It's Not Easy Being Green

Sierra Club Faces New Identity Crisis

By Al Knight

As published in the Denver Post February 15, 1998

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"Immigration" is one of those words that can clear the room. Discussions about it, which almost always become heated, can cause people to squirm in ways religion and politics can't. It can have the same effect on big organizations.
Take the case of the Sierra Club, a 550,000-member organization. Often thought of as The Common Scold because of its unrelenting lectures on the environment, the Sierra Club is in the midst of what can only be called an identity crisis.
Starting Feb. 23, club members will be receiving the 1998 "National Ballot," which contains two ballot questions on immigration. The first and most important made it to the ballot because of a petition drive organized by Alan Kuper, a long-time Ohio member and retired engineering professor.
It reads:
"Shall the Sierra Club reverse its decision adopted Feb. 24, 1996, to take no position on immigration levels or on policies governing immigration into the United States and adopt a comprehensive population policy for the United States that continues to advocate an end to U.S. population growth at the earliest possible time through reduction in natural increases, but now also through reduction in net immigration?"
Kuper has an impressive list of supporters, including David Brower, the club's executive director from 1952-1969, and former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day. [See current endorser list].


"The strategy adopted by Sierra Club leaders is basically to obfuscate and evade, to muddy up the discussion..."

He, however, doesn't have the support of club president Adam Werbach (pronounced WER-back) or major elements on the club board. The board, in fact, has done its best to obscure the issue by putting its own measure on the ballot and taking the unusual step of limiting members to a vote on either one or the other proposition. A member may not vote yes for one and no for the other.
The board proposition is a masterpiece of weasel-wording:
"The Sierra Club reaffirms its commitment to addressing the root cause of global population problems and offers the following comprehensive approach: The Sierra Club will build upon its effective efforts to champion the right of all families to maternal and reproductive health care and the empowerment and equity of women. The Sierra Club will continue to address the root causes of migration by encouraging sustainability, economic security, human rights and environmentally responsible consumption. The Sierra Club supports the decision of the board of directors to take no position on the U.S. immigration quotas and policy."
Not to put too fine a point on it, that is like a fireman saying he is in favor of fire trucks but takes no position as to the flames.
The club vote itself will not be tabulated until mid-April. Typically in these club elections, approximately 60,000 ballots are cast, but because of the controversy over this issue, the number this year may be higher.
Not unsurprisingly, the campaign has featured a good deal of misinformation. Some newspaper columnists have completely mischaracterized the issue. An Arizona Republic writer, for example, says the question is: "Should the club endorse a policy that reduces immigration to America - from the current ceiling of 900,000 to 200,000?"
Careful readers will note that the question before club members contains no numerical targets. The 200,000 figure (the accompanying piece also gives that figure) does happen to correspond to what may be necessary, assuming the nation wanted to stabilize its population by the mid-21st century, but there is no such target in the ballot question. Indeed, the most optimistic opponents of the current level of immigration would probably settle for a much higher number.
The choice for the Sierra Club is whether it wants to grow up and take part in grownup issues. It was not always so afraid of its own shadow. Its policy statement as recently as 1989 contains this telling paragraph:
"The U.S. population continues to increase by about 2.5 million people a year, the result of an excess of births plus immigrants over deaths plus out-migration. While population growth rates in less-developed countries are larger, America's numbers and growth have a disproportionate impact on the environment - on natural resources, on global warming, on air and water pollution. Since 1981 the club has supported and testified in favor of bills in the House and Senate that would declare population stabilization to be the goal of the country, and that would call for the preparation of an explicit population policy that leads to the achievement of population stabilization."
What it would take to achieve "population stabilization" is, of course, not a simple matter. One thing is beyond dispute, however. It cannot be done, given existing immigration rates, by jawboning about birth control and empowerment of women. The U.S. Census Bureau, not heretofore known as a racist agency, says that immigrants and their descendants will account for two-thirds of the U.S. population growth between now and the mid-21st century. Stabilization of U.S. population, if that is goal, can't be achieved without addressing the issue of immigration.
There are many within the Sierra Club, including its young president, who are not much bothered by these facts and have counseled the organization to stay far away from discussion on immigration rates. This is done despite the fact that it is obvious that continued high immigration rates tend to wipe out any savings in natural resources that can be achieved by the existing population. Club leaders nonetheless reason that the issue is a net loser for the Sierra Club and will open it to charges of racism and elitism. They are mindful of the fact that the club is mostly white, mostly well off, and are fearful its members will be pictured as narrowly selfish. Werbach, in fact, told the L.A. Weekly last month that opposing immigration would cripple efforts to broaden the club's appeal and cause serious and perhaps irreparable political damage. Werbach has told reporters if the members' immigration proposal is approved he will not seek a new term as president. He has also been talking about moving over to the more militant Greenpeace as executive director.

"The board proposition is a masterpiece of weasel-wording"

Werbach's position is not really a surprise. He has been traveling around the country on behalf of the club selling the Sierra Club's mission to a younger audience. Largely as a result of his efforts, the average age of the Sierra Club member has dropped a full decade, to 37. Werbach has achieved this result by becoming the most interviewed of Sierra Club presidents. In frequent appearances on television he has concentrated on promoting some of the club's ideas, like draining Lake Powell and virtually eliminating logging in U.S. National Forests.
To a young audience especially, his approach is an appealing set of projects, both simple and bold.
That Werbach wants to keep it simple can be seen in one telling exchange before an MTV broadcast. He was asked what the Sierra Club stood for and he quickly replied, "Clean air, clean water, clean food and a little more wilderness than your parents left you."
The strategy adopted by Sierra Club leaders is basically to obfuscate and evade, to muddy up the discussion in the hope that in the end club members will vote for their weasel-worded proposition. In doing so, the club is taking a gamble. Supporters of the original ballot question point out that the Sierra Club has experienced an 11 percent drop in membership since 1995, while the Wilderness Society has experienced a 9 percent increase. The hike in membership is either in spite of or because of its much more forthright immigration policy.
The Sierra Club could do much worse than to simply follow the Wilderness Society in the adoption of these five principles:
"1. As a priority, population policy should protect and sustain ecological systems for future generations.
"2. We will support policies that have a goal of reaching population stability, at the earliest practicable date, through means respectful of human rights and individual conscience.
"3. The Wilderness Society, in its work to inform our membership and the general public about threats to the public land and wilderness ecosystems, will include analysis of the pressures of population growth on these lands.
"4. When federal, state and local governments analyze costs and benefits of programs and projects, they should include population growth projections. The Wilderness Society will consider these projections in its own analyses and discussions of land use.
"5. One-half to two-thirds of U.S. population growth results from domestic births and longer life spans. One-third to one-half is due to immigration. To bring population levels to ecologically sustainable levels, both birthrates and immigration rates need to be reduced."
It should be noted here that this statement is not in conflict with the one above quoting the U.S. Census Bureau. What the Wilderness Society has left out is the fact that new immigrant families tend to have more children and this fact has a compounding effect over time.
There is a whole other discussion that is possible over how reductions in U.S. immigration rates might affect various nations and racial groups. Likewise, there is a separate issue facing the nation on what to do with illegal immigration that by some estimates is about half the legal inflow.
Readers who are interested in these and other related issues should refer to either "Alien Nation" by Peter Brimelow or "The Case Against Immigration" by Roy Beck. Although these two books take quite different approaches to the subject, they have many elements in common.
The central point of each is this: Beginning with the immigration legislation of 1965, the United States deliberately embarked upon an immigration policy that from 1970 to the present has added 30 million new citizens. Adding in offspring born since, the total may reach about 45 million. The effects of that legislation were either poorly understood, or deliberately misrepresented at the time. The nation needs to examine those effects and should its self-interest dictate, revise them.
In one sense, the Sierra Club is a surrogate for society generally. At least the club has recognized the problem. The unanswered question is whether it and the nation are ready to do something about it.

by Al Knight
Copyright 1998 The Denver Post Corporation
Reprinted with permission
Al Knight is a Denver Post columnist and editorial writer.


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