Who negotiates for nature?
Two years ago, in 2008, the environmental movement was rocked by journalist Christine MacDonald’s book, Green, Inc. After working for Conservation International (CI), MacDonald felt that corporate money had too great an influence on CI strategy. She concluded, “Not only do the largest conservation groups take money from companies deeply implicated in environmental crimes; they have become something like satellite PR offices for the corporations that support them.”
This month, in The Nation, UK journalist Johann Hari documents the evolution of this trend in “Wrong Kind of Green,” an expose of how some environmental groups have gone soft on polluters after receiving corporate money.
“By pretending the broken system can work,” writes Hari, “and will work, in just a moment, after just one more Democratic win, or another, or another – the big green groups are preventing the appropriate response from concerned citizens, which is fury at the system itself. They are offering placebos to calm us down when they should be conducting and amplifying our anger at this betrayal of our safety by our politicians. … when green groups cheer them on, they are giving their approval to a path to destruction–and calling it progress.”
Other serious ecologists and environmentalists are sounding an alarm. “We’re close to a civil war in the environmental movement,” says Charles Komanoff, after 30 years with the U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council. “For too long, all the oxygen in the room has been sucked out by this beast of these insider groups, who achieve almost nothing. … We need to create new organizations that represent the fundamentals of environmentalism and have real goals.”
Given the threats we now face – global heating and large scale habitat overshoot – Hari asks, “How do we retrieve a real environmental movement, in the very short time we have left?”
Resisting the cash
Some groups, thank Gaia, have refused to take money from large corporate donors or their granting agency fronts. Amazon Watch, which works closely with indigenous people, is one such group. Kevin Koenig at Amazon Watch attended the Copenhagen conference and expressed shock at what he witnessed. “At Copenhagen, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Koenig states in the Hari article. “These groups are positioning themselves to be the middlemen in a carbon market. They are helping to set up, in effect, a global system of carbon laundering…that will give the impression of action, but no substance. You have to ask, are these conservation groups at all? They look much more like industry front groups to me.”
Greenpeace has maintained a nearly 40-year policy of raising its funding only from its individual members and not accepting government or corporate grants. There is a big difference between forcing a company to the bargaining table and winning concessions – as Greenpeace has done with Shell Oil, Apple Computers, and Coca Cola – and simply partnering with a corporate donor and acting as greenwashing seal of approval. Christine MacDonald points out that World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and Conservation International cozied up to agribusiness giants Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and other companies to fashion a “sustainable soy” policy, a process that dragged on for years and accomplished nothing. Meanwhile Greenpeace campaigned against the international agribusiness giants and forced a moratorium on buying soybeans from recently deforested Amazon lands.
The campaign to reverse concentrations of atmospheric carbon back to 350 parts-per-million (ppm), which climate science believes is the limit to control run-away global heating, has fallen on similar problems. The Center for Biological Diversity, in Arizona refuses corporate funding, but finds itself being challenged by organizations that accept such funding. “There is a gigantic political schizophrenia here,” executive director Kieran Suckling told Hari.
“The Sierra Club will send out e-mails to its membership saying we have to get to 350 parts per million and the science requires it. But in reality they fight against any sort of emission cuts that would get us anywhere near that goal.” When Suckling and the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, and follow what climate science says is necessary, restoring a maximum 350 ppm, the Sierra Club appeared to side with industry against him. “I was amazed to discover the Sierra Club opposed us bitterly,” says Suckling. “They said it should not be done. In fact, they said that if we filed a lawsuit to make EPA do it, they would probably intervene on EPA’s side. They threw climate science out the window.”
Traction going nowhere
What we often hear from groups and individuals, who set themselves up as Nature’s negotiators and who pitch weak compromise rather than serious change, is that real change will not “get traction.” What they mean by this is that the status quo institutions – political parties, corporations, and well-funded organizations – don’t want deep or radical social transformation. What they want is to keep doing what they’ve always done, keep making money, and simultaneously appear “green.” We must ask, however: What good is traction if we’re racing down the wrong highway toward a cliff?
Hari points out that the compromised environmental groups believe they are adhering to “political reality” when they accept, for example, CO2 emission cuts that fall short of what climate science knows is necessary. “They don’t seem to realize,” writes Hari, “that in a conflict between political reality and physical reality, physical reality will prevail. You can’t stand at the edge of a rising sea and say, ‘Sorry, the swing states don’t want you to happen today.’ The laws of physics are more real and permanent than any passing political system. ”
“We need a few leaders who aren’t careerists,” says Bill Turnage, the former president of the Wilderness Society. People who aren’t worried about where they are going to get their next job.”
Green Disaster Capitalism
In British Columbia Canada, General Electric – one of the world’s largest corporations, with interests in defense contracts, international weapons trading, nuclear power, oil, and gas – is one of the lead actors in a campaign to privatize some 600 watersheds. GE and their partners, such as Plutonic Power, have attempted to sell this to a doubtful public by claiming their massive hydro and transmission line projects represent “green energy” that would help alleviate global warming. A few Canadian environmental groups signed on to this idea, but most groups and communities did not take the bait.
General Electric, meanwhile, plays both sides of the climate “debate.” While they support organizations that help sell their private acquisition of Canadian public and natural assets, allegedly to help “reduce global warming,” they simultaneously fund organizations that deny global warming, which supports their oil and gas holdings. They fund the American Petroleum Institute and its Astroturf affiliates such as “Energy Citizens,” who stage “grassroots” rallies to deny climate change and defeat climate legislation in the U.S.
Through GE Oil & Gas Conmec and General Electric Inspection Services, GE is a member of the American Petroleum Institute (API), along with Dow, Bechtel, Halliburton, ExxonMobil, Shell and others. Last year, Greenpeace uncovered API plans to launch a nationwide Astroturf campaign, “Energy Citizen,” to deny global warming and defeat climate legislation in the U.S. Greenpeace said the PR campaign “runs contrary to several prominent API members’ public support for climate action, namely Shell, BP America, ConocoPhillips, General Electric and Siemens.” General Electric helped fund these climate change denial campaigns, while simultaneously using the urgency of global warming to make a grab for hundreds of rivers, tributaries, and watersheds in British Columbia, Canada.
This is a “green” version of “Disaster Capitalism,” as described by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine. Global warming is so serious and urgent, so the theory goes, that we must suspend all normal logic and turn over the planet to the corporate board rooms. In B.C., Canada, this also means undermining the public power system, B.C. Hydro. The plan forces the public power company to purchase the private power at inflated rates, estimated to create a $450 million dollar annual loss for B.C. Hydro, a recipe for collapse of the public system. The BC Utilities Commission (BCUC) has deemed the plan “not in the public interest,” and yet a handful of environmental groups signed on to support it.
The Privatization of public and natural assets – such as rivers and watersheds – is not “green.” I stand with the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC), B.C. Citizens for Public Power, Western Canada Wilderness Committee, and scores of other community and environmental groups (see B.C. Guardians network) in favour of preserving BC’s wild rivers, resisting the privatization of BC’s rivers, and in preserving B.C.’s heritage of public power embodied in B.C. Hydro.
Humanity needs non-polluting energy, but rushing into a region such as British Columbia and attempting to privatize 600 watersheds for the benefit of global corporate interests is not the way to go about it. Before Canada or any jurisdiction industrializes more rivers, we must launch a massive campaign for conservation of energy in both industry and residential homes. Secondly, before we build massive power projects, we must have in hand a public and transparent analysis of local power needs. If small, community scale micro-hydro plants satisfy ecological and public requirements in some of these watersheds, then the decision to build those plants needs to be fairly discussed by the communities living in those watersheds in balance with other river and watershed values. And finally, those power projects must remain a public asset.
The discussion about who has the authority to negotiate for Nature, however, goes deeper than this. When Greenpeace was founded nearly 40 years ago, we understood that humanity lived within a living, diverse, generous, but limited ecological habitat. We also understood that humanity had violated and abused that habitat. Today, with thousands of environmental groups at work, humanity finds itself farther down the road of habitat overshoot.
Negotiating on behalf of Nature, for Gaia, is a sacred duty. Environmentalism is not just a career move. As Paul Sears warned 40 years ago, “Ecology is a subversive subject,” because ecology will demand that we completely re-evaluate our assumptions. We do not get to rewrite the laws of biology, physics, thermodynamics, and exponential growth for our own convenience.
We need ecological leaders who understand ecology and biophysical laws, and who feel a deep, sacred respect for Nature itself.