Environmentalism being taken over by well-funded organizations
By John Hilton O’Brien
I’m going to make a dangerous confession for someone involved in right-wing politics in Alberta: I’m into environmentalism. I’ve got pretty good street creds for an environmentalist, too.
I hold a Chief Scout’s award, and was in a Venturer company. I use transit religiously, and I don’t even keep a vehicle. My wife and I have been members of the Alberta Wilderness Association for years, and I have a collection of T-shirts from climbing the Calgary Tower in their annual fundraiser. I’ve been a volunteer ranger in a local provincial park. I even have a credit as a trail researcher in a Sierra Club hiking guide.
Today’s environmentalism seems to be going in a very different direction than the one I grew up with, though.
Gone is the focus on protecting ecosystems, clean water, wild areas, and local wildlife populations. Recycling and wilderness area cleanups are apparently done.
What we have now is an apparently relentless focus on anthropogenic climate change, on blocking oilsands development, and on pipelines. These aren’t little Boy Scout initiatives: they’re huge public relations projects, intended to impact public policy on a grand scale.
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In a way, I suppose, I should be happy. Environmentalism has made the big time. Famous politicians make it the focus of their careers. Money is thrown at it by the truckload, with multi-million dollar grants from the US.
However, I cannot avoid the nagging feeling that we are missing something. My initial concerns are not being addressed – the money and effort seems to be going for something else entirely.
The people have changed, too: the ranchers, farmers, and hunters who originally led the movement have been replaced by urbanites, often from the US. What was once done by volunteers seems to be done by paid staff. Scientists have been replaced by spin doctors and media personalities.
Who are they representing, exactly? I’m not sure – but I am pretty sure it isn’t me.
I suspect the problem is in the funding. The dollars are huge: Vivian Krause has shown the better part of $100 million coming into Canada from American foundations alone. In the US, apparently, the industry is worth $2 billion dollars. With a B. You can find her articles here.
I don’t object to the money as such, but I do object to what the money does to organizations. When a non-profit gets a large grant, it changes: it has to. When you go from having a volunteer board that does everything, to having a full-time staff, the organization is focused on what the staff is concerned with. In fact, the very possibility of such large grants tends to refocus the non-profit’s efforts on gaining them. It’s very hard to avoid, because everyone wants to see their organization prosper.
The large funding tends to drive out other donors, as well. As the focus of the organization changes, people who gave money for other things tend to drift away. If the Sierra Club focuses it’s efforts on global warming, for instance, its base will think of it as a global warming organization.
Donors who supported it because of its alpine huts will drift away, even if it still builds and maintains the huts. Seeking and accepting large grants, then, can drive away the grassroots support that the organization had, just because the organization’s image changes.
The perception that an organization is no longer interested in its original mission may reflect reality. With every grant comes the obligation to ensure that the obligations of the grant are met. This requires administration time which would otherwise have been given to other projects. Moreover, making large purchases (such as media buys) is less time-intensive than low-level organizing.The organization moves from voluntarism to contracting out, and grassroots supporters feel left out.
The millions of dollars that the anti-oilsands movement has brought into the environmental movement are not an asset, but a curse. It tends to deflect environmental groups from their original goals, and change their cultures away from voluntarism.
It isn’t helping the environmental movement in Canada: instead, it is steadily strangling it. When that grant money goes, there may be no environmental movement left.
Because of this, I don’t care for talk of anthropogenic global warming and anti-oilsands activism. Rightly or wrongly, I cannot escape the feeling that this isn’t environmentalism.
Rather, I feel that current environmental activism represents the decline of environmentalism, a decline from which it may never recover.