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A career in environmentalism - the US experience

Joe Franke

1st May, 2009

In a story that will resonate with environmentalists everywhere, Joe Franke explores the US experience of an underpaid, poorly supported and largely unappreciated workforce.

Judging from how we’re portrayed on TV, biodiversity conservation and environmental work is romantic stuff. It’s riding off into the waves and spume with Paul Watson to save whales from the harpoons of Japanese factory ships in Antarctica. It’s Jeff Corwin travelling the world to beat hapless reptiles into video-worthy submission. It’s the romance of scientific discovery, of working with indigenous people in unspoiled landscapes. It’s saving species from extinction, hashing out international treaties.

These are, I suspect, the PBS and Discovery Channel-inspired images that are called up when I tell people what I do. ‘Wow, that must be fun,’ they say, imagining some sort of a carefree existence ruled by idealism, hope and deep, quotidian meaning. Sometimes they seem vaguely jealous, perhaps projecting the misery they feel at their own workaday drudgery. They always look perplexed when I say, ‘Yeah, it’s great when there’s actually work. Right now there isn’t any’. Sometimes I feel that by telling them the truth, I’m cruelly popping a hole in their escapist fantasies.

As I reach my late 40s, exhausted and at the end of my involvement in conservation work, I’m looking back on a vastly different reality.

It’s being a free agent working late into the night in application of tiny grants that have a minute chance of being obtained. It’s the dubious relationships with unsupportive institutions through unpaid ‘research associate’-type positions in pursuit of these grants; such organisations are only too happy to accept the amount in your line item set aside for ‘institutional overheads’ in exchange for use of their name.

It’s having to get used to three-hour-long interviews in which a group of perky, hiplooking, nosering-wearing earth mothers and other laconic, painfully hip staffers fill yellow legal pads with your ideas then end up hiring somebody of half your age and with half your experience. It’s working for ungrateful management rife with the pathologies associated with economic scarcity: nepotism, careerism and self-interest. It’s being expected in the name of marketing to participate in a cult of phony optimism.

It’s years of privation, sacrifice and disappointment. It’s being part of one of the most vulnerable, unsung and uncared for workforces in the country. We’re as expendable as Wal-Mart cashiers or people who work in chicken-processing plants. You’re expected to put up with the job insecurity, the low pay and other difficulties the same way that concerned consumers are expected to put up with the low quality of recycled aluminium foil and toilet paper – because it’s for a higher cause.

And never mind the recent hoopla about expanding opportunities in the ill-defined ‘green jobs’ market, which doesn’t seem to include things like ecological restoration, biodiversity conservation and certainly not advocacy or ‘environmental’ education. Instead it seems part of the techno-fetishism so rife in our society: if you’re not an electrician or energy expert there would seem to be no expansion of job possibilities for people doing these other, seemingly unimportant things.

Out of the green, into the red

There are no employment statistics kept for people working for conservation/environmental causes, but anecdotal observation suggests that for these people it is always the Great Depression.

During its height in 1933, 24.9 per cent of the total US workforce was unemployed – and I think the environmental sector is easily approaching that figure. As was the case during the Depression, much if not most of the rest of the workforce would be considered underemployed, meaning that we’re either underutilised – in that we’re overqualified for the jobs we’re doing – or we’re picking up bits of work here or there, subsisting on a series of seasonal and part-time employment that’s almost always poorly paid when training and on-the-job experience are considered. The fact that this is unsubstantiated by statistics is an indication of how little we matter. The US is wasteful of all resources, including human potential.

Some evidence of this extreme vulnerability might be found in our passivity in the face of lay-offs and other forms of workforce reduction. Unlike lay-offs in traditional industries or sectors, there are few publicly visible large-scale incidences of downsizing, such as the massive Greenpeace lay-offs back in 1997, when the organisation reduced its US staff from 400 to 65 and closed all 10 of its field offices. What was interesting about this incident was the total acquiescence of its workforce, which unsurprisingly left without a peep.

More recently, the Nature Conservancy fired 400 people, 10 per cent of its staff worldwide. Ecology Action recently conducted a survey of environmental and conservation groups in central California, and found that by early 2009 (near the beginning of the downturn), 24 per cent of environmental or conservation organisations and agencies had experienced staff lay-offs, and 62 per cent had reduced staff or reduced workforce hours –24 per cent by at least 40 per cent. Thirty per cent are experiencing impacts to at least 50 per cent of their total organisational budget.

Among subcontractors, 32 per cent have experienced staff lay-offs, and 72 per cent have reduced staff or reduced workforce hours (including 27 per cent having reduced hours by at least 40 per cent). With continued economic decline, this is likely to get worse.

Lambs to the dole queue

All over the country, small, local groups are starving to death. In any other enterprise – such as in the car industry, where plant closings and lay-offs bring extensive press coverage – there is righteous indignation and justified anger on the part of workers. People doing conservation or environmental work leave as quietly as dewy-eyed lambs. In such a crowded market and a relatively tight-knit community, you can’t afford to be blacklisted as a troublemaker. And never mind about unionisation; that’s for workers who have the leverage bestowed on them by the production of goods or services – be they widgets or TV shows – valued by society at large.

The only possible upside of this situation is that it has perhaps led to increased empathy for the underclass in this country on the part of the mostly white environmental workforce. I’ve lost any residual arrogance towards people who become too tired to continue struggling. Unless pushed to the very limit of physical survival, if you can’t provide for yourself or for a family, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to act as an agent of positive cultural change.

This stress of chronic unemployment/underemployment is magnified by the very sense of urgency we feel about the issues behind the work. The combined stresses of extreme economic vulnerability and the pain caused by the central issues we’re trying to deal with can’t be underestimated. It’s a serious but unrecognised liability for the environmental movement.

There are certainly many measures of success or failure in a social or environmental movement. Our failures are not difficult to measure. For instance, according to the Pew Research Center, Americans think global warming ranks at the very bottom of a list of 20 national priorities, even lower than ‘moral decline’. Another survey, conducted by Rasmussen, demonstrated that 44 per cent of Americans don’t think climate change is caused by human activity. Another measure of failure, however, is our collective inability to protect our workforce. A movement that can’t take care of its on-the-ground workforce is no movement at all.

If their disinterest in providing for salaries is any indication, many of our funders seem to look upon pay for lower-level employees as a kind of welfare for grubby, tofu-eating hippies and are loathe to provide money for this purpose. People who criticise the environmental movement as being elitist and classist have a point, as most of the big foundations and funders were started by and continue to be led by the wealthy.

Most of the larger organisations continue to be headed by overpaid white men, and the very high salaries for the leaders of Inside-the-Beltway organisations such as Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy (whose leaders make more than $300,000 and $800,000 per year respectively) are justified by their abilities to move within a high social echelon. The funders are also mostly headed by elites that are uncomfortable with members of the underclass – they like to deal with their own. The general thinking is that these are people who could make even more money if they were ensconced in the corporate world or in another profession, but this is clearly a self-serving assertion.

The low pay and lack of job security within the conservation and environmental sector are directly reflective of our society’s values. Idealistic motivations such as altruism, fair play and concern for the welfare of other beings unable to speak for themselves are treated with disdain, while greed and self-centredness are rewarded. Eventually, this situation wherein to do good work you’re expected to be poor beats the idealism out of you.

Over a period of years, if your ideals are treated with disdain, you begin to capitulate and accept your place. However, at some point it simply becomes economically impossible to stay where you are, no matter how deeply you believe in something. I’m a study in what happens when the sacrifice is too great, and now, with the ‘downturn’ in the economy, a whole cadre of eco-Okies is being created, with no mythical California for which to strive. And I don’t expect to be the only one heading out of the dustbowl.

Market forces

Like ants and other members of the lower orders, however, we’re the little things that run the show. We keep the whole ecosystem going and collectively do the heavy lifting involved in manifesting the necessary, profound cultural change we need. If there’s an objective macro issue beyond the personal tragedies created by the situation, it’s that, in terms of getting done what needs to be done order to bring about a survivable planet and a sustainable future for the human species, the present elite cadre is an inadequate workforce. If we’re truly committed to ‘holistic’ models of societal change, the sustainability of jobs and the mental health of those working towards these goals must be worthy of consideration.

There are other ways in which we’re tied to corporate America, and the irony seems to be lost on most of us. We’re subject to the vicissitude of market forces in that we’re among the first people to feel the squeeze of economic recession. When the financial portfolios of individual donors and foundations decrease in value, so does available funding. In this way we’re all held hostage to the same forces that are destroying what we’re trying to protect.

Instead of operating on the same tired, ineffective model, we should be at the forefront of new thinking about how to run an organisation. To be honest, though, I’ve
run out of big ideas. I’m packing up the truck and heading down to Big Bend National Park to clear my head before coming back to a new line of work. In the immortal words of Tom Joad, ‘It don’t take no nerve to do somepin when there ain’t nothin’ else you can do.’

I hit the road a bit depressed and full of regret, but I’m also more than a bit relieved.

Joe Franke is a former conservation biologist and restoration contractor based in Albuquerque, New Mexico



Where the money goes

Lack of funding for environmental groups is a chronic and worldwide problem.

These groups are arguably some of the most important change-drivers. They are the ones with the data at their fingertips, the energy and creativity to tackle environmental problems head-on, and the will to keep at it even when the mainstream media has decided that, this week, some other fad is more interesting. Yet these resources and skills are being hampered by a chronic and, for some, severe lack of funding.

Since the issues facing the planet are so dire in their implications, so ominous in their warnings, you’d think people might feel moved to help those who are trying to help all of us survive. Yet when asked what issues concern them most, registered voters consistently place things such as climate change close to or at the bottom of their lists.

This isn’t a product of the current economic downturn, either. Green charities and organisations have suffered from chronic underfunding for years. According to a report by New Philanthropy Capital in 2007, only an estimated two per cent of charitable grants in the UK go to environmental charities and only an estimated five per cent of public donations go to environmental causes.

Major funders are also not coughing up the cash. A report by the Environmental Funders Network (EFN) in 2008 showed larger funders gave just £34 million in environmental grants in 2005-6 – a mere 1.6 per cent of the £2 billion given by the UK’s largest grant-making trusts in 2004-5. It also found that funding directly
tackling climate change accounts for just eight per cent of the environmental grants made by the larger trust-funders.

On the one hand it could be argued that funders remain daunted by the scale of the issues these groups are tackling and are unsure about how to track the impact of their investments – which may be why the EFN report showed the projects most likely to win funding from trusts and foundations is measurable, ‘practical’ conservation work, closely followed by education projects.

On the other hand there is the issue of public apathy that nobody seems to know how to address. This, in part, may also be due to an inability to measure things – such as the rate and seriousness of global change, the impact of individual actions and the relative feel-good factor of buying a Fairtrade coffee versus funding an environmental NGO.

Because it is fundamentally a grassroots movement, environmentalism is dependent upon subscriptions, donations and private financing. It can’t be expected to have to rely upon largesse from governments or corporations (in many cases commercial sponsorship is a real hindrance to progress). Private funds and private citizens are not going to donate to a cause they don’t know/ care about or can’t make sense of. Which may be why Europeans spend their money on other things: $10 billion on ice cream, $13 billion on haircare products each year. These, seemingly, are things we understand.

The irony is that there is a tacit understanding among most environmental groups that the ultimate measure of their success will be when the day comes that they are no longer needed. Thanks to the funding squeeze, many will go out of business long before they can have the chance to bow out gracefully.

Pat Thomas

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2009


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