Why the Sierra Club Choked on Population

by Brenda Walker, March, 1998


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In order for immigration reform to succeed, an enormous grassroots movement must be organized, because the opponents - the corporate low-wage lobby that profits enormously from its importation of exploitable labor - are so politically powerful. Only when there is massive public opposition will it be possible to defeat the globalist big guns. That scenario requires an inclusive strategy, not a divisive one. There are cogent "conservative" arguments - sovereignty and cultural autonomy, as well as important "liberal" ones - human rights and ecology, to be voiced for the cause of mass immigration reduction.
In this light, the environmental argument is important for several reasons. More and more, environmental protection is becoming understood as a basic security issue throughout the political spectrum. (Although the reason why "conservatives" have been so slow to embrace conservation is still mysterious.) From the macro level of global warming to the personal experience of gridlocked traffic, citizens are beginning to realize that overpopulation, both domestic and worldwide, is upon us. In the 1998 election, more than 200 anti-sprawl initiatives were on ballots across the country, and most passed. It is an issue around which a broad grassroots constituency can be organized simply because it affects everyone. The anti-growth movement is a huge threat to the beneficiary of cheap labor - business, both small and large. The difficulty is that most Americans are unaware of the larger context of the problem and its immigration-linked cause.

Sierra Club Forced to Vote

A major opportunity for education about American overpopulation and over immigration's role in that problem took place in 1998 in the referendum within the Sierra Club, one of the nation's oldest and largest environmental organizations. The half million members could vote on a ballot initiative calling for the U.S. to adopt "a comprehensive population policy." The referendum also advocated "an end to U.S. population growth at the earliest possible time through reduction in natural increase (births minus deaths), but now also through reduction in net immigration (immigration minus emigration)."

A green organization that advocates population moderation abroad but uncurtailed growth at home is profoundly hypocritical.

Regretably, this simple affirmation of population sanity was the cause of the most extreme ad hominem accusations of racism against the proponents, both within the Club and in the news media. The Board of Directors opposed the measure from the beginning because of political considerations, not from concern for the natural world. The Board made the ignoble calculation that liberal guilt, when activated with McCarthyist attacks, would sway members more than the environmental facts.
The referendum calling for a sustainable U.S. population later came to be known as "Ballot Question A" in order to distinguish it from the Board of Directors' red herring "Ballot Question B." The Board cobbled together "B" as a warm and fuzzy proposition to confuse and distract the membership with the argument that "it's a global problem." Sierra Club management tried to make the case that transferring millions of people from lower-consumption societies to this highly materialistic one would be insignificant to the environment.
During a bimonthly meeting in San Francisco that occurred mid-referendum, the Board of Directors, and President Adam Werbach in particular, displayed a serious fear of democracy in their actions and words. In his "damage assessment" (his term) Werbach said there was "no more serious threat" to the Sierra Club than the political fallout from the initiative. He expressed apprehension that the misguided membership might approve the ballot initiative, thereby conflicting with the Board's master plan for the Sierra Club. That strategy is apparently centered around "reaching out" to minorities and young people - to the disregard of anyone else, it would seem. Rather than standing on environmental principle, Sierra management chose to play the demographics card - gambling that courtship of "people of color" would convince those folks to become strong supporters of the Sierra Club in the future, a dubious proposition at best.
Certainly the Club needs to be welcoming these groups, since environmental issues affect everyone. But this sort of behavior - politically correct, fearful of controversy, and obsequiously patronizing toward minority groups - reinforces the perception that the Sierra Club is out of touch with mainstream values and is incapable of national leadership on serious matters. One assumes the minority groups wouldn't vote against their environmental self-interest anyway, so why the emphasis on them to the exclusion of others? Shouldn't the Club be reaching out to middle America? Shouldn't the Sierra Club be as common as the PTA? Most Americans now understand that the environment is endangered and many could be brought into more activism, but the Sierra Club is too busy being politically correct to address their concerns in language they can understand - a regretable lost opportunity. The Club should be plugging in to mainstream America, not throwing up barriers to it.
More than 300 articles appeared in major and local media about the referendum - a remarkable number for an organizational policy controversy. Unfortunately, in many cases the press misrepresented the meaning of the proposal, and often seemed not even to have read the 71 words of the initiative. Otherwise the charges of racism would not have been flung about with such abandon. Rather than explore the underlying questions about environmental sustainability and the state of world population awareness generally, reporting was primarily about the political conflict, not the issues. "A" supporters were often forced to respond to charges of racism rather than educating about the overriding danger posed to our society from domestic overpopulation and the part that mass immigration plays in that scenario.
The Sierra Club Board wanted the whole unpleasantness to disappear, but the Board brought the controversy on themselves by reneging on the Club's former position of population common sense, which did encompass the issue of mass immigration. The Club first addressed the issue in 1965 and consistently called for an end to population growth "first of the United States and then of the world." Until 1996, that is, when the Board voted to "take no position on immigration levels." The Board has tried to characterize this policy change as "neutrality" but it has in fact functioned as a gag rule.
If the Board had retained the obscure earlier policy, none of this controversy would have occurred. Worse, they characterized their position as morally superior and demonized loyal Club members who disagreed with management. The "A" supporters simply asked how any responsible environmental organization can advocate unlimited, unsustainable growth. One of the most frustrating things for long-time members is the transformation of the Club from conservation to so-called "environmental justice", i.e. from eco-centered to human-centered concerns.

Hardball Politics

The actions of the Board to defend its position were fierce. It resorted to ad hominem attacks and violated its own rules against Club officials taking sides publicly on a pending referendum; both of these affronts were orchestrated by the members of the National Population Committee. The pressure on supporters of the initiative was intense. Several early backers, even some with known interest in explosive population matters, were convinced to withdraw their endorsements. However, a stellar list of principled supporters remained, including Tony Beilenson, Lester Brown, Dave Foreman, Gaylord Nelson, E.O. Wilson and many others.
The historical traditions of the Sierra Club are under attack from much of the current leadership. Under the guise of "reaching out" the Club is pursuing politically correct ideology rather than holding fast to issues of preservation. The present Board is obsessed with having sufficient diversity in the organization, and intends to get it no matter what the collateral damage. Liberal guilt guides too many decisions. And this is for "the good of the Club" - a phrase one hears much too often.
The extent of "outreach" has been something to behold. At the time of the referendum, the National Population Committee was a reformulation to provide a home for so-called "environmental justice" proponents - the code terminology for advocates of an endless immigrant flow. Rather than the usual practice of placing experienced, long-time members into committee leadership positions, the Board chose several novice members of extreme pro-immigration persuasion. Furthermore, they were treated as Special Persons who were not required to follow the same rules as other members, as evidenced in their aforementioned charges of racism against other Club members concerning the referendum - a clear breach of Club rules. Time and again, the Board treated minority members like children who require constant rewards in order to behave.

The Last Resort: Democracy

Despite unfortunate changes at the top, there remain many rank and file members who are profoundly dissatisfied by the transformation of an honorable environmental organization into a passive doormat to demography. Certainly many environmental problems need to be addressed in broader categories, such as considering the effect of the globalized economy on the environment. But in its willful denial of unpleasant facts, the current Sierra Club Board is denying its first loyalty to a living planet. Indeed, a green organization that advocates population moderation abroad but uncurtailed growth at home is profoundly hypocritical.


Having a major environmental organization recognize that America needs to import no further population would give liberal politicians cover to support reduction legislation.


The unhappy upshot is that the forces of overimmigration won the day. The vote, announced April 25, was 60-40 against domestic population sustainability. Out of the 550,000 total membership, around 84,000 members voted, a higher number than normally participates in elections, but still only around 15 percent. Proponents of population stability felt sandbagged by the unfairness of the process and by the institutional forces brought by Sierra management against Proposition "A." But the bottom line remains that even environmentalists are not sufficiently knowledgeable about the issue. There is much education still to be done.
Sierra members who are angry should not resign. The forces of democracy have been aroused and may yet win on another day. Plans for another campaign are being formulated. A moderate environmental voice for immigration reduction is very important - otherwise, the debate will become even more sharply divided between extreme positions. Having a major environmental organization recognize that America needs to import no further population would give liberal politicians cover to support reduction legislation. And constraint of mass immigration truly is the policy of moderation and sanity. Unlimited growth may look good to Wall Street, but the planet simply cannot survive that ideology with its life-support systems intact.


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