Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Elitism, greenwash and conservation

4 June, 2009 - 13:05 -- John Burton

Sometimes one comes across writing which is truly bizarre and it's hard to know how, or indeed, whether, to respond when the claims are so outrageously onesided and lacking in substance or truth. One such piece of writing is Greenwashing Eden: The Uses And Abuses Of Biodiversity.

Michael Barker, the author of the article, clearly has a talent for research, and clearly has a point that he wants to put across but I wonder about the reasons for producing something so twisted and biased? The thrust of his writing appears to be based on elitism - relating to conservation organisations, including the World Land Trust. When putting together examples, Barker make connections that don't exist (while missing many that really do exist), and conspiracy theories based on facts taken out of context, with little or no relationship with reality. All the information cited on World Land Trust is taken from our website and the facts and context are there clearly for all to see.

'Elitism' and 'Greenwash' are words that are often used by non-supporters of conservation organisations to make a particular point, and sometimes questioned by those with enquiring minds who want to know how the World Land Trust (and other conservation organisations) work: who supports them and how they make a decision about who, and who not, to work with.

Agreed, it is ironic that the same people who are contributing to environmental destruction through their relatively excessive lifestyles, also have the ability to contribute to conservation by donating their money. Without question it is the increasing consumption of resources due to an increasing number of people with capitalist, western lifestyles, that is having such an adverse effect on the planet. But who can blame people for wanting the best for themselves and their families? It is simply human nature.

There are many organisations beavering away to help save the planet - be it through campaigning, education or, in the case of the WLT, working with local people to purchase and protect what is left of their wilderness and wildlife. No one organisation can do everything needed, and indeed people have different opinions and ideas about how and what should be confronted as a priority. At the WLT we have a bedrock of support from individuals with hugely differing lifestyles and we are happy to accept their financial support to further our urgent aims of land protection.

We also work with companies and, yes, we could say that all companies are, to come extent, damaging the environment, but our belief is that only by working with these companies, helping them address their environmental responsibilities and encouraging them to 'think greener' are things ever going to change. However, we do occasionally turn down offers of corporate support where we feel that the company in question is simply looking for 'greenwash' without any true commitment, or where we feel the product simply cannot be justified.

It would be easy to rant to the world at large, via the internet, that everyone needs to change their lifestyle and abandon capitalism but this is simply not going to happen and is a complete 'turn off' for the very people one is hoping to engage: I believe that change is only achievable through small steps by those on the 'inside' as well as the 'outside' of establishment. Better to do something than nothing; nothing is achieved by unilateral criticism.


Submitted by Helena Akerlund on

We sent a slightly modified version of this post to the editor of, and received the following prompt reply:

Dear Ms. Åkerlund,

Please extend my thanks to Mr. Burton for his comments, which will be published in our Letters in the next issue dated June 15, 2009.

While I am not the author of the article — only its publisher and co-editor — I would respectfully submit to Mr. Burton that if he is correct about human nature and people "wanting the best for themselves and their families" (without defining the meaning of "best" — is it more, always more "stuff"?) and that lifestyle and capitalism simply won't be abandonned, then the future of the human species is rather bleak.

Mr. Burton ends his comments by asking: "It would be very interesting to know what Barker suggests as the way forward, and how it would actually work in the real world." I can't answer for the author, but I would be interested to know what Mr. Burton thinks of the performance of the WLT in the past 20 years. Albert Einstein once said that "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

The kind of thinking Mr. Burton uses, as well as so many other environmental organizations (Greenpeace, etc.), has only led to worsened conditions, both socially and environmentally.


Gilles d'Aymery
Swans Commentary

Submitted by Helena Akerlund on

And here is John's response to Gilles d'Aymery's reply:

I think, like Barker, Gilles d'Aymery has not actually understood what we in the World Land Trust do, and why we are different. The fact that I once worked for Fauna & Flora International, does not mean that the WLT works in the same way. I founded the WLT to instigate new ways of working. The fact that I am connected to others in the field means nothing. When I started in Natural History, there was essentially only a handful of professional international conservationists, so it's not surprising we are all connected in some way or other now — the movement has grown around us over the past 40 years. But being connected does not mean everyone thinks the same. And since you criticise virtually everyone — including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth etc (all of which you can find have links with me in some way or other), I would be interested to know what suggestion you have for moving forward — are there any conservation organisations you consider worth supporting?

Nihilism has its place in the world of philosophy, by not in the real world I suspect. Criticising anyone who does something is the easiest thing in the world. But I personally believe that the world is in such a mess that doing something, however small and insignificant, is important.

As for the performance of the WLT in the past 20 years, I believe that the WLT has achieved quite a lot, by empowering local organisations, and reversing the top-down, northern hemisphere led methodologies. Over 375,000 acres of important wildlife habitats are now permanently protected, thanks to WLT's supporters and hard-working partner organisations.

Finally I agree that the future for the human species is VERY bleak. I am a pessimist, and a palaeo-malthusian. Biology tells us that the human species has always lived at the limits of technology, has always over-exploited its environment and has been subject to regular population crashes. I can see no evidence, that as a species this can or will change. Living in balance with nature is a dream that will always remain unfulfilled, and has not occurred since before the Stone Age. That doesn't mean that we should give up trying to lead more environmentally-friendly lives, but I believe we have to be realistic about what changes can be achieved. The World Land Trust's primary aim is to protect wildlife habitats, and our methods of operating are therefore based on how this can be achieved most quickly, effectively and ethically. Currently that means funding and empowering locally based conservation organisations so that they can protect their natural environments. I fail to see how this could be considered leading to socially and environmentally worsened conditions.

Submitted by Helena Akerlund on

Yesterday Michael Barker published Buying The Environment To Save Capitalism and below is John's response:

Dear Editor,

Michael Barker's writing ( is a truly bizarre example of conspiracy theory. While some might argue that his article is libellous, it is in fact so unbelievably wide of the mark, that it can only benefit the very people and organisations he appears to be trying to discredit. I would suggest that if he wants to criticise effectively, he really needs to have a much better understanding of what really goes on within the world of conservation – where the fact that there are relatively few organisations operating means most of them, and the individuals working within them, will almost certainly be connected in one way or other. I could find much better connections and create a significantly better conspiracy theory if I wanted to, and was prepared to distort reality and the truth to the same level!

My main question to Barker remains unanswered. What does he propose as an alternative? We at the World Land Trust have actually made some fairly radical changes to the traditional approaches to conservation (clearly not radical enough for some people), but I really would like to know what further changes should be made, and how they could be effective. As I have written, being critical, and inventing conspiracy theories is very easy indeed. Doing something constructive is difficult. I would welcome Barker's suggestions.

Yours sincerely,
John Burton
World Land Trust

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