Pollution. Worldwide Dioxin Contamination. Acid Rain. Ozone Depletion. Global Warming. These are the headlines of the '90s. The scale of the problems seems immense.

A series of questions I often hear as an environmental activist is "how can these companies do these things? Wouldn't it help to send a letter to their presidents and tell them about the problems? How can we convince them to stop?"

Most people assume that others think and act like they do, including the leaders of multinational corporations. While they know that there is evil in the world, they do not think of corporations - or their CEO's - as evil. Even when a company is exposed as a major polluter, such as Grace Chemical (one of the offending companies in the upcoming movie "A Civil Action") they do not ascribe evil intent. They are surprised, even astonished, when they find that the pollution - or, if done by accident, its denial and cover-up - was company policy.

My challenge has been this: how do I convince people that these companies - and often their CEOs - do not think the same way we do. They dispassionately and heartlessly do what they need to do to make money, without feeling any regret or guilt. If that requires that they pollute the environment, or contribute to global warming, then that is just business. They lie about their activities in the media, and when exposed they continue to lie. They hire public relations/investigations firms to improve their image and to find out what activists are saying about them. They hire fancy law firms to protect them from lawsuits, and even when they lose they make sure the settlement never actually specifies the truth of the matter.

In 1993, a world-renowned criminologist, Dr. Robert Hare, stepped out of the "ivory tower" of criminology and advanced psychology, and published a groundbreaking work about psychopathy, a topic usually discussed only by prison therapists and professors of criminology. Based on 25 years of his own research, and fifty years of the research of others, Without Conscience reveals the machinations and results of a devastating mental defect - psychopathy - that leaves a person without the ability to feel remorse or guilt, and without any inhibitions against hurting others and lying about their activities. Only once before in history - when Hervey Cleckley wrote The Mask of Sanity in the 1941 - had there been any attempt to bring this problem into public view.

What Dr. Hare did is to awaken and alert the public and the rest of the psychological profession to the fact that there was a reasonable, rational explanation for what appeared to be irrational, cruel, heartless acts by people that seemed otherwise "normal." Not only does it provide an answer to the dispassionate acts of carnage of serial murderers such as Ted Bundy and John Gacy (who were personally very charming people) and many spouse abusers and child molesters, but also an insight into the dispassionate behavior of many other predatory people - such as stock swindlers and unethical lawyers - that we occasionally come across in our daily lives, who smile at us while they steal our collective wallets.

It even provides some insight into how such people make it to "the top" - becoming the leaders of governments or corporations. The following is an excerpt from an article by Dr. Hare on psychopathy published in the Harvard Mental Health Letter in 1995. The complete text is available here.
Psychopaths: New Trends in Research

Public concern about crime has never been greater. Perhaps most troubling are seemingly senseless and dispassionate acts of violence, particularly those committed by young people. In a frantic search for understanding, we readily blame upbringing, poverty, flawed environment, or an ineffective criminal justice system. All these may be important, but we tend to ignore another part of the picture: the enormous social, economic, and personal suffering inflicted by a few people whose antisocial attitudes and behavior result less from social forces than from an inherent sense of entitlement and an incapacity for emotional connection to the rest of humanity. For these individuals - psychopaths - social rules have no constraining force, and the idea of a common good is merely a puzzling and inconvenient abstraction.

Psychopaths use charm, manipulation, intimidation, and violence to control others and satisfy their own selfish needs. Lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they cold-bloodedly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest guilt or regret. Although their numbers are small - perhaps 1% of the population - psychopaths account for a large proportion of the serious crime, violence, and social distress in every society. Psychopathic depredations affect people in all races, cultures, and ethnic groups, and at all levels of income and social status. As many as 15% or 20% of prisoners are psychopaths; the disorder is common among drug dealers, spouse and child abusers, swindlers and con men, high-pressure salesmen and stock promoters, gang members, mercenaries, corrupt politicians, unethical lawyers and doctors, terrorists, cult leaders, and black marketeers. In societies undergoing a chaotic breakdown (today, for example, in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union), psychopaths often emerge as "patriots" and "saviors." Wrapped in the flag, they enrich themselves by callously exploiting cultural or racial tensions and grievances.

Despite many years of debate, our understanding of the disorder is still surprisingly limited, but there are signs that the situation is beginning to change. Researchers are paying increased attention to the diagnosis and measurement of psychopathic traits. The mental health and criminal justice systems are considering new options for evaluating the risk of recidivism and violence, and new approaches to treatment and prevention. Theories and procedures derived from cognitive neuroscience are being adapted to study the causes of psychopathy.
Dr. Hare's book provided an incredible revelation: the nasty activities of the polluting corporations have a "rational" basis. I had been right. There was a logical explanation for the behavior of these companies. The leaders of these companies might be psychopaths themselves, or, at the very least, the internal culture of the company fosters a psychopathic attitude of deceit toward the general public while knowing that they pollute the earth and harm people.

Note how the description of the psychopath so aptly describes the attitude and actions of the polluting corporation: "anti-social attitudes and behavior" that result from a "sense of entitlement" and "an incapacity for emotional connection to the rest of humanity," and for whom "social rules have no constraining force, and the idea of a common good is merely a puzzling and inconvenient abstraction."

For instance, the Annual Report of WMX and its subsidiaries, such as Wheelabrator Technologies, states that they promote recycling and environmental protection:

"The Company is committed to improving the environment through the services that we offer and to providing our services in a manner demonstrably protective of human health and the environment, even if not required by law. We will minimize and strive not to allow any releases to the atmosphere, land, or water in amounts that may harm human health and the environment."

In real life, Wheelabrator sells and operates super-polluting incinerators, including one in North Andover, Massachusetts, which has typically emitted 2000 pounds of mercury and many hundreds of grams of super-toxic dioxins.

Monsanto, a multinational agricultural corporation based in St. Louis, Missouri, claims to be "improving agriculture." Yet its scientists have admitted that the corn and cotton crops from Monsanto seeds that have been genetically altered to produce BT toxin - the "last-resort" natural pesticide used by organic farmers - will lead to insect resistance. This will rob farmers of this non-chemical weapon forever and make them more reliant on chemical pesticides.

A Monsanto subsidiary has created new plant varieties that will produce sterile seeds, eliminating the ability of farmers to save seeds for the next year, a natural practice dating from the dawn of agriculture. The stated purpose is improve agriculture by providing "better seeds" and uphold Monsanto's "rights" as a seed patent holder. In reality, it will force farmers all over the world to buy their seeds from Monsanto, now the 2nd largest seed company in the world. This multinational corporation's activities are brilliant, insidious, and ruthless. In the name of "improving agriculture" this company may gain control of the entire world's agricultural system.

Psychopathic attitudes and behaviors on the part of companies and corporations are not new. They have been with us since the beginning of the industrial age. But now, with the information that Dr. Hare has provided us about psychopathy, we can identify and understand the behavior and not be bewildered by it. Most importantly, we can figure out how to stop it.