That is the Sierra Club’s strength—its welcoming grassroots democracy and its history of organizing volunteers to effect political change—and the reason it has become a major force in American politics today. But America’s oldest and most powerful national environmental organization now is the subject of an attempted takeover by anti-immigration groups.
It is both the Sierra Club’s openness and its effectiveness that has made it a target of fringe interests seeking political clout and mainstream credibility. Unlike most non-profit groups that appoint their boards, each year the 700,000-plus members of the Sierra Club directly elect five members to the organization’s 15-member board of directors. Our March 2004 board election, for which I am a candidate, may be the most important in the organization’s history.
You may have read in the Los Angeles Times or San Francisco Chronicle that an unusual alliance of anti-immigration advocates and animal rights activists is attempting to take over the Sierra Club’s board in the upcoming election. It is not the first time that outside groups have sought Sierra Club cover for narrow, unpopular interests, but it is the most serious threat. Frustrated by an organizational structure that allows the club’s policy positions to be determined by a vote of its grassroots members, these outside groups are seeking to gain control of the board to overturn club policy by fiat.
The highly regarded Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group that tracks hate groups, recently sent an alarming letter to Sierra Club President Larry Fahn. The letter warned of a covert campaign by anti-immigration and right-wing organizations to encourage their own supporters to join Sierra Club to help elect certain insurgent candidates.
As you can imagine, this takeover attempt has set off alarm bells among the progressive membership of our 112-year-old organization—and rightly so. The big issue at stake in our March 2004 board election is how the Sierra Club will deal with the very real environmental issue of unsustainable population growth.
In 1998, Sierra Club members voted down an anti-immigration ballot initiative and decided to tackle global population growth by dealing with its root causes. Restricting immigration to the U.S., members decided, is not the best way for us to protect the environment. Immigration restrictions don’t solve environmental problems; they merely shift them elsewhere.
Global population growth is best addressed by providing all people a decent standard of living and by giving all women the means to control their fertility—in short, by mitigating the conditions that drive people from their homes to begin with. In response to the 1998 vote, the club enhanced its Responsible Trade Program to push for a review of international trade agreements and promote fair trade. It provided more financial support for its Global Population Program to advocate for increased U.S. funding for successful domestic and international family planning efforts. And the club partnered with Amnesty International to defend the human rights of environmentalists abroad and alleviate the plight of potential environmental refugees.
Migration is a global phenomenon that happens when opportunity, freedom, environmental degradation, and desperation are distributed across the globe so unevenly that people are forced to stay and barely survive or move and possibly thrive. For our society to effectively reduce migration pressures, we must address these root inequalities. At the same time, we must address the reality that American consumption patterns, which India and other developing countries are rapidly adopting, are no model for the rest of the world.
Anti-immigration positions would seriously undermine the Sierra Club’s ability to continue to lead the environmental movement and detract from efforts to unseat George W. Bush, the most anti-environmental president in modern history. Such positions, which send the message that all of the seats in the American lifeboat are occupied, would polarize our membership and hamper our ability build broad-based coalitions.
The organization that is best known for its historic successes in protecting our country’s wilderness and public lands now dedicates as much time to urban pollution problems, the environmental consequences of economic globalization gone awry, and international issues. For example, the Sierra Club is working with Indian environmentalists to preserve the rich biodiversity of the mountains and forests of India’s Western Ghats. As a volunteer leader, I have had the opportunity to represent the Sierra Club at U.N. environmental treaty negotiations in Beijing and The Hague, and lead our national campaign to curb global warming and promote clean energy.
Despite the club’s evolution and its work on environmental justice issues and outreach efforts such as our Inner City Outings Program, anti-immigration positions will make it even more difficult to attract South Asian Americans and other minorities to the organization and the environmental movement, which would be stronger and more effective with more diverse support.
When we live up to our highest values as a nation, the U.S. is a land where it matters less where you are from and more what you can contribute, less what accent you speak with than that you have something to say, and less what religion you subscribe to than your willingness to be part of a society where freedom, tolerance, and equality of opportunity are the unifying principles. These ideals attracted my parents to this country.
And they are the same ideals that attracted me to the Sierra Club, an inclusive, democratic organization founded by Scottish immigrant John Muir to protect wild places and promote stewardship of the environment.
If you a Sierra Club member, please vote in our upcoming election to keep these traditions alive. If you are not yet a member, please join. We have a lot of work to do.
Sanjay Ranchod is a San Francisco consumer attorney and a candidate for the Sierra Club Board of Directors.