Green, Inc. by Christine MacDonald
From gleaming Washington offices these environmental groups pay executives high salaries, mail high-pressure fundraising letters, and peddle resource-wasting tchochki to members.
Green, Inc.Publisher: Globe Pequot
Author: Christine MacDonald
US publication date: 2008-09
From scrappy beginnings as bands of activists, scientists and lawyers, many of the big environmental groups have gone corporate.
Working in gleaming Washington offices, they pay their top executives salaries that reach into the upper six figures, send out high-pressure fundraising letters, and peddle resource-wasting tote bags, calendars and other consumer goods to their members. Rather than holding protests and filing lawsuits, many set up "partnerships" with miners, timber companies and developers that provide environmental cover to corporations in exchange for money and promises of better behavior.
Christine MacDonald's Green, Inc. catalogues some of the abuses of this new world of corporate environmentalism, providing compelling stories of how environmental groups cozy up to polluters and receive little in return. But her book promises a lot more than it delivers.
"An environmental insider reveals how a good case has gone bad," declares the cover. "In 2006, journalist Christine MacDonald began a dream job at one of the world's largest environmental organizations. She was in for a shock."
But the promised "insider" account never materializes. We get a few paragraphs here and there about MacDonald's work at Conservation International. But for the most part, this is an outsider's account. It relies partly on work previously published in The Washington Post and other publications that have taken hard looks at groups such as The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense and the Sierra Club.
Despite these limitations, the book provides a worthwhile look at how groups of outsiders won a seat at the table and what they had to give up in return.
The story of Conservation International illustrates much of what MacDonald thinks is wrong with the movement. The group began in the late '80s in a few rooms in an old Washington hotel, with members traveling to South American rain forests in World War II-era planes. Today its chairman and cofounder, Peter Seligman, travels in private jets, consorts with the super-rich, and raises piles of money from big polluters.
Conservation International partnered with Chevron, Shell and other oil companies in something called the Energy and Biodiversity Initiative, which, like similar partnerships, "seemed to exist largely to publicize itself." The group issued reports, created a Web site, got some press and disbanded. In a fight over a Brazilian rain forest, as MacDonald tells it, Conservation International struck a deal with the New York agribusiness firm Bunge Ltd., which ran a soybean operation, ending up siding with Bunge in fights with local environmental activists.
Other groups make similar deals. The Sierra Club endorsed a line of Clorox cleansers this year as "environmentally friendly", in exchange for a percentage of sales revenue, even though the group's Toxics Committee had not conducted an analysis of the products. The group's Florida chapter passed a resolution in protest.
The homebuilder Centex Corp. made a deal with The Nature Conservancy to donate $35 for every home built. The Nature Conservancy netted several million dollars a year and Centex, whose products contribute to urban sprawl, touted its two "conservation leadership awards" from the group as evidence of its green record.
MacDonald provides a depressing catalogue of evils by the big environmental groups. But her account is unsystematic, unbalanced and lacks perspective. Granted there have been abuses, as environmental groups took their eyes off the ball and focused on making deals rather than protecting the environment. But have any of these partnerships done any good?
Do the old confrontational approaches of litigation and publicity ever fail? Are their circumstances better suited to partnerships or better suited to confrontation? What led to this change in strategy? Was it just greed and a desire for publicity, or was this new approach a rational response to failures of the old confrontational ways?
MacDonald hints at the answers. But while she provides a lot of grist for discussion, a hard look at these issues will have to await another book.