When researching my book, “Green, Inc.,” I was floored to learn that the leaders of large environmental groups receive salaries that put them in the top 1 percent of U.S. taxpayers. Add in fringe benefits, expense accounts and travel budgets, and the top brass at World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund and other groups make between $400,000 and $1 million a year.
Those astronomical salaries are part of a paradox that has hamstrung U.S. environmentalism for a number of years now: While the environmental “industry” is bigger, better funded and more professional than ever, growing numbers of critics say its professionalization has undercut what made it a “movement” in the first place. And, not just any movement but one powerful enough to bring us clean air and water acts and other environmental protection laws we often take for granted today. The drive to become Washington insiders and woo corporate sponsors appears to have eroded power of these groups to speak for the public and get solutions to pressing problems. But it’s sort of a chicken and egg question: Are the ridiculously high salaries the cause or merely and effect of this paradox?
Of course, there are other, even more pertinent questions: Are these top-earning environmentalists capable of being watchdogs of the public good? Are their groups in a position to call polluting companies to account, even as they vie for donations from corporate moguls and the corporations themselves?
Last week, when the White House released information on staff salaries, I was struck again about how absurd it is that the country’s most influential environmental leaders make more than another guy in a public interest job, the President of the United States. Barack Obama earns $400,000 a year, according to this Washington Post article. That’s about half of Steven Sanderson’s annual take at the Wildlife Conservation Union. Sanderson primary responsibility: running the Bronx Zoo. Obama is a leader of the free world. Anybody else see a problem here?