In defense of environmental extremism

David Brower and friends

David Brower and friends

The other night, I saw A Fierce Green Fire, a documentary history of the environmental movement, as part of the excellent DC Environmental Film Festival. The movie was OK, worth seeing, but not great, a bit PBS-like in its sweep.  By trying to cover a  lot, the filmmakers mostly skim the surface: Here’s Sierra Club  founder John Muir, there’s Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, remember when Jimmy Carter put a solar heater on the White House roof, say hello to Stewart Brand and Bill McKibben, meet Wangari Maathai, and let’s not overlook environmental justice and the Copenhagen climate talks, and wasn’t that Buckminster Fuller? Nor does the film look critically at environmentalism; it’s narrated by Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, Van Jones, Isabel Allende and Meryl Streep, which pretty much tells you all you need to know.

FierceGreenFire_posterHaving said that, the film, sometimes by design and sometimes inadvertently, manages to deliver a useful reminder about radicals and rabble-rousers: They are often the ones who drive change. Had Barry Goldwater been an environmentalist, he might have said that extremism in defense of the earth is no vice and that moderation, when it comes to climate change, is no virtue. The environmental movement’s heroes, at least in this telling, are David Brower and Lois Gibbs and Chico Mendes and Greenpeace, and not those who work inside the Beltway or travel to UN conferences. At the very least, grass-roots, bottom-up activism created the conditions that drove change in Washington.

Consider, for example, these stirring words from a presidential State of the Union address, which is (too) briefly excerpted in the movie: [click to continue…]

Deep green investing: a closer look

A divestment rally at Harvard

A divestment rally at Harvard

As you’ve no doubt heard, Bill McKibben and his allies at 350.org have launched a  a national campaign to persuade colleges, universities, churches, foundations and, yes, people like you and me, to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry. The campaign raises interesting questions as, I’m sure, McKibben hoped it would. Among them:

Does divestment make sense as a strategy to curb climate change?

If those of us who are concerned about climate change want to align out investments with our beliefs, what options are available?

In a column called Deep Green Investing published last week by Ensia, a lively new online magazine about environmental solutions, I argued that, by itself, divestment will probably not accomplish much. Having said that, the campaign could prove useful as one of a number of tactics being deployed by 350.org, the Sierra Club and others that are aimed at bringing about political change–namely, taxes or caps on global warming pollutants, EPA rules to curb coal-burning, etc.

In The Nation, Mark Hertsgaard argues that these grass-roots climate efforts have already produced results–350.org galvanized opposition to the Keystone Pipeline, which may have persuaded President Obama to delay a decision after the election, and the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign has, along with cheap natural gas, helped drive the decline of coal in the US. Hertsgaard writes:

As important as the victories themselves was how they were won. Both the Sierra Club and 350.org eschewed the inside-the-Beltway focus and top-down political strategy of big mainstream environmental groups, as exemplified by the cap-and-trade campaign. Instead, they emphasized grassroots organizing at the local level on behalf of far-reaching demands that ordinary people could grasp and support. Their immediate goal was to block a specific pipeline or power plant, but their strategic goal was to build a popular movement and accrue political power.

This is the political context in which the divestment movement makes sense. It won’t shake up the oil industry–the Ensia story explains why–but it’s a useful organizing tool.

But what might the campaign mean for investors? Today, I’m taking a closer look at a couple of “deep green” broadly-diversified mutual funds that have decided, unlike most other funds that market themselves as green or socially responsible,” to cleanse their portfolios of companies that extract fossil fuels. [click to continue…]

Welcome, Ensia!

Ensia calls itself “a new magazine and event series showcasing environmental solutions in action.”

Read that description carefully and you’ll see how this media venture  got its  name. It took me a while.

Even as the traditional press continues to shrink–my former employer, Time Inc., just this week eliminated another 500 jobs, or 6% of its workforce–new outlets arise. I’ve been particularly impressed lately by the work of such nonprofit underwriters of journalism as Pro Publica, EnvironmentalHealthNews and the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Ensia, too, is a nonprofit, published by the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, which formerly published a magazine called Momentum, and funded by a major grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which supports environmental causes.

voice-green-investing-gunther-mainI’m pleased to be a contributor. Jon Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment (and a lively presence on Twitter as @globalecoguy), asked me to write an occasional opinion piece about business and sustainability. My first one looks at some issues raised by Bill McKibben’s campaign to get institutional investors to divest from fossil fuel companies, and how individual investors might want to think about divesting. Here’s how it begins:

In the investing world, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. When it comes to climate science, predicting the future is more straightforward: If we burn all of the fossil fuels on the books of the big oil, coal and gas companies—2,795 gigatons, to be precise—or even most of them, we’re headed for trouble. Bill McKibben, the writer and environmental activist, calls this global warming’s terrifying new math. In response, McKibben and his allies at 350.org have launched a coast-to-coast campaign to persuade colleges, universities, churches, foundations and, yes, people like you and me, to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry.

“It does not make sense,” McKibben says, “to invest my retirement money in a company whose business plan means that there won’t be an earth to retire on.”

His logic is unassailable. But divestment alone won’t deliver the change we need—only political action can do that. And, while it is possible to cleanse your personal portfolio of fossil fuels, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Here’s why.

You can read the rest of the column here. I’m going to dive into this topic in more depth here on the blog in a day or two.

Meantime, browse around Ensia. I think it’s off to a good start.

2012’s green business heroes

Bill McKibben does the math

Bill McKibben does the math

Some say, and with reason, that 2012 was the best year ever. Never in the history of the world has there been less hunger, less disease and more prosperity. Of course there’s plenty to worry about–the fiscal cliff, gun violence, chaos in Syria and the Congo–as always there will be. But, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, the long arc of history bends towards a more just and sustainable world.

In the little corner of the world that occupies much of my attention–the places where business and sustainability intersect–it has not been a good year. Global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. We’re burning more coal, oil and gas than ever. Policy is stuck, in the US and internationally. This will be the hottest year on record in the US, and still people don’t accept the science of climate change. Go figure.

That said, in this final blogpost of 2012,  I’d like to salute some people (again, mostly from the world of business and sustainability) who fought the good fight during the year  just past. Some are business people, others are politicians, activists and even journalists, but they are all doing what they can to bend the arc of history. They’re my green business heroes for 2012. [click to continue…]

My beef with beef

Should environmentalists just say no to eating meat?

That was the headline over my latest story for the YaleEnvironment360 website. The story looked at the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, a collaboration between environmental groups  and industry to improve the way beef is produced. The roundtable was put together by Jason Clay, a top executive at  the WWF, and includes such companies as McDonald’s, Cargill and Walmart. The roundtable will try to measure the environmental footprint of beef production methods, and spread best practices. If people are going to keep eating beef — and they are — the roundtable’s work should be valuable. While I’d feel better about the effort if it were not predominantly financed by industry, Clay and his colleagues are well-intentioned, in my view.

Having said that…I can’t help but wonder why environmental groups aren’t more vocal about asking their supporters to eat less beef–and especially to avoid beef from factory farms (or, if you prefer, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs).

As I wrote in the YaleE360 story, beef

…has twice the greenhouse gas emissions of pork, nearly four times more than chicken, and more than 13 times as much as vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu, according to the Environmental Working Group. Eating less meat is the most important thing an individual can do to curb climate change, some scientists say. If Americans were to reduce their meat consumption by a mere 20 percent, it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius, according to Gidon Eshel, a research professor at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago.

And yet:

… green groups that readily fight coal plants or suburban sprawl have for the most part shown little desire to do battle with meat. The Meatless Monday campaign was started not by environmentalists but by the school of public health at Johns Hopkins. The Mayo Clinic has more to say about meat than The Nature Conservancy, although TNC’s chief executive, Mark Tercek, is a vegetarian. Another vegetarian, Danielle Nierenberg, who directs the Nourishing the Planet program at the Worldwatch Institute, explains: “Most environmental groups don’t want to tell people what to eat or what not to eat. It’s a personal issue that’s tied to your culture, to your history, to what your mom fed you when you were five years old.”

Danielle is correct–no one likes to be nagged about eating, or not eating, their dinner–but I think there’s more to it than that. The big environmental NGOs are generally reluctant to tackle the issue of overconsumption. Americans, as a group, drive big cars, live in big houses, buy too much stuff and throw too much of it away. None of this makes us, as a group, much happier, research indicates. But environmental groups don’t talk about this as much as they should, perhaps because they don’t want to alienate their well-to-do donors. [click to continue…]

Should “green” funds invest in fossil fuels?

Bill McKibben’s groundbreaking Rolling Stone story (Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math) and 350.org’s “Do the Math” divestment campaign raise important and difficult questions about fossil fuels. One that is starting to roil the world of socially-responsibly investing is this: How should mutual funds that strive to be “green” or “sustainable” or “socially responsible” deal with the fossil fuel companies in their portfolios? Should they divest, as McKibben argues?

That was the topic of a column I wrote last week for the Guardian Sustainable Business, which generated some noteworthy responses. It’s part of the British newspaper The Guardian, which has one of the most popular English language media websites in the world. Here’s how the column begins:

“We’re going after the fossil fuel industry,” Bill McKibben tells about 1,800 cheering fans in a Washington, DC, theatre. “They’re trying to wreck the future, so we’re going after some of their money.”

Al Gore notwithstanding, McKibben – an author, academic and founder of the grassroots climate group 350.org – is America’s leading environmental activist. His 21-city Do The Math tour begins a campaign to persuade colleges, churches, foundations and governments to divest their holdings in coal, oil and natural gas companies.

“It does not make sense,” McKibben tells the Washington audience, “to invest my retirement money in a company whose business plan means that there won’t be an earth to retire on.”

He’s right about that, but the divestment campaign raises a thorny question: where can investors who worry about climate change put their money?

Divest for our Future, 350.org’s divestment website, recommends “environmentally and socially responsible funds“. The trouble is, the biggest and best-known mutual funds that call themselves environmentally and socially responsible also invest in fossil fuel companies. They evidently haven’t heard McKibben’s message.

Is this green?

The column–you can read the rest here–goes on to report that the Parnassus Equity Income Fund  holds about 14% of its assets in oil, natural gas companies and electric utilities that burn fossil fuels, that the TIAA-CREF Social Choice Equity Fund owns shares in dozens of oil and gas firms including Hess, Marathon and Sunoco, and a pair of shale gas giants, Devon Energy and Range Resources, that the Calvert Equity Portfolio  has about 10% of its portfolio in fossil fuels, including  Suncor, which says on its website that it was “the first company to develop the oil sands, creating an industry that is now a key contributor to Canada’s prosperity,” and that the Domini Social Equity Fund has, among its top 10 holdings, Apache Corp, an oil and gas exploration and production company.

Are you surprised to learn that these funds invest in oil and gas companies, including those in the Canadian Tar Sands? Perhaps naively, I was. [click to continue…]

Chevron. Sustainable. Really?

It’s not every day that one of the world’s biggest corporations files an ethics complaint against a little-known government official–in fact, if it’s happened before, I missed it–but that’s exactly what Chevron did last week in the state of New York.

The company accused Thomas DiNapoli, the state comptroller, who oversees the state’s pension fund, of accepting about $60,000 in campaign contributions from lawyers and supporters of people who are suing Chevron in Ecuador. The campaign donations, it is alleged, influenced DiNapoli to use his power as the trustee of  the pension fund, which owns Chevron stock, to push Chevron to settle the long-running, bitterly-fought lawsuit.

Imagine. Politicians being influenced by campaign donations.

Chevron would know about that. Last month, the company donated $2.5 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC that supported House Republican candidates. The donation “appears to be the largest contribution from a publicly traded corporation to a political group” since the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling, The Washington Post reported. Chevron also spent nearly $15 million on Washington lobbying since the start of 2011, the Post said.

So…evidently, it’s fine for Chevron to lavish money on politicians but unethical for its opponents to do so.

As it happens, Chevron’s complaint against DiNapoli was not even the most surprising news about the company to surface last week. Even more unexpected was the announcement that Chevron was being added to the holdings of the NASDAQ OMX CRD Global Sustainability Index, a “benchmark for stocks of companies that are taking a leadership role in sustainability performance reporting.”

The NASDAQ CRD Index helps guide investors seeking companies that are more sustainable.  Just a few months ago, at the Rio + 20 confab, NASDAQ  and several other stock exchanges promised, along with the UN Global Compact, to “promote long-term, sustainable investment in their markets.”

But what does that mean when an index includes Chevron, America’s second-biggest oil company? [click to continue…]

Instead of shopping, why not yerdle?

It’s Black Friday. Instead of shopping, why not yerdle?

Yerdle is a sharing and shopping website and mobile app being launched today by two stalwarts of corporate sustainability — Adam Werbach, the former Sierra Club leader and Saatch & Saatchi marketing guy, and Andy Ruben, Walmart’s first sustainability director.

Andy and Adam, who are both 39 and live in San Francisco (natch), have come up with a very cool idea. Yerdle is a way for people who have stuff to give away, or other stuff they want, to share with one another–before heading out to the store to buy something new. By today, after a beta test in the Bay Area, they expect that more than 10,000 items will be offered on Yerdle.

I took a sneak peek at the site the other day and found, among other things, a Ikea children’s table and chairs, a yoga DVD, Sesame Street DVDs, red Baby Gap sweats, a dustbuster, a radio alarm clock, a laptop sleeve, a pasta maker, kids books, a collection of little wooden dress-up dolls, and more–and that’s before inviting my friends to join. [click to continue…]

Do the math: Bill McKibben takes on Big Oil

Most Americans own cars. Most cars run on gasoline.

Can we be persuaded to think of the oil industry as the enemy? What about the coal industry, which supplies more than a third of the electricity we use?

“Movements need enemies,” declares Bill McKibben, the author, activist and leader of grassroots group 350.org. So last week, with allies including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, McKibben and 350.org began a 20-city, month-long coast-to-coast tour called Do the Math that targets the fossil fuel industry. It’s designed to invigorate the climate movement by calling upon colleges, foundations and governments to sell their stock in coal, oil and natural gas companies.

The campaign is modeled after the 1980s South Africa divestment campaign, which helped pressure the government to enter negotiations that eventually led to the end of apartheid. To underscore that point, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu will make appearances, on video, during the tour.

It’s time to focus on the polluters, McKibben said last week by phone from Seattle, where the tour kicked off. “We’ve spent so much time focusing on our elected officials, and so little time focusing on the players behind them,” he said.

“The fossil fuel industry is now the tobacco industry,” he told me. “They are now a rogue force in our society.”

Not surprisingly, the oil companies aren’t happy about any of this. Rayola Dougher, a senior economic advisor at the American Petroleum Institute, told me that McKibben’s attacks on U.S. oil companies, if they lead to higher carbon taxes or caps, would raise energy prices and risk American jobs, while doing little or nothing to curb greenhouse gas emissions. “Demonizing an industry is not a good starting point for dealing with a big and complex issue like this one,” she said. [click to continue…]

What’s wrong with economic growth?

Dave Gardner is a gutsy guy.  Gardner, who is 56, a former corporate filmmaker, set his career aside a few years ago to run for office in his hometown of Colorado Springs, CO, and make a documentary film called Growthbusters: Hooked on Growth that puts forth an unpopular idea–that economic growth is bad for the environment and bad for human happiness.

“I want to make it OK for people to be against growth,” Dave says, when asked why he ran for office and made the movie.

Dave and I fundamentally disagree. I think economic growth is vital, not just to lift billions of people out of poverty–global per capita income is currently about $10,700, if Wikipedia is to be believed–but because societies that are more prosperous are better able to deal with the issues of environmental and social justice that matter most to me.

Nevertheless, I would urge you to see Dave’s film (screenings are listed here, or you can buy the DVD) both because he raises a number of important questions and and because, to his credit, has managed to capture on film some of the world’s most provocative thinkers on the topic of growth–Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford professor and author of the controversial 1968 book The Population Bomb, sociologist Juliet Schor, whose books include The Overworked American, the heretical economist Herman Daly, environmental activist and author Bill McKibben, and the charismatic political economist and author Raj Patel. [click to continue…]