01 June 2010

Why do Environmental Groups Fail?

Note: This is a guest post by David Cherney, an Environmental Studies graduate student at the University of Colorado. His dissertation is looking at the role of NGOs in the Yellowstone area. He also ran yesterday's Bolder Boulder in an unreasonably fast time.

Johann Hari recently wrote two articles arguing that US environmental groups are ineffective due to their reliance on corporate donations (“Polluted by Profit” in The Independent; “The Wrong Kind of Green” in The Nation). The premise of his argument:
US environmental groups used to be funded largely by their members and wealthy individual supporters. They had only one goal: to prevent environmental destruction. Their funds were small, but they played a crucial role in saving vast tracts of wilderness and in pushing into law strict rules forbidding air and water pollution…. After decades of slowly creeping corporate entanglement, some of the biggest environmental groups have remade themselves in the image of their corporate backers: they are putting profit before planet. They are supporting a system that will lead to ecocide, yet where more revenue will run through their accounts, for a while, as the collapse occurs.
His argument essentially rehashes Christine MacDonald’s 2008 book Green, Inc. An environmental insider reveals how a good cause has gone bad. Unfortunately for Hari (and MacDonald), the argument is flawed from the outset.

Before we can begin to answer the question “why are many environmental NGOs ineffective?” we must first ask “what are environmental NGOs trying to achieve?” Hari believes environmental NGOs historically "had only one goal: to prevent environmental destruction." This is a patently false expectation. It has never been the case – and never will be the case – that environmental groups only care about preventing environmental destruction. MacDonald’s entire book is her coming to the realization that there are multiple goals and interests at play in environmental NGOs. Rather than rethink that the problem is a romanticized assumption that the environmental movement seeks a uniform goal, Hari and MacDonald place the blame big corporations for corrupting environmental groups.

Yes, preventing environmental destruction is one goal of environmental NGOs. However, many environmental NGOs have other equally legitimate pursuits (e.g. social justice, public health, and dare I even suggest economic development for impoverished nations). Valid environmental goals are not constrained to tangible policy outcomes. Symbolic political victories are justifiable pursuits of environmental NGOs, as well as focusing on procedural goals (e.g. democratic principles versus authoritarian rule).

It takes little imagination to understand how different legitimate goals might come into conflict with one another, forcing environmental groups to make difficult tradeoffs that may make us unhappy. Even if we were to operate under the false assumption that preventing environmental destruction was the only valid goal, we are still not free from conflict. Last year, the NYT ran an excellent article highlighting the battle between wildlife and climate changes advocates over competing priorities in environmental protection. What happens when a solar farm threatens an endangered species? Whose version of ‘environmental protection’ is more important?

It is incredibly naive to think that simply altering the revenue sources will rectify the fact most (dare I say all) environmental groups are interested outcomes beyond preventing environmental destruction. Clearly, environmental NGOs taking money from a big corporation gives the 'true-environmental-believers' an excuse to rant why many groups are ineffective. There are instances where such critiques hold water. However, the reality is there are a multitude of reasons why environmental groups behave in ways we may not expect. Understanding that there are a number of legitimate goals just scratches the surface. The challenge is much more complex that simply following corporate money.


  1. "Their funds were small, but they played a crucial role in saving vast tracts of wilderness and in pushing into law strict rules forbidding air and water pollution…."

    They had allies outside of the environmental movement.

    Creating vast tracks of wilderness drives up the value of real estate near the vast tracks of wilderness. So they had natural allies in the real estate industry.

    Air Pollution advocates had allies in the public health and medical communities.

    Water Pollution advocates had allies in the public health and fishing community.

    People who were concerned about Ozone had allies in the medical community.

    US Automakers were quite loud in their proclamations as to the effect of Acid Rain on automobile paint.

    The 1975 US C.A.F.E standards were passed as a result of the Arab Oil Embargo.

  2. The question: "Why Do Environmental Groups Fail?" doesn't seem to match with the discussion.

    What is meant by "fail?"

    The discussion seems to suggest there is a multiplicity of agendas, goals, and policy objectives conflated under the banner of "environmental." Not unlike a jar of various colored glass orbs of different sizes that go by the single descriptor of "marbles." When the jar breaks a lack of cohesion disperses the obs.

    What is the uniting cohesive force that aligns and binds environmental marbles when the jar is removed?

  3. Here's my question for the day:

    Why do environmental groups threaten litigation over foot races but not over the categorical exclusions for deep sea oil wells?

  4. Hari also assumes a) that scientists have proven a disastrous tipping point is inevitable when no more than wild speculation, and b) that all environmental or social problems he witnessed are a direct result of carbon dioxide, when the real argument is only that these natural events may become slightly more frequent. With that level of hackery, anything he says beyond that point must be viewed with extreme suspicion.

    There are entirely too many conspiracy theories abounding about the fossil fuel industry. The truth is that of course they will use every means at their disposal to protect their bottom line, and the dumb things they do for the sake of maximizing the next quarter's earnings may even harm them in the long run. BP are the current prime example. Hence these companies absolutely need good environmental advisors and regulators as much to protect themselves as the rest of us. So paying for consultancy advice from green groups is smart, not necessarily corrupt. It isn't payola: BP and Shell were actually convinced that green energy was the next big thing and they had seriously invested in it. Exxon didn't but still sent a lot of alternative energy funding to research labs. None of this is sinister.

    I suspect that few real environmentalists think that the science is that strong but they just have a very difficult time believing that CO2 may be the only benign thing to come out of a chimney. All of course want to see fossil fuel replacements encouraged as much as possible but ordinarily they are highly suspicious of any scientists, whether from industry or government, because scientists rarely seem to have the ability to think about the unintended consequences of their science. This is the main reason why they oppose geo-engineering.

    Fear-mongers going on and on about carbon limits is of no help to anyone. Limits are only the desired end point - as apparently Greenpeace and the Sierra club realize. The magic reqiuired to achieve the cuts rely on free-market mechanisms that the hardliners don't even believe exist in the first place. Everyone needs to focus on just how we are supposed to achieve these cuts and the effect of them on most vulnerable. We all want clean, green, sustainable fuel but some of us realize the proposed cure stands a very good chance of being a lot worse than the disease.

  5. Craig-

    You raise an excellent question. At the simplest level, we can define failure as 'not meeting one's goals."

    Hari is arguing that environmental groups are not meeting their goal of preventing environmental destruction, and he posits that corporate interests are to blame.

    I am suggesting two things. (1) The reasons why the goal of environmental protection is often unmet is much more complex than simply blaming corporate money. (2) Judging the failures of environmental groups requires putting the goal of environmental protection in context with a group's other legitimate goals.

  6. Sharon F. said... 3

    "Why do environmental groups threaten litigation over foot races but not over the categorical exclusions for deep sea oil wells?"

    Because organizers of foot races can't afford to defend themselves.

  7. If there's one overriding problem with environmental groups, it's 'mission creep'.

    About 15 years ago I looked into joining the local Audubon chapter; I'm a pretty avid birder, and wanted to see about joining field trips, etc. I discovered that almost all the local chapter meetings were focussed on population control. Not bird populations control, not feral cat population control, but human population control. Why? Because the lead honcho had been a devotee of Paul Ehrlich (once an ornithologist) from way back, and was convinced the biggest problem for birds is too many humans.

    Now this may or may not be true. I suspect it is not. But the fact is, just because you're convinced most environmental problems have one or a few causes, doesn't mean you should devote the energies of every environmental organization to that small subset of 'root' causes. If Audubon's primary mission becomes to fight overpopulation or global warming or whatever, and the Sierra Club's mission is to fight overpoplation/global warming, and the WWF's mission is...well, you get the idea. People who are just interested in birds, and might be interested in activism focussed around the welfare of birds, might not want to sign on to a global agenda of human sterilization. I certainly don't.

  8. Gerard's point about mission creep is well taken. However, there may be some wisdom to it. From a control theoretic perspective, exercising local control over some part of a system is totally fruitless, if an exponentially growing signal in some other part of the system will eventually sweep aside everything you've done.

    I think the "failure" of environmental organizations, to the extent that there is one, is mostly the opposite of mission creep; it's the tendency to remain fragmented on issues rather than tackling root causes. Still, there have been a lot of local successes along the way, and the environment would be in worse shape without their efforts.

    I think environmental organizations have also been slow to embrace markets and other flexible measures. Along with a lot of regulators, they're stuck in a command-and-control mindset that triggers a lot of resistance.

  9. I hate to be too critical, but this was an incredibly vague post, especially considering it's from a grad student. Basically it simplifies Hari's position in the broadest terms, then counters with an equally broad and vague rebuttal by saying that NGOs must balance multiple goals, without even providing one specific case to back this claim, not one example of how an NGO did this.

    In the Independent article, Hari gives several examples, including:

    To take just one example, when it was revealed that many of Ikea's dining room sets were made from trees ripped from endangered forests, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) leapt to the company's defence, saying that Ikea "can never guarantee" this won't happen; many environmental groups strongly disagree. Is it a coincidence that the WWF is a "marketing partner" with Ikea, and takes cash from the company?


    Likewise, the Sierra Club – the biggest green group in the US – was approached in 2008 by the makers of Clorox bleach, who said that if the club endorsed their new range of "green" household cleaners, they would give it a percentage of the sales. The club's Corporate Accountability Committee said the deal created a blatant conflict of interest – but took it anyway. But Jessica Frohman, the club's Toxics Committee co-chair, said, "We clearly corrected the record. We never approved the product line." Beyond asking a few questions, she has said, the committee had done nothing to confirm that the product line was greener than its competitors', or good for the environment in any way. The club's chairman, Carl Pope, says he made sure the products met the EPA's most stringent standards and spent four months reviewing them.

    As you can see, the examples are how specific actions by environmental groups seemed to directly contradict the organizations' positions (not just an ambiguous "save the planet from destruction") and were viewed by many, not just the author of the article, as being conflicts of interest.

    The summary of this post basically is:

    However, the reality is there are a multitude of reasons why environmental groups behave in ways we may not expect. Understanding that there are a number of legitimate goals just scratches the surface.

    Yet I don't see any actual examples given. Since the reality is so clear that there are multitude of reasons for environmental groups acting the way they do, list out a few. Give an example of how one of these groups took a position that seemed at odds with their specific mission and goals, but in reality, was a good faith effort to balance competing priorities. To Hari's credit, he backs up his article with specifics.

    And it doesn't count to take two separate organizations with conflicting goals (like balancing a solar farm with endangered species) - that certainly isn't the premise of Hari and really has nothing to do with the point of this post, unless it's there to muddy the waters. This is a 30 pieces of silver issue, and the post doesn't explain why it's not a problem to suckle at the corporate teat.

  10. I spent 20+ years in corporate management. The initial assumption that all are against good environmental practice and are evil is wrong. They give to environmental causes and charities for the same reason: they want to be perceived as socially responsible. They generally seek nothing in return. The public is on environmentalism overload. They are beginning to shut it out. Some of the spokespersons for the movement sound like evangelists preaching to the flock. Others sound like the lunatic fringe. Tone down the rhetoric, exaggerations and preaching and perhaps the public will listen again.

  11. I don't see just how environmentalists are "failing." They are still succeeding very well in screwing up the economy and blocking progress, IMHO. We still cannot drill in ANWAR (I know, bad time to bring this up). We are still not harvesting even a fraction of the timber growth on Gov't lands in the West, evidently with the idea that we would rather let it burn down than cut it down for sustainable products. We are still tearing out dams, supposedly to help fish, which is really ironic vis a vis "global warming." We have new legislation to strengthen the Toxic Substances Control Act to an arguably ridiculous level. No, the environmentalists are not "failing" at their socialist objectives.

  12. People who promote apocalypse and doom are always wrong, and people get tired of the doom and gloom of the day and move over to newer doom and apocalypse stories.

  13. UAN-

    Let’s take the first example you mention: World Wildlife Fund and Ikea. My post argued: Before we can begin to answer the question “why are many environmental NGOs ineffective?” we must first ask “what are environmental NGOs trying to achieve?” So, what is WWF trying to achieve? Consider this excerpt from the WWF mission statement:

    “We are committed to reversing the degradation of our planet's natural environment and to building a future in which human needs are met in harmony with nature."

    WWF does not claim that their organization’s only goal is to prevent environmental destruction. They also are interested in building a future in which human needs are met. If WWF never claims that their organization’s sole goal is to prevent environmental destruction, why does it make sense to judge them against this standard (as Hari does)?

    Let’s also take a closer look at Hari’s case against WWF. A google search could not produce WWF’s quote, but from Ikea’s annual report:

    “We can never guarantee that all the wood we use comes from sustainable forestry, but we can guarantee that we will continue working hard to make sure this is the case. IKEA does not accept timber, veneer, plywood or layer-glued wood from intact natural forests or from forests with a clearly defined high conservation value, and by putting these demands on all the wood suppliers, we contribute to a sustainable way of handling the forest. But tracing such huge quantities of timber can be a complicated task in some parts of the world, and there we still have some work to do.”

    Seems pretty reasonable to me. WWF’s position from their annual report:

    “In 2002, WWF and IKEA began a three-year cooperation to jointly promote responsible forestry in priority regions around the world. The goals of the partnership’s efforts have been to promote legal compliance in forestry and trade, reduce unsustainable logging and strengthen multi-stakeholder based forest certification and management.”

    Again, seems pretty reasonable to me. I think we can infer that both Ikea and WWF believe that a guarantee of perfect compliance is pragmatically impossible, but that Ikea can strive to do the best possible. Is it likely that WWF thinks that maintaining a working relationship with Ikea will better help WWF meet its goals? I think so. Again, consider that part of the WWF mission is to promote “sustainable approaches to the use of renewable natural resources.”

    I am at a loss to understand how, as you put it, actions by WWF seemed to directly contradict the organizations' positions. In fact, WWF seemed to working with Ikea to explicitly meet one of their mission statement’s goals. Perhaps I should add an addendum to my list in comment #5. Judging the success of an organization requires understanding what an organization claims to be seeking, and not our assumption of what it should be doing.

  14. Do I understand correctly that you are not conceding the fact that major corporate donations to environmental NGO's skews their reports? If you do concede that important point, then parsing or expanding its logic is not a fruitful exercise.