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What’s the fallout when green groups “partner” with arms makers?

"Bombs Away!" by Anxious223 Chris Dixon. Creative Commons license.

"Bombs Away!" by Anxious223 Chris Dixon. Creative Commons license.

About a year ago Conservation International was pilloried by a couple of British videographers posing as executives of the arms maker Lockheed Martin. They bamboozled a C.I. official in London into a meeting where she outlined several ways the nonprofit could “partner” with the arms maker under terms that looked a lot like greenwashing. You can watch the video here and judge for yourself if C.I. did anything wrong.

I had a few issues with the “exposé;” chiefly that C.I. already had dealings with B2 bomber maker Northrop Grumman, whose chairman and CEO Wes Bush is a member of its board of directors. And another big group, The Nature Conservancy, was already in the pay of Lockheed. These existing relationships undermined the shock value the scamsters were going for.

Still, you’d think the critique, or at least the bad press coverage it generated, would inspire reflection about the reputational damage some corporate deals can bring down on a nonprofit organization. More specifically, is a company that makes weapons of war an appropriate partner for a group whose mission is saving the Earth’s biodiversity? Well, if those questions were raised, they didn’t lead to change.

C.I. has just cranked up its P.R. machine in service of a new partnership with Northrop, “a unique and innovative professional development program for public middle and high school science teachers.”

In a nutshell: The Northrop Grumman Foundation will pay for 16 teachers from four U.S. public school systems to visit CI’s Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network’s Volcan Barva site inside La Selva Biological Station and Braulio Carrillo National Park in Costa Rica.

“We believe that supporting professional development opportunities for teachers will have the greatest impact on engaging students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. We expect this program will help cultivate the next generation of environmental stewards,” said Sandy Andelman, vice president at Conservation International in a press release the two partners issued April 19.

Whoa! That statement requires a reality check. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are 3.6 million K to 12 grade teachers in the United States spread across 14,000 public school districts. The group selected for this program doesn’t even come close to representing 1 percent of the teachers in the country.

While they will surely have a rewarding time and may even return home to inspire their students, the scale of the program is too small to have the impact Andelman claims. Like so many of these corporate-conservationist joint ventures they are more symbolic than substantive.

They deliver real public relations boons for Northrop, however, which might explain why the Falls Church, Vir. -based company features the “ECO classroom” as a top story on its homepage.

Hat tip to Wiki Scraper for writing the search tool that brought this story to my attention.

While we’re on the subject of corporate-environmentalist ties, here’s another couple of recent stories that deserve mentions:

This upbeat Q & A featuring Wal-Mart chairman Rob Walton and C.I.’s CEO Peter Seligmann comes out as Wal-Mart as struggles to overcome awkward questions about its greening policies and a recent bribery scandal.

Many environmental groups, including C.I., don’t count donations from corporate-tied foundations as “corporate” cash. Instead, they report money from the likes of the Walton Family Foundation and the Northrop foundation as foundation grants, which helps them claim that only a fraction of their funding comes from corporate sources.  For that matter, C.I. doesn’t tally the money it receives from scions like Rob Walton in the corporate column either. But Walton, in this article, doesn’t talk like someone whose relationship to C.I. is detached from the workings of the family firm, even if he does say he leaves the day-to-day greening to “middle managers.”

Environmental Defense Fund was caught in a similar controversy last week. The group claims to take zero corporate dollars but the Walton Family Foundation granted EDF $16 million in 2009 and continuing support equal to more than $7 million in 2010, among other support.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports this morning that an obscure private foundation threatened to pull funding from the Potomac Riverkeeper group unless it dropped its opposition to a trading scheme proposed as part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency‘s Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

Misleading coverage of Wal-Mart

In a story last week examining the relationship between the Environmental Defense Fund and Wal-Mart, a reporter for The New York Times uncritically passed on EDF’s claim that it doesn’t receive funding from Wal-Mart.

The prominent environmental group has built a reputation as an “honest broker” that works with corporations but isn’t their pockets, so to speak.

But that claim glosses over the millions of dollars EDF takes from corporate foundations, including the Wal-Mart Family Foundation. Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University, quickly brought the issue to the attention of Times Public Editor Joseph Burgess along with this chart detailing donations:

Grantmaker Name

Recipient Name Year Authorized Grant Amount Types(s) of Support

Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2003 110,000

Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2004

541,170 Continuing support
Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2005

1,050,000

Continuing support
Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2006

3,547,863
Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2007

3,723,498

Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2008

7,369,989

Continuing support

Walton Family Foundation, Inc. Environmental Defense 2009

16,010,775

Continuing support

Walton Family Foundation, Inc. Environmental Defense

2010

7,086,054 Continuing support

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Earth Day Weekend Wrap Up

Now that Earth Day has turned 40, it apparently takes an entire weekend for all the celebrating. Anybody go to the concert on The Mall? We were planning on it but the weather was so lousy we headed to AFI Silver to see “Greenburg” instead. Sure, it’s not a terribly verdant way to wrap up such a big anniversary but this ain’t no banner year for the environment either.  Here are a few links to stories I’ve read over the birthday weekend:

The new Gallup poll released late last week provides fresh insight into just how much public concern has slipped over global warming and other environmental woes.  But no amount of denial can change the growing avalanche of scientific data pointing toward a warming world. For a comprehensive explanation, you can’t beat this piece in The Economist magazine. Sure, it gets a big bogged down and wonky in spots, but it will give you all the information you need next time you find yourself in cocktail party conversation with a skeptic.

Wine Lovers beware: Here’s a story on the new Climate Desk site explaining how global warming is wrecking havoc in vineyards.

Here’s a story on how the world’s remaining old-growth rainforests are being flushed down the toilet.

Rebecca Solnit reviews Bill McKibben’s new book “Eaarth” and mixes in a few climate change extras on TomDispatch.com.

“The party’s over” according to the Washington Post, reporting on the latest International Monetary Fund’s assessment of the state of the world economy. Funny, both the IMF and McKibben are essentially calling for the same thing: a downsizing and rethinking of what’s considered “the good life.”

The Coal industry is on the ropes as even the nation’s power plants vow to “go green,” says the Wall Street Journal. Plant operators are now turning to natural gas, the paper reports. But what about the growing controversy over fracking?

Selling(out) the environmental movement Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman posts on Washington Post and New York Times stories examining corporate influence inside Big Green groups. Calling it “the 800-pound gorilla in the environmental movement,” Goetzman notes that it’s about time the mainstream press examined questionable deals the nation’s leading environmental groups have cut with corporate polluters, not to mention the very corporate style in which many of these nonprofit groups operate today.

Ever since Johann Hari’s piece, “The Wrong Kind of Green,” ran in The Nation last month, a glaring spotlight is on environmental groups that shill for their corporate donors. Sadly, these unlikely alliances have turned our corporate watchdogs into corporate lapdogs.

I was quoted in Hari’s piece and my book provided some background in that story, which made me quite happy and proud to help get this conversation started; I’m not so happy about the way the climate change denial camp has discovered my research, however. An outfit calling itself Freedom Action has been running a full page ad in the Washington Examiner detailing the astronomical salaries of some of the country’s environmental leaders. WWF-US chief Carter Roberts makes about $510,000 a year; EDF’s Fred Krupp takes home $474,000, and so on. You can find the same info. on page 21 of my book or just pick up the Examiner! The only problem with Freedom Action is it’s trying to derail any attempt at climate action but mixing things up with kooky ideas about birth control meds that end up in the nation’s water supplies.