Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 6. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 21-23.

The Business of Conservation, or the Conservation of Business?

"In order to underline the problem [of destruction of SSSIs], FoE has launched a campaign centring on a 'Magnificent Seven' group of threatened sites. But some of these may already be doomed. In September, for example, British Coal [now 'Celtic Energy'] began open-cast mining at Selar Farm in West Glamorgan, a traditionally managed area of meadows, which are rich in wildflowers and rare butterflies such as the marsh fritillary. The mining will "totally obliterate" the SSSI."

- From BBC Wildlife November 1994.

"'Pastures New: How to Create and Care for Wildflower Meadows', by the Wildlife Trusts, supported by British Coal Opencast. - Since 1945, 97% of British wildflower meadows have vanished. This booklet aims to reverse this trend."

- From the Reviews Section of the same issue of BBC Wildlife.

"Everyone [?] in the country inevitably takes a share of the hardship in a recession and the voluntary sector is no exception. In fact charities today are very sensitive to recession ... [however] business sponsorship has not fallen back and remains at approximately 40% of fund-raising income, but we are having to work much harder for it. Our corporate clients have become much more demanding about what they get for their money and we are asked more searching questions about the marketing and public relations benefits of their involvement. Sponsorship is no longer philanthropic - it is unambiguously linked to company performance and image."

- From 'Natural World' ( the magazine of the RSNC/Wildlife Trusts Partnership ), Winter 1992.

The point is that organisations such as the RSNC ( Royal Society for Nature Conservation ) are implicated in the functioning of the economic system, through not standing for its demise and for their own redundancy/ies. Their fortunes rise or fall with that of the overall economic system. The economic boom that trickles down to them from their corporate mentors is, as Fifth Estate point out, founded on ecologic bust.[1] Therefore a recession is cause for celebration - it is a temporary let-up in the economic war being waged against the earth and all its peoples. It should not be a cause for anxiety over the potential drying up of funds - at the loss of the RSNC's share in the spoils of that economic war.

However, the RSNC and others are not just implicated by virtue of their quiescence. As the passage from Natural World makes abundantly clear, they are beholden to capital. The "sponsorship" isn't "philanthropic" - they are expected to play an active role in the waging of the war. In the realm of representation - of image pressed into the service of capital - they have a job to do; like everyone else, they must "work harder". Being associated with a neutral and benevolent organisation like the RSNC lends an air of credibility - the green seal of approval - to British Coal's activities. In this context, the RSNC act as image janitors, cleaning up 'corporate pollution'. In our upside-down world, this term refers not to actual damage to the environment caused by the company, but to the 'pollution' of the company's image by such damage. The presence of (for example) the RSNC in all this serves to reassure a nervous public - in the words of Fifth Estate, it gives "the appearance of management through the management of appearances".[2]

Of course, such 'greenwashing' [3] is rife. Other examples are Greenpeace's involvement in the development of fuel-efficient cars, the Shell "Better Britain' campaign [4], the Ford Conservation Awards, Esso Tree Week, Tarmac's astonishing, sanctimonious conversion to 'environmentalism' (pass the sickbag) - the list is endless.

A related problem is that of convergence - the way in which NGOs have become ever more similar to the corporations in their institutional structure and needs: "They found themselves managing increasingly large projects and budgets. Their staff mushroomed and demanded better employment conditions. They needed people, project and financial management skills of the same kind as business. So downsizing companies seconded managers to NGOs ... And NGOs appointed people from business to their boards and top management posts".[5] The personnel and interests of NGOs and companies became ever more interchangeable - indeed, by virtue of their similar structures, they began to develop an affinity with one another, they began to understand each others' needs - they recognised, as Thatcher said of Gorbachev, that here were people they could do 'business' with. Cooperation began to replace confrontation, and the euphemistically named 'strategic alliances' between NGOs and particular companies started to develop.

Likewise, as companies demanded more for their sponsorship money, the "NGO corporate sponsorship departments became almost indistinguishable from mainstream advertising or PR agencies".[5] Greenpeace in particular is hailed as a master at manufacturing stunning images. While we may find Greenpeace's PR product more palatable than that of a commercial ad agency, do we really want to follow the corporations down this route? Regardless of who produces it, the form of media manipulation carries a message in itself - as Jacques Ellul has said, "the effects of one's propaganda on the personality are exactly the same as those of enemy propaganda".[6]

More generally, the RSNC and others perform a role, albeit an unwitting one, similar to that of modern day unions in the world of work. Both traffic in popular concerns, witholding or delivering the 'block vote' in exchange for certain concessions. Like the labour struggles of the late 19th and early 20th century (and, to a lesser extent, those of today), environmentalism in its undiluted form can pose a fundamental challenge to the operation of capitalism - it is one of the latest 'arenas of contestation'. As Nicaraguan environmentalist Lorenzo Cardenal has said, "The ecological movement as a form of popular mobilisation has enormous political potential and could even be said to be revolutionary in the Third World, because it questions the very basis of the social order ... The influential developed world, primary beneficiaries of the existing order, have seen this political potential and attempted to neutralise it.".[7] Likewise, in the US, a leaked memorandum from the Government's Environmental Protection Agency described the "'environmental justice movement'... as the greatest threat to political stability since the anti-war movement of the 1960s".[8]

The RSNC, et al, act as the domestic face of this process of neutralisation and recuperation. If capitalism "must above all prevent a new setting out of revolutionary thought",[9] then the function of the RSNC, like that of the unions, is to disarm meaningful dissent and to muddy the waters - the public can rest easy because 'something' is being done - the environment has its advocates, and the situation is in hand. They mediate and divert the environmental concern that can be so disturbing to the status quo, channelling it into less antagonistic, more manageable forms. Instead of refusing the system outright, they opt for participation within it. According to Majid Rahnema, an ex-official of the UN Development Programme, this means that "Grassroots organisations are becoming the infrastructure through which investment is made, or they help provide the human 'software' that makes other kinds of investment work ... [Participation] is now simply perceived as one of the many 'resources' needed to keep the economy alive. To participate is thus reduced to the act of partaking in the objectives of the economy, and the societal arrangements related to it."[10]

UK green organisations help deliver this "human software" too. Professor Chris Baines describes the boom years of the 1980s, when job creation schemes for the unemployed drafted a huge new workforce into the conservation movement.[11] Yes, environmental restoration work desperately needs doing, but a far less lofty political agenda fuels this approach to the problem. We are about to witness a repeat performance of this scenario - the Tories' new "Project Work" is (initially) intended for the voluntary sector, and one of Tony Blair's proposed taskforces for the unemployed is intended to focus on 'environmental work'.

Basically, the problem with organisations such as the RSNC is that they seem locked into the sinecure of the "professional environmentalist" - a position which itself represents an accomodation with the prevailing ecocidal order. It smacks of the 'loyal opposition', subdued witness to the horrendous works of late 20th century capitalism, with an interminable series of crises presenting themselves to the conservation ambulance service for resolution or amelioration. It is "Once more unto the breach", time after time after time. For them, there appears to be little sense of urgency, immediacy or passion - everything seems to take place within the slow, tortuous unfolding of 'bureaucratic time' ('In bureaucracy, no one can hear you scream'). At their worst, they appear little different from their counterparts on the side of destruction - both mindlessly and mechanically toiling towards their respective ends, the mirror-image sleep-walking drudges of the apocalypse. But you can't fight business with business - regardless of the content, the form itself is barren.

Instead, one must break with it, and establish a deep sense of acting for and with life. An unbridled, exultant, unapologetic and deeply 'irrational' affirmation, both of your own life and of all that surrounds you, must be set against the nullifying language of death. This is why we have achieved so much with comparatively little - we are learning to give up trudging and to start dancing. This is the reason why, as Fourier says, it takes "workers several hours to put up a barricade that rioters can [erect] in a few minutes".[12] They are carrying out the same activity - it is the form, or 'animus', that differs.

(Sort of) A Disclaimer.

This piece is not intended to decry the RSNC - and related groups - per se, but to point out the (perhaps inadvertent) niche that they occupy in this society. As with even the most mealy-mouthed green organisations, there is always a glimmering spark of wildness within at least some of their initiatives and personnel, and their 'rearguard action' mentality is understandable, if misguided. As with any grouping of people, it would be foolish to think that all its members share the same opinions, or that the group identity is fixed and unchanging. But to step outside the format that such groups currently assume could liberate the members themselves, as well as immeasurably strengthening a true green movement.


1. "Revolution Against the MegaMachine", George Bradford, Fifth Estate Winter 1989.

2. Ibid.

3. For a good insight into this process, see the review of E. Bruce Harrison's "Going Green: How to communicate your company's environmental commitment" in Do or Die No.5. Also, "Democracy for Hire: Public Relations and Environmental Movements", Stauber and Rampton, The Ecologist September 1995. This article highlights the significant threat from corporate 'divide and rule' strategies - co-opting the moderates and marginalising the 'intransigent' radicals. (In this context, see also "Who are the realists?" Editorial, The Ecologist July/August 1995.)

4. Also, what might be termed their "Better Ogoniland" campaign: in the wake of the image crisis caused by the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and others, Shell dispatched David Bellamy's Conservation Foundation to Nigeria to 'do a study' (aka. clean up the 'corporate pollution').

5. "Green world alliance plc", John Elkington, Links Supplement, Guardian 20/11/96.

6. "Propaganda", Jacques Ellul, Vintage 1973, p.137.

7. In "500 Years of Environmental Destruction in Latin America", Environmental Network for Nicaragua 1992.

8. The Ecologist, July/August 1992, p. 162.

9. Guy Debord, quoted in "The Most Radical Gesture", Sadie Plant, Routledge 1992.

10. Quoted in The Ecologist, July/August 1992, p. 163. See also the excellent review of "Conflict Resolution: Cross Cultural Perspectives", Ed. Avruch et al., in The Ecologist Nov/Dec. 1994. Among other things this describes 'sustainable development' as "perhaps the most ambitious conflict resolution project of all time".

11. The Baines Report, Chris Baines, BBC Wildlife March 1995.

12. From: "Enrages and situationists in the Occupation Movement, France, May '68", Rene Vienet, Autonomedia/Rebel 1992.

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