Much has already been discussed about the non-profit or non-governmental sector on issues ranging from the non-profit industrial complex to the unwanted neo-colonial imposition of these organizations around the world. However, I would like to provide my own perspective on why I feel that non-governmental organizations, specifically of the environmental or conservation variety (hereafter referred to as ENGOs) are ill-equipped to serve as a force for genuine change in our capitalist world.
ENGOs rely on either government support, various funding schemes (e.g., grants and awards), university partnerships, membership programs, or charitable donations to cover their operational costs. This means that no matter where the funding comes from, all organizations still rely on wealth production and some form of redistribution under a thriving capitalist economy. Government funding typically relies on taxation, which means that corporations and workers need to generate the wealth that would be taxed in the first place. If the funding is not a result of taxation but from charitable donations, then people need to be earning enough excess wealth that would enable the financial freedom to donate. Some organizations exist off of large corporate donations, which may seem like an act of benevolence, but those donations also benefit the donor through tax incentives and by greenwashing their perception in the eyes of the public. This means that the existence of environmental organizations is completely bound to the economic system — capitalism — that causes the environmental destruction which they seek to remedy.
In many jurisdictions, ENGOs, charities, and non-profits more generally are required to remain politically non-partisan to maintain their status as charitable organizations. This significantly disadvantages ENGOs because it essentially muzzles these organizations by preventing them from encouraging their supporters to join forces with political movements that could be beneficial to their operations. ENGOs cannot rally support behind particular political parties or movements in support of their goals and objectives. For example, they couldn’t outwardly support a political party that wants to phase out oil and gas otherwise they might be seen as politically biased. Losing charitable status would mean that some people might be discouraged from donating to an organization because they are no longer officially approved as a charity, and as a result, those donors would no longer receive tax write offs for their donations. Tax breaks might not be the sole reason for why people donate to charities, but it most certainly incentivizes greater contributions than would otherwise be the case.
Even with charitable status and adequate funding to support their operations, most non-profit organizations suffer from chronic under-funding relative to their opponents who seek to maintain the existing capitalist socio-economic order such as large corporations (e.g., oil and gas companies). A lack of resources at ENGOs means that they have a relative lack of capacity given the immensity of capital available to corporations, which prevents action on all fronts, thus requiring prioritization on certain issues at the expense of others that may be equally important. This lack of capacity seems to have resulted in the splintering of the environmental movement across multiple organizations who then need to compete with each other for attention, public support and funding, rather than against their actual adversaries who are driving environmental destruction.
The environmental movement does have a history of key victories for the conservation and protection of the natural world, however those wins are still few and far between when compared against the vast footprint of ecological destruction. Under settler colonial legal systems, nature (i.e., non-human species and/or entire ecosystems) are denied the rights which we would otherwise grant to persons, trusts, and corporate entities. This means that there are very few guaranteed legal protections for individual species or the environment as a whole, and ENGOs (acting on their behalf) have very little recourse to hold others — such as industry and/or governments — accountable for their actions if those actions have resulted in harm. Many of the wins that have been achieved across the environmental movement have been the direct result of Indigenous and/or local resistance as these groups tend to have greater legal standing (i.e., property rights) than we have afforded to the natural world despite the extensive history of settler colonial violence towards Indigenous Peoples. Our wins are only needles of success amongst a haystack of defeats. Yet ENGOs must continue to persevere against these odds or else things could be much worse.
Looking at environmental wins from a Marxist perspective, most of these achievements should be considered as liberal reforms to the existing system, rather than having a genuinely revolutionary character to them. This is because these wins only address injustices caused by the capitalist system on a case by case basis, rather than addressing the root cause of the injustices in the first place — our system of production AKA capitalism. It feels like a depressing game of whack-a-mole, where ENGOs are constantly doing their best to address individual conservation issues as they arise within the limited avenues available to us, but as soon as one issue is resolved (or not) another problem pops up elsewhere. At best we can only offer band-aid solutions. ENGO actions and operations are constrained by the existing socio-economic, legal, and political order under capitalism, and unless we can help force a revolutionary transition away from this system of exploitation, we will never truly escape this whack-a-mole reality.
We should not continue to waste our time, energy and limited resources on liberal reforms when we should be pushing for a genuine revolution in the way that we conduct ourselves on the planet. As things stand, ENGOs are coerced into acting within the existing system of rules and regulations that govern (or more accurately restrict) our behaviour, which means we continue to play by the rules of the established order. Those in power will never provide us with an avenue to defeat them, so it’s absurd to assume that our continued participation in these systems will ever result in meaningful changes for the better.
Under the existing capitalist system and without granting legal rights of personhood to the natural world, I believe that the most viable option to push for genuine change is in support of Indigenous communities and their goals. In a similar situation to ENGOs (but for different reasons), Indigenous communities have limited resources and capacity to act on all fronts demanded of them, and it could be an act of reconciliation for ENGOs to dedicate our own resources in service to Indigenous needs. Indigenous resistance has been decisive in advancing environmental protections against both colonization and capitalism, and environmental organizations should look to support them wherever and however we can if we hope to make any further gains under the existing order.
Otherwise, I feel that the best way to push for a kinder, more sustainable, and equitable future is for ENGOs to join forces with one another, as well as Indigenous Peoples and other groups who are working to address labour and/or social justice issues around the world. Joining forces would enable leveraging a larger pool of public attention and allow our organizations to build greater support for an intersectional-social-environmental revolution. We all need to do a better job of raising awareness about the shared root cause (capitalism/colonialism) of the multiple crises we currently face such as climate change, biodiversity loss, racism, rising wealth inequality, homelessness, the resurgence of fascism, the inadequate response to the ongoing covid-19 pandemic etc.
All of these issues are enabled by a system of property ownership that allows a small group of people (the CEOs of large corporations and their shareholders) to extract vast amounts of wealth by exploiting the labour of working class people and through the destruction of the environment. Raising awareness around the intersectionality of these issues can help to generate a shared class consciousness among an “environmental-proletariat” which includes all workers, the poor, the historically marginalized, racialized, and/or over-exploited peoples of the world. We need to all be on the same page if we are to overcome the immensity of the challenge before us, and doing so is the only way to guarantee we pave the way for a better tomorrow.