Mr. Hari has produced an excellent article about the professionalization and financial steering of the dominant environmental organizations in the United States. Over three decades of empirical research into the US environmental movement have shown that over time, the once vibrant grass-roots based and participatory environmental movement has become increasingly bureaucratic and professional, and that the dominant organizations have increasingly moved toward becoming "protest businesses." Fundraising is based on the use of junk mail appeals from dispersed individuals and grants from private foundations. This form of fundraising allows private foundations to exercise exceptional influence on the activities of the movement organizations. Research shows that this steers the organizations away from political activism and toward noncontroversial, apolitical activities. It is not just a coincidence that the Nature Conservancy, by far the richest environmental organization in the United States, does not engage in political action. As Mr. Hari shows, their antiquated strategy of land preservation has been rendered futile by the onset of global climate change.
Additionally, the professionalization and bureaucratization of the environmental movement has contributed to its lack of political impact. These "protest businesses" substitute professional advocacy for citizen action. Few of the leading national environmental organizations offer members the chance to participate in a concrete, meaningful way. For example, try to go to a meeting of the Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace or the Natural Resources Defense Council and have input into the organization's policies and plans. You can't. You can't even attend a meeting of these organizations.
In most national environmental organizations, members are reduced to contributors who just send in their annual contribution checks. The original link between environmental movement organizations and their memberships has, for the most part, atrophied. If it is to be meaningful, the environmental movement must help the general public to connect the dots between personal, local concerns and the dramatic, global threats. Without a grassroots focus that will engage citizens to take specific actions to stem the tide of environmental degradation, today's environmental movement can't lead us where we need to go. Mr. Hari's article points toward a different and more effective participatory movement. This shift is needed to restore the political capacity we need to effectively advocate for social change.
(The author is a professor of Sociology and Environmental Science at Drexel University.)