Organizing nature as business: discursive struggles, the global ecological crisis, and a social-symbolic deadlock
Ferns, Jan George
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Despite looming ecological disaster, a persistent state of insufficient action seems commonplace amongst most organizations. This thesis critically explores how this impasse is constituted by discursive struggles surrounding the global ecological crisis. These struggles are situated within the context of global environmental governance – a power arena that has, over the past 25 years, become a defining battleground regarding environmental sustainability. Here, discourses of the ecological crisis are constituted by political contests amongst, most notably, multinational corporations, civil society organizations, and (trans)national policy actors. This thesis draws mainly from post-structural discourse theory, coupled with critical perspectives on organizations and the natural environment, to explore both the discursive practices that fix meanings surrounding the global ecological crisis, and the power effects thereof. The primary source of data is text – this study is explicitly interested in how discourses of the global ecological crisis evolve as the natural environment is (mis)represented in organizational disclosures. Despite recognition by management and organization scholars that the natural environment is indeed constructed, a functional separation between business and nature persists, the relationship of which is mostly examined from a firm-centric perspective. However, sustainability issues such as climate change transcend the confines of firm activity and operate across spatial and temporal dimensions. Hence, there is an urgent need to reconsider the business-nature dualism. To do so, this study adopts a multi-level, multi-method approach that permits a necessary degree of analytical and theoretical flexibility. The four individual articles that encompass this work, whilst drawing from different theoretical approaches, along with focusing on different levels of analysis, are underpinned by the contentious intersection between discourse, organizations and the natural environment. The first article concerns ‘macro talk’ and, operating on the field level, explores how a dominant understanding of business’ role in sustainable development is constituted during the UN Earth Summits in 1992, 2002, and 2012. The second article regards ‘corporate talk’ and, this time on an organizational level, examines how tensions between economic growth and environmental protection are avoided by the European oil and gas supermajors—BP, Shell and Total—through the practice of mythmaking. The third article takes a longitudinal approach and, also concerning ‘corporate talk’, examines how BP rearticulated a hegemonic discourse of fossil fuels, which, when enacted, reproduces corporate inaction on climate change. Finally, the fourth article emphasizes ‘resistance talk’, focusing on how climate activists, as part of the global fossil fuel divestment movement, engage in certain micro-level practices as they attempt to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry. In all, the findings from these articles suggest that organizations both represent nature as something to be conquered, dominated, and valued economically and as a pristine wilderness to be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations. In pursuing these two extremes concurrently, organizations self-perpetuate a social-symbolic deadlock that hinders finding sustainable ways for human systems to coexist with natural systems. This thesis contributes mainly to literature on organizations and the natural environment by illustrating how certain practices, mechanisms, and processes continuously redefine the business-nature relationship by facilitating a discursive struggle across multiple spatial and temporal dimensions. In doing so, there are implications both for policy and business organizations, which are discussed in the concluding chapter of this work.