Swans Commentary » swans.com June 14, 2010  



An Abrupt Interview With Mark Dowie


by Michael Barker





(Swans - June 14, 2010)   Mark Dowie is a former publisher and editor of Mother Jones magazine, and is a multiple award-winning investigative journalist who presently serves on the advisory board of the Center for Investigative Reporting. In recent years he has published two important books that provide a critical history of the environmental movement in the United States, these being Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (MIT Press, 1996), and Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples (MIT Press, 2009). In between writing these two books Dowie critically examined the roles that philanthropic foundations play in American society in his book, American Foundations: An Investigative History (MIT Press, 2001). This interview was carried out by e-mail in June 2010.


Michael Barker (MB):  When do you first remember reading or hearing about critiques of liberal philanthropists and their foundations? What was your initial reaction to such criticisms? Here I am predominantly thinking about the former "big three," the Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations.

Mark Dowie (MD):  Can't remember.

MB:  Could you briefly explain what you think about the academic/activist literature that is critical of liberal philanthropy? Like for example, the work of Robert Arnove, Edward Berman, and Joan Roelofs.

MD:  Mixed.

MB:  As a result of publishing your own work, what sort of opposition or support have you obtained from the academic, environmental, and philanthropic communities?

MD:  Mixed.

MB:  The mainstream environmental movement has always been highly concerned with human population growth. Other researchers (myself included) have argued that this fixation on neo-Malthusian ideas owes in large part to the strategic support that the environmental movement received from liberal foundations (especially in its early days). What are you views on this matter?

MD:  I have not found the mainstream environmental movement to be inordinately concerned with population.

MB:  Your work has focused on the support that mainstream environmental organizations have obtained from liberal foundations. However, major liberal foundations have also supported radical environmental social justice groups. Can you think of any examples whereby liberal philanthropists may have adversely impacted on the activism of such social justice groups?

MD:  Why do you repeatedly refer to the Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie as "liberal" foundations? They have made some liberal grants and some not so liberal. I would describe them as astutely neutral.

MB:  Do you think that liberal foundations and/or individual liberal philanthropists have influenced your own work, and if so how?

MD:  No.

MB:  In Africa there is often quite a lot of overlap between the activities of environmental groups (i.e., Big International NGOs) and major mining corporations: how do you interpret the nature of such relationships? Here I am referring to groups like Richard Leakey's WildLifeDirect, and the mining industry's support of conservation ventures in Namibia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

MD:  Corrupt.

MB:  Major foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have taken a lead role in promoting what they refer to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Could you please comment on the potential impact of this new Green Revolution for Africa?

MD:  If they learn from the disastrous blunders of the original green revolution, it just might succeed.

MB:  One of your most famous articles, "Pinto Madness," was published by Mother Jones in 1977 and provided a scathing critique of the Ford Motor Company. What do you see as the main differences and similarities between the activities of the Ford Motor Company and the Ford Foundation?

MD:  None.

MB:  Could you describe the general impact that liberal foundations have had on the evolution of research within universities in the United States?

MD:  Mixed.

MB:  Following on from this, how would you describe the relationship between elite philanthropy and capitalism?

MD:  Cozy.

MB:  Why do you think that written criticisms of liberal foundations are so few and far between?

MD:  Because almost all serious research on foundations is foundation funded.

MB:  Finally, in your opinion what possibility do you see in the likelihood that anti-capitalist activists can strategically utilize liberal foundation funding for developing an anti-hegemonic movement for social change?

MD:  Can't.


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 14, 2010