Opinion: Confessions of a former knee-jerk greenie
Free Press Columnist
For decades, I was the kind of googly-eyed environmentalist that “rednecks” love to hate. I walked in lockstep with my enviro pals and saw the world in very black and white terms. We were there for the purest of reasons — to save the dwindling wilderness of the American West.
And then one day it wasn’t so clear to me. I had been an unflinching supporter of wilderness, but as the tourist boom/urbanization of Moab and the rural West exploded, I began to doubt the purity of our cause. Years ago, I decided to express those concerns as an “amenities economy” wreaked its own impacts on the very land we sought to preserve. I thought “our side” needed to look in the mirror. My lockstep days were over.
Since then, the “wilderness” issue has devolved into a political and economic battle between two competing industries for the alleged best use of the land. It has little to do with the qualities that the word is supposed to evoke — like beauty and space and solitude. It’s about money.
For me, the moral component in the wilderness fight was lost long ago. So I grimaced when Southern Utah Wildeness Alliance staffer Brooke Williams recently analyzed opposition to the proposed “Greater Canyonlands” debate in a Moab newspaper. Resisting national monuments was senseless, he wrote, except for the Utah politicians “who get paid by the corporations who profit while creating the threats which Monument and Wilderness designations are designed to protect these unique lands from.” And he insisted that tourism has a far less intrusive impact on the land.
But is that true?? And is mainstream environmentalism still the shining beacon, battling the Corrupt Corporate Monolith?
In fact, mainstream environmentalism is big business these days. National organizations boast corporate-like assets, but even grassroots groups are flush with money. Locally, organizations like SUWA and The Grand Canyon Trust carry bottom lines in the millions and even invest donations in publicly traded securities. Many receive significant funding from corporations, billionaire bankers and financiers, venture capitalists and industrialists — the dreaded “One Per Cent,” known for opulent excesses that mock the very idea of “sustainability.”
But does it matter? True, these wealthy donors live in multiple mansions and fly Gulfstream jets and live exorbitantly. But environmentalists reject the alleged double standard; they rationalize that if they can do good deeds with the devil’s money, their conscience is clear. And maybe they have a point. To defeat the enemy with their own ill-gotten gains has a certain warped appeal.
But what if their benefactors’ actions are creating precisely the kind of environmental damage the recipients are attempting to stop? But in somebody else’s backyard?
For example, the Texas Sierra Club is waging war against the giant utility Energy Future Holdings. Three of its plants rank first, third and fourth nationally in mercury emissions. EFH is resisting efforts to reduce them. But EFH is owned by TPG Capital. Its founder is David Bonderman, who also sits on the board of directors of the Grand Canyon Trust, which opposes dirty coal plants out West. Does that create a conflict of conscience for GCT?
Another TPG subsidiary is Petro Harvester, an energy company that develops North American oil and gas properties, sometimes using enhanced fracturing techniques. In 2011, it caused the largest brine spill in the history of North Dakota.
It’s also a member of the lobbying group, Western Energy Alliance. Recently, WEA applauded then-Interior Secretary Salazar’s Utah “Local Wilderness Initiatives,” and mocked SUWA’s Red Rock Wilderness Bill, claiming it “has failed over two decades because politicians outside the West propose huge areas without consideration of conditions on the ground.”
It’s extraordinary — both sides are being funded by the same “donor,” via the various components of Bonderman’s multi-tiered empire. Bondo, some would say, is a high-priced hypocrite.
But is he? Being a billionaire and making global deals is what Bonderman does. He contributes to “green” causes for reasons of his own. He isn’t forcing money on anyone.
The responsibility must fall upon mainstream environmentalism. Can they seriously address issues that threaten the very life of our planet and still be funded by corporations and individuals whose stated goals are antithetical to the organizations they contribute to? They cannot have it both ways.
As for environmentalists’ assertion that an amenities economy is a less damaging option than digging for oil, it was Bill Hedden, GCT’s executive director, who once wrote, “Everywhere we looked, natural resource professionals agreed that industrial-strength recreation holds more potential to disrupt natural processes on a broad scale than just about anything else.”
Bottom line — nothing is as clear-cut as we want it to be.
Ultimately, environmentalists must be willing to address uncomfortable Truths. Can they do that and still hide behind these kinds of contradictions? The stakes are too high to keep avoiding the question.
Jim Stiles is publisher of the “Canyon Country Zephyr — Planet Earth Edition.” It ran for 20 years as a print publication and is now exclusively online. He is also the author of “Brave New West — Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed.” Both can be found at http://www.canyoncountryzephyr.com. Stiles lives in Monticello, Utah, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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