Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause has Gone Bad

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In Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad, Christine MacDonald–a journalist and former media relations employee at Conservation International–presents an unsettling critique of the United States’ largest conservation organizations. MacDonald did a two-year stint at Conservation International–her so called “dream job”–yet quickly became disillusioned by what she experienced. She uses her own first-hand experience as well as additional research to present a lengthy critique of Conservation International, The Nature Conservatory, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Excessive Salaries and Globe Trotting Lifestyles

The first half of Green, Inc. looks at how the big conservation groups function. MacDonald argues that they have come to represent corporations more than their activist past, with CEOs making high six figure salaries and while flying around the globe for meetings. She points out that while many see environmentalists as leaning to the left, the conservation movement started as a hobby for the rich. This has continued in many ways, with wealthy donors supporting the work of conservations who in turn dedicate their efforts to preserving “scenic” areas rather than doing the kind of grassroots environmental work that people picture when they think of environmentalists.

Nowadays, many conservationist leaders are well at home hobnobbing with wealthy donors and courting corporate executives to fund projects. MacDonald provides many examples of corporate executives sitting on the boards of conservation groups and conservationist leaders–often called CEOs–working to “woo” big donors. Moreover, she argues that these donors don’t simply want to support the work of the groups; they want something in exchange for their money. For example, a corporation might want to appear “green” while their actions indicate the opposite reality. She also explores how many of these organizations place an incredible emphasis on fundraising and often place their fundraising goals ahead of their activism.

Disturbing Relationships with Corporations

In the second half of the book, MacDonald argues that big corporations have largely been unwilling to address global warming and environmental catastrophe and that big environmental groups have been all to willing to work with many of these companies. At the center of this discussion is the idea of “greenwashing.” She says that companies often establish relationships with conservation groups to give the perception that they are concerned about the environment while they continue to pollute. She looks at the relationship between conservation groups and oil companies, mining companies, and Wal-Mart. She also delves into a discussion of “green building” and the limits of those efforts. Finally, MacDonald looks at how big conservation groups have acted as imperialists in the global south and how they have often functioned as accessories to projects that displace native peoples. Overall, she outlines a pretty upsetting picture of conservation groups’ complicity with all sorts of reprehensible actions.

Short on Solutions

Unfortunately, MacDonald offers few solutions to many of the problems that she outlines throughout her book. In the epilogue, she discusses how in some countries nonprofit leaders are volunteers, discusses the possibility of capping executive salaries at $100,000 per year, and even implementing term limits on nonprofit leadership. She also suggests that there be limits on the number of corporate executives on boards and also increased guidelines and disclosure of funding sources. This would all great–but it’s unfortunately quite unlikely and she makes no reference to specific steps that could make this a reality.

The other half of the epilogue discusses “our individual roles” in environmental problems, and advocates withholding membership fees to big conservation groups and instead asking retailers critical questions about where their products come from. While this is good practice, I’d say that it is more likely that a group of people–perhaps organized through a conservation group that has reformed its ways–would have more success. She further argues that corporations need to take serious steps and stop greenwashing, but she ignores the fact that they have a considerably larger role in ecological destruction than do individuals. I wasn’t convinced that asking questions as individuals and changing individual behavior could be as effective as coordinated actions aimed at those most responsible for environmental destruction.

A Worthy–Albeit Flawed–Read

Even though its conclusions were a bit frustrating–both in terms of the ineffectiveness of the big conservation groups and the lack of concrete solutions–Green, Inc. was an interesting and eye-opening book. It’s a good reminder that progressive activists can get complacent, distracted, and move away from the work they should be doing.

Christine MacDonald, Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad, (The Lyons Press, 2008).

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