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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Opinion Column

The Sierra Club
as canary

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH

The esteemed Sierra Club, a prototypical American democratic institution, with the accent on institution, has played a more valuable role in the nationís history than is generally recognized. Its two most important leaders, John Muir, who founded it, and David Brower, who made it a force in American consciousness and politics, are icons of American life whose influence extends far beyond the environmental movement.

Though Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt is generally credited with creating the National Park system, it was Muir who gave him the idea, who dragged Teddy around the West, showed him the splendor of the landscape, made him aware of the fragility of the environment, and convinced him that the earth is something more than a commercial asset to be exploited and trashed at the first opportunity. Muir saved Yosemite for us, but he lost Hetch Hetchy.

David Brower is arguably the most significant environmental figure in American history. His contributions to all our lives and the life of the planet are too numerous to mention, too large to forget. He saved the Grand Canyon of the Colorado from being dammed (and damned), but he lost Glen Canyon.

You canít, alas, win them all.

Muir and Brower were, in my mind, larger and more significant influences on the physical, political and cultural landscape of America than the institution they created. Nevertheless, the Sierra Club has consistently done more good than harm. It has represented the mainstream environmental movement, effectively organized that movement and, most important, helped to educate the public in myriad ways about the environment, the vulnerability and beauty of eco-systems and the creatures living within them, and about manís impact on this earth. More often than not, the Sierra Club has not been the most progressive environmental group on the planet, but it has a way of being among the first to bring issues to mainstream consciousness that the mainstream does not want to address, wishes would go away and would like to pretend isnít there.

This is the Sierra Club as canary in the mine shaft, an early warning system of poison in the air.

Right now the Sierra Club is in the midst of a contentious debate that America does not want to address, wishes would go away and would like to pretend isnít there. The issue is population growth, an environmental problem to be sure, one that causes, among other things, emigration and immigration.

A group of anti-immigration activists within the 750,000 member club is attempting to take control of the organization, and some of these are not well meaning idealists. Xenophobia and racism always shadow any discussion of anti-immigration, but as the earthís population explodes people have to move. The U.S. has the highest population growth of all developed countries, including one million legal immigrants and 700,000 illegal immigrants each year. In addition to phobias and hatreds, there are legitimate concerns about the costs of paying for government services for immigrants. More people mean less of everything for those who already have theirs. That is one of the ugly realities of the issue of population growth.

Hardcore anti-immigration Sierra Clubbers are urging non-Sierra Club Members, who may or may not be interested in environmental activism, but who assuredly embrace right-wing and, some say, racist philosophies, to join the club and help elect a line up of anti-immigration board members. As mentioned, the Sierra Club is a democratic institution marked by grassroots activism. As such, it has been an extremely effective force for the environment; and, as a democracy, it has had its share of internal fights over policy, organization and management. Like a canary in a mineshaft, the Sierra Club debate is a signal of poison in the air of America.

The Sierra Club board vote will be conducted over the next six weeks. Whether the anti-immigration contingent will be able to pack the membership and take control will be worth watching. Morris Dees, a well known civil rights lawyer, calls this possibility the "greening of hate."

Whether this is an accurate summation of the situation or not, it is an early warning of a conflict that will not go away. It is going to get bigger, and it will fracture societyís opinions and allegiances along predictable fault lines.

There are no clean or simple or easy answers to the human over population of earth, but it seems to me that gated countries, like gated communities, are particularly short-sighted, narrowly focused and too often mean-spirited solutions to problems that will not go away and need addressing. One place to start is to quit pretending that immigration causes population growth. It doesnít. Population growth causes immigration. Many who oppose immigration into their own country also oppose birth control programs and education in their own and other countries. This is revealing, as well as ultimately self-defeating and very crazy.

The founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir, was himself an immigrant. Every American, legal or not, is an immigrant or the descendant of an immigrant, including the earliest immigrants who are known as Native Americans. If the Sierra Club falls to anti-immigration poison, it will be a sign to head for higher ground where the air is clearer and the horizon more inclusive.



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