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Enviros, Fears and Dollars

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

They’d rather die than admit it, but environmental organizations thrive on disaster and this fact has enabled them to discern a silver lining in the likelihood of a Bush administration, in tandem with a Republican Congress and a Republican Supreme Court.

They remember well enough what happened when Ronald Reagan installed James Watt as Secretary of the Interior. Hardly had Watt mounted his elk head on his office wall before the big green outfits were churning out mailers painting doomsday scenarios of national parks handed over to the oil companies, the Rocky Mountains stripped for oil shale, the national forests clear-cut from end to end.

By the time the incompetent Watt had been forced to resign, the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation had raised tens of millions of dollars and recruited hundreds of thousands of new members. All this money transformed the environmental movement from a largely grass roots network into an inside-the-beltway operation powered by lawyers, lobbyists and political operators in Washington DC’s non-profit sector.

But this political juggernaut ran aground when Clinton and Gore were elected back in 1992. Since the mainstream green groups had annointed Gore as nature’s savior and because since they had become so politically intertwined with the Democrats, they had no way to disengage and adopt an independent critical posture when the inevitable sell-outs began.

Thus it was that the big green groups let Clinton and Gore off the hook when the new administration put forward a plan to end “gridlock” and commence orderly logging in the ancient forests of California and the Pacific Northwest. Similarly, they held their peace when Gore reneged on a solemn pledge to shut down the WTI hazardous incinerator in Ohio. Year after year they stuck to their basic game plan: don’t offend the White House: preserve “access” at all costs.

One consequence of this greenwashing of the Clinton administration was a sharp decline in the green group memberships which had soared during Reagan time. But by now the big green outfits had grown comfortable on fat salaries, inflated staffs and plush new offices. One famous example of the new green hedonism. Jay Hair, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, was wont, while lobbying on Capitol Hill, to keep his limo running to ensure a decently airconditioned micro-climate when he returned.

To maintain the standard of living to which they had now become accustomed, the big green groups sought to offset their dwindling membership revenues by applying for help from big foundations like Rockefeller, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and W. Alton Jones. But, so often in life, charity didn’t come without strings. All of the above-mentioned foundations derive their endowments from oil, and along with the money they inherited an instinct for manipulation and monopoly.

By the mid-1990s executives of the Pew Charitable Trusts were openly declaring their ambition to set the agenda for the environmental movement during Clinton time, using as leverage their grant-making power. Let a small green group step out of line and in the next funding cycle that group would find its grant application rejected not just by Pew but by most of the other green-oriented foundations which were operating like the oil cartels of old.

So now, with the shadow of a Republican administration across the White House, the green groups see a chance to recoup, using the sort of alarmism that served them so well in the Reagan-Watt years. Already during the campaign they had painted George W. Bush as a nature-raper, and then, only days after the election on November 7, e-mail alerts began to flicker across the internet, warning that the incoming Congress will be the “most environmentally hostile ever”.

But how can this be, if we are to believe the premise of the big green groups, backed by regular “dirty dozen lists” from the League of Conservation Voters, that Democrats are by definition kinder to nature than Republicans? Democrats gained seats in the House of Representatives and now split the Senate with the Republicans 50/50. By this measure the big e-mails rushing across the net should be fervid with optimism instead of presaging doom.

In fact one of the natural kingdom’s greatest enemies in the US Senate, Slade Gordon of Washington, has gone down to defeat. Another nature-raper, Rep Don Young of Alaska, is being forced to vacate his chairmanship of the House Resources Committee, victim of a term-limit agreement by House Republicans a few years ago.

Good news doesn’t raise dollars or boost membership. So the big green groups will go painting an unremittingly bleak picture of what lies in store. But the likelihood is that a Bush administration wouldn’t be nearly as bad as advertised by alarmists.

Indeed there are some causes for optimism. The model here is Richard Nixon, our greenest president who oversaw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and smiled upon our greatest single piece of environmental legislation, the Endangered Species Act. Nixon was trying to divide the left and worked to develop an environmental constituency. Bush, if he makes it to the White House will be similarly eager to garner green support.

Bush would also be keen to undercut attacks on the question of his legimacy as president, and a kinder, gentler policy on the environment would be one way to do it. The current betting is that Bush’s nominee as Secretary of the Interior will be the Republican governor of Montana, Mark Racicot, a Republican version of the present incumbent of the post, Bruce Babbitt. If the speculation about Racicot is true, this would be a severe blow to the expectations of the Republican hardliners, who yearned for Don Young to supervise the dismantling of whatever frail environmental protections America still enjoys.

Of course there will be savage environmental struggles over the next four years. Oil leasing will be one battlefield. Salvage logging will be another. But if you’ve received a hysterical mailer from one of the big green organizations, throw it in the trash and give your support to one of the small groups that have been fighting doughtily on the same issues through Clinton time when the big groups were toeing the party line ad keeping their mouths shut.CP

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