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Taking Responsibility

It is safe to say that there would be no such thing as an environmental movement if non-profit organizations didn't exist. Period.

Ordinarily I don't make such sweeping statements, but even a cursory review of the more recent non-profit activities on behalf of clean air, clean water and animal (including human) habitat provides ample evidence of the point. The broad range of just the lawsuits brought by non-profits against an equally broad range of defendants is breathtaking. But such breadth becomes understandable when you itemize the range of threats to the environment.

Consider the following list of substances found in the air or water that prompted recent lawsuits by non-profits: mercury, antibiotics, dioxin, lead chromium, PCBs, benzopyrene, zinc, ammonia, cyanide, medical wastes, slaughterhouse waste, mining waste, plastic protective suits, benzene, plain old sewage.
Consider the defendants: Dow Chemical Co., Shell Oil, General Electric, the EPA, the U.S. Navy and Army, Reynolds Metals, Kraft Foods, the FBI, the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, GAF Corp.

Consider the plaintiffs--all non-profits: Sierra Club, Conservation Law Foundation, National Environmental Law Center, Greenpeace, Center for Biological Diversity, Animal Welfare Institute, Humane Society, Environmental Defense, Government Accountability Project, Natural Resources Defense Council, Mining Watch Canada, American Lung Association, Ocean Mammal Institute. Those are just some of the national groups. The regional and local groups are far more numerous.

Further evidence of the centrality of non-profits in the greening of America is the invention of that rarest of oxymorons, the non-profit law firm. The most prominent such firm is EarthJustice. Founded in 1971 as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, it has provided legal representation to more than 700 clients--primarily other non-profits that are plaintiffs in environmental lawsuits--ranging from the Natural Resources Defense Council to community-based organizations.

There may be a for-profit corporation somewhere devoting its stockholders' treasure to lawsuits on behalf of the planet, but I haven't found one. True, many corporate-image ads tout huge investments on behalf of new energy-saving technologies and methods, but no one believes self-interest is absent from those investments. Stockholders wouldn't permit them otherwise. Even the greenest large corporation doesn't rank with the smallest environmental non-profit because in the end the corporation is organized to
produce a profit.

The non-profits also are acting in self-interest, but by their very nature their self-interest is ours. Were it not for this fundamental aspect of non-profit organizations, I couldn't make my sweeping statement about their foundational role in the environmental movement. There is simply no other type of entity in our entire economic system with the incentive or access to resources to do this job. And as my review of recent litigation revealed, governments are defendants as often as they are plaintiffs.

There have been critics such as the San Diego Bee reporter who concluded these lawsuits are big business for lawyers. His focus was on large hourly fees and abusive billing practices in environmental suits against the government. This is valid criticism, but it misses both the mark and my point. The non-profit law firms are not the ones allegedly gouging the government or their clients--there are still too few of them to do all the work in this area.

When you assess the environmental movement in this country, the centrality of the non-profit players is obvious and overwhelming.

Bruce D. Collins is the corporate vice president and general counsel of C-SPAN, based in Washington, D.C.

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