Turning Point Project
The global food fight is getting interesting.
Discussions about the future of agriculture are fixtures on the front pages of our most influential newspapers. The same miraculous technologies that promise to feed a hungry world will also bring emerging nations into the twenty-first century’s world economy. Great thinkers and humanitarians all across our planet agree that the human race has found useful and essential tools to provide for its future.
But not everyone wants to come along for the ride. Today a vocal cabal of professional activists conspires to trash-talk the future of food, and aims to deny the world the benefits of modern farming. Whether it’s biotech-improved foods and crops, the approved use of livestock antibiotics, our modern food distribution system, or the humming global economy that keeps our refrigerators full, these practiced agitators stop at nothing to propagate the message of doom, gloom, and fear wherever technology’s promise is felt.
They’ve promoted deeply flawed science, like the now legendary canard about genetically engineered corn supposedly harming Monarch butterflies (it doesn’t). They’ve filed lawsuits, like the half-dozen currently being directed at government agencies for the grave sin of giving Americans access to modern foods (they should). They’ve turned molehills into broadcast-media mountains, like they did with the StarLink corn scare in 2000. Activists from no fewer than 16 different organizations predicted that exposing humans to this biotech corn would produce severe allergic reactions and even some deaths (it didn’t). They’ve even recruited otherwise reputable academics to make their case for them, as we saw in Nature, which recently retracted an article by Berkeley scientist Ignacio Chapela. He claimed to have proven that genetically modified corn was out of control and destroying “native” strains of Mexican maize (it isn’t).
None of this deceitful advocacy can happen without two things: organization and money. It’s a myth that today’s protest culture is an ad hoc gathering of like-minded citizens. And spreading pessimistic messages about modern food is an expensive undertaking.
Most anti-technology activists, whether complaining about biotechnology or global trade, do their best to feed the twin illusions of “grass roots” momentum and “protesting on a dollar a day.” The truth, though, is that the modern Protest Industry has an increasingly centralized command structure; its best-kept secret is its multi-million-dollar cash flow. The Turning Point Project is a prime example of both phenomena.
Most Americans had never heard of Turning Point until September 1999, when the first of its full-page advertisements ran in . The headline “Extinction Crisis” screamed an alarm in 130-point type, followed by 1200 words of propaganda about global warming, globalization, and “ecological havoc.”
More ads followed in short order. Each one dealt with a favorite theme of the “green” political left:
- biotechnology (“genetic roulette”);
- livestock operations (“welfare ranchers”);
- genetically improved foods (“untested hazards”);
- economic globalization (“increasing poverty and hunger”); and
- modern agriculture (“it poisons the earth”).
In twelve months, Turning Point ran 25 of these splashy politicized commercials, each of them taking up a full page in the Times.
Big money — but whose?
As any advertising executive will tell you, that kind of exposure is expensive. Within a few months of the campaign’s beginning, guessing the source of its money became a popular East Coast parlor game. Even in the pages of the Times itself, columnist Paul Krugman (an M.I.T. economist) asked: “Who’s paying for those ads?”
An initial answer seemed to be provided at the bottom of each ad, where a partial list appeared of “coalition” members (examples included Greenpeace, Earth Island Institute, the Humane Society of the United States, and Friends of the Earth). Its first ad claimed that Turning Point was “a coalition of more than 50 non-profit organizations.” As the campaign marched forward, the claim grew to “more than 80.” Turning Point’s web site, still operating after nearly two years of advertising silence, now lists 108 “participating organizations.”
In the Fall of 1999 the standard commercial rate for a single full-page ad in the Times was in excess of $117,000. Some reports suggest that Turning Point got a more favorable rate of $87,000 per page, but the group only reported spending $1,164,563 on advertising during its campaign — making the cost of each ad just over $46,500 — that breaks down to more than $10,700 for each of Turning Point’s 108 “participating organizations.” This is not an unreasonable sum for today’s big-money environmental groups to come up with, especially considering how easy it is to move money between tax-exempt organizations (Turning Point is one, as are over 90% of its “participating organizations”).
Case closed — or so it seemed. But tax filings recently released to the public indicate that over 95% of the Turning Point Project’s financing came from one source. It’s not listed among the “participating organizations.” In fact, its name appeared nowhere in any of the advertisements.
Douglas Tompkins is a very wealthy man. He founded two major-label clothing companies (The North Face and Esprit), and married a former chief executive of yet another (Patagonia). Flush with over $150 million after he sold his stake in Esprit in 1990, Tompkins (like many newly-minted millionaires) began to look for something meaningful to do with his money. He settled on a course of action that has made fringe elements of the modern environmental movement vastly more powerful than they ever were before.
Thanks to the growth of the multinational, corporation-fueled stock market, the Tompkinses now preside over a fortune large enough for them to distribute over $100 million annually, all of which they dole out to organizations that pursue “Deep Ecology” as the goal of their work. Deep Ecology is not about recycling aluminum or saving spotted owls — it’s a radical belief system that comes closest to treating environmentalism like a religion.
The “Deep Ecology Platform,” as the movement’s credo is called, emphasizes the relative worthlessness of human life, rating it as no more important than that of plants or animals. The Platform considers human beings as a mere “interference” with nature, and openly aims for a “decrease of the human population.” It wraps up with a call to action, suggesting that people need to abandon the idea of “adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living,” and instead should pursue “changes in policies” that affect “basic economic [and] technological structures.”
Because it shoves humanity into a role of relative unimportance, Deep Ecology has been a fringe movement since its birth in 1970s Norway and Romania. With the backing of Doug Tompkins’ money, however, Deep Ecology and its logical offshoots have quietly moved to the front of the environmental feeding trough, passing “shallow ecologists” (what used to be called “conservationists”) on their way to a stunning level of influence.
Statements numbered 3 through 6 (out of 8 total) from the “Deep Ecology Platform”
(3) Humans have no right to reduce [other lifeforms’] richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
(4) Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
(5) The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.
(6) Policies must therefore be changed. The changes in policies affect basic economic, technological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.
Tompkins’ “Foundation for Deep Ecology” (FDE) paid the Turning Point Project $1,233,000 between 1999 and 2000. During this exact period, The New York Times was running Turning Point’s ads, complete with lists of “participating” groups — a tacit yet false suggestion that the groups themselves were footing the bill. In its IRS returns for those two years, Turning Point reported a combined income of $1,294,640. With over 95% of its money coming from a single foundation that only funds projects in line with the values of “Deep Ecology,” Turning Point’s claim that it represents a broad coalition rings hollow. In truth, it behaves like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Foundation (FDE even registered its web site back in 1999, before quietly reassigning it to Turning Point’s Washington, DC offices).
Two more remarkable pieces of evidence can be found in FDE’s tax filings for the period of time before Turning Point was spun off as a separate entity. Back then, FDE listed its second largest “charitable activity” as follows:
“public education programs re a variety of environmental issues such as the extinction crisis, the risks of genetic engnring (sic), economic globalization, industrial agriculture and megatech.”
These are the very same issues attacked by the Turning Point Project’s advertisements.
If there is still any doubt that Turning Point and the Foundation for Deep Ecology were really one and the same, consider this: through what appears to be an accounting error, FDE actually made one of its six-figure grant payments in 1999 to a “Turning Point Project” located at “919 Ventura Way, Mill Valley, California 94941.” This address is in a residential neighborhood, and it’s actually one of the mailing addresses used by the Foundation itself.
But Tompkins’ influence is even broader, as his FDE has also spun off a few notable left-wing organizations of its own. These include the International Forum on Food and Agriculture, the International Forum on Globalization, and the Wildlands Project. This last group wants to “re-wild” as much of North America as possible, declare millions of acres permanently “off limits,” and shoehorn human beings into designated “buffer” zones.
Operated by Earth First! Co-founder Dave Foreman, Wildlands is the closest thing modern environmentalism has to a central organizing principle. Everything the Turning Point Project stands for finds its roots in Deep Ecology and its hoped-for denouement in the Wildlands Project. Abandoning biotechnology and modern agriculture fits the mold, as does halting technological progress that have the potential to feed millions of people. Exaggerating natural processes as an “extinction crisis” is right out of the Deep Ecology playbook, since the Platform clearly ranks animal biodiversity above humanity’s own survival.
In addition to Turning Point and its other spinoffs, FDE regularly funds anti-consumer organizations like the Center for Media and Democracy, the Earth Island Institute, the Rainforest Action Network, and the Ruckus Society. In fact, FDE has made over $3.2 million in grants to groups listed as Turning Point’s “participating members.”
Other notable expenditures from FDE’s tax returns (in addition to the bizarre expenditure of thousands of dollars for residential kitchen and laundry equipment) include hundreds of thousands paid to law firms that just happen to be working on anti-biotech lawsuits. Tompkins has also put over $100 million of his FDE money into a separate nonprofit called the Conservation Land Trust, which owns over 1,000,000 acres of Chilean rainforest. Doug and (wife) Kris Tompkins keep 50,000 acres there as their personal retreat and organic farm, complete with a security detail to keep the riff-raff out.
The Tompkinses’ philosophy seems to endorse protecting a million acres of land from Chilean peasant farmers, who might encroach upon this pristine nature for something as radical as feeding themselves. Meanwhile, they carve 50,000 acres for their own personal use. Using this model, the world today could only sustain a fraction of its current population. Even if every inch of available landmass, including barren desert and frozen tundra, were habitable and arable (a condition only possible, of course, with the modern technology opposed by Tompkins and his followers), less than 20% of our current population could be accommodated under the Tompkins approach of 50,000 acres per couple.
Kimbrell & Mander, Inc.
Despite the Turning Point Project’s bluster indicating otherwise, its year-long splashy ad campaign was little more than paid political promotion for the radical worldview of Deep Ecology. The vaunted Turning Point “coalition” is an well-conceived smokescreen, but nothing more than that. All 25 ads remain at www.turnpoint.org, as a lasting tribute to Doug Tompkins’ money and the duplicity of his deputies.
The five people who make up the Turning Point Project’s board are all themselves executives of other groups heavily funded by the Foundation for Deep Ecology (amounts to date in parentheses):
- Anuradha Mittal co-directs the Institute for Food and Development Policy, better known as Food First ($105,000);
- Randy Hayes runs the Rainforest Action Network ($454,080);
- Jerry Mander is co-chair of the International Forum on Globalization ($852,857), runs the Public Media Center ($200,000), and is also a “globalization program officer” on the staff of the Foundation for Deep Ecology;
- Andrew Kimbrell, along with his legal director Joseph Mendelson, runs the Center for Food Safety ($1,141,000) and its parent group, the International Center for Technology Assessment ($1,168,000).
These are the real power brokers of Deep Ecology. Their organizations have combined annual budgets of over $8 million, and a considerable portion comes from FDE, Patagonia, and other sources devoted to the “Deep Ecology” worldview.
In particular, Andrew Kimbrell is almost entirely beholden to Doug Tompkins’ largesse. In addition to the Turning Point Project (which is run out of Kimbrell’s Washington, DC offices), Kimbrell runs the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and its parent group, the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA). In 1999, for example, CFS and ICTA got over 91% of their funds directly from the Foundation for Deep Ecology. This included the entire budget for Kimbrell’s new book, Fatal Harvest
Just as the Foundation for Deep Ecology’s tax returns show Turning Point grants landing in FDE’s own California offices, they also show that other donations to Turning Point were sent to Kimbrell’s office in Washington, DC (310 D Street, NE), not the Pennsylvania Avenue address listed on Turning Point’s tax returns. This apparent shell game — quietly moving money from one Andrew Kimbrell enterprise to the next — is a clear and blatant attempt to deceive the public and shield the Turning Point Project’s true goals from wider scrutiny.
The Organic Consumers Association (OCA), now located in Minnesota, originally operated under Kimbrell’s umbrella as well, and with good reason: Kimbrell and OCA president Ronnie Cummins both got their start at the Foundation for Economic Trends, where they were both protégés of noted technophobe Jeremy Rifkin. Cummins acts as the “enforcer” for this eco-cabal, threatening corporations with public protest campaigns if they decline to embrace Kimbrell’s and Rifkin’s quasi-religious positions on the global environment.
If Kimbrell is the Turning Point Project’s most visible mover-and-shaker, Jerry Mander is its most aggressive silent partner. From his position on the program staff of the Foundation for Deep Ecology, Mander is perfectly positioned to direct huge sums of money to any and all of Kimbrell’s anti-consumer operations. He is generally credited with writing the Turning Point ads. And it’s no coincidence that a leftist advertising agency called the Public Media Center designed and produced the ads themselves: Mander is in charge there, too.
Big Brass Ones
The Turning Point Project is not yet through with its one-sided activism. In a March 2002 fundraising appeal, the organization’s five board members announced that they plan to “revive” the project in the next few years. Attached to a complete set of Turning Point ad reprints, the direct-mail piece had the audacity to complain that “moving information through paid advertising is very expensive” and bemoans Turning Point’s “experience with relatively limited funds.”
Disingenuous to the end, Turning Point’s leaders would love to resurrect the myth of grass-roots support that lent credibility to their efforts in 1999 and 2000. And maybe this time will be different — perhaps they’ll break that pesky 5% threshold of public support required to maintain their Federal tax-deduction.
It’s not likely. The Turning Point Project was, and remains, a front for the radical aims of Deep Ecology. If Andrew Kimbrell’s experience is any indication, this latest effort won’t even draw support from the mainstream foundation community.
The reason for this is worth repeating. The Turning Point Project, with its relentless criticism of biotechnology, modern agriculture, economic globalization, and technological progress, is promoting the aims and priorities of Deep Ecology — a radical, fringe environmental sect that sees human lives as less valuable than plants and animals. This food fight is not about science any more. It’s about the goals of a fringe group that is encouraged by the loss of human life.
In a March 2002 fundraising letter, the Turning Point Project’s board members acknowledge that “some of the facts have changed since the ads ran.” Ladies and gentlemen, we have another entry for “understatement of the year.” The Turning Point Project’s ads were rife with misstatements, out of context conclusions, and outright lies. Here is a sampling:
Turning Point Project claim: “The world has enough food.”
Reality: The United Nations says that the world’s population will double in the next hundred years. The only alternatives to high-tech farming are (a) using twice the land to grow twice the food, and (b) growing less food entirely, disregarding the consequences to starving populations. The tenets of Deep Ecology willingly approve of the latter, stating that “the flourishing of nonhuman life” requires ”a substantial decrease of the human population.
Turning Point Project claim: “Chemical and machine intensive production leave fertile soils depleted, and cause massive loss of topsoil…. In the U.S. alone, we’ve lost about half of our topsoil in only four decades of industrial techniques.”
Reality: In 1999, a report from the International Food Policy Research Institute insisted that “the early, high estimates of soil degradation have not been substantiated.” In his groundbreaking 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg concluded that “for the U.S., it is estimated that the total effect of soil erosion over the next hundred years will be about 3 percent.” And Pierre Crosson of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations agrees, adding in World Agriculture: Toward 2010 that “by comparison with yield gains expected from advances in technology, the 3 percent erosion-induced loss is trivial.”
Turning Point Project claim: “This is an actual photo of a genetically engineered mouse with a human ear on its back.”
Reality: The now-famous photograph doesn’t show a genetically-engineered mouse at all. The truth is that a template in the shape of an ear (and made of human cartilage cells) was allowed to grow under a mouse’s skin. The technique is a great help to burn victims and children born without ears. Furthermore, the mouse’s genetic makeup wasn’t altered one bit.
Turning Point Project claim: “Failure to require testing or labeling of GE foods has made millions of consumers into guinea pigs…. the Food and Drug Administration still does not require labels or safety tests.”
Reality: The United States FDA has an aggressive system for testing genetically engineered (GE) foods. A new biotech food product must undergo an average of 11 years of testing before it is approved for human consumption; that’s a longer trial period than many pharmaceuticals. And while the U.S. government doesn’t require biotech foods to be labeled, Turning Point ringleader Andrew Kimbrell has publicly acknowledged the activist agenda behind such a demand: “If we have it labeled, then we can organize people not to buy it.”
Turning Point Project claim: “With the emergence of the World Trade Organization (WTO), democracy has moved to the back burner…. Commercial values are the only ones that count…. There is simply no way to overstate the water crisis of the planet today.”
Reality: Writing in his New York Times column on February 16, 2000, M.I.T. economist Paul Krugman had this observation about the Turning Point Project’s advertisements: “Again and again you see the less attractive features of the modern world contrasted with an imagined pre-globalization Arcadia of happy villagers living in harmony with nature. Then try checking some of the facts about life before the export boom. Never mind GDP; we’re talking basic nutrition and health. What you will discover is that life in that pre-globalization society was nasty, brutish and short; for example, in 1975 only one rural Thai in six had access to safe drinking water. Today it’s four out of five.”
Turning Point Project claim: “50% of all plant and animal species could vanish from the Earth within fifty years.”
Reality: A recent publication of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) tries to explain environmentalists’ obsession with species extinction, but comes to a startling conclusion: “It must be assumed,” writes IUCN, “that very large numbers of species have been lost in some areas. Yet surprisingly there is no clear-cut evidence for this.” The same organization now says that “actual extinctions remain low.” Even the United Nations, in its “Global Biodiversity Assessment,” says that only 0.7 percent of the earth’s species will go extinct in each of the next 50 year periods. The authors of one 2000 report notes “the discrepancy between field knowledge and predictions.”
Based on publicly available tax returns, the idea for the Turning Point Project apparently came from Doug Tompkins’ Foundation for Deep Ecology. FDE’s federal filings describe the exact list of Turning Point campaign issues as a principal target for its own “charitable” expenditures. Also, the fact that Turning Point’s Internet web site was initially registered to the Foundation for Deep Ecology (FDE) suggests that clothing tycoon Doug Tompkins dreamed it up in order to promote his radical views in the very mainstream New York Times. It’s worth noting that Turning Point’s initial application for an IRS tax exemption suggests that professional anti-technology activists Andrew Kimbrell and Jerry Mander originally planned to tap a wider variety of funding sources. Whether they failed in that effort, or were merely deceiving the IRS all along, is unclear.
What is entirely clear is this: however the marriage of Turning Point and the FDE occurred, the two are inextricably linked. While readers of the Times may have imagined that the Turning Point ad campaign signaled a sea change in environmental thought, the truth is much less complicated. Nearly every message in the Turning Point Project’s advertising can be traced back to the quasi-religious “Deep Ecology” movement. The activists who brought these messages to the public are nothing short of high priests dedicated to its success.
And how to define that success? Deep Ecology holds as its central tenets the ideas that:
- humans are inherently no more valuable than plants or animals;
- “nature” must be protected at all costs;
- “technological structures” have made us all guilty of “interference” with nature;
- saving the earth requires that the human race must get smaller;
- people should stop aiming for higher standards of living; and
- direct actions must be taken to turn these ideas into reality.
Each of these depraved, fundamentalist ideas can be seen as the wellspring for one or more of the Turning Point Project’s central messages.
The 25 print advertisements that made up the 1999-2000 Turning Point campaign were divided into 5 categories, each of which had its own way of promoting Deep Ecology as the new mainstream.
The very first “Extinction Crisis” ad grumbled about the human “habit of thinking we are superior” to other forms of life, and insisted that we have “no greater right to exist” than other parts of Nature. The rest of the series was an attempt to expand on these ideas, suggesting that everything from insects to trees has a basic “right” to be protected, no matter what the human cost.
The four ads in the “Genetic Engineering” series threatened a “moral, social, and ecological crisis” as the consequence of using genetic science to improve plants and animals. Amid claims of “genetic roulette” and blatant lies about testing standards for genetically improved food crops, these advertisements encouraged Americans to “buy certified organic food whenever possible” and to contact various activist groups about “participating in legal actions… and public protests.” These ads stopped short of openly welcoming the deaths of millions of human beings, but this is both (a) the logical outcome of abandoning promising food technologies for a growing Third World population, and (b) a perfect fit for Deep Ecology’s “Platform.”
In its “Economic Globalization” series, Turning Point suggested that the World Trade Organization has brought “devastation” to the natural world, and blamed the WTO for the loss of “clean water, clean air, safe food, family farms, and democracy itself.” Seen through the lens of Deep Ecology, however, the subtext is clear: the WTO is accelerating the global achievement of higher standards of living, and this can’t be allowed to happen. Turning Point even invoked threats of water shortages and global warming in order to make the case that progress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
During six weeks in early 2000, Turning Point’s “Industrial Agriculture” series used every trick in the book to discourage Americans from embracing the products of modern farming. Claiming (without any evidence, of course) that “corporate farming” has produced “a level of health risk that never existed before,” these ads again urge readers to buy only “certified organic” food. “What we need,” one ad argues, is “an agriculture where nature itself is the measure for all our actions.” Deep Ecology seeks to subjugate homo sapiens to plants and insects; Turning Point agrees, and employs dramatic scare tactics in order to justify this point of view without actually articulating it. Modern farming efficiency, it claims, is “a myth”; industrial agriculture “makes you sick”; biotech farming is a “crime against the soil, the air, and the water”; only organic foods are “poison-free”; and food technology “can’t feed the world.” The idea that “Deep” ecologists like Andrew Kimbrell, Doug Tompkins, and Jerry Mander would prefer that much of the world’s human inhabitants die off (as their credo, the “Deep Ecology Platform,” dictates) probably never occurred to most New York Times readers.
In retrospect, it’s crystal clear that the Turning Point Project is a collection of arguments designed to carve out a place for “Deep Ecology” in Americans’ conventional wisdom.