The Business Corporation: Between Nature and Value
Hotel Mitland, Ariënslaan 1
Utrecht 3573 PT
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The modern business corporation, as a legal structure for consolidating and directing capital, profoundly shapes the world’s social, cultural, and political landscapes. The density of economic globalization ensures that no human community is entirely beyond its influence. There are many ways of understanding that influence. Our focus is on the ways in which corporations mediate between political values and the material realities of non-human nature. What specific conceptions of freedom, progress, efficiency, affluence, and so on, are embodied in modern business corporations, and what is the environmental impact of their being embodied in this institution, with its defining drives and patterns of action? Our reigning values prescribe that we live in commercial societies; commercial exchanges transform nature; the corporation is at the core of our commercial system. It is thus important to study the corporation in this context, as a mediating entity. This conference will bring together scholars from different fields to discuss how exactly these mediating dimensions, evaluative and natural, relate to one another, and how such relations bear on the sustainability of the capitalist order.
It is a truism that economies constitute and rely on systems of material transformation. Every act of production and consumption leaves a material trace on non-human nature, including the climate and ecosystems. Every product and service embodies a measure of energy and material that induces further environmental transformations. The technologies needed to ceaselessly bring about and expand the scope of these embodiments—including the fabrication of new technologies for doing so—and the procedures needed to facilitate their consumption, are routinely, rationally, and professionally developed and deployed by incorporated firms. They shape a great extent of the material transformations we undertake, by virtue of their institutional design and legal standing. Seen that way, the corporation is one of our most impactful ways of relating collectively to nature. It has an environmental reality.
That aspect cannot be separated from its evaluative dimension. Like any social institution and set of practices, the business corporation reflects and makes manifest certain ideas about what is valuable and why. That nearly everything can, and most things should, be turned into capital; that it is good for everyone when capital owners have extensive freedom over how they pool their investments; that many of the basic rights of persons are properly ascribed to such vehicles; that markets allocate productive factors in a way conducive to the general good; that private hierarchies of command are legitimate; that what is good about non-human nature is that it provides benefits at zero or negligible financial cost; that whatever is worth desiring or protecting or promoting can for all practical purposes be accurately represented in monetary terms; and so on. Behind such value-assumptions lie distinct conceptions of freedom, progress, and what we owe to each other. Through this conference, we aim to explore the viability of such dominant valuations in the corporate economy, while exploring the potentials and limitations of radically different valuations.
How the properties of nature bear on the materiality of our institutions, and thus on the political values they embody, may be our defining social question. The sharp, vivid collapse of climatic stability, the declining health of ecosystems, mass extinction, rising sea levels, and the many other aspects of the environmental polycrisis have compelled even the reigning administrators of the global economy and their spokespersons—the major investment banks, IMF, ECB, World Economic Forum, the Financial Times, etc.—to admit that economic growth, in its current form, is putting organized social life at hazard. Their strategies for averting catastrophe all aim to render capitalist globalization climatically and socially “sustainable.” An important subset targets the corporate form: introducing governance and accounting changes that would align profitability with nature’s constraints. It is assumed, then, that the environmental realities can be radically altered with only minor adjustments to the evaluative dimension. Careful questioning of how the corporate form reflects and manifests these two dimensions will test the soundness of that assumption.
Among the questions to be addressed in this workshop are the following:
Is the business corporation constrained to value non-human nature in unsustainable ways?
What do the material effects of corporate activity reveal or imply about the political values embodied in the corporate form?
Should parts of non-human nature be considered bearers of political rights?
What reasons do we have, if any, to believe that a democratically organized firm would make better use of natural resources?
Can a different corporate accounting system capture the most important aspects of nature’s value?
What alternative ownership structures could replace the private firm as a controller and manager of material resources?
How many of the environmental problems ascribed to corporate activity stem ultimately from the capitalist market system itself?
Organizers: Rutger Claassen, Tuly Rector, Uğur Aytaç.
Registration: Due to limited spots available, registration is required. We will accept participants on a first-come, first-served basis. Please send your expression of interest to [email protected]
There is a fee of 125€ for the workshop, which will cover the lunch and dinner expenses of the participants (fee can be proportionally reduced depending on the number of days you attend).
Alyssa Battistoni (Barnard)
"Accounting as Worldmaking? Natural Capital and its Limits."
Tully Rector (Utrecht)
“Corporate Reason in Nature”
Minna Halme (Aalto)
“Economic growth, shareholder value maximization and efficiency: How to move away from the unholy trinity of our time to sustainable socio-ecological systems?”
Christopher Wright (Sydney)
“Confronting Corporate Capitalism in an Era of Climate Crisis: The Politics of Mitigation, Adaptation and Suffering”
Fergus Green (UCL)
“No Time for Corporate Losers: The Case against Investor Protection from Adverse Legislative Change”
11:45-13:00 Lunch Break
Lukas Tank (Kiel)
"What if Shell Could (Help to) Save the World (a Little)? - Moral Considerations on Carbon Dioxide Removal and the Role of Companies."
Charlotte Villiers (Bristol)
“Corporations in their environmental and ecological context. What do we value? How do we value?”
Klaas Kuitenbrouwer (Het Nieuwe Instituut)
“Zoöp and the politics of ecological integrity”
Mihnea Tănăsescu (VU Brussel)
“Legal personality, ownership, and governance regimes”
Clare Heyward (The Arctic University of Norway)
“The philosophical underpinnings of ‘relational values’”
11:45-12:30 Lunch Break
Barbara Bziuk (Utrecht)
"Corporate responsibility for climate change as a structural injustice"
June 15, 2023, 5:00pm CET
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