“Big Greens” can learn from criticism if they listen and reflect

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Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson


We all need an occasional wake-up call.

It can be a metaphoric sharp elbow that forces us to step outside our comfort zone — something that prompts us to question the veracity of our own press releases.

Hopefully that’s what Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein provided recently to “Big Green” environmental groups. She said they’re in “denial” when it comes to their strategy on dealing with climate change.

The policies have “steered us in directions that have yielded very poor results,” Klein said in an interview in Earth Island Journal.

“So I think it’s a really important question why the green groups have been so unwilling to follow science to its logical conclusions.”

Klein says Big Green groups have adapted to the “rise of corporatist government”…   and now believe that working through corporate partnerships should be a big part of the solution.

It’s not, “sue the bastards,” she said.  It’s, “work through corporate partnerships with the bastards.”

Klein singled out the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund and Sierra Club as examples, though she said Sierra Club has retreated from its closeness with corporations based on pressure from its members.

Those are tough observations from someone with strong credentials and international prominence. It’s also someone who at least philosophically, is aligned with the “Big Green” groups.

Is Klein right?chicagoview

Have the “Big Green” groups who engage with corporations pushed themselves to the margins that only allow for watered down action and diluted results? Have they lost sight of who they are?

At least one “Big Green” executive disagrees with Klein.

“Given the enormity of the issues that we are confronted with right now, limiting the engagements towards finding solutions would be a mistake,” says Josh Mogerman from the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Chicago office.

Mogerman thinks Klein made a mistake in criticizing the “Big Green” groups.

“And attacking the folks who are on your team in fighting those massive problems is an even bigger one,” Mogerman said.

Embracing corporations

The big “corporate” environmental groups have clearly embraced partnerships with business interests in recent years and with less than stellar results.

Sierra Club worked with and received big money from the natural gas industry until the contributions were exposed. It was part of its “Beyond Coal” campaign that promoted, you guessed it, natural gas.

The National Wildlife Federation launched a partnership with Scotts —the fertilizer people — until the relationship blew up when it was revealed that a court decision would require “Scotts to pay $4.5 million in fines after the company pleaded guilty to knowingly selling wild bird food contaminated with pesticides.”

Then there’s The Nature Conservancy.

Its board includes executives from Duke Energy, Goldman Sachs, Hewlett Packard, Google and various financial management entities. Its president and CEO, Mark Tercek, came from Goldman Sachs. If you looked at a list of the Conservancy’s board without knowing the affiliation you wouldn’t connect it to an environmental group.

Why the apparent love fest between “Big Green” and big corporations?

From the “Big Green” side it starts with money.

Environmental campaigns like climate change cost a lot of money and there’s only so much that can be secured from foundations and members. Thus the decision from some groups to hold their nose, manufacture a justification and embrace corporate partnerships which may include financial contributions.

Corporations have money and a need to puff up their environmental credentials. What better way to do that than partner — a real corporate word — with prestigious environmental groups where they get to trade on the group’s good will for public consumption.

The enviro groups try to maintain a semblance of credibility by denying that the corporate relationship will influence their decisions. And the corporations deny wanting to influence the enviro groups.

Yeah, and the Chicago Cubs will win the World Series next year.

Corporations always want something for their money be it expressed or implied. That’s what they’re charged to do.

Credibility at risk

Who’s right?

I’m cautious about taking sides in debates over complex issues. There’s rarely a right or wrong answer and parties acting in good faith can differ on the best approach to an issue.

That said, Klein’s position resonates and should be taken seriously..

If environmental groups have anything it’s their credibility. Corporations will always struggle with credibility on environmental issues. Why would the “Big Green” groups risk their credibility for access to corporations and a few dollars — the upside is minimal if it exists at all?

And I reject the argument that Klein is wrong to criticize environmental groups. Criticism comes with the territory when you play in the public sphere and take money from people to do your work.

I’m not surprised at the reaction to Klein. One thing I’ve learned in writing about environmental groups for the last seven years is that they don’t like criticism.

A few tirades I’ve received in personal exchanges can attest to that.

Positive outcomes

Criticism, disagreement and controversy can lead to positive outcomes.

If I were leading one of the “Big Green” groups that Klein singled out — or any “green” group — I’d treat this dustup as a learning experience.

I wouldn’t even respond to Klein, at least not publicly. I’d take time to reflect on what she said.

Is there validity in her criticism? Is our corporate strategy effective? Should we even have a corporate strategy? Have we fallen victim to believing our own press releases?

An honest internal discussion will do no harm.

Since I started hanging around environmental executives 11 years ago I’ve often said they are the “smartest guys in the room.”

And the Naomi Klein broadside of “Big Greens” confirms my sense that the smartest guys aren’t always right.

And they don’t have to be.

But they should listen to Klein. She has something to offer.


11 thoughts on ““Big Greens” can learn from criticism if they listen and reflect

  1. The apparent love fest between the so called environmentalist, big corporations, and Senator Geoff Hansen’s Tea Party is easy to see when you follow the political money in West Michigan.

  2. A good friend once told me “politics are baby steps” he was wrong. I can think of several babies that can get anywhere faster than the “political process”. I tried several times to “work with the bastards” I tried to give the “bastards” all the credit for fixing the problem, many times. Still would, don’t care who gets credit, we have a problem that needs fixing, so we fix it. But the “bastards” have dug a big hole for themselves and are dragging us and the lakes down with them. It’s all the mussels fault, soon it will be the asian carps fault, not management. It is always managements fault. Invasive species have no choice in what they do. We are the only ones in this with a choice. Facts don’t phase these people, what we can all see, don’t worry about it. Look at the problem instead of the money, you can see the problem. Who’s Controling the money is a big part of the problem. I don’t care who controls the money, but spending money to go backwards, don’t make much sense. I can only work with the “bastards” when they stop screwing us, they don’t seem to want to do that!

  3. Thank you Gary Wilson. Thank you Naomi Klein. As a lifelong environmental advocate, I’ve wondered what has happened to our collective counter-voice on some of these major issues..and I would add Audubon to the list of Big Green names in question. Ok so we move from big coal plants to big industrial factory wind farms – WITH the associated transmission lines, new roads, pads, transmission cable towers and ultimate energy loss…with silence from Big Green for decentralized generation or other microgrid options. Sure a small wind turbine on each house won’t provide adequate source power, but combined with residential solar single/panel, in-home energy storage systems, and improved energy efficient applicances..we could make huge headway in both shrinking our energy footprintas well as launching the next frontier of high tech innovation products (jobs) for energy sustainability. But this option was never fully considered as there was no voice for decentralized sourcing at the table. Simply Big Energy and Big Green as corporate partners, exploring win-win outcomes using existing infrastructure without making significant changes.

  4. Some clarification: I think folks in the green groups are listening to what Naomi has to say and thinking through those issues. However, the framing of green groups being worse than climate deniers, as noted in other interviews, complicates that process.

  5. “The big “corporate” environmental groups have clearly embraced partnerships with business interests in recent years and with less than stellar results.” That is true for Michigan’s AOC MLWP and the AOC WLPAC working hard for Tea Party R-Senator Geoff Hansen. Senator Geoff Hansen’s Tea Party corruption is stealing millions of dollars of Muskegon Lake LWCF waterfront property for his corporations. Tea Party Hansen’s SB 223 is also working to steal millions of dollars from Michigan’s NRTF for his marina/condo pals. The Muskegon County AOC PAC’s have lost all semblance of credibility with Michigan Senator Hansen’s Tea Party now dictating all their decisions.

  6. Yep–promoting certain causes and outcomes requires a lot of money. While some complain that corporate money is “tainted” money…others complain that t’aint enough.

  7. The issues are big enough, there’s room for everyone in the tent. However, when a group has to hide their funding sources from members or change their policies to be more acceptable to the funders, there is a problem. Despite what the big green organizations may espouse, their work is enhanced by the grass roots NIMBY groups, Greenpeace and other hardliners, and the “housewives with purses” who are on the ground agitating for the changes we need.

    Groups need to be transparent and show how they are funded.

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