David pointed out that a common thread in the recent Wal-Mart discussion was anger over dilution of the organic label by corporate finagling. Underlying the labeling issue, and a part of so many environmental discussions, is environmentalists’ ambivalence towards corporate involvement in any pro-environmental action.

Today the NYT gave me the perfect segue to this topic by devoting a whole section to the “business of green.” There’s tons of great stuff in there, worth many discussions, but I’ll just pull one quote from the article “Companies and Critics try collaboration.”

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If politics makes for strange bedfellows, global warming, endangered forests, dwindling water supplies and scary new technologies have made for even stranger ones. Environmentalists and corporations are engaging in a new spirit of compromise.

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For some of us, that quote is the canary in the coal mine, singing out loud that the environment has been sold out. For others it is a signal that we’ve entered a new era of environmental progress.

While the structure of corporate capitalism in this country is largely responsible for creating and perpetuating the mess we’re in, we’re going to make limited headway without big business.

Democrats and others have started calling the challenges of global warming and energy independence an Apollo mission for the 21st century. The image is apt. We do need a cohesive and national push to deal with these problems. We need a vision of challenge and opportunity for us to rally together. If we can inspire a nation to send a handful of people to the moon to play golf, we should be able to inspire the world to save it’s collective ass. But, let’s not forget who put us on the moon: The space race was a breeding ground for massive corporate growth.

In coming years, much will depend on how individuals and communities respond to environmental crisis. Whether it’s through sustainable food systems, green building practices or alternative transportation, local action will be critically important. But large corporations with significant research and infrastructural capacities are going to be equally vital to developing and implementing solutions. The irony is not lost on me that the same companies that made this mess are likely going to be the ones that profit most from our crisis.

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Corporate America may not be able to see the harm they’re doing until it’s too late, but they can smell opportunities like a shark smells blood. Even if we were to somehow prevent the current big oil or big ag corporations from participating in sustainability projects, down the line corporations are going to get into the sustainability game. Unless we intend to ban big businesses outright, there’s just too much in play for opportunistic business types to sit out.

However, as much as we talk about how we’re under the heel of corporate America, in the end they are cattle — they follow their noses like a herd. Corporate America is really good at some things, but they’ve got a weakness for taking the shortest route to payday. The issue is that we as citizens have to get better at muzzling them. If we make pollution and global warming unprofitable, they’ll move away; if we make renewable energy and healthy foods profitable, they come running. But it’s up to us to fight like hell to get the incentives right.