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Green Groups Pinned Down Like Gulliver

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: Environment, environmental groups, grassroots activism, Terrain, foundations, corporations,

Terrain coverSo you think environmentalism has gone mainstream, what with Al Gore spreading the climate change gospel and countless people and businesses boasting of going green? Hold on a minute: Environmental journalist Jeffrey St. Clair tells Northern California magazine Terrain in an illuminating interview that despite all the talk, the grassroots green movement has in fact lost much of its fire and been co-opted by corporate America.

St. Clair, editor of the Counterpunch website, author of the book Born Under a Bad Sky and co-editor of the book Red State Rebels, traces the start of the movement’s downfall to the Clinton presidency, when “a new kind of environmentalism” was adopted by then-Vice President Gore and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Instead of focusing on regulations, the Clinton administration cut deals with environmentally destructive industries, and during the same period environmental groups grew too cozy with big business and overly reliant on foundation funding. Here’s where St. Clair delivers some of his most damning, and convincing, criticisms:

“Many of these foundations are the progeny of the oil companies. Look at the major three that are funding the environmental movement: Pew Charitable Trust, that’s Sun Oil; W. Alton Jones, another oil company; Rockefeller Family Fund. Those three foundations basically control the environmental movement. … If you look at the board of directors of the large environmental groups, they’re filled with corporate executives. From the timber industry, to the oil industry, to the real estate industry, to the airline industry, to the nuclear power industry, they’re there, on every one of these boards. They’re rich, they’re corporate, and they don’t want you shaking things up. So [the environmental groups] are like Gulliver, they’re pinned down. They’re shackled by their source of money, shackled by their relationship to the Democratic Party, shackled by the fact that their boards are controlled by corporate executives.”

The economic crisis and its crimp on foundation funding may actually offer some hope, he says:

“A lot of them, certainly the smaller groups, will lose their funding first, and that’s going to be a very good thing. The weaning process is going to hurt for a while. But when they emerge from that, they’re going to be much better off. … Hopefully in the future, you’re going to be seeing … much more indigenous radical and unpredictable, organic environmental groups that will end up being much more effective, much more healing for people.”

Read a review of Green Inc., which explores in detail the ties between the corporate world and environmental groups, in the January-February Utne Reader. And to learn more about how foundation funding has taken the bite out of many grassroots movements, keep an eye out for the March-April Utne Reader’s cover story on philanthropy.