In this scathing indictment of the surprising profligacy and complacency of some of the world's top environmental organizations, journalist MacDonald, a former media manager at Conservation International, exposes the "clubby, well-upholstered world of conservationists." The posh headquarters and six-figure compensation of top environmental leaders (from the Wildlife Conservation Society's $825,170 to the Sierra Club's $229,000) gall the author, but she's most outraged by organizations routinely accepting donations from oil, lumber and mining industries and corporate behemoths such as Wal-Mart without holding them accountable for ongoing pollution practices. MacDonald singles out BP's "Beyond Petroleum" campaign as a particularly egregious example of "greenwashing" (the label for corporations marketing themselves as green while paying lip service to environmental concerns) and lambastes Ikea for failing to ensure that the goods it imports are manufactured from sustainably harvested timber. Her lament at the loss of activist edge among top-tier environmental groups is heartfelt-MacDonald exhorts them to "stop being such lapdogs and start acting like the watchdogs they were conceived to be"-and her umbrage and ample evidence are impossible to ignore. (Sept.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Green, Inc.by Christine Catherine MacDonald
In Green, Inc. she lays bare the truth about the well-heeled life-styles of the world's top conservationists and their dubious relationships with the corporate world. This scandalous snapshot from inside a good cause gone bad scrutinizes the dealings of: Environmental organizations that together have more than 15 million members and operate in over 100 countries-including Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, The Natural Resources Defense Council, The Conservation Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, National Audubon Society, and Greenpeace, Leading conservationists, such as Peter Seligmann, Conservation International's cofounder, chairman, and CEO-renowned for his jet-setting ways and his finesse at cultivating ties with big corporations; and Adam Werbach, the former Sierra Club president, who defected in 2006 to work as a consultant for Wal-Mart, which he'd once called a "virus, infecting and destroying American culture." E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., General Electric, Eastman Kodak, ExxonMobil, Nissan, and Dow Chemical-which donate millions of dollars to top environmental groups in return for their lavish praise despite being named as among America's top ten worst corporate air polluters.
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Read an Excerpt
As I sat down to write this book in early 2007, a new consensus was forming around climate change and the threat that it poses to people and the planet. When a United Nations commission of the world’s leading scientists concluded in February that global warming is “unequivocal,” resistance to the notion was melting away nearly as fast as the Artic ice shelves.
By mid-month, ExxonMobil had abandoned its long-held position as chief corporate denier of global warming. In a full page advertisement published in the Washington Post, the company declared “let’s talk about climate change.” The chief executives of ten large US corporations had issued a call for mandatory carbon emissions limits. Before the month was out, another energy company, UTX, announced a $45 billion buyout that included an unprecedented twist: the buyers promised to cancel plans for several coal-burning power plants that had riled environmentalists. These newly “greened” companies were joining hundreds of other enterprises already working to brand themselves as environmentally-friendly.
Big business was finally stepping up to the environmental challenge. What could sound better? Well, if the actions of today’s “green corporations” are anything to go on, this is no time for unbridled optimism.
By the time Exxon had come around to the negotiating table, I had already learned a few nasty details about so-called green corporations and the conservation groups that line up eagerly to vouch for them. The previous spring, I left journalism to take a job at Conservation International, one of the world’s largest environmental organizations. Tired of writing news stories about what other people were doing, working to save endangered species sounded like a dream job. Not long after I reported to CI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, however, it became all too apparent to me that something is deeply wrong in today’s clubby, well-upholstered world of conservationists.
Groups that once dedicated themselves solely to saving pandas and parklands today compete for the favors of mining operations that remove entire mountaintops, logging and paper companies clear cutting old-growth forests, and homebuilders contributing to urban sprawl. They rely on funds from cruise ship companies, despite the industry’s record for polluting the oceans. Among the most generous donors are the biggest environmental scofflaws of all: energy companies such as Exxon-Mobile of the infamous Valdez oil spill; PG&E Corporation, the gas and electric company made infamous in the movie “Erin Brockovich;” and the British energy conglomerate BP, owner of the Texas refinery dubbed the most polluting plant in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2006.
How do conservationists justify their dealings with the world’s biggest polluters? The most common refrain is the relationships will lead corporate leaders to change their polluting ways. The argument sounded good to me at first. There is plenty of evidence, however, that the companies are getting more out of the current setup than the endangered species. BP, for instance, has made a name for itself as one of the world’s leading green corporations. It has given away millions to conservation groups and has a seat on the board of Conservation International. Nevertheless, its Texas refinery spews three times more toxins into the air then the second most polluting plant in the country, directly contributing to deteriorating US air quality. In Prudhoe Bay, meanwhile, government investigators found BP’s lax maintenance led to a 2006 pipeline spill that dumped crude oil into Alaskan waters. If the company had used some of the money it gave away to conservation groups to replace corroded sections of the pipeline, it could have avoided the spill altogether. Such a preemptive act would have shown a quiet commitment to wildlife conservation but would have denied the company the public relations bonanza of its associations with environmental groups.
For decades, conservationists have escaped scrutiny by coasting on an altruistic image that has thrown a green sheen over even the most undeserving of their corporate sponsors. With the stakes higher than ever, it’s time to examine these questionable practices and unsavory corporate ties. This book chronicles the exploits of BP and other heavy-polluting corporations and conservation groups apparently unable to turn down any donation, regardless of the taint of greenwashing. Having succumbed to the competitive rush to raise cash, conservation organizations are deforming themselves in ways that would probably make them unrecognizable to the committed nature lovers, who started the movement decades ago.
Take the case of the Nature Conservancy’s Texas oilfield. The Conservancy, with $1 billion a year in revenues and more than $4 billion in assets, is the world’s largest conservation group boasting chapters in all 50 states and offices around the world. Conservationism, from verb “to conserve” or “to save,” is a branch of environmentalism focused on preserving the earth’s many species and habitats. So when oil drilling in Texas City threatened the survival of one of the last remaining flock of the Texas state bird, the prairie chicken, it would seem logical that the Conservancy would be on the side of the endangered birds.
It happened, however, that the culprit was not just another oil company. In fact, it wasn’t an oil company at all. The Conservancy was doing the drilling on land donated by Exxon. Apparently the energy conglomerate, with an environmental record as black as the oil it sells, had balked at disturbing the bird’s nesting grounds. Conservancy officials, seeing dollar signs, had no such qualms. Even after their own scientists determined the operation was linked to the deaths of nearly half the flock, the nonprofit continued drilling. It still sells oil from the so-called conservation land today.
You could say that the birds were victims of what is best described as “the conservation industry.” A few decades ago, conservationism was a movement, largely led by volunteers. Today, it is a multinational, million-billion-dollar industry employing hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Growth has brought more money and effort to worldwide conservation work than ever before. Paradoxically, the outlook for the environment is bleaker than at any time in human history.
The planet is hurtling toward the largest mass extinction since the age of the dinosaurs despite unparalleled conservation efforts in the last three decades. As we learn more about global warming, the outlook only grows dimmer for the earth’s most vulnerable species. A quarter of all mammals and coniferous trees, a third of the world’s frogs and amphibians and one in eight birds are under threat of extinction. The last gazelles are vanishing from the Sahara Desert. Hippopotamuses may soon be gone from the Congo River. Overfishing is emptying the oceans. Illegal logging is threatening the last towering mahogany trees. Deforestation and pollution from encroaching human outposts is devastating once remote rainforests in Asia and Latin America, while real estate development in the Mediterranean has nearly obliterated the Iberian lynx.
While the lynxes grow ever scarcer, conservation groups are thriving. They have become fat cats of the nonprofit realm. Their presidents and CEOs speak the gospel of environmental sustainability but live like carbon junkies, burning many more times the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming than the average American. These raconteurs of mass extinction and profiteers of global warming earn some of the highest salaries of the nonprofit world. They have grown accustomed to celebrity lifestyles and lavish working vacations to places most people won’t see in a lifetime. They explore the Galapagos Islands, safari Botswana and dive the Great Barrier Reef off of Indonesia, often with a rock star, famous actor or corporate scion in tow. But their fondness for gas-guzzling private jets and electricity-hogging multiple homes leave these so-called conservationists vulnerable to same accusations of hypocrisy that have dogged former vice president Al Gore and Hollywood’s Green Glitterati.
As nonprofits have increased financial ties to business leaders, they have remade themselves in the image of their benefactors. Posh offices, large expense accounts and public relations budgets mirror the practices of the corporate world. But much of what goes on in the conservation world would not be tolerated by Corporate America.
In keeping with the corporate-style emphasis on marketing, big conservation groups produce glossy, full-color maps of the world highlighting priority areas where they work. But it turns out those maps are more for show than accuracy. When independent investigators conducted the first-ever audit of conservation spending in 2006, they were surprised to learn three of the world’s largest groups CI, World Wildlife Fund-International, and Birdlife International do not track spending regionally and have no idea if their expenditures match the priorities they trumpet in fundraising appeals.
The largest, most respected conservation groups in the world have been investigated for shady real estate deals, padding their books and taking payoffs from petroleum companies and other corporations. Nepotism is widespread. At Conservation International, the children, spouses and close personal friends of executives, donors and board members held posts ranging from interns to senior staff. And the problem is by no means unique to CI. Instances of nepotism at the Conservancy and other conservation organizations are common knowledge in the close-knit conservation world, where business and pleasure seem too easily mixed.
In an industry, where international travel and adventure is part of the job, fuzzy boundaries between the personal and professional spheres also prove a problem on the spending front. When the Pacific Island government of Papua New Guinea kicked Conservation International out the country in mid-2006, part of the uproar was caused by CI executives who used money earmarked for a community center to pay for international vacations for themselves and their families. A few years earlier, CI chief executive Peter Seligmann admitted under oath during a messy 2003 divorce that he charged a trip to Africa for himself, his girlfriend and her children to his CI corporate credit card. The Nature Conservancy was in the habit of issuing low-interest and no-interest loans to key executives, including its president, who received a $1.55 million loan at a below-market interest rate to purchase home in an exclusive Washington suburb.
Meanwhile, the national parks and protected areas that conservationists tout among their chief accomplishments are faltering. There are tens of thousands of protected areas around the world today. They take up a tenth of the earth’s landmass, an area equal to the combined territories of China and India. The vast majority of these so-called protected lands, however, are little more than “paper parks.” Despite legal protections on paper, a shortage of park managers and rangers leaves them vulnerable to illegal logging, wildlife poaching, drug trafficking and other illicit activities.
The “paper parks” scenario is only part of the problem. There’s also the “shell game:” Government officials declare new protections on marginal tracks or remote lands, under no immediate threat of development, to deflect attention from lucrative real estate deals. The result: biologically-important land bulldozed to make way for tourist resorts or vacation homes for the super-rich.
Conservation groups are often reluctant to talk about abuses of the parks systems. They become accomplices to the subterfuge, unwilling to jeopardize ties to regimes and corporations that provide them with money, access to powerful decision-makers and public relations opportunities they can boast about with wealthy donors and tout in their annual reports. But such power politics has led to friction with the indigenous residents of the very rainforests conservationists are trying to save. They have squandered natural grassroots alliances by siding consistently with corrupt regimes and powerful but environmentally-hostile corporations. But the conservationists would rather hide this unpleasant fact from the public. In fundraising brochures and reports, the big groups repeatedly describe how they work in harmony with indigenous people. But the truth is they are often seen as the bad guys in the developing world, where much of the earth’s remaining biodiversity exists.
In the first part of the book, you will learn about the professionalization of conservation and the “double lives” of today’s top brass, while part two focuses on how the groups and their corporate partners have acted in the name of conservation around the world. You will hear from scores of people inside and outside of the conservation and corporate worlds, from chief executives to tribal chiefs; field biologists to community activists. After traveling from Texas oil fields to Brazilian rainforests and Pacific island fishing villages, the book will tell the truth about hybrid cars, biodiesels, “green” home building, off-setting your carbon footprint and other consumer fads that enjoy slick but misleading sales pitches.
With more and more companies rushing to reinvent themselves as environmentally friendly, now is the time to take a hard look at what it means to be green. Will the emerging corporate environmental ethos ring in serious changes or merely provide window dressing for industries that continue to ravage the planet? “The devil is in the details,” said Exxon’s spokesman when the company first singled its willingness to negotiate curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. What could be more obvious? Whether those details serve the interests of environmentally-hostile corporations or a broader global public will have an enormous impact on the planet’s future health.
In the rainforest, the towering trees of jungle canopy and the delicate orchids that attach themselves to their trunks and grow like vines up their branches rely on the Amazonian rains to nourish their symbiotic relationship. We, the consumers, the voters and the donation-givers, are the raindrops that nurture the corporate-conservationist symbiosis. The companies and the nonprofit groups want and need our respect, our brand loyalty and most importantly our hard-earned cash.
It’s time to use our influence to grow a greener economy. At risk of disheartening the true environmentalists, this book sets out to give you the information you need to separate what works from what’s window dressing.
By Christine MacDonald
Chapter 0ne: From gentleman’s hobby to billion-dollar industry
At 86, Russell Train is still an imposing figure. The longtime leader of World Wildlife Fund comes to work in a three-piece suit and tie, starched white shirt and breast-pocket handkerchief. His hair is short and parted on the side, just like his official photo as Environmental Protection Agency administrator in the mid-1970s. Once dark, it is now entirely white. But his voice is deep and steady and only, perhaps, a bit more gravely today than during decades as a Republican Party stalwart and one of the country’s most influential environmentalists.
He’s been retired for more than a dozen years. But Train and Catherine Williams, his longtime secretary, still go to work a few times a week. His is a corner office on the fourth floor of the World Wildlife Fund’s environmentally-friendly “green building” in Washington, DC. The seven-story structure is one of the only office buildings in the capital designed to recycle just about every bit of trash and reduce energy consumption by harnessing sunlight that filters through the extra-large windows. Recycled materials were used in everything from the ceiling tiles to the carpets. The office furniture is made of timber hewn from a sustainable forest in Pennsylvania. The distinctive white-brick façade, set off by colorful flags bearing the institution’s panda mascot, stands out on a block of drab and ordinary office buildings as if to remind the neighbors of the Fund’s place in the vanguard of international nature conservation. It’s a neighborhood teaming with environmental groups. Train protégés Thomas Lovejoy and Russell Mittermeier, who went on to lead other groups, have worked within a few blocks of the Fund for several years. Hundreds of other organizations among the more than 12,000 environmental groups that now exist in the United States have offices in Washington or the surrounding suburbs.
In many ways, Train personifies the modern conservationist. From the mid 1950s, when he first became an activist, until he resigned as World Wildlife’s US chairman in 1994, he presided over the movement’s transformation from essentially a hobby for “gentlemen of wealth” to a professional and lavishly-funded industry. While the popular idea of an environmental activist may be a scruffy “tree hugger” or shadowy “eco-terrorist,” conservationists like Train are a more conservative lot, members of a traditionally right-leaning branch of a vast movement. Left-wing militants trace their roots to late-1960s and 1970s fights over toxic waste dumps and urban air quality. Conservationist history goes back at least to 19th Century naturalists Henry David Thoreau and Sierra Club founder John Muir.
A Conservationist Awakening
Far from anti-establishment, environmentalists of the conservationist ilk tend to trace their nature-loving roots to privileged childhoods hunting, fishing and camping on tracts of wilderness owned by their own families. As a boy, Train went duck hunting with his father, a rear admiral, at the family farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
“There was an interest in my family in sort of traditional conservation. My father was a naval officer and he liked to shoot ducks. So he was concerned with the conservation of ducks and waterfowl,” he recalls.
Train and his wife Aileen had their “awakening” while on safari in Africa in the mid-1950s. A few years earlier, Ernest Hemingway’s celebrated story “Snows of Kilimanjaro,” about an American writer injured while hunting in Africa, was made into a Hollywood movie staring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. The Trains were a young, recently married couple. And safaris were exotically fashionable in the way that visits to Tibet or Maui might be to today.
As Train remembers it, he and his wife were the only tourists in their party. Led by a big game hunter, they traveled with a crew of nearly a dozen people “ranging from everything from a gun bearer to an automobile mechanic or a cook.” Aileen never really enjoyed the hunting. By the couple’s second and last expedition in 1958, she would simply walk along the trails, taking in Africa’s natural beauty, her husband recalls. Train, however, loved everything about tracking elephants, tigers and other big and dangerous game. Hiking through lush jungle, fragrant with unknown smells and alive with the rustle of animals, nearby but hidden from view, was “an impressive experience on the self,” Train recalls. Though in his many later trips to Africa, Train was more likely to shoot the endangered species with a camera rather than a rifle, the hunting safaris marked a turning point in his life.
US Conservationists abroad the beginnings of international efforts
Moved by the beauty they found in East Africa’s game parks and nature preserves, the couple launched a nonprofit in 1961 and named it the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation. The group arranged for African schoolchildren to visit nature preserves in their countries and offered wildlife management scholarships to Africans, poised for independence from their European colonists.
Africa’s national parks and other protected areas were run almost exclusively by white colonizers, who had arrived on the continent a century before when European empires had scrambled to carve up Africa amongst themselves. By the early 1960s, the long and bloody struggle for independence had come to a climax in British East Africa, where the Trains had focused their interest. Uganda gained independence in 1962 with Kenya following the next year. Tanganyika united with Zanzibar to form the United Republic of Tanzania in 1964.
“All these colonies were becoming independent,” Train recalls. With independence, what was going to happen to the wildlife and the wild places that drew so many of us to Africa?
“You couldn’t really assume that the African people taking charge were going to have the same motivation that the European colonizers had had. Native African people and communities tended to view wildlife as a source of food, primarily, and otherwise damn nuisances as far as their crops are concerned and other things of importance at the time, all of which is very understandable. But it made you wonder what the future held.”
The only native Africans he had ever encountered in national parks were game scouts on antique bicycles, toting old Winfield rifles. More often than not, the scouts had no bullets for the guns and probably didn’t even know how to shoot, recalls Train, who had, by that time, joined a small but committed group of foreign conservationists who considered Africa’s unique wildlife and breathtaking natural places the heritage of the world.
Train set out to educate African nationals in wildlife management on the theory that they would form a new cadre of conservationists personally invested in preserving the continent’s natural wonders. The foundation’s first graduate became the first African head of the Wildlife Service of Kenya. Others finished degree programs at Colorado State College, Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, and other US universities with the money the Trains’ foundation raised from American philanthropists, and went on to work at nature preserves in other East African countries.
At the time, Train supported his family as a judge in federal tax court. But soon he would join the ranks of a new profession: the paid conservationist. His African conservation work brought him to the attention of Fairfield Osborn, head of the New York Zoological Society, today called the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo. Osborn initially looked on Train as an interloper on the Society’s international turf and tried to convince him to shut down or merge his foundation with the Society. At the time, the Society was one of the only established US groups working to promote land conservation in foreign countries. Train didn’t think the group was doing nearly enough. But his concern for Africa wasn’t the only reason he refused Osborn’s offer: “I enjoyed doing my own thing. I wasn’t going to become a subordinate - a typical, personal motivation.”
When he couldn’t convince the judge to work for him, Osborn, whose nickname was “Fair”, suggested Train replace Samuel Ordway, Jr., a philanthropist who hailed from a Minnesota industrial empire, as the president of the Conservation Foundation, an obscure nature group founded by Osborn. But he was shocked to learn Train wasn’t independently wealthy and insisted on a salary of $50,000 a year, the equivalent of his pay as a judge.
“Fair was somewhat taken aback,” Train recalled in his 2003 memoir Politics, Pollution and Pandas. “The CF tradition was to have gentleman of wealth at the top, who would serve without compensation.”
While he wasn’t as wealthy as many of his fellow conservationists, what he lacked in fortune he made up for in connections. The great-grandson of New England Puritans, Train grew up a third-generation Washington insider. His wife Aileen was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy. The couple attended Kennedy’s1961 presidential inauguration. But his deeper connections were Republican. As a high ranking member of the Nixon administration’s Department of the Interior, he helped establish the Environmental Protection Agency and craft landmark laws such as the Endangered Species Act. He went on to serve as the country’s second EPA administrator from 1973 to the end of the Ford Administration in 1977 and later campaigned for President George H.W. Bush. Like his parents had before him, Train and his wife hobnobbed with a succession of American presidents, wealthy philanthropists and captains of industry. They were guests at the White House and summered on Cape Cod. They spent weekends at their Maryland farm and owned a winter home on Jupiter Island in Florida, where the Bush family also spent part of the year.
World Wildlife Fund establishes a US beachhead
He helped create the US branch of World Wildlife Fund in 1961, the same year the organization was established in Europe with Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands as its international president and the Duke of Edinburgh heading up the United Kingdom branch. At the behest of the British gentleman explorer Sir Julian Huxley, Train agreed to serve as a founding director and vice president volunteer posts at the time.
Nearly two decades later, Train would become the first paid president of World Wildlife Fund’s US operations, another sign of the movement’s drift away from gentlemanly pursuit and toward a more corporate-style business model. Today most large conservation nonprofits devote about half of their annual budgets to paying their employees and consultants. Presidents and top managers earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year plus benefits and expense accounts. The situation was much different, however, when Train first became involved. Back then, few environmental groups existed. The only one he had heard of was the Sierra Club, the country’s oldest conservation organization, founded in 1892. The Nature Conservancy was established only a decade before Train started his African philanthropy, while another well-known group, Greenpeace, didn’t set up shop until 1971.
By the time he took over as president of World Wildlife Fund’s US office in 1978, the operation had a small staff but was seen as something of an underachiever by the home office in Switzerland. Train was determined to change that. One of his first moves was to stop giving grants to other US conservation groups and start his own international program.
Like other World Wildlife branch offices, the US operation had operated essentially as a fundraising outfit that sent appeals through the mail to a variety of types of donors from schoolchildren, who collected pennies to save pandas, to charitable foundations and wealthy philanthropists. Part of the money went to the Swiss headquarters, the rest to US conservation groups.
Thomas Lovejoy, a recently graduated biologist, fresh from two years field study in the Brazilian Amazon, had joined the Fund in 1974 and oversaw grants given to launch international programs at three key groups: Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense and the Nature Conservancy. It was the only US group funding international environmental projects in the mid-1970s, Lovejoy recalls. The funds provided the seed money for what is today’s global conservation industry.
Once Train took over, however, the other groups found their benefactor had turned into a fierce new competitor. Train hired away their staff members and put them to work building World Wildlife’s international programs. Among those who joined him were Michael Wright, who had used the Fund’s money to start the Nature Conservancy’s international program; and Russell Mittermeier, a respected primatologist from the New York Zoological Society.
The Conservancy and the other groups soon rebuilt their international operations. Within a few years US efforts for nature conservation worldwide started attracting much larger sums of money and employing an increasing number of biologists and support staff.
After Wright’s departure, the Conservancy gave the international post to Spencer Beebe, a Peace Corps veteran, who learned fluent Spanish working with Honduran fishermen. A third generation Oregonian, Beebe grew up camping and hiking his family’s conservation land. He had a graduate forestry degree from Yale and spent two years sailing around the world before returning home to the Pacific Northwest, where he rose quickly through the ranks of the Conservancy’s West Coast hierarchy.
The Nature Conservancy opens an international department
Beebe left the West Coast for the Conservancy’s Washington, DC, headquarters in 1980. At the time, US groups had largely focused their efforts in Latin America, but those initiatives were far from robust. “It was pretty scattered,” says Beebe, who recalls that World Wildlife Fund’s two-year-old program was the most prominent on the international scene at the time. A short list of other conservation efforts abroad were fronted by the federal government’s US Agency for International Development, the World Bank, a few conservation groups and Peace Corps veterans like himself.
Train was unhappy about Beebe’s arrival in Washington. Just as Osborn had seen him as an interloper two decades earlier, Train felt the Conservancy was horning in on the Fund’s international turf. Competitive and territorial, Train didn’t want other contenders for the attentions of donors.
“I make no bones about that,” Trains says of the episode. “But I found that we did have competitive problems often in fundraising and in publicity. Everybody wants to blow their own horn and not give anybody else credit. And all that is very irritating.”
If his stance was ironic considering he had wooed away the Conservancy’s international program manager only two years earlier, Train didn’t see it that way. A decade later, however, the tables were turned when Beebe and a group of dissidents from the Nature Conservancy hired Russell Mittermeier to become president of a new group they had christened Conservation International. Mittermeier, then World Wildlife Fund’s program director, had been passed over for Train’s job. “So he took the (Fund’s) science department and he bolted and went to CI,” remembers Wright, who witnessed the coup from afar. Today, he works for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which provides grants to conservation groups like the Conservancy and Conservation International.
Today, Conservation International has joined the Fund and the Conservancy on the list of the largest US conservation organizations but it’s never lost its “pirate quality,” Wright says. The jockeying for talent and funding among conservation groups would only increase as the financial stakes multiplied.
When Beebe started the Conservancy’s international department, the organization was about 30 years old and was in the middle of a growth spurt that would continue after Beebe left in 1987. By that time, the Conservancy operated chapters in all fifty states plus the international department, which had a staff of about 50 people and operated as a sort of super-chapter. But its leaders were struggling with how to integrate the foreign projects with its work in the United States, where it was one of the best regarded land conservation organizations in the country. This struggle, which will be discussed in greater detail in the next chapter, precipitated the mutiny in the Conservancy’s international department that gave birth to Conservation International. While it was a major blow the organization, the walkout didn’t have lasting effects on the Conservancy’s evolution into an international organization.
The Nature Conservancy traces its roots to an obscure scientific group called the Ecological Society of America, established in 1915. But it wasn’t until 1951 that it was incorporated in Washington, DC, under its present name by a group of scientists determined to protect the country’s wilderness from sprawling suburbs and industrial operations that had begun to spiral out from urban centers. Within a few years, its first state chapter was formed in New York, where the Conservancy completed the first of what would become its signature land acquisition and management strategy. The first deal involved a 60-acre parcel along the Mianus River Gorge on the New York-Connecticut border. By 1958, the year Train went on his last African safari, the Conservancy had saved more than 2,500 acres.
From modest beginnings by volunteers, who held bake sales and saved a few acres at a time, the Conservancy has gone on to protect more than 117 million acres of land and thousands of miles of river around the world. It is the largest among the many thousands of conservation groups in the world. It raised more than $1 billion in 2006 and spent $681.3 million on conservation programs internationally. The group, which hired its first full-time, paid president in 1965, now has net assets of $4.3 billion and employs more than 3,000 people in all 50 states and 30 foreign countries.
US Environmental groups experience explosive growth
Environmental conservation worldwide has followed a similar growth trajectory. When Train took World Wildlife’s US helm in 1978, the operation had an annual budget of less than $2 million and a staff of about a dozen. Today, its employees fill its DC headquarters and field offices scattered around the world. The Swiss-based WWF-International operates in more than one hundred countries with four million members worldwide. It has dropped the unwieldy name for the acronym WWF and its cute panda logo has become one of the conservation world’s most recognized and trusted symbols. Wildlife Conservation Society, The Conservation Fund, Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Environmental Defense, Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, Conservation International and other groups have also experienced dramatic growth and thousands of new organizations have sprung up.
At last count, there were nearly 12,000 environmental groups in the United States alone. They reported more than $9.6 billion in annual revenues and assets amounting to more than $27 billion in 2004, according to the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
The Dramatic climb in charitable giving funds a new nonprofit sector
The exponential growth of international conservation efforts was made possible by an equally dramatic transformation in the world of philanthropy. Environmental groups and other nonprofits traditionally depend on endowments from the wealthy, usually bequeathed to favored institutions at the time of the donor’s death. While this money continues to flow, new streams in recent decades have bubbled to the surface, propelled by growing worldwide concern about global warming, endangered pandas and their vanishing habitat. Newly minted foundations launched by self-made billionaires have led the way, followed by corporations and government agencies and multilateral lenders. These new funding flows are propelled by different interests but together have financed and sustained a multi-billion dollar global environmental movement.
Social commentators have for decades criticized the growing gap between rich and poor worldwide. In what seems like irony, this disturbing trend has been a boon to nonprofit groups. While more and more people are slipping into poverty worldwide, there has also been an unprecedented proliferation of self-made billionaires. Internet gurus, finance barons and media moguls, who made their fortunes in the stock market booms of the 1980s and 1990s, are the new patrons of today’s thriving nonprofit realm, according to Katherine Fulton and Andrew Blau, experts on trends in charitable giving.
Twenty years ago, when Sam Walton was the richest man in America, he was one of only 49 billionaires on Forbes magazine’s 1987 list of America’s 400 richest people. In 2006, everyone on the list is worth at least a billion, according to the magazine. In 2006, four Walton family members were among the top ten richest Americans. Other high-profile billionaire-philanthropists who made the cut included Bill Gates, who ranked number-one with $53 billion; followed by Gate’s philanthropic associate Warren Buffet with $46 billion. George Soros, ranked 27 with $8.5 billion; Pierre M Omidyar, number 33, with $7.7 billion; Gordon Moore, number 77, with $3.4 billion; and Ted Turner came in at number 189 with $1.9 billion.
Source: Forbes Magazine
These self-made billionaire-philanthropists and their family foundations have been the single most important new source of funding to conservation groups, offering them previously unimaginable sums of money. Unlike philanthropists of bygone eras, who bequeathed their fortunes and didn’t bother with the details of how it was spent, “living donors” such as Turner, the Waltons and Moore are deeply involved in deciding how best to use their money. The Walton Family Foundation gave away $21 million to Conservation International in fiscal 2005, nearly a quarter of CI’s total revenues that year. In 2002, CI was also the beneficiary of a $261 million, ten-year grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. It was the largest conservation donation in history. Omidyar, the eBay founder and philanthropist, donated a conservation easement to The Trust for Public Land to save 1,500 acres on his ranch in Colorado's Wet Mountain Valley. The Turner Foundation, meanwhile, has made hundreds of grants to conservation groups since it was founded in 1991.
Environmental causes have not been the only beneficiaries of these new financial wellsprings. In the last three decades or so, these new cash flows have nurtured a wide variety of nonprofit institutions that have formed what economists would call an entirely new economic sector. Today there are more than a million nonprofits nationwide. Together they bring in more than a trillion dollars in revenues each year and have even more assets.
Source: “Nonprofit Sector in brief: Facts and Figures from the Nonprofit Almanac 2007,” Urban Institute
A Global Phenomenon
It is not just an US phenomenon either. Nonprofits around the world are seeing growth in revenues, expenses, assets and job expansion that outpace growth of their local economies. They have experienced such explosive growth by picking up the slack left by shrinking government authorities around the world. Just as the private sector has taken on jobs such as trash collection in Allentown, Pennsylvania or military base security in Iraq once carried out by local, state or national governments, nonprofits have stepped up with cultural and educational offerings, social work and environmental protection. In Brazil, for instance, environmental groups are a significant employer. Meanwhile, foreign investment in nature conservation projects is one of the most important sources of hard currency in Madagascar, an island off the east coast of Africa, one of the poorest countries on the planet and home to the largest variety of endangered lemurs.
Source: The Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project
There are no good estimates of the total number of people conservation employs worldwide. The World Conservation Union estimates that more than 83,000 work in parks and protected areas. At least as many more work for independent conservation groups and nonprofits around the world.
Since most of the world’s remaining biodiversity hotspots exist outside US borders, US groups have close relationships with nonprofits abroad that carry out field work in impoverished developing countries. Alone, the five largest US conservation groups the Conservancy, Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society, World Wildlife Fund-US and the Conservation Fund spend about $1 billion a year on saving endangered species and landscapes around the global.
Billions more are spent running the national parks that cover a tenth of the earth’s total landmass though it’s hard to say exactly how much. The World Conservation Union has made several unsuccessful estimates to tally the total spent by governments, nonprofit groups, foundations, individual donors, multi-lateral institutions and corporations, according Jeff McNeely, the Union’s chief scientist. It is more than $6 billion a year, he says. Whatever the amount, it’s not nearly enough, to stop habitat destruction fueling global warming and mass extinction of plant and animal species, according to McNeely and other experts.
How much money is spent and how much is more it would take to save the planet’s biodiversity are matters of debate. There is little doubt, however, that today’s conservation efforts have grown to a magnitude unimaginable when Russell Train first joined the cause half a century ago. And the groups doing the work have also changed. There are more skilled “conservation workers” in the field today. The amount of money has increased exponentially as has the number of newly-created protected areas.
“These organizations no longer talk about working themselves out of a job,” notes Train protégé Michael Wright. “I think they see themselves now as permanent transnational organizations.”
While the international conservation industry’s survival is a sure thing, the giant panda, symbol of human efforts to save endangered species, may soon only exist only as an image on a logo.
Meet the Author
Christine MacDonald, a journalist who has written for the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune, was formerly manager of the Media Capacity Building Program of Conservation International’s Global Communications Division. She lives in Washington, DC.
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Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How A Good Cause Has Gone Bad, by Christine MacDonald uncovers the underworld of the conservation movement. Having worked for years in field herself, she gives an unforgiving look at how the movement has gone from small well-intentioned blue-bloods looking to preserve some of their favorite adventure spots to a multi-billion industry wooing some of the planet¿s worst polluters for donation funds. The objective of the biggest conservation organizations is no longer to ¿work themselves out of a job¿ by solving particular environmental problems. They look at their organizations as permanent transnational corporations. They are rarely looked at with critical eyes and often take the moral high ground in defense of their projects regardless of the consequences. People are displaced and evicted from every continent. Over 1 million people from the African continent alone have been displaced by conservation projects. Nearly eight thousand Pygmies were evicted from the Dja reserve in Cameroon in the 1980s to make way for a conservation plan by the European Union. Those displaced have homes, fields, and grain stores burned and are forced to move into villages with no compensation or other means of survival. Another negative aspect of the big environmental organizations is that those who enter into the field, while well meaning, have prioritized their ideals so much that they are often condescending to the local populations. Their social, economic, or cultural histories are always in need of a good education by the transnational organizations which are often heavily populated by Western donors and workers. Those at the top of the conversation chain make high six figures and live lifestyles rivaling some of the world¿s top polluters. In the end, the well researched expose of the underbelly of conservation reads more like a warning bell rather than a searing indictment of environmentalism. If we are going to try and enter the field to do some good, as I intend to do, we must be aware of the pitfalls and corruption so that we do not become disillusioned and quit before we can indeed make a real difference.
Even if a few huge non-profits are as self-serving as she is trying to say they are, that has no effect on the rest of the environmental movement as a whole. Only a small-minded person would try to claim that. While the organizations in the wrong should be vetted, this should not be used to claim that the 'movement' in its entirety is corrupt. By the way, is this book printed on recycled paper?