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The New York Times‘ Felicity Barringer takes a swipe at Bill McKibben, the author who some describe as the most prominent environmental activist in the country these days. In her post, “Think Globally, Compromise Locally,” she starts off by dismissing McKibben’s anger over this summer’s climate bill debacle and call for a grassroots uprising. Then she heaps praise on local partnerships between corporations and environmental groups, trotting out two recent deals as proof that “whatever the merits” of McKibben’s critique, it has “less traction” at the local level.
She is referring to the 350.org leader’s recent shift into openly criticizing the country’s most powerful environmental organizations and urging their leaders to rethink the longtime strategy of making nice and cutting deals with power brokers in Washington.
But Barringer undermines her argument with this quote from Duane Zavadil, a senior vice president with Bill Barrett Corporation, which just made a pact with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance that will allow the company to drill for natural gas on the federal Bureau of Land Management’s land on the West Tavaputs Plateau in central Utah without having to fend off opposition from the group:
“We honestly think it’s the only way you’re going to be able to do business on public lands going forward. There’s the public ethos regarding these issues that has reached a tipping point over the course of the last decade.”
Leases to drill on federal lands are already a great deal for any commercial enterprise. The law that oversees them was passed in the 1860s at a time when the government was intent on settling the West, and as an incentive handed out sweetheart terms for lucrative mining concessions. As unbelievable as it sounds, that law still dictates lease terms today.
Still, if Barrett Corp. is doing the right thing in West Tavaputs, it deserves some praise. It’s great that corporate America is starting to step up to the challenges of global warming. If humanity is going to head off the worst of climate change, corporations will have to play a big role.
The greening of corporate America, however, doesn’t mean we don’t need watchdogs. It’s no substitute for a vibrant grassroots movement. As Zavadil underscored, companies feel public pressure to improve their stewardship of our environment and will respond to protect their profits. That’s what companies do. What environmentalists must do is make sure the public interest in a sustainable economy is protected.
Now, more than ever, we need outspoken environmentalists who are independent of corporate influence. Nonprofit groups don’t necessarily have to swear off all corporate donations. But corporate ties should be carefully structured and continually monitored, so as not to give executvies too much of a say. That can be tricky at perennially cash-strapped organizations vulnerable to becoming depended on the handouts. Once that happens, the watchdogs too often become lap dogs. Time and again corporate money co-opts environmental organizations and leads them astray of their mission.
Bottom line: The corporate-environmentalists deals that Barringer finds so admirable make for facile “success stories” but they have limited impact, while perhaps further discouraging Congress from addressing climate change. What might be more convincing is a new uprising along the lines that established the movement 40 years ago, when millions of people took to the streets to demand action from Washington.
After decades in which “professional environmentalists” have run the show, signs abound that the grassroots are growing again. Public protests like the Spill into Washington march planned for Labor Day weekend, Appalachia Rising, and the Oct. 10 worldwide actions planned by McKibben’s group, 350.org, as well as new recruits to the ranks of the activist/performance artist/clown are just some examples.
This news just in: The District Department of Transportation has installed the District’s first bicycle traffic singles at the intersection of 16th Street, U Street and New Hampshire Avenue N.W. Pretty cool. When I was in Berlin in the spring, these quirky little lights were directing traffic all over the downtown though not all bikers respected them. I saw tons of people riding the lights on their bikes without so much as tapping the brakes. And they were Germans! What can we expect of D.C. residents, who may not share that Germanic love of order?