Environmentalism is, among other things, a pretty significant industry. Within the biodiversity conservation space alone, for instance, there are some 1,700 nonprofit organizations in the United States, of all shapes and sizes.
So like other industries, environmentalism ought to change with changing economic conditions -- or so you would think.
A new study in the journal Ecology and Evolution, however, suggests otherwise. The paper, by Eric Larson and two colleagues from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, sampled 90 out of those 1,700 conservation groups -- ranging from land trusts to zoos and research institutes -- examining the annual forms they filed to the IRS for the years 2000-2009.
That was a period that saw, obviously, pretty dramatic economic upheaval. However, the study showed little responsiveness of the environmental organizations to changing economic conditions on four key metrics: how many months the organization could keep on going if all incoming revenue vanished (liquidity), how much its revenue sources are concentrated among a few sources rather than diversified across many, the percentage of its total expenditures spent on personnel, and its ratio of assets to liabilities.
You might think that in downturns, a green organization might be forced to cut staff or take on debt. In good times, by contrast, you might expect it to invest in developing new revenue sources, and save up money for leaner times. Actually, though, the study found that green conservation groups are "not particularly responsive to changing economic conditions." While their liquidity did increase somewhat in good times and decrease in bad times, and while their revenue streams became a bit more concentrated in downturns, their proportion of spending on personnel actually went up at bad times -- and the ratio of debts to assets didn't change.
Probably most striking was the finding about personnel. "Biodiversity conservation nonprofits may preferentially protect personnel when economic conditions are poor," the authors wrote, "likely at the cost of program activities."
The study also looked closely at the largest conservation nonprofit, the Nature Conservancy. It found that it, too, was relatively immune to changing conditions, and in particular, that its patterns of acquiring land for conservation purposes were "not particularly responsive to GDP." There was, however, one exception -- in tough times, the Nature Conservancy took on a higher proportion of conservation easements, in which owners retain property to their lands but agree to certain restrictions on its use to preserve ecological values, sometimes as a donation and sometimes in exchange for payment. (But of course, it might be that in hard times, more of these easements are on offer because landowners need money.)
Overall, the results support an increasingly influential theory that political behavior is driven largely by moral value systems that suffuse our entire lives, and pervade every aspect of what we do (not just the political). In this context, it is very understandable that greens don't just clash with industry when it comes to many environmental issues -- they also run their own houses and operations very differently. Or as one green group rep put it to the study authors: "There is nothing built into our bylaws to take economic conditions into account for awarding money."