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Flashback: The Eco-Establishment
Katherine Barkley and Steve Weissman, “The Eco-Establishment,” in: Ramparts (eds.), Eco-Catastrophe (Harper and Row, 1970), pp.15-24.
Ask Vietnam protesters about the April 22 National Environmental Teach-In and they’ll tell you it’s a scheme to contain their spring offensive against the ecological disaster in Southeast Asia. Ask young blacks about this new movement to save the ecosystem and they’ll tell you that it is a way of distracting attention from the old movement that was supposed to save their skins.
Then go and talk to an environmental activist, a Survival Walker. Ask him why the ecology movement has turned its back on Vietnam and civil rights and he’ll explain, with a convincing freshness the old New Left has lost, that the sky is falling. He’ll point out that we all have to breathe and that none of us – white or black, Vietnamese peasant or American marine – has much of a future on CO2. We all must eat, and a diet of pesticides is deadly. We all need water, and the dwindling supplies are unfit for human (or even industrial) consumption. We all depend on the same limited forests, mines, oceans and soil, and we are all going to choke on the same waste and pollution.
To this new ecology activist, nothing could be more obvious: we’ve all got to unite behind the overriding goal of unfouling our common nest before it’s too late, turning back the pages of the environmental doomsday book. If we succeed, then we can get back to these other questions. There is no stopping, he will add, an idea whose time has come.
He will be right, too-though a bit naive about where ideas come from and where movements go. Environment will be the issue of the ’70?s, but not simply because the air got thicker or the oceans less bubbly, or even because the war in Vietnam got too bloody to have to think about every day. It will be the issue of the ’70?s because such stewards of the nation’s wealth as the Ford Foundation, with its Resources for the Future, Inc. (RFF), and Laurance Rockefeller’s Conservation Foundation needed a grass-roots movement to help consolidate their control over national policymaking, bolster their hold over world resources, and escalate further cycles of useless economic growth.
The environment bandwagon is not as recent a phenomenon as it seems. It began to gather momentum back in the mid-’60?s under the leadership of Resources for the Future. “The relationship of people to resources, which usually has been expressed in terms of quantity, needs to be restated for modern times to emphasize what is happening to the quality of resources,” warned RFF President Joseph L. Fisher in his group’s 1964 report. “The wide variety of threats to the quality of the environment may well embrace the gravest U.S. resources problem for the next generation.” The following year, Resources for the Future established a special research and educational program in environmental quality, funded with a $ 1.1 million grant from its parent organization, the Ford Foundation.
Created by Ford in the early ’50?s during the scare over soaring materials costs, RFF had just made its name in conservation by organizing the Mid-Century Conference on Resources for the Future, the first major national conservation conference since Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot staged the National Governors’ Conference in 1908. Held in 1953, the Mid-Century Conference mustered broad support from both the country’s resource users and conservers for the national conservation policy already spelled out by President Truman’s Materials Policy Commission. It was this Commission, headed by William S. Paley (board chairman of CBS and a founding director of RFF), which had openly affirmed the nation’s inalienable right to extract cheap supplies of raw materials from the underdeveloped countries, and which set the background for Eisenhower and Dulles’ oft-quoted concern over the fate of the tin and tungsten of Southeast Asia. Insuring adequate supplies of resources for the future became a conservationist byword.
By the mid-’60?s, Resources for the Future had begun to broaden its concern to include resource quality, thus setting the tone for a decade of conservationist rhetoric and behavior. The trustees of the Ford Foundation, an executive committee of such international resource users and polluters as Esso and Ford Motor, established a separate Resources and Environment Division which, since 1966, has nourished such groups as Open Space Action Committee, Save-the-Redwoods League, Massachusetts Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, and the Environmental Defense Fund. A year later, the Rockefeller Foundation set up an Environmental Studies Division, channelling money to the National Academy of Science and RFF and to Laurance Rockefeller’s own pet project, the Conservation Foundation.
The conservationist-planners’ new concern over threats to the quality of resources, and to life itself, was actually an outgrowth of their earlier success in assuring cheap and plentiful raw materials. It had become clear that supplies of resources would be less a problem than the immense amount of waste generated as a by-product of those now being refined. The more industry consumed, the more it produced and sold, the larger and more widespread the garbage dumps. Rivers and lakes required costly treatment to make water suitable for use in homes and industry. Smoggy air corroded machines, ruined timberlands, reduced the productivity of crop lands and livestock – to say nothing of its effect on the work capacity of the average man. Pesticides were killing more than pests, and raising the spectre of cumulative disaster. Cities were getting noisier, dirtier, uglier and more tightly packed, forcing the middle class to the suburbs and the big urban landowners to the wall. “Ugliness,” Lyndon Johnson exclaimed sententiously, “is costly.”
This had long been obvious to the conservationists. Something had to be done, and the elite resource planners took as their model for action the vintage 1910 American conservation movement, especially its emphasis on big business cooperation with big government.
When the 1890 census officially validated the fact that the frontier was closed, a generation of business and government leaders realized with a start that the American Eden had its bounds. Land, timber and water were all limited, as was the potential for conflicts over their apportionment. What resources should timber-men, grazers or farmers exploit? What should be preserved as a memory of the American past? Who would decide these questions? The conservationists – Teddy Roosevelt, Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot and some of the bigger timber, grazing and agricultural interests – pushed heavily for a new policy to replace the crude and wanton pillage which had been part of the frontier spirit. While preservationists like John Muir were fighting bitterly against any and all use of wild areas by private interests, the conservationists wanted only to make sure that the environment would be exploited with taste and efficiency.
Roosevelt and his backers won out, of course. And the strategy they used is instructive: failing initially to muster congressional support for their plan, they mobilized a broadly based conservation movement, supposedly to regulate the private interests which they in fact represented. Backed by the widespread public support it had whipped up, the conservationist juggernaut then began to move the country toward a more regulated – but still private – exploitation of its riches.
Of course, the private interests which had helped draft this policy also moved – to staff the regulatory agencies, provide jobs for retiring regulators, and generally to put the right man in the right niche most of the time. Within short order, the regulatory agencies were captives of the interests they were supposed to regulate, and they were soon being used as a screen which kept the public from seeing the way that small interests were squeezed out of the competition for resources. Their monopoly position thus strengthened by regulatory agencies, these large interests found it easy to pass the actual costs of regulation on to the citizen consumer.
The old American conservation movement had reacted out of fear over resource scarcities; the new movement of the mid-’60?s feared, as well, the destruction of resource quality. And the corporation conservationists and their professional planners in organizations like Resources for the Future onceagain looked to government regulations as an answer to the difficulties they foresaw. Only this time the stakes were much higher than they had been at the early part of the century. Many of the resource planners want an all-encompassing environmental agency or Cabinet level Department of Resources, Environment and Population. Holding enormous power over a wide range of decisions, this coordinating apparatus would be far more convenient for the elite than the present array of agencies, each influenced by its own interest groups.
Who will benefit from this increased environmental consciousness and who will pay is already quite clear to business, if not to most young ecology activists. “The elite of business leadership,” reports Fortune, “strongly desire the federal government to step in, set the standards, regulate all activities pertaining to the environment, and help finance the job with tax incentives.” The congressional background paper for the 1968 hearings on National Policy on Environmental Quality, prepared with the help of Rockefeller’s Conservation Foundation, spells out the logic in greater detail: “Lack of national policy for the environment has now become as expensive to the business community as to the Nation at large. In most enterprises, a social cost can be carried without undue burden if all competitors carry it alike. For example, industrial waste disposal costs can, like other costs of production, be reflected in prices to consumers. But this becomes feasible only when public law and administration put all comparable forms of waste-producing enterprises under the same requirements.” Only the truly powerful could be so candid about their intention to pick the pocket of the consumer to pay for the additional costs they will be faced with.
The resource planners are also quite frank about the wave of subsidies they expect out of the big clean-up campaign. “There will have to be a will to provide funds,” explains Joseph Fisher, “to train the specialists, do the research and experimentation, build the laws and institutions through which more rapid progress [in pollution control] can be made, and of course, build the facilities and equipment.” The coming boondoggles – replete with tax incentives, direct government grants, and new products – will make the oil depletion allowance seem tame. And what’s more, it will be packaged as a critical social service.
The big business conservationists will doubtless be equally vocal about the need for new bond issues for local water and sewage treatment facilities; lead crusades to overcome reluctance of the average citizen to vote “yes” on bond measures; and then, as bondholders themselves, skim a nice tax-free six or seven per cent off the top.
It isn’t just the citizen and taxpayer who will bear the burden, however. Bedraggled Mother Nature, too, will pay. Like the original conservation movement it is emulating, today’s big business conservation is not interested in preserving the earth; it is rationally reorganizing for a more efficient rape of resources (e.g., the export of chemical-intensive agribusiness) and the production of an even grosser national product.
The seeming contradictions are mind-boggling: industry is combating waste so it can afford to waste more; it is planning to produce more (smog-controlled) private autos to crowd more highways, which means even more advertising to create more “needs” to be met by planned obsolescence. Socially, the result is disastrous. Ecologically, it could be the end.
Why don’t the businessmen simply stop their silly growthmanship? They can’t. If one producer slowed down in the mad race, he’d be eaten up by his competitors. If all conspired together to restrain growth permanently, the unemployment and cutbacks would make today’s recession look like full employment, and the resulting unrest would make today’s dissent look like play time at Summerhill.
They began in the mid-’60?s in low key, mobilizing the academicians, sprinkling grants and fellowships at the “better” schools, and coordinating research efforts of Resources for the Future, the Conservation Foundation, RAND, Brookings Institution, the National Academy of Science and the Smithsonian Institution. Major forums were held in 1965 and 1966 on “The Quality of the Environment” and “Future Environments of North America.” Research findings were programmed directly into industrial trade associations and business firms.
Then the resource people put their men and programs in the official spotlight: Laurance Rockefeller (founder of and major donor to the Conservation Foundation and also a director of RFF) chaired both the White House Conference on Natural Beauty and the Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Recreation and Natural Beauty (which Nixon has rechristened his Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality). Conservation Foundation President Russell Train headed up Nixon’s Task Force on Resources and Environment, with help from Fisher and several other directors of RFF and the Conservation Foundation, and then became Undersecretary of Interior.
Then the media were plugged in, an easy task for men who have in their hands the direction of CBS, National Educational Television, Time-Life-Fortune, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times and Cowles publications, as well as many of the trade journals and conservation magazines. Independent media, seeing that environment was now news, picked up and broadcast the studies which the conservation elite had produced. Public opinion leaders told their public, in Business Week’s words, “to prepare for the approval of heavy public and private spending to fight pollution.”
Finally, the grass roots were given the word. RFF, Ford and Rockefeller had long worked with and financed the old-time conservation groups, from Massachusetts Audubon to the Sierra Club, and now the big money moved beyond an appreciation of wilderness to a greater activism. When, for example, David Brower broke with the Sierra Club, it was Robert O. Anderson of Atlantic-Richfield and RFF who gave him $200,000 to set up Friends of the Earth (prudently channeling the donation through the organization’s tax exempt affiliate, the John Muir Institute).
When Senator Gaylord Nelson and Congressman Pete McCloskey got around to pushing the National Teach-In, it was the Conservation Foundation, the Audubon Society and the American Conservation Association which doled out the money while Friends of the Earth was putting together The Environmental Handbook, meant to be the Bible of the new movement.
The big business conservationists and their professionals didn’t buy off the movement; they built it.
Ecology activists out picketing a polluter or cleaning up a creek will have total freedom to make up their own minds about the threats to our environment, and they will have every right to choose their own course of constructive action. Yet they will surely never get a dime from Robert Anderson, or even a farthing from Ford or Rockefeller. And so far, the grass-roots ecology movement has done nothing but echo the eco-elite.
Ecology, unlike most of the fractured scientific field, is holistic. It talks of life and its environment as a totality: how organisms relate to each other and to the system which provides their life-support system. As a discipline applied to human affairs, then, ecology should help us get a whole view of our natural and social environment-from oxygen cycles to business cycles, from the jeopardized natural environment to the powerful institutional environment which creates that jeopardy. If it revealed these interconnections, ecology would become, as it has been called, a “subversive science,” subverting the polluters and resource-snatchers who now control the conservation of the nation’s wealth. It would point the finger not simply at profit-making polluters or greedy consumers, but at the great garbage-creation system itself – the corporate capitalist economy.
But this is a far cry from the ecology movement as we have inherited it. Ecology, the science of interconnections, becomes a matter of cleaning up beaches and trying to change individuals’ habits and attitudes, while ignoring the institutions which created them and practically all environmental damage.
The grass-roots ecology groups do have politics-the politics of consumer boycotts, shareholder democracy and interest group pluralism, all of which show a wonderfully anachronistic faith in the fairness of the market, political and economic. “If Dow pollutes,” say the boycotters, “then we just won’t buy Saran Wrap.” If Super Suds won’t make biodegradable soap, we’ll buy Ivory. If Ford and Chevy won’t make steam cars, we’ll buy Japanese imports. From the planned obsolescence in automobiles, to 20 brands of toothpaste, much of what industry produces is insulting to the intelligence while also serving no real need; it is waste, to say nothing of the enormous pollution entailed in overproduction.
Consumer sovereignty has gone the way of the dodo, its passing noted two decades back by that stalwart defender of the new corporate capitalism, John Kenneth Galbraith. Consumers just don’t control what gets produced, or how. To educate or build support for some stronger action, boycotts, like the picket line, work well. Bi to change production habits, an ecology movement will really hay to pull the big plug at the other end of the TV transmitter, or better at the production line itself.
Failing in the economic arena, the ecology groups can of course try their hand directly in the political marketplace. Oil has its lobby the auto manufacturers theirs. Why not a People’s Lobby? Californians have already created one, which is now pushing in Sacramento for a referendum “to make the polluters pay.” The Environmental Defense League, geared primarily to the court system, also defending the environment in Congress. The Sierra Club have already lost its tax-exempt status for being too political, and number of the older conservation groups are pushing new, stream-lined legislation. The strategy seems to be paying off, winning victories here and there. Most of the victories, however, mere strengthen the regulatory agencies, which, after public vigilance peters out, will become tools of the big corporations.
Where boycotts and stockholder strategies simply fail, this interest group politics may lead the ecology movement off the edge of a very well-conserved cliff. Eco-catastrophe threatens to kill it all – and Mother Nature, too. But to engage in the give-and-take of interest group politics, the ecologists must grant serious consideration to and must compromise with the oil interests, auto manufacturers and other powerful business groups. Standard Oil gets Indonesia only if they will market that country’s prized sulphur-free oil here; the auto makers can keep producing their one-man-one-car civilization in return for making additional profit (and apparent compromise) on smog control. The world is dying: write your congressman today.
From lobbying, the eco-groups will move into the nearest election, trying to put Paul Ehrlich or David Brower in office. But elections aren’t won on single issues. Allies must be wooed, coalition built. Already parochial and out of sympathy with the blacks an other out-groups, the environmentalists, anxious to infiltrate the electoral system, will become even more respectable and more careful to avoid contamination by “extreme” positions or people. The will become further compartmentalized and will be at dead center sacrificing even those of their own who refuse to compromise.
Avoiding “politics,” the ecologists have taken up the old liberal shuck. Give equal freedom to aristocrats and the people, to bosses and workers, to landlords and tenants, and let both sides win. The scheme, of course, overlooks the one-sided distribution of resources, money and media-power. Some “reformers” will have all they need, but their solution, which will become the solution, is itself a good part of the problem. Profit-seekers and growth-mongers can’t co-exist with Mother Nature and her fragile children without doing them irreparable harm.
To save any semblance of democracy, a decent relationship to the environment and perhaps the environment itself – ecology, the “in” movement, must become a movement of the outs. It must be committed to a long-term militant fight on more clearly understood grounds – its own grounds. That too might be impossible. But, as Eugene V. Debs once observed, it’s a lot better to fight for what you want and not get it, than to fight for-and get-what you don’t want.
Katherine Barkley is a staff member of the Pacific Studies Center.