Joe Zammit-Lucia warns that good intentions will rarely come to fruition without political understanding.

In a seminal article titled Wealth, published in The North American Review in 1889, Andrew Carnegie claimed that a man of wealth ought:

“…to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community— the man of wealth thus becoming the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.…”

Unacceptable as they would be today, Carnegie’s words echo the underlying attitude that philanthropy is a conscientious way to use “surplus” and that the philanthropist knows best how to direct such expenditure.

On its own, philanthropy is no longer sufficient to offset businesses’ duty to tackle the more fundamental questions around how their core operations are affecting our societies.

Today, many attempts at directing land management towards rewilding, improving biodiversity and reducing the harms of industrialised modern agricultural methods depend on philanthropic support or government subsidies. We have not yet found a way of creating viable and sustainable market mechanisms to re-direct land use in this way although efforts to do so are being explored and new approaches are starting to emerge – though not all of them desirable.

Philanthropy is to be appreciated and encouraged. Many have done, and continue to do, enormous good through their philanthropic foundations with many such efforts focused on the revitalisation of nature. But, on its own, philanthropy is no longer sufficient to offset businesses’ duty to tackle the more fundamental questions around how their core operations are affecting our societies.

Accepting the limitations of stand-alone philanthropy can have significant implications for businesses that have taken the philanthropic route to discharging their social responsibilities. This is illustrated by the environmental ambitions of Danish billionaire, Anders Povlsen – who runs fashion company,  Bestseller. He is also the largest landowner in Scotland. His stated aim is to use his acquired estates for conservation and re-wilding purposes. He believes that the future of the Scottish Highlands needs to be re-imagined and that conservation should be an integral part of that new vision. For many, this is a laudable aim; maybe one inspired by the impressive work done in Latin America by the late Doug Tompkins and his wife Kris. Together, they established national parks covering a total area the size of The Netherlands and Belgium combined and donated all that land to the Argentinian and Chilean states.

In fulfilling his aims, and the benefits it will bring, Povlsen has to deal with two issues. The first is that Carnegie’s pretention of “doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves” does not fly so easily nowadays. Many in Scotland disapprove of his vision for the land and believe that it could be put to better use to provide greater employment. This is also wrapped up with the high political sensitivity in Scotland towards increasing foreign ownership of their lands and the concentration of land ownership in few hands (half of all the private land in Scotland is owned by less than 500 people). For Povlsen, his cause has become likened to The Clearances – a period in the 18th and 19th centuries when landowners drove out masses of people.

Others suspect he has an ulterior motive. This is all reminiscent of the issues faced by Doug and Kris Tompkins in Argentina and in Chile where conspiracy theorists reveled in fantasies including the idea that the Tompkins intended to split Chile into two at its narrowest point and the theory that they intended to set up a separatist Zionist state.

Povlsen says:

“We could probably have communicated our intentions here in Scotland better…The trouble with the attention this attracts is that people assume there is an angle in play. That I am buying all this land for reasons that are not entirely altruistic…I am not going to pretend it was easy when I first started here in Scotland. But today the locals here are less suspicious of our motivation.”

Much of the resistance to philanthropic efforts arise because people form fundamentally-different political views of what those efforts are about.

While making progress, the question is whether this is simply a matter of better communication or whether there are deeper issues at play. Much of the resistance to philanthropic efforts arise because people form fundamentally different political views of what those efforts are about. While, for many, Povlsen’s and others’ efforts are seen as a welcome, environmental restoration project, others see them as a form of neo-colonialism – rich people buying up “their” land to do with what they please whether the locals like it or not.

Such different political interpretations can only be reconciled, when they can, through hard slog which involves making local people part of developing the overall vision rather than it being developed separately and then communicated effectively. Some would argue that, seeing as the uses to which land is put are political questions, to what extent should the wealthy be allowed to exercise explicit political power in this way?

Philanthropic initiatives such as Povlsen’s and most others need to be approached with a purely-political mindset as they are primarily political issues not technical ones.

Philanthropic initiatives such as Povlsen’s and most others need to be approached with a purely-political mindset as they are primarily political issues not technical ones. In politics, one person’s virtuous mission is another’s vision of hell. In the words of William Blake: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.”

Povlsen might care about the environment and conservation; others care more about jobs and putting food on their families’ tables. Ventures like his should never start from the belief that everyone will eventually see it as a good thing provided it is communicated well. They are political exercises in which total consensus will never be reached.

The realistic target is to devise communications that bring together a sufficient coalition of interests in support of the venture. Achieving that can be slow, painful and seemingly irrational to people with a business background – the group that accounts for most, if not all, who are wealthy enough to engage in large philanthropic ventures.

The second issue for Povlsen is Bestseller – a sprawling fashion business that doesn’t fit the   sustainable or environment-friendly bill. Povlsen argues that without the successful business he would not be able to fund his conservation efforts. But he knows that his response is inadequate. It opens him up to the criticism that philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, levels at philanthropy – it can descend into trying to fix in the afternoon what you have messed up in the morning.

Povlsen is intent on making his fashion business more sustainable while recognising the difficulties of doing so convincingly in an industry for which product obsolescence (and therefore waste) lies at the core of what it’s all about.

He continues to strive to tackle the difficult issue of a conservationist running a business that is pretty far from being environment-friendly.

He clearly understands all the issues – and their attendant challenges. He continues to strive to tackle the difficult issue of a conservationist running a business that is pretty far from being environment-friendly.

More broadly, it is likely that philanthropy will continue to form an important part of businesses’ and wealthy business people’s “corporate social responsibility” and “giving back”. On its own, it is unlikely to mobilise enough resources for nature restoration efforts at scale. It may, however, be preferable to some ideas currently gaining traction that would draw rewilding and nature restoration into the world of financialisation where they become secondary to the short-term profit that can be made by constructing derivatives and other tradeable financial products – as has happened with carbon credits and other climate-related financial products.

To be successful, activists, non-governmental organisations, philanthropists, corporations and financiers should not simply assume that their particular vision of appropriate land use is so self-evidently righteous that it will be universally welcomed by the local population or local governance structures. They need to prepare for the hard, slow and inevitably-frustrating slog of “doing the politics” of land management as the primary foundatio

Joe Zammit-Lucia

Joe is the author of “The New Political Capitalism” (Bloomsbury, 2022) of which this article is an edited extract. Formerly a multinational industry executive, Joe is an entrepreneur, business leadership …

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