Web Letters | The Nation

Web Letter

With so many environmental groups in bed with the major polluters, how can prospective donors determine which groups truly merit support?

Matthew Lipschik

Brooklyn, NY

Apr 20 2010 - 7:33pm


I would like to echo Professor Brulle's commendation of Hari's article and also suggest a few modifications of his excellent overview of the current state of professionalized "environmental" organizations in the United States and what we must do to mobilize for scientifically sound and equitable climate policy.

First, even groups that Professor Brulle would seem to approve of--RAN and Greenpeace--have been supporting "politically realistic" as opposed to grassroots and scientifically necessary policies and practices. Witness their support for the Forest Stewardship Council, a disastrous industry/environmental movement partnership that allows industrial logging of old growth forests under the guise of market incentives for "well-managed" forests (see FSC Watch); also consider the consideration to hire Tzeporah Berman as the climate policy director--above and despite the desires of and without consultation with the many grassroots environmental organizations in Canada whose advocacy has been excluded and sidelined by Berman's corporate-friendly model of secret deal-making (see "Stop Tzeporah Berman").

Second, one need only look at the role of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Nature Conservancy and the World Resources Institute as founding members of the United States Climate Action Partnership to recognize that more will need to be done for us to "help the general public to connect the dots between personal, local concerns and the dramatic, global threats." These corporate environmental organizations (with many conflicts of interests on their polluter-friendly boards of directors) worked shoulder to shoulder with the worst polluters (hydrocarbon industry, nuclear corporations pushing a nuclear renaissance and banks investing in the carbon-trading sham) in drafting a blueprint for what would have been a catastrophic piece of legislation (the Waxman-Markey bill).

See for yourself. Here are the members of USCAP.

These large "environmental" membership outfits who have lobbied (and continue to do so) for US climate legislation with unsound targets and timetables for reductions of atmospheric GHG, continued use of coal for the foreseeable future and new nuclear plants have combined budgets that allow them to drown out the voice of science, the environment and grassroots groups pushing for what is needed. The USCAP is pushing for 450-550 ppm, when the science tells us that 350 ppm is the outer limit at which the climate might be stabilized; they declare the coal should be part of the US energy mix for the foreseeable future; and they are pushing pie-in-the-sky nuclear technology that would take decades to implement.

Environmentalists can't allow these organizations' self-serving misrepresentation of the environment, combined with the fear and urgency that many of us feel about the future of our planet, to trump science and ethics by promoting false solutions in US climate policy.

The website of the Mobilization for Climate Justice has a useful page exposing many of the conflicts of the Board of Directors of just one of these organizations: the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Responsible environmental advocacy based in science (let alone ethics) would suggest to most environmentalists that we should not gamble on the future viability of entire ecosystems, biodiversity or life on the planet for human civilization by letting the loud voices of these compromised organizations remain unchallenged. Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity has their number. As he says in Hari's excellent piece, these organizations "have no bottom line, no interest in scientifically defensible greenhouse gas emission limitations and no willingness to pressure the White House or Congress."

We must not only connect the dots between personal issues and global threats, as Professor Brulle suggests, but also challenge these organizations publicly--at their fundraisers and events--to expose them and educate and mobilize their well-meaning members to the anti-environmental positions for which they lobby.

Only then will we be able to shape climate policy (in the United States and the world) within a new political reality, instead of conceding the powerful battle field of the US Congress and administration to these organizations without censure.

Because, as we know, as goes the US, so goes the planet.

Robert Jereski

New York, NY

Apr 7 2010 - 11:51am

Web Letter

Your article begins with a harsh attack on Jay Hair, accusing him of selling out to the fossil fuel guys for big bucks. That’s not the Jay Hair I knew, and the charge sounds wildly implausible. I doubt that the author can substantiate that claim, and, if he cannot, I trust he will correct the record.

James Gustave Speth

Strafford, VT

Mar 21 2010 - 2:31pm

Web Letter

My late friend Jay Hair and your writer Johann Hari both believed that the world is facing unprecedented challenges that threaten our future on the only habitable planet we know.

Jay felt this required unprecedented efforts to work together, build coalitions, and unite people to face these very real threats. As the leader of the National Wildlife Federation and the global International Union for The Conservation of Nature, he worked ceaselessly and effectively to build bridges from African villages to the Mekong Delta, to corporate boardrooms.

Perhaps it is this success in building coalitions that so angers Mr. Hari, whose idea of a conservation movement seems to be schism, personal animosity and the politics of permanent minority; an ultimately undemocratic program that can prevail at best temporarily, and then only in alliance with authoritarian forces. By contrast, Jay Hair was the repeatedly elected leader of millions of members of NWF, and elected leader of IUCN.

Jay Hair conducted himself with great integrity. Like many in the center of events, he was sometimes subjected to scurrilous attacks. Some memorable attempts to stain Jay's reputation came from the reactionary Alaska politician Don Young, who was outraged by Jay's success in Alaska conservation battles. Mr. Hari's attack is eerily reminiscent of Congressman Young--dripping with venom, economical with the truth and ultimately ineffective in doing much harm to Jay's reputation. Congressman Young did attack Jay while he was still alive.

Do we see the threat to livability of our planet as serious enough to try to work with people we disagree with? To Mr. Hari, our common future is not quite so important as getting in our licks at leaders like Jay Hair, or another tireless conservationist, David Doniger.

Luke Danielson

Gunnison, CO

Mar 19 2010 - 12:26pm

Web Letter

Members of the Sierra Club are currently voting for five members of the board of directors. I e-mailed the Johann Hari article to all of the candidates and asked for their reaction, so that I could determine whom to vote for. I believe this to be the kind of grassroots action that Hari recommends. Other Sierra Club members might want to do the same.

janet maker

Los Angeles, CA

Mar 17 2010 - 6:49pm

Web Letter

The big environmental groups who Johann Hari calls out for taking corporate cash and basing their agendas on what will pass a corrupt Senate are making a basic and unforgivable error. They are assuming the industrial capitalist economy is of primary importance, and that nature comes second. As Hari points out, they put political "reality" (or "economic reality," insofar as there is a difference) ahead of physical reality. This really is a form of insanity. Worse, it is part of a broad pattern of collusion and collaboration with nature's mortal enemies--industrial capitalists--on the part of environmentalists.

However, Hari himself makes the same error when he talks about "what is at stake" in this struggle--according to him, it is "Civilization." Not nature. Not sustainable indigenous communities. Not the 100 species who will go extinct today. Not the poisoned oceans. Not remnant forests. Not songbirds, or fish, or amphibians, all of whose populations have crashed in recent years. Not the imperiled communities of living beings who make our own lives (and our unsustainable civilization) possible.

"Civilization" is typified at all points in its 5,000-10,000 year history by one patently unsustainable process: the accumulation and concentration of raw materials in the form of land, living creatures and human labor, and the conversion of this living material into wealth and power for an elite few. This process, generally euphamized as "production" but also known as "theft," "slavery" and "murder," is the cause of all pollution, all forms of environmental degradation. In the case of our current civilization, globalized industrial capitalism, this process is exponentially accelerated. This is ecocide. This is genocide. This must be stopped.

Our "civilization' is not "what is at stake"--it is the problem. Nature is at stake, and she is burning.

Devon Church

Brooklyn, NY

Mar 17 2010 - 9:11am

Web Letter

Not all deep ecologists agree about global warming. While we all agree that Mother Earth is dying at our hands, many of us believe that global warming may be part of a natural cycle (made worse by human activity but unavoidable, perhaps, even if we all lived as hunter gatherers).

Yes, we are killing Mother Earth, but I think our pointing the finger at global warming may be misguided, despite the best of our intentions. And ultimately we may never know why.

Learning to co-create with Mother Earth, however, is an option we do have, but not readily available to our Western intellects, no matter how much of an environmental activist we may be.

We all have something to learn.

Chris Alexander

Los Angeles, CA

Mar 15 2010 - 7:47pm

Web Letter

Thanks to Johann Hari for his courageous article taking on Big Green groups that are always quick to claim any scrutiny of their behavior is "irresponsible." Their sanctimonious response, however, does not change the fact that many of our most important national groups have abandoned their mission to kowtow to their corporate sponsors and allies in Washington.

As I chronicle in my book, Green, Inc., An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause has Gone Bad, these organizations operate more like the corporations that fund them than the grassroots groups the public believes them to be. They act in wasteful and unaccountable ways. Unless they reform, they are going to lose all credibility at a time when we need our environmental groups more than ever to help the world step back from the brink of unimaginable climate changes.

But, as Hari points out, the momentum seems to be going in the direction--with Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and other large national groups backing positions approved by their powerful allies--though climate scientists say these proposals are simply too little, too late.

That's one part of the problem. The other is corporate money in environmentalism. I will leave you with just one example: EDF's ballyhooed relationship with Federal Express.

In 2000, EDF and FedEx unveiled a new hybrid vehicle that promised to dramatically cut the carbon emissions of the company's fleet of delivery trucks. Both EDF and FedEx reaped enormous public relations windfalls from what was hailed as a "revolutionary" win-win proposition that would be good for both the company and the environment. Fedex officials promised to roll out as many 30,000 hybrid trucks by 2013.

The initiative provided the cornerstone upon which FedEx has built a reputation as a "green" corporation. Executives at EDF, meanwhile, enhanced their credibility as environmentalists able to bring corporations to the negotiating table.

But FedEx has never moved seriously to adopt the new technology. By the end of 2009, the company said it was on track to have 325 of these hybrid electric vehicles on the road--a far cry from the tens of thousands it originally envisioned. To be fair to the company, it also says it has more than 1,800 "alternative fuel vehicles and equipment around the world." Those numbers sound good until you look at the size of FedEx's fleet--more than 120,000 vehicles plus hundreds airplanes.

If you do the math, it turns out the FedEx has "greened" just 1.7 percent of fleet. At this rate, we're going to have to wait for the golden anniversary of the EDF-FedEx partnership before seeing the "revolutionary" changes promised a decade ago.

Is this corporate "greening" or greenwashing?

Christine MacDonald

Washington, DC

Mar 12 2010 - 10:01am

Web Letter

Mr. Hari's article is a welcome critique of a significant set of the "Big Green" environmental organizations. Since the 1980s, these mainstream environmental organizations have systematically agreed to abandon the grassroots impulses of the movement that created them (Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring).

I would add to the conversation that environmentalism in the United States has a long history of failing to adequately stay true to the values of what used to be a radical movement. Certainly, those values--that some things are sacred, worth protecting, and should exist outside of their value to someone else's profit motive--are what draw elite and nontraditional students to my classrooms in environmental studies and ethnic studies in California and in the Northeast. Failing to live up to those values is also part of the reason why membership and active participation in those Big Green organizations continue to dwindle after graduation.

In 1991, people-of-color environmental organizations also critiqued "Big Green" organizations for not representing the full diversity of environmental interests--in particular, for their failure to address the major environmental issues of poor and low-income people of color communities--rural communities (mining and coal, water, forests, agriculture and pesticides) and urban communities (air quality, traffic, asthma, for instance). Local branches of those organizations have often been helpful, but when push comes to shove, the national has often come down to squash effective analyses and action.

By the time of the publication of "The Death of Environmentalism" and the "The Soul of Environmentalism," Big Green organizations had in some cases started environmental justice programs, but rarely added to the already-existing efforts, coalitions and leadership of the environmental justice movement. These continued debates--and the splash they create--affirm that the soul of environmentalism is located precisely in *community* organizations.

Where is the leadership on climate change? The growing climate justice movement in the United States starts from the base of communities that are being impacted by the currently existing polluting industries. For these communities, "trading" or "offsetting" pollution means continued sickness and death. These communities know that the only viable, healthy and sustainable solutions to global climate change is to begin by reducing emissions at home, and doing so by implementing already existing solutions. They are already advocating these things, internationally and in the United States. Moving forward, we must support the leadership of these diverse organizations--from Native America, to Richmond, California; Harlem, New York; and many other locales.

Diana Pei Wu

Oakland, CA

Mar 11 2010 - 7:48am

Web Letter

Mr. Hari's article is interesting, though it avoids what I believe is a more important issue: realistic verifiability of CO2 offsets. As delightfully easy and abstract as CO2 offsets may seem, where they break down is in the practical world of verifiable results. As an attorney, engineer and opinion columnist, I look first for verifiable facts, and that is what CO2 offsets fundamentally lack. It's far too easy to cook the numbers.

For that reason, I believe we must more directly address the two biggest sources of CO2: consumer demand for electric power and consumer demand for transportation.

In both instances, it is far more beneficial to build renewable energy sources in the United States rather than play math games with offsets. In that way we gain the benefit of actual reductions that continue as long as the wind or solar power production unit, vital construction, manufacturing and maintenance employment, and control over the actual offsets.

What seems to sit at the center of Mr. Hari's concerns is the fact that as we make abstract our responses to climate change, we lose track of what is actually accomplished and lose the ability to audit and account for the efficiency of our responses. I want the most CO2 reduction for the dollar, and without a means of verifying results, that is impossible.

While rainforest groups would certainly want to be able to justify and rationalize the use of rainforests as offsets in the climate change effort, such strategies are akin to hostage taking. As anyone knows, the more valuable the hostage, the higher the price one must pay; in this case, the price will continue to rise even as the amount of CO2 emissions prevented do not. Eventually, the forests become too valuable as wood to be protected.

As a columnist, I have written extensively about the contradictory behavior of certain environmental groups opposing renewable energy projects, specifically wind projects. This behavior sends the wrong message to the world when it comes to climate change, suggesting that everything else is more important. However, time is not on our side.

Daniel Coffey

San Diego, CA

Mar 9 2010 - 7:41pm