The Big Business of Conservation

Corruption has destroyed America’s mainstream environmental groups

| July-August 2010

  • The Big Business of Conservation Image

    David Gothard /

  • The Big Business of Conservation Image

I have spent the past few years reporting on how global warming is remaking the map of the world. I have stood in half-dead villages on the coast of Bangladesh while families point to the rising ocean and say, “Do you see that chimney sticking up? That’s where my house was.” I have stood on the edges of the Arctic and watched glaciers that have existed for millennia crash into the sea. I have stood on the borders of dried-out Darfur and heard refugees explain, “The water dried up, and so we started to kill each other for what was left.”

While I witnessed these early stages of ecocide, I imagined that American green groups were on these people’s side in the corridors of Capitol Hill, trying to stop the Weather of Mass Destruction. But it is now clear that many were on a different path—one that began in the 1980s, when environmental groups like the National Wildlife Federation and the Nature Conservancy began accepting donations from the big polluters they’d previously fought.

Companies like Shell and British Petroleum were delighted. They saw it as valuable “reputation insurance”: Every time they were criticized for their massive emissions of warming gases, or an oil spill that had caused irreparable damage, they wheeled out their shiny green awards, purchased with “charitable” donations, to ward off the prospect of government regulation. At first, this behavior scandalized the environmental community. But slowly, other groups saw themselves shrink while the corporate-fattened groups swelled—so they, too, started to take the checks.

Christine MacDonald, an idealistic young environmentalist, discovered how deeply this cash had transformed these institutions when she started to work for Conservation International in 2006. As she explains in her whistle-blowing book Green Inc., almost all the mainstream green organizations take money, and in turn they offer praise, even when the money comes from the companies causing environmental devastation. To take just one example, when it was revealed that many of IKEA’s dining room sets were made from trees ripped from endangered forests, the World Wildlife Fund leapt to the company’s defense when IKEA claimed—wrongly—that it “can never guarantee” this won’t happen. Is it a coincidence that WWF is a “marketing partner” with IKEA, and takes cash from the company?

Likewise, MacDonald reports, the Sierra Club was approached in 2008 by the makers of Clorox bleach, who said that if the club endorsed their new range of “green” household cleaners, they would give it a percentage of the sales. The group’s corporate accountability committee said the deal created a blatant conflict of interest—but took it anyway. Then–executive director Carl Pope defended the move in an e-mail to members, in which he claimed that the organization had carried out a serious analysis of the cleaners to see if they were “truly superior.” But it hadn’t. Jessica Frohman, cochair of the Sierra Club’s toxics committee, said, “We never approved the product line.”

The addiction to corporate cash has changed the green groups at their core. Imagine this happening in any other sphere, and it becomes clear how surreal it is. It is as though Amnesty International’s human rights reports came sponsored by a coalition of the Burmese junta, Dick Cheney, and Robert Mugabe. For environmental groups to take funding from the very people who are destroying the environment is preposterous—yet it is now taken for granted.

7/6/2010 9:04:14 PM

No big suprise. I figured something was up with the Green Movement in the US - I live in Canada and yes I know we are not considered to be green - when the magazine Mother Jones put out an article esposing Carbon Trading giving birth to the idea of Big Green as a business and not a movement.

Jeffery Biss
7/6/2010 5:43:33 PM

The "market" has failed to solve environmental problems as the market, people, are concerned with satisfying their immediate desires. The market has proven that it is incapable of acting rationally as the recent financial crisis illustrates. Also, the fact that it takes acts of government to mitigate problems such as pollution indicates that the market is more concerned with immediate gratification than environmental health. Do-gooders going bad is more the result of objectivism and Calvinism permeating our culture than anything else because they celebrate selfishness and greed and make them the agents of good. What is therefore necessary is for people to become informed by experts, such as biologists, climatologists, ecologists, and force policy to be formulated accordingly as the economy will always seek the easy, and profitable, way out.

Tim Gieseke
7/6/2010 9:03:35 AM

Yes, those self-interests always seem to surface whether you are a MNC or a non-profit. I think the situation you present shows that the economy must address our climate issues rather than do-gooders going bad.

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