Intersection of human rights and profit

Highways leave me open-mouthed in awe. Granted, so do mountains, but humans didn’t build those. Thus, variations of awe. This is the awe of human potential. Innovative infrastructure: Phone lines, skyscrapers, seemingly endless roads, piping, sewers, water towers, power plants, satellites and space ships. Interstellar, a Hollywood hit released last Friday, tries to inspire further innovation and space exploration by portraying interstellar space travel as one solution to endemic problems on Earth.

So what is it that motivates the creation of current realities and encourages future dreams? It is in part what also motivates destruction: Self-interest, especially self-preservation.

Christine Bader spoke in JBD last Friday on Careers, Corporations and Conscience. She is a self-proclaimed corporate idealist, having worked with British Petroleum, the United Nations and Columbia University. Her goal was to convince politically liberal students that capitalist-corporate culture could integrate seemingly ‘idealist, progressive values’ (i.e. human rights and environmental sustainability.) Bader touted environmental sustainability as the most recent, prime example of this potential for cohesion and integration. But again, what motivated the integration of environmentalism? She said it herself: it’s alignment with corporate goals. In other words: an alignment with profit.

Why is profit important in corporate culture? Because it in-itself is the foundation that sustains the entire structure. Corporations in capitalist economies rely on free market competition driven by self-interests to simultaneously produce both profit and innovation (which in theory should produce future profit.)

Some may argue that capitalist corporations are blinded, their ‘too big to fail’ insignias numbing them to predicaments of collapse. I will leave that debate to others, especially economists. Christine equated corporations with super tankers: extraordinarily effective in specific areas but ponderous to turn and change. Some will say that corporate culture as it exists today is fundamentally incapable of prioritizing human rights and thus should be abolished, replaced with an alternative system. While I value alternative proposals, I do not believe in refuting the integration idea just yet.

In the here-and-now, capitalist corporations do exist. As privileged youth, we have the time and resources to dream. I cherish that. But let neither idealism nor cynicism blind us to the extent that we do not recognize the realities that we have to work with. I agree with Bader, if environmental sustainability can align with corporate culture interests, then so can human rights. What is the most effective way to do so? Create facts on the ground: a reality that only supports corporations that embrace environmental sustainability and human rights. Those corporations that do not work to embrace that: Let them fail.

Macalester College Administrators: You are fully committed and invested in sustaining this specific non-profit institution. You are terrified that you will not do as well as your peer liberal arts institutions in attracting the best or highest amount of customers (prospective students). There is coming a time (if it hasn’t happened already) where institutional supply (U.S. liberal arts colleges) will be higher than institutional demand (prospective college students). Because you exist in a quasi-capitalist system, you know damn well that you, as the supplier, must adapt or risk leaving the market altogether. So be warned: Even the most self-centered, greedy, privileged and entitled prospective students are increasingly prioritizing the importance of sustainability, oriented in both human rights and environmentalism, in their college choices.

Building an “Entrepreneurship Center” will not change this. It will only create an institutional space for students to prove (yet again) that specific changes should be embraced and integrated by businesses, including this administration. You should invest Macalester’s $754 million endowment in companies that profit without sacrificing the environment and human rights. If you do not, take note—we as students (prospective, current and alumni) will simply divest from you.

It is in our own self-interest to promote environmental and social sustainability lest we ourselves be subject to the global atrocities that await us if we do not change. Of course, we can build higher walls, shinier buildings and more genetically-engineered food production plants to sustain ourselves. But that will only work for select (aka historically privileged) communities. I will not risk increasingly segregating future generations by privileging the empowerment and survival of only certain communities today.

If this institution continues to tout valuing global citizenship then it needs to continue to increasingly prioritize it in planning processes. This includes the Strategic Plan and study away budgets. It includes student, staff and faculty diversity. It includes ethically sourcing the food, merchandise and technology we offer on this campus.

It means being transparent and taking responsibility for your decisions. I do not believe that any job, responsibility or lifestyle is holistically easy and I also recognize the broad spectrums of workload pressures that exist in our society. I am grateful to those I know and will never meet who ensure the day-to-day functions at Macalester and its institutional preservation. But a focus on daily functions should not hinder or impede efforts to research, propose and integrate changes for our collective long-term benefit as well. Let not the journey (including self realization and selfish interests) actively impede our collective goal: Creating a democratic world, with human rights at the core of sustainable living.

If we are all transparent and accountable in our actions, we can benefit from the constructive feedback of our entire community and together ensure that Macalester not only continues to exist, but thrives.

It is fair to recognize our diverse, individual self-interests. We all profit in one form or another from this institution, this community and this corporation. There is no shame in that. Shame unto those who believe their self-interests (be them financial, professional or personal) should rise above that of the collective self interests: Environmental and social sustainability. Promoting approaches founded by ideals from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Of course profitability is not the sole method to enact change, it is a privileged method at that. I admire the brave individuals that challenge contemporary systems, ideas and values by researching and providing alternatives. But let us not be exclusivists. Our daily responsibility is to welcome any idea, so long as it does not deny any person their human rights. Values, identities and systems can be challenged and learned about. Yet the ecstasy of destruction, privilege and/or power can make us forget about that initial and foundational responsibility.

I do believe profitability is one of the most effective and efficient ways for enacting institutional change. For that reason, for the sake of those in our local and global community that cannot wait for ineffectiveness or inefficiency, I challenge us to consider this method more often. Let us not discard details, care, open communication, humility and recognitions of privileged power dynamics or resource limitations. Knowing that, let us still engage corporate culture, and thus profitability.

The accomplishments made during our 140 years of Mac’s existence inspire me. I especially lift up brave, positive actions alongside the humble learning of mistakes. I applaud facilitation of collaborative innovation alongside inclusive community building. Let us balance reveling and humbly learning from history, enjoying daily life and working towards an improved, collective future. I believe that balance is, at the very least, in my own interest to pursue. I hope the same is true of anyone part of the Macalester Community.