ONE hundred years ago today, the Sierra Club was founded in San Francisco, and legendary conservationist John Muir was elected its first president. The group quickly jumped into its first environmental battle, which was to prevent timber and mining interests (and their friends in Congress) from encroaching on Yosemite National Park. The Sierra Club prevailed.
There were victories and defeats over the years as Muir's philosophy of preserving wilderness clashed with that of his friend and adversary Gifford Pinchot, appointed by Theodore Roosevelt as first head of the Forest Service, who espoused a utilitarian rather than aesthetic approach to natural resources. Pinchot won on construction of the Hetch Hetchy dam on the Toulumne River at Yosemite.
By the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, the organization had grown to 100,000 members in all 50 states. Since then, the Sierra Club has become a vast organization with more than 640,000 members in 386 local groups. Perhaps more significantly, it now has an annual budget of $35 million and an active lobbying staff in Washington.
The same is true of other major environmental groups like the Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth, and the Wilderness Society. As new federal laws to protect the environment were passed, and particularly during the 1980s when the Reagan administration sought to weaken those laws, these groups saw their membership, budgets, and focus on Washington increase greatly.
This might well have pleased John Muir, who relished an argument with elected officials (including Teddy Roosevelt, with whom he camped at Yosemite) and who often fired off letters of protest.
But the mainstream environmental big guns also have been coming under fire recently for ignoring the grass roots (except to fund-raise) and for being too willing to compromise principle in order to achieve political accommodation with the polluters and over-users of natural resources.
Traveling in Montana, for example, I recently heard from a number of grass-roots environmentalists who felt that the big national organizations had let them down by not fighting proposed legislation that would open up 4 million acres of de facto wilderness there to potential logging, mining, and other development. That bill passed the Senate and is being considered by the House.
There have been similar instances as well involving toxic-waste sites and other grass-roots issues, and in some cases local chapters have openly criticized the national organizations.
Writing in a recent issue of the quarterly World Policy Journal, Mark Dowie says the major environmental organizations now amount to "a movement courting irrelevance." He scores them for their "lack of combativeness," their "inertia and lack of imagination."
In essence, says Dowie, Washington-focused environmental groups have been co-opted by interests that they should oppose into accepting "market-based incentives," "constructive engagement" (the Reagan administration phrase for dealing with South Africa), and "regulatory flexibility." He cites as an example acceptance of the notion of "pollution credits" in which manufacturers can trade or sell the right to pollute at politically tolerable levels.
"Mainstream environmental organizations have begun to narrow their focus, excluding or deprioritizing any target, issue, objective, or analysis that does not raise money or build membership," charges Dowie. "Worse still, these organizations are extremely reluctant to alienate existing members, directors, funders, cabinet secretaries, congressional leaders, or corporate executives with whom they might one day have to negotiate an accord."
Although there's some truth to what he writes, that's a decidedly radical view - quite an indictment, and to some extent unfair. There's a time to say "Thus far and no farther," and there's a time to say "Well, let's talk about it." Speaking earlier this year of the tension between "the visionaries and the practical types," Sierra Club chairman Mike McCloskey said, "I think you need them both."
That is as true today as it was in John Muir's time. Perhaps more so, for as the upcoming United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Brazil illustrates, economics and ecology are more entwined than ever. Just so practicality in the name of a tidy political resolution doesn't block out the vision.