An anti-capitalist billionaire

In: Uncategorized

31 Mar 2014

My profile of Petter Stordalen, an anti-capitalist billionaire from Norway, was published in Financial Times Wealth on Friday. The original link can be found here.

Is it possible to be an anti-capitalist billionaire? Many would assume the question is absurd. Surely the greatest beneficiaries of the market economy should be its staunchest supporters?

Not so fast. There are several examples of the fabulously wealthy going on record as having deep reservations about capitalism. George Soros has written extensively of “the capitalist threat” to what he calls the Open Society and excoriated those he dubs “market fundamentalists”. Others, such as Jeremy Grantham, have argued that capitalism could destroy us all by destroying the environment.

No doubt some cynics would dismiss such pronouncements as spin. But why would billionaires feel the need to make such statements if they were not sincere? They are not under any particular pressure to do so. There seems to be something deeper going on.

Petter Stordalen, a Norwegian hotel owner and investor, is unusual even for an anti-capitalist billionaire. Not only has he made many public pronouncements, particularly on environmental matters, but he has also taken part in protests. In 2002, he joined a group of Norwegian activists to protest against the UK’s Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant. In 2007, he was charged with trespassing after he entered a restricted area at Malmøyakalven, an island near Oslo, to protest at the dumping of toxic mud.

But Stordalen’s green outlook also permeates his working life. This is apparent from his business card, which reads “there is no business on a dead planet”. “For me it’s that simple,” he says. “If we don’t take responsibility when we run our businesses our planet will go straight to hell.”

In practical terms this means that, among other things, smoking is banned, even in guest rooms, in his Nordic Choice Hotels in Scandinavia and the Baltic. Nor is pornography available on pay TV. The hotels have meat on the menu, but guests are encouraged to go for healthy eating options if possible.

Stordalen gives two sets of reasons for promoting a green outlook. In his view, science shows the planet and its people are at risk if they fail to respect natural limits. Although the current generation might survive, the lives of future generations are at stake. He also argues green thinking is good for business as it helps promote efficiency. Stordalen sees no conflict, at least over the long term, in these two strands of thought. “What is good for society is also good for business,” he says.

Yet Stordalen was not born into an environmentalist background. His attachment to the outlook originated with practical concerns. “It started when we started to look at energy,” he says. “We wanted to save energy because we wanted to save money.” It was only later that he came to see the environment as important for its own sake.

His wife Gunhild, who is a medical doctor and holds a PhD, has played a crucial role in shaping his thought. The former model co-founded the Stordalen Foundation, which supports sustainability initiatives, and runs GreeNudge, which promotes behavioural change to combat climate change.

Given the usual trappings of the billionaire lifestyle it is inevitable that the Stordalens are open to charges of hypocrisy. No doubt deep greens would argue it is impossible to square concern for the environment with owning a big house and several fast cars.

Stordalen describes himself as a “techno optimist” who has a duty to promote new technology as a catalyst for change. He bought two of the first Tesla electric cars in Norway and his Ferrari runs on biofuel. Another initiative was an investment in Think Global, an Oslo-based electric car company that has since ceased production. “Don’t ask about the financial results,” he says. “It was a disaster.”

Of course, it is possible to be an environmentalist without being anti-capitalist, but the two are more closely related than is often realised. If the planet is viewed as facing an existential threat as a result of the pursuit of profit, it suggests a fundamental flaw in the market. For instance, in the words of the Stern Review, a landmark study produced for the UK government, climate change “is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen”.

For Stordalen, as for many others, the challenge is to replace naked capitalism – sometimes called the neo-liberal model – with a more sustainable version. “The capitalism I see today is in a kind of crisis,” he says. “I want to see a capitalism that manages resources in a new, much more long-term manner.” This means business people taking on green values and governments being willing to engage in stricter regulation.

This is a world away from the politics of Karl Marx or Leon Trotsky. It seeks to curb what it regards as the excesses of the market economy, rather than erect a different social system, and it does indeed stretch into the world of billionaires.