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The failure of environmental organizations

By Mark Powell | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted April 20, 2007

As you celebrate Earth Day this year, consider a very inconvenient truth: The organized environmental movement has been almost totally ineffective at protecting the environment since the mid 1980s, both nationally and here in Vermont.

Yes, they have been successful at protecting some resources in certain regions such as preventing the drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and gaining more wilderness designation in the Green Mountain National Forest, but in terms of protecting the major ecosystems and the general environment they have largely failed. This is most clearly demonstrated by the failure to energize the public to deal with global warming, which has reached a crisis point and it will now be too late to avoid many of the impacts.

But this is just the tip of the melting iceberg. There are many other environmental crises including loss of species diversity, loss of natural resources like wetlands and forests, and the collapse of ocean fisheries. The list goes on at great length.

As environmental author and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, James Gustave Speth, says in Red Sky as Morning, “My generation is a generation, I fear, of great talkers, overly fond of conferences. On action, however, we have fallen far short. As a result, with the notable exception of international efforts to protect the stratospheric ozone layer, the threatening global trends highlighted a quarter century ago continue to this day.”

The many new environmental organizations that have sprung up in the last couple of decades are certainly doing some good work.

Yet, these organizations are treating the symptoms of environmental degradation, not the root cause — population growth. The best that can be said about the organized environmental movement since the mid 1980s is that, given the agenda of the right-wing, anti-environmentalism of the past couple of decades, things could have been worse.

Here in Vermont, the worst problem may be the sprawl and suburbanization, which used to be focused just around our more urban communities, now affects nearly every town in Vermont. Life in Vermont feels much more crowded than it did 40 years ago or more,

Our beautiful views and access to recreational land are being lost as shorelines, ridgelines, and meadows are developed. Lake Champlain, despite spending millions of dollars, is only marginally cleaner, if at all, thanks to increased stormwater runoff. Ski areas get more like cities, and now, even tiny East Burke faces the development of some 800 new living units.

Many factors have contributed to our environmental problems including the myth that we must have continued growth no matter what, a media that has not paid much attention to the environment, and our personal consumption patterns. Yet, environmental organizations hold a good deal of the responsibility.

There are several reasons for this.

The environmental movement has gone from largely a citizen-based activist movement to an organizational movement run on paid staff. While this seems to happen with all citizen movements it has been particularly harmful to the environmental movement. It has resulted in less passion, less citizen involvement, less creativity, and less risk taking. The movement relies on paid lobbyists to do most of the work, and the members are largely limited to signing petitions after receiving an email action alert. With their paid staffs and large budgets, environmental organizations have become businesses, with their business interests sometimes taking precedence over their mission. Environmental groups also often find themselves being roped into legislative and administrative task forces and commissions to “solve” problems, making them part of the bureaucratic “solution” and less able to act independently.

Each environmental organization works with its own limited agenda and pursues only items that it thinks it has a chance of winning. While there is certainly some cooperation it is pretty limited. As an example, it took the international and some would say radical Greenpeace to send a staff person to Vermont during the months leading up to the 2006 elections before we finally got some real action dealing with global warming. Vermont environmental organizations knew some 20 years ago that this was likely to be a tremendous environmental issue yet they did nothing. Churches, with all their strong differences, are joining forces through the Vermont Interfaith Action and have hired a staff person to help them identify and work on important issues they can all agree on. Why couldn’t environmental organizations have done the same thing 10 years ago?

The organized environmental movement, with a few exceptions, lacks leaders who are willing to be even the slightest bit outspoken and radical. We need some folks who are a bit radical to call attention to issues, so that the rest of the movement does not seem so extreme. The last time we had a real action in Vermont was when the Hydro Quebec opponents unfurled a banner from the top of a building in Montpelier in the early 1980s to call the attention to the devastating impact the monstrous dams would have on the environment and the Cree and Inuit people.

Finally, and most importantly, environmental organizations have not mentioned population growth on their websites or in their literature as a major cause of our environmental problems. When the modern day environmental movement began in the 1960s and 1970s concern for the environment and population growth were very closely interconnected and were widely and publicly acknowledged. Many of the nation’s largest environmental groups, had or were considering “population control” as major planks of their environmental platforms for the country.

David Brower, the executive director of the Sierra Club at the time and a leading environmental leader, expressed the consensus of the environmental movement on the subject in 1966 when he said, “We feel you don’t have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy.” The first big Earth Day in 1970 had population growth as a central theme. A large coalition of environmental groups in 1970 endorsed a resolution stating that, “population growth is directly involved in the pollution and degradation of our environment — air, water, and land-and intensifies physical, psychological, social, political and economic problems to the extent that the well-being of individuals, the stability of society and our very survival are threatened.”

Vermonters got involved in this population connection. Those who were old enough in 1970 may recall seeing an ad that showed a couple of hundred people crowded onto tiny Sloop Island in Lake Champlain off the coast of Charlotte as an example of crowded conditions to come if efforts were not made to reduce e population growth. Those who took part in that event who are still alive would likely agree that living has gotten much more crowded and as a result less pleasant.

The connection between population growth and the environment is perhaps best expressed through what is known as the foundation formula or the environmental impact equation,

I=PAT.

What this says is that any environmental impact is the result of three factors; the size of the population, the affluence or wealth of that population, and the technology or type of consumption that the population spends its wealth on.

What has happened is that environmental organizations have disregarded the population part of the equation and focused almost entirely on the technology part of the equation, be it driving more fuel efficient cars or encouraging “smart growth.”

While some of the national environmental organizations acknowledge that population growth is a concern they put almost no resources into addressing this concern. In Vermont, only two of the some 25 environmental organizations have publicly acknowledged that population growth is a contributor to our environmental problems — Vermonters for a Sustainable Population and the Vermont Earth Institute, both of which were founded originally to bring attention to population issues because other environmental organizations were not doing it.

Several environmental authors have written that population size and growth is of major concern including Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, James Kuntstler in The Long Emergency, Sandra Postel in Saving the Planet, Lester Brown in Plan B Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, James Speth in Red Sky at Morning, America and the Crisis of the Global Environment, and Garret Hardin in Our Population Myopia. An environmental folk singer, Jeanie Fitchen, has even written a song about population growth titled, Changes in the Wind/No More. Why is it that so many well-respected environmentalists can make movies, and write and sing about population growth but our environmental organizations seem tongue-tied when it comes to discussing it?

Why have environmental organizations abandoned dealing with population growth? There are several reasons, including the fact that fertility rates dropped in the 1970s to 1.75, which is below replacement level, and it appeared to some that population growth would take care of itself. Abortion, contraception, and women’s issues entered into politics, and these became very divisive and a focus of attention. Some of the emphasis shifted to conservation, with people trying to protect what they had rather than dealing with a root cause of why natural resources were being lost.

It also became clear, beginning in the late 1980s, that immigration was the driving force of our population growth with some 70 to 90 percent of our population growth since 1970 due to historically high immigration levels and the descendents of these immigrants. Environmental leaders did, and still do not want, to be seen as racist, although wanting to protect the environment has nothing to do with racism. Finally, funding became an issue, with some donors and foundations threatening loss of funds if an environmental organization talked about population and/or immigration.

Environmental organizations heavily promote “sustainability” as well they should. However, a population of 300 million and growing by approximately four million a year is not sustainable. Experts say that a truly long-term sustainable population without cheap oil is probably more like 150 to 200 million. The larger the U.S. population grows the more difficult it is going to be to achieve a sustainable population. And the more Vermont is going to lose its uniqueness as a beautiful and rural state.

We can now clearly see that the original founders of the modern environmental movement had it right. Population growth is a major cause of our environmental degradation. It is long past the time when action on population growth should be reestablished as a high priority by environmental organizations if they really want to protect our environment. Population is a sensitive issue but it really is time that environmental leaders stopped worrying about causing ‘offence’ to people or about a backlash from public opinion, took their courage in their hands and began alerting everyone to the need to rein back human numbers, humanely and democratically, for the sake of the planet.

As we celebrate this year’s Earth Day, the staff, board members, and volunteers of environmental organizations should begin that discussion now.

Mark Powell is the secretary/treasurer of Vermonters for a Sustainable Population and is writing a book about the politics of population growth.