In the 1980s US environmental groups that "had thrived for decades on raw imagination and volunteer energy, became career havens for progressive lawyers, scientists, and lobbyists" as they sought to negotiate with governments and business. These professional environmentalists are "barely distinguishable from any other Washington lobbyists":
The professional elite speaks the language, utilises the same arguments and is beginning to think in the same way as the governors of our society. No more arguments about wilderness; no more talk of scientific diversity; instead the game is mainstream politics: deals, bargaining, pragmatism and money.
The largest environmental groups in the US, are sometimes referred to as the 'Big Green', 'The Group of Ten', or 'Green Gang'. They are:
For 25 years, by sheer force of size and wealth, the organizations have defined environmentalism and set what the mass media perceives as the environmental agenda. The unfortunate result is that environmentalism has remained narrowly defined. In most peoples' minds it is equated with scentic nature and cuddly animals....
The Boards of these groups are filled with people who have "connections to money or power, or both", with token representation by minorities and Native Americans.
Large environmental groups tend to be dominated by an elite, often professional career environmentalists with legal degrees or MBAs, employed by these organisations for their lobbying or managerial expertise rather than those "employed for their zeal, persistence, and charisma".
These are heavily-staffed, well-funded nonprofit corporations each with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars a year, offices in Washington, DC and other major cities, highly paid executive directors, and a staff of lobbyists, analysts and marketers.
Groups that were "once fueled by passion and run by committted warriors" have "become the domain of list managers, marketing directors, and organizational development specialists".
The heads of most of these groups get large salaries in line with those in the corporate world even though they are funded by donations. For example the salary of NRDC president Frances Beinecke in 2011 was well over $400,000. In 2012, the head of EDF, Fred Krupp also received over $400,000.
Environmentalists who are on the lookout for a post-environmentalist career tend to take more ‘moderate’ stances on environmental issues and avoid being overly confrontational with corporations that damage the environment. Over time, as the larger, better-funded environmental groups have become more institutionalised they have tended to hire career-minded professionals rather than enthusiastic activists. This has encouraged the revolving door between environmental groups and industry.
There is a tendency for paid professionals in groups to at worst disdain the membership of the group and at best make decisions without consulting the membership. Mainstream environmental groups
have become increasingly reliant on "lobbying, litigation and 'science' to achieve their objectives, creating in the process a kind of cult of expertise." in so doing, they have managed to remove themselves from the direct concerns of grass-roots citizens and their own members, relegating them to the status of check writers acquired through sophisticated direct-mail campaigns.
In Australia, in 1999, the Howard Government proposed an Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) bill that would "effectively gut all the major environmenatl legislation developed" over the previous 20 years. The paid officers of the main environmental groups got together and decided to negotiate amendments to the bill, rather than oppose it, without consulting the elected officials or members of their groups.
Both the GST and the EPBC negotiations saw a new kind of democracy emerge among mainstream green organisations: democracy by e-mail. It was decreed: 'If you don't reply, then you must agree with us, and you've only got until this afternoon to make a decision.' This was how the movement would reach its common goal.
Most membership-based environmental advocacy groups begin as a group of amateur volunteers. Those that are successful and grow large tend to adopt the "characteristics of professionally managed businesses".
During the 1980s the large environmental groups became even larger, "adding programs and expanding staffs":
They spent more effort and resources on developing entrepreneurial and organizational enhancement skills than on environmental issues. The unfortunated end result is a bland, bureaucratic reform movement devoid of passion or charismatic leadership and hell-bent on reform.
According to Jeffrey St. Clair and Bernardo Issel, "the larger a group
gets, the more bureacratic and less effective it becomes". Groups such as The Nature Conservancy (TNC) are so large they resemble small transnational corporations.
The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) hired a director "with little experience in environmental campaigning" in 1992, Tricia Caswell (pictured).
Caswell employed a professional financial manager and other professional staff, she relieved the [democratically elected] council of its administrative duties and replaced volunteer campaigners, she centralised the organisation by closing branch offices... she placed firm limits on the number of campaigns the ACF could involve itself in.
Three years earlier, ACF had commissioned management consultants, Eryl Morgan & Associates, to restructure ACF with a view to increasing membership and efficiency.
The plan already drawn up – on recycled paper – could well be a strategy for big business... It deals with day-to-day operating responsibilities for the executive and for a new level of management, and it puts emphasis on the foundation's merchandising arm to boost revenue. It calls for a new professionalism, including less reliance on volunteer workers for some of its responsibilities...
As the foundation becomes more business-oriented, its costs will inevitably rise. This will mean a bigger bureaucracy and higher salary costs, but [ACF's financial coordinator, Vivienne] Zethoven is confident the costs will be more than offset by improved capacity to raise funds and by greater marketing skills. The foundation's salary bill – more than $1 million in 1988-89 – will rise sharply as a result of the new strategy, which includes several planned new appointments... The foundation has been looking at ways of using its logo more widely in marketing.
In 1997 16 founding members of Greenpeace "criticized the group for becoming too bureaucratic, lacking focus and doling out high salaries." In Australia, Greenpeace "dropped any pretence to being a grassroots operation and effectively became an inaccessible branch office of the international group".
Greenpeace has also been criticised for "the centralisation of power, the old boy promotion network and the rigid bureaucratic authority structure".
In 1989 the new executive director of Greenpeace Australia, sent in from Greenpeace International, represented "the new - although old-school greenies would call it conservative - wave in the environmental movement which wants order, structure and accountability where once chaos and anarchy ruled". His task was " to impose a more disciplined chain of command as well as restructure" it.
The survivors of the shake-out tended to be those skilled at internal campaigning. That is, instead of spending their time campaigning on environmental issues, they saved their best efforts for promoting themselves on the internal international Greenpeace network. Career orientation and corporate loyalty are apparently the qualities Greenpeace is now seeking in employees.
A former Greenpeace executive lamented:
Look how little is being accomplished in addressing Global Warming in the U.S. at a time when it's obviously a national security issue and a global security issue. I think this is in part because the environmental groups don't believe in mass movement building like they used to. Most of us are treated like consumer and spectator activists — expected to pay our membership dues and trust that full-time salaried activists will solve the issue — without expecting to get involved ourselves. How easy it is to confuse salaried NGO actors with real movement leaders.