In Jonathan Franzen’s bestselling novel Freedom, the main character accepts a dream job from a billionaire philanthropist. He is charged with partnering with coal companies in West Virginia to set aside 100 square miles as pristine habitat for the Cerulean Warbler, an endangered songbird that is further threatened by coal mining operations. There is, however, a catch: first, the coal companies will mine one third of the area using mountaintop removal techniques.
Franzen’s fictional scenario is probably the most widely read critique of the tendency of environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) to seek “win-win” deals with industrial operators, however improbable or destructive. Oprah praised the novel as a “masterpiece,” and Barack Obama called it “fantastic.” One wonders, however, how many readers overlooked the implications of Franzen’s ENGO parody and the reality it depicts.
Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate might not garner praise from Oprah and Obama, but it’s the second book on the New York Times bestseller list in recent years to take aim at the unholy alliance of ENGOs and the fossil fuel industry. And unlike Franzen’s fiction, Klein’s writing presents this reality free of artistic irony and distance.
The truth is at least as strange as the fiction. Klein’s chapter on corporate-collaborating environmentalism, “Fruits not Roots: The Disastrous Merger of Big Business and Big Green,” begins with the saga of the world’s largest ENGO, the Nature Conservancy, and the fate of the Attwater’s prairie chicken in Texas. The story boils down to this: the Nature Conservancy bought up the last bit of land that the endangered bird was living on, ostensibly to preserve the bird’s habitat.
Instead, Nature Conservancy permitted continued drilling for oil and gas, financing its own operations by spoiling land it was supposed to be protecting. This flagrant conflict of interest caused a minor scandal, fuelled in part by a Washington Post investigation, but the ENGO kept allowing drilling.
“For traditional conservationists,” Klein writes, “it was a little like finding out that Amnesty International had opened its own prison wing in Guantanamo.”
And that’s because the implications go beyond the survival of one species. “That this could happen in the age of climate change points to a painful reality behind the environmental movement’s catastrophic failure to effectively battle the economic interests behind our soaring emissions: large parts of the movement aren’t fighting those interests – they have merged with them,” writes Klein.
Transformed by Success
How did the Big Greens get to this point? We need to look back to an eruption of environmental consciousness in the 1960s and ’70s that led to a string of major environmental victories. Klein names 15 key pieces of environmental legislation that were passed in the U.S. with support from across the political spectrum – evidence of a remarkable awakening that changed policy from the grassroots on up.
The environmental movement was soon transformed by its own success. “In rapid fashion,” Klein writes, “what had been a rabble of hippies became a movement of lawyers, lobbyists and UN summit hoppers.” Professionalization was the order of the day, and insider strategies were the norm. Such strategies were successful when millions of people were hitting the streets outside, but myopia began to set in.
Then Ronald Reagan happened. The Great Communicator came out swinging early, saying things like “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.” The Gipper’s ascent to the U.S. presidency was a harbinger of the pushback from the polluting industries that had seen regulations eating into their profits in the midst of economic crises.
The climate had changed. Green groups were caught off guard. “Many of these newly professional environmentalists came to pride themselves on being the ultimate insiders, able to wheel and deal across the political spectrum,” writes Klein. But as industry lobbyists seized the reins in Washington, environmentalists were twisting in the wind.
In this context, an “open-for-business approach” that stressed changing business models rather than regulations was “adept at attracting big donors and elite access,” so many green groups “raced to get with the agreeable program, taking an ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ attitude to brazen extremes.”
And that, Klein concludes, is how got into the current mess. These corporate-collaborating Big Greens now support fracking as a “bridge fuel,” despite evidence that the process emits more greenhouse gases than oil. And they’re backing carbon-trading schemes so ill-conceived that they actually incentivize the production of dangerous pollutants.
Her critique is heating up, but then Klein stops. It’s not hard to understand why. The Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund are slam-dunk, open-and-shut cases of how damaging the collaborative model is. Wading into more contentious or complicated examples could muddy the point.
Thankfully, Klein doesn’t prop up any of the milder corporate collaborators as alternatives to the more egregious offenders. The chapter simply ends.
To tell the rest of the story, others will have to pick up where Klein leaves off, using insights she provides elsewhere in the book. For example, when discussing alternative energy, Klein says: “There are plenty of examples of large-scale, privately owned renewable energy projects that fell apart because they were imposed from the outside without local input or profit sharing.”
Decentralized control, she concludes, is essential. “Communities should be given new tools and powers to design the methods that work best for them.” Without much lost in transition, we can apply this same sentiment to ENGOs. Indeed, Klein hastens to add that “what is true for energy … can be true for many other sectors.”
Applying such a critique to the environmental silo of the non-profit industrial complex would hit close to home for much of the existing environmental movement. A paradox twists through the historical arc of modern environmentalism: all the major victories were won at a time when the resources available to the movement were a fraction of what they are today; as funding increased, victories became less consequential even if they became more numerous.
The Foundation Equation
A heady cocktail of factors animates this trend. The foundations that provide the major portion of funding for ENGOs are, with some marginal exceptions, politically conservative relative to the radical changes that are necessary. When ENGOs are not deeply linked to oil companies, as with the Pew Charitable Trusts’ relationship with Sunoco, they’re often still embedded within the neoliberal status quo, depending on the Rockefeller Brothers Fund or the Hewlett Foundation for funding. Pew has channelled tens of millions to Canadian groups – including CPAWS, Ducks Unlimited Canada, and the David Suzuki Foundation – willing to embrace a corporate-collaborative approach in the boreal forest. The Hewlett Foundation, which has a more green-capitalist hue, is currently the main financial backer of anti-tarsands ENGO activities in Canada, with recipient groups including Dogwood, Greenpeace Canada, and ForestEthics, among many others.
Foundations like Pew undermine resistance by attempting to build consensus between environmentalists, First Nations, and industry. Other foundations may be willing to fund some effective resistance to fossil fuel extraction, but each one has a limit.
Such foundations exert tremendous influence over which issues ENGOs take on and how they do so. Project-based funding and reporting requirements give foundations the power to dictate priorities; funding-dependent organizations have no choice but to hew closely to foundation agendas. Almost inevitably, a layer of bureaucracy dedicated first and foremost to maintaining relationships with funders must be built. In this context, accountability to the grassroots becomes a liability because it presents competing priorities.
In the sordid tales of ENGO misdeeds that Klein showcases, it is the organizations’ political positions and choice of tactics, stemming from cozy funding arrangements, that set the guilty organizations apart. But in the actual operations, a diversity of political stances and tactics (including direct action) can actually contribute to and strengthen corporate collaborations.
The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA) is a case in point. Signed in 2010 by a who’s who of Canadian ENGOs and several major logging companies, the CBFA shows how direct action and strong demands can feed into corporate collaboration. In the years leading up to the agreement, activists, organizers, and volunteers were enlisted in a direct action and boycott campaign that targeted lumber shipments, corporate headquarters, and the logging companies’ corporate customers.
What most of the people involved didn’t know was that the endgame was an alliance with logging companies that would see Greenpeace, the David Suzuki Foundation, and others pulling a 180-degree turn. By the terms of the agreement, these ENGOs would be bound to defend logging companies’ products as “green.” The folks who were arrested in the campaign, some of whom took significant physical risks, had no idea their organizations would reverse course.
When the actual agreement was leaked, early claims of a conservation agreement “applying to an area twice the size of Germany” were revealed as deeply misleading – the rate of logging did not change. To make matters worse, the signatories had not consulted with the First Nations in this vast area. The primary stewards of that forest for millennia were locked out in standard colonial form.
Klein would hopefully agree that such agreements are “imposed from the outside without local input” and that disempowering both participating volunteers and front-line communities sets back the cause of climate justice.
Against the Current
There is a strong current within funding circles that would like subsequent campaigns to follow the CBFA model. After the 2010 signing, a representative of Pew Charitable Trusts, a key backer of the deal, told journalist Dawn Paley that they “would love to have similar talks with the oil and gas industry and also with the mining industry as well.”
Thankfully, that hasn’t come to pass. Instead, the last five years have seen a shift toward grassroots organizing. The Climate Justice Alliance (CJA), a U.S. network of grassroots groups in affected communities, flexed its muscles in September’s People’s Climate March in New York City with front-line activists (mostly people of colour) and Indigenous people literally leading the way. Right after the march, CJA organizer Ananda Lee Tan told the Daily Beast that “[the big greens] have to shift the way they do business, from being large top-down institutions to being accountable to democratic bases and practicing democratic decision-making.” The CJA and groups like Movement Generation exemplify that shift in the U.S., showing that it is possible for movements to influence foundations and reset the terms of engagement
Canada is a few steps behind. Campaign plans are still made in West Coast island retreats attended by paid staff and their guests. Meaningful, democratic grassroots participation is practically unthinkable in most ENGO campaign work. Many ENGO tarsands campaigns are effectively coordinated by Tzeporah Berman, a noted advocate of the corporate collaboration model. Berman advises foundations on which groups to fund and when. A grassroots-driven coalition analogous to the CJA has yet to emerge, though Indigenous groups have asserted a growing independence and influence on anti-tarsands work.
Without any easily attainable sources of independent funding, climate justice work that challenges capitalism will continue to rely on foundation funding to some degree. Developments in the U.S. have shown that movements can provoke shifts in the face of a stale and intransigent collaborationist approach. Only time will tell how far they can push things. The more we can build democratic, community-led, and self-funded activity, the more likely it is that the folks with money will be forced to follow rather than to lead.
The shift is happening. But for a large-scale emergence of a participatory, bottom-up movement that empowers rather than exploits, alternatives to foundation funding and the hierarchical bureaucracy it necessitates must be found. That’s the conclusion that does not appear in This Changes Everything, but we’ll need to speak and share that message if the title of the book is to be prophetic and not merely provocative.