New Orleans: The Sierra Club is well known as the gray lady of the environmental movement – big, old, and staid with huge resources – some $80 million a year in expenditures – and a largely passive, tree hugging membership. Led by Executive Director Carl Pope for some years, more recently the Sierra Club has become more active and aggressive in the political battlegrounds, raising $14,000,000 recently for voter registration before this November’s election for example, and getting involved in education based political activity in the last cycle.
Structurally the staff runs the operation and the members join through direct mail and other means as well as the structural local clubs that get out and clear brush, clean trails, and other classic and activist environmental efforts. But because of this dual structure that includes the local clubs and years of traditions there are often spirited contests for the elected board and leadership positions and frequent referenda on numerous issues where the members get to vote every couple of years positions the Sierra Club should take on this and that.
I am not a member, so the process easily confuses me. But, this year there is something peculiar that seems to be going on. One keeps running into the oddly incongruous note here and there. One would read of ex-Governor Richard Lamm from Colorado, known as a quasi-liberal Democratic green leaning politician in his day, being savaged as a radical candidate in some newspaper or magazine article and the nature of the invective would have something to do with his candidacy for the board: Lamm, an insurgent? Who would ever have possibly guessed! There are charges and counter-charges, mailings and money, slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Recently, MoveOn.org, the phenomena of internet activist, which I believe is structurally accountable to no one really, other than contributions “vote” with their donations, I presume, even jumped into the fray to support the incumbents against the insurgents. Another unusual player was the Southern Poverty Law Center — in the main is a mailing house in Alabama often specializing in more sizzle than steak in recent years – which also jumped in for reasons obscure.
What is all of this about?
Seems that Lamm and his cohorts with the support of unseen others want to raise the old issues about population control – the Malthusian dilemma (now ultimately discredited, but still not insignificant) – as an environmental issue. Fine, so far. Deal with overcrowding, scarce resources, inequities between the first world and the third world – big issues, big debates, all of which would make for good small group discussion in hundreds of club meetings in church basements in middle class neighborhoods around the country. But, where there seems to have become a flashpoint is that the population issue is being linked to immigration and a half-step from there to civil rights. So the Lammistas have to present their civil rights record and in fact one of the Lamm ticket is a former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, probably exactly for that reason.
I had not realized that the Sierra Club was even involved in the important debate about immigration in our country. That would have seemed so far from their core competency, that it is hard to imagine what particular credibility they would bring to the discussion whether they were for it or against it.
I gather from a recent article in the Washington Post (3/22/04) that the ballots are now out on this issue and the board members who have staked out their various positions. I have to wonder how it would much matter what position the Sierra Club might come to take on this issue versus the harm that has undoubtedly already been wrought from such intense and expensive internal conflict, which has the capability of diminishing a newly minted ally in our broader progressive fight and pushing the Club back into the forest among the trees from which they originally came.