The Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Michael Brune, has published a mea culpa about the club’s racist roots. John Muir was the founder of the Sierra Club. He considered the Indigenous people of California despoilers of nature and was responsible for evicting them from Yosemite when it was established as a National Park. Indigenous people had lived in peace in Yosemite Valley for thousands of years and their eviction was a tragedy.
More recently, the club’s policies promoted population control in the 1960s. In the 1990s and again in the 2000s many club members tried to force the club to adopt an anti-immigration policy. The membership organized to prevent the club from adopting an anti-immigration policy and it’s time for the membership to express itself again, in support of Brune’s commitment to reverse course.
Mr. Brune apologizes for these racist policies and makes a commitment to reversing the club’s tradition of promoting the interests of wealthy, white people by investing in staff and leadership who are people of color. I have written to Michael Brune to express my support for his commitment and make suggestions for addressing several closely related issues. If you are a Sierra Club member, I urge you to write to Mr. Brune. Perhaps you can make other suggestions for improving the club’s democratic functioning, as well as increasing the diversity of its membership and leadership.
Here is my letter to Michael Brune. You can send your own letter to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Mr. Brune,
Thank you for making a commitment to confront the racist roots of the Sierra Club and take actions needed to broaden the club’s membership and leadership. As a member, I am writing to ask that the club take this opportunity to address closely related issues that have turned it into the exclusive club that it is today. The club’s policies are as much misanthropic as they are racist.
- The club’s support for eradicating non-native plants and trees by using herbicides is a short-step away from its history of opposition to legal immigration. The connection between hatred of non-native plants and human immigrants is not lost on people of color. High Country News recently published this thoughtful article by a young woman of Chinese descent who has suddenly realized that the demonization of non-native plants and animals is indistinguishable from similar attitudes toward human immigrants: “Until this spring, I would have supported a concerted public effort to eradicate a threatening invasive species. But I’m no longer able to separate this environmental management strategy from the harm that the Trump administration’s insistent characterization of COVID-19 as an Asian disease has caused to Asian Americans, targeted anew for their race. I have yet to reconcile my training as an ecologist with my growing sense that what I learned reifies violent white norms far beyond the realm of natural resources.”
- The club’s opposition to virtually every new housing project in the Bay Area serves the interests of wealthy home owners who object to greater housing density. At a time when thousands of people are living on the streets and thousands more are about to be evicted, the elected leadership of the Bay Area Chapter has become the “I’ve Got Mine Club.” The club is as guilty of classism as it is of racism.
- The club’s opposition to recreational use of public parks and open space is also a reflection of its elitism. The Bay Area Chapter was opposed to the proposed revision of the Recreation and Open Space Element (ROSE) of San Francisco’s General Plan because “The draft ROSE talks about the benefits of open space for physical fitness through exercise and recreation, but these one can do on city streets and in gyms.” In the same Yodeler article, the club redefines recreation: “…the draft [ROSE] neglects the values of respite, quiet contemplation, and undisturbed wildlife viewing…” The club consistently demands that people be fenced out of parks because people “damage” nature and the club frequently sues to enforce its demands. Wealthy people don’t need parks. They can go to the gym. The public is welcome to walk around their fenced enclosures to observe nature, to look but not touch nature. Please visit the Berkeley Meadow to see an example of one of the many fenced pens that the club advocated for in the East Bay.
I close with specific suggestions for how the club can welcome everyone into its tent. Complaints are most effective when accompanied by suggestions for addressing those complaints.
- The club needs term limits for its elected leadership positions. I have closely followed the club’s policies for 30 years. Many of the elected leaders have been in their positions for decades. The longer they are in those positions, the more entrenched their attitudes have become. They arrived with an agenda to which they continue to adhere. Younger people with different perspectives are needed to inject life into the club, people who engage in active recreation and don’t own their homes, for example.
- The club needs to improve its democratic functioning. The Chapter leadership refuses to put issues on its meeting agenda with which it does not agree. There must be some mechanism for members to influence club policies. When the club takes a position on a specific local policy issue, it has an obligation is hear from both sides first. The club does not do its due diligence before making such policy decisions.
- The club needs more scientists and fewer lawyers. When the club takes a position on a complex environmental issue, it has an obligation to be accurate about the information it uses in its public comments and publications. For example, fundamental and elementary errors are made by the club when advocating for the use of pesticides.
I wish you the best of luck in addressing the weaknesses of the club that have taken decades to develop and will undoubtedly take decades to turn around. The club has an important role to play. It is in everyone’s interests that the club survive and be as strong as possible. At the moment, the club wields more political power than it deserves because it is not using that power responsibly.
Sierra Club Member
cc: Ramón Cruz
Sierra Club President