‘Extreme concern’ for future of U.S. Sierra Club
Duncan Campbell, The Guardian, Jan. 23
The most powerful and venerable environmental organisation in the United States is facing what is being described as its greatest crisis in its 112-year history. There are claims that anti-immigration groups are planning to take over the Sierra Club, in a battle that has reopened the debate on the priorities for environmentalists worldwide.
The Sierra Club was founded in the 19th century by John Muir, a Scottish immigrant regarded as the father of American environmentalism. It now has 700,000 members and is the best known of all environmental groups in the country. Because of its vast membership and its history, its stance on major political issues carries much clout.
In March, elections are due for five seats on the club’s 15-strong board. Supporters of anti-immigration and anti-population growth stances are running for election and hoping to establish a majority on the board, partly in order to formulate an anti-immigration policy for the club.
The environmental rationale behind the move is that the ecological infrastructure of the US will be irreparably damaged if millions more people arrive.
Last week, 12 past presidents in a joint letter expressed their “extreme concern” for the “continuing viability” of the Sierra Club if this group of candidates is elected.
“It would be the end of John Muir’s vision as we know it,” said Lawrence Downing, a past club president and spokesman for Groundswell, a group formed within the club to fight what they describe as a takeover. “It would turn the club into the hands of outsiders who have their own personal agenda.”
Some members claim that far-right groups are now urging people to join to take control of the club. The civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Centre has joined the battle and is running a candidate of its own to highlight the issue.
“Without a doubt, the Sierra Club is the subject of a hostile takeover attempt by forces allied with a variety of rightwing extremists,” said the centre in a letter to club members. “By taking advantage of the welcoming grassroots democratic structure of the Sierra Club, they hope to use the credibility of the club as a cover to advance their own extremist views. We think members should be alert to this.”
The debate has intensified, as people who join the club before the end of the month will be able to vote in March. In past years, voter turnout has been low, with only 8% of members voting last time.
The anti-immigration issue has been summed up by one internal group, Sierrans for US Population Stabilisation, which put forward its policy to members under the heading of “why we need a comprehensive US population policy”. The position as stated when the matter was first debated in the club in the 1990s was that “ignoring the 60% of US population growth caused by current legal immigration is like trying to heat a house with the windows open”. The group suggested that the club’s desire to avoid the issue was based on “globalism over nationalism” and “political correctness over environmental correctness”.
The so-called outsiders claim that their views and intentions have been distorted and misinterpreted. Paul Watson, a co-founder of Greenpeace who is now with the radical environmental group Sea Shepherd, is already on the Sierra Club’s board of directors and supports others who back immigration control. He is accused by Groundswell of planning to take over the club and change its direction, with a more militant approach on animal rights issues also.
“People are trying to paint us as bigoted”, said Mr Watson, “but I am not anti-immigrant — I’m an immigrant. I’m Canadian.” He said that at the present rate of growth, the US population would reach 1 billion by the end of the century, and that that was unsustainable.
Referring to suggestions that some far-right groups were now joining the club to influence the vote, he said: “There is nothing we can do about it; we can’t stop the Ku Klux Klan from joining if they want.” He said that the candidates he supported were respected figures, such as a former governor of Colorado, who deserved to be elected. He added that the Southern Poverty Law Centre was being hypocritical by raising the race issue, not least because one of the candidates was black.
Ben Zuckerman, professor of astro-physics at UCLA and another board member, agreed with Mr Watson. “I regard this as an internal power struggle,” he said. “The old guard have been running the Sierra Club for as long as I can remember.” He said that the US had not had a president committed to the environment since Jimmy Carter, and it was time for the club to play a bigger role politically. “We have to do better than we have been doing.”
Professor Zuckerman said immigration was only one of many matters that needed to be addressed. “It’s a much bigger problem.” He abelieved that “rapid population growth is the number one issue for the US, and possibly the world.”
Mark Hertsgaard, author of Earth Odyssey and The Eagle’s Shadow and a commentator on environmental affairs, said the way the battle was perceived was of great importance to the environmental movement. “If a bunch of extremist political groups that espouse these kind of ideologies are able to take over, that is a black mark on American environmentalism, because the Sierra Club is one of the oldest and most respected environmental organisations in the country.”
Mr Hertsgaard added that one of the problems for the club was that an anti-immigration stance would feed into some people’s perceptions of environmentalism as having fascist leanings, which was very far from the reality of mainstream opinion within the club.
The issue has split the club before, in the late 1990s, when the then club president, Adam Werbach, stated that “immigration is not an environmental issue”. This time, however, the stakes are much higher and the result will be watched closely by environmentalists in the US and abroad.