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The Battle for the Soul of the Sierra Club


1998

There's a battle going on for the heart and soul of the Sierra Club, North America's oldest and most venerable environmental organization. A small faction of members want to compel the club to take an anti-immigrant position in the name of "limiting population growth." They have forced a national vote on just such a position, one which if passed will objectively ally the Sierra Club with the likes of Pete Wilson and David Duke.

How did this come to pass? It is due to the democratic nature of the club. With a membership approaching half a million, anyone in the organization who can gather 1500 signatures from club members can force a national vote on any issue of their choosing.

Alan Kuper, a club member from Ohio, has done just that. During the month of March, all who belong to the Sierra Club will be voting on two measures, known as "Alternative A" (as in anti-immigrant) and "Alternative B." "Alternative A," Kuper's proposal, argues that "curbing U. S. population growth cannot be achieved unless immigration into the United States -- both legal and `illegal' -- is greatly reduced." The measure also states that "Stabilizing population is essential to protecting the environment." It suggests that "this ballot question will enable the Sierra Club to work realistically toward reducing U. S. population growth ...for the environment ...and for present and future generations of life everywhere."

It is particularly astonishing that Kuper would attempt to force the Sierra Club to take such a position considering the fact that John Muir, who founded the organization in 1892, was himself an immigrant from Scotland. More to the point, it is safe to assume that the most -- if not all -- club members are themselves immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.

Bristling at the suggestion that their position is racist, those who support "Alterative A" claim they enjoy support from "Clear majorities of African- Americans and Latinos," who "favor substantial reductions in legal and illegal immigration . . ." Kuper has been quoted as saying opponents are attempting to use "guilt by association," and that "the racist epithet comes out very quickly from some of them."

Kuper's approach is reminiscent of Pete Wilson, who quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., in his successful effort to eliminate affirmative action in California. More revealing is former Klansman David Duke's statement of support for "Alternative A."Queried by a member of the Mindfield Magazine staff, Duke offered this view on the debate: "I obviously oppose increased immigration from an environmental point of view. Of all the elements in destruction of our natural environment, population pressures are the most damaging. Most of America's population increase stems from immigration, both legal and illegal. If we want to preserve America's environmental beauty and quality, we must stem the tide of immigration."

Sound familiar? For those of you who have not been exposed to the "collected works" of David Duke, what follows is a passage from the speeches of the former grand wizard of the KKK as reproduced on his official web page: "The non-White birthrate, coupled with massive immigration (both legal and illegal) and racial intermarriage, will reduce the founding people of America into a minority in our own nation.... Our children and theirs will live in an America where alien cultures and values will not simply be present, but will dominate us."

Fortunately there is strong resistance within the Sierra Club to the anti-immigrant "Alternative A," much of it led by Carl Pope, the Executive Director. Opponents of "Alternative A" have their own initiative on the ballot, called "Alternative B." Though it certainly does not take a stand supporting the rights of immigrants, the proposal -- one supported by the Executive Board -- advocates a "neutral position" in the immigration debate. Supporters of "Alternative B" (as in Better) argue that "focusing on restricting immigration ...could associate us with racist groups and the growth of hate crimes such as occurred against Asians and Latinos following the passage of California's Proposition 187 (another `color blind' initiative to reduce immigration)."

Supporters of "Alternative A"brush aside such arguments and attempt to make their case on the soft-sell contention that "Environmental degradation results from too many people using too many resources." They argue that "For 30 years the Sierra Club demonstrated leadership in addressing the continuing growth of the human population -- locally,nationally, and globally." In their official position paper published alongside the opposition's viewpoint in Sierra Magazine, the Pete Wilsonites declare " ...the United States has lost 90 percent of its northwestern old-growth forests, 50 percent of its wetlands (93 percent in California) and 99 percent of its tall grass prairie. Never-ending population growth overwhelms every environmental victory."

Is it Kuper and his followers contention that somehow immigrants (especially those from Latin America) leveled the redwoods, paved the wetlands and plowed over the prairie? Not exactly. Their argument is that since the United States is the largest consumer society in the world, it is impossible to reduce consumption, and therefore reduce the need to destroy habitat, without lowering population growth in the United States. They then go on to quote at length from the official 1994 U. S. Commission on "Immigration Reform," which declared in part "We disagree with those who would label efforts to control immigration as being inherently anti-immigrant. Rather, it is both a right and a responsibility of a DEMOCRATIC (emphasis ours) society to manage immigration so that is serves the national interest."

Evil always disguises itself as Good.

In this day and age, few politicians (David Duke being an exception) would dare come out clearly and declare "We must limit human rights! It is in the national interest!" So, in the tradition of all modern rightists, the "arguments" of such groups are always couched in democratic-sounding phrases. Though such individuals and groups are evil, they are not stupid: they understand the power of language.

Right-wing demagogues have learned how to adapt the ancient language of greed and hate to modern conditions. Though they are students of history (at least their version of it) publically they either distort or ignore the history of this (and every) nation. They "forget" that Europeans did not get "permission" to migrate here from the indigenous peoples who lived in this land for five thousand years. Likewise they "overlook" the specific historical fact that the Southwest -- from Colorado to Texas to California -- was illegally seized by military force from Mexico. Finally, the followers of Pete Wilson and David Duke -- Kuper among them -- consider "irrelevant" the role U. S. foreign policy has played in forcing workers from Latin America to migrate to the United States. So, rather than propose a club vote against NAFTA, for example -- an anti-worker, anti-environmental measure supported by U. S. banks and corporations -- individuals like Kuper have instead jumped on the Wilson-Duke bandwagon and blamed immigrants for the economic crisis of capitalism, including the destruction of the environment.

There is no denying that our environment -- the entire earth, not just North America -- has been savagely raped and is in danger of being destroyed. But this massive and hideous devastation is due to the greed of big corporations and the commercialism they promote. It is not due to the migration of workers -- people with families who have been compelled by these very same forces to leave their homes and seek jobs in the United States.

Some might ask: But what about the issue of over-consumption and population growth? Are they not legitimate concerns?

Of course they are! But the advocates of "Alternative A" deliberately fail to look at such critical problems from a world-wide perspective: They intentionally ignore the disease of monopoly capitalism and its vessel, consumerism, which has infected the vast majority of people in the United States and the world, plaguing individuals with an depraved craving for material goods. For rightists, it matters not that workers are being brutally exploited here or in other countries; it is irrelevant that many nations continue to be dominated by U. S.-backed dictators, forcing people to flee their homes. And it is an abomination to suggest that it is the multi-national corporations that have (and continue to) cut down the forests, pave the wetlands and carpet the prairies with concrete and shopping malls.

The truth is that by blaming immigrants rather than greedy corporations, the supporters of "Alternative A," are objectively siding with the very same political/social groups that are ravishing the very ecosystems they claim to defend!

Fortunately, there is staunch opposition to the Wilson-Duke forces in the Sierra Club. "Alternative B," which would maintain the club's "neutral" position on the immigration issue, suggests that the club must address such issues from a "global perspective." It states that "we should address the causes, not the symptoms (of immigration). Restrictive immigration quotas will not end the human-rights abuses and economic inequities that drive millions around the world from their home. They cannot help provide millions of families with access to the basic means of livelihood. They cannot end the destruction of soil, air, and water that drives so many from their places of birth."

Naturally, most progressives would like to see the club take more principled stands on many of the burning social issues of the day. But does that mean that we are willing to sit back and allow the right wing to seize an organization which, despite all its faults and weaknesses, has done a lot of good? Should we sit on our hands and watch a huge cache of ammunition added to the right wing attack? Pete Wilson and David Duke would certainly waste no time before they boasted that "Even the Sierra Club supports our position on immigration!" What effect do you think that would have on the battle for democratic rights in this nation? And what do you suppose would be the environmental impact of the demise of the club?

Yet there are certain"progressives" who relish this battle, claiming that it proves the Sierra Club is little more than an elitist, all-white outdoor club. Alexander Cockburn is a case in point. Here is a man who himself is a member of what amounts to a left-wing rotary club, a "members only" fraternity with secret handshakes that, out of their sense of "social responsibility," bestows upon the masses weekly servings of duck paté, finger food and other elitist bullshit. Such phoney progressives have seized upon the crisis within the Sierra Club to demonstrate that it is not radical enough -- even before the votes have been cast!

We take a different view. We believe that all individuals and organizations that can be united to fight right wing attacks must join together. Does that mean we should be "neutral" in the Sierra Club fight? Quite the contrary. The anti-immigrant forces, with financial backing from groups linked to the right wing, are counting on a small voter turnout in this election (average turnout in a Sierra Club election is around 5 percent of the membership).

We urge all progressive Sierra Club members to get out and vote for "Alternative B." Those progressives who do not belong to the club are encouraged to contact local chapters and let them know that if such a measure passes, the Sierra Club may be officially banished from the progressive coalition. What is more, it might not hurt for us to peacefully demonstrate in front of club chapters, letting their membership know firsthand how we feel about the vote and what will be the consequences if the anti-immigrant measure is passed.

Contact your local chapter of the Sierra Club, ask what their position is on this crucial issue, and if they are officially and actively opposing the anti-immigrant "Alternative A," offer to help. Otherwise, get out your picket signs, send your email, write letters, threaten a national boycott, and become part of the fight to keep the Sierra Club out of the Wilson-Duke camp.

In short, we at Mindfield Magazine urge our readers to take strong but thoughtful action to support the progressive elements in the Sierra Club and let the rightists there know that they will pay a very big price if "Alternative A" passes.

This is a struggle for the heart of North America's oldest environmental organization. We cannot allow the right wing to wrestle away control of the Sierra Club. Yet, ultimately, besides losing all credibility as an environmental organization -- besides the risks of economic boycotts, demonstrations, the loss of all prestige and a good deal of income -- the price the club will pay if "Alternative A" passes is far greater than any of these things: The price the Sierra Club would pay for such a decision is the loss of its soul.

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