Thinking about the Economy and the Environment

November 11, 2010 § 2 Comments

I attended the Watershed Council‘s colloquium with Dr. James Evans on the Experimental City yesterday, followed by playing catch-up with some friends from my North East Trees days. It provoked some still uncoagulated thoughts – rolled together with what I know are many committed environmentalists’ (including the primary authors of this blog) economic hardships, I’m trying to formulate how to write about the economy’s impact on environmental work – and it’s workers.

The watershed colloquium was really about institutional research’s role in spurring climate change action in cities and theoretical frameworks for directing that action, but it too made me think about the issue – there was a passing reference to the “shadow government of NGOs” (Non-Governmental Organizations: basically non-profits) which in its funny way acknowledges that NGOs are really a significant driver of change in the work we do. As well as regulation…

And then I look at what’s happened to NGOs locally, so many have been gutted or are running on volunteer power. Staring into my margarita last night, I commented to a friend that what we were trying to do was so hard 7 years ago – and that was with local and state funding available – and look at the state of things today.

Some NGOs are turning increasingly to the idea that they offer services for a fee rather than work towards a specific mission as a public service. I don’t necessarily have an issue with that, but I think there’s implications when NGOs walk away from their advocacy and watchdog roles.  The NGO structure in the best of times can itself limit advocacy: I can think of several examples where regulated entities sit on boards of NGOs and then either through directive or innuendo attempt to limit the staff’s ability to advocate or even educate for change, regulation, etc. I’ve seen in less dire times how a lot of groups create programs in response to available funding sources, splintering our ability to act as coalitions of advocates to institute changes that advance our quality of life.

It’s also hard for me to be politically neutral about this. A timely interview by Maria Armoudian discusses how political decisions of the past 30 years has made your and my capital more upwardly mobile than you or me.  And once concentrated in the hands of the top 5 or 1 or 1/100% of Americans it’s not necessarily being put to the uses of the common good, including the environment. Indeed democracy itself suffers. We’re all struggling with this economic meltdown that could have been a lot worse had it gone into free fall. But our tried and true ways of digging ourselves out of an economic crisis – more resource exploitation and market expansion – is running thin as a way out. A lot of us have great ideas about how to create work to re-shape our cities into more sustainable, healthy, just and beautiful places. But when state government waives environmental review of development projects to help private interests in the down economy, or when innovative NGO’s are forced to lay off their professional staff, I feel like our knowledge and expertise is truly side-stepped.

It touches into the value of our work. It’s part of our cultural ethos, work. For better or worse, it defines who we are in many ways. Growing up I recall the heated debates between high school Reaganite capitalists and moderates and lefties. Our younger readers may not recall that back then, he was considered a bit of a right-winger. The capitalists’ mantra was: compensation is a direct reflection of your value to society. Your success, your material gain, measures your worth. Back then there was more of a counterweight to that point of view, not just socially but politically. As our political culture erodes, does our ability to engage in personally rewarding, socially and ecologically beneficial work also erode? Do you have to have a trust fund to fight the good fight? Do we have to twist the purpose of  our work to somehow fit into the capitalist world view to justify its existence?  This is obviously a limited view of life and culture – certainly motherhood wouldn’t survive these tests but few would dispute its “value.”

This is on my mind, and I don’t have a lot of answers, but was just wondering if our readership has any thoughts about this. I am also puzzling over how to write about it in a way that doesn’t boil down to the obvious – hard times hits us hard, and environmental and nonprofit workers being at the end of the food-chain, are among those that get hit the hardest. But the truth is, it’s the obvious here that personally preoccupies me, as it doubtless does the many thousands of people in this country who are under- or unemployed.

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§ 2 Responses to Thinking about the Economy and the Environment

  • Nancy says:

    I was looking forward to where you would go with our colloquium speaker’s thoughts and this is certainly not where I thought you would go….but it is something I’ve been pondering for a long time. I think society is stronger when it has a vibrant NPO community, with everything from the small start up all-volunteer NPO to the large, well staff institutional NPO. Here in LA, we have far too many NPOs that are struggling in the boundary and can’t make the leap to stability. I don’t know why that is or what it would take to change it, but I think it must be at least partly a result of so few foundations that care about and fund environmental NPOs. With few dollars, they mostly continue to fund the already well funded NPOs, which are perceived as good “risks.” Look at the Bay Area and I suspect you will see more strong, stable NPOs focusing on the environment just because that is where the foundation grants think there is an environment worth protecting.

  • Jessica Hall says:

    Surprise! I do have a few other half-formed thoughts from the colloquium, and am sorry I didn’t get to stick around for the full discussion.

    There does appear to be a real difference between Bay Area and So Cal philanthropy. What makes it worse is when you hear about LA area elites donating heavily to Bay Area causes! Apparently Steven Spielberg gave big bucks for a park in San Francisco.

    What you say about funding trends is also true with some state grants I’ve looked at recently, so focused on outcomes that justify the existence of the grant program that mainly groups with existing capacity and political capital are ultimately going to be able to deliver. And I know you know this Nancy, but for readers unfamiliar with the situation, the outcome is that communities that may not be well-organized or wealthy enough to hire grant-writers or get city approval up front for projects – those that would most benefit by environmental investments – are going to have an even harder time accessing the resources of the state. We think that this competitive grant-making process creates a level playing field, but the requirements skew it. Yes, I want measurable outcomes but in my experience being the lowly NGO player with a grant in pocket can create political capital; being the one with ideas is head-pattingly nice, but is much buy-in comes with cash – and a maintenance plan. The State needs to figure out another way to support projects in under-funded areas, to create capacity building and community organizing. At the risk of sounding socialistickal.

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