Evolving Activism

It was said in the 1980s that tree-hating Reagan administration Interior Secretary James Watt was the best recruiter the environmental movement ever had: His image on fundraising letters led to an unprecedented jump in membership and contributions to groups from the Wilderness Society to the Sierra Club. In the '90s, Watt's role fell to Newt Gingrich.

Because it wasn't based on firm commitment, some of the enthusiasm and financial support for 1980s activism faded, forcing environmental groups to retrench. Greenpeace, for instance, laid off its entire canvassing operation and reduced the role of its magazine; other groups suffered membership declines and cut back on operations.

Greenpeace was forced to retrench in the 1990s, but that hasn't stopped it from mounting vigorous direct action campaigns.© Greenpeace/Beltra

But despite some hand-wringing editorials, the environmental movement was far from dead. One important new source of revenue in the 1990s was the foundation world. The Goldman Foundation, to take the most significant example, gave $1 million gifts to each of three organizations: Rainforest Action Network, Earth Island Institute and International Rivers, and significantly expanded its marine protection funding. Both Ted Turner and Bill Gates made multi-billion-dollar gifts on behalf of population activism. For the United Nations Population Fund, that money helped fill a budget gap caused by the politically-motivated loss of U.S. government funding.

Media access is a perennial problem for environmentalists, but $11 million from such foundations as the John Merck Fund and W. Alton Jones is funding the National Environmental Trust's airing of 30-second, issue-oriented TV spots in 200 U.S. cities. The Florence Fund supported full-page issue ads in major newspapers.

“A number of foundations concluded that environmental groups were competing with each other and putting out a diffuse message,” says Stephen Greene, a contributing editor with the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “The media campaigns are an attempt to attack the problems more strategically.” Greene adds that foundations have pooled resources to create the Sprawlwatch Clearinghouse, another attempt to build a broad coalition.

The 1990s were also characterized by some degree of infighting. Environmental groups differed sharply on such issues as endorsing the 1999 Clinton administration protection plan for California's Headwaters Forest that ceded large blocks of virgin timber to loggers. At the Sierra Club, the bickering was internal: Members staged a flashy but ultimately unsuccessful ballot initiative to persuade the club to endorse immigration restrictions. And ousted members of the group's New York chapter filed a lawsuit seeking reinstatement and damages. Yet the club, now with 550,000 members, still launched highly effective campaigns on family planning, global warming, vehicle emissions and many other issues.

The Internet became a major tool for activists in the 1990s. The Environmental Defense Fund, for instance, launched www.scorecard.org, a site that allows visitors to learn about their local air quality and polluters. At the Environmental Working Group's “Chicken Little” site (www.chickenlittle.org), surfers can read the eye-popping comments of polluters who fought against the most basic environmental regulations.

Julia "Butterfly" Hill continues her vigil.Courtesy of The Thin Green Line

Environmentalists also took the advice of thinking globally and acting locally. The decade saw the launch of scores of issue-based grassroots groups. Often headed by women, these groups fought effective home-turf battles. As one example, Phyllis Glazer's Mothers Organized to Stop Environmental Sins took on the operators of a toxic injection well in small-town Texas—and won. Julia “Butterfly” Hill drew international attention without going anywhere: she's spent more than two years personally guarding Luna, a 1,000-year-old redwood in Northern California.

And as our world gets more complex, so have the issues environmentalists are forced to take on. Who would have imagined 10 years ago that we'd have to fight a rear-guard action against genetically modified oatmeal?