In a tough economy, environmental issues are often at the bottom of the political totem pole. Tea party ideology is not very conducive to regulations that curb corporate power nor to taxes that restore the wetlands. No wonder we look to the good will of the wealthy for solutions. Similar to the ways in which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is addressing health, technology and educational issues around the globe, the Rockefellers and their foundation are working to save the environment.
I witnessed this largesse last Monday when I was invited to New York City to attend the National Audubon Society’s Rachel Carson awards, honoring women who have participated in environmental conservation work, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico following the BP oil disaster. Since I am finishing a documentary on Louisiana’s wetlands that includes the history of the oil industry I was recognized as a “Woman of the Gulf” at the Plaza Hotel, along with twenty other female Gulf activists.
At the start of the event, emcee Allison Rockefeller described Rachel Carson’s life and history, including her groundbreaking book on pesticides, Silent Spring, and her tragic early death from cancer. Next, Rockefeller presented short videos of the two Carson award winners before she introduced them. Part of the draw for attending the luncheon that day was because actress Sigourney Weaver and architect Maya Lin were being honored. Maya Lin modestly thanked the audience and spoke very briefly. (Her work really speaks for itself...). But then came a video montage of Sigourney Weaver playing with gorillas in a jungle, Na'vi in a digital jungle, and wielding massive gun power in outer space. Weaver spoke sincerely and humorously about how it was time for women to “kick a little ass” when it comes to the environment.
“I don’t want to offend any of the men here,” Weaver said, but women understand the need to conserve natural resources inherently. She continued -- women want good food and energy for their families and they are willing to act to get it. Weaver used the analogy of addressing a conflict at her child’s grade school to make her point. If I wanted to get something done quickly, she said, I did not call the fathers. I went straight to the “Moms.” The room responded with laughter.
Only about half of the women nominated for their work in the Gulf were able to attend the event at the Plaza. Airfare, accommodations and an expensive fee for the luncheon were the honorees' responsibility. But I was impressed by the commitment of the women who did make the event—women such as marine toxicologist Susan Shaw and a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Lisa Suatoni. Suatoni is the co-producer and writer of Acid Test: The Global Challenge of Ocean Acidification, a Discovery channel documentary for which Weaver did the voiceover.
In the few minutes that I had to chat with these women, I heard damning details about how a majority of scientists do not believe that chemicals and gulf waters have simply “dispersed” the oil from the 2010 BP spill. The more likely outcome is that the oil has simply changed physical form — from a sticky, brown substance into invisible chemicals that will damage plants, animals and water quality for years to come. But the media prefers to move from a conflict to its resolution to a new disaster. Only the long-term commitment of researchers, foundations and communicators will tell this gulf story now.
It is apparent to me that some of the power connected to inherited wealth is necessary to fight for the environment — at least at the present political moment. At my table, I was seated with several other members of the Rockefeller family—documentary filmmaker and activist Susan Cohn Rockefeller, wife of environmental philanthropist David Rockefeller, Jr. (and great grandson of Standard Oil founder John D). David’s sister, Dr. Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, is the co-director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University and an author of several books on economics and the environment. Goodwin—who does not generally reveal her family name—stood up at a 2008 shareholder meeting for ExxonMobil (formerly Standard Oil) and petitioned with David and fifteen other Rockefellers for the company to “take leadership in developing sustainable energy technologies that can be used by and for the benefit of those most threatened by climate change."
The resolution was not passed and the limitations of Rockefeller power in the new boardroom were apparent. It is not surprising that the Rockefellers are appearing in university and foundation circles now to garner support for their environmental issues. At least they know that they will find a receptive audience.
Let’s hope they succeed just as abundantly in this new sphere.