To Be Effective, Stay in Your Lane
A New York Times “climate desk” reporter named David Gelles recently wrote a fascinating account of the internal battle plaguing the Sierra Club for three years. His lead explained that “Like many other American institutions, the Sierra Club was convulsed by the 2020 murder of George Floyd…” Some of his readers must have thought, “Wait, the Sierra Club? I thought that was an environmental group.”
Indeed, it is the world’s best known environmental organization, whose founder, John Muir, is considered one of the founders of the modern conservation movement. Yet the group has been embroiled in a bitter and seismic internal war, not about any environmental issue, but about race. When the brutal murder of George Floyd touched off national protests, and gave rise to the “black lives matter” movement, some Sierra Club leaders decided the group should get involved in that.
The group’s executive director, Michael Brune, wrote a blog post, reprinted across the country, called “Pulling Down Our Monuments.” He claimed the Sierra Club had played a “substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.” It was a bizarre claim, motivated purely by political opportunism and based on the obscure fact that a young Muir had written some unflattering views after his travels among native American tribes. To be clear, Muir was a product of the 19th Century, who thought like most Americans of the 19th Century. He said some things modern leaders would not say. But he played no role whatsoever in perpetuating any notion of white supremacy, much less a “substantial role.” He was not a KKK member, was never governor of Arkansas, managed no bus system in Montgomery, nor sanitation department in Memphis. He was a Wisconsin-bred northern Republican, an advocate of voting rights, an early progressive, a friend and ally of Theodore Roosevelt.
Michael Brune’s decision to demonize and attempt to “cancel” Joh Muir from Sierra Club history, stirred up a hornet’s nest that cost Brune his job, and led to two years of wrangling among board members trying to decide how to handle the history of John Muir. Most were afraid to defend Muir, scared of their own future in this new “woke” world, and the controversy has swirled unabated since. The Club has now hired a new executive director, a man whose actual name is Jealous – Ben Jealous, once head of the NAACP and more recently president of People for the American Way, the extreme liberal group founded by Norman Lear. The Times article says hiring Jealous was a decision intended to help the Sierra Club “emerge from the other side of that appraisal,” but in reality, it was a decision to put political correctness above its historic mission.
The Sierra Club has a century-and-a-quarter history of founding, nurturing, promoting, and furthering the American environmental movement. It is a proud history of protecting national parks, preserving wilderness areas, defending wildlife, and fighting for clean air and water. The worst strategy for the organization’s future is to dilute the passionate support of its million-plus members by getting involved in issues unrelated to the environment. It is a genuine concern about the environment that unites those members, and their donors, not all of whom necessarily agree on other issues – any other issues.
The organization found the same thing 20 years ago when it became embroiled in the immigration issue, partly because former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm was running for a seat on the Sierra Club Board and seeking to get the group involved in his anti-immigration battles. The divisiveness was bitter and although Lamm was not elected, some of those wounds remain to this day.
This is a discussion that was routine at Club 20 during the years I was president of the Western Slope advocacy group. The region’s communities are very diverse and divided on some issues, so the group should always try to stick to issues that unite the Western Slope – protecting its water, fighting for its fair share of highway funds, equal access to modern technology. Whenever the organization veers off into issues that are not unique to that region, such as taxes or foreign affairs, or when it presumes to represent the entire region on controversies like oil shale development, it runs the risk of dividing, not uniting, its members. In the long run, that weakens organizations, not strengthens them.
So the best advice for the Sierra Club’s leaders is simple – stay in your lane. Stick to what you are known for, and good at, and you will remain effective and relevant.