payroll tax deduction for another two months. Some say “fast-tracking” the pipeline would actually put the kibosh on it; others fear it will give President Obama the political cover to OK the dirty deal.

3. The Eurocrisis

Yet another story that is far from over, 2011 was the year when the bankers came home to roost – to roost, that is, on the top government perches of the countries they had escorted to the chasm of economic ruin (contrary to the official story, it wasn’t due to the flaky profligacy of the public).
Bizarre enough to be the stuff of satire, Goldman Sachs now seems to have become the feeder firm for heads of state and leaders of the EU: Former executives of the company are at the political helms of Italy and Greece, as well as the ECB.
So much for European democracy?
Halos to the people of Greece who aren’t taking the draconian measures being passed by the Greek Parliament and its banker overlord without a fight. They’ve lost the round, but the battle continues.
The austerity regimes being put into place all over Europe have bailed out the bankers (with a haircut), but at the expense of the larger economy. Deficit cuts are dragging demand down: Britain is struggling, the Irish are leaving their homeland in droves, Greece is still on the skids, and Italy and Spain, despite slashing their deficits, are teetering on the edge of ruin, perhaps even default.
Even the “responsible” European countries could get into trouble, as the Eurocrisis deepens.

4. Renewables Surpass Dirty Energy

Despite the recession and the clamor and clout of the global warming deniers, new power plant investments in renewables topped those in fossil fuels for the first time in 2011. They’ve also leaped ahead as investments in emerging economies, which are growing far faster than the (moribund?) economies of the so-called advanced nations.
Renewables already produce more electricity than nuclear power in the US – a milestone passed in 2011. Overall, they supplied nearly 20 percent of global final energy consumption. And the Scots blew it out of the water: That frugal nation predicted it could produce almost a third of its electricity from renewable sources by the end of this year.
Further, the price of renewables is coming down fast, becoming cost competitive with fossil fuels without government subsidies, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). (The real reason Solyndra went under was because it couldn’t compete against cheap solar cells from China.) Solar is rapidly approaching cost parity with coal and is already cheaper than nuclear – and new technology will no doubt slash costs even faster. Wind electricity is likely to be competitive with natural gas by 2016.

5. Economic Inequality Gains Notoriety

The elephant in the room finally got noticed. Business Insider reports:
“A staggering 48 percent of all Americans are either considered to be "low income" or are living in poverty,” and 58 percent of children are living in homes that are either considered to be "low income" or impoverished.
The mainstream media stopped yammering on incessantly about the deficit (code word for slashing Medicare and Social Security) and started talking about the stark rise of inequality in our new Gilded Age. Bloomberg reported that the U.S. Misery Index reached its highest level since 1983, worsening the impact of inequality.
In 2011, the US Misery Index reached its highest level since 1983.
Halos to Occupy Wall Street and We Are the 99%, the blog where thousands of ordinary Americans give witness to the crushing of their lives, hopes and future under a mountain of debt, lack of access to affordable housing and medical care, and a dearth of decent jobs.
They had an impact: Now 74% of Americans believe inequality is a problem.

6. Fukushima and The Fracas Over Fracking Incite Second Thoughts on “Bridge” Energies

The ongoing disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has throttled down the resurgence of nuclear energy. Siemens pulled out of nuclear plant investment to expand investment in renewables, Germany decided to end nuclear power, and other countries may follow suit.
Bucking the trend is the U.S. government, which just OK’ed a new nuclear reactor design that will be implemented first in Florida and South Carolina. (With much of Florida at risk for significant sea level rise due to global warming, this could pose a bit of a problem.)
Between overinvestment worries and contamination of water supplies with deadly chemicals, the natural gas industry may not be the best place for green energy investors to park their cash. Halos to the growing grassroots anti-fracking protest movement that is making the gas industry a risk liability to socially conscious investors. (Such investors might want to check out Eco-bonds.)
And burning natural gas might not even be good for the climate. Although touted as a “bridge” to a low carbon future, because burning gas emits less CO2 than coal, an IEA report predicted:
“Reliance on gas would lead the world to a 3.5C temperature rise… At such a level, global warming could run out of control, deserts would take over in southern Africa, Australia and the western US, and sea level rises could engulf small island states.”

7. The New Economy: Coming In From The Cold?

While Americans are beginning to sour on corporate capitalism, alternatives are gaining a foothold in the national conversation.
In December 2011, The New York Times featured an article on cooperatives, and even not-so-liberal NPR’s Planet Money interviewed radical political economist Rick Wolff and alternative economy theorist Robin Hahnel. Occupy Wall Street held teach-ins on cooperatives, alternative money systems, alternative banking, among others, taught by such luminaries as David Korten and Joseph Stiglitz.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms are sprouting up everywhere.
As I wrote in an earlier post, most of the job growth in the U.S. came from local and regional small and medium businesses, and many more states are now planning to set up publicly owned infrastructure banks.
The Occupy encampments may have been torn down by the police, but Occupy and the other movements in the rise of global civil society haven’t gone away.
They continue to protest the predatory capitalism that is threatening our future. But the participatory politics they practice is leading them to explore participatory economics that serves people and the planet, not the kind of profits made at their expense.
It’s the kind of economic vision that CSR can get behind. Will you?

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