Some environmental groups endorse broader ideas and ideologies through their approach to conservation. A good example is The Nature Conservancy (TNC) which buys land in order to conserve it and facilitates the promotion of privatisation as a solution to conservation of government lands. It claims to have the “largest private system of nature sanctuaries in the world” and “pursues nonconfrontational, market-based solutions to conservation challenges”.
The TNC aims to demonstrate a) the merits of private conservation efforts, as opposed to government efforts, and b) the compatibility of the profit motive and the conservation motive.
In what might be seen as a rebuttal to the idea of people as purely self-interested economic actors, hundreds of thousands of Americans send in their money to help pay for TNC purchases. However this is interpreted by free market enthusiasts as a vindication of the private approach to conservation.
Total contributions and membership dues amounted to $439 million in 2013 down from $521 million the preceding year. This is supplemented by government grants, land sales and investment income to make a total income in 2013 of $949 million. Its total assets including nature preserves is over $6 billion.
The Nature Conservancy seems to be the most successful environmental organisation in the world. It operates in 35 countries. It is US-based but operates all over the world, particularly in Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia/Pacific. It claims to have “protected more than 119 million acres of land and thousands of miles of rivers worldwide”.
TNC also helps companies to “mitigate” the damage they do by compensating for that damage with environmental protection elsewhere. For example in 1992 the Walt Disney Company sought to expand its operations in Orlando Florida at the expense of the local wetlands. In order to get permission to do this, it agreed to purchase, protect and restore a larger area of wetlands in central Florida which will be handed over to TNC together with funds to manage it.
TNC is also involved in debt-for-nature swaps.
TNC's board of directors and advisory council have included several corporate executives, including those from "oil companies, chemical producers, auto manufacturers, mining concerns, logging operations and coal-burning electric utilities".
In 2014 TNC's board of directors included the chair, CEO of Eagle River Inc, the vice-chair, CEO of Duke Energy aswell as the CEOs of the Alibaba Group and Hewlett-Packard, the former CEO of Merck & Co, the executive chair of AP Capital Holdings Inc, and the advisory director of Goldman Sachs.
The president and CEO of TNC is Mark Tercek, a former managing director and Partner for Goldman Sachs. TNC's chief operating officer is Brian McPeek, formerly from McKinsey and Co, "where he advised Fortune 500, private equity, and select start-up companies on strategic issues, specializing in capital markets and corporate strategy".
TNC works with thousands of companies around the world. It's Business Council includes 3M, American Electric Power, Bank of America, Boeing, BP America, Chevron, Coca-Cola, Dow, Dutch Royal Shell, Monsanto and Weyerhaeuser. The Business Council enables these companies to collaborate with the TNC "to develop common positions and advocacy strategies in key areas of public policy".
Each state chapter of TNS has a Corporate Council for the Environment made up of corporate associates. For example, TNC Alaska's Corporate Council includes BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc and ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc., as lead corporate partners.
On occasion corporations lend executives to TNC as in the case of Georgia Power which loaned Gordon Van Mol, for its External Affairs Department to be a member of TNC’s development team for a year.
Corporations such as ARCO, BHP, BP, Chevron, Chrysler, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, DuPont, General Electric, General Mills, General Motors, Georgia-Pacific, McDonalds, Mobil, NBC, Pepsi-Cola, Procter and Gamble, Toyota, Pfizer and dozens of others donate more than $10,000 per year each to TNC.
General Motors Corporation alone has donated over $5 million to TNC as has ExxonMobil. In addition General Motors donated $10 million to TNC's carbon credit program.
Dow Chemical pledged $10 million to TNC in 2011 over 5 years, for a joint Dow/TNC project "to help Dow and other companies recognize, value and incorporate nature into global business goals, decisions and strategies". In return Dow gets TNC's endorsement of its green credentials and can use TNC's logo on its website and products. This is despite the fact that Dow Chemical is a major manufacturer of chlorine, much of which is used to make plastics, solvents, pesticides and other chemicals. It has also opposed many environmental regulations and supported anti-environmental front groups.
Corporations and foundations account for about 40% of TNCs donations (around $200 million each year) with about 30% coming from individuals and another 25% from bequests. However some of that individual income is not necessarily separate from corporate contributions. Some companies, such as Centex and Enron have given their employees and/or customers TNC memberships.
At one level, TNC offers these corporations valuable PR. In return for corporate support TNC promises corporate donors publicity as corporations which care about the environment. For example the Indiana branch offered members of its Corporate Council for the Environment, that they would be listed on stationary, listed in advertisements in magazines and newspapers across Indiana, and mentioned by radio stations, as well as listed in the TNC Annual Report.
Forestry company Georgia-Pacific donated $3 million to TNC in 2000 and says its relationship with TNC has helped to change its image.
TNC has spent $7.88 million in transactions with Georgia-Pacific... In 2000, the Conservancy paid $7.5 million to [a Georgia-Pacific] subsidiary for 9,500 acres in Louisiana, much of it stripped of trees by clear-cutting, Conservancy documents show. The charity got a $1 million discount, according to an internal document.
Companies who find some of the land they own is surplus to their requirements see that donating or selling the land at a discount to the TNC has PR benefits that include "strengthened community ties, fortified public image, and enhanced consumer goodwill" that can "translate into greater shareholder value".
TNC will accept donations from any company no matter what their record on the environment, no questions asked. What is more TNC is a safe vehicle to invest in. There is no chance it will turn around and expose a corporation’s dirty record or damaging activities: rather it aims “to forge strong productive partnerships based on mutual benefit and trust”.
Whilst TNC seeks to preserve areas of forest, for example, it does not publicly speak out against practices such as clear-cutting. It preserves areas of land for grizzly bears but it does not oppose hunting or developments that endanger those bears and destroy their habitat. In fact hunting is allowed on some of TNC’s own land and TNC officers acquiring land may go hunting with potential donors as part of the negotiation process.
TNC says: “We pursue non-confrontational, pragmatic, market-based solutions to conservation challenges". Former TNC CEO, John Sawhill, claimed:
If an oil company wants to drill in an environmentally sensitive area, we won’t say, Don’t drill. Instead we ask, Is there any way you can drill and not harm the area’s ecological integrity. Let’s try to develop a drilling plan that won’t disturb the wildlife habitat. We believe in partnerships.
Sawhill was "a former energy aid to Nixon and Ford", a former deputy secretary of the Department of Energy in the Carter administration, and a director at management consultants McKinsey. He was "a fanatical proponent of nuclear power, who has enjoyed lucrative positions on the boards of Procter & Gamble, North American Coal Company and Pacific Gas & Electric".
In the 1980s, despite dissent within the board, TNC refused to make a stand against acid rain and a frustrated environmentalist was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying that “We yell and scream trying to make coal companies stop dumping sulfur into rivers and they turn around and give—with a suitable p.r. flourish—the Conservancy money to buy a couple of nice ponds full of rare frogs.”
TNC also refused to support the Kyoto treaty, which earned it a $1.6 million grant from the Bush administration to study the role of forests as carbon dioxide sinks. Despite its avowal of being apolitical as one reason for failing to speak out on environmental issues, TNC together with the Environmental Defense Fund publicly supported the NAFTA free trade agreement.
TNC operates not by advocating social change or suing those who don’t obey environmental laws or by drawing media attention to environmental problems, but by buying up land and then exercising their property rights, which may include preserving the area they own or trading it for another area that needs preserving. It raises funds through corporate donations and individual members who “tend to be of the upper or upper-middle classes. They are no more likely to be caught shooting California condors than they are to be found in a picket line, waving green leaves at a developer’s bulldozers.” According to Sawhill:
Some people at the Conservancy think our customers are the plants and animals we’re trying to save, but our real customers are the donors who buy our product, and that product is protected landscapes… They like the fact that we use private-sector techniques to achieve our objectives, that we protect the environment the old-fashioned way: we buy it.
We have made a conscious strategic decision to rely on individual donors and not become too heavily dependent on government, because we want to be clearly identified as a private organization, one that is financed privately and uses free-market techniques. We think of ourselves as Adam Smith with a green thumb.
Whilst historically The Nature Conservancy (TNC) protected areas by purchasing them and managing them or handing them over to government agencies, in recent years, “more stress is being put on techniques that keep land in private ownership, such as conservation easements, leases, and cooperative agreements”.
TNC’s market-based approach to conservation helps to promote property rights and free enterprise as well as provide PR to individual companies. Rather than lobbying the government to implement regulations to ensure the environment is protected, or highlighting the activities of those same corporations in degrading the environment, TNC uses the market to purchase the land it wants to protect.
And this is an important reason the TNC approach is attractive to corporations. An executive from Consolidation Coal Company, which had donated 8000 city acres to TNC worth tens of millions of dollars, said of TNC: “They acquire land for, I believe, a very good purpose, but do so within the framework of the free-market system. They do not seek to change the law or public opinion so as to deprive individuals or businesses of their just property rights.”
TNC also provides a very useful example to free-market advocates in their arguments for leaving environmental problems to the market to solve. It represents the free enterprise, corporate autonomy, small government agenda of a conservative think tank but with the bonus that it has sound environmental credentials. Conservative think tanks have sought to have the conservative, corporate agenda of deregulation, privatisation and an unconstrained market to be dressed up as an environmental virtue. TNC is a great example for them.
For example, Terry L. Anderson, a senior associate with the Political Economy Research Center (PERC), argues that the fight between loggers and environmentalists over government-owned forested areas should be solved by putting them up for auction. Environmentalists could bid against timber companies, and in this way environmentalists would have to face up to the costs of conservation. He gives TNC as a precedent for this type of activity.
The Heritage Foundation also cites TNC, along with US Ducks Unlimited and National Wild Turkey Federation (both organisations primarily made up of hunters who protect habitat in order to have enough birds to kill), as a good example of how private cooperative efforts are protecting the environment.
In 1998 Realty Times, in an article headlined “Nature Conservancy Conserves the Right Way”, argued that “the good news is that reasonable environmentalism and the rights of property owners can co-exist... rather than tell other people what to do with their land, the Conservancy has a better idea...” Stroup and Shaw argue that the “beauty of such private efforts is that people who do not care for ducks or egrets need not pay for their upkeep, as taxpayers do when the government is in control.”
Organisations such as Center for Private Conservation argue that environmental groups which call for the creation of national parks are asking others to pay the price of what they want and their unwillingness to use their own money for this purpose shows that they shouldn’t be taken seriously. The Nature Conservancy however uses the market rather than the political process and this is where, according to free-market proponents, environmental choices should be exercised:
For those who don’t like chemicals, more and more stores are offering organic pesticide-free produce, and even Wonder Bread is made with unbleached flour and no preservatives. Vegetarians and meat-eaters shop side-by-side with no rancor….Milk, for example, is sold as whipping cream, half-and-half, whole, 2 percent, 1 percent, nonfat, powdered, and evaporated milk, and is also made into many varieties of yogurt, ice cream, and cheese. Yet you never see anyone chaining themselves to the milk counter demanding more ice cream or suing a dairy to force it to make cheese instead of yogurt.
Even in Australia, TNC is an oft-cited example of how markets can protect the environment. A 1991 conference on Market-Based Environmental Policy, hosted by the School of Economics, University of NSW, featured a TNC speaker as part of its programme. The TNC approach was also cited in a book by the Tasman Institute, an Australian conservative think tank, on Markets, Resources and the Environment.
TNC is conscious of its role in providing environmentalist support for the free market cause. It calls itself “Nature’s real estate agent” and indeed it has traditionally employed real estate agents in its top ranks. For example former TNC president Bill Blair had been a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department and chairman of a real estate agency.
Writing in Environment magazine, Sawhill uses the language of free-market advocates in talking about TNC’s “market-oriented strategy” and “conservation through private action”.
Arjun Patney observed in Corporate Environmental Strategy that the sorts of strategies that TNC uses to protect the environment enable conservation groups and corporations to join hands and promote the “new dogma of economic and environmental compatibility. Corporations fulfil their responsibilities of good citizenship, while polishing their public images and building goodwill.” This enables the image of the “cold, greedy industrialists” who “will clear-cut any forest, blacken any sky, and kill any river in pursuit of another dollar” to be replaced by that of the caring capitalist.