New Internationalist

The stain in sustainability

Issue 383

Cosy deals and revolving doors - it looks to Sharon Beder as if some mainstream environmental groups are fronts for corporate business.

If the thought of The Nature Conservancy drilling for natural gas on the last known breeding ground of the Attwater prairie chicken strikes you as incongruous then you are behind the times. Gone are the days when environmentalists laid down their bodies in front of the bulldozers to save the environment from rapacious corporations. Today these same corporations are doling out large amounts of money to environmental groups. The modern professional career environmentalist has swapped the placards for a briefcase and is more at home negotiating with officials and executives than on the front line of environmental conflict.

Environmentalists in the late 1960s and 1970s argued that exponential growth could not be sustained without seriously depleting the planet’s resources and overloading its ability to deal with pollution and waste materials. They did not hesitate to blame industry, Western culture, economic growth and technology for environmental problems. They questioned Western paradigms and criticized the inequitable distribution of wealth and resource use.

Then along came ‘sustainable development’. It offered the promise that environmentalists and businesspeople could overcome previous differences and work together towards achieving common goals. Instead of being the villains, technology and industry were now expected to provide the solutions to environmental problems. In the process the old-style campaigners were squeezed out by professional career environmentalists, who were more comfortable negotiating in corporate boardrooms and who presented a more ‘respectable’ face to the mainstream media.

Sustainable development seeks ‘win-win’ solutions to environmental problems that do not interfere unduly with business activity. Gone is the cultural critique of modern society for its excess consumption and limitless economic growth. In its place are solutions promoted by economists from corporate-funded think-tanks which ‘harness the power of the market’ to protect the environment. These economists claim that if we put a price on the environment then profit will motivate businesses to protect it rather than exploit it.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) reinforces this view. It uses the market to purchase the land it wants to protect. According to former CEO John Sawhill: ‘Some people at the Conservancy think our customers are the plants and animals we’re trying to save, but our real customers are the donors who buy our product, and that product is protected landscapes.’

TNC champions an approach that doesn’t threaten the rights of property owners to do what they want. Rather than lobbying governments to implement regulations, or highlighting the activities of corporations in degrading the environment, TNC seeks out solutions that do not threaten those corporations. While TNC seeks to preserve areas of forest, for example, it does not publicly speak out against practices such as clear-cutting. It preserves areas of land for grizzly bears but it does not oppose hunting or developments that endanger those bears and destroy their habitat. Hunting is even allowed on some of its own land and TNC officers may go hunting with potential donors as part of the negotiation process.

This approach is attractive to donors because they know TNC will not turn around and expose a corporation’s dirty record or damaging activities. What is more, TNC will accept donations from any company, no matter what its record, no questions asked. In return for support, TNC promises donors publicity as corporations that care about the environment.

TNC’s 1,900 corporate sponsors include ARCO, BHP, BP, Chevron, Chrysler, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, DuPont, General Electric, General Mills, General Motors, Georgia-Pacific, McDonald’s, Mobil, NBC, Pepsi-Cola, Procter and Gamble, Toyota and Pfizer. Some of these companies, including Monsanto, even get a say on how TNC is run by being on its International Leadership Council.

Such an approach is very lucrative. TNC has 3,200 employees in 528 offices across the US and in 27 countries. In 2003/4 its revenue was $866 million. This included over $350 million from dues and donations, $180 million from investments, almost $100 million from government grants and another $101 million from sales of land. Its total assets – including nature preserves – are now valued at over $4 billion.

TNC claims to have protected over 60,000 square kilometres in the US and over 400,000 square kilometres in other parts of the world. However, several hundred thousand square kilometres of ecologically sensitive land that it is ‘protecting’ in the US are now being grazed, logged, farmed, drilled or put to work in some fashion. Timber companies such as Weyerhaeuser and Georgia-Pacific are allowed to log on TNC preserves in several states. In some cases it is even paying ranchers and farmers to continue working the land.

TNC officers may go hunting with potential donors as part of the negotiation process

TNC’s aim is to provide examples of private, multiple-use conservation where forestry, ranching and drilling can be done in a sustainable way. However, its conservation efforts have many critics who argue that it is too ready to compromise environmental values and that these activities degrade and threaten the integrity of protected areas. This was also recognized by some of TNC’s own scientists.

Science director Jerry Freilich recognized that the pounding hooves of cattle degrade fragile environments. He claims that in 2000 he was physically bullied by his boss to sign documents certifying that specific cattle ranches, which he had never visited, were environmentally sound. He signed, subsequently left and made a complaint to the police, which led to a settlement with TNC a year later. All but 3 of the remaining 95 scientific staff at headquarters were subsequently dispersed to branch offices or reassigned to a new organization that services TNC and sells its biological data.1,

Corporate donations are only one of the ways that big business has influenced the agenda of environmental groups. Another is through a revolving door between the world of business and the world of environmental advocacy. Take the example of Greenpeace. Not only have people like former economist Thilo Bode moved from industry to head Greenpeace, but individuals like Paul Gilding, former CEO of Greenpeace International, and Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace, found career opportunities as industry consultants when they left.

The formula today, according to Greenpeace Australia’s web pages, is: ‘We work with industry and government to find solutions.’ This seems to be far removed from the earlier Greenpeace formula, which involved raising consciousness of environmental problems at the grassroots.

Greenpeace’s change in direction became most obvious in the lead-up to the 2000 Olympics, which were sited in the midst of a former toxic-waste dump in Sydney’s Homebush Bay. With the help of Greenpeace, Sydney organizers were able to market the Games as Green. The fact that Greenpeace had campaigned against hazardous landfill dumps for many years meant that its support for the Olympic site reassured those who might otherwise have been concerned about its toxic history.

Under the Greenpeace-endorsed development plan, the toxic wastes were not removed nor treated but simply concentrated in parts of the site, covered with a metre of earth and landscaped. Some drains were put in place to catch the flow of toxins leaking from the waste mounds into the creek. But as Greenpeace Australia toxics campaigner Robert Cartmel admitted: ‘When it comes to leakage of toxic materials, it is not a question of if, it is a question of when. There is no such thing as a safe landfill.’

For Greenpeace, participation in developing a showcase Olympic village offered the opportunity to transform its own image. Instead of sounding the alarm on environmental problems the ‘new Greenpeace’ would be seen as promoting solutions. It was therefore convenient to ignore the toxic waste.

Its involvement in the Sydney bid soon went beyond simply offering ideas. Karla Bell, Cities and Coasts Campaigner for Greenpeace Australia, who helped to draw up environmental guidelines for the Games, became a vocal supporter. After the Games she left to become a consultant to companies seeking contracts to construct future Olympic facilities. The director of the Sydney Total Environment Centre, Jeff Angel, argued that significant environmental problems had been ignored by Games organizers: ‘The state of Sydney’s environment has been misrepresented to a serious degree,’ he said.

Corporations and their business magazines are now labelling Greenpeace ‘mature’. ‘Mature’ is also a word used by former Greenpeace campaigner turned industry consultant Michael Bland. The approach is ‘now more sophisticated,’ he says. It recognizes ‘the potential to use the market when that is appropriate’. After being Olympics campaigner for Greenpeace, Bland became head of environmental communications for Sydney 2000 – the Sydney Olympics PR company – and most recently media officer for a new Sydney motorway company.

A combination of factors, including corporate donations, promising career options and the mirage of ‘win-win’ solutions, has subverted the ability of many mainstream environmental groups to confront the causes of environmental degradation and employ strategies to achieve change. Some of these groups are becoming little more than front groups for the interests of big business.

Sharon Beder is author of several books including The Nature of Sustainable Development and Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism. She is Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wollongong, Australia.

  1. Following a two-year investigation, in June 2005 the US Senate Finance Committee found some abuses in TNC’s land dealings, such as preferential treatment to insiders, including the companies of board members. The TNC has implemented procedures to prevent these abuses.

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