LAFF Society


From LAFF’s Archive: Environmental Odyssey


The early issues of our newsletter, which was first published in 1991, contain a variety of fascinating articles, a trove of information on the people and programs in the early years of the Ford Foundation. We will offer some of them from time to time, beginning with this one, from the Winter 1993 edition.
In a 7,000-word article to be published in the magazine Environment, Marshall Robinson has described the Foundation’s conservation and environmental programs for more than four decades since the early 1950s. Before he left the Foundation to become president of the Russell Sage Foundation, Robinson was vice president in charge of Resources and Environment. 
Ford’s involvement began with support of the Paley Commission, which was concerned with “the wise use of natural resources”. Thereafter, major support went to Resources for the Future. Ford’s next major step was grants in the 1960s to fund preservation organizations, e.g., the Nature Conservancy and Save-the-Redwoods.
The Resources and Environment unit began with research and the training of new scientists on the complexity and interactions of the human environment. The first director, Gordon Harrison, defined conservation “in a way that went beyond land and nature; now it was energy, water, air minerals, marine resources, wildlife, arable soil and, finally, space (land)”, Robinson writes.
Before the environmental movement picked up full steam, the Foundation encouraged research “on the dark side of the environmental puzzle: the pollutants, wastes, effluent, contaminants, noise and trash”. The program expanded to help governmental organizations and citizens to work out agreements on controversial environmental projects.
There followed environmental education grants and the Foundation’s entry into the controversial area of assisting legal efforts on environmental issues, notably the Environmental Defense Fund and the new Natural Resources Defense Council. Finally, the Foundation tackled the energy issue principally through its own Energy Research Project, a highly visible and controversial effort.
“What, then, was the real role of the Ford Foundation in the wide-ranging, multidimensional, popular American environmental revolution?” Robinson asks. 
The answer, he says, lies in Harrison’s statement: “The extent to which there are now environmental research programs, and a general stirring of interest in the scientific community, is clearly due to the spreading recognition that people are in trouble. We know of no way in which to measure our own role, no sound reason to claim credit for what is now going on that promises social benefits or to take blame for not having got in sooner with more. The important point is certainly that progress in managing the environment is going to come when and as society is roused to the need.”
What happened after all that? Robinson asks: “The environmental movement waxed during the 1970s. Then waned in the 1980s, which is a different tale, one with fewer heroes, more villains and a very different vision of tomorrow.”



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