Green Inc,—How The Environmental Cause Went Bad

This bulletin is a review of Christine MacDonald's “Green, Inc. : An Environmental Insider Reveals How A Good Cause Has Gone Bad”.



Environmental insider Christine MacDonald has a clear message in her book, “Green Inc.” Many environmental groups have lost their way. By accepting donations from businesses that destroy Nature and by getting involved in deals with them, environmental groups have betrayed their members and the entire environmental mission.

Ms. MacDonald's focus in the book is on the largest environmental organizations, but her criticisms apply to many others. She is a journalist who took a job in the media department of one of the largest environmental organizations, Conservation International (CI) , whose main U.S. office is in Washington, D.C. Her purpose was to actually do something for the conservation cause, rather than just write about it. Her heart is clearly with real conservation. In her work at CI, she saw many questionable things going on. In her book, she provides an excellent picture of how the conservation movement went into its downward slide

She starts with an overview of the environmental movement. More than 12,000 environmental groups now exist in the U.S. In 2007, they reported annual revenues of more than $9.6 Billion and assets amounting to more than $27 Billion. Hundreds of them have lobbying offices in Washington D.C. and many have branches in Canada and other countries. Most people think of environmentalists as left-leaning tree huggers, but many of the founders of conservation groups actually came from right-leaning, privileged childhoods which were spent camping, hunting and fishing on large tracts of land owned by their families. The largest environmental group in the world is The Nature Conservancy which began in 1951 with a mission to oppose the effects of “sprawling suburbs” and the “industrial operations” that came with them. It now manages more than 117 million acres of land and thousands of miles of river. It raised nearly $1.3 Billion in fiscal 2007 and spent $806.7 Million on conservation programs internationally. It hired its f1rst paid president in 1965, now has assets of $4.7 Billion, and employs more than 3000 people.

Critics of the leaders of the largest environmental organizations have called some conservation leaders “high fliers”; and “carbon junkies”. The median household earnings in the U.S. in 2005 were $48,201, but the leaders of the largest conservation organizations are in the top 1% of income earners. James Maddy of the National Park Foundation earned $833,290; Steven E. Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society, $825,170; John Adams of Natural Resources Defence Council, $757,914. The worst paid of the country's best-known environmental organizations was Carl Pope of the Sierra Club who received about $250,000. According to the author, most large conservation groups “devote about half of their annual budgets to paying their employees and consultants”. To pay these salaries, environmental organizations have to spend a great amount of time on fund-raising. This has caused many environmental organizations to neglect their original purpose. The top-paid leaders of environmental organizations know the corporate world well. Many have spent time in it. Most members of environmental organizations do not object to getting funding from some corporations, but many want to have nothing to do with businesses that are unredeemably hostile to the environment and most want no strings attached to donations. However, conservation leaders have invited many corporate executives to sit on their boards. These industrial leaders not only help to run environmental organizations, but also have established joint marketing partnerships, sponsorship programs and advisory groups with them. Ms. MacDonald says that many of the worst corporate scofflaws spread their attentions around to multiple environmental groups. The largest, most respected conservation groups have been investigated for shady real estate deals, padding their books and accepting payoffs from petroleum companies and other corporations. Corporate moguls join conservation groups for the wrong reasons. Many are just interested in the PR and are not interested in or willing to learn the science. In fact, Timothy Hermach, the founder and president of the environmentalist group, the Native Forest Council, accuses many conservation groups of negotiating terms and conditions for more of the liquidation of nature.

Ms. MacDonald's former boss, Conservation International (CI) Chairman Peter Seligmann, has defended the actions of many corporate CEO's, primarily because they have donated to CI or other conservation groups. According to the author, what sets Seligmann apart from other conservation CEO's is “his talent for cultivating moguls”. One mogul, Gordon Moore, head of computer-chip maker Intel, gave CI almost $300 Million. Some environmentalists view Seligmann as a hero because he has raised the money necessary for conservation organizations to do their work. Others see him as one of the chief architects of the “corporate makeover” of the environmentalist movement. Ms. MacDonald asks why the conservation movement became like an industry. Her answer is that it has uncritically accepted the idea of sustainable development, a compromise arrived at after the confrontations between industry and conservationists in the 1960's and 1970's. A compromise was possible, probably because environmentalists could accept the word “sustainable” and business people could accept the word “development”. She does not explain what she sees as the flaw in this change, but she may be implying that a compromise should not have been made because perpetual growth is not only unsustainable, but also impossible.

Ms. MacDonald says conservation groups could have done much more to stop such practices as illegal logging which are tainted with the displacement of people, beatings, and the murder of indigenous people, journalists and other environmentalists. Although the box store Home Depot has done much to identify the source of its timber, other wood product retailers like Ikea have done little. Instead, these companies have made donations to environmental groups and made partnerships with them. As a result, many environmental groups remain silent about illegal logging. Environmental organizations pride themselves on the science that guides their work. However, a group of leading scientists from around the world has disparaged the efforts of large international conservation groups as mere “branding” with dubious grounding in science. Many conservation groups still rely on individual donations and membership fees as their number one source of income. But some groups like The Nature Conservancy (TNC) actually earned a portion of their income from logging on their own land. TNC also ranches on its lands. And, incredible as it may sound, it used to drill for oil on land that was home to the last remaining flocks of the Texas state bird.

In 2003, this embarrassing information was leaked by an insider to The Washington Post which published a series of highly critical articles. This resulted in an investigation by a Congressional Committee which “excoriated” the TNC leadership and recommended that the IRS consider revoking the tax-exempt status of some non-profit organizations. The IRS launched a crackdown on all U.S. land conservancy organizations, stepped up enforcement on them, and began a probe of executive compensation packages. Observers called for regulators to take a close look at the for-profit side businesses of non-profit organizations (such as conservation groups) and to crack down on conflicts of interest. Environmentalists received other humbling. In 2001, Tom Knudson of The Sacramento Bee had written scathing articles on many environmental groups. In 2004, Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus had declared in their essay “The Death of Environmentalism” that the movement was coasting on past victories, had become fat and complacent, and had very little to show for its work. This led to much soul-searching. One Silicon Valley computer chip maker gave $500 Million to TNC to develop an auditing system to measure whether it was meeting its goals. A group of scientists actually conducted an audit of several conservation organizations. The big question remains: Why have environmental groups not been more successful? The answer is that conservation groups have not paid enough attention to whether they have spent their money well.

Ms. MacDonald's comments on the oil industry are particularly relevant today because of the environmental catastrophe that British Petroleum has caused in the Gulf Of Mexico. She asks this question : Why are the dirtiest industries on Earth among the biggest contributors to conservation groups? Her answer is that they get PR benefits. “BP is the new Exxon. It is the oil company that most aggressively markets itself as a friend of the environment, yet it is the biggest environmental scofflaw in an industry of scofflaws.” In the first decade of this century, BP had the most deadly refinery accident and the biggest pipeline rupture. A March 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery killed 15 workers, injured 180, and sent harmful gases through the community. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration levied a $50 million fine, the largest ever assessed for a Clean Air Act violation. An accident on the BP Alaska pipeline resulted in 20 million gallons of crude oil spilling onto frozen tundra and into a frozen lake. BP and other companies use Green talk to dupe the public. In both accidents, BP's neglect of its equipment was found to be a major factor. BP was also caught illegally cornering the U.S. propane market. It is on probation until October 2010. Similarly, Shell has since the 1950's extracted billions of dollars worth of oil in Nigeria, but left its drilled areas permanently contaminated and given the local people almost nothing in exchange. A few years after Nigeria's military dictatorship executed writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had led a campaign against Shell's pollution, TNC gave Shell “a PR boost” by providing it with “a conservation leadership award”. Shell had previously given TNC hundreds of thousands of dollars and would soon give TNC an additional $1 Million.

The author takes special aim at the mining and metallurgy industries which are the largest U.S. polluters. She says that mining companies profit from extracting ore from the land, but often leave the public to pay for clean-up costs. According to her, there are over 100,000 abandoned mining sites in the U.S. and many are leaching acid waste into the country's water supply. The U.S. has the largest coal reserves in the world and it gets about two thirds of its electricity from burning coal. Open-pit mining has replaced much of the dangerous underground mining, but has resulted in entire mountain tops being removed and potentially-toxic mining tailings being dumped in valleys.Yet mining corporations which operate both in the U.S. and internationally have become donors to conservation groups and have received awards from those organizations.

Ms. MacDonald's former boss, Peter Seligmann, achieved what seemed like a coup by convincing the U.S.'s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, to reduce its carbon footprint in the U.S. through, for example, greater fuel efficiency in its fleet of trucks. But, as investigations by another environmental organization proved, Wal-Mart did little to green its supply chain which is largely located in China and which comprises the largest part of its footprint. When asked if Wal-Mart had ever demanded that their wood products come from legal timber, Chinese factory managers said no.

Ms. MacDonald provides much additional evidence for her argument. For example, she criticizes The Nature Conservancy for having taken a donation of $35 for every new house built by Centex. It is the U.S.'s largest house builder, each year constructing 40,000 new houses. In the process, it deforests and pollutes in the U.S. and elsewhere. She mentions that the creation of protected areas in many countries has resulted in the creation of “conservation refugees”, people who have been thrown out of protected areas in order to protect the non-human species within those areas. She says conservation groups now seem to be throwing up their hands in dealing with complaints from indigenous people. Environmentalists now seem ready to accept the idea of providing payment to governments and indigenous people for the “protected” status of some lands. She has much to say about carbon credits. In her Epilogue, she presents a list of things that individuals can do to help the cause.

At some point in her book, Ms. MacDonald should have mentioned that house building corporations and most others rely on an increasing population in the U.S. and elsewhere to create a demand for new houses, a large number of household goods, and the energy needed to power the houses. She does mention that the U.S. population will increase by about 140 million by 2050, but she does not mention that population size and growth are major contributors to environmental degradation and that population size and growth can be controlled. Since most population growth in the U.S. is caused by unnecessary or illegal immigration and by immigrants adding children to their families, new limits on immigration and increased attention to the enforcement of laws to stop illegal immigration could be a major conservation measure, if not the most important conservation measure ever undertaken in the U.S. The same could be said for many countries in the world who struggle with inadequate resources within their borders.

Let us repeat: restricting population is a major conservation measure. It is probably the “greenest” thing any country can do.

Undoubtedly, she is aware that one of the largest environmental organizations, the U.S. Sierra Club, has accepted over $100 million from one donor on the condition that the Sierra Club never advocate limits on immigration. Other environmentalist groups may not have received money to be silent, but almost all U.S. environmental organizations say nothing about immigration. Why?

Canada's David Suzuki Foundation and other Canadian environmental groups are equally guilty. They take donations from banks and other businesses that rely on an increasing population. That higher population is achieved by an unending high inflow of immigrants. In return, the Suzuki Foundation and almost all other Canadian environmentalist groups are silent about immigration.

So why does she, who has been rightly critical of environmentalist groups, not criticize those groups for remaining silent about controlling population size and immigration to the U.S.? Population stabilization and eventual significant reduction could do wonders for the U.S. and all other countries, especially the many who are on the prowl for resources that they do not have. It could also do wonders for those countries who are being preyed upon.

Let's be clear : establishing limits to a country's population size and to immigration is a major environmental issue for all countries. Why are environmental organizations silent on this issue?

This would be a good question for Christine MacDonald to answer in her next book.