RCMP officers assess how to remove two protesters chained to a tree stump at an anti-logging blockade in Caycuse, B.C. on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The RCMP watchdog has launched a systemic investigation of the national police force’s British Columbia unit that deals with protests against logging and pipeline projects. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jen Osborne

 

Large, well-financed environmental organizations have done serious damage to Western Canada’s fossil fuel industry — that doesn’t mean they can do it again

The first column in this series described the masterfully executed campaign waged by environmental organizations in opposition to Alberta’s oil sands. In this column we’ll see that environmental organizations, despite the considerable resources they command and past success, are not omnipotent. ENGOs have baked-in vulnerabilities that can be successfully exploited provided their opponents do the requisite opposition research.

Big Green, big money

One would hope supporters of Western Canada’s fossil fuel industry have learned their lesson and no longer underestimate the power and influence of the environmental movement. There is indeed ample reason for referring to the largest, best financed and most powerful environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) as “Big Green.”

The Big Green ENGOs combine significant financial resources with support from tens of thousands of volunteer activists and full-time professional staff to produce well planned and executed advocacy campaigns. They have the ability to mobilize public opinion on behalf of the causes they support which has in turn influenced public policy in Canada and around the world. The ENGO’s anti-Alberta energy campaign was influential in inspiring the federal government’s west coast tanker ban, the abandonment of the Energy East pipeline project and the Biden government’s decision to block the Keystone XL pipeline. No less damaging was the influence of the ENGOs in the creation of stringent new environmental approval rules that will hinder fossil fuel related development and investment into the future. And, while the focus of the campaign was Alberta’s oil sands, the policy measures it influenced adversely impacted energy producers in all of Western Canada, including here in Saskatchewan.

Big Green has big money. The 2021 Allan inquiry into the environmental movement’s anti-Alberta oil sands campaign provided a sobering portrait of the financial clout of Canada’s ENGOs and the levels of international financial support they receive.

The following table presents financial information gleaned from the Allan Report. The table identifies total revenues including total foreign contributions for 31 of the biggest Canadian ENGOs from 2003-2019. Allan claims he was only able to find smoking gun evidence to link 12 of the 31 to the Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns. The evidence showing foreign donors helped fund the assault on a Canadian industry was particularly troubling for Alberta premier, Jason Kenney. Discovering the scope and scale of that foreign support was part of the Allan Report’s mandate.

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The table shows Allan found approximately 20 per cent of the revenue for Canadian ENGOs actively engaged in the Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns came from foreign sources, a lot of it from charitable foundations in the US. Notwithstanding the assistance received from foreign donors, the fact 80 per cent of the money was raised in Canada means Canadian ENGOs have the resources to wage big advocacy campaigns without foreign support.

An effective advocacy campaign

The Allan Report provides a good summary of the strategy that shaped the Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns. An impressively wide range of tactics were employed, among them were: mobilizing grassroots supporters for letter writing campaigns and protests; the commissioning and publication of research reports; stacking environmental approval hearings; capturing positive media attention and providing content for news stories; sending paid organizers to win support in stakeholder communities, dominating the social media discourse and holding demonstrations and blockades (aka criminality in protests where Western Canadian truckers are involved). Amazingly, campaign supporters also managed to get eight anti-oil sands documentary films produced and released between May 2009 and September 2011.

No less important is that the strategic planning for the campaign clearly identified Western Canada’s energy industry and Alberta’s tourism sector as adversaries worthy of vilification and defeat.

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Big Green’s vulnerabilities

Notwithstanding the scale of their organizational and financial resources and past successes the ENGOs are not unbeatable. Many of their perceived strengths mask vulnerabilities that can be effectively exploited. There are numerous analytical tools available for assessing the strengths and weaknesses of institutions and organizations. This article peers through the lens of just one of them, the iron law of oligarchy.

The early 20th century sociologist, Robert Michels, identified many of the inherent weaknesses of large interest groups be they political parties, unions or charities. Michels famously coined the term iron law of oligarchy to describe how large bureaucratic organizations established to support a specific cause are subject to capture by their managerial elite.

According to Michels, as organizations become larger and more complex their paid executives and managers are rarely removed from office. They become increasingly powerful and secure in their leadership positions. Some of their growing influence and control comes from the status they gain by virtue of the expertise required to administer large complex organizations. Leaders also gain status and power by virtue of the organization’s “worthy” cause. If supporters perceive the cause as righteous they tend to assume the organization’s leaders must be especially righteous. As this process unfolds the leaders tend to become more concerned about their personal fortunes than they are with the purportedly worthy cause that motivated the creation of the organization in the first place.

Inflated views about the worthiness of the organization’s cause combined with the leadership’s desire to remain in control can encourage ends justify the means thinking. This can in turn facilitate hypocrisy, misrepresentation and illegality on the part of the managerial elite and the `organization’s most strident activists. Public exposure of these ethical breeches can frustrate the ambitions of the leadership. A public record of chronic corruption is debilitating and can lead to the disillusionment of volunteers and donors.

Of course, these things don’t happen if the membership and the public are not made aware of the organizational rot.

The predictive power of Michel’s iron law may not be perfect, but its effects are nonetheless clearly evident in the biographies of countless special interest organizations. And, as suggested above, one of the iron law’s principal effects is that the organization’s original cause becomes less important than survival of the organization itself – along with the power, influence and job security of its elite bureaucrats. Looking at a few examples of organizations, including ENGOs, which exhibit symptoms of the iron law illustrates the point.

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Changing causes to maintain the gravy train: a step on the path to oligarchy, inefficiency and ethical decline

The historical evolution of the charity, the March of Dimes, shows how after a strong coterie of executives and paid staff is in place they come to view the interests and longevity of the organization itself as a priority. Causes become interchangeable, provided they keep the organization’s wheels turning and the donations flowing.

The March of Dimes was created in 1938 to raise money for the fight against polio. When the Salk and Sabin vaccines became available in 1959 and 1961 respectively, it appeared that for most intents and purposes, the mission of the March of Dimes had been achieved. However, the charity didn’t simply declare victory and close up shop. After all, why would the leadership want to dismantle a bureaucracy that had become a fundraising powerhouse and provided a living for its senior staff? To that end the organization has survived until today by embracing a series of new worthy causes. After polio, the March of Dimes mission shifted to the prevention of birth defects. From there it moved on to combating infant mortality and premature births, rubella, fetal alcohol syndrome and other causes – all of them undoubtedly worthy of attention. The point is that causes become interchangeable. What stays the same is the tenure and well-being of the managerial elite.

The same pattern is evident in the evolution of some of Big Green’s largest and most powerful organizations. The Sierra Club, for instance, was founded in 1892 with the goal of preserving America’s natural wonders. Places to be preserved included charismatic landscapes like the Yosemite Valley and the Grand Canyon which became the core of the US National Park system. Today, the Sierra Club engages in advocacy on behalf of a suite of environmental causes, with a focus on climate change and greenhouse gas mitigation. A cynic might argue organizations afflicted by the iron law have an anything-for-a-buck philosophy. By way of example, the Sierra Club also promotes and supports the increasingly popular pastime of rock climbing – you can bet that will knock the stuffing out of climate change. The US branch of the Sierra Club has an annual operating budget of $98 million and claims to have approximately 600 paid staff.

The original mission of Greenpeace, when it was launched in Vancouver in 1971, was to oppose nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons testing and the use of nuclear power for electrical power generation. Greenpeace activists grabbed headlines by using their protest ship to interfere with French nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific. In 1975, Greenpeace embraced anti-whaling and captured media attention by intercepting ships hunting for whales. During the 1990s, the focus shifted to climate change and associated issues such as deforestation. Today, Greenpeace claims global warming/climate change is the greatest environmental problem facing the planet. Nonetheless, there are residual influences from its past that that can be resuscitated as needed. Greenpeace remains opposed to nuclear energy. They have been influential in persuading some European countries to shut down their reactors.

FILE – Greenpeace activists protest with a banner reading “Future” on a big scale with a SUV car during the Supervisory Board meeting of car maker Volkswagen AG in Wolfsburg, Germany, on Dec. 9, 2021. A German court on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, rejected a lawsuit by environmental group Greenpeace aiming to force automaker Volkswagen to stop selling vehicles with combustion engines by 2030. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

 

Greenpeace has moved its headquarters from Vancouver to Amsterdam, closer to the world’s greatest concentration of ‘green’ people. In 2011 the organization’s annual budget was reported to be €236.9 million (US $258 million). They claim to have 15,000 volunteers and a full-time staff of 2,400. Volunteers constitute an activist core that can be called on to support local and global campaigns.

Job security for executives in many large interest groups is facilitated by opaque governance structures that limit the democratic participation of grassroots activists and donors. Some, including Greenpeace, have limited grassroots democratic influence to participation in its annual general meeting. Rules governing eligibility to attend annual meetings can be obscure and complicated. Control freaks who happen to be full-time executives are capable of controlling elections to boards of directors. For example, the leadership can anoint slates of candidates which are dutifully elected to board positions by members. This allows executives and senior bureaucrats to control the goals and management policies of the organization – including their own levels of compensation and other terms of employment.

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Inefficiency and corruption

As is the case with a wide variety of large bureaucratic institutions the performance of large ENGOs is compromised by unaccountable decision-making processes, run of the mill bureaucratic inertia and incompetence, and an entrenched management elite.

In the absence of accountability, errors are made then covered up or glossed over. Cronyism and going with the flow become the criteria for promotion and secure tenure. Compensation levels for senior officials can reach levels that volunteer activists would view as excessive if they knew about them. Five star foreign travel and lavish expense accounts don’t fit the image of leaders whose devotion is to the cause as opposed to their incomes and lifestyles. When these sorts of things are publicly exposed they can damage an organization’s credibility and influence. The problem is neither the organizations’ supporters or the media can be counted on to make the effort to look under the hood. Supporters of the fossil fuel industry might want to adopt the discovery and exposure of the organizational weaknesses inherent in ENGOs to their lists of worthy causes.

The Canadian and US branches of the Red Cross have shown just how badly things can go wrong. Canada’s tainted blood scandal exemplifies the organizational flaws that Michels attributes to the iron law of oligarchy. The Red Cross, like the March of Dimes and Greenpeace, has added new causes to its mission and moved beyond its original purpose. The founding purpose of the Red Cross was to provide battlefield nursing care to soldiers. In more recent times it has focused on disaster relief. By the 1980s it was receiving fee for service payments from Canadian governments for its blood transfusion services (primarily blood collection).

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One can reasonably argue that Canada’s tainted blood scandal arose because senior Red Cross officials placed a higher value on the interests of the organization itself than they did about providing safe blood products to Canadians. To that end Red Cross officials covered up serious instances of bureaucratic incompetence and negligence. In the 1980s, senior Red Cross officials knew that blood being used for medical transfusions was contaminated with HIV and hepatitis C. Yet, they continued to make it available without warning the public of the dangers involved. The Krever Inquiry into the tragedy estimated that up to 8,000 people could eventually die from receiving contaminated blood.

The American Red Cross held one of its most successful fundraising drives ever in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Approximately $500 million was raised for Haitian earthquake relief. The Red Cross claimed much of the money raised would help build new housing for 130,000 of the people displaced by the quake. Five years later, only six houses had been built and the money was gone. It was a disturbing case of bureaucratic incompetence, ambivalence and corruption. Much of the money and relief work was handed over to junior relief organizations and Haitian officials with no measures in place to ensure project delivery or responsible financial management. Notwithstanding the massive failure, the bureaucracy that oversaw it all survived.

Expect no less from ENGOs

Large established environmental organizations dominated by a powerful leadership elite combined with weak accountability structures, are clearly vulnerable to the same weaknesses that got the Red Cross in trouble.

Big Green’s opponents can play an important role in making its leadership more publicly accountable. Taking optimal advantage of institutional flaws will require Big Green’s adversaries to invest in the opposition research and communications efforts required to discover and expose them. Obviously, the exposure of mismanagement, scandals and corruption can damage the credibility and public image of ENGOs. When spending a lot of time dealing with pesky scandals an organization’s leadership can become so distracted it hinders their ability to wage effective campaigns. A consistent pattern of scandal and controversy can result in an exodus of supporters and donors. It can be the death of an organization, just ask the people from the WE charity.

To date, Big Green’s mantle of righteousness appears to have immunized it from critical media scrutiny. Journalists, who themselves support the “worthy cause,” don’t report on the environmental movement’s warts, largely because they aren’t looking for any.

The iron law of oligarchy is of course but one of many theoretical frameworks for understanding organizational behavior. Think how much fun could be had by supporters of the West’s energy industry frustrating Big Green by including even more analytical schemes in the tool kit.

 

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