But Henn said it was important to distinguish the hard work of organizing from “performative solidarity.” He observed that too many organizations are distracted by “internal debates about messaging and identity and your positions on different issues.”
Indeed, in this new phase of environmentalism, Big Green organizations extend to labor rights, immigration, housing, and democratic reform. Some groups aim to stir up millions of latent Democratic voters across the country; to defeat voter suppression initiatives at the state level; make states of the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico; end the filibuster of the Senate and erode structural imbalances favoring red-leaning states.
“Do you end up taking so much that you become paralyzed?” Henn added. “Can you actually do the longer, deeper work to build a foundation that will prove for the climate? It’s a challenge.
Not all donors agree with the changes.
A former staff member of Earthjustice, who works on environmental law, who was granted anonymity to discuss confidential interactions, said some funders had told the group to stick to what that he knew. This person recalled battles with a board member when Earthjustice tried to navigate statements about police brutality, where the group sided with “police defunding” activists who wanted divert police budgets to mental health funding and community resources. Staff conducted shifts from inside, the person said.
“For the most part, the people funding Earthjustice signed up to protect polar bears, not to fund the police,” the person added.
Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen said in a statement that “systemic racism and social injustice are at the root of the environmental issues we are trying to address”, and that when “we speak out against injustice, and that we are explicit with our donors and supporters about why it is mission critical.
Scott Slesinger, who retired from the Natural Resources Defense Council as legislative director in 2019, also said some donors have returned there as well.
“There is a bit of hesitation from groups like the NRDC to try to broaden” the scope of its advocacy, Slesinger said. “It took some education from contributors that in order to achieve our environmental goals, the politics of the moment require us to grow. It was controversial when I left.
The most familiar route for many donors is to reach for the political center and hope to win over some moderate Republicans. For decades, the Big Green organizations were proudly nonpartisan, openly cultured centrist Republicans. It was a Republican President – Richard Nixon – who signed the bill creating the Environmental Protection Agency.
Under Nixon, in 1970, the first Earth Day drew millions of activists from both parties to the streets, noted Bill McKibben, the environmentalist and author and co-founder of 350.org, which helped organize protests against the Keystone XL pipeline.
But in McKibben’s account, fossil fuel companies responded to the environmental reforms of the 1970s by funding Republicans to oppose further environmental action by Congress: the Republican Party left the environmental movement, not the other way around .
“The energy that flows from it [first Earth Day] over the next decade or two they coalesced into a bunch of good organizations with big buildings in Washington that were effective lobbyists as long as there was energy left in that battery that was recharged in 1970” , McKibben said in an interview. “But the batteries drained and the other side got a lot better at playing this game.”