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The Green Life: Ask Mr. Green: Does Eco-Crowdfunding Work?

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June 06, 2013

Ask Mr. Green: Does Eco-Crowdfunding Work?

Mr. Green is Bob SchildgenHey Mr. Green,

So what's your opinion of crowdfunding for environmental projects? —Art, in Kalamazoo, Michigan

It’s, um, fairly negative, and not just because I’m an ancient crank who dismisses much Internet traffic as the product of people infatuated with their own banality. And of course I warmly encourage readers to send me whatever they can afford for my own invaluable environmental research.

Eric Sofge perhaps put it best in the Wall Street Journal, when he wrote of the crowdfunder Kickstarter: “Blockbuster projects aside, much of Kickstarter can be shrill and desperate modern-day panhandling by entitled go-getters. For every legitimately exciting pitch . . . there are dozens of musicians, filmmakers and designers pleading for funds to complete ill-conceived projects."

So crowdfunding, green or otherwise, is basically like any other investment: You’d darn well better do your homework and know the topic thoroughly before you lay down any cash for some stranger’s proposal. An example: I came across a crowdfunding appeal for a media and publishing project on honey bees that, as a beekeeper, I found sketchy, but that might easily appeal to the non-apiarist. The pitch was about the “plight” of the honey bee—which indeed there is—but it showed little knowledge of bees and their functions, while being loaded with apocalyptic exaggerations that were obviously contrived to attract funding.

For example, it declared, "The bees pollinate alfalfa. The cows eat the alfalfa. We drink the milk. Well, you get it. No bees. No cows. No fruit. No vegetables. No flowers. No trees. No us. The only thing bees don’t pollinate is corn, grains and cotton."

Problem is, honey bees are by no means the only pollinators of alfalfa, and alfalfa is by no means the only source of dairy cattle fodder. Cows also eat plenty of corn silage and grain, which, as the author rightly says, do not require bee pollination. Cows also consume soybean meal, and while honey bees do increase soybean production, they are not absolutely essential to it.

The truth is that about 15 to 20 percent of the U.S. diet requires pollination by insects, and that there are many kinds of insects besides honey bees that can carry out pollination. Moreover, the disappearance of the honey bee in the U.S. would emphatically NOT bring about ecological collapse and mass starvation for the simple reason that the honey bee is not even native to this continent! 

So rather than shelling out for such a project, your money might be better spent on organizations trying to persuade the EPA to ban the chemical poisons (neonicotinoids) that are the likely cause of the bee die-offs, and that the European Union is abolishing. Frankly, at a time when legitimate researchers, writers, academic institutions, and environmental nonprofits are finding it difficult enough to obtain funds, there’s some danger that green crowdfunding might divert both money and attention from worthy and credible efforts.

Since this might sound disgustingly elitist, let us pause to laud creative amateurs and non-establishment trail-blazers. After all, the Sierra Club’s founder, John Muir, was himself was an inspired amateur. And speaking of bees, they make one of the most convincing cases for the amateur. The modern beehive, an ingenious device that brilliantly imitates nature and greatly increases honey production, was invented in 1851 by the Reverend L. L. Langstroth of Philadelphia.

Granted, Muir had his own crowdfunding source, since he married into a wealthy family, while Langstroth was subsidized by his congregation. So maybe instead of online begging, people who are convinced their ideas will save the world might be well-advised either to marry into money or join the clergy or a religious order. "Get thee to a nunnery," as Hamlet suggested, or in more contemporary terms, "Get thee offline!"

Got a question? Ask Mr. Green!


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 --illustration by Little Friends of Printmaking

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