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Why The Sierra Club No Longer Deserves Your Trust

The Sierra Club's ability to successfully advocate for environmental causes doesn't depend on access to politicians. But they have opted for an "inside" game, and have thus dropped the ball on pressuring officials from the outside.
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There has been a massive silence on the part of the major environmental groups in the wake of the BP oil catastrophe, ever since the rig collapsed.

But it went into overdrive last week when many of those groups took out an ad in the Washington Post, not to criticize the government's response, but to praise the president for putting a hold on a drilling project in Alaska:

"President Obama is the best environmental president we've had since Teddy Roosevelt," Sierra Club chairman Carl Pope told the Bangor Daily News last week. "He obviously did not take the crisis in the Minerals Management Service adequately seriously, that's clear. But his agencies have done a phenomenally good job."

If they aren't saying anything negative, it's because they believe there's nothing to criticize:

Asked if Sierra Club has any concerns about the administration's response to the spill, [Sierra Club's Dave] Willett said, "Overall, we're satisfied with the cleanup and recovery effort."

Now, I listened to Mike Pence yesterday on CNN complaining about the administration's cleanup efforts, and it was all crap. Pence's position would more fairly be represented if he just stood there with oil dripping off of his hands. The GOP has been waging a decades-long campaign for offshore drilling without limit, massive deregulation and the complete undermining of environmental standards that paved the way for this. The entire gulf is going to hell as a direct result of his actions. He's in no position to criticize anything, and any journalist who lets him get away with it isn't doing their job.

But the reluctance of the environmental groups to criticize the administration over the cleanup means they can't credibly make that argument against Pence, either. Their decision to act as partisan cheerleaders has hamstrung their ability to act as trustworthy arbiters and advocates in the situation, above the realm of politics. We all know what the tone and tenor of their rhetoric would be if George Bush was at the helm right now. If they are perceived as acting as an arm of the Democratic Party rather than stewards of the environment, they destroy the integrity of both their brand and their message.

Part of the problem with most major environmental groups is their captivation into the "veal pen" (for more on what that means, see here). The White House has done an excellent job of keeping progressive interest groups in line since they took office with entities like Common Purpose, Unity 09 and the "8:45 Call", controlling their messaging and manipulating their funding.

Matt Nisbet, a professor of environmental communications at American University, says "it's difficult for the national environmental groups to be critics of the administration -- they're working so closely with the administration. ... They have reacted cautiously and softly."

That hardly gives them credibility as an independent advocate for the environment.

There's also "a practical sense among the groups that Obama is about the best they're going to do when it comes to their key issues," says Politico's Josh Gerstein. And according to Doug Brinkley, "they're feeling they have one person to do business with. ... We're down to like two Republican senators who want to deal with these environmental groups."

The Sierra Club has one of the most well-known progressive brands, and their membership is both deep and broad. Their ability to successfully advocate for environmental causes doesn't depend on access to politicians. It appears that they have opted for an "inside" game, and have completely dropped the ball on pressuring elected officials from the outside -- right when their efforts could have the most impact.

Environmental groups also don't want to jeopardize the passage of a climate legislation bill, and have been fearful from the start that making too much fuss about offshore drilling could endanger Kerry-Lieberman. Is the passage of some big coal bailout what their members desire most? Because it sounds more like what the Democratic Party and its lobbyists want.

The "veal pen" captivation strategy executed by the White House insures their silence over these and other issue. And Obama consciously uses it as cover:

"We have responded with unprecedented resources, and when you look at what most of the critics say ...and you ask them, specifically, what is it that the administration could or should have done differently that would have an impact on whether or not oil was hitting shore, you're met with silence," Obama said in an interview aired Tuesday on NBC's "Today Show."

But the Sierra Club isn't alone. The Nature Conservancy is one of many environmental groups who have received enormous funding from the oil companies. The Sierra Club and the Audobon Society have also formed partnerships with BP. That money is there expressly to buy their good will at moments like this.

And then there's the National Resources Defense Council:

"I think that made people plenty angry. Every time you see a picture like that, it breaks your heart," Deans said. "Certainly, we're outraged, but it's not our job to generate outrage. It's our role to try to focus that sentiment on priorities we need to make our country stronger."

Some say that even though environmental groups aren't dominating the debate, their issues certainly are --and are driving huge swings in public opinion against drilling and in favor of action on climate issues.

Well those swings are being channeled by the Center for Biological Diversity, the group that was out there proving that the administration's actions didn't match up with its words, and that MMS was still granting offshore drilling permits, even after Ken Salazar promised they wouldn't. Meanwhile other groups were sitting on their hands, or doing what veal pen outfits do -- reaping the benefits of a catastrophe by expanding their memberships and fundraising.

The oil industry has done a good job of buying the silence of many "environmental organizations." PBS has been virtually mute on the spill, as sponsorship of its major shows is largely dominated by oil money. Media outlets that likewise depend heavily on advertising from oil companies have provided pathetic coverage of the spill and its consequences, focusing instead on completely stupid distractions like "has the President shown enough emotion."

The environmental groups that have the brand names and the public trust are thus the only entities that can penetrate the big oil message machine. When they speak, the public knows who they are and they listen. And they are the ones that the media contacts for quotes and commentary for just that reason. They are thus guaranteed a platform, and it's difficult to organize around them when they're AWOL.

Corralling the veal pen is a tactic that the White House has successfully used to cover their left flank since Obama took office. We saw it with NARAL, Planned Parenthood and other choice groups during the health care bill. As a result, Obama's poll numbers with liberals stay high, and he feels no need to address the issues of the base. By stitching up the validators, he's able to pursue a corporatist agenda while groups with brand name trust wage a public relations campaign to paint it as "progressive."

At this point, these groups are little more than another plank in the corporatist takeover of America. The progressive resistance George Bush faced has disappeared for Obama. And until progressive organizations confront the challenge of financing themselves independent of the big donors and the foundation money that can be easily manipulated by those with political power, the problem will persist.

In the mean time, these groups have demonstrated by both their action and inaction that they do not deserve that public trust. Unlike the Center for Biological Diversity, they have been successfully manipulated both by corporate money and by partisan gamesmanship. They've become such complete Washington DC creatures that they don't know how to be advocates from the outside any more -- their primary function is to give political cover in the midst of a PR battle. They have abdicated the role of non-partisan watchdogs, and concerned environmentalists should find new organizations in which to place their trust.

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