Green Groups Pinned Down Like Gulliver

| 1/26/2009 3:42:14 PM

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.

jeffery biss
2/2/2009 4:13:42 PM

Environmentalism has always been at odds with the fundamental tenets of Americans. The U.S. is Calvinist/corporatist. Economics is used to provide our operational paradigm because both Calvinism and corporatism believe that greed is good. Both are based on the tenets that the world is ours to do with as we please, if you can afford it then you have the right to do it, those who have deserve it and those who have not deserve it; The only obligation the individual has is to satisfy his/her desire. Environmentalism, on the other hand, requires one to accept that each of us has an obligation to others and we must sacrifice for the greater good and to ensure the well being of others. This is anathema to what most Americans see as what America is about - "freedom". Even environmentalists promote environmentalism using economic arguments and appeals to selfish self-interest because most people couldn't care less about how they affect others.

keith goetzman_1
1/27/2009 1:44:44 PM

Alexis, I certainly don't think all corporations are evil, but their massive influence in environmental groups gives me pause. They are legally beholden to their shareholders, not the earth and its people, and the economic crisis has only highlighted their prioritization of short-term gains over long-term sustainability. I suggest you read St. Clair's entire interview, as he gives examples of the deals he says Clinton cut, and Green Inc., which indeed asks many "legitimate questions about corporate environmentalism." Finally, I remain highly suspicious of any regulatory approach that effectively says, "I am here to regulate you. How would you like to be regulated?" Keith Goetzman

alexis madrigal
1/27/2009 11:14:44 AM

I thought this sort of all-corporations-are-evil and all-the-progeny-of-corporations-are-evil arguments had gone away. I mean, some of the first states were joint-stock corporations. And we don't mind what came out of that. There are legit questions about corporate environmentalism, but merely saying that they are involved isn't evidence of bad intention or some kind of zinger. Don't you want them involved? What other relationship would you rather the government had with corporations? The X-Men versus the transparently evil pigs in suits? And what is this differentiation between "cutting a deal" with industry and a regulation? A regulation is a deal with industry. The role of government is work with its constituents, not just its environmentally-conscious constituents. To separate out government deals into discrete bins, one marked, "regulations" and the other, "deal-cutting" totally ignores the human reality of how laws and regulations are made. Any regulator needs people on the inside! Particularly with something like a coal plant. Without them, it's like trying to fix a computer without understanding the first thing about how it runs. Of course, you have to stay vigilant and fact-check, etc, but the government-industry relationships are necessary (just not sufficient.)