For my money, there’s nothing more delicious than a book that lays bare the rot of a corrupted industry from an insider’s perspective. In the hands of a skilled observer, the subject can spring to life. Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis’s hilariously disturbing account of Wall Street’s investment-banking industry in the late 1980s, comes to mind.
Lewis’s book traces its lineage to Mark Singer’s Funny Money, a masterpiece of nonfiction that exposed the double-dealing and corruption that led to the collapse of the savings and loan industry. Singer’s impeccable reporting and lively writing carries the reader to the little Oklahoma bank at the epicenter of the financial catastrophe and plops him down right in the middle of the boardroom.
So, it was with a certain amount of anticipation that I picked up Christine MacDonald’s book Green, Inc. (Lyons Press, $24.95) a self-described insider’s tale of how the environmental movement has been hijacked by self-serving leaders and corporate stooges. The book’s press release promised to reveal chapter and verse of mismanagement, malfeasance, and “double lives.” An ambitious goal, no doubt, and I couldn’t wait to tear into it.
The author immediately sets her sights on the Big Three of the conservation movement: Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. arm of the World Wildlife Fund — though she doesn’t pass up the opportunity to slam the Environmental Defense Fund and its leader, Fred Krupp, along with countless, but unidentified, environmental websites (what she quaintly calls ejournals), and other various and sundry enablers. She carries a special grudge for Peter Seligmann, CI’s chair, and his sidekick, CI President Russell Mittermeier, whom she paints as a couple of overcompensated, jet-setting playboys who devote more time to fawning over starlets and corporate chieftains than they do saving the planet.
MacDonald is convinced — to paraphrase a Watergate standard — there is a cancer within the environmental movement. The malignancy can be traced to the alliances between conservation groups and corporations that took root in the 1980s and exploded over the past two decades. CI, The Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund all have come to rely on corporations and their foundations. The conservation groups might refer to the corporations as blue-chip companies. Not so, MacDonald. She calls them, “the devils of deforestation.”
MacDonald wasn’t always so down on big-name environmental organizations. Indeed, it was only a few short years ago that she abandoned her journalism career to take a “dream job” at CI. Her formal title: Manager of the Media Capacity Building Program of CI’s Global Communications Division. In short, public relations.
It wasn’t long after joining CI in 2006, MacDonald writes, that she realized that something was “deeply wrong in today’s clubby, well-upholstered world of conservations.” It wasn’t long, either, before she was out of a job. A year after joining CI, MacDonald’s position was eliminated in a reorganization. Necessity collided with opportunity and Green, Inc. was born.
MacDonald’s accusations are many and sweeping, but, for the most part, neither original nor revealing. She complains of widespread nepotism in the environmental industry, but fails to prove the hires are incompetent or unqualified (nor does she name names to back up her point). She condemns CI for taking millions from a foundation formed by former Intel founder Gordon Moore for a biodiversity center, but the only evidence she can muster of any wrongdoing is from unnamed “critics” who call the foundation a “glorified fishing club.”
She devotes a great deal of space to troubles within The Nature Conservancy — from incompetence and mismanagement to run-ins with the Internal Revenue Service. All interesting and true, but hardly new. The Washington Post broke the Conservancy story in 2003; MacDonald’s retelling sheds no new light.
And that’s true of most of the book. MacDonald wants the reader to accept her premise that the environmental movement has been irreparably corrupted merely because of corporate partnerships — i.e., guilt by association. The author is unable to see any value in conservation groups embracing such alliances in a bid to steer environmental policies within the business community.
Nonetheless, there are glimmers of a real story in MacDonald’s book. In particular, I wanted to know more about CI’s relationship with the Bunge Ltd., a diversified conglomerate accused of violating Brazilian environmental laws and using lawsuits and threats to silence its critics. And MacDonald is right to insist that environmental groups should be more vocal in criticizing U.S. corporations when they run afoul of environmental policies, especially those companies that have alliances with various green organizations.
In the end, though, MacDonald can’t forgive nonprofits for adopting “business operating practices and jargon,” and turning their back on the days of “late-night work sessions [that] would end in sing-a-longs.”