A Tale of Two Countries

Published May 5, 1995

The Sierra Club, one of the nation’s largest environmental organizations, not long ago ran a full- page ad in The New York Times deploring “the growing distance between the politicians on Capitol Hill and the rest of us.” The ad was titled “A Tale of Two Countries.”

I read the ad with high expectations. Once an active member of and volunteer for the Sierra Club, I resigned when the organization’s mission changed from encouraging voluntary conservation to lobbying for more regulations and against economic growth and technology of any kind. I’m still a member of half-a-dozen other environmental groups and active in conservation efforts.

Had the Sierra Club finally learned, I wondered, that the political process cannot be trusted to protect the environment? Could it be that their recent financial difficulties (which forced them to lay off a quarter of their staff) taught them that the American people are tired of their “crisis of the month” fundraising letters and “the cost be damned” legislative demands?

As I read the ad, disappointment swept away these thoughts. The Sierra Club apparently learned nothing from recent events. Rather than blame itself for its legislative defeats, the Sierra Club blames unidentified “big contributors” to elected officials. And it casts further blame on all of us for our “alienation” from politics, caused somehow by those “same big contributors.”

Money is, in fact, a big part of the problem facing the environmental movement . . . but not for the reasons given by the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club played a major role in politicizing the national debate over environmental policy by making Washington D .C. the locus of the most important decisions regarding wildlife, forests, pollution, and human health. It enjoyed the fight so long as it was winning, but stunning defeats in the 103rd Congress have caused a change of heart. Now the Sierra Club is claimi ng the game is fixed. I can only wonder: Has the game changed, or is the Sierra Club just a sore loser?

The Sierra Club’s claim that “big contributors” are to blame for its legislative defeats is disingenuous for a second reason. The Sierra Club is not some small, rag-tag outfit: With an annual budget of $43 million, it stands head-and-shoulders above most of its opponents. Joined by other environmental giants, such as Greenpeace USA, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club becomes part of the best-financed special interest group in Washington. In 1992, the top twelve environmental groups in the U.S. had a combined budget of $638 million. That buys a lot of influence, even in Washington.

Rather than ask whether money is influencing politicians, we should ask how money is influencing the environmental movement. The Sierra Club raises most of its money through direct mail. Their fundraising letters are an endless source of hype and exaggera tion on a long list of issues, including forestry, pesticides, solid waste, dioxin, endangered species, global warming, ozone depletion, and population growth.

Conspicuously absent from the fundraising letters I receive from the Sierra Club and other environmental groups is any acknowledgement of the progress that has been made to protect the environment during the past thirty years. Evidence of such progress is readily available from the Environmental Protection Agency: Air pollution emissions are down; water quality is up; occupational safety is better than ever; threats to human health from chemicals are minuscule.

It took a long time to wear out the welcome mat, but the national environmental movement has finally alienated the American public. Many of us now wonder which problems are real and which are manufactured. We don’t trust the major environmental organizati ons to tell us the difference because they profit from the confusion.

I am only one former member of the Sierra Club, and I cannot speak for others. But dare I suggest that there are millions more environmentalists like me, waiting to see if the movement that abandoned us will return to its senses? Like the two countries featured in the Sierra Club’s ad, we feel estranged–not from Congress, but from the leadership of the environmental movement.

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute and coauthor of Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1994).