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Front cover of 'Responsible Leadership' by Mark Moody-Stuart.
Front cover of 'Responsible Leadership' by Mark Moody-Stuart.
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If this is 'responsible leadership', then I'm a fracking well

Danny Chivers

16th May 2014

Former Shell oil boss Mark Moody Stuart's ableptic, self-satisfied book on 'responsible leadership' left Danny Chivers seething. The sooner we stop caring about the opinions of the Moody-Stuarts of this world, he concludes, the sooner we're likely to improve it.

There's a certain fascination in reading a book where every page contains something you completely disagree with.

Wow, you might be thinking: it's a book on responsible leadership by a man who spent 14 years at the top of the oil giant Shell, followed by four years as Chair of the controversial mining firm Anglo American.

No, it's not a purposefully ironic title. Moody-Stuart genuinely wants to share his advice on being a responsible business leader, based on his experiences running two of the most heavily-criticised companies in the world.

Of course, this might pique your curiosity. You might reach for this book thinking: What insights does Moody-Stuart have to share about the big issues facing extractive industries today?

What will he say about the fact that even the International Energy Agency now accepts that we need to leave the majority of fossil fuels in the ground to have a chance of avoiding disastrous runaway climate change?

What advice will this ex-Chairman of Shell have for today's fossil fuel companies, when climate science is telling us that we need to practically abandon these fuels within the next two decades?

And what will he have to say about the challenges facing mining companies in a world of increasing resource scarcity and escalating struggles over local land rights and the protection of natural habitats?

Zero. Zilch. Nada.

The answer is: nothing. He has nothing to say on these issues. He's similarly silent on the 2011 UN Environment Programme report that detailed the full, horrifying extent of the oil spills that took place in Nigeria during Shell's 50 years of operation, or Shell's subsequent failure to clean up these spills.

Instead, he waxes lyrical on the benefits of voluntary partnerships between oil companies and civil society, bemoans the problems caused by government corruption in oil-producing states and shares anecdotes about hobnobbing with autocratic leaders from the "highly intelligent and analytical" Hafez al-Assad of Syria to the "thoughtful" and "humble" Wen Jiabao of China.

Then he declares his support for intensive agriculture, talks earnestly about pay differentials in multinational companies and finishes with some musings about the role of not-for-profit enterprises. I found myself flicking back through the book in case I'd missed something - but no, that seemed to be it.

A vision of a parallel Universe

Reading this book was a strange experience. It was like stepping into a parallel Universe where extractive industries bring overwhelming benefits to communities around the world, with the only negative consequences being caused by corrupt local governments.

Chapter 9, for example, spends 25 pages explaining how multinational companies can help provide jobs, wealth, services and infrastructure to local communities, without a single mention of how they also tend to provide pollution, land grabs, and the death of home-grown industries at the same time.

There's a certain fascination in reading a book where every page contains something you completely disagree with.

On climate change, Moody-Stuart believes passionately in the power of market solutions, particularly carbon trading. He brushes aside the fact that the longest-running of these schemes, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, has so far failed to deliver any meaningful carbon reductions while sucking up huge amounts of time, money and political effort.

Instead, he notes how carbon trading can help companies to find the most cost-effective carbon cuts available. In practice, this means making coal and gas-fired power stations burn a bit more cleanly.

But we need transformative change!

Moody-Stuart doesn't explain how gradually making some fossil-fuelled power stations a bit more efficient could possibly lead to the transformative change in our energy systems we urgently need in order to shift away from coal, oil and gas entirely.

In other places, he seems to contradict himself. He supports government legislation on stronger vehicle fuel efficiency, because he doesn't believe the car companies will make this switch voluntarily. However, he opposes international regulation on multinational extractive companies, preferring to rely on voluntary standards like the UN's Global Compact.

This is a set of good practice guidelines for corporations to sign up to, covering issues like labour rights, environmental issues and corruption. All the companies need to do to remain in the scheme is to produce their own reports on how they've met these standards. But don't worry - according to Moody-Stuart,

"it would be a brave CEO to put in the public domain deliberately inaccurate information. There are many watchers and the power of consumer disenchantment or wrath is formidable."

Can public opinion really regulate multinational oil companies?

The power of the public to hold multinationals to account is a key recurring theme in the book. Charmingly, Moody-Stuart seems to believe that multinationals are deeply responsive to public opinion and customer demand.

But exactly how the average Nigerian villager or Indigenous Arctic fisher are supposed to exert their "consumer power" over an oil giant isn't really explained.

Even the biggest consumer rebellions amongst wealthy Europeans seem to be fairly ineffective. When Shell faced a major public backlash over its decision to dump the Brent Spar oil transporter in the North Sea, there was a widespread boycott of its petrol stations, particularly in Germany. According to Moody-Stuart,

"the market share in Germany recovered in due course and in any case the marketing earnings in most European countries were not large ... I can honestly say I did not spend much time worrying about the financial effects."

How, then, are the public meant to play an equal role in the "three-cornered" partnership approach he advocates between governments, citizens and business?

Asymmetric power relations are ... ignored

Again and again throughout the book, Moody-Stuart seems to wilfully ignore the unequal power relations between multinational corporations and the people in whose lands they operate.

Instead he suggests that if communities, governments and corporations just talk to each other then any problems can be solved voluntarily through "networks" and "partnerships". It's as though the daily examples of environmental damage and human rights abuse by poorly-regulated globe-trotting companies simply didn't exist.

Perhaps the element of the book that made me angriest was Moody-Stuart's insistence, in relation to Nigeria and elsewhere, that Shell "did not get involved in local politics".

This ignores the wealth of evidence showing collusion between the company and Nigeria's military regime that led to a landmark payout of $15.5 million by Shell to the families of nine executed Nigerian activists.

It also flies in the face of Shell's ruthless lobbying against environmental legislation and clean energy the world over, from rules governing Canadian tar sands extraction to the legal exposure of human rights abuses.

Let's hear it from the victims ...

Ultimately, though, I was left with the feeling that I didn't really care. I didn't care what this man thought about anything. Every time he described a Shell operation in a different country, be that Malaysia or Oman or apartheid South Africa, I found myself wondering what the people of that country had thought of the company's presence and activities.

I wanted to hear stories from the people affected by his decisions, not his own justifications. I wanted to read about the landmark legal victory against Arctic drilling led by Indigenous campaigners, or the powerful campaign by Nigerian activists demanding Shell clean up a half-century of toxic mess from their lands.

This book did nothing to change my belief that if we want to find answers to our unfolding environmental crises, the last people we should be asking are the ones who caused (and profited handsomely from causing) the problems.

The sooner we stop caring about the opinions of the Moody-Stuarts of this world, the sooner we're likely to improve it.

Don't buy that, buy this!

So if you're thinking about reading this book: don't. Instead, I'd recommend Corporate Watch's seminal publication 'What's Wrong with Corporate Social Responsibility'.

Then follow that up with a browse through the website of the oil watchdog Platform to get some good campaigning ideas.

It'll take a lot less time - and you're less likely to find yourself shouting angrily at an open book in public places.

 


 

Danny Chivers is author of the No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change and a founder member of the anti-oil performance collective the Reclaim Shakespeare Company.

The book: 'Responsible Leadership - Lessons From the Front Line of Sustainability and Ethics' is written by Mark Moody-Stuart (March 2014) in a hardback edition at £25, ISBN 978-1-906093-96-9. It is published by, and available from, Greenleaf Publishing.

 

 

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