Torquemadas in Birkenstocks
The War Club
by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
My dear old friend David
Brower must be fuming in his grave. The Sierra Club,
the organization he almost single-handedly built into a global
powerhouse, has become so cowardly since his death two years
ago that now
it refuses even take a stand against war, which Brower believed
to be the
ultimate environmental nightmare.
Even worse, its bosses-like petty enforcers from the McCarthy
threatening to exile from the Club any leaders who step forward
to voice their
opposition to the looming bombing and subsequent invasion and
occupation of Iraq.
It is a telltale sign of the enervated condition of the big
greens that there's
precious little dissent in the Sierra Club on the prospect of
another war in the
Persian Gulf. Indeed, it took four activists from Utah, of all
places, to light the
fire. Let them be known as the Glen Canyon Group Four: John Weisheit,
Woodward, Patrick Diehl and Dan Kent.
Last week, they announced that they opposed the war. They
themselves as leaders of the Sierra Club's Glen Canyon Group,
based in Moab,
Utah, former stomping grounds of Edward Abbey.
"The present administration has declared its intention
to achieve total military
dominance of the world," says Patrick Diehl, vice-chair
of the Glen Canyon
Group. "We believe that such ambitions will produce a state
of perpetual war,
undoing whatever protection of the environment that conservation
have so far achieved."
This noble stand was soon followed by a similarly principled
enacted by the Club's San Francisco Bay Chapter.
Then: slam! The long arm of Sierra Club HQ came down on them-clumsily
There's apparently scant room for free speech inside the Sierra
days, even when the topic is of paramount concern to the health
of the planet.
The Club's peevish executive director, Carl Pope, and his
gang of glowering
enforcers, blustered that the Glen Canyon Four had impertinently
rules. They threatened to level sanctions against the activists,
expelling them from their positions to dissolving the rebellious
Angry phone calls and nasty emails flew back and forth. The Glen
were threatened with a BOLT action-BOLT being the stark acronym
Breach of Leadership Trust.
"For the board to compel our silence plays right into
Bush's mad world, where
a nation of police, prisons, bombs, bunkers is better than lowering
diplomacy to save lives,'' says Dan Kent.
The Sierra Club's Breach of Leadership Trust rule functions
as a kind of
proto-type for Ashcroft's Patriot Act, designed to stigmatize,
muzzle internal dissenters. As result, the Club is rife with
and would-be Torquemadas in Birkenstocks.
In this case, the intimidation isn't likely to work. John
Weisheit is perhaps the
most accomplished river guide on the Colorado. He's stared down
Canyon and Lava Falls in their most violent incarnations without
Woodward and Patrick Diehl live in the outback of Escalante,
Utah, where they
routinely receive death threats for their environmental activism.
A couple of
years ago, a band of local yahoos broke into their house, trashed
furniture, and drenched the walls with pig's blood. They're still
enviros in that distant belly of the beast. Pompous chest-thumping
by the likes
of Carl Pope won't scare off these people.
Peculiarly, the Club has chosen to invoke its internal policing
against members who have pushed for the Club to adopt more robust
environmental policies: ending livestock grazing, mining and
logging on public
lands; backing Ralph Nader and the Green Party; or opposing the
Yosemite National Park to a corrupt firm linked to Bruce Babbitt.
disgusting internal crackdown came last year in a spiteful attack
Blechman, a 70-year-old Sierra Club activist in New York City,
smeared with accusations of the most scurrilous kind, mainly
because she was
too green for the cautious twerps who run the Club.
Meanwhile, the Sierra Club turns a blind eye to renegade chapters
Mexico and other places that attack and ridicule its current
policies, such as the
No Commercial Logging plank, as being too radical. Even worse,
leadership stands mute as a gang of Malthusian brigands infiltrate
seeking to hi-jack the organization as a vehicle to carry forward
anti-immigration agenda that would make Pat Buchanan cringe.
All of this would seem mighty strange, if you remain naïve
enough to believe
that the Sierra Club is an organization principally (or even
devoted to the preservation of the planet.
It's not, of course. Like any other corporation, the Sierra
Club's managers are
obsessively preoccupied with beefing up the Club's bottom line
its access to power, the bloodstream of most nonprofits. (Read:
relationship to the DNC, supine though it may be).
So here's a warning: When you join the Sierra Club and affix
your signature to
that membership card you are also signing a loyalty oath.
Loyalty to what? Certainly not the environment. These days
it's loyalty to the
image of the Club that matters. And increasingly the desired
image of the Club
is manufactured by its bosses, not its members.
How important is "image" to the Sierra Club? Well,
it spends more than $2
million a year and employs 25 people to work full time in its
and Information Services unit-the outfit's largest single amalgamation
Last week the Los Angeles Times published a story about the
Iraq affair. And
the bosses of the Club froze, like stuffed weasels in the spotlight.
This was not
the kind of media attention they'd spent all that money to garner.
On the one
hand, they didn't want to be seen as tolerating internal opposition
popular war. On the other hand, many, if not most, Sierra Club
probably harbor serious doubts about the war and the way the
intend to prosecute it. So a kind of organizational paralysis
ensued. It's just as
In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, Club President Jennifer
some shopworn homilies about US dependence on foreign oil and
that the Club's resolution warned against "Iraqi aggression."
sounds cagey, but it's actually moronic and craven. Even Bush
has yet to
charge Iraq with plans to invade its neighbors this time around.
while the Club supports the Bush Administration's purported goal
Iraq, it remains silent on disarming the Pentagon.
Ferenstein attempted to clarify the Club's confused policy
a few days later in a
primly worded letter to the Christian Science Monitor, but she
sounding even sillier. "In order to reduce oil's influence
in geopolitical relations,
the U.S. and other nations have to move away from an oil-dependent
toward a future based on clean energy, greater efficiency and
power," writes Ferenstein. "The Sierra Club has called
for a peaceful resolution
of the conflict in Iraq, proceeding according to the UN resolutions,
emphatically believe that long-term stability depends on the
U.S. reducing our
Apparently, Ferenstein doesn't understand that the UN Resolution
US and Britain the green light to whack Iraq with the slightest
real or fabricated. And apparently war is okay with the Club
as long as it's the
result of a consensus process (even if the UN consensus was brokered
bullying and bribery)-although how the environment suffers any
less under this
feel-good scenario remains a mystery.
It's not as if the environmental ruin caused by the first
Gulf War is unknown. In
January of 2000 Green Cross International, a Christian environmental
released its detailed investigation of the environmental consequences
Gulf War. Their findings were grim: more than 60 million gallons
of crude spilled
into the desert, forming 246 oil lakes; 1,500 miles of the Gulf
saturated with oil; Kuwait's only freshwater aquifer, source
of more than 40
percent of the country's drinking water, was heavily contaminated
benzenes and other toxins; 33,000 land mines remain scattered
desert; incidences of birth defects, childhood illnesses and
dramatically after the war.
Cruise missiles targeted Iraqi oil refineries, pipelines,
chemical plants, and
water treatment systems. Ten years later, many of these facilities
destroyed, unremediated and hazardous.
Months of bombing of Iraq by US and British planes and cruise
missiles also left
behind an even more deadly and insidious legacy: tons of shell
and bomb fragments laced with depleted uranium. In all, the US
targets with more than 970 radioactive bombs and missiles.
More than 10 years later, the health consequences from this
bombing campaign are beginning to come into focus. And they are
Iraqi physicians call it "the white death"-leukemia.
Since 1990, the incident
rate of leukemia in Iraq has grown by more than 600 percent.
The situation is
compounded by Iraq's forced isolations and the sadistic sanctions
recently described by UN secretary general Kofi Annan as "a
crisis", that makes detection and treatment of the cancers
all the more difficult.
The return engagement promises to be just as grim, if not
Compared to a titan like Brower, timid little people run the
Sierra Club these
days. In her two years as president, Ferenstein has gone from
bubbly Katie Couric of the environmental movement to its Margaret
In the process, she may have set back the cause of eco-feminism
by 20 years.
But Ferenstein is largely just a figurehead, the hand puppet
director Carl Pope. Pope has never had much of a reputation as
environmental activist. He's a wheeler-dealer, who keeps the
Club's policies in
lockstep with its big funders and political patrons. Where Dave
mountains, nearly all of Pope's climbing has been up organizational
This limp state of affairs has been coming for some time.
After 9/11, the Club
leadership was so cowed by the events that they publicly announced
were putting their environmental campaigns on hold and pledged
criticize Bush, who at that very moment was seeking to exploit
the tragedy in
order to expand oil drilling in some the most fragile and imperiled
lands on the
The same with the war on Iraq. The mandarins who run the Club
decision early on to let their position float in grim harmony
with the DNC's
To date only two board members have stood up against the war:
Hanscom from Los Angeles and Michael Dorsey, the Club's only
member and a man with a true passion for social and environmental
That's two out of 15. There's more vigorous dissent inside Bush's
All this would have disgusted Brower, who was a veteran of
Division in World War II but a peacenik at heart. I first
Brower in1980. He'd already been booted out of the Sierra Club
for being too militant
and had gone on to found Friends of the Earth, where he was about
same fate. He asked me to do some writing for him on what he
the great environmental issue of our time: war. At the time,
helping jumpstart the nuclear freeze movement and I was honored
to join him.
"If we greens don't broaden our thinking to tackle war,"
he told me, "we may
save some wilderness, but lose the world." He was a master
at aphorisms like
that. Especially after a couple of martinis-heavily charged with
He was right, of course. A century of wars have ravaged the
brutally as the timber giants and the chemical companies. And
industry, headquartered in DC and Moscow, threatened the whole
with what Jonathan Schell in the Fate of the Earth, a book Brower
plugged, called "the second death": the extinction
of all life on earth.
Brower also knew what most contemporary enviros don't: that
operations of the military complex itself--weapons production
testing--amount to the most toxic industry on the planet, as
a trip to the
poisoned wastelands of Hanford, Fallon, Nevada or Rocky Flats
For some reason, battling the Pentagon has never had the allure
the Forest Service (an agency that I detest), which by comparison
the Cub Scouts of the federal government.
Back in 1990, Brower and his beautiful and courageous wife
Anne came to
Portland, just as the bombing of Iraq had gotten into high gear.
demonstrations on the streets nearly every night over the course
of that war.
Together we joined a crowd of several hundred activists gathered
December rain. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the old Hawthorne
for an hour, shutting down rush hour traffic out of downtown.
We sang We
Shall Overcome as the police stared us down, the Browers' unmistakable
voices sailing above it all.
Those days are gone. Both Dave
are dead. But a new peace
movement is rising and Brower helped give it life and meaning.
The spirit of the new peace (and environmental) movement won't
within the confines of any club. It's out on the streets and
in the woods, where
it's always been. Hurry. It's not too late to join. No membership
December 12, 2002