The “Pennsylvania Environmentalist” is intended for members, friends, and stakeholders of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and provides a periodic perspective on the issues we face and the manner in which we address them.
Conservation Through Cooperation
Reflections on a Unique Model of Advocacy That Has Stood the Test of Time
Greenpeace has its whales. The Audubon Society has its birds. And Ducks Unlimited, well…you know.
Environmental advocacy organizations are as varied as the missions and issues they exist to fight for. And those with longevity have each found success in their own unique way.
Similarly, many environmental nonprofits are known by the manner in which they fulfill those missions. For some, the legal justice system is their first and sometimes only course for bringing about change. For others, public demonstrations and protest are their signature. Others still work with less fanfare and find progress quietly and behind the scenes. In a way, their methods become as iconic as the brand itself.
Like the philosopher said, “you are what you do.”
Through much of its 45-year history, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) has defined its brand of advocacy with a simple phrase, “conservation through cooperation.”
That’s been the guiding principle behind PEC’s mission and has distinguished it from virtually every other environmental advocacy organization, not only in Pennsylvania, but nationally. It has earned PEC a reputation as an honest broker of ideas and opened doors to dialogue between disparate parties in a wide range of environmental debates between deeply-entrenched opponents.
To casual observers and the uninitiated, PEC’s mantra has sometimes been conveniently misinterpreted as a pseudonym for “pro-industry,” or worse. But there’s no denying its influence in successfully finding solutions to otherwise unsolvable environmental problems. To be sure, PEC’s track record in getting opposing points of view to cooperate for the common good on such intractable issues as hazardous waste, brownfield development, unconventional natural gas drilling, water quality, and a host of others is both long and undeniable.
It’s an uncommon, if not extraordinary strategy for bringing about environmental change, and one that other environmental nonprofit organizations have set as the standard.
“I’ve looked for other ‘PEC-like’ models around the country and haven’t found any,” said former PEC president Paul King.
So what, exactly, does ‘conservation through cooperation’ really mean? How has this notion manifested itself in PEC’s brand identity over the past 45 years? Most importantly, has it been an effective way of doing business?
Birth of an Ideology
Eleanor Winsor recalls a day when pollution and environmental threats had reached a breaking point in Pennsylvania.
It was 1970 and the environmental movement was coming of age, nourished by the publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal book, “Silent Spring” just a few years earlier. Major environmental legislation, including the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act had yet to be enacted. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would open its doors for the first time later that year.
“There was a very strong sense of concern,” she remembers. “Pennsylvania had seen a number of major environmental problems and we felt that we had to do something.
“Pennsylvania’s environment was controlled by the dirty industries,” said Winsor, who would become the first president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council that same year. “There was a lot of cronyism and a realization that things couldn’t go on the way they were. So we would focus on an issue and work it through.”
In those early days of PEC’s history, Winsor recalls that the more established environmental organizations often took more aggressive positions on the issues.
“They would enable the position that we would take, which was more centrist,” she noted. “That gave us a lot of viability.”
Indeed, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council came into being with little fanfare in 1970 and quietly set about its work to shape environmental policy in the state capitol of Harrisburg. While other environmental nonprofits at both the state and national levels garnered attention and headlines with confrontational tactics, litigation, and demonstrations, PEC took a different course and found both industry and government to be more receptive to discussion and negotiation.
It quickly earned PEC a reputation for finding solutions to complex problems and getting things done.
“PEC was, to a great extent, the conservation voice for the state,” said Andrew McElwaine, senior managing director of sustainability and environment at the Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh and PEC president from 1999-2005. “Grass roots groups grew up that were very confrontational and very much opposed to any progress on policy, so PEC had to fill the gap.”
Jim Seif recalls that aggressive tactics and litigation played an important role in the early 1970s, but the environmental movement required more than that to make a permanent mark on society.
“The adversary system may have been the only way at that early stage to get attention,” said Seif, a former assistant U.S. attorney. “But clearly achievements in cleaning things up and getting it right had less to do with the adversarial system and the blame game than working together.
“If the purpose of stridency is to get attention, keep your base hot and write a check, it works. But not if the purpose is to enhance the public debate and get to real solutions.”
“You have to bring something to the table,” said long-time PEC board member Jolene Chinchilli. “You can’t just oppose everything.”
But not everyone has agreed with PEC’s approach. For many years after the first Earth Day, an undercurrent of hostility toward industry fueled at least in part by environmental catastrophes such as the toxic waste dump at Love Canal, N.Y., the Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and others, helped to define the adversarial relationship between industry, regulators, and environmental organizations.
Any notion of sitting down at the same table with industry to discuss remediation measures that were anything less than absolute was a betrayal to the cause.
“There are still some people who see environmental protection as an all or nothing proposition,” added King, a PEC board member for 20 years, including four years as president.
“Some environmental nonprofits are opposed to everything and consequently, get nothing done. And some people think PEC is weak or unprincipled because we talk to others. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s a key strength. We’re willing to talk to anyone.
“To say that one person has all the answers is just wrong. You have to talk to a lot of people.”
“A lot of environmental activists thought PEC was a sellout,” said Winsor. “But on the other hand, there were a large group of people with whom we made good contacts. And to them, PEC wasn’t a sellout. So instead of yelling and shouting, we worked with the agencies. We listened to what their problems were and we went back with all the different parties and found something that would work.”
Chinchilli believes that PEC is largely misunderstood because its unique brand of advocacy is based on keeping an open mind and considering multiple points of view, even while pushing for a rigorous environmental standard.
“People would tell me that if you even sit down and talk with anybody else, you’re selling out,” she said. And the fact is, you really can’t get anywhere if you’re just talking with yourself. If all we did was talk to other environmental groups, we would never get the perspective you need to solve problems. To some people, that sounds like a cop-out.”
“We could walk into any office in Harrisburg,” added Winsor. “They might disagree with us but we were respected. They used us for information and we were good at getting objective information to the legislators.”
At least one former regulator agrees.
“When I took office in January 1995,” said Seif, former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), “I saw PEC as a better potential ally than someone who was ready to go to court over anything they didn’t like.”
Seif is about as tough an audience as you’ll find in the environmental world. He’s been an EPA regional administrator and secretary of DEP, among his other career stops. And he pulls few punches in his opinions on how to get things done when it comes to environmental protection.
“People who start revolutions aren’t particularly good at finishing them,” he said. “And they’re not particularly good at solving problems.”
Chinchilli agrees. “PEC’s mode of operation isn’t necessarily to inflame emotions about issues, even though some of these issues can be very emotional. But if that’s all you bring to the table, you’re not going to get very far.”
“Finger-pointing and screaming dominated the environmental movement from Earth Day to Rio,” added Seif. “If finger-pointing to solve problems worked, then the environmental problem would have been solved with Rachel Carson.”
Who Do You Trust?
Many of the principles that guide PEC’s mission are rooted in fundamentals of conflict resolution with a goal of getting something done rather than simply making a point.
“PEC historically was of the view that there are perspectives that need to be explored and illuminated,” noted Jack Ubinger, a former senior vice president and board member of PEC, and now an adjunct professor of conflict resolution at Duquesne University’s Center for Environmental Research and Education.
“One of the first concepts of conflict resolution is information exchange,” he added. “You can’t have information exchange if you’re not willing to have conversations and be open-minded. The foundation of conflict resolution is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.”
And therein lies at least part of the wisdom in PEC’s approach to problem-solving: empathy. A 2013 study of negotiation found that people tend to believe that the party they are negotiating with is more interested in winning than in actually solving the problem. As a result, trust erodes, both sides dig into defensive postures, and effective solutions become harder to achieve.
“PEC has always been able to have the conversation with all perspectives without alienating them,” said Ubinger. “There are environmental organizations that wouldn’t even get in the door because of their actions but PEC has always been able to have the opportunity to have a conversation to either accept or reject what’s behind the perspective. PEC has the conversation to be informed from all perspectives when it makes its decisions about what policy it should formulate and what issues it should advocate.”
“Conservation through cooperation is really a viewpoint about thoroughly understanding an issue,” said Carol McCabe, chair of the PEC board of directors.
“Rather than having tunnel vision or a single perspective that you are unable to appreciate other viewpoints, PEC learns these issues so thoroughly and understands all of the viewpoints. On the program work, we are able to get a project done so effectively because we collaborate and cooperate with all sorts of different groups and entities.”
And Ubinger says that being able to accept opposing viewpoints as valid without necessarily agreeing is a cornerstone of the PEC model and major reason why policy-makers and industry alike welcome PEC’s voice in the public process.
“No matter who you are, we all have a perspective and we all have biases,” he said. “The most important thing that’s been missing is enough discussion with all perspectives. In some ways, the ‘belligerence’ of some of the advocates has become counterproductive, because there are good points to be made, even by those who are outwardly belligerent to the industry. But their belligerence basically becomes a barrier to the industry wanting to talk to anybody about how to solve the problems from an environmental perspective. To my way of thinking, those who are outwardly belligerent to the industry are, in some ways, becoming a disincentive for the industry to want to have conversations with those who are willing to have them.”
‘The First Two Slices of Bread’
PEC’s track record over the past four decades has shown how a willingness to listen opens doors to ongoing dialogue that leads to effective solutions.
Winsor remembers the early days of negotiations over clean air standards in the 1970s.
“One of our very active directors was the senior vice president of Northrup (Grumman),” she recalled. “He was able to share with us technical information that showed that industry could go to 95 percent reduction in air contaminants at a certain cost. And he showed us how going to 98 percent, which the other environmental groups were pushing for, would cost several times more. So we made practical economic decisions. It wasn’t worth pushing for 98 percent if all you were going to get was opposition.
“We decided to take the first ‘two slices of the bread’ and see how that’s working. And we could always go back and get more later. It was a very effective way of operating.”
“Incremental improvement is sometimes a better way to get things done,” added King. “It can lead to watershed change over time. The challenge is to bring stakeholders along in the process.”
The success of those and similar negotiations gave rise to a culture of cooperation at PEC that has defined the organization and still applies to the issues PEC is tackling in 2015.
“Most people would agree with the goal that there should be no contaminants in treated waste water,” said Davitt Woodwell, PEC president and CEO. “You could say that’s non-negotiable because it’s in everyone’s best interest to have so-called pure water. But the reality is that, in some cases, technology can only get you so far before it breaks the bank.
“So at the end of the day, you hope to come up with something that’s gotten you very far toward your goal. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good and keep us from getting significant improvements.”
‘It’s Not About Finding Middle Ground’
PEC was once branded as “green slime” by an industry-backed public relations campaign on natural gas regulation, while at the same time called “climate alarmists” and “left wing” by the conservative John Locke Foundation.
Conversely, PEC’s model of advocacy has been often mistaken for “settling” on principles in order to reach an agreement.
But closer observers understand PEC’s policy positions are derived from science and rooted in its mandated mission to protect and restore the environment through collaboration.
“It’s not about finding middle ground,” said Ubinger. “What PEC does is identify the environmental quality objectives that have to be achieved and then look for ways for all stakeholders to achieve those goals. I don’t think you relent on continually driving toward environmental quality, but you look for a way to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers and we’re looking for the good thinking of everybody from every perspective to find a solution that works for everybody.”
“There are people who often equate ‘cooperation’ with ‘capitulation,’” added Chinchilli. “Those people don’t really know PEC well enough. Consensus is not the objective. It’s not OK, just because everybody agrees, if it doesn’t get you the environmental protection that you’re looking for.”
And McCabe challenges critics who claim that decision-making at PEC is intent on assuaging the interests of industry to sit in a board meeting and see for themselves.
“I don’t think it’s the case that PEC is aligned with industry,” she said. “I’ve been on the board for more than 10 years and I can tell you from firsthand experience that it’s not the case that there is some desire to please industry or otherwise cater to particular interests. I’ve never felt that any participation or support by industry has swayed PEC’s approach.”
“PEC meetings are not devoid of raised voices,” added Seif, “but they are not places where judgments are made about people or organizations. Judgments are made about whether solutions will work or not.”
And after 45 years, PEC remains content to work quietly and behind the scenes to achieve results. But the tradeoff in public attention and acclaim is the price of success to bring people together to speak candidly without the fear of being compromised publicly.
“One of the shortcomings (of the PEC approach) is that it’s not particularly sexy,” said Ubinger. “It’s looking at things and getting into the weeds, so it doesn’t lead readily into soundbites and big splashy positions. You have to create an environment for everybody involved to feel comfortable and to make sure we understand things before we formulate a policy that we take public.
“The PEC methodology is focused on the problem and not on the people,” he added. “PEC becomes an advocate for solutions to problems without necessarily having preordained what the solution should be. Their advocacy is for good solutions to some of the very daunting challenges to protecting and restoring the environment.
“PEC will always be valuable to policy-makers,” noted Seif. “It’s not a place where people get ambushed or attacked or embarrassed. Industry needs PEC because they are an honest broker of other points of view.”
“It’s picking your battles,” said McElwaine, “but also being willing to get the best deal you could within your principles–not abandoning your principles for the sake of the deal.”
Woodwell argues that choosing which battles to fight, listening to all sides, understanding the science and weighing the benefits of a position against its social and economic cost inevitably results in value judgments.
“There are tradeoffs in everything,” he argued. “Everything is negotiable…whether you give in on it or not is another matter. We want all the waterways of the U.S. to be fishable and swimmable. It’s the law of the land. So the question is how do you get there? We’ve still got thousands of miles of streams in Pennsylvania that are dead. There are constant negotiations about what projects get done, where the money is coming from to address acid mine discharges, how we’re going to address combined sewer overflows in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, what we’re going to do with stormwater, etc. So if the goal is fishable and swimmable, you’re going to be negotiating which projects come first, how the money gets done, what the standards are, etc.
“I think there are things that we would oppose,” he added, “but in most cases, when an issue comes up, just saying ‘no’ doesn’t get you solutions. Getting to solutions is often a case of talking an issue through and finding out what’s really at play and then looking for ways to address those impacts that you want to mitigate.”
A Belief in Human Decency
Seif has long maintained that PEC is Pennsylvania’s premier environmental organization.
“PEC was right when it was founded about how to solve problems,” said Seif. “PEC was right even when it wasn’t getting headlines. And PEC is even more right now in utilizing its approach to successful environmental problem solving. Participation in some of the official regulatory proceedings, framing the debate in Marcellus, for example. The scrupulous husbanding of information, instead of using it as a weapon. That’s what good policy has to be based on.”
Woodwell sees it in more practical terms.
“We’ve become a society that is so dependent on practices that impact the environment, that if you just start saying no and shutting things down, you’re going to change the way we operate,” he said. “But we operate under the premise that we don’t have the mandated ability to do that, and the most effective way to implement change is to go out and work with people to find solutions that are sensible and sustainable.”
“The PEC model came out of a belief in human decency and in scientific integrity,” added Winsor. “I believe that if you don’t have individual integrity or congruence in what you do, you’re going to get in trouble.”
–Pennsylvania Environmentalist, October 2015–