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Where’s the Democracy in the Environmental Movement?
September 10, 2033
by Dru Oja Jay
Struggles against tar sands and fracking in Canada are missing an ASSE or a SNCC
With tar sands, fracking and mining all on the rise, there’s never been a more important time for a strong environmental movement in Canada. Surveying the landscape of organizations, one thing is missing: democracy. Which is to say, meaningful informed participation among equal participants.
The images are familiar. People gathered together, making pivotal decisions about their collective direction in community halls, church basements, and conference rooms. Heated debates, pivotal votes, historic gatherings and galvanizing speeches. These are symbols of something that is basic to what it means for people to band together to fight powerful forces and change things.
Movements often have an organization that embodies their spirit. The US civil rights movement in the 1960s was driven forward by the Southern Christian Leadership Congress and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The anti-nuclear direct action in the 1970s had the Movement for a New Society (MNS), and the “antiglobalization” movement of the 1990s and 2000s was an interwoven web of spokescouncil meetings and coalitions. Quebec’s epic student strikes in 2005 and 2012 were initiated by the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ).
These and many other movement organizations made historic decisions democratically. They chose their leaders, or chose to have spokespersons instead. They debated, analyzed and decided on strategies and actions. It may not have been perfectly equal, but everyone agreed on the intention.
Today’s environmental movement in Canada is different. There are a few small, member-based, grassroots groups, but there is nothing on the scale of SNCC, MNS or ASSÉ. These groups organize local events and actions, but lack the scale to set the direction for national or even provincial campaigns. The only national-level groups are Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations (ENGOs).
ENGOs are somewhat diverse politically, ranging from the David Suzuki Foundation, whose chair moonlights as a consultant for Shell Oil, to the Indigenous Tar Sands campaign, which fights for Indigenous sovereignty as the best way to stop environmental destruction. But almost all of them have a two things in common: their staff-driven structures depend on foundation funding, and none of them hold meetings where a membership meaningfully and democratically sets the agenda or selects leadership.
(The Council of Canadians is the only exception to both; it is member funded and holds an annual meeting of members. Greenpeace has some financial independence with an authoritarian structure. Organizations like the Sierra Club hold elections, but are dependent on grant money for their operations.)
Instead, strategies for Canada’s environmental movement are formulated at island retreats, in boardrooms, and on staff conference calls. You won’t find any public record of these decisions, and if you do, someone will likely get in trouble. Local activists and community members are enlisted to be a part of campaigns, often at the last minute, but are shut out of the larger discussions.
So, who makes the decisions for Canada’s environmental movement? The lack of transparency makes it impossible to know for sure, but the handful of foundations that ENGOs rely on for funding have considerable sway.
A leaked 2008 strategy paper for the “Tar Sands Coalition” illustrates the power dynamic. Michael Marx, who was the director at the time, authored the document. In it, he declared that the “coalition,” which sets the overall strategy for anti-tar sands activism by ENGOs, “shall remain invisible to the outside.” “Foundations investing most heavily in the campaign,” Marx explained, “have a vested interest in exercising some control over the process.” And that’s why they created an invisible coalition of ENGOs who depend on them for funding.
That coalition exists today, and continues to hold secret meetings to decide on the future direction of anti-tar sands work. At a week-long retreat attended by ENGO reps last fall, participants agreed to not talk about what was decided at the meeting, or to speak about the individual who is in charge of the “coalition,” who controls the distribution of a few million per year in foundation funding.
Because contemporary ENGOs rely on foundation money for all of their operations, they are forced to accept absurd levels of non-transparency, and are susceptible to a high level of foundation control of their activities. (Some fight for their independence more than others, but those who do must compete with more obsequious ENGOs for funding.)
This is not to say that ENGO staff, many of whom are idealistic, highly competent people, don’t have any influence. It is to say that activists, members of the public and residents of directly affected communities have no direct influence at all if they’re not occupying staff positions. In their quest for “exercising some control,” funders are continuously driving a wedge between ENGO staff members and all other movement participants.
It wasn’t always this way. The environmental movement made far and away its largest gains before foundation funding entered on to the scene. Starting in the 1960s, environmental activism became an massive phenonenon, with 20 million people participating in Earth Day 1970. Hundreds of groups sprang up. Many of the larger ones, as Naomi Klein recently put it, had “elite roots.” But grassroots, community-based groups came up with the most impressive victories.
The movement was powerful enough to make then-President Richard Nixon — of all people — enthusiastically sign the largest pieces of environmental legislation the US has seen before or since. Logging companies, nuclear energy advocates and polluters were on the run from hundreds of dedicated volunteers and small organizations.
In the 1980s, foundations like Pew Charitable Trusts began to funnel resources to the most moderate and authoritarian environmental groups, balooning their capacity in relation to lean, local volunteer-based groups. The effect was to reign in activism by demanding less and less while spending more and more. Environmentalists started talking about landing jobs instead of participating in a movement.
In the 1990s, the foundations — led by Pew — landed in Canada. Many groups already had top-down, non-transparent leadership structures. Some, notably Greenpeace, had recently made the decision to adopt a more authoritarian style.
But there were some holdouts. Groups with large, active memberships like the BC Sierra Club, were pulled in with the promise of funds. As Mehdi Najari, a former BC Sierra Club board member told me recently, the BC Sierra Club barely had two staff in the 1980s, but regularly packed out auditoriums across the province during public meetings. Thousands across BC were participating on a volunteer basis.
In 1991, in the wake of an NDP victory in British Columbia, Canadian ENGOs got their first taste of foundation cash. “There was this idea that all that was missing was money,” said Najari. “They went and got big places, big staff,” and NGOs didn’t have to mobilize their members anymore. “Their money was coming from a different channel, they were less and less active.”
It didn’t take much. Najari says the first payment to BC Environmental groups was a little over $600,000, though it later inflated to millions. “For corporations, this is pennies; by spending that amount of money, they could totally change the dynamics of environmentalism in BC.”
Democracy in member-based groups gave way to grant-dependence. Some groups simply used their top-down structures to mold themselves into the image foundations desired. Foundations created entirely new groups like ForestEthics, separate from any membership or popular mandate.
Corporate collaboration became the order of the day. The new game plan was a two step campaigning model. Step one: mobilize a noisy public campaign with lots of volunteer energy to stop destructive activity carried out by corporations. Step two: stop this campaign in its tracks, and enter into negotiations with those corporations behind closed doors.
The result was deals like the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement and the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA). In both cases, activists involved in the campaign had no idea what the overall strategy was, and were surprised when foundation-coordinated groups yanked funding for organizing and entered negotiations.
While one might imagine that there is some upside to centrally-controlled campaigning, the results are not promising.
Both agreements were trumpeted as quantum leaps for conservation, but in fact represented very limited gains. Ten years in, the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement (which infuriated local activists for its low-ball conservation requirements when it was signed, prompting Rainforest Action Network to withdraw its name) is still not being fully implemented. Four years after its signing, the CBFA is in disarray after Greenpeace and Canopy withdrew. Greenpeace is being sued for $7 million by forestry giant Resolute.
This limited vision is built in to foundation funding. Some foundations like Pew have strong ties to oil companies and have a track record of investing in the same corporations they supposedly are working on stopping. Some, like Rockefeller Brothers Fund, have historic ties to oil companies. Some, like Hewlett, position themselves with green energy. But with very few exceptions, they are run by powerful people with deep social and financial stakes in maintaining the aspects of the status quo which benefit their class.
Greener capitalism is the overall goal. Large foundations seek to legitimize capitalism by giving it a friendlier face. (Some radical foundations exist, but they are much smaller.) As one might expect, maintaining an economic system that gobbles up resources and generates ever-increasing consumption while also trying to be more environmentally friendly usually amounts to doing very little indeed.
Because of these underlying interests, foundation-run projects often fail to meet even modest conservation goals. As Naomi Klein recently noted, “if the environmental movement was going to decide to fight [neoliberalism], they would have had to give up their elite status. And weren’t willing to give up their elite status.” Corporate collaboration, she concludes, has been a “disastrously losing strategy.”
Though it is so often in direct opposition to foundation funding, democracy has many benefits. When thousands of people are involved in debating and deciding on strategies, the sense of ownership and investment they feel marks the difference between holding a banner and being a part of a process of societal transformation.
And because people draw on numerous sources and their own experience, their conclusions often exceed what leaders see as realistic. As Gary Snyder put it in 1978, “without knowing it, little old ladies in tennis shoes who work to save whooping cranes are enemies of the state, along with other more flamboyant figures.”
Direct experience, whether with whooping cranes or a refinery next door, can transform people and unleash creativity within movements — and if we’re lucky, within society at large.
Working at the pace of volunteers instead of full-time staff also opens the door to a more diverse set of participants. Elders, parents and students can be a part of the mix, bringing their unique energies and wisdom.
The model of environmentalism which is currently dominant makes widespread participation and empowerment into a liability. It relies on tight control over activities to execute campaigns where the creativity is in-house or farmed out to an advertising firm for top dollar. It’s a self-fulfilling mentality. If your goal is to control the activities of hundreds of volunteers to get a predetermined result, then those volunteers being empowered, opinionated and self-organized is a liability. (The oft-forgotten history of union-busting in ENGOs highlights this attitude.)
The most important benefit of democracy is the ability to change direction and leadership collectively. Right now, Canada’s environmental movement is a large collection of individuals. Each participant has their own thoughts and opinion on the overall direction of the movement, but none of us has a venue to express that opinion collectively or do something about it collectively. It’s a fundamentally disempowering situation.
Every other movement has had to deal with a wide array of organizations who are in some way at odds with the core of activists pushing things forward. The Civil Rights movement had the legally-oriented NAACP opposing direct action tactics. ASSÉ had to fight FEUQ during both student strikes while it fought the Quebec government at the same time. Having moderate groups around who try to slow things down and blunt the edges is nothing new.
But Canada’s environmental movement is in a more exclusive club: movements which have no independent democratic venue which includes activists and volunteers. Where is our ASSÉ? Where is our SNCC?
We have nothing like them.
This, I should say, is not a new problem. 16 Greenpeace founders signed a letter declaring that “Greenpeace’s leaders are paid too much, have lost their focus and must become more democratic.” That was in 1996.
The struggle for a democratic movement is a long haul, but the need which drives it is nonetheless pressing. The shadowy foundation-controlled Tar Sands “Coalition” has launched the “Tar Sands Solutions Network,” a name that strongly hints at future corporate collaboration deals coming down the pipe. While many of the individuals receiving the funding are surely against this. Indeed, one prominent tar sands campaigner has been quoted as saying he’ll quit if corporate dealmaking comes to the tar sands. But is that enough to change direction?
Only time, and silent struggles within the coalition, will tell. That is, unless an independent, democratic alternative emerges.
An unfortunate side effect of foundation money coming to Canada every year is that it makes starting truly democratic grassroots efforts much more difficult. The expectations of staff pay and resources are much higher, and talented organizers tend to get picked off and hired by ENGOs. Often, they take their social networks with them.
But it is possible.
The most successful movements in history thrived without foundation money. Without them, the world would look very different today. The first step is a developing a recognition of the need for a democratic venue where movement participants can make decisions independent of foundations. The second is finding the will to build it.
[Dru Oja Jay is a Montreal-based writer and organizer. He is co-author, with Nikolas Barry-Shaw, of Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism.]