August 4, 2016

The Business of Environmentalism

In truth, we should be allies. The environmental and agricultural communities share more in common than conventional wisdom might suggest. Both desire to preserve our planet and its resources for future generations. I am not shy about saying farmers are the original environmentalists.

To a person, every farmer I have ever met is driven by an ethical obligation to protect the environment. They view themselves as stewards of the land. Nearly all want their children and grandchildren to continue the tradition. These multi-generational farms, the heart and soul of agriculture in the West, are the very definition of sustainability. We should be so lucky to entrust our limited natural resources to their collective care.

If you can’t bring yourself to buy the moral argument, at least consider renting the financial one. Farmers are business owners. They are motivated by sustainable profit. Their businesses are dependent on healthy soil and clean water, both of which lead to stronger yields and higher quality products. The math is quite simple: An environmentally-healthy farm can deliver sustainable profits, while land that has been abused will soon cease to produce anything. Furthermore, inputs like fertilizer and pesticides are expensive; a business that doesn’t minimize operating costs won’t stay viable for very long.

Regardless of motive, clean air, soil and water are all outcomes supported by environmentalists. So why do so many continue to paint farmers as the enemy?

In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned the nation: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence… by the military-industrial complex.” During the early years of the Cold War, he feared that American democracy was being threatened by the burgeoning interdependency between arms manufacturers, the military and government. Eisenhower urged the citizenry to remain “alert and knowledgeable” to avoid the “disastrous rise of misplaced power.”

In a similar sense, today we see the maturation of an environmental-industrial complex, defined by multi-million dollar global enterprises closely integrated with academia and government regulators implementing environmental programs.

Like a storyline out of Mad Men, environmental activists have channeled their inner Don Draper, fomenting fear of the impacts of business and industry, and of human activity generally, in order to build a database of committed donors. It is an ingenious business model, used by corporate America since the early 1920s when Gerard Lambert stigmatized halitosis to sell Listerine. Marketers have long understood that fear is a powerful motivating tool.

Every cause needs a bad guy, a threat that must be put down. For Listerine, it was bad breath. For some environmental organizations, farmers—cast as the pillagers of Mother Earth—have emerged as a compelling bogeyman (typically referred to as “corporate agriculture,” “industrial agriculture,” or the like) to alarm the 98 percent of Americans who aren’t farmers.

We are all motivated by our own self-interest. Farmers are motivated by the love of farming and social good that comes from providing healthy food, and they are also motivated by the desire to succeed financially. Environmental activists working in big organizations aren’t all that different. There is no doubt that most choose a career in environmental activism based on personal commitment to environmental values and an altruistic desire to do good, and there is also no doubt that for most, an equal motivation, and one that is entirely defensible, is the financial reward and career security that these organizations can provide.

Unfortunately, in the public debate, it is perfectly acceptable to point to farmers’ financial motivations and equally unacceptable to acknowledge the financial motivations of environmental advocates. Those in private enterprise who are targeted by the policy and political initiatives of the environmental lobby ought to be more vocal about that.

If one can acknowledge the reality that the environmental lobby is motivated not only by the values of environmentalism, but also by the financial rewards of growing a motivated donor base, one might ask whether it would really benefit these organizations to ever declare a problem solved. After all, while committed donors might feel good upon hearing such an announcement, they would also have one less reason to contribute money.

Nowhere was this more evident than during the opposition waged against Senator Feinstein’s compromise California drought legislation in 2014, which culminated in a 13-organization joint-letter slamming her bill, S. 2198.

Not one to seek the ire of environmentalists, the senator candidly responded—as quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle—that they “have never been helpful to me in producing good water policy.” She went on to lament, “I have not had a single constructive view from environmentalists of how to provide water when there is no snowpack.”

The practice of environmental protection and the business of environmentalism are two sides of a scale. Our nation’s natural resources have benefitted from much that has come from the former, but today the scale is weighted too much to the latter. It is from that side of the scale—the business of environmentalism—that produces the political targeting of agriculture.

It should stop. We share a common aim: To safeguard the planet for its people, animals and plants. Imagine how much good could be accomplished if all farmers, regardless of size, whether conventional or organic, were accepted and embraced as partners for environmental protection? Now that is a narrative I know Don Draper could sell.