On Not Having Joe Bast to Kick Around Anymore

Joe Bast said a couple of things at the closing of the last Heartland ICCC anti-conference that leave an encouraging impression that he is discouraged and floundering, and that there are “no plans” for another such meeting. This, as anyone of good will will agree (possibly even going as far as Michael Fumento!) is probably a good thing.

As Watching the Deniers points out, there are valuable lessons to be learned from this success, of which he notes:

* The faux sceptic movement withers under the harsh light of truth. The more light we shine on Heartland, its methods and sources of funding the more it likely it will implode or reduced to utter irrelevance

* Focus fire tactics (i.e. putting one target under the microscope) works

* “We” can be tenacious and shouldn’t apologise for using the tactics of civil disobedience.


Clearly, defeating or at least diminishing Heartland is a positive step, but it is a long way from victory. We have not yet, though, cashed the check that Peter Gleick wrote for us. What we see so far is just an advance.

What is important is to look at the whole structure of right wing philathropies and how they warp public discourse. After all, what does “Donors Trust will never allow any funds to drift to organizations on the left” mean? What could it possibly mean? I think it means “all funds will be used to defend the privileges of the rich and not a penny will go to anyone or anything that actually needs it”.

But what of those “organizations of the left”? In The Philanthropic Complex a remarkable and compelling essay at the alarmingly named Jacobin magazine, by Curtis White, an argument is made that leftish (really, Democrat-leaning) charities in the US are also instruments of oligarchy, perhaps more important than those on the right.

The periodic Wall Street meltdown aside, the most dramatic problem facing capitalism for the last thirty years has been its tendency to destroy the very world in which it acts: the environmental crisis in all its manifestations. The response to this crisis has been the growth of the mainstream environmental movement, especially the Environmental Protection Agency and what we call Big Green (the Sierra Club, et. al.). But, it should go without saying, Big Green was not the pure consequence of an up-swelling of popular passion; it was also the creation of philanthropic, federal, and corporate “gift giving”.

… These large environmental organizations are more dependent on federal and foundation support, and accordingly tend to take a “soft” line on economic and industrial reform. As Mark Dowie reports, “They are safe havens for foundation philanthropy, for their directors are sensitive to the economic orthodoxies that lead to the formation of foundations and careful not to do anything that might diminish the benefactor’s endowment.”

As with the Environmental Protection Agency, Big Green is not so much an enemy as a self-regulator within the capitalist state itself. The Sierra Club is not run by visionary rebels, it is upper management. It really does have effects that are beneficial to the environment (many!), but in no way are those benefits part of an emerging new world that is hostile to the industries that are the most immediate origin of environmental destruction.

One can look at this as enforcing the Overton window. If “even” the Sierra Club is pro-growth, why then, advocacy of a steady state economy can’t possibly be considered as a reasonable point of view. If “even” the IPCC says sea level rise will be under a meter in this century, clearly Jim Hansen is can no longer be considered as having a reputable opinion. As long as influence is limited to large organizations, discussion proceeds between extremism tuned to the interests of the rich and centrism tuned to the interests of the rich. (The traditional vectors of “left” and “right” hardly map on to these constituencies at all.)

Our problems are serious and may be fundamental. People who are doing especially well may be of good will, but their understanding of the world is (like everyone else’s) skewed by their experiences and their opinions (like everyone else’s) are skewed by their self-interest. The trouble is that they have advantages in a mass society that others cannot easily match.

Many charitable non-profits end up as guns for hire under present circumstances. Curtis White leaves me wondering whether Joe Bast is especially unusual. Ideally, I would venture that charities should do good works, and politics should be left to the population. Clearly, America is far from that ideal. Are similar things happening elsewhere?


  1. I agree with Curtis.

    He says it so much more elegantly than I. But I'll repeat the "Take 'em all down" mantra. By that I mean that all philanthropic orgs that rely on bourgeoisie money need to be stripped down and rebuilt with public funding and small donations, but that doesn't go over well at the dinner table either. People should the whole article, then read "Death of the Liberal Class", by Christopher Hedges.

  2. An interesting read. Thanks for the link.

    I am nervous about kneejerk keywords like "bourgeois" under the best of circumstances, though. Winger jargon of either wing tends to shut down logical thought.

    But in any case I think you misuse it here. The bourgeoisie was the ancestor of the middle class, back when it was a minority (shopkeepers, skilled tradesmen), and in the modern context best refers to the middle class. The bourgeoisie is easily made complicit with an oligarchy (even a nominally communist one; consider China) but is not the same people and does not always have the same interests.

    I'd much rather avoid the word altogether in a modern context, and it's misleading in countries where there is a middle class majority.

  3. Yes, the word has all but lost it's meaning in initial use. This is due to lots of reasons, the stock market, the emergence of a large professional class, etc. I only use it for humor in the above comment. But for all intents and purposes, assume it's modern use is for the capitalist class, as a dividing line between those who own most of the the means of work or production and those who work for a living. Just leftist terminology.

  4. > Focus fire tactics (i.e. putting one target under the microscope) works.

    Indeed, auditing is tried and true.

    Speaking of which, I believe there is a good business opportunity here:


    In a nutshell, a Denizen is willing to build an issue tree (don't ask me what this is) of the whole gamut, something like a mindmap of all the arguments.

    I believe that this would be worthwhile, but I have no time right now.

    But I do believe that this could very well complement or add value to resources like Skeptical Science.

    Sorry if I sound OT. I don't think I am.

  5. Yeah. And I guess you self-identify as leftist.

    I don't, although many of the things I believe are anathema to the right, some of the things I believe are not "politically correct" on the left either.

    More to the point, P3, this site, is intended to welcome all stripes, especially if they are not hopelessly confused about the actual evidence. Sometimes that means stepping in and saying that explicitly. And the hope is to challenge everybody's beliefs.

    The ideal P3 article is one where it is hard to predict the reader's response from their politics. One way to revive the conversation is by avoiding stale arguments.

    Nevertheless, we do seem to have an oligarchy problem, which leads to the bizarre spectacle of the presidential race of this year, where two defenders of the status quo each find occasion to pose as opponents of it. And that oligarchy is definitely part of the Heartland story.

  6. I wonder if some of us who are concerned about climate change and who are equally concerned and perplexed about climate change denial sometimes give too much credit/blame to the prominent spokesmen of the fake skeptic side.

    From reading Haidt and Mooney, it seems that many of us form our beliefs emotionally or morally and then go out and seek facts to bolster our opinions. In the internet and 500-channel cable TV age, we now all get to dine out at the kind of intellectual restaurant that suits our emotional taste buds.

    What I am getting at is that the product served up by the likes of the Heartland Institute is as much a result, as much as it is a cause, of the denial of climate reality. Bad information as much driven by demand as it is by supply. That makes me pessimistic that the weeding out of Heartland will make much difference when there's still all that fertile soil for scientific kudzu to grow in.

  7. I think the main damage that Heartland and other think tanks did was provide 'intellectual cover' for people who, for whatever reason, did not want to accept climate science.

    Prominent people could point to Heartland 'research' and op-eds the same way I might point to the NAS or IPCC. To someone not paying attention (ie almost everyone who doesn't spend time on climate blogs) the difference between Heartland and the IPCC is not immediately obvious.

    Getting rid of the supposed legitimacy of Heartland wont by itself change people's belief. But the removal of intellectual cover will make it more difficult for people to justify their views (though some will undoubtedly still succeed), and more importantly make it more clear to others that those views have no legitimacy.

    So Heartland's implosion might not eliminate climate denialism, but it could help lower the prominence it gets amongst policy-makers.

  8. I agree that groups will partially reflect the interests of those who fund them, but disagree with most of the rest of the argument.

    I think the blinkers can be ideological as much as they are economic. Can Clean Coal ever work? I dunno, but I think at least some (please remember I said "some") of the rejection of it is based on revulsion to the idea that climate solutions could leave the coal barons intact and somewhat happy. Same thing for carbon sequestration. Same thing for why distributed solar is great but massive solar generating fields owned by utilities aren't. Some of the pro and anti nuclear power debate is ideological.

    These are partly scientific, partly ideological debates. I don't think class economic interest is anything like the sole driver of these debates.

  9. Mr. Skuce, you wrote " . . . we now all get to dine out at the kind of intellectual restaurant that suits our emotional taste buds."

    You're right, which is precisely why I keep up with opposing views, even the most idiotic. "Know thy enemy" and all that . . .

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