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Environmental business is booming but the environment remains in peril. Has the environmental movement lost its soul?


Right now we are witnessing the biggest mass extinction of plant and animal species since the age of the dinosaurs. Global warming is only making things worse, with scientists predicting that climate change may drive more than a million plants and animals out of their existing habitats to extinction. Scientists also warn that if we continue on this path, we might drive our own species to extinction.

The good news is that the environmental movement is thriving. Today there are tens of thousands of green groups doing meaningful work throughout the world. But surprisingly, some of the largest, best-funded organizations look and act more like corporations. Their leaders hold titles such as chief executive officer and chairman of the board, and earn salaries – complete with fringe benefits and expense accounts – that put them in the top one percent of US taxpayers. They make more than 99 percent of all taxpaying Americans.

How can environmental business be booming when the environment itself is in such peril? As it turns out, big business has quite a hand in it.

Two years ago, I went to work for Conservation International, one of the world’s preeminent environmental groups, thinking I would be working for one of the global good guys – an organization that fights to save species and their habitats around the world. But what I found was a corporation hooked on corporate donations, counting on that money to keep programs running and to pay some of the highest salaries in the nonprofit world. Conservation International and, as I would later learn, several other large international nature groups have perfected a form of ethical gymnastics: while their very existence is predicated on saving nature, they remain mum on the environmental crimes of their own corporate partners. These groups essentially engage in greenwashing on behalf of their polluting corporate sponsors.

Consider these facts:

  • The oil company, BP (formerly British Petroleum), has given millions of dollars to environmental groups and spent hundreds of millions on its Beyond Petroleum advertising campaign, in which it extols itself as a leader in developing solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. Last year, however, it spent just four percent of its total expenditures on these endeavors.
  • BP is on probation until 2010 as a result of the massive oil spill from its pipeline on the North Slope of Alaska. US government investigators excoriated the company for failing to conduct routine maintenance that could have prevented the spill, yet there was no public outrage from the environmental groups courted by the oil conglomerate.
  • Eight years ago Environmental Defense Fund teamed up with Federal Express to develop a hybrid truck that was hailed as “revolutionary.” FedEx promised to have 30,000 low-carbon vehicles on the road by 2013. Today, FedEx has 170 of those vehicles on the road, less than one percent of its fleet of 80,000 ground vehicles. Nevertheless, FedEx and EDF continue to hold up the joint venture as a “success story.”
  • Finally there’s Conservation International’s “success story” with its corporate sponsor, Bunge Ltd., that has saved 120,000 hectares of species-rich Brazilian savannah. Bunge, however, is one of the chief financers behind the expansion of soybean plantations contributing to the clearing of 2.2 million hectares of the South American country’s savannah lands each year, according to CI’s own estimates.

Despite mounting evidence that this corporate courtship is doing more for the polluters than for endangered species, the big green groups press on with their “business models.”

My book, Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How A Good Cause Has Gone Bad, an exposé of the international nature conservation business, came out at the end of September, just as the US financial system went into a nosedive. By early October, when the world’s conservation elites gathered in Barcelona for their biggest meeting of the year, markets were crashing around the world, spreading panic and doubt about the wisdom of unbridled free market economics. But the conservationists, corporate CEOs, billionaire philanthropists, and heads of state and royal houses don’t seem to have heard the news. In Barcelona’s conference rooms and banquet halls, the conversation centered on how environmental groups must become even more like corporations. Aboard a yacht owned by a Saudi prince, President of the World Conservation Union, Ted Turner, and other VIPs “inspired the world” with business school jargon about “best practices” and “success stories,” according to the official press release. Robert McCormick, a retired economics professor from Clemson University, went so far as to tell the New York Times that the only way to “save” nature is to put a price tag on it.

Are these developments further signs that the movement, as some have suggested, is dead? Or has it, at least, lost its soul: its very essence and moral compass? I’m not yet sure . My book has certainly inspired a great number of angry critics, incensed that I would dare question the sacred cows of the movement. But those same online journals and blogs have also attracted posts that suggest there’s still hope. One comment that particularly moved me came from a conservationist in Indonesia where rampant deforestation is not only threatening the continued existence of the orangutan, but has made the Southeast Asian archipelago the world’s third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

“I’m so relieved that finally someone from the inside speaks about this,” she wrote, promising to follow in my footsteps.

Assuming there are many more people who share this Indonesian environmentalist’s views, it may not be too late to resuscitate the environmental movement – both body and soul.

Christine MacDonald’s book Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad was published in the fall of 2008.

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