Co-opting the Green Movement

by Michael Barker

Michael Barker draws on the work of environmental historian Mark Dowie to explore the role of liberal foundations in co-opting and deradicalising the green movement

First published: 01 August, 2010 | Category: Activism, Corporate power, Environment

“American environmentalism emerged in the context of the most rapid economic expansion in history and matured in the technological culture that capitalism had spawned. To the extent that it has been a response to technology itself, American environmentalism has been shaped by it. And it has been shaped by capitalism as well.” Mark Dowie, 1995.1

Needless to say, the ‘green’ ideas spewing forth from the world’s leading capitalists are unlikely to bring about any sort of meaningful resolution to the environmental destruction wrought by capitalism. This has not, however, stopped representatives of the world’s most toxic corporations from using their wealth to create well-endowed grantmaking bodies to manage their environmental opposition; a manipulative process that was successfully institutionalized by America’s leading robber barons in the early 20th century through the creation of not-for-profit corporations, otherwise known as philanthropic foundations.

Thankfully, prominent environmental historian Mark Dowie has traced the insidious influence of such so-called liberal foundations on popular struggles against the powers that be in two excellent books. The first, Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (MIT Press, 1996), dealt specifically with the environmental movement, while the second, American Foundations: An Investigative History (MIT Press, 2001), provided an overview of the manipulative nature of elite philanthropoids. While in recent years a number of other writers have scrutinized the problematic relationship between liberal foundations and environmentalism, for example Daniel Faber and Robert Brulle, this article draws upon only Dowie’s work in an attempt to provide a brief introduction to this vitally important but oft-neglected subject.

For over a century foundation executives have adopted grantmaking practices that ensure they “fund research projects that document social pathologies… perhaps even ameliorate them, all the while protecting corporate capitalism.” It is therefore unsurprising that, in their multitudinous forays into managing “America’s signature social movements - for women’s rights, peace, environment, environmental justice, students, gay liberation, and particularly labor”, one finds that “foundations have generally favored middle-class over lower-class social movements.”2  And rather than helping citizens to work through existing democratic channels, it appears that “if there is a central motive behind social-movement philanthropy” it is to encourage “concerned citizens to struggle outside the government domain” within a general “rights”-based framework for social change.3 This has the unfortunate effect of deflecting legitimate concerns away from the one democratic body that could arguably resolve these problems, the government. Concerned people are encouraged to seek justice (or simply democracy) in an indirect fashion by working through non-profit organizations that act as a moderating buffer between the citizenry and the government - a problem amplified by the fact that the most powerful and influential non-profits tend not to be run or organized around democratic principles.

Yet even with the focus on activism outside of government channels, “most foundation trustees [still] see environmental groups as too adversarial, too confrontational to rank alongside family, neighborhood, church, and palliative charities as legitimate institutions of civil society.” In this way, thousands of grassroots environmental groups tend to be “ignored by most foundations” while a handful of national organizations, which the corporate “media identify as the major players and agenda setters of American environmentalism,” receive the noblesse oblige of the major foundations. As one might expect, most of these “national” groups, like the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Audubon Society, “carefully avoid challenging the power structures and relationships that have the most profound environmental impacts.”4

“They are safe havens for foundation philanthropy, for their directors are sensitive to the economic orthodoxies that lead to the formation of foundations and careful not to do anything that might diminish the benefactor’s endowment. In a social movement in which the antagonist is so often private enterprise, that sensitivity constitutes a limiting edict-one which most of the aforementioned groups are handsomely rewarded for obeying. “The clear, though rarely uttered message from the largest environmental grantmakers is this: be cautious reformers, challenge specific violators, take the worst of them to court, lobby for environmental regulations, educate the public, but don’t rock (or knock) the industrial boat if you intend to rely on significant foundation funding.”5
  The catchword for reform environmentalism is compromise, and the end result is polite and nonthreatening social activism. Peak bodies like the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA) - which was formed in the late 1980s and is “now headquartered in the New York offices of the Rockefeller Family Fund” - act to coordinate funding for such ameliorative environmental activism. Under such friendly arrangements even corporations are invited under the not so discerning eye of the EGA, and their “big tent” approach to social stability means that “funders frequently favor organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund, which negotiates compromise bargains with polluting corporations while less-accommodating (more-litigious or confrontational) groups such as Greenpeace and the Native Forest Council look on in horror.” But as Dowie reminds us, “the most impressive triumphs of American environmentalism” to date – “outright bans and immediate eliminations of specific practices, pollutants, and technologies” – were achieved through “uncompromising activism”, not polite compromise.6

The Environmental Grantmakers Association does not fund militancy, of any variety. Moreover, as Dowie reported in 2001:

“...of EGA’s 213 member foundations, only 34 have endorsed a set of principles entitled ‘Philanthropy as Stewardship,’ which recommends practices for operating foundations in an environmentally responsible manner. What seems to bother the vast majority of member foundations that declined to sign the principles was the attempt to establish procedures for conducting foundation operations in ‘an environmentally sound manner.’ This constraint, to the evident horror of fiduciaries, includes a proscription against investing in corporations that threaten the environment.”7
  Similarly, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental law firm “created in 1970 by the Ford Foundation”, represents the perfect example of the foundation community’s dream project. Not content to let the Council’s activism takes its own course, Ford deliberately set in place a protective mechanism to “restrain the underpaid idealists hired to litigate for NRDC”  by placing the organization “under the close supervision of a committee of five Wall Street lawyers” (four of whom were Republicans). The assigned task of these “Five Gurus” was “to prevent zealous young lawyers from taking hardline positions against such sacred cows as the public utilities;” and to this day, although the committee has been disbanded, “NRDC trustees remain sensitive to the interests of Wall Street.”8

With the arrival of the Reagan administration, the foundation community quickly acted to ensure that the work of the “nationals” like the NRDC would not present overly antagonistic resistance to the newly inaugurated anti-environmental presidency. Led by Robert Allen, the executive director of the Kendall Foundation, a “discreet meeting of nine mainstream leaders” of the environmental movement was organized on January 21, 1981, the day after Reagan’s inauguration.9

“Attending were Michael McCloskey of the Sierra Club, Russell Peterson from the Audubon Society, John Adams of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Rafe Pomerance from Friends of the Earth, Louise Dunlap of the Environmental Policy Institute, Jack Lorenz of the Izaak Walton League, William Turnage from the Wilderness Society, Janet Brown of the Environmental Defense Fund, and Thomas Kimball from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). They were joined by Allen’s employers, the brothers John and Henry Kendall, who had sold their family business to Colgate Palmolive and with the proceeds created a foundation that granted about $2.25 million a year to environmental organizations, most of whose leaders were at the table.”10
  In bringing together this elite network of environmental leaders, “Allen clearly sought to exclude groups conducting, supporting, or advocating direct action against polluters, whalers, the military, and, even more troubling, against corporations.” This group would become known as the Group of Ten, and for a “decade or more the G-10 became synonymous with mainstream environmentalism and represented what the American media meant when they referred to the environmental movement.”11

The group clearly took heed of the foundation world’s obsession with human population numbers. Building upon the influential neo-Malthusian writings of Paul Ehrlich,12  their “first visible product” was the 1986 report, An Environmental Agenda for the Future, whose authors “were clearly convinced that human overpopulation was ‘the root cause’ of environmental problems.” “If the report was any indication, Robert Allen’s bold initiative had led to little more than a reinforcement of reform environmentalism’s worst tendencies-indiscriminate compromise and capitulation to entrenched interests.”13  Later on, when the G-10 was renamed the Green Group, other national groups were invited to join, including Paul Ehrlich’s pet project, Zero Population Growth.

Allen’s moderating intervention proved timely, for capitalism that is, as Reagan’s rise to power could potentially have allowed the environmental movement to become a major political force. But with Allen’s aid, the movement “played safe” and, “instead of reaching out to state, local, and regional grassroots organizations, it formed an exclusive Beltway club of white and (all-but-two) male CEOs.” “An explosive critical mass of national activism could have been formed. Instead, a relatively harmless and effete new club appeared.”14

Sadly, despite active public resistance to the reformist environmentalism typified by the nationals, little has changed to this day. Liberal foundations still exert a strong hold over not only the mainstream environmental movement, but many of the more radical environmental justice groups as well. A powerful and institutionalized system of grantmaking injustice will inevitably be strongly resistant to any efforts to undermine or democratize its power, but given the growing numbers of people who are becoming aware of the many problems associated with the manipulation of civil society by liberal elites, this need no longer be the case. It is sad, then, that despite his valiant efforts to document the activities of liberal foundations, Dowie sees no alternative to the ongoing efforts by philanthropic elites to engage in social engineering, and certainly recognizes no viable alternative to capitalism. Observing that at the two extremes, foundations have been portrayed “as benevolent instigators of positive change” and “as sinister threats to democracy”, he notes that there is “ample evidence to support both claims about almost any foundation.” Yet, he adds, “in the aggregate, neither interpretation is accurate or fair”. Thus the conclusion: “it seems clear that the only way to make foundations true and effective servants of civilization instead of stewards of plutocracy is to democratize them.”15

  Consistent with such optimistic impulses, Dowie interprets the longstanding influence of foundations on progressive movements as merely channeling popular activism into institutionalized forms, rather than actively co-opting social change so that “money is granted to moderate movement leaders to discourage militancy and demobilize grassroots confrontation.”16 Dowie’s optimism unfortunately leads him to understate the gravity of the problems he identifies, and as a result his conclusions simply do not fit the evidence that he himself provides. Dowie’s left-liberal conclusions are at odds with not only the author of this article, but also other, more radical critics of liberal philanthropy. For a useful review of such radical criticism one would do well to read Robert Arnove’s edited book Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad, recently republished by Indiana University Press.

Either way there is no doubt that from Dowie’s perspective, as from my own, the impact of liberal foundations on all manner of progressive social movements is highly problematic. Addressing and resolving this sensitive issue will be difficult given the massive economic and political resources at the disposal of liberal philanthropists, which will certainly be used to undermine any such efforts. It is therefore vital that concerned citizens educate themselves about the back-room dealings of liberal foundations so that they are able to pose an effective challenge to the latter’s ongoing cultural domination of civil society. In this way, it is hoped that this article will help people participate in the perpetual struggle for democracy.


1 Dowie, Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century, p.28.

2 Dowie, American Foundations, p.198, pp.199-200.

3 ibid., p. 200.

4 ibid., p. 89.

5 ibid., pp. 93-4.

6 ibid., p. 90, p. 91, p. 95.

7 ibid., p. 93.

8 ibid., p. 145.

9 Dowie, Losing Ground, p.68.

10 ibid., p. 69.

11 ibid., p. 69, p. 70.

12 Ehrlich, Population Bomb (Ballantine, 1968).

13 Dowie, Losing Ground, p.23, p.71, p.72.

14 ibid., p. 73, pp. 73-4.

15 Dowie, American Foundations, p.262, p.263, p.258

16 ibid., p. 203.

Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the
UK. His other articles can be accessed at:

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