As big environmental charities burrow deeper into bed with the same corporations that profit from eco destruction, anyone interested in working toward the public good faces new and harder choices. Like me, for instance. For years I've accepted a trade-off in my productive life, selling accounting skills as dearly as possible in the corporate world to buy time for things that matter more. Lately, I've been looking for something better aligned with my own core values, even if that means working more for less.
The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) posting definitely catches my attention. The duties are right in line with my experience. I apply, follow up and get a call-back for an interview the following Monday. OK, a phone interview. But I'm determined to do my homework anyway.
Initially, it's hard not to like the organization. Over 40 years, the NCC has conserved 1.7 million acres of ecologically sensitive Canada, either by outright purchase or by obtaining restrictions on its usage. Some of the land has been given over to provincial parks; the rest is stewarded by the NCC itself.
But it's hard to overlook the Conservancy's coziness with the nation's business elite. More than a quarter of the NCC's eight-page "information supplement" in a recent Saturday Globe and Mail consists of feel-good advertising by the very corporations environmental groups generally boycott. "Profits. Principles. Or both?" asks the Shell Canada ad coyly. Before he was hanged for his resistance, Ken Saro-Wiwa referred to Shell's actions in his native Nigeria as "ecological war." Has all that changed now that Shell and the Conservancy have cross-branded each other?
Surfing the Web with the names of NCC's directors fleshes out a who's who of messy industry. The current chair's day job is CFO for Suncor, whose operations include oil sand extraction as well as the Sunoco gasoline brand. A past chair headed up forest products company E.B. Eddy, since bought out by Domtar. The vice-chair had stints with Scott Paper and Quaker Oats before signing on with packaging giant CCL Industries. I make a mental note to eat porridge before my interview.
Then there's the NCC's American cousin, the Nature Conservancy (TNC), whose governing bodies are just as stacked with the captains of environmentally offensive industry. But that's not all, according to a series of articles published last month by the Washington Post. TNC has been late and soft on the debate over global warming and altogether refuses to take a position on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It has given sweet, taxpayer-subsidized deals to its own trustees, and rented out its logo with little regard for the ecological impact of the products endorsed.
NCC's annual reports cite "similar goals and approaches that often call for joint efforts" with its American counterpart, which contributes more than $500,000 a year to the Canadian operation.
On Monday, the call comes promptly at the appointed hour, and things go pretty well with human resources manager Nancy Davis. One thing about non-profits, they're full of vibrant people fully engaged by their work. The more she tells me about the job, the more I wish I could stomach taking it if the offer were made.
When it's my turn to ask the questions, Davis sticks pretty close to the party line you can find on NCC's Web site and in its annual reports. Non-confrontational this, science-based that, working toward a common goal instead of pointing fingers, etc. Is that the paper shredder I hear in the background, already chewing up my resumé? When I mention that I'm also considering pitching an article about this job-seeking experience, she refers me to Jane Lawton, director of corporate marketing and communications.
Lawton wishes the Washington Post writers had taken some of the same questions to other organizations instead of just villifying TNC, and stresses the independence of the two Conservancies. She doesn't apologize for NCC's lack of public presence on high-profile environmental issues.
"We are a non-advocacy organization. We don't spend donor dollars on trying to change people's minds." She acknowledges that the NCC does "have a couple of partnerships with organizations that purchase the right to the logo," but insists these are on a much smaller scale than the TNC's.
For Lawton and her colleagues, the accumulation of ecologically sensitive land is a vital task in itself, regardless of who's doing it or how. In the end we do no better than agreeing to disagree, and it's pretty obvious I've stopped being a viable candidate for the job.
Voices of moderation warn me I'm letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. NCC is trying to do importantwork, the best it can, in a larger societal context it did not create. Or did it?
The neo-con agenda has dominated North American political discourse for about a generation. Before that time, would anybody have imagined that the "stewardship" of natural habitat should be a private matter? Could NCC play the role it does if the corporate players with whom it's intertwined hadn't first imposed such austerity and impotence on our governments?
I'd hoped to stop being a tiny cog in the great engine of capitalist accumulation. But these guys look too much like the ones throwing on more coal. Back to the want-ads.