CLR INTERVIEW: Christine MacDonald is a journalist who has written for the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, and Chicago Tribune. She also worked for Conservation International’s Global Communications Division. Her new book is Green Inc., An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad. Below is Christine’s interview with the California Literary Review.
- Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad
- The Lyons Press, 288 pp.
What do you think is the main problem with the way environmental organizations are currently run?
It’s impossible to generalize about the entire environmental movement. There are about 12,000 nature groups in this country alone. Many do good work and have strict rules governing corporate fundraising; others are not as scrupulous. In my book, I discuss excesses at about a dozen large groups and take an in-depth look at three organizations that play a huge role in nature conservation not only in this country but in tropical countries such as Brazil and Indonesia. While Conservation International (CI), The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) often make important scientific contributions, they cancel out all the good works by taking millions of dollars from corporations in an array of polluting industries. Their contributors include power companies, mining conglomerates and grain traders that are fueling the transformation of the last remaining rainforests in Latin America and the Asian Pacific into vast soybean and palm oil plantations. World Wildlife Fund draws the line at oil companies. But CI, TNC and groups like The Conservation Fund, which works inside the United States, are beholden to BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips and Shell Oil Co.. Corporate moguls including Roger Sant, the founder of AES Corp., which operates dozens of coal-burning power plants, and Rob Walton, the chairman of Wal-Mart’s board, sit on the boards of directors that run the groups.
While these relationships have spawned lucrative new funding streams, the money has essentially bought off the organizations. Groups that take oil money, for instance, have studiously avoided comment on the battle these companies are waging with other environmentalists to open up more of the country to drilling.
The corporate ties also lead to warped relationships. CI and Bunge Ltd., one of the world’s largest grain traders, have a partnership in Brazil that both tout as a “success story.” They are working with soy farmers to set aside some of the savannah lands that the farmers are converting into soybean fields. According to CI, the project has saved about 120,000 hectares (one hectare equals 2.5 acres) over several years. By CI’s own estimates, however, 2.2 million hectares of Brazilian savannah are lost every year. Much of it is being converted to supply Bunge’s soy crushing factories. So, the net positive effect of the project is insignificant. Bunge’s demand for soybeans continues to fuel large-scale habitat destruction. CI is helping Bunge greenwash its image.
How did you get involved with this issue?
I had been working as a journalist and decided I wanted to become more involved in the environmental movement. One thing about journalism is that you are always writing about what other people are doing. I wanted to start doing. That’s when I saw a listing for a job at Conservation International to manage the group’s media education efforts. I got the job and headed to Washington, D.C. in May 2006 to run CI’s Biodiversity Reporting Award in nine countries and organize field trips for local journalists working in foreign countries where CI worked.
Almost immediately, I saw things that made me uncomfortable. I recall being in an editorial meeting with the entire communications staff shortly after I started. One of my new colleagues was talking at length about plans to roll out a big public relations campaign with BP to publicize the British oil company’s patronage of our organization. A few days earlier, I had read that BP had been named by the Environmental Protection Agency as the owner of the worst polluting refinery in the country. While I debated with myself whether to bring up the news item, someone else spoke up and said exactly what I was thinking. The group reacted as if she had said something unthinkably rude. Not a single other person in the room of 30 or 40 so-called environmentalists had anything to say about CI’s involvement with a company that the EPA – not some radical activist outfit – had designated the biggest scofflaw polluter in the country. After a few minutes of awkward silence, the meeting resumed, as if the issue had never been raised. And, shortly after that, the BP public relations campaign got underway. This is just one of the many little wake up calls that started sounding almost immediately after I arrived at CI. This story also underscores that not everyone is a corporate sellout at CI or the other groups I discuss in my book. Just as one person in that meeting was willing to bring up BP’s environmental record, there are brave people inside all of these groups railing against the policies of corporate kowtowing imposed by the organization’s leaders.
In any event, the following fall, CI reorganized its communications division and I was laid off along with several other people. Though it was scary at first, I quickly realized I was free to return to journalism, which, by this time, seemed like a much more honest and useful way of life. That’s when I decided to write this book. I was appalled to learn that what I had seen at CI was true of several other major groups, as well.
How much money do the leaders of environmental organizations earn?
Again, it’s impossible to generalize given the number and wide variety of environmental organizations in the country. What I can tell you is that the leaders of several of the country’s largest nature groups make salaries of $350,000 or more, which puts them in the top 1 percent of US taxpayers. Among the highest paid is Steven E. Sanderson, president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who makes more than $825,000 in salary and fringe benefits, according to his group’s 2006 tax return.
You criticize environmental groups working with large corporations, but isn’t it more effective to engage them than to attack them? Could much have been accomplished without corporate support?
I bought into that notion before I went to work for CI. But after watching environmentalists blatantly engage in greenwashing for their corporate sponsors, I can tell you that once a group takes money from a corporation and comes to rely on the continued flow of those dollars to run programs and pay salaries, it loses its ability to be a critic and a watchdog. One high-ranking environmentalist once told me he shies away from seeking corporate funds because corporate executives “tend to want to buy you up first and talk about conservation later.” I think that is largely the norm.
It’s not that the groups don’t do some good work with the money they get from corporations. While too much goes to pay those six-figure salaries, posh offices and extravagant “fact finding” trips to exotic destinations such as the Galapagos Islands or Pacific Island atolls, some of it is used to conduct scientific studies of endangered species and pay for nature conservation such as CI and Bunge’s partnership to save savannah lands in Brazil. But when you look at the result of that program – saving 120,000 hectares when more than 2 million are lost annually – and so many others like it, they can hardly be considered “success stories” by any objective measure. Meanwhile, Bunge and other companies use their relationships with these groups to paint themselves as environmentally friendly, which is pure greenwash.
There are plenty of groups that refuse to take corporate funding and continue to thrive and be effective – arguably more effective. Among them is Greenpeace, which has a much more confrontational approach. It’s also more controversial. But it was Greenpeace – not CI, TNC or WWF – that got Bunge and other international grain traders to agree to a moratorium on buying soy raised on recently deforested Amazon lands. They didn’t do it by being polite. Similarly, Greenpeace showed up WWF earlier this year with a day of protests at the European offices of Unilever, a manufacturer that uses palm oil to make everything from Knorr soups to Dove soap. Unilever responded by agreeing to stop buying palm oil from Indonesia, where the orangutan has been driven to the point of extinction by plantation expansion. WWF had spent years spearheading corporate-nonprofit roundtable negotiations to coax Unilever and other manufacturers to address the same issue without achieving an agreement. So there is reason to believe that environmentalists are more effective when they act like environmentalists – not like corporate courtiers.
You write in your book about the lack of consideration for Native peoples. Would you talk a little about that?
While international conservation groups like to describe the rainforests where they work as pristine, undiscovered places, the truth is people have lived for millennia in the vast majority of these places. The conservationists often see them as “invaders of the forest” who threaten the plant and animal species they have come to protect. But the natives see the foreign conservationists as the interlopers.
In the last few decades, with the urging of international conservation groups and the enticement of foreign aid dollars, millions of people have been evicted from their ancestral homes around the globe according to sociologists who study the trend, and the land turned into national parks and other protected areas. At the same time, conservation groups have come under fire for cutting deals with corporations operating in these same remote places. The groups often trade their acquiescence of large-scale logging operations, open pit mines, oil drilling and pipeline building in exchange for corporate money to do conservation work nearby. The money is often used to strengthen management of protected areas, which usually includes hiring more park rangers to police the parks and keep local people out.
There is no denying that indigenous communities and the rural poor put pressure on the local ecosystems through hunting and clearing land for subsistence farming. But their impact can’t be compared to the much larger scars left by open pit mines, plantations and oil rigs say Native peoples and their advocates, who accuse the conservationists of hypocrisy. They see a double standard in which the world’s poorest, most vulnerable residents are bearing the brunt of the conservation burden while the rich and powerful are immune.
What problems do you see with green building and LEED certification?
It’s good news that the construction industry has started to think about building more environmentally sustainable homes and commercial developments. But it’s much too easy to game the system, according to many critics. One of the biggest complaints about LEED is that it’s been used to certify McMansions as sustainable homes. The larger the house, the less sustainable it can be from many perspectives – from the plot of land it sits on to the amount of the building materials, not to mention the electricity, water and home heating oil consumed year after year. It’s a sort of “have our cake and eat it too” scenario, in which buyers of LEED certified McMansions can own the trophy home and claim environmental ethos too, when what we really need to do is rethink the way we live. Instead of finding ways to make the old unsustainable housing model certifiable, we need ideas like the ones being developed by architect William McDonough and other green building visionaries, who are pioneering new ways not only to build homes but also to “remake” the way we make all kinds of consumer goods.
In trying to wean ourselves off of carbon fuels, what mistakes are we making and what, in your opinion, is the path we should be pursuing?
The country needs to establish regulations governing industrial greenhouse gas emissions, whether in the form of a carbon tax or the “cap and trade” systems both presidential candidates are talking about. Until we have mandatory carbon caps, it appears most U.S. companies will continue to put off reducing emissions. A new survey of 1,550 of the world’s major companies reported that 74 percent of companies have set emissions reductions targets, but U.S. industry is lagging behind. According to the survey by the Carbon Disclosure Project and released September 21st, only a third of the U.S. companies say they have taken steps to reduce their greenhouse gas footprints though a much higher percentage recognize the risk of climate change. By legislating pollution caps, companies could start moving away from rhetoric toward substantive changes to address global warming. But that is just a first step and in no way a fix-all.
In my book, I investigated both corporate cap and trade, and personal carbon offset programs. These schemes don’t actually reduce the amount of greenhouse gases being released into the air. They finance tree planting, wind farms and other Earth-friendly projects that claim to remove carbon from the atmosphere or cut down on our need for fossil fuels. It’s essentially a payoff system. Factories continue polluting. Your car keeps spewing greenhouse gases. In fact, some suggest, that, removing the guilt associated with polluting may lead to an overall increase in carbon emissions. Some people compare them to the indulgences doled out by the Roman Catholic Church in medieval times. Those people and companies with the cash to pay for their carbon fix can buy their way free of their greenhouse gas bill, but it doesn’t mean they’ve kicked the addiction.
While cap and trade and personal carbon offsets have some role to play in the challenges ahead of us, it’s going to take a much more serious effort from corporations and individuals to put the brakes on global warming and avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Recycling, driving less and conserving electricity are also good places to start. But, as I talk about in my book, the best thing we can do is get educated about the environmental footprints of our daily purchases – the cars, houses, appliances, clothes and groceries we buy – and start pressuring the manufacturers to clean up their operations.