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Greens, Fears and Dollars | The Nation

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Beat the Devil

Greens, Fears and Dollars

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They'd rather die than admit it, but environmental organizations thrive on disaster. They remember well enough what happened when Ronald Reagan installed James Watt as Secretary of the Interior. Hardly had Watt hung an elk head on his office wall before the big green outfits were churning out mailers painting doomsday scenarios of national parks handed over to the oil companies, the Rocky Mountains stripped for oil shale, the national forests clearcut from end to end.

By the time the incompetent Watt was forced to resign, the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation had raised tens of millions of dollars and recruited hundreds of thousands of new members. All this money transformed the environmental movement from a largely grassroots network into an inside-the-Beltway operation powered by political operators in Washington, DC.

Then came the Clinton/Gore era. Because the mainstream green groups had anointed Gore as nature's savior and had become so politically intertwined with the Democrats, they had no way to disengage and adopt an independent critical posture when the inevitable sellouts began.

Thus it was that the big green groups let Clinton and Gore off the hook when the new administration put forward a plan to end "gridlock" and commence orderly logging in the ancient forests of California and the Pacific Northwest. Similarly, they held their peace when Gore reneged on his pledge to shut down the WTI hazardous-waste incinerator in Ohio. Year after year they stuck to their basic game plan: Don't offend the White House; preserve "access" at all costs.

One consequence of this greenwashing of the Clinton Administration was a sharp decline in the green-group memberships. But by now the big green outfits had grown comfortable on fat salaries, inflated staffs and fine new offices.

To maintain the standard of living to which they had now become accustomed, the big green groups sought to offset their dwindling membership revenues by applying for help from big foundations like Rockefeller, the Pew Charitable Trusts and W. Alton Jones. But charity rarely comes without strings. All the above-mentioned foundations derive their endowments from oil, and along with the money they inherited an instinct for manipulation and monopoly.

By the mid-1990s executives of the Pew Charitable Trusts were openly declaring their ambition to set the agenda for the environmental movement during Clinton time, using as leverage their grant-making power. Let a small green group step out of line, and in the next funding cycle that group would find its grant application rejected not just by Pew but by most of the other green-oriented foundations that were operating like the oil cartel of old.

So now, with the shadow of a Republican administration across the White House, the green groups see a chance to recoup, using the sort of alarmism that served them so well in the Reagan-Watt years. Already during the campaign they painted George W. Bush as a nature-raper, and then, only days after the election on November 7, e-mail alerts began to flicker across the Internet, warning that the incoming Congress will be the "most environmentally hostile ever."

But how can this be, if we are to believe the premise of the big green groups, backed by regular "dirty-dozen lists" from the League of Conservation Voters, that Democrats are by definition kinder to nature than Republicans? Democrats gained seats in the House of Representatives and now split the Senate with the Republicans 50/50. By this measure the e-mails rushing across the Net should be modestly optimistic instead of presaging doom.

In fact, one of the natural kingdom's greatest enemies in the US Senate, Slade Gorton of Washington, has gone down to defeat. Another nature-raper, Representative Don Young of Alaska, is being forced to vacate his chairmanship of the House Resources Committee, victim of a term-limits agreement by House Republicans a few years ago.

Good news doesn't raise dollars or boost membership. So the big green groups will go on painting an unremittingly bleak picture of what lies in store. But the likelihood is that a Bush administration won't be nearly as bad as advertised by alarmists.

Indeed, there are some causes for optimism. The model here is Richard Nixon, our greenest President, who oversaw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and smiled upon our single greatest piece of environmental legislation, the Endangered Species Act. Nixon was trying to divide the left and worked to develop an environmental constituency. Bush, if he makes it to the White House, will be similarly eager to garner green support.

Bush will also be keen to undercut attacks on the question of his legitimacy as President, and a kinder, gentler policy on the environment would be one way to do it. The current betting is that his nominee for Interior Secretary will be Montana Governor Marc Racicot, a Republican version of the present incumbent of the post, Bruce Babbitt. If the speculation about Racicot is borne out, this would be a severe blow to the expectations of the Republican hard-liners, who yearn for Don Young to supervise the dismantling of whatever frail environmental protections America still enjoys.

Of course there will be savage environmental struggles over the next four years. Oil leasing will be one battlefield. Salvage logging will be another. But if you receive a hysterical mailer from one of the big green organizations, set it aside and give your support to one of the small groups that have been fighting doughtily on the same issues through Clinton time, when the big groups were toeing the party line and keeping their mouths shut. Why not, for example, send a check to Earth Island Institute in San Francisco, thus honoring its founder, the late David Brower?

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