June 2005
Writers on the Range

Can Billionaire Philanthropy Save The Earth?
Gary Wockner

Gary Wockner A few days ago, I was sitting in a bar with a friend commiserating about the sad state of environmental affairs. We were talking about the now infamous “death of environmentalism” and its associated call to connect the environmental movement with the social justice and progressive movements.

My personal opinion, I told my friend, is that its not environmentalism that’s dead, but rather labor and justice. There’s just no future in regular work; the future is in capital, connections to it, and then wielding that power eco-accordingly. I said point-blank: “Billionaire philanthropy is the only thing that can save the earth.”

And the argument makes 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 foundations and organizations stay funded. Think Rockefeller, Hewlett, Ford, and of course, Ted Turner. And now, Wal-Mart.

As has been widely reported, the Grand Canyon Trust recently announced that Wal-Mart donated $1 million towards the purchase of two ranches near the Grand Canyon’s North Rim that will add a much-needed connection between the Park’s wildlands and the nearby national monuments.

This connectivity will create several million acres of protected lands that can, among other things, be used for a Grand Canyon wolf reintroduction program. It can also help with other minor issues like creating a large enough landscape to ensure continued biological evolution amidst our alarmingly high, human-caused, species-extinction crisis.

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 their effort.

So now I ask myself: Should I shop at Wal-Mart or not? Should I support their program of capital accumulation, worldwide human rights abuses, low pay in the U.S., no health insurance, and the ever-increasing amount of junk and schlock they sell? Is this a fair exchange for their efforts to save the environment? And how will Wal-Mart use this politically, like, can Wal-Mart now exert pressure through environmental groups to get social activists to back-off on anti-Wal-Mart campaigns?

It’s a capitalistic conundrum, but it’s not always that sticky. A couple weeks ago, former US Senator Tim Wirth was here in Fort Collins, CO speaking about US energy policy, the war in Iraq, and his organization’s campaign for a sane, alternative energy program.

Senator Wirth, as you may know, is President of the UN Foundation, a foundation 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, others don’t.

As the beer flowed, my friend and I delved ever deeper into the pluses and minuses of billionaire eco-philanthropy. Whereas my friend focused on the greenwashing dark side, 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, and so let’s get them competing for the good of the earth. Think of it—Walton 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 earnestly. After a bit of searching I spot what I’ve come to see, a wolf pack—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 #293f.

C’mon you rich boys, are you man enough? Who’s gonna save the planet first?

Gary Wockner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.