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Sierra Club Takes a Commendable Turn on Population, Climate Change, and Inequality

The Sierra Club – long a retrograde proponent of saving the planet by driving a Tesla, eating wild caught salmon, and voting blue – took positive environmental leadership with their end of the year issue of the Sierra magazine. Stating it is “time to fix the population fixation,” they examine the interactions of population, climate change, and inequality. This commendable development from bourgeois lifestyle environmentalism to a more genuine red-green understanding, though, has a way to go.

The ideology of over-population

The ideology of over-population diverts criticisms of capitalist social relations of unequal distribution. It serves to justify a system, capitalism, which creates needs for the many while satisfying them only for the very few. The Sierra Club, in a bold turn, now argues that the problem is not the fertility of women but “overconsumption” and the “outsized contribution of the wealthiest few to the climate crisis and the extinction emergency.”

Birth rates go down when human needs are met and women are afforded reproductive freedom, while the global carbon footprint of the superrich few is vastly greater than that of the poor multitudes. As the status of women improves, birth rates have indeed been stabilizing; world population is predicted to nearly stop growing by the end of the century.

The opening Sierra editorial argues: “The tendency of environmentalists to blame individuals – in particular, women in developing countries – for the number of children they have is problematic…Pointing the finger at women for this is essentially blaming the victim.”

Noting that “the killers behind the mass shootings in New Zealand and El Paso, Texas referenced overpopulation and environmental degradation as reasons to target immigrants,” the Sierra Club unambiguously decries “such eco-fascist rhetoric” as having “no place in the environmental movement.” A sympathetic article follows in the Sierra magazine about the Border Angels, who defy the US Border Patrol by leaving caches of water in the Sonoran Desert for migrants.

Climate justice is given its due importance in the latest issue of Sierra with the recognition that: “Some people are consuming wildly more and wildly different than others…10 percent of the world’s population is responsible for about 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and about 60 percent of those people are in the Global North. The bottom half of the world’s population is responsible for about 15 percent of emissions.”

The Sierra Club understands, “a mere 100 companies count for more than 70 percent of the carbon pollution.” This is a big step forward from the simplistic notion that “people create pollution, so population is the problem.” But a sharper point on capitalist relations of production by the national environmental organization is wanting, and the vast contribution of the US military to global warming is rendered invisible in the Sierra Club’s analysis.

In “a conversation about capital, consumption, and population” recognition is given by the Sierra Club of the need to “transcend our culture of consumption.” An audacious (for a mainstream environmental organization) comment is made about “the value of life beyond a capitalist system” [Emphases added.] Flirting with a Marxist concept of alienation, the article is critical of seeing “ourselves as a commodity or a consumer.”

The article recognizes “growth is what’s creating more inequality,” but does not yet quite name the beast by saying it is capitalist growth, although they come close with saying “it’s a system.” Their call for “system change” is informed by understanding the connection of “growth and the disparity of income levels and the wealth gap.”

Reducing wealth inequality is a fundamental climate solution

The Sierra Club deserves credit for coming around to a progressive stance on population, immigration, and minorities. Back in the 1950s, the southern California chapter of the club had a policy barring African Americans. In the late 1960s, the Sierra Club published Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, which wrongly predicted that hundreds of millions of people (including in the US) would starve to death in the 1970s due to population growth. In the 1980s, Sierra Club national committees advocated for limiting immigration to the US. In 1998 and again in 2004, elements within the organization pushed hard to change the then policy of neutrality on immigration to one of actively closing the US borders to immigrants. The nativist anti-immigrant faction was defeated.

Presently, the Sierra Club opposes the border wall, supports a path to citizenship for the undocumented, and works actively with immigrant rights groups. From those dark days of Ehrlich when human population and especially the reproductive capacity of women were seen as the source of environmental problems, this latest issue of the Sierra magazine has the tagline “the planet is in crisis – SHE has solutions.” A young African woman wearing a hijab is on the cover.

The Sierra Club is a member-based NGO with the latitude to make this leap forward on the population question. Most other major environmental NGOs won’t likely follow, because they are more dependent on funding from rich individuals and foundations for whom the hint of income equality is a non-starter. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with their Environment and Population Research Centre and their Climate Foundation, works tirelessly to suppress what the Sierra article concludes: “reducing wealth inequality [is] a fundamental climate solution.”

Hopefully the days are gone when the Sierra magazine gets all weak kneed gushing over the “green lifestyle” of a former corporate executive who cashed in early on her stock options, left the “rat race” of Los Angeles, and moved into a sprawling spread in the formerly unspoiled desert. And the reason why Sierra viewed her as an environmental paragon? She installed solar panels on her roof. Hopefully, too, will be the passing of those cheery infomercials for the US military about how cool it is that their killing machines are fitted with solar panels.

Identifying overconsumption and waste as problems is a breakthrough from the mainstream narrative on climate solutions, which usually focuses almost solely on alternative technologies and consumer preferences to maintain the capitalist growth economy of waste. If only “we” weaned ourselves off of “our addiction” to oil and went solar, the narrow narrative goes, all would be satisfactory. The next step, yet to materialize for the Sierra Club, would be to recognize the necessity of ending that system of waste known as capitalism.

Nevertheless, the Sierra article concludes on an auspicious note: “What we need to think about is how do we bring those who are the biggest power brokers on the planet to heel.”

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Roger Harris is on the board of the Task Force on the Americas, a 32-year-old anti-imperialist human rights organization.

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