Questioning Official Environmentalism


Seven years ago in these pages, we launched an in-depth investigation of the mainstream environmental movement. The occasion was the widely publicized 20th anniversary of the original Earth Day, an event which in many ways helped institutionalize the widespread corporate co-optation of environmental themes.

The year 1990 was an auspicious one for environmental activists in the United States. The widespread popularity of environmental concerns was reflected in the rapid growth of environmental organizations, the appearance of new publications, and some of the first glossy catalogs of environmental products. Expressions of concern for the environment adorned politicians’ stump speeches, both in the U.S. and overseas. Environmental scientists and activists widely agreed that the 1990s were a critical decade to stem the course of environmental degradation, and political and cultural trends offered many people a renewed hope that this was possible.

Still, the coming Earth Day celebrations aroused a curious mixture of hope and cynicism on the part of long-time activists. The cynicism was fueled by much of the literature emanating from the official Earth Day organizations that had been established throughout the country. They had apparently decided that Earth Day was going to be a politically safe event, with almost no attention toward the institutions or the economic system responsible for ecocide, nothing about confronting corporate polluters, nothing about changing the structures of society. The overriding message was simply, “change your lifestyle”: recycle, drive less, stop wasting energy, buy better appliances, etc. Celebrations in several major U.S. cities were supported by some of the most notorious corporate polluters—companies like Monsanto, Peabody Coal, and Georgia Power, to name a few. Everyone from the nuclear power industry to the Chemical Manufacturers’ Association took out full-page advertisements in newspapers and magazines proclaiming that, for them, “Every day is Earth Day.” The now-familiar greenwashing of Earth Day had clearly begun.

Activists across the country began exploring the origins of Earth Day and also mainstream environmental groups that were making the most hay of this anniversary. What they found was a mixed message: while Earth Day had for many come to symbolize the emergence of environmentalism as a social movement in its own right, it was dominated from the very beginning by those who hoped to dilute the movement’s political focus. In 1970, Ramparts magazine, one of the New Left’s leading journals of opinion, called Earth Day, “the first step in a con game that will do little more than abuse the environment even further.” Journalist I.F. Stone, in his investigative weekly, took a significantly harsher view: “…just as the Caesers once used bread and circuses so ours were at last learning to use rock-and-roll idealism and non-inflammatory social issues to turn the youth off from more urgent concerns which might really threaten the power structure.”

Many activists responded by organizing more politicized local Earth Days of their own. These events focused on local environmental struggles, inner city issues, the nature of corporate power and other concerns that had been largely excluded from the official Earth Day events. The most ambitious was a demonstration in New York City called by members of the Youth Greens and Left Greens, with the aid of environmental justice activists, Earth First!ers, ecofeminists, urban squatters, and many others. Early Monday morning, April 23, 1990, the day after millions had participated in feel-good Earth Day commemorations, several hundred people converged on the nerve center of U.S. capitalism, the New York Stock Exchange, with the goal of obstructing the opening of trading on that day. New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez told his 1.2 million readers, “Certainly, those who sought to co-opt Earth Day into a media and marketing extravaganza, to make the public feel good while obscuring the corporate root of the Earth’s pollution almost succeeded. It took angry Americans from places like Maine and Vermont to come to Wall Street on a workday and point the blame where it belongs.”

Challenging the Mainstream

The events around Earth Day 1990 helped provoke an unprecedented scrutiny of the habits and institutions of environmental politics in the United States. Growing numbers of activists began to see the best-known national environmental organizations, which had long dominated media coverage, fundraising and public visibility—the voices of “official environmentalism”—as hopelessly out of step with the thousands of volunteers who largely define the leading edge of locally based ecological activism.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, representatives of environmental groups, from the National Wildlife Federation to the Sierra Club, had become an increasingly visible and entrenched part of the Washington political scene. As the appearance of success within the system grew, organizations restructured and altered their personnel so as to enhance their ability to play the insider game. The environmental movement became a stepping stone in the careers of a new generation of Washington lawyers and lobbyists, and official environmentalism came to accept the role long established for other public regulatory advocates: that of helping to sustain the smooth functioning of the existing political system. Environmentalism was redefined, in the words of author and historian Robert Gottlieb, as “a kind of interest group politics tied to the maintenance of the environmental policy system.”

The mainstream groups grew especially rapidly during the late 1980s. The Sierra Club grew from 80,000 to 630,000 members, and the conservative National Wildlife Federation reported membership gains of up to 8,000 a month, totaling nearly one million. The World Wildlife Fund, best known for its efforts to establish national parks on the U.S. model in Third World countries, grew almost tenfold, while the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) had doubled its membership since 1985. The total budget of the ten largest environmental groups grew from less than $10 million in 1965, to $218 million in 1985 and $514 million in 1990. Journalist Mark Dowie discovered that of the approximately $3 billion contributed to environmental advocates each year, the 25 largest organizations get 70 percent, while the remaining share is divided among some 10,000 smaller, more local groups. Many groups have become extremely dependent on direct mail, using each new environmental disaster to gain members for their organization, whether the organization was meaningfully addressing the issue or not.

In light of these developments, activists began to investigate environmental movement using the tools of corporate research. An examination of the Annual Reports of the major environmental organizations revealed an extent of overt corporate influence upon the leading national environmental groups that surprised all but the most jaded activists. Almost all of the leading groups were receiving substantial contributions from the most polluting corporations. Many had restructured their operations so as to become more attractive to such donors, and the National Wildlife Federation, in particular, saw “dialogue” with “key industrial leaders” as a central part of its mission. Few were surprised when NWF later became the first U.S. environmental group to support the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Others began examining the boards of directors of the leading environmental groups. The Multinational Monitor found that 23 directors and council members from Audubon, NRDC, the Wilderness Society, the World Resources Institute, and World Wildlife Fund were associated with 19 corporations cited in a recent survey of the 500 worst industrial polluters. These companies included such recognized environmental offenders as Union Carbide, Exxon, Monsanto, Weyerhaeuser, DuPont, and Waste Management, Inc. Furthermore, some 67 individuals associated with just 7 environmental groups served as CEOs, chairpersons, presidents, consultants or directors for 92 major corporations.

Feminist environmentalist Joni Seager surveyed 30 leading environmental groups and found that only three (the National Audubon Society, Earth Island Institute, and WorldWatch Institute) had even 30 percent female members on their boards. Women, in most mainstream groups, remain relegated to traditionally female administrative roles, and none of 30 groups she surveyed had more than 5 staff members from any racial minority. Seager described the widening schism in the environmental movement as “increasingly between a mostly male-led professional elite and a mostly female-led grassroots movement.” A widely quoted 1990 letter, initiated by Richard Moore of New Mexico’s Southwest Organizing Project and signed by 100 leading community activists, criticized the dearth of people of color on the boards and staff of the major environmental groups, as well as these groups’ growing reliance on corporate funding.

The Saga Continues

Today, analyses of the political and financial ties that have corrupted mainstream environmentalism have become almost commonplace. Mainstream journalists, business schools, and even anti-environmental “wise use” organizations have published their own studies of environmental groups finances, and have used the data to support their own often questionable political agendas. As the largest environmental groups came to resemble the corporations they opposed, this kind of research found uses well across the political spectrum. While grassroots activists view corporate contributions as a symbol of co-optation, and of the dangers inherent in a strategy of working entirely within the existing political system, those seeking to discredit environmental protection see these contributions as evidence for simple corruption, greed, and a cynical response to changing public opinion. Anti-environmental advocates have articulated a rather distorted theory of the decline of mainstream environmentalism, asserting despite all evidence to the contrary that the mainstream groups are bound to an “extremist” agenda which is at odds with the views of a majority of the public.

For example, the Washington-based Environmental Working Group reported in July of last year on the annual lobbying week of the virulently anti-environmental Alliance for America. Amidst presentations by oil industry lobbyists, property rights agitators, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, was a talk by Jonathan Adler of the well-endowed anti-environmental think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Adler described his own version of a split between “Big Green” and the “grassroots,” in which dependence on direct mail, foundation support, and government grants are signs of dwindling “grassroots” support for an environmental agenda.

In 1994, the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis examined the established environmental groups’ stock portfolios, ostensibly developed as a hedge against fluctuating memberships, and found that the Wilderness Society, for example, held stock in Dow Chemical, Kerr McGee, and General Motors, and the NRDC in Dow, Westinghouse, and General Electric. For organizations committed to protecting the environment and combating pollution to become financially dependent on the stock values of major polluters may represent the ultimate corruption of ecological values. The same study confirmed that membership dues represented an ever declining share of the income of groups like the Wilderness Society and National Audubon. But while the political influence wielded by these groups has fallen considerably since the early 1900s, income and membership levels have in most cases only leveled off, or continued to rise at a slower rate.

Though corporate contributions rarely represent a very large overall share of the budgets of the best known environmental groups, they have conferred influence and political results well beyond their statistical measure. As Brian Lipsett, a leading researcher and editor for the environmental justice movement has written, “The corporations get a good return from their contributions to environmental causes… Beyond public relations dividends and tax deductions, and even increased business opportunities, corporate sponsorship fractures internal consensus within recipient groups, divides grantees from other environmental groups, blunts criticism from grantee groups, and creates openings for future influence by securing corporate representation on the groups’ boards of directors.” This helps explain why corporations give to environmental organizations at nearly two and a half times the rate of overall public charitable donations to the environmental movement. Environmental giving amounts to 6 percent of corporate philanthropy, while it only accounts for 2.5 percent of all charitable donations.

My review of the 1993 and 1994 Annual Reports of some of the best known environmental groups revealed a generally higher level of corporate influence than existed five years earlier. For example, the National Audubon Society, with similar budget totals and share of member contributions as in 1988, had expanded its list of corporate donors to include large gifts from Bechtel, AT&T, Citibank, Honda, Martin Marietta, Wheelabrator, Ciba-Geigy, Dow, and Scott Paper, with smaller donations (less than $5,000) from Monsanto, Mobil, and Shell Oil. The Audubon  Society’s major capital project, the conversion of an historic building in New York’s Greenwich Village to a new Society headquarters—and a showcase of energy efficiency and recycled materials use—was supported by grants of over $100,000 each from WMX (formerly Waste Management, Inc.) and Wheelabrator. The former is the world’s largest processor of toxic chemical waste, and has been the subject of numerous bribery and anti-trust convictions, as well as countless environmental violations. The latter is a leading supplier of incinerator technologies that have been widely opposed by activists across the country due to serious environmental and public health concerns.

The World Wildlife Fund’s corporate contributors are now led by the likes of the Bank of America, Kodak, and J.P. Morgan (over $250,000), with the Bank of Tokyo, Philip Morris, WMX, DuPont, and numerous others playing supporting roles. Its budget grew from $17 million in 1985 to $62 million in 1993, with roughly half of its revenues coming from individual contributions. The National Wildlife Federation’s budget had increased by more than 50 percent since 1988, to $96 million in 1994. Major corporate donors included Bristol Myers Squibb, Ciba-Geigy, DuPont, and Pennzoil, and an additional 161 companies participated in the Federation’s matching gift program, in which individuals’ gifts to the organization are matched by their employer. Other organizations, such as the Sierra Club, have made contributor information more difficult to obtain, but it is noteworthy that their annual budget had leveled off at $39 million, after peaking at $52 million in 1991. Membership dues had fallen to 32 percent of the Sierra Club’s annual budget, half of the 1988 figure.

The Money Chase

One consistent factor in the institutionalization of official environmentalism has been the role of influential foundations in helping to frame the agendas of the leading organizations. Large foundations like the Ford Foundation and the various Rockefeller funds played a forceful role in the development of environmental organizations since the 1940s, leading some 1960s activists to dismiss environmental concerns as a mere creation of corporate philanthropists.

Foundations often play a controversial role in movements for social change. Organizations that wish to sustain themselves over time, initiate new projects, and offer salaries to staff members invariably need to attract large donations, and the established foundations have long been the most available source of these. Political scientist Joan Roelofs has demonstrated the role of foundations in the decline of 1960s-era activism, arguing that grants were systematically allocated to assure “that radical energies were being channeled into safe, legalistic, bureaucratic and occasionally profit-making activities.” This pattern has been repeated in anti-poverty groups, women’s groups, and in the African American, Latino, and Native American communities, as well as in the environmental movement.

In the 1990s, large donors have begun to intervene more directly to set the course of environmental activism. For example, a $275,000 grant to the Sierra Club in 1990 to support work on population issues made population advocacy the highest-funded program in the Club’s budget. This raised concern among activists who feared the effort would inadvertently support the rising wave of anti-immigration sentiment that was just beginning to sweep the country. In 1993, officers of the Pew Charitable Trusts brought together representatives from some of the leading regional and national forest protection groups in an effort to create a unified nationwide forest campaign. While the participants initially seized the opportunity to help develop such a unified effort, they soon learned that Pew had a very particular agenda in mind.

“Pew was only interested in funding a campaign focused on legislation that would be passed by a Democratic Congress and that Clinton would sign,” explains Andy Mahler of the Indiana-based Heartwood organization, who served as an interim chair of the effort. Pew expressed little interest in aiding ongoing efforts at grassroots organizing, public education, or legal intervention by the member groups, suggesting to many that the potential effectiveness of the campaign was merely a secondary concern.

Ultimately, Pew put its resources into a series of regional, rather than national efforts. One of these was in the Northeastern states, where a two-year Congressional study had failed to raise sufficient political momentum for the protection of the endangered Northern Forest region. Representatives of mainstream environmental groups and leading foundations created the Northern Forest Alliance, with a stated mission of protecting the forests of northern New England and New York, while promoting economic diversification. Groups in the region that depend on foundation grants were subsequently pressured to join the Alliance, and mute their criticisms of its rather bland, non-controversial, and rather piecemeal approach to the environmental health of a region that is threatened with significant, short-term increases in destructive logging and commercial development.

The 1994 Annual Report of the Pew Charitable Trusts, describes the strategy behind these efforts. A “team of professionals,” the report declares, stands behind the Trusts’ environmental programs. This team, consisting of lawyers, scientists, and outside consultants, will “play a key role in generating many of the ideas behind the programs we support, participating with colleagues from the environmental community in defining the goals and objectives of these programs, designing their operating structures, hiring key staff and, in some cases, being directly involved in program execution.”

Investigative journalist Stephan Salisbury of the Philadelphia Inquirer described the strategy of a growing sector of leading environmental funders when he described Pew’s having “created and funded dozens of programs and independent organizations to carry out agendas determined by the foundation and its consultants. It has promoted its own causes, pursued its own initiatives, bankrolled its own research and imposed its own order.” Salisbury, writing in Pew’s home city of Philadelphia, examined the Trusts’ increasingly controversial activities in areas from journalism and school reform to tourism marketing and restructuring local arts organizations, as well as in the environmental movement. He described Pew’s overall philosophy as “professionalized, self-promoting corporate liberalism.”

In 1995, Northwest forest activist and journalist Jeffrey St. Clair joined with Alexander Cockburn to investigate the stock holdings of the three foundations that play the largest institutional role in supporting mainstream environmentalism. The three foundations, each the product of leading transnational oil fortunes, are the Pew Charitable Trusts (Sun Oil Co.), W. Alton Jones Foundation (Cities Service/CITGO), and the Rockefeller Family Fund. St. Clair and Cockburn found that the Pew endowment, with a total of $3.8 billion in holdings, is heavily invested in timber firms, mining companies, arms manufacturers, and chemical companies, as well as oil exploration. Alton Jones’ timber investments include a subsidiary of the notorious Maxxam conglomerate, which is attempting to liquidate the largest single expanse of old growth redwood forest that remains in private hands, along with Louisiana Pacific, the largest purchaser of timber from the National Forests. The foundation also holds a $1 million share in the controversial gold mining giant, the FMC Corporation. The Rockefeller fund holds investments in no less than 28 oil and gas development companies, as well as timber giants Weyerhaeuser and Boise Cascade. St. Clair and Cockburn traced a number of instances in which environmental compromises engineered by the Clinton administration, and by groups such as the Wilderness Society, directly benefited these foundations’ holdings.

The Nationals Respond

The mid-1990s saw the beginnings of a shakeup at the top among some of the largest Washington-based environmental groups. In some cases it was a response to persistent grassroots criticism; more often it was a reflection of the persistent decline in the influence of the environmental movement in Washington. This loss of influence began well before the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, and has been exacerbated by the Clinton administration’s often duplicitous approach to environmental policy. Some of the mainstream groups have made concerted efforts to cast their efforts in more grassroots terms. For example, when environmental lawyer Mark van Putten assumed the position of CEO of the National Wildlife Federation in 1996, he described his mission as one to “reinvigorate the real roots of the conservation movement.”

The Wilderness Society also chose a new top officer in 1996, and the Sierra Club elected a 23-year-old activist and founder of the Sierra Student Coalition as its new president. The Sierra Club has gradually, though often reluctantly, strengthened its positions on some issues of primary concern to grassroots Club members. A five-year campaign by Sierra Club members to press the Club to take a stand against all commercial logging in the National Forests culminated in a 1996 membership referendum that passed by a margin of 2 to 1 in favor of the proposal. This despite the opposition of some notable Sierra Club board members, including Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman, who condemned the Club’s “true believers who hold onto some idealistic notion of no compromise,” apparently with little intended irony. Spurred in part by widespread outrage at the devastating effects of expanded “salvage” logging during the past two years, the referendum may have added some much needed teeth to the Club’s efforts to recast itself in more grassroots terms.

The mainstream environmental movement also played a more visible role in the 1996 congressional elections than ever before. The League of Conservation Voters targeted a dozen members of Congress for defeat, highlighting their role in promoting a virulently anti-environmental agenda. Of these, six were defeated in their re-election bids, most significantly Larry Pressler of South Dakota, who was the only incumbent U.S. Senator to be defeated in 1996. A seventh, Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas, was defeated in a December runoff. The Sierra Club spent ten times as much as ever before in support of pro-environment candidates, a total of $7.5 million. However, such efforts have proved far from sufficient to alter the terms of environmental debate in official Washington circles. The most noticeable result may have been to encourage candidates on both sides of the issues to drape their campaigns in green cloth, advancing the corporate greenwash by promoting environmental images over substance.

Bill Clinton’s various high-profile environmental proclamations during the campaign season—from Yellowstone Park to Utah to the California redwoods—not only affirmed the trend toward image over substance, but each featured measures to handsomely compensate corporations for not fully exercising their “property rights” to expand mining and timber cutting on corporate-owned lands. Last year, the federal government offered trades of federal land with a combined value of several hundred million dollars to mining companies in Arizona, timber companies in the Northwest, and the Houston-based conglomerate Maxxam, in exchange for the protection of a portion of their California redwood forest holdings. A subsidiary of the Canadian mining conglomerate Noranda was offered nearly $65 million in federal property to withdraw its proposal for a massive gold mining operation just north of Yellowstone National Park. The Environmental Defense Fund, which has been the leading proponent of an unabashedly “market-oriented” approach to environmentalism, described tradeoffs of federal land as the best “source of revenue on the horizon that is going to enable us to protect these sensitive areas as quickly as we have to,” according to the New York Times. This despite a large reserve of unspent federal funds designated specifically for conservation-related land purchases.

To challenge the hegemony of the voices of official environmentalism on the national level will ultimately require more active and diverse networks of grassroots activists, organized and coordinated from the ground up. Such networks have begun to appear in the environmental justice movement, as well as among grassroots forest activists. Activists working on similar issues and facing an increasingly unified corporate agenda need to find ways to join forces across boundaries of geography, ethnicity, class, and specific-issue focus. Local groups may have ties to several regional and national networks, sometimes sharing legal and technical resources with larger, better-funded organizations. However, it is essential that they retain the prerogative to set their own agendas and speak to their own communities’ priorities, while steadfastly resisting the pressures of cooptation that the existing larger organizations so frequently succumb to—sometimes unwittingly but often with unabashed enthusiasm.

In 1995, the long-awaited 25th anniversary of Earth Day came and went with considerably less fanfare than five years earlier. Controversies over corporate contributions largely derailed plans for the biggest—and the most utterly compromised—Earth Day ever. Earth Day organizers hired a corporate public relations firm, Dorf & Stanton, to coordinate program development and communications, and established a short-lived “Earth Day Corporate Team” to actively solicit corporate participation. The organization was rocked with dissent and underwent two complete reorganizations before a revived Earth Day organization raised $6.5 million in corporate contributions.

The official Earth Day 1995 petition, addressed with a puzzling forthrightness to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, began, “With major polluters such as Texaco and Monsanto attempting to ‘sponsor’ Earth Day, and every politician in the nation claiming to be ‘for the environment,’ it is getting hard to figure out who is really protecting the planet and who is poisoning it.” The corporate co-optation of Earth Day, an idea that provoked intense controversy in 1990, and brought hundreds of people to demonstrate on Wall Street, had become conventional wisdom by mid-decade. Will activists in 1997 begin to chart a different path?                                                      

Tokar is a faculty member at Goddard College, has been active in local environmental movements since the 1970s, and has written extensively on ecology issues. This article is adapted from Brian Tokar’s <W0>Earth for Sale: Reclaiming Ecology in the Age of Corporate Greenwash (South End Press).<W0>