New Sapling Amid Old-Growth Leaders
Internet-savvy Sierra Club president heralds next generation in environmental leadership
Adam Werbach is acutely aware that one vote can change the outcome of an election. He's also learned that it can change a life: his.
Mr. Werbach had planned to begin film school at Columbia University in New York City this month. Instead, the Los Angeles native is crisscrossing the country, working to unseat politicians that he and fellow environmentalists consider hostile to the environment. Werbach's odyssey began in May, after a sliver-thin one-vote victory made him the youngest person ever elected president of the San Francisco-based Sierra Club.
Faced with a dwindling membership, the Sierra Club's choice of Werbach is emblematic of a push by environmental groups to attract a younger constituency. It also puts the Sierra Club, the nation's largest and one of the most politically active environmental groups, at the vanguard of this shift in the United States conservation movement.
Making Muir proud
It was Werbach's political savvy, in fact, that helped him secure the president's post.
"What impressed me more than anything was that long before the balloting took place among the board members, Adam knew he had the votes," explains David Brower, a legendary environmental activist and Sierra Club board member who has become Werbach's mentor. "The kind of confidence he exudes is infectious. I'm quite pleased with what he's trying to do and if [Sierra Club founder] John Muir were alive today, I'm sure he would be, too."
Brower and others view Werbach's triumph as a chance to galvanize the club's 600,000 members. Sierra Club newsletters are heralding Werbach's debut: "He's Young, He's Hip, He's Your President." Others, Werbach among them, see it as an opportunity to dispel the image of twentysomethings as a generation uninterested in social and political causes.
"Fundamentally, my generation has grown up living in a degenerated world, but I believe our involvement in the environmental movement provides the best example of where young people have pulled together to try and stake a common future," says Werbach, whose lanky frame, toothy grin, and straight bangs give him an uncanny resemblance to actor Robbie Benson, a comparison that makes him squirm.
Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director, says Werbach is inspiring because he hasn't been around long enough to become jaded by the gladiator mentality of Washington politics.
Nonetheless, the Sierra Club will be sending its new titular leader directly into battle during his one-year term.
The organization is targeting no less than 60 House and Senate races deemed critical to changing the composition of the Republican-controlled 104th Congress. This is the most environmentally antagonistic group of lawmakers in the nation's history, says Werbach, who graduated last year with a double major in political science and media culture from Brown University in Providence, R.I.
"For those who thought they could gut laws protecting our air, water, and forests," he says, "we intend to make it hurt for them on election day."
The club's activists also hope that Werbach will reenergize an organization whose membership is approaching an average age of 50.
But Mr. Pope bridles at media reports that Werbach's appointment to the unpaid position has created tensions within the leadership. Though Werbach is now the Sierra Club's public face, Pope calls the shots on a daily basis. Still, he adds that Werbach's presence is more than mere symbolism. "I get these messages from old friends who say 'Wow, I saw your new president on television and he was fabulous.' "
And Werbach is no neophyte to environmental politics.
In elementary school, Werbach took a Sierra Club petition - intended to help get then-Interior Secretary James Watt fired - to his school and had hundreds of kids sign it. He now admits with a chuckle that he initially thought Watt had something to do with electricity rather than the management of public lands.
Werbach remained active in the Sierra Club throughout his teens at Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood and became a national star when he founded the Sierra Club Student Coalition to alert high school and college students about looming environmental threats. The coalition, 30,000-strong today, played a crucial role in getting the landmark California Desert Protection Act passed, as well as leading efforts to stop oil companies from drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Before his election as Sierra Club president, Werbach served two years on the club's board of directors, the body in charge of electing the president.
This summer, amid trips that have taken him from California's Redwoods to New Jersey's Sterling Forest, the hard-working Werbach was ordered to slow down to ensure that he stays fresh in the months ahead. To relax and focus on the club's goals, he recently went on a raft trip down New Mexico's Chama River with Sierra Club board member Dave Foreman, one of the founders of the radical environmental group Earth First!
"Adam's election spoke to the faith we have in the future and the recognition that it can't be [the old guard] that runs the show," Mr. Foreman says. "We need a generation that is motivated to replace us ... the conservation battles aren't ever going to end."
A noted author and popular lecturer on college campuses, Foreman says the generation gap between him and Werbach is based largely on technology: "I still struggle with computers because I didn't grow up with them, whereas Adam's generation did. Adam has a very insightful media sense," Foreman continues. "He is a product of the digital age."
Indeed, Werbach is convinced that the Internet can be a fulcrum for transforming public opinion.
While a student, he and his brother, Kevin, set up their own page on the World Wide Web.
"We have no weapons except ideas," the brothers wrote, "but we possess the most powerful tools ever created: the personal computer, the television, and the telephone wire."
That media orientation is reflected in Werbach's plans. Taking his cue from the role MTV played in the 1992 presidential campaign by urging its generation X audience to become a factor in the election, Werbach hopes to mobilize the Sierra Club to make environmental concerns resonate with young people at the polling booths.
"It's not their job to come to us, it's our job to go to them," he explains. "If they [members of generation X] don't read our books, then we need to go to MTV."