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Farewell, Sierra Club

How environmentalism sold out California—and itself

As a child growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I didn’t really question whether I was an environmentalist. Valuing the conservation of natural resources came naturally to me. I remember countless trips with school and family to the most beautiful places I could imagine– the old growth redwood forests of Muir Woods, Point Reyes National Seashore, Yosemite. If there was a religion taught in the public and private schools I attended in the Bay Area, it was environmentalism. When I was eight years old, my heart was broken by videos of the destruction of the Amazon rainforests. I was pretty sure that if I dedicated my life to the cause of saving them, I could do it—though I don’t recall if my plans ever advanced past writing “Save the Rainforests!” in large letters on the sand with my friends on class field trips to the beautiful Pacific coast.

The Sierra Club, the first large-scale preservation organization in the world, was founded and headquartered in my hometown. I have fond memories of learning to ski and enjoying the beauty of the Sierra Nevada while staying at Clair Tappaan Lodge, built by Sierra Club volunteers in the 1930s near Lake Tahoe. 

I never stopped loving nature and worrying about conservation, but as I got older, I backed away from “Big Green,” what I call the network of large and well-funded environmental organizations, environmental media, academia, and the generally Democratic politicians they ally with. The appeals to emotion and fear that worked so well on me at age eight started to fall flat. I noticed that doomsday was always just around the corner—we always have just enough time to stop it if we obey the latest “science”—but never quite here. In 1989, the Associated Press reported the assertion of Noel Brown, director of the New York office of the U.N. Environment Program, to the effect that governments had a “ten year window” to solve the greenhouse gas effect before it got beyond human control. In 2006, Al Gore said in his documentary An Inconvenient Truth that, without drastic measures, the earth would soon reach a “point of no return.” More recently, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez said about her Green New Deal, “The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change and your biggest issue is how are we gonna pay for it?” 

Big Green is quick to label anyone who fails to buy this classic high pressure sales technique a “climate denier.” But these tactics are tied to demands to reorder the economy and further concentrate power in federal or even global hands. AOC’s then chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, openly said as much when discussing the Green New Deal with Washington governor Jay Insee’s climate director. “Do you guys think of it as a climate thing?” he said. “Because we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.”

It is only natural to suspect that a left-wing agenda is the deeper motivation for these urgent calls to action, rather than a good faith response to an environmental problem. Particularly because many of the most strident calls to lower greenhouse gas emissions come from people (including AOC herself) who have rejected the most successful methods of lowering carbon emissions in the last 30 years, switching to natural gas and nuclear power. (To be fair, rejection of nuclear power by climate activists is not universal; Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has regularly supported it.)

Furthermore, true environmental concerns are not solely comprised by climate change caused by carbon emissions. Reduction of carbon emissions would do nothing to solve, to name a few, water withdrawals from natural systems, clean water and air, the preservation of non-renewable resources, biodiversity, and wilderness. 

Out-of-control wildfires in California are not new (my own childhood home burned down from one), but their frequency and severity have dramatically increased in the last several years. In response, last fall California governor Gavin Newsom declared, “The debate is over around climate change.” It’s not surprising that Governor Newsom would like to cast blame away from himself and onto the entire carbon emitting world, but the true state of research does not reflect any such consensus on wildfires. Dr. Jon Keeley, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist in California, has looked at the history of climate and fire throughout the state and didn’t see “any relationship between past climates and the amount of area burned in any given year.” The accumulation of wood fuel because of fire suppression policies over the last 100 years is clearly a potential factor, as is the fact that, as Keeley points out, shrubland fires are started by people and there are 6 million more people in California than there were in 2000.

That population increase in California, and more specifically where it came from, brings me to another problem with Big Green, which is that it prioritizes helping its political allies over actual protection of the national environment. 

The old saying that “politics makes strange bedfellows” refers to the fact that political coalitions often make progress on one issue only when people who disagree on other issues are willing to band together. In recent years, the progressive coalition (which, of course, includes environmentalists) has insisted on total conformity on all issues. Probably there is no better issue to illustrate the top-down demand for conformity by Big Green than immigration, the subject of my own expertise. (As director of litigation of the Center for Immigration Studies, I have brought cases challenging federal agencies under the National Environmental Policy Act for failing to do environmental impact studies of immigration policies.)

Growing up in California gave me not just an appreciation of nature but an awareness of the impacts of unsustainable levels of immigration on a community, with those impacts very much including effects on the natural environment. The fact is that living in many of the most historically desirable places in California is very different today than it once was because of the tremendous growth in state population. Roads are horribly congested, infrastructure is inadequate to support the population, biodiversity is threatened by urban sprawl, and limited water supplies are under great pressure. Domestic migration to California has been lower than domestic out-migration from California for a number of years, yet foreign migration has meant California’s population has kept growing. This growth is anything but environmentally meaningless.

Such environmental impacts, though most Americans don’t realize it, are why American environmentalists once cared about having an ecologically sustainable immigration policy. One of the biggest concerns of the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s was population growth, both nationally and globally. After the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, immigration became a primary driver of national population growth. For some time, environmentalists accepted that caring about population growth in the United States required caring about immigration policy. In 1989, the Sierra Club’s board adopted the policy position that “migration to the United States should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the United States.” 

However, by the mid-1990s, political and donor pressure convinced the Sierra Club to declare first neutrality on the immigration issue and finally, in 2013, support for amnesty. 

On the whole, adherents of Big Green are not only in complete denial of the ecological limits to mass immigration but engaged in wholesale projection by rabidly insisting that people who care about lowering immigration levels can’t possibly also care about the environment. Rather than confront the fact that immigration to the United States from any source has greatly increased its population, Big Green insists that anyone who notices the resulting environmental consequences must hate immigrants personally and want to “dehumanize” them. There’s nothing dehumanizing about recognizing that immigrants, just like native born citizens, have local ecological footprints. 

It’s hard to know precisely how much of the environmental movement’s retreat from the truth about immigration is based on denial or ignorance, and how much is based on simple fear of being labeled a bigot or wishing to please big donors’ demands. For instance, it was in 2004, well after the fact, that it was reported that American businessman David Gelbaum, $100 million contributor to the Sierra Club, told its director in the mid-1990s that“if they ever came out anti-immigration, they would never get a dollar from me.” Whatever the reasons, the effect of the silencing of environmentalists on immigration has been very unproductive. Americans might well view both environmental and immigration issues in a far less dogmatic way if rigorous debate on both were not squelched. 

What we need is a conservationist movement that serves the needs of American citizens and focuses on the preservation of the natural environment and on achieving a harmonious balance between man and nature. We do not need any further excuses to focus on the desires of wealthy donors, power-seeking politicians, or international governing bodies. Perhaps the progressive environmental movement is simply too captured by the demands of social justice, which frowns on the idea of allowing Americans the “privilege” of a national conservation focus rather than a global one. 

Philip Cafaro, a professor of philosophy at Colorado State University and environmental activist whom I have engaged as an expert in my litigation, summed up the error in this way of thinking particularly well:

Environmentalism necessarily involves love, connection, and efforts to protect particular places… This does not involve believing American (or Chinese) landscapes are more intrinsically valuable than others, but acting as if they are the most important landscapes in the world and using our most accessible political levers to protect them… For all [environmental leaders’] efforts to think globally, a personal connection to nature typically emerged as the basis of their activism. And such personal connection is almost always particular and local.

When I think of the strong emotions evoked by watching the state I grew up in become unrecognizable, I feel the profundity of this statement. 

There is therefore nothing inherently inconsistent between America First and environmentalism. Our first conservationist president was not a liberal elitist or a globalist but a populist: Teddy Roosevelt. His legacy belongs to American patriots to uphold. It would be a big mistake to let politicians like AOC own the issue of concern for the environment in the eyes of Americans. They certainly do not deserve to on the basis of wise environmental stewardship. The Republican Party, particularly if it can free itself from the shackles of its own moneyed donor base, can be the party of environmental concern—and it can do a better job of protecting nature than Big Green.  

Julie Axelrod is director of litigation at the Center for Immigration Studies.

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