Keystone XL Pipeline Forces Sierra Club Change in Tactics

Community Organizing DC Politics Organizing

New Orleans   Mike Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club and formerly of the Rainforest Action Network, along with the president of the Club and 46 other people, including some known names, were arrested last week in front the White House in a demonstration opposing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to bring tar sands from Canada into the United States.  Their actions finally broke the 120-year ban within the Sierra Club on civil disobedience.  All of that is the good news.

The bad news in some ways is the fact that their action at the time was essentially news to nobody and known to about the same number of people.  I only found out about this in the most circuitous route.  First, I was reading a review of a new book called The Slums of Aspen in the quarterly journal NACLA Report on the Americas that reopened discussion of the terrible wounds felt in the Sierra Club internal debate several years ago which essentially pitted environmentalists against immigrants.  And, somehow the next thing I picked up was a report in the recent High Country News about the internal debate within the Sierra Club on whether or not the time was right for civil disobedience to finally push the country to act on the environment and to stop the pipeline.  The article described Brune as hinting that there might be civil disobedience at a proposed action on February 13th, largely because none of their actions thus far “have sufficiently dominated the news cycle” to make a difference politically.

My old comrade-in-arms, John Sellers, who used to run the Ruckus Society was quoted as a not surprisingly staunch advocate of the Sierra Club moving towards the direct action that has been part of his stock in trade.  “Direct action gets people to realize they have power.  The same kind of power that broke the back of Jim Crow in the Deep South.  And there’s a long arc in the Obama presidency to say, ‘I want action.’”

But, I read the papers and stay tuned to this kind of thing, but had essentially heard nothing.  What happened on the 13th?  So I looked it up.  It was widely reported on the internet and ignored it seems virtually everywhere else.  The best report I read was on where Mike’s comments almost echoed John’s saying, “A politician might ask whether stopping Keystone XL would be a politic or popular decision. A leader will only care whether it’s the right one. My biggest hope? That this president is ready to lead.”

All of this seems important, but somehow this again was a tree falling in the forest that no one was hearing.

Sellers may have half the story in his reference to Jim Crow.  Yes, direct action is critical, but more importantly, there has to be a real movement.  Even the authors of The Slums of Aspen may have a point, no matter how ham-handed their treatment (judging by the review anyway), that the divisions around class and race that separate environmentalists and many of their organizations for so much of the rest of the country are fatal problems for both people and the environment, unless bridged.

HCN understands something that the mainstream media are missing, and that is the fact that this debate is critical within established organizations and wannabe movements (an aside:  is there any more preposterous comment in the world that the quote from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg on the front page of the Times today than, “I always thought I would run a social movement.”  I don’t think there is enough time in life to list the number of things wrong in every way about that statement and what is says about both leadership and social movements!).   This debate is more important than something happening at the White House gates and even within the staid councils of DC-focused outfits, whether the Sierra Club or whatever.  The debate has to be about the strategy and work needed to build and support social movements.  If we can push social movements to the forefront, then the tactics will fall in place as well.

This is a great step forward for the Sierra Club, but there are miles to go in this journey.