The War Club


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 green 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 Era–are now 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, Tori Woodard, Patrick Diehl and Dan Kent.

Last week, they announced that they opposed the war. They identified 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 groups may have so far achieved.”

This noble stand was soon followed by a similarly principled anti-war resolution enacted by the Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter.

Then: slam! The long arm of Sierra Club HQ came down on them-clumsily as usual.

There’s apparently scant room for free speech inside the Sierra Club these days, even when the topic is of paramount concern to the health of the planet. Especially then.

The Club’s peevish executive director, Carl Pope, and his gang of glowering enforcers, blustered that the Glen Canyon Four had impertinently violated Club rules. They threatened to level sanctions against the activists, ranging from expelling them from their positions to dissolving the rebellious group entirely. Angry phone calls and nasty emails flew back and forth. The Glen Canyon Four were threatened with a BOLT action-BOLT being the stark acronym for a 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 oneself to 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, intimidate and muzzle internal dissenters. As result, the Club is rife with snoops, snitches, 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 Cataract Canyon and Lava Falls in their most violent incarnations without flinching. Tori Woodard 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 vandalized their home, threw bottles of beer through two front windows, kicked in the front door, trashed the garden, and cut the phone line to the house. They’re still there-the only 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 power mainly 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 sell-out of Yosemite National Park to a corrupt firm linked to Bruce Babbitt. The most disgusting internal crackdown came last year in a spiteful attack on Moisha Blechman, a Sierra Club activist in New York City, who was 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 in New Mexico and other places that attack and ridicule its current policies, such as the No Commercial Logging plank, as being too radical. Even worse, the Club leadership stands mute as a gang of Malthusian brigands infiltrate its ranks seeking to hi-jack the organization as a vehicle to carry forward a racist anti-immigration agenda that would make Pat Buchanan cringe.

All of this would seem mighty strange, if you remain na?ve enough to believe that the Sierra Club is an organization principally (or even parenthetically) 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 and solidifying its access to power, the bloodstream of most nonprofits. (Read: a snuggling 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 Communication and Information Services unit-the outfit’s largest single amalgamation of funds.

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 to a popular war. On the other hand, many, if not most, Sierra Club members probably harbor serious doubts about the war and the way the Bushites intend to prosecute it. So a kind of organizational paralysis ensued. It’s just as well.

In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, Club President Jennifer Ferenstein exuded some shopworn homilies about US dependence on foreign oil and pronounced that the Club’s resolution warned against “Iraqi aggression.” This language 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. Moreover, while the Club supports the Bush Administration’s purported goal of disarming 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 came off 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 economy toward a future based on clean energy, greater efficiency and more renewable power,” writes Ferenstein. “The Sierra Club has called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Iraq, proceeding according to the UN resolutions, and we emphatically believe that long-term stability depends on the U.S. reducing our oil dependence.”

Apparently, Ferenstein doesn’t understand that the UN Resolution gives the US and Britain the green light to whack Iraq with the slightest provocation, 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 by 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 group, released its detailed investigation of the environmental consequences of the 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 Coast was saturated with oil; Kuwait’s only freshwater aquifer, source of more than 40 percent of the country’s drinking water, was heavily contaminated with benzenes and other toxins; 33,000 land mines remain scattered across the desert; incidences of birth defects, childhood illnesses and cancers climbed dramatically after the war.

Cruise missiles targeted Iraqi oil refineries, pipelines, chemical plants, and water treatment systems. Ten years later, many of these facilities remained 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 casings, bullets and bomb fragments laced with depleted uranium. In all, the US hit Iraqi targets with more than 970 radioactive bombs and missiles.

More than 10 years later, the health consequences from this radioactive bombing campaign are beginning to come into focus. And they are dire, indeed. 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 regime, recently described by UN secretary general Kofi Annan as “a humanitarian crisis”, that makes detection and treatment of the cancers all the more difficult.

The return engagement promises to be just as grim, if not worse.

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 being the bubbly Katie Couric of the environmental movement to its Margaret Thatcher. 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 of executive director Carl Pope. Pope has never had much of a reputation as an environmental activist. He’s a wheeler-dealer, who keeps the Club’s policies in lockstep with its big funders and political patrons. Where Dave Brower scaled mountains, nearly all of Pope’s climbing has been up organizational ladders.

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 that they were putting their environmental campaigns on hold and pledged not to 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 continent.

The same with the war on Iraq. The mandarins who run the Club made a decision early on to let their position float in grim harmony with the DNC’s spineless warmongering.

To date only two board members have stood up against the war: Marcia Hanscom from Los Angeles and Michael Dorsey, the Club’s only black board member and a man with a true passion for social and environmental justice. That’s two out of 15. There’s more vigorous dissent inside Bush’s National Security Council.

All this would have disgusted Brower, who was a veteran of the famous 10th Mountain Division in World War II but a peacenik at heart. I first met Brower in 1980. 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 to meet same fate. He asked me to do some writing for him on what he thought was the great environmental issue of our time: war. At the time, Brower was 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 Tanqueray.

He was right, of course. A century of wars have ravaged the environment as brutally as the timber giants and the chemical companies. And the nuclear industry, headquartered in DC and Moscow, threatened the whole shebang with what Jonathan Schell in the Fate of the Earth, a book Brower ceaselessly plugged, called “the second death”: the extinction of all life on earth.

Brower also knew what most contemporary enviros don’t: that the day-to-day operations of the military complex itself–weapons production and testing–amount to the most toxic industry on the planet, as a trip to the poisoned wastelands of Hanford, Fallon, Nevada or Rocky Flats will readily reveal.

For some reason, battling the Pentagon has never had the allure of fighting the Forest Service (an agency that I detest), which by comparison behaves like 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. There were demonstrations on the streets nearly every night over the course of that war. Together we joined a crowd of several hundred activists gathered in the December rain. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the old Hawthorne Bridge 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 and Anne 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 be found 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 card required.


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3