GE's chief Jeffrey Immelt says he is preparing the firm for the future
Are companies a force for good in the world, or a force for evil?
Let's say we had a referendum on the corporation, just like the recent votes on the future of Europe.
Would there be a hearty endorsement for 21st century capitalism, or a thumbs-down of the kind delivered by the voters of France and the Netherlands?
The protests that now surround world trade summit meetings suggests that many ordinary people are locked in an indiscrimating antagonism for the corporations that they think rule their lives.
But what if the protestors were wrong, not in their intentions, but in their results? Why do campaigners take such an entrenched position of opposition to the companies they regard as evil?
Time for a change
These thoughts arise from an encounter the other month with one of the most powerful corporate leaders on earth, the chairman and chief executive of General Electric (GE) of the United States, Jeffrey Immelt.
With its pounding insistence on results, GE has long been one of the most highly-regarded American companies, and so have the people who run it.
The company traces its origins back 127 years to Thomas Edison, one of the inventors of the electric light bulb, the first true use for mass electricity.
It is fascinating to encounter a corporation so old that is still refashioning itself in what may turn out to be very important ways.
Mr Immelt was appointed to his job in 2001, successor to the legendary Jack Welch, who had a 20-year stint in charge of the company.
With luck and a fair wind, Jeffrey Immelt has the chance of the same length of leadership; he is only the ninth chief executive in the history of the company.
It is quite a contrast with the instant fix demanded by financial analysts of a corporate boss who has just three or four years to make his mark.
And now is a good time to listen to Jeffrey Immelt, because he's had four years to consolidate his position and think about what imprint he wants to put on the company.
GE's latest idea is one that campaigners have been going on about for years. GE is going green. And because it's a great big company, GE has dreamed up a special word for its greening: "Ecomagination"(ugh!).
Most admired company or not, GE has been in the protestors sights for years because of its dumping of poisonous PCBs in the Hudson River in New York for decades (it's now cleaning them up).
And of course it makes big things that contribute to environmental damage - turbines and jet engines among them.
So when Jeff Immelt announces that GE is shaping its business strategy at least in part to invest in pollution-reducing technologies such as wind power and water purification, something has happened.
It is looking to its own ecology footprint, too, planning to cut its own emissions by a symbolic 1% over the next seven years.
GE has launched its Ecomagination project not out of the goodness of its heart, but because it thinks that there is money to be made there.
"There has been a massive discrepancy between people talking about climate change and the people who could actually do something about it", says Mr Immelt.
"It's technology that brings them together. We think we can make money out of environmental technology."
Is America's largest firm jumping on a fashionable bandwagon?
"I've no time for the cynics" says Mr Immelt. "For 125 years GE has profited from solving some of the world's toughest problems and there is no need to apologise for that".
He won't talk about what impact GE's discovery of the environment might have on other US companies or the seemingly intractable White House.
"All I can say is that I'm preparing my company and our customers for the day that there might be caps on carbon emissions.
"I see the way trends change, and this is changing. You can either sit with a hood over your head and pretend things won't change or you can get ready for it."
But this is the way huge new industries grow, he says. IT came out of the space industry, he points out, and healthcare is an invented industry too. No reason for power generation to be Neanderthal.
It's easy to be cynical about moves such as Jeff Immelt's. But in fact these are big changes to the way companies used to regard their responsibilities. If GE really does want to make money out of greening the environment, something influential will probably happen.
And whatever President Bush thinks, other American companies will become fearful of being left behind.
Ecomagination (ugh!) is an important change.
Work in Progress is the title of this exploration of the big trends upheaving the world of work as we steam further into the 21st century; and it is a work in progress, influenced and defined by my encounters as I report on trends in business and organisations all over the world.