Matter of Opinion 2/1996

It's A Matter Of Opinion

by elmer m. savilla
March 1996

Losing Sight Of Objectives:
Are environmental organizations being co-opted?

A very good friend of mine who once worked for Amnesty International recently said to me "Many of the larger human and civil rights groups are becoming like the very groups they once opposed." How could this be, I naively thought. We're all in the same boat. I talked with others and went to a couple of "green" (environmental) conferences to see if this was also true of environmentalists. I doubted this, but to my surprise, the perception has become widespread among grassroots people. But alas, it seems to be so, at least the perception and the appearance is there.

Let's look at a couple of different classes of organizations and you decide whether or not they've been co-opted--but first, the rules for defining "co-opted." But before we do, you must realize that big corporate and industrial giants have waked up to the fact that by giving recognition to certain groups or coalitions they can bypass small grassroots complaints and opposition. This strategy has worked big-time in Indian affairs over the past 25 years.

The grassroots definition is "selling out" to the enemy, but this is usually only a perception until all the facts are known or are not hidden. The definition I favor is Webster's dictionary, 1979, which defines co-opt as "to persuade or lure (someone) to join one's own system, or party, etc." A synonym is "to corrupt" and to corrupt it's obvious that the co-opter must have more money than, or something greatly desired by, the other. Secondly, both parties must be willing participants. It is said that everybody has their price, but I reword that to read "anyone without morals or principle" etc. This then applies to politics, the workplace, or to something bought on the street.

Case One

In early January there was a nearby conference on Nuclear Waste. Although Partners In the Environment is regularly involved with Indian individuals and coalitions in this field and America's EAGLE regularly features stories on the subject, we were not among the 41 invitees--so I went anyway. The conference was convened by the Project for Participatory Democracy, a Tides Foundation project, and funds provided by the W. Alton Jones Foundation, whose goals are to "protect the earth's life support systems from environmental harm and to eliminate the possibility of nuclear warfare." There is really only one way to reach that goal and that is to not have it around.

There were only six Indian persons there (including myself) and for the past several years we have all been adamantly opposed to nuclear power, period. About nuclear waste, out mantra has been "Quit making the stuff." But see, as long as it was still being produced there would be a need for conferences like this and organizations to work in field of nuclear waste storage. It's nice to be needed, but in spite of all their talk, it will be some day put in someone's back yard.

Near the end of the conference, a person from the Nuclear Control Institute, which works in field of non-proliferation of nuclear materials, got up to list a recommendation from his discussion group to the effect that one of the policy objectives of the group be to "accept the spent nuclear fuel rods from foreign countries" for storage in this country. Immediately, all of the Indians looked at each other in disbelief. The US doesn't know what to do with what we have now and we are still making more every day--and someone wants to bring more tons of the nuclear waste here?

When America's EAGLE asked if anyone there was opposed to the continued production of nuclear materials, only a handful raised their hands. To we Indians, this was shocking. We had been under the mistaken impression that everyone in the environmental field was opposed to nuclear power. Apparently some groups feel that nuclear waste can be handled safely, stored safely, and that accidents won't happen. I had honestly thought that only the nuclear industry believed that nuclear power was safe.

But then one has to consider what business these "environmental" groups are in. They're in the waste storage business. They hob-nob with Energy, DOD, the White House, Senator SoandSo, and Congressman Whatshisname. They're big time players. That's what they raise money for and employ people for. If we cut the production of nuclear materials 100 percent, they would one day work themselves out of a job.

Case Two

During February, in Washington, DC the American Forest Congress met at the swanky Sheraton-Washington hotel. The bills were paid by the likes of lumber companies and paper mills. On the first evening a group called "The Wise Owls" presented a talk by environmentalists Jeffrey St. Clair and Steve Kelly who spoke about environmentalists being co-opted by the Forest Congress.

The board of directors of the Forest Congress includes in part the Georgia-Pacific Corp., USDA Forest Service; and conference sponsors included Natural Resources Defense Council, Weyerhaeuser Lumber Co., Louisiana-Pacific Corp., National Audubon Society, World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and the Wilderness Society.

You may or may not know that Congress and the President recently enacted a law which allows trees to be cut in new and old-growth forests. The law is called the "Timber Salvage Rider." Environmental grassroots groups, the "greens," are mad as hell about this, saying that the rider is "the most anti-environmental law in history," and are trying to get it repealed. We all know what clearcutting of forests does to the environment.

St. Clair took the environmentalists who were guests of the American Forest Congress to task for becoming part of the problem today. He said sponsors of the Forest Conference had, after 100 years, invited greens to the conference and paid for their travel and expenses. He pointed out that they were falling into a trap of being part of a plot by the large corporations. The Sheraton hotel, the conference site, was owned by ITT which owns the 3rd largest log export business in the US, and that the power broker lords of the timber industry wanted the greens to be here to be used as pawns and the green organizations had obliged them, St. Clair said.

He specifically mentioned the Wilderness Society, whose president, Jon Roush, had allowed clear cutting to take place on his property in Idaho.

He said that the Audubon Society had caved in to the Pew Charitable Trust, a sponser of the conference, and had booted environmentalists from its staff. St. Clair's message was that the larger green organizations had grown so large that to stay afloat, they were having to accept money from "the enemy." The sad thing is this may not be too far from the truth.

He reminded the audience that the World Wildlife Fund, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, National Audubon Society, and the Nature Conservancy had all supported NAFTA and that today, environmental conditions in Mexico have never been worse. NAFTA's biggest corporate lobby was Eastman-Kodak. The World Wildlife Fund received a check for a $2.5 million donation from Kodak, St. Clair said. Shortly afterward, Kodak moved out of the US and headed for Mexico. (Kodak left an environmental mess in Rochester, NY)

Something not always good seems to happen when money is mixed with good intentions, and it's not the amount of money involved but instead it's where the money comes from that determines what happens. Some groups do a lot of good with a little money and some self-destruct with a lot of money, so what or who determines what happens when the check comes in the mail?

In the world of communications, there used to be something called "the free press." It hardly exists anymore because the large corporations bought the media and now control what you see and read. An independent newspaper is rare, but America's EAGLE is one and we can still print the truth. The mainstream press now does the bidding of its advertisers.

In the world of advocacy for grassroots people, organizations large and small have necessarily sprung up to represent grassroots voices for change in whatever. Too often, the individual who jumps in front to "lead" the people has a much different agenda (although they may not know it themselves) then change at the local level. First of all, that leader will too often be unemployed and sees an opportunity here. Ego will also play a part. If he/she pushes hard the leadership position is theirs because grassroots people are usually too busy scraping out a living for themselves and their families to be that leader, or they may simply lack the will.

Enter the "Golden Rule" of the business world: Whoever has the gold, rules! The first goal of co-opting is to Divide and Conquer. Since Man lived in caves or swung from trees, this strategy has worked with great success for the corrupter.

The first target of the corrupter is the leadership of the grassroots group and it is here that the corruption can take place. Corruption is defined by Mr. Webster as to break; to be morally debased, deparved; to decay; and bribery. Take your pick or all of the above, it can happen so easily and I'm sure you recognize this, it happens mainly in government. But in this opinion column let's apply it to environmental organizations, those large and monied so-called "green organizations" who solicit funds from the public for grassroots causes.

A revolution of sorts began in March of 1990, when grassroots activist Richard Moore of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, wrote a letter to the ten largest green organizations complaining that "you often claim to represent our interests (but)..." he said, "your organizations continue to support and promote policies (of cleanup and preservation) on the backs of working people...and people of color..."

The letter stung the Sierra Club enough to attend a meeting hosted by Earth Island Institute, of San Francisco, to discuss the complaints. Besides the Sierra Club, four grassroots organizations took part. At that meeting, Winona LaDuke, a White Earth Ojibwe, said that "historically, environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, have sometimes opposed land transfers back to Indians." She also spoke of how the Boy Scouts of America and the Potlatch timber company had bought reservation land which the tribe was trying to regain.

Admittedly, as organizations grow their agendas and focus may change over time but they should never forget why they were formed. The welfare of the folks back home should remain the priority. If not they may grow so large and busy that they no longer talk with the people. For those leaders with an ego of size, there is a certain intoxicating headiness in becoming chummy with this or that big-shot or politician in Washington and this can lead to being side-tracked or at worst, co-opted.

I personally admit to being "approached" a time or two to endorse this or oppose that but I have never succumbed to the bait. My wallet attests to that.

In closing I tell the true story of co-opting in action which I witnessed. While working for a powerful Indian organization a delegation from a prominent senator's office came to visit. Senator Hatch of Utah was promoting the Sagebrush Rebellion bill of the early 1980s. The delegation was seeking the organization's endorsement of Hatch's bill. Our executive director told them that he was interested in getting the job of Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Interior department. If Senator Hatch would recommend him for the job, the executive director said, he would see that the organization endorsed the Sagebrush Rebellion bill. This is the only case of mutual co-opting that I know of--but it stinks as bad today as it did 15 years ago. If the bill was passed (it didn't) the interest of Indian people in the western states would have been co-opted by this dirty deal. Remember its not the amount of payment that matters, its what you do for it.

So, my friend who used to work for Amnesty International, you have spoken the truth. Adios.

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