A small group of super-powerful corporations has become a dominant force that essentially controls human industry and shapes the modern world we live in, scientists say.
In a new study, an international team of researchers suggests that this elite cadre of dominant transnational corporations (TNCs, sometimes also called multinationals) may wield an outsized influence over the planet and its inhabitants.
"The scale at which TNCs operate, and the speed and connectivity they galvanise across the world is unprecedented in history," the researchers, led by environmental scientist Carl Folke from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, explain in their new paper.
"TNCs have become a defining feature of the interconnected planet of people and nature, with humans as a hyper-dominant species in the biosphere affecting global patterns of ecological change."
Of course, these kinds of observations are not new. We can easily note the impact of super-corporations almost everywhere in human industry.
You can see it in the environment, where just 100 companies are responsible for over 70 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.
You can see it in technology, where giant tech firms enjoy monopolistic dominance over search, social, and more.
Pharmaceutical companies are so powerful they spawn entire health crises; energy companies are so powerful they can predict climate crises decades in advance.
The communication of science itself is not untouched by these phenomena of corporate consolidation and control.
But just because TNCs exert so much power doesn't mean they can't act responsibly, the researchers say.
In their new perspective article, Folke and colleagues identify six trends that – if capitalised upon – could see the notion of 'corporate social responsibility' we know today evolve into a more sustainability-focused model of 'corporate biosphere stewardship'.
The researchers say voluntary TNC commitments to sustainability in the past two decades haven't been effective enough, nor has governmental regulation of TNCs been strong enough. This has to change.
"Understanding and acting upon the new dynamics of the Anthropocene is fundamental for human well-being, and TNCs clearly are part of it," the authors write.
Looking at TNCs in fields such as agriculture, forestry, seafood, cement, minerals and fossil energy, the researchers say there may already be evidence of a shift happening towards corporate biosphere stewardship.
Emerging features such as an 'alignment of vision' across TNCs suggests new norms around sustainability could be emerging, the researchers think, while new global political agreements like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) might be seen as a successful example of what the team calls 'mainstreaming sustainability'.
Elsewhere, the authors cite evidence of better regulation of TNCs through clarified licences of how the companies can operate, and argue that shifts in how the finance sector is moving away from funding unsustainable practices is a step in the right direction.
Technological trends that encourage 'radical transparency' are also becoming more popular, enhancing the accountability of TNCs, while engagement from the scientific community is seen as another way to help steer companies towards sustainability agendas.
Of course, observing these trends taking place in the TNC landscape doesn't mean the good will win out. In a world that's on a climate change knife edge, it's plainer than ever how humanity's mismanagement of the energy sector alone has been disastrously unsustainable.
But here's hoping we can turn that around. If we're going to take drastic action to avert the climate crisis, TNCs will have to be a part of the solution, the authors say.
Their study gives us new reasons to be cautiously optimistic about super-corporations – provided we keep watching them closely.
"The global dominance of TNCs is a reality of the Anthropocene, when transformative change is urgently needed," the researchers write.
"Corporate biosphere stewardship provides a new business logic with the purpose of shepherding and safeguarding the resilience of the biosphere for human well-being."
The findings are reported in Nature Ecology & Evolution.