Peter Dauvergne on the The Corporatization of Activism

Peter Dauvergne has completed a trilogy on the non profit industrial complex.

Eco Business: A Big-Brand Takeover of Sustainability (MIT Press, 2013) with Jane Lister.

Protest Inc.: The Corporatization of Activism (Wiley, 2014) with Genevieve LeBaron.

And Environmentalism of the Rich (MIT Press, 2016).

Dauvergne is a professor of international studies and global environmental politics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

In Protest Inc., the authors give examples of direct coalitions between environmental groups and corporations. They reference, for example, Sierra Club partnering with Clorox. Similarly, a couple of years ago, Corporate Crime Reporter ran a story about Sierra Club getting $25 million from Chesapeake Energy. There is that kind of direct corporate influence. But there is also what Dauvergne calls corporatization of the environmental groups.

“People concerned about this have long looked at that kind of direct giving of money, funding of particular programs, even setting up NGOs – secretly backing them,” Dauvergne told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “Certainly big oil companies have done this to challenge climate change politics.”

“What Genevieve LeBaron and I argue in Protest Inc. is that we are seeing a more insidious and deeper process of the corporatization of activism. There has been a general shift toward assuming that markets are an efficient and effective way forward. So, they argue, for example, we should be pushing carbon trading and carbon markets. They argue we can solve these complex difficult environmental problems like tropical deforestation or overfishing or chemical pollution, through activities like certification, eco-labeling, giving consumers choice — and allow people to have everything they ever wanted, maybe even more of everything — and we’ll solve these problems by tinkering in the markets.”

“And you see the rise of groups like the Forest Stewardship Council for certifying sustainable timber, or the Marine Stewardship Council, to certify seafood products, or the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil for certifying so-called sustainable palm oil.”

“All of these organizations certainly do some good and help set some standards. And they have improved management practices to some extent. But if you step back and look at whether this is actually helping to resolve this escalating crisis or even resolve some of these particular problems, in almost every case, the answer is a very clear no. Things are getting worse.”

“Much of activism is shifting to incremental, corporate friendly, brand supportive actions. Many of these NGOs are supporting companies like Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart and Nestle and Unilever. We need to do far more and move more aggressively.”

“That’s not true of all groups. Some groups like Greenpeace are more critical. And certainly at the community level and in developing countries, there is more critical and radical activism demanding more systemic changes. But in the more developed countries, we are seeing much more compliant and cooperative non governmental organizations.”

When you say environmentalism of the rich, what did you mean?

“It means that environmentalism is increasingly reflecting those with wealth and those with power. We are seeing a shift to solutions that are market oriented and business friendly. The assumption is that businesses should continue to profit, grow and expand. More and more environmentalism is about protecting the values and environmental concerns of those with money. In poorer countries and remote areas, the destruction continues.”

“Environmentalism, which was once dealing with environmental degradation, including environmentalism of the poor, is now increasingly focused and concerned with environmentalism as understood by those with wealth and power, including big business.”

You have written extensively on the timber industry. What are some examples from that work on the two types of environmentalism?

“At one level, you have an environmentalism that is trying to stop logging in old growth rain forests in the tropics to protect the high levels of biodiversity, combined with the tremendous values for the climate of having these forests as carbon sinks,” Dauvergne says. “There is an environmental protest movement that includes organizations that are quite prominent in the western media — organizations like Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network. But they are cooperating and working in tangent with a large number of local indigenous groups in just about every tropical country in the world. And there are community groups also in those countries — to protect their hunting, their livelihoods and for flood control. That’s the kind of environmentalism that is not about cooperating with corporations.”

“On the other side, you have an equally large if not larger group of environmental activists who see this as an unrealistic way forward, that this doesn’t deal with the complexity of needing to bring income into these developing countries. They say — we need to find a way to make the forest a valuable resource. If you try and set it aside and conserve it, it will just be burned down and turned into a cattle ranch or a palm oil estate, or turned into soy farming. Instead, what you need to do is move to what they call sustainable logging with good companies going in and market structures that give added value by certifying the timber as sustainable and making sure the eco labels are prominent on the shelves of Home Depot. That way you get the market working.”

“In theory, these certification programs sound good. It seems as if the big corporations are being cooperative and supportive. But in reality, when you look at examples around the world you can almost never find a case where these programs would meet any reasonable standard of sustainability. That’s for the tropical world. The temperate rainforests are a different story. But let’s stick with the tropics. You end up with a false story of sustainability. It looks as if companies are doing good and certifications are being central to the solution. But when you go to the ground and ask — are things getting better? — you see the answer is no, they are not. And we are still getting a rate of tropical deforestation where every two to three seconds, in some years, we lose about a football field of tropical forest. That’s stunning.”

“And we are losing those forests to cattle grazing, palm oil, and soy farming.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Peter Dauvergne, see 31 Corporate Crime Reporter 36(12), September 18, 2018, print edition only.]

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