The Problem With the Big Green’s Naomi Klein Gripe
A few days ago a minor shizzle storm erupted on the climate-acting internet. Well-known anti-corporate author and researcher Naomi Klein gave an interview where she made some comments that, apparently, made some of the more corporate and right wing members of the environmentalist establishment elite upset. The problem with the comments, in a nutshell, is that Klein responded to questions about how people are able to go about their day-to-day business without screaming in a panic constantly about anthropogenic climate change.
The comments she uttered that caused the most anguish? Well, I’ve been swimming through this rather heated ocean of replies targeting Naomi Klein. This seems to be the lowest common denominator from the angered voices defending “Big Green.”
Well, I think there is a very deep denialism in the environmental movement among the Big Green groups. And to be very honest with you, I think it’s been more damaging than the right-wing denialism in terms of how much ground we’ve lost.1
This has been called variations of victim blaming. Leaving aside whether the very-well paid executives of corporate-partnered environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) are victims of much, it’s tossed about in several different manners. We are told that the people who are making the decisions about policy for such groups believe staunchly in the science, and are not in denial at all. Really?
Saying you believe in the science is one thing. Having policy proposals that reflect the science is another thing. Having policy that reflects the science and calls for actions that can bring this about is a third point. And finally, having a policy that respect the science, proposes to do something about it, has an action plan for achieving this and can do so in a means that does not make those who are suffering climate effects also pay (in various manners) for its solution is yet another point. And the replacement for what is wrong and how we get there itself needs to be measured on its own merits– not how well it fits the economy.
No one could possibly work in an environmental organization and not pay lip service to the science of climate change. It would be the equivalent of starting a new branch of Christianity and denying Jesus was the son of God. But is an official policy calling for the “stabilization” of the atmosphere at 450-550 ppm of carbon “realistic” to the science, or betrayal of science to embrace economic, capitalist logic? Well, to avoid picking on Environmental Defense, let’s mention that the NRDC, WWF, Nature Conservancy and many others now no longer adhere to the science.
They have embraced a world view that has taken climate denialism and use it as cover for capitalist denialism, the denial that the problem has been apportioning off the earth, air, land, water and more into things to sell. Why? Because they no longer are concerned with an analysis of power, at least not such that they wish to challenge it. Criticism of corporate environmentalism of the most obvious variety, i.e., groups like WWF or EDF, is like shooting tofu while it’s still in the packaging. So let’s go a little further than that.
So much of what Klein has to say here is exactly on the mark, all but a few passages are essential reading– but it weaves and dodges in the places where it needs to go straight ahead. The interviewer paraphrased the basic paradigm Klein is proposing, quite succinctly: “[C]onservatives deny the science while some liberals deny the political implications of the science.”
Exactly. The problem is we need to see who are the liberals, and who are the conservatives. Or, to dust off the old jargon, we need to apply a class analysis. Within the green movements. Of who is who, in policy terms and outlook. How did it come to be, and where is it going.
The reason we need to know this is straight forward: Many people want to do more than write a cheque for a group, they want to actively participate in the actualization of a vision of a world not threatened by climate change. So maybe people might want to decide if the outlook of the groups they are lending their time to is even remotely similar to their own beliefs.
As Klein was quoted as saying:
What we know is that the environmental movement had a series of dazzling victories in the late ’60s and in the ’70s[...]. It was just victory after victory after victory. And these were what came to be called “command-and-control” pieces of legislation. It was “don’t do that.” That substance is banned or tightly regulated. It was a top-down regulatory approach. And then it came to screeching halt when Reagan was elected. And he essentially waged war on the environmental movement very openly.
It could have fought back and defended the values it stood for at that point, and tried to resist the steamroller that was neoliberalism in its early days. Or it could have adapted itself to this new reality, and changed itself to fit the rise of corporatist government. And it did the latter.
There is a HUGE backstory that is missing here– or rather, a secret not being told. Around this time, the time of the advent of environmentalism being ascendant, certain American philanthropic foundations started a carrot approach to dealings with environmentalism.
As has been detailed in the past by Jeffrey St Clair and Alex Cockburn, the first major foray into ruling class liberals hi-jacking policy for environmentalists on a large scale took place when the Pew Foundation began adding green groups to those applicants who could receive money to organize. This created and entrenched a Green elite. Soon, without having to organize or fund raise or otherwise work outside of their offices, they got well-paying jobs and started being invited to the right meetings, dinners, banquets and more.
One of the people replying to Klein to defend the most right wing of right wing environmental organizations wrote:
“Seriously, how does Klein think they have stayed motivated through a quarter-century of 1) the most well-funded disinformation campaign in history and 2) the willful indifference of the media and cognoscenti, the ones who are responsible for making a true debate on the science all-but impossible […]?”
How have they stayed motivated? Does average wages of six figures a year, all travel costs, per diems, paid journeys to the far flung corners of the world to speak to other “green” experts or to hang around outside of the IPCC meetings not sound motivating? They have so much to lose, and the way to not lose it is to have policy proscriptions that can be amenable to the status quo– that is to power.
Environmentalists are curiously the only people who are supposedly to act in the sphere of social justice who are supposed to never force but only persuade. And yet on climate, we are dealing with the largest and most powerful human forces in existence: energy corporations who are a part of the US military industrial complex. We can point out the obvious: Having the head of the David Suzuki Foundation also consulting for Shell Oil is like a peace activist consulting for the Marines– but what of groups ostensibly in opposition to the energy corporations? Is this an accurate reality, or is it a picture we have been given?
Climate change organizing has received a lot more attention than where it was a few years ago. Despite the people who retort against the body of what Klein is saying, it is not the long hours these primarily white, well fed middle class people spent justifying to Dow Chemical that they need to call for 450-550 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere (regardless of the fact such numbers are deadly to most life on the planet) that caused world attention to skyrocket. World events, and actual victims have changed the narrative.
The crimes of Shell were elucidated to the world by the resistance of people, mainly indigenous, doing the day to day dying in the Niger Delta; the people giving them awards were the WWF. The crimes of fracking operators in the United States northeast were highlighted by farmers and ranchers who needed the water and noticed it was catching on fire and their skin was burning right off of their bones, the people telling us we need natural gas from fracking have been the NRDC. The destruction of the tar sands in Canada is most well known because of indigenous refusal to disappear from history to cancer and the destruction of their traditional forests; those who want us to work with Shell & Suncor run the David Suzuki Foundation.
Greenpeace, at least in the ‘home’ province of British Columbia, Canada, has suffered the same fate of accepting the simple logic that, to quote Naomi Klein’s interview, “We now understand it’s about corporate partnerships. It’s not, ‘sue the bastards;’ it’s, ‘work through corporate partnerships with the bastards’ There is no enemy anymore. More than that, it’s casting corporations as the solution, as the willing participants and part of this solution. That’s the model that has lasted to this day.”
Klein then goes on to outline the history of the Green Groups jumping ship to embrace NAFTA, even when the non-staff public supporters of these groups said no. If this were the only bar to measure an organization, then her statement “It’s not every green group,” would be correct. Big Green for Nafta did not include the short list of exceptions she makes. However, she had outlined the far more important marker in her interview earlier of corporate-partnered outlooks.
The part of the story that is missing (and it was just an interview) from her critique is the fundamental shift that took place in Green Groups that signed on to the pro NAFTA ENGO declarations. That shift had not involved Greenpeace nor the Sierra Club as yet; that has since taken place for both organizations.
350.org not only is guilty of the approach, it owes its very existence to the fundamental shift– and that shift was towards authoritarian structures steered by non-group actors playing the role of sugar daddy.
In the days before NAFTA was signed, The Pew Foundation had begun funding the Greens who ultimately agitated for the Free Trade Agreement; the pro-Democratic elite liberal foundations were all also wedded to Free Trade and the Clinton presidency.
In other words, the base of decision making is now in the hands of those with capital. Small wonder that whatever the campaigns so devised call for it always avoids challenging the logic of capital dominance itself.
Many people have picked apart the history of Greenpeace; entire books written on the subject don’t need to be revisited in a short article. Let’s just hit the highlights of the descent of Greenpeace in practice (not rhetoric) over the past few years, as giant foundations have laid control upon perhaps the most recognizable green group on the planet, in the very place it was born.
There have been multiple deals and partnerships between Greenpeace Canada and corporations in the last couple of decades. In the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, Greenpeace not only signed a deal with 8 other green interests alongside nearly two dozen logging companies at the same time, but the announcements were a bit of a coming out party for the model of authoritarian capitalism taking the reins of green groups in Canada, much like Greens for NAFTA did in the United States almost 20 years before.
The agreement was a (destruction of the vital) watershed moment. It was roundly condemned by First Nations community members for supposedly signing off on final status and use agreements without their consent. It was described by some experts as a farce, as it did not actually have scientific backing for many of the claims, leading to the creation of a “real CBFA map2” for circulation.
Greenpeace has since left the agreement. They did not cite concerns over First Nations sovereignty, public democratic input or problematic forestry giveaways that had resulted from the deal. Indeed, the reasons the deal was scuttled by GP was stated as: “a lack of any tangible increase in permanent protection and conservation of the Boreal Forest,3” and not proceeding at a pace consistent with the agreements around protected areas and “sustainable logging practices” not yet being applied.
Richard Brooks was the public face of Greenpeace who made the CBFA announcement. When this announcement went out, he was referenced in an oft repeated quip by Avrim Lazar who was representing the Forest Products Association of Canada [FPAC]:
“One interesting feature of the agreement here is with Greenpeace, David Suzuki, ForestEthics, Canadian Parks and Wilderness on our side– when someone else comes to try and bully us, the agreement actually requires that they come and work with us in repelling the attack and we’ll be able to say, ‘Fight me and fight my gang!’4” Brooks was then pointed at by Lazar.
Lazar’s point was a signed legal agreement to not only not support member companies forestry practices, but defend the corporations to their shareholders if other parties complained. Let’s say a woman from a Cree community doesn’t want to see an area that is part of a tree farm license held by an FPAC company logged– both because it is sensitive for fish habitat and also traditionally sacred to her nation. Greenpeace agreed to then intervene on the side of the forestry company. That’s more than capitalism, but outright eco-colonialism.
This same Brooks, still today working in forestry for Greenpeace (choice of words deliberate) has been given some rather remarkably blunt awards lately. He is currently feted (By GP itself) for winning the “Clean 50” award from “Delta Management” “corporate sustainability and clean technology search.” What’s that award for? “Honouring outstanding contributors to sustainable development and clean capitalism in Canada.”5 I swear I’m not making this stuff up.
However, let’s go over a little bit about the groups also standing with Greenpeace and Brooks at that press conference. There are 9 groups identified as environmental organizations in total.
There are uniting threads to these groups. Not one of them hold annual general meetings where policy is set by memberships, and a few of them aren’t actually Environmental NGO’s. This is the part of the story of the CBFA that seems to have been overlooked at the time.
The Canadian Boreal Initiative is one that does not exist, except as a program from Ducks Unlimited (DU). Ducks Unlimited itself, while they may send you a neato calendar or whatever is the Christmas mailout this year, is primarily funded by US foundations, and gets it through a route that goes through the US wing of the same organization. DU Canada then spends money on a project called “Canadian Boreal Initiative” that does not have a society, board of directors or public mandate of any sort.
The CBI is there to crush the notion of adversarial relations in the environment in favour of capitalist solutions in tandem with the most powerful corporations on the planet. The CBI advertises partnership with multiple industrial corporations, including Suncor, Canada’s largest energy company and original non-conglomerate tar sands developer. Further, Suncor was originally owned by Sunoco– and the founders (and still majority of the board) of the Pew Foundation // Charitable Trusts (and their splinter groups) also got their money from US big oil in their original endowment– today’s Sunoco.
Small world, isn’t it?
The CBFA marks the blurring of lines between all the various Green groups and fronts and foundations. The Pew Environment Group is directly funded by Pew, of course, but so are all the remaining groups.
The bigger uniting Foundation, however, is Tides Canada.
Immediately after the CBFA was announced, Tides Canada –formed as a legal entity separate from but related to the large US foundation, originally almost exclusively funded by none other than the Pew itself– began to work publicly extolling the agreement. Tides has gone into other areas as well, giving Greenpeace an award for the CBFA, citing the agreement as “showing the world how forest companies and environmental organizations can work together to secure a more sustainably managed Boreal Forest…”6 Tides also began to go public about Canadian tar sands organizing and other environmental issues. Backroom no more, the media treats them as just another group.
Greenpeace is supposedly the one grouping on this list that doesn’t receive oodles of corporate funding, and comparatively speaking, that’s the case. However, Tides has now begun earmarking major financial contributions to Greenpeace for campaigns: Prior to now around the CBFA, but more often for the North American Tar Sands Coalition, currently run by former Greenpeace activist but now favourite of green capitalists, Tzeporah Berman.
Now the rule has become this: If you have staff and are an environmental organization in North America, you are funded and directed by foundations who see “saving capitalism from itself” as the goal of environmentalism today. So what are we left with? Unfortunately, more of the same. South of the border, Bill McKibben’s outfit, 350.org, is a new face of this game. If only they were not.
Bolivia, with its president Evo Morales, hosted a People’s Summit in April, 2010 to bring in social movements, governments and social justice advocates from around the world who were attempting to go beyond the capitalist (and industrial) framework that has handcuffed both negotiators and grassroots activists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change talks, supposedly designed to determine a framework to tackle climate globally.
Almost all the major corrupt ENGOs were not there; however, 350.org was one of the invited groups and McKibben was a special guest. There were various peoples who wore 350 t-shirts and the like, positioning themselves as facilitators of various groups, and using that role to steer the conversation towards why people needed to adopt 350ppm as the goal. I want to avoid a long talk about the science– suffice to say the arguments were of “practicality”: “There is simply no way that one could (as of 3.5 years ago) call for 300ppm and get action from other governments to achieve this” to roughly paraphrase 350 interventions.
The response came that the call for 300ppm was made so that “no one was left behind”; 300 was the only number, if re-attainable, that did not extinguish the nations at the front burner of climate change to be sacrificed automatically. They have a slight, fading chance of existence into the future at a level of one degree rise in a stabilized atmosphere. 300 was decided upon to prevent any people from being made expendable. Some of the phrasing was very clear:
Under capitalism, Mother Earth is converted into a source of raw materials, and human beings into consumers and a means of production, into people that are seen as valuable only for what they own, and not for what they are.
Capitalism requires a powerful military industry for its processes of accumulation and imposition of control over territories and natural resources, suppressing the resistance of the peoples. It is an imperialist system of colonization of the planet.
Humanity confronts a great dilemma: to continue on the path of capitalism, depredation, and death, or to choose the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.
Our vision is based on the principle of historical common but differentiated responsibilities, to demand the developed countries to commit with quantifiable goals of emission reduction that will allow to return the concentrations of greenhouse gases to 300 ppm, therefore the increase in the average world temperature to a maximum of one degree Celsius. 7
In Cancun for follow up meetings of the IPCC on climate negotiations, Bolivia itself was made expendable with their proposals– by both other nation states but also by ENGOs.
Since then, 350 has fared much better than the People’s Agreement of Cochabamba. In a recent piece8, I wrote a little on the history of 350 in the US. Suffice to say, they are now very well-funded, by the very same people who fund not just Big Green, but the very people in North America it is most deadly to hand direction of social justice struggles to: The US Democratic Party, especially the Hopey Changey variety of brand Obama.
It has been noted for quite some time now that Obama didn’t save the people of Iraq, or the workers in their over-mortgaged homes. Instead, he saved the bankers and the industrialists who have created the mess in the first place, through giving a large segment of the population a reason to “trust” again, and handing over trillions of US Dollars to the richest people on the planet. Bill McKibben’s 350.org, Greenpeace and all the other green groups mentioned or alluded to in Klein’s original piece have performed the same role for capitalism inside the environmental movement. Giving people reason to trust structures and look to corporations as “partners” in solutions to the problems created by– corporate capitalism.
At the end of her original interview, I have to say I agreed with Naomi Klein on the overwhelming bulk of what she said about the “Big Greens” and how they have (either by design or default) been better at creating complacency among climate activists and the population at large than the corporations. Who could possibly deny to themselves that oil or coal magnates have a rather vested interest in denying that climate change is as dire as the predictions of science?
But what happens when the advocates of “climate action” propose actions that are doomed to failure, being wrapped in false economic logic, rather than demands that deny the right of capital first and foremost?
Is the problem that we have gone so far down the “collaboration” model, the pro-capital model? The model where democratic decision making is an alien concept existing only outside of the environmental movement? It is excellent that this analysis is being re-fleshed out thanks to Naomi Klein making a few off the cuff remarks in an interview.
What do we do when Greenpeace signs agreements to try and silence any environmental criticism of corporations they enjoy partnerships with? Who do we criticize if we have been forced into bed with the Obama administration and John Kerry?
Finally, just a curiosity: Did not Naomi Klein herself join the 350.org board of directors awhile back9? Given her stated opinions on the corporate influence on ENGOs, it should be a great time to agitate for a new, democratic and honest movement: One that dares speak the name of capitalism, the creator of industrial climate change– and the failed corporate responses– today.
Macdonald Stainsby is an anti-tar sands and social justice activist, freelance writer and professional hitchhiker looking for a ride to the better world, currently based in Vancouver, Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org