On November 15, Jay Hair, former boss of the National Wildlife Federation, died of cancer at the age of 56. The New York Times eulogized Hair as “a passionate defender of the environment”. But the Times’s wistful cruise through Hair’s career managed to glide right by his real significance: he established a corporate model for environmentalism that thrives to this day.
Whether the Hair approach amounts to a defense of the environment from plunder is another question altogether, a question that Hair himself didn’t seem that troubled about.
For grassroots greens, Jay Hair came to personify nearly everything that’s wrong with the mainstream environmental movement: elitist, pr-driven, politically calculating, and cautious. In fact, Hair helped to shape many of the more odious excesses: the plush offices, obese salaries and cordial affiliations with big business.
Hair was an environmental executive for the go-go 90s. He didn’t see unfettered capitalism a threat, but an opportunity to cash in on the bonanza.
Hair perfected the art of environmental triangulation long before Dickie Morris showed up at the backdoor of Bill Clinton’s White House with his black bag of trickery. He never lost an opportunity to stab the knife in the back of an environmental group (or idea) that he considered too radical or impolitic-even the middle of the roaders at the Sierra got tongue-lashings from Hair, their policies on wilderness and trade publicly ridiculed as unrealistic. Hair was an insider and a powerbroker. Usually, he got entr?e to politicos such as Al Gore by giving ground. It was the only thing he had to offer.
Hair wasn’t an organizer. He didn’t led a mass movement of outraged greens. In fact, there’s every indication that he despised grassroots environmentalism. He even tried to suppress the independence of the chapters within his own federation, sparking a rebellion of sorts that was put down forcibly by Hair’s lieutenants.
Hair embraced corporations without question. He stocked his board with corporate honchos from companies with dirty reputations, such as Waste Management. He took their money, greenwashed their crimes and then often did their bidding on the Hill.
His first big moment of betrayal came when he offered to lobby his fellow executives in the DC environmental caucus about the virtues of NAFTA. Not once, but twice. First he hawked the trade pact for Bush, then for Clinton. Unlike many of his colleagues, who operate as adjuncts of the Democratic Party, Hair wasn’t a partisan. He worked for whoever was in power and for whoever paid the bills.
And they were big bills.
Hair believed that if he was going to hang out with corporate execs, he should be paid like them. He was the first environmentalist to crack $200,000 a year in salary and benefits, setting a high bar that others have rushed to match. (When he left NWF in 1995, his salary was $293,000.)
He once attended a press conference in DC addressing the issue of global warming. As Hair pontificated about hydrocarbons and SUVs inside, he ordered his chauffeur to keep his limo idling outside the building, with the air condition blowing full-blast so that the great man wouldn’t break a sweat on the drive back to NWF’s lush headquarters.
After Hair was finally run out of NWF, he landed in Seattle, where he got a gig doing PR for the Plum Creek Timber Company, a logging outfit so rapacious that a Republican congressman deemed it the “Darth Vader of the timber industry”.
When the great David Brower at age 84 was on the streets of Seattle during the WTO’s confab, cheering on the protesters and cursing the police, Jay Hair was cashing in whatever remained of his green credentials for hackwork with the World Mining Congress and the World Bank. Gold mining may be the most destructive and toxic industry on the planet, often involving the use of cyanide and other poisons. But that didn’t stop Hair from fronting for the likes of Newmont Gold, one of the industry’s biggest and nastiest outfits. “Mining gold can be a pretty messy issue,” Hair said last summer. “But the gold industry, at least the (companies) I’ve talked to, are sensitive about cleaning up their acts.” That’s classic Hair.
His last big project was lobbying for the completion of a giant dam in Chile. This monument of environmental destruction dwarfs even Glen Canyon dam and will destroy nearly nearly a 500-miles of river, hundreds of villages, drown thousands of acres of forests and forcibly displace indigenous people.
Alas, Brower didn’t outlive his younger nemesis Jay Hair. Ever the optimist, CounterPunch bets Brower’s militant legacy does.