Environmental funders share blame for movement’s weak pulse
In responding to “The Death of Environmentalism,” activist Ken Ward writes, “If the future toward which we rush is folly, the solution proposed by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus is foolishness.” In this excerpt from his full rebuttal to the essay, Ward describes the role environmental foundations play in frustrating effective campaigning, and suggests that if they intelligently directed their funding toward a coordinated climate-change campaign, they could catapult the issue to the top of the national agenda. “The necessary decisions could be made in a weekend conference with less than 100 people attending,” he writes.
Our environmental leaders are collectively stupid, write Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in their “Death of Environmentalism.” They argue that the major green groups’ unwillingness to draw bright lines derives from self-interest, bad political judgment, and a failure of will.
This blanket indictment is neither accurate nor fair. It also raises the question of why the authors’ murderous instinct was not aimed at environmental foundations. The long list of sins committed by major environmental organizations — narrow policy perspectives, tech-oriented solutions, finely delineated problem statements, incremental approaches, and the failure to draw bright lines — is a letter-perfect description of the conditions that attach to virtually every environmental foundation request for proposal.
It wouldn’t take much to change that. The key role of a relatively small, intelligently invested funding stream in the right wing’s ascent to power has been well documented. “The Buying of a Movement,” a report by People for the American Way, for example, concludes that “Conservative foundations invest efficiently and effectively. They offer a clearly articulated vision of their plan for America, and they invest wisely to effect that vision. They are comprehensive in their funding strategies and extraordinarily generous in the size of their donations.”
Right-wing funders operate from a business perspective, as Shellenberger and Nordhaus note. They see themselves as investors in an entrepreneurial venture looking to control the political equivalent of emerging business sectors. They look for IPO’s with strong management teams and good business plans, and they guarantee a flow of investment necessary to build infrastructure and support a product launch. Environmental foundations boast total assets and annual grants that dwarf conservative funders. By one informed estimate, the total cost of the right-wing network of policy centers, advocacy groups, and media outlets that laid the foundation for seizing control of the national agenda was around $300 million. Environmental program grants alone from just 25 of the most activist-oriented environmental foundations total $850 million annually, almost three times what conservatives spent on their entire apparatus.
The money is there, yet environmental foundations are unwilling, or unable, to undertake a similar approach toward building power.
The terrific mass of foundation money is like a black hole altering the political trajectory of all objects within its gravitational force. One could even argue that our power has been reduced by funders’ activity. The comparison with conservative foundations underscores that the myopic attention to narrowly defined, policy-oriented programs denies support to critical infrastructure and undermines power-oriented work.
One example is the experience of Green Corps, America’s only training school for environmental staff. [Editor’s note: The author is a cofounder of the organization.] Founded by staff of the state Public Interest Research Groups, the decade-old program is valued by environmental groups, which vie to hire its graduates. Green Corps alumni are prominent in the ranks of our next generation of environmental leaders.
Other than a hefty two-year grant from the Beldon Fund — one of the few foundations that offer general support — foundation grants account for less than a quarter of the Green Corps budget, and little of this support funds the training program itself. The bulk of the budget must be raised by contracting for field campaigns, and Green Corps curricula must emphasize one type of campaigning as a result. The program’s leadership is never freed from the tyranny of the annual funding cycle to explore new initiatives, like founding a graduate academy or ensuring that graduates are up to speed on cutting-edge networking technology. Most telling, the average class size today is smaller than the first Green Corps class.
The total cost of Green Corps is less than many single-issue environmental grants. This scant support stands in stark contrast to the right wing, which invested early and heavily in its systems for identifying, tracking, testing, training, inspiring, and placing thousands of emerging leaders. Right-wing funders place a premium on “cultivating the next generation of conservative leaders by supporting their undergraduate work, linking them with conservative networks and internships, placing them with think tanks, and guiding them toward high-level government positions,” says People for the American Way.
Moving beyond training, let’s look at a classic example of how funder-imposed policy — driven by short-term political calculation and closed-loop conversations with weak institutional environmental groups — reduced our power.
As legislation to deregulate the utilities surfaced in the mid-1990s, state-level opposition coalesced throughout the country. In New Jersey, a broad-based coalition that I helped found began to grapple with how to frame a response. We decided to emphasize consumer opposition, but also to make the case that New Jersey should retain oversight over utilities to deal with long-range issues like climate change.
We were dumbfounded to learn that staff from the major energy-policy foundation made a decision to acquiesce to deregulation in order to advance set-asides for renewables, known as renewable portfolio standards (RPS). Our analysis that deregulation could be defeated outright in several states was dismissed, and our suggestions on policy ignored. Foundation staff made it clear that state deregulation was a vehicle to win RPS, and that support from the network of funders interested in energy policy was contingent on toeing this political line. State-based opposition to deregulation was squelched by foundation hardball.
There have been some shifts within the foundation world toward a broader view of power, with more enthusiasm for funding scrappy initiatives, and a hint of rethinking the wisdom of depending too heavily on wholly owned subsidiaries. But a quick glance at current funding guidelines and the latest list of grants by the key players in the Environmental Grantmakers Association — which includes representatives from 250 foundations around the world — shows little significant change.
I believe the leading environmental advocacy groups go as far as they can within the limits that constrain them. Getting grants renewed is one major limiting factor, and the collapse of effective protest is another. If our foundations had distributed the “hundreds of millions of dollars” in climate-change program funding mentioned by Shellenberger and Nordhaus in the form of block grants, I think we would have seen very different and much stronger environmental work. Change how foundations function, and we would have a whole new ball game.
What is possible? If just 25 foundations were to commit funding for a coordinated climate campaign on a percentage schedule of current grants — 2 percent in 2006, 5 percent in 2007, 10 percent in 2008, 20 percent in 2009, and 25 percent in 2010 — a five-year budget of roughly $554 million would be established. This seems like a pretty cheap price for saving the world. Private contributions to cover direct lobbying and electoral campaign costs might be reasonably pegged at half this amount, or $277 million, for a total of $831 million.
This approaches the level of funding necessary to put climate change on the national agenda, if used to support coordinated campaign activity (as described at length here). Such an effort would mobilize and dramatically expand the core of environmental support, with ripple effects throughout the populace. Climate change and our solutions agenda would figure at or near the top of issues in the next presidential election — effectively our only national referendum. The rest of the environmental advocacy agenda would be immeasurably strengthened, and our organizations and institutions made more powerful. A true national debate on the single most important threat we face would begin.
Winning it, of course, is an entirely different matter.
For more, read Ward’s full response to “The Death of Environmentalism.”