John Mackey, the co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods describes himself as an enthusiastic proponent of the First Amendment who believes “business leaders should speak out openly when they believe it is appropriate to do so.” Mackey certainly likes to exercise his First Amendment rights, whether it is in books (see his latest one – Conscious Capitalism), public appearances, or even on Yahoo Finance's message board under the pseudonym Rahodeb.
Many times his controversial opinions on issues like unions, climate change and Obamacare get him into trouble. The latest example was last week when he told Mother Jones that “climate change is perfectly natural and not necessarily bad,” seemingly suggesting that climate change might be even a good thing as “most of humanity tends to flourish more when global temperatures are in a warming trend.”
As you can imagine, this wasn’t the first time Mackey expressed a controversial statement on global warming. Actually, this wasn’t even the first time he suggested climate change might not be such a bad thing. In 2010, Mackey told the New Yorker that he agrees with the assertion that “no scientific consensus exists” regarding the causes of climate change,” adding that “it would be a pity to allow hysteria about global warming” to cause us “to raise taxes and increase regulation, and in turn, lower our standard of living and lead to an increase in poverty.” Finally, he said that “historically, prosperity tends to correlate to warmer temperatures.”
Comparing both interviews, there’s actually some progress in Mackey‘s position. In 2010, he thought “no scientific consensus exists,” but in 2013, he claimed that “climate change is clearly occurring.” Nevertheless, he persists in claiming that climate change is a natural phenomenon and it might not be as bad as we assume it is.
If these positions sound odd coming from the co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods, you need to remember that Mackey is a libertarian, and this view on climate change is not uncommon among libertarians. Libertarians, in general, have a hard time accepting that global warming is a serious problem. Why is that?
Prof. Jonathan Adler of Case Western Reserve University and Matt Bruenig provide some good explanations, as well as George Monbiot who tried to simplify the argument, which is based on the procedural justice account of property rights as follows: “In brief, this means that if the process by which property was acquired was just, those who have acquired it should be free to use it as they wish, without social restraints or obligations to other people. Their property rights are absolute and cannot be intruded upon by the state or by anyone else.”
So you can see why harmful manmade greenhouse emissions might be at odds with the libertarian view of the world – after all, as Matt Bruenig explains, “Greenhouse gas emitters have not contracted with every single property owner in the world, making their emissions a violation of a very strict libertarian property rights ideology.”
Yet, while questioning the contribution of humankind to global warming or the rejection of any government intervention or regulation are common among libertarians, the notion that climate change can actually be positive is rare. Still, it didn’t stop Mackey from stating in his interview with Mother Jones that “in general, most of humanity tends to flourish more when global temperatures are in a warming trend and I believe we will be able to successfully adapt to gradually rising temperatures.”
If there’s something Mackey is afraid of, it’s not climate change but rather regulation or intervention. “What I am opposed to is trying to stop virtually all economic progress because of the fear of climate change. I would hate to see billions of people condemned to remain in poverty because of climate change fears.”
This view is at odds with almost any study of climate change risks - OECD, IPCC, Goldman Sachs or PwC to name a few. Mackey might also want to take a look at the 2012 report, Physical Risks from Climate Change: A guide for companies and investors on disclosure and management of climate impacts, which explains how “virtually every sector of the economy faces risks from the short- and long-term physical effects of climate change—impacts across the entire business value chain, from raw materials through to the end users.” And did we mention Hurricane Sandy?
Does it really matter what Mackey thinks about climate change? The answer is that while Whole Foods is a public company, not Mackey’s company anymore, it still very much reflects his position and point of view. Therefore, it's no surprise that Whole Foods has no climate change policy and I doubt if you can find the words ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ on its website.
It means that while Whole Foods is a leader on some sustainability issues, it lags behind on climate change and will probably continue to as long as Mackey calls the shots on this issue.
Does it change your opinion on Whole Foods? Please feel free to comment.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons the New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.