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Bowling Alone with the Sierra Club

December 27, 2011

In 2000 Robert Putnam’s (Harvard University) masterpiece of American social science, Bowling Alone* was published.  He reported the significant decline of all forms of civic participation in American society and politics from the P.T.A. to voting.  Religious participation is the notable exception to this trend. 

We are deeply concerned about the increasing isolation of Americans from one another and we believe that the polarization of viewpoints, particularly in politics, is one of the consequences of this trend.  Only the highly motivated extremes of opinion are still engaged in the civic dialogue.  The middle ground is no longer represented in the debate.  However, we will focus on the topic that is relevant to Million Trees, that is, the implications for the environmental movement. 

Bowling Alone. Attribution: Xiaphias

Membership in environmental organizations reached its peak in 1995, according to Bowling Alone after decades of enormous growth since the 1960s.  This peak was consistent with public opinion regarding environmentalism.  In 1990 three-quarters of Americans considered themselves “environmentalists.”  By the end of the decade, that percentage had dropped to only 50%. 

The growth in membership was achieved by the use of a new marketing tool known as direct mail.  Think about it.  How many invitations do you receive in the mail from non-profit organizations, asking you to contribute to a wide-range of worthy causes?   Typically these organizations spend between 20-30% of their budgets on such fund raising and the rate of return on these solicitations is only 1-3% of the cost depending upon the quality of the mailing list.  Using this technique, Greenpeace tripled its membership between 1985 and 1990 to 2.35 million.

What does “membership” mean?

After tripling its membership, Greenpeace lost 85% of its members in the next 8 years.  The drop-out rate after the first year is typically 30% in these organizations.  

In fact, most contributors to these organizations don’t even consider themselves “members” in the usual sense of that word.  The commitment to the organization doesn’t extend far beyond writing a check.  Only 8% of contributors to the Environmental Defense Fund, for example, described themselves as “active” in the organization. 

These organizations are therefore distinctly different from their historical antecedents.  Participants in the civil rights movement frequently put their lives on the line.  The social lives of Rotary Club members revolved around the Rotary lodge. 

Since few people are active participants in environmental organizations, they have become “bureaucratized,” meaning they are run by and for paid professionals.  Most members have little idea what policies the professional staff has adopted on their behalf. 

The Sierra Club

In 1989, a survey of Sierra Club members determined that only 13% of its members had attended even one meeting of the Sierra ClubThe Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club claims to have 10,000 members, but chapter leadership of a group (the chapter is broken into many geographical groups, such as the San Francisco Group)was elected by as few as 59 votes.  The top vote-getter in the Club’s most recent election received 327 votes in a Chapter-wide race, but only one chapter group (Northern Alameda County) had more candidates than there were available seats.  In other words, there was no competition for most of the leadership seats. 

Yet, the incumbents in these leadership positions are free to determine the local policies of the Sierra Club.  Here are a few recent examples of positions taken by the Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club:

The opinion of the membership is not asked when these policy positions are taken by the leadership.  However, if members read the chapter’s quarterly newsletter (The Yodeler) they have the opportunity to learn about them after the fact.

The influence of the Sierra Club

We believe that the influence of the Sierra Club exceeds the size of its membership.  The Sierra Club endorses candidates for political office.  These endorsements are highly sought after because politicians believe that the endorsement confers the votes of its membership.  This belief was recently tested in the race for mayor of San Francisco. 

State Senator Leland Yee sought and received the endorsement of the Sierra Club in his bid for mayor of San Francisco.  In the past, he had been critical of the Natural Areas Program.  His stated reason for that criticism was that the veneration of native plants was offensive to his roots as an immigrant.  In particular, the Chinese community suffered horrendous discrimination in California in the 19th Century.  The rhetoric of the native plant movement is reminiscent of the xenophobia from which the Chinese community has suffered historically. 

It seems unlikely that Senator Yee’s emotional reaction to nativism changed when he sought the endorsement of the Sierra Club, but he had to disavow that opinion in order to receive the Club’s endorsement.  He did so because he believed that the votes of Sierra Club members would help him to be elected mayor of San Francisco.  His bet did not pay off.  He did not win.  In fact, he came in fourth. 

We hope that political candidates in the future will heed this warning.  The Sierra Club may have many “members” but that membership does not necessarily confer votes.  The vast majority of “members” have no commitment to the policy positions taken by the Club.

An appeal to Sierra Club members

There were over 4,000 public comments on the Environmental Impact Study for the Dog Management Plan of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA).  The Dog Management Plan proposes to eliminate about 80% of existing off-leash areas, which are now only 1% of the 74,000 acres of GGNRA property.  The Sierra Club supports that plan.  There were thousands of comments from people with dogs who are presently enjoying the small areas now available to them for off-leash recreation.  Sixty-four of those people said they are Sierra Club members.  That’s enough members to elect someone to a leadership position in the Club.

If you are a member of the Sierra Club, here’s what you can do to influence the Club’s policies:

  • Inform yourself of the policies of the Sierra Club. 
  • If you don’t agree with those policies, we urge you to vote in the election of officers to the leadership positions in the Sierra Club.
  •  If you don’t know the policies of the candidates, ask them. 
  •  If there are no candidates that represent your viewpoint, find candidates who do.
  • If you can’t find a candidate you can support, it’s time to vote with your feet.
  • If you leave the Club tell them why. 

Quit Bowling Alone!

Attribution: GNU Free Documentation


*Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone:  The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000.  All quotes in this post are from Bowling Alone unless otherwise noted.

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