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Know the West

Can billionaire philanthropy save the earth?


A few days ago, I was commiserating with a friend about the sad state of environmental affairs. We were talking about the infamous "death of environmentalism" paper and its call for the environmental movement to connect more to issues involving social justice.

My opinion, I told my friend, is that it’s not environmentalism that’s dead. There’s just no future in regular work. The future lies in capital, connections to it and then wielding that power. I concluded: "Billionaire philanthropy is the only thing that can save the earth."

I thought my argument made sense. Our national and international economic systems increasingly support massive aggregations of wealth. And now, it is mainly by the benevolence of a small portion of all those millionaires and billionaires that most environmental organizations stay funded. Think Rockefeller, Hewlett-Packard, Ford and of course, Ted Turner. And now, Wal-Mart.

With much fanfare, the Grand Canyon Trust recently announced that Wal-Mart has donated $1 million towards the purchase of two ranches near the Grand Canyon’s North Rim that will create a much-needed connection between the park’s wildlands and nearby national monuments. This connectivity will create several million acres of protected lands that can, among other things, be used to bring wolves back. Wal-Mart, moreover, says it intends to start protecting one acre of land for every one acre of land it develops. The Grand Canyon wildlands expansion is the beginning of that effort.

So now I ask myself: Should I shop at Wal-Mart or not? Should I support its program of capital accumulation, worldwide human rights abuses, low pay in the United States, inadequate health insurance and the ever-increasing amount of plastic junk that they sell? Is this a fair exchange for its efforts to save the environment? And how will Wal-Mart use this politically; could Wal-Mart now exert pressure through environmental groups to get union organizers to back off?

It’s a capitalistic conundrum, but it’s not always that sticky. Recently, former Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth spoke in Fort Collins, Colo., about U.S. energy policy, the war in Iraq and his foundation’s campaign for an alternative energy program.

Wirth is president of the UN Foundation, which was created by billionaire Ted Turner. Turner has also created the Better World Foundation, the Turner Foundation, and my favorite, the Turner Endangered Species Fund. Simply put, all billionaires are not created equal — some do enormously good things with their money.

As my friend and I went back and forth about the pluses and minuses of billionaire philanthropy, my friend focused on the dark side of what’s been called greenwashing, while I tended to see mostly light.

What we need, I believe, is to turn this into a game. We know these folks are fiercely competitive, well-connected and have abundant cash, so let’s get them competing for the good of the earth. Think of it — the Walton clan versus Ford versus Rockefeller versus Turner — the great alpha-male battle to save the planet, an anti-armageddon clash of eco-titans.

I picture myself camping on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon at the pristine, free and spacious Wal-Mart campground. A noiseless helicopter flies past, giving free rides through the canyon, its side emblazoned with the Rockefeller Foundation logo. And then a clean-fuels shuttle bus passes through the parking lot, its side covered with the Patagonia insignia.

Later in the day, I walk down to a canyon overlook and sit in the lavishly appointed Ben and Jerry’s pavilion. I’m offered a free set of Ford Foundation binoculars, and I peer through them hopefully. After a bit of searching I spot what I’ve come to see, a pack of Mexican wolves, a subspecies recently reintroduced to the park.

The wolf pack traverses across an open meadow about 1,000 feet below me, and I zoom in for a look at their leader, the alpha wolf. His brown and tan coat bristles in the sunlight; his yellow eyes shine. The sun briefly catches the metal on his large radio collar, and I can make out the name on his tag — Turner Wolf #293.

C’mon you rich boys — are you man enough? Who’s gonna save more of the planet?

Gary Wockner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer and ecologist and in Fort Collins, Colorado.