Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Wall Street and CEO culture in America is out of touch, arrogant, condescending, and those are probably their good qualities. Recent examples run the gamut, from snooty finance employees sipping champagne while mocking Wall Street protesters to a sign posted in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange proudly stating "we are the 1%." It's clear that our titans of industry are in dire need of an attitude adjustment.
One of the worst offenders is the energy industry. Case in point, the CEO for the Colorado Oil & Gas Association reportedly said of fracking opponents: "These nuts make up about 90 percent of our population, so we can't really call them nuts any more. They're the mainstream."
Contrast that with what she could and should have said: "Opposition to fracking is widespread and accounts for up to 90% of the population, as such we need to address mainstream concerns and reassure the public about our industry."
She didn't choose to use that language, just as the Wall Street examples chose not to use conciliatory gestures. Instead she revealed what she really thought, that anyone who opposes her industry must be nuts.
To be fair to the CEO, let's consider the issue. What's fracking and why do so many members of the public oppose it? Here's the short version. Pressurized fluid is injected in the ground and used to fracture rock to get at hard to reach fossil fuels.
A variety of toxic chemicals are involved with the industry and if methane gas from the fracking operation seeps into your water table then your drinking water can become flammable. You read that correctly. Your tap water can be set on fire.
This problem became so bad in one town in Pennsylvania that the local fracking company had to build a special pipeline to bring drinking water to affected residents. The fracking industry contends that methane accumulation and flammable tap water have been a problem for years in some areas.
Residents near fracking operations in Colorado, Texas, and Wyoming report various negative health effects. Fracking companies consider these health complaints to be unproven coincidences. The debate continues.
You'd think that in a free market system a clever corporation would just pursue a less risky energy strategy. It's not like we don't have other alternatives. Why not just invest in renewables and avoid the exploding tap water debate entirely?
There's money to be made in these proven, safe, cost effective energy technologies. Capitalists all over the planet have realized this and are massively investing and building renewable energy plants. The notable exception is the United States, which brings us back to the Wall Street and CEO attitude problem.
The earlier quoted CEO noted that the energy industry has a 7% approval rating. Her solution is for the energy industry to use a hipper marketing campaign that catered to "people that like South Park." She reportedly urged executives to get on Facebook and get savvy with social media tools.
Her solution, in essence, is to listen to the public only up to the point of being able to better sway them to her point of view. Compare this with the customer is always right mantra, which was thrown in a landfill at some point in the 80s. It was replaced with a belief that CEOs are infallible, irreplaceable, and downright better than everyone else. As such, they're not interested in changing their behavior. They're only interested in changing your behavior to better fit their business model.
This gets to the heart of our current economic and growing social crisis. Wall Street and the CEOs are too out of touch to know they're wrong and too arrogant to admit it. When an industry has a 7% approval rating and still can't admit its business model is fundamentally wrong then they lose the privilege of dictating the status quo.
They must change, and we must make them do it since they refuse to. The bottom line is the middle class can't survive another 30 years of Wall Street and CEO mismanagement.
- Lyle Hopkins is an energy and security analyst at the non-profit and non-partisan Civil Society Institute. He is also a former intelligence officer for the U.S. Air Force and led a 150-person watch center providing threat warning information to national leadership. He has a Master's degree in environmental management and sustainability from Harvard.