What We Talk About When We Talk About Foundation Funding

Inside the Big Green Machine


Weekend Edition, October 25 to 27, 2013

by Macdonald Stainsby

When discussions begin among environmentally concerned people about foundation funding and how it offsets resistance, a common complaint is that such a discussion is unnecessarily negative. With all of the world at stake, so goes the argument, we need to involve as many “diverse” views and strategies to stop climate chaos as possible. Rather than “being divisive,” we need positive thinking.

While Big Capital and Big Green are trying to propose they are building a bridge to a better, healthy planet– whatever you do, don’t look down. The bridge is faulty, and you’re already half way over the chasm. Just trust the bridge– and keep walking.

A politics based, more or less, on the Beatles maxim “All you need is Love” is demanded. Then, many questions– both real and imagined– to a critique of the fundamentally authoritarian Big Green movement will often come most derisively from those who one would believe have the most in common with the democratic values desperately needed inside Big Green.

Many Big Green employees– and their close friends– have tried extremely hard to infuse these democratic, anti-colonial and even anti-capitalist values into a Big Green movement that long ago eschewed such triviality. Let’s take a leap into these questions, and look at the real answers. If they make you uncomfortable, perhaps they are talking to you.

Do you really think a bunch of foundations sit around, plotting how to destroy environmentalism and tailor it towards their own goals and destinations?”

No, at least not as such or in so many words. Let’s take mainstream journalism and corporate ownership as an analogy.

The mainstream corporate media only rarely send out directives to their Reuters or AP reporters demanding framing or language tweaks that push a particular pro-corporate agenda. Most of the time, corporate reporters know what really would be frowned upon, and don’t write it.

The manufacture of consent is most efficient by virtue of large press barons like Global TV, the Fox Network or for that matter MSNBC or the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation employing people who know what to say, when and how to say it. The censorship takes place, 95% of the time, inside the self-censorship of the journalist trying to sell a piece or make a deadline. That which cannot be said is rarely typed to be deleted later.

The same is true of how Big Green and “activist foundations” determine strategy and what they can sell as a “victory.” The self-censorship of knowing what “is realistic” and what will be even approachable within the ruling industrial elites takes place before negotiation.

When it comes to corporate journalism, self-censorship becomes a part of the creative process. While writing, for example, for Al Jazeera one would be ruining at minimum a good payday to produce a long exposé of the US Naval fifth fleet stationed in Qatar. Why? Because the emir of the Gulf State owns the network. So most journalists at the network would never consider such folly.

Similarly, when it comes to corporate environmentalism, one cannot fund raise from large capital sources to demand anti-corporate solutions or democratic accountability at a community level. In both cases, the existent structures operated within create consciousness as to what is appropriate.

The funders are themselves the “progressive” wing of high finance capital. They bankrolled and continue bankrolling brand Obama. Can one speak of the destruction of internal organizational democracy using the funding that caused that in the first place? Self-censorship and market based logic are wedded, and this corrodes outlook ahead of the game.

Those who are hired into such power positions inside Big Green have already established their class allegiances and have track records of “solutions.” It shows in the basics of policy: from collaboration with corporations, carbon offset schemes, taxation, green investments, all policies are continually geared towards a growth economy. Non-growth organizations need not apply.

If large capital can live with the plans an individual has previously negotiated in secret, then large capital can trust that person will help set an agenda for negotiation over the largest industrial project in the history of humanity– the tar sands in Canada’s Athabasca region– or even worse, at climate negotiations at an international level.

But, the reader may ask:

What of those good people I know who work in these groups? I sat down with them after such and such event/demonstration/conference a few months ago– we didn’t talk about foundation funding or internal democracy inside Big Green, but X person spoke clearly about the need to shut down this industry, and even seemed anti-capitalist. What’s with that?”

While no exact science can predict the variances in human behaviour (some great people will join Big Green organizations, work hard with democratic, collectivist values, come into conflict with the values of Big Green many times over, and eventually have to quit), a “caste analysis” may best fit how to explain these often valiant efforts to be the democratic worm in the Big Green apple.

Big Green keeps people who cannot (for whatever reason) compromise principle for capitalist pragmatism away from the centres of power. The organizations that even have boards of directors or societies legally recognized by the state hire those less compromising people on regional levels or in non-backroom capacities.

Indigenous activists often times have to try to navigate this vast structural marginalization for more accountability for their own communities, or to achieve some level of larger support for a beleaguered community over-whelmed by industrial development. The most skilled activists make the best front line representatives, who struggle to advocate for their own communities often extraordinarily well despite circumstances– yet Big Green cynically borrows their credibility, without changing course.

Most of those faces you see from “Big Green” at community organizing meetings or smaller, regional events have little to no power in the organization they represent. They also do not spend a lot of time with the hierarchy of Big Green as such, usually spending their networking time in a small grouping of other mostly powerless individuals from similar groups. The friends network will see how often the same people get rotated through multiple jobs and organizations.

Why would Big Green regularly employ people who do not share their core, authoritarian values?”

This powerless “frontline” of these Big Green groups has several payoffs for Big Green:

1: Most people who work for Big Green in such a capacity have histories of grassroots organizing. They know people, they know how to get things done with limited budgets, they keep an organization that has no history in the region looking “local” and so on.

2: Criticism of anti-democratic behaviour by Big Green is now relegated to complaints among one another. The value of grassroots, democratic organizing is not extinguished in these people– rather, their complaints become an internal issue, one where absolutely nothing can be done about it, and self-censorship begins.

3: Activist communities are relatively small. While North America may be vast, someone who is employed by Big Green and originated as a community organizer in small town Texas will often know organizers in big cities in Ontario and most certainly many organizations in San Francisco. Staff in British Columbia may quickly begin being shuttled out to meetings in New York. Friendships develop; community networks in Texas small towns will become influenced quickly by what happens in California.

Having people you know, have trusted in the past and work with currently, working (for example) for a local version of will eliminate 98% of criticisms of Who wants to be seen as “attacking their friends?” Hiring a community activist for Big Green, often, means silencing criticism from much of the community that person came from. This is the case whether by design or not. More democratically minded environmental activists do not take the job with this as intent, yet the effect is the same.

Even the very best people, human beings all, once they have taken the position that must as a matter of course disrupt democratic practice, find means to give themselves mental disconnect from the problems. This holds true regardless of what politics the individual involved may “confess” when off the record.

Okay, the exploited, grassroots-oriented front line activist is used by ENGO’s to legitimize the organization. So why would someone who knows better, and believes better, get involved in this?”

Money and status work as powerful forms of disconnect. After sometimes months but usually years of working in a grassroots manner (unless you are someone Big Green needs to borrow credibility from, in which case the process may be rapidly accelerated), you may find that the green establishment wants to hire you. It is because of your skills, no doubt about it. However, the ends that these skills will be used for just changed dramatically.

Certain individuals who work in the frontline of these organizations will have a very dismissive– and seemingly uncomprehending– response to such questions about their employment. To take on such work there must be an initial thought about how this work can be used for good. And often, this can be the case in a short term sense– those who are both more direct, honest and skilled at organizing can make for better relationships between ENGO’s and organized community.

Of course, this is a double edged sword– when community level participation is frozen out or otherwise sidelined in this process, trust that is violated by the hierarchy of Big Green was cultivated (with the best of intent) through the work of contracted, full-time activists.

The logic of capital pervades the society it controls and this lends to organizing trends as well. Full time staff for Big Green will be deferred to, and the prestige of big name brands in ENGO form create a psychology of disconnect, with compromises less and less felt by individuals who started with differing goals initially. The perks of such peer attention and financial security give comfort to the compromised, and the community around them implicitly tends to value “official” organizing.

A large cycle of volunteer labour gets burned, with people coming and going, making banners for the employees, helping set up events, promote rallies– all the grunt work but no input into what the demands are. Thankless work like this causes the majority of volunteers to quit after a short stint of unpaid work. The ones who adapt may eventually be brought into the fold.

Over time, the grassroots organizer “out to change the dynamic from within” is changed by authoritarian Big Green instead.

Or, as is the case with the very best of the paid to organize, the only major compromise they personally make is to not publicly hold Big Green to account, and instead permanently operate on the periphery, taking 3 or 4 month contracts here or there, but never becoming institutionalized in any particular role.

In the last several months, Tzeporah Berman has hired many people for the North American Tar Sands Coalition & to work for or in collaboration with the Tar Sands Solutions Network. The bulk of these newly hired people were once directly in opposition to what she had been promoting.

The organization PowerUp that Berman previously headed was reviled throughout the activist community in British Columbia, Canada. The organization promoted “green energy”– which amounted to the privatization and destruction of many river systems by small dams in the westernmost province.

Many environmental people, and even some larger organizations, fought against what was being promoted by this “run of the river” scheme that may have impacted several hundred BC rivers had she been successful. Greenpeace Canada, it should be noted, took strong positions in opposition to these Run of the River schemes right before Berman was hired by GP International. Berman–with contacts inside Plutonic Power and building them with General Electric as well– proved her strategic importance to the position at PowerUp.

Instead of trying to defeat those who had once worked to stop PowerUp from decimating rivers, she did a much more Machiavellian maneuver. Effectively, according to some who were approached, she said: “You kicked my ass in the Run of the River campaigns… so I want to hire you!” A large group of people who have reputations that are at odds with the work of Ms Berman are now her various employees, creating a strategic logjam where criticisms are now far less likely.

Won’t all the focus on the negative turn people away? Isn’t there a better way to reinvigorate environmental struggles than a head-on clash?”

Whether to sincerely worry about the fate of movements against climate chaos, or to cynically let Big Green off the hook, this is most oft-repeated: “We must avoid acts that focus heavily on the negative.” After all, even if they are problematic, resources are found in such structures. If these concerns are all people focus on, it will cause “infighting,” since even if we disagree with the heads of undemocratic, financially dominant “activist foundations” we are all “working for the same goals.”

With this in mind, many of the community organizers who have already made a clear distinction away from Big Green financed activism and are building something different are often reluctant to speak out about the problems contained within the current foundation-NGO-community relationships.

In so far as the mainstream media will forever go to Big Green for soundbites, interviews and “the environmentalist perspective” when issues erupt, the public perception of the “normalcy” of the situation make subsequent criticisms, denunciations or even stated amazement at a backroom deal marginalized from the outset. Since Big Capital put a vice grip on the public relations perception of what is environmentalism, critics of this phenomenon will be labelled “anti-environmentalist.”

Perhaps an explanation of what happened when the prior work was not done to attempt to pre-empt corporate land deals by Big Green in the last major “collaborative model” secret deal to go public in Canada will help.

Dozens of indigenous communities, both at the council and chief level as well as others with nothing to do with the Assembly of First Nations, came out in both disgust and renunciation of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement [CBFA]. The agreement negotiated away indigenous lands without their participation.

The primary concerns were around multiple ENGO’s and corporate fronts signing any deal on huge tracts of indigenous territories across much of Canada. Accused of violations of sovereignty no different than Canadian governments, criticism of this foundation-orchestrated greenwash got scant play in a corporate friendly media.

Instead, the media portrayal was of a celebratory press conference involving corporate friendly environmentalist orgs, non-registered eco-front groups and fake-activist foundations alongside corporations. Peace, eco-sustainability, jobs and profits. Everybody wins– that was the only prevailing line in corporate-friendly Canadian papers.

The power balance is ridiculously skewed: Criticisms were strong, blunt, no compromising. Angry. The replies to the CBFA were fundamentally righteous. They came from nations colonized within Canada’s north, east, west and south. Big Capital did not repeat these criticisms– in either the mainstream media or from the mouthpieces of Big Green.

Instead, most of the time the grievances were only heard within a network of Twitter, Facebook, blog posts and email discussions. These critiques did indeed hurt the Big Green machine, but the damage was mostly within indigenous country, and among active grassroots environmentalists.

In response to indigenous indignation, groups like the Canadian Boreal Initiative– a product of foundation money from the Pew Charitable Trusts & who partner with corporations such as Suncor, Tembec, Nexen and others– went on a “make right” tour to promote the agreement, to reportedly mixed success. The private chartered flights and helicopter trips of Big Capital’s northern front groups swooped in on many a reserve.

Greenpeace, in the last year, announced a pull-out from the agreement– not for anti-democratically imposing a deal on indigenous territory, nor for over-riding community level organizing. Not because the land protected was woefully insufficient, either. It was because GP determined that the Forestry Products Association of Canada was not moving quickly enough to implement the “deal.”

There were many who spoke out in defiance and disgust at the proposed deal yet it still got perceived as a done deal in the media, and the questions raised by indigenous sovereigntists get put off as simply the voice of this or that cranky cook.

In order for any tar sands ‘deal’ to not get similar levels of traction, those who already reject any deal or backroom discussions ought to consider provisional plans. The need to make clear where people stand on this ahead of the game should be apparent. The distortion of resistance by capital, and by those who believe fervently in such as a guiding light, threatens perhaps the largest issue of resistance to climate chaos in North America. The greatest asset to climate organizing is the strength in community.

The power of capital is one of consciousness. The dominant ideas of any epoch are that of its ruling class, I think some guy with a beard said. Big Capital in environmental circles has caused disconnect– because in what is perceived as green circles, the power of Big Capital is so vast as to seem normalized, or at the least, impossible to challenge. It just “IS”. If a problem becomes overwhelming, psychologically some people completely surrender to it and make accepting it a part of staying sane in an insane situation.

If Big Green groups continue to assume the right to speak for everyone else, only on the basis of their access to large funds from foundations and previously established track records of backroom deals elsewhere, then climate justice should take and publicly make note that this situation must be dealt with head on.

It will not be sufficient to only organize independently and hope to inspire others to follow a democratic, anti-colonial path. It is amazing and heart warming in the large cases where this goes on– but the devastating impact of a lousy full or even partial “deal” with energy companies means we need to have contingency plans in place.

This subconscious acceptance of the dominance of capital has left us with a cynical “ignore the problems” feature to thinking, and a very dangerous “Can’t we all just get along.” This is the “All you need is love” approach. By not seeing– or worse, refusing to see– the inherent problems of Big Capital inside Big Green, we can see Big Green as perhaps confused, but generally part of a big family of environmentally feeling people. You have to love family, right?

But if this is love– to ignore how power works, and to respond to criticisms of that same power as if they were criticisms of yourself? Allow the greatest short story writer of the 20th Century Raymond Carver the final word on this (I have wanted to work him into something for years). He understood the human condition and the pain inherent in love better than almost all of us. Is ignoring or refusing to confront Big Green and foundation led backroom negotiations that may condemn so many humans and other species to extinction– is that “Love”?

“I sure as Hell wouldn’t call it love,” Mel said. “I mean, no one knows what he did it for. I’ve seen a lot of suicides, and I couldn’t say anyone ever knew what they did it for.”

Mel put his hands behind his neck and tilted his chair back. “I’m not interested in that kind of love,” he said. “If that’s love, you can have it.”

– Raymond Carver, from What We Talk About When We talk About Love.


Read Part 1Part 2 and Part 3 in this series.


[Macdonald Stainsby is an anti-tar sands and social justice activist, freelance writer and professional hitchhiker looking for a ride to the better world, currently based in Vancouver, Canada. He can be reached at]

One Comment

  • Michael Swifte on Jan 31, 2014

    This is a remarkable document. The most important thing I read in 2013. I have re-read it several times. I share it with everyone who has important work to do.

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