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Making Conservation Dollars Work: 
Why I left The Sierra Club after 28 years

Entry 3:  January 14, 2011

In my last posting I said I'd be writing about some major changes in my conservation giving.  Recently I sent a letter to the president of the Sierra Club informing him that I am ending 28 years of contributions to his organization.  The text of the letter is reproduced below.  It stands on its own to explain my reasons for leaving, but I also want to briefly summarize my thinking.  I also sent another letter to a local mountaineering organization resigning my membership for similar reasons.  

When I take hard-earned money and give it to a conservation group, I'm doing it for several reasons.  I want to multiply my voice by acting in concert with others who share my views.  I'm trusting the group to do good things with my funds.  I value the group's expertise in making good decisions and prioritizing how much effort is spent on each one.  Finally, I expect their efforts to have some tangible benefit in my own life and the enjoyment of nature I value so highly.  What I hope is that everyone reading this thinks carefully about what their reasons are for donating, and holds organizations accountable for acting responsibly with their money.  

In the Sierra Club's case, in 2008 the organization had $87 million in income according to the BBB's Wise Giving Report.  When I look at how much money the Sierra Club is spending on its programs and the lack of scientific, fact-based reasoning behind their initiatives, I now realize that it's an incredible waste of the public's conservation dollars.  The club has become so politically charged in their communications that it's no longer an environmental group, it's a political one.  Much more good could be done if the money were spent more efficiently and in results-oriented ways.  

After I wrote my letter, I found that the club wrote an article saying that Australia "appears to be reaping the climate chaos it has sown" in response to recent flooding in Queensland and drought across the country.  Irresponsible statements such as this are not the way I want my money being spent, especially when so many have died in this catastrophe.  While Australia bears some responsibility for climate change, any blame for the disaster has to lie proportionately with those doing the most polluting, and that would be China (#1) and the USA (#2);  Australia ranks 16th in the global tally of carbon emissions.  Clear thinking is a requirement for any organization deserving my contribution.  We all need to work together to tackle climate change, and the Sierra Club is fond of pointing fingers rather than encouraging cooperation.  

The money that went to those organizations is now going to Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Amphibian Ark, and the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand.  

Before joining any organization, check out its record with the BBB or Charity Navigator.  Look at their website and publications and be certain your money will work hard for the environment.  Reevaluate how they are doing every year, and don't be afraid to speak out when they're not meeting your requirements.  

Update:  As of April 5, 2011 Mr. Brune has not responded to my letter.  I don't expect he will. 

Now for my letter:  

Michael Brune 
The Sierra Club 
85 Second Street, 2nd Floor 
San Francisco, CA 94105

Dear Director Brune:

I'm 51 and have belonged to the Sierra Club since I was 22. Over that time I've given thousands of dollars to the club. This year, I'm ending my membership. It wasn't an easy decision, but I felt that given the amount I've contributed and the time I've been a member you deserved to hear about the reasons I've grown disappointed enough with the club's direction to leave it.

It would be wrong to look at my decision as rooted in the adage that people grow more conservative as they age. If anything, I have become more of an environmentalist as I've grown older. What has changed about me is that I've become a lot savvier about how to advocate for change, and the club hasn't kept pace, despite being a much older organization than I am. I'm going to take my money and put it where it can do the most good for the environment, and that's not with the Sierra Club.

When I joined the club, I did it to add my voice to a larger one advocating for protection of the wilderness and a healthy environment, much as John Muir wrote. What I found happened in the intervening years is that the club has taken my money and devoted much of it to things that have little or no bearing on those core principles. It makes sweeping statements that have no basis in fact as if they are Gospel. The club's website proudly claims that John Muir appears on the back of the California quarter. How can that possibly mean anything tangible about the club's integrity or effectiveness in modern times? It's not an award from impartial judges, and Muir isn't alive to comment.

I've watched as the club has grown much larger and its staff have become incestuous, taking on a purpose of their own that feeds on their own thinking, rather than listening to member concerns and ensuring that larger goals align with those concerns while staying true to core principles. Organizations can multiply the power of their members, but at other times they give into the temptation to create new initiatives that members didn't want or need. As an example, the Sierra Club sent me an email today about how to choose toothpaste with the smallest carbon footprint. What a waste of my membership dollars that was. My choice of toothpaste isn't your business; it's between my dentist and me. Fire the staffer who's writing about green toothpaste choices and use the person's salary to hire a conservation lobbyist or do television advertising; that's what the Sierra Club should be doing for its members.

Branching out into areas that aren't key to the club's core principles reduces the power you can wield through staying focused and putting more dollars to work where they can do the most good. Every dollar you receive should go to influencing the public or government officials, or to programs that actually clean up the environment or preserve natural areas. There is a huge expense going toward sending information back to members that we really don't care about. I want my dollars directed toward changing government policy and educating the public who thinks we are a bunch of granola-heads, not going to messages to membership on how to be green to the point where one can't live a moment without guilt about our choices. Your goals will be achieved only when the public sees that the club is looking out for their welfare and therefore responds with support. Today, the club is making enemies from people who could be your best supporters.

Let me give you an example of an outstanding organization I belong to that has its priorities straight and is making a real difference. It's the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand (http://www.forestandbird.org.nz/). I found out about it on a trip I took to New Zealand a few years ago, and joined immediately. They have a tough job, but they are amazingly effective in protecting biodiversity, gaining public support, and implementing programs that make a difference on the ground rather than waste dollars to fuel useless political infighting. This year I took the money I was going to send to the Sierra Club and sent it to them. Some great domestic organizations are The Nature Conservancy, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Beyond Pesticides, and Amphibian Ark. They also deserve my money because it goes to work with an efficiency that the Sierra Club can only dream about.

Another big concern of mine is the club's lack of attention to complexity when it communicates to the public and decision makers about environmental issues. Two major initiatives come to mind that illustrate this problem. One is the "Beyond Oil" campaign. The second one is the club's emphasis on wind power as a green power solution. On both of these topics the club has fallen into the trap of becoming a polar opposite of the conservative community, and articulating a solution that grates on the public as being environmentally extreme.

What I expect to see from the club in response to disasters such as the BP oil spill is a program of practical, realistic ideas to reduce our dependence on oil, not the idea that we can totally eliminate its use. There is no way we can do that any time soon given the number of automobiles, buses, and trucks in service worldwide. We won't move this concept from a dream to reality without solving many technical and political problems. Americans simply won't accept the sacrifices that would come with eliminating petroleum use in 20 years. That's a given. What the public needs to see from the club is ideas that will reduce oil use without creating excessive inconvenience for the public or business, along with increased funding for research into the most important advances we need to get there, including biofuels and large-scale energy storage to smooth out the intermittent power from wind and solar energy.

Automobile use can be made much more efficient by batching up small errands into a larger trip, and by installing equipment that monitors traffic on roads and links to navigation systems in cars to show the fastest route to a destination that's updated in real time. That use of technology isn't even on the radar in the club's thinking. People need to drive; what the club can do is show them ways to do it smartly so we accomplish what we need and gain something useful such as more time by being more efficient, instead of the philosophy that the only way to reduce oil use is to make driving inconvenient, more expensive, and hit people in the pocketbook (not a great way to curry favor with the public.) A traffic-monitoring network would create jobs nationwide as well as provide great benefits for everyone in terms of saving valuable time.

The club pushes bicycling as a significant way to reduce energy use but again the idea lacks practicality. Biking sounds great until you're seriously injured from an accident. It's not wise to bike in bad weather or at night, and bikes don't work well for people who must travel long distances, take along the family, or need to haul large items. Try asking someone who lives in rural Kansas to take a bike to Home Depot to buy lumber. When the club's ideas draw laughter from anyone with common sense, you know they are in need of revision. Cycling has a high priority in the club because many of the staff are young people living the myth of immortality who haven't had enough time on the road to see how dangerous cycling actually is, especially in urban areas. They also don't have families and don't understand why the public finds cars to be a much more practical way to meet their needs. Don't get me wrong; I think cycling is great exercise and fun if done on safe streets, but it's not a solution that will get us off of oil. It's a misguided and confusing message that needs to stop. This example shows that there is a demographic mismatch between those who make up the club's staff and the public they're trying to influence. True progress is only possible when the club makes an effort to understand their audience.

The club has fallen in love with wind power as a solution to our energy needs but hasn't come to grips yet with its drawbacks. Wind turbines as designed today kill birds and bats, are an eyesore, and have many deleterious effects on humans as well as animals due to the noise and pressure fluctuations that happen near them. They require construction of many miles of high-voltage power lines and often the power from installations is sold to distant regions while local people must deal with the negative impacts. Faraway corporations make the profit from the wind farms and very little money stays in the local community. It may be possible to solve these problems, but the jury's still out and the club shouldn't be promoting them as a panacea unless it's also strongly advocating for policies that solve the drawbacks of wind power.

The club has also lost its impartiality and hasn't been critical enough of the Obama administration in a number of areas. Since most club staffers and most members are Democrats, there is a culture that emphasizes partisanship over impartial advocacy for the environment regardless of the party in power in Washington. The club should be very vocal when it comes to the administration's cover-ups about the BP oil spill, denying scientists access to the site who have valid reasons to gather data about the spill's impact. It should also be quite critical of the administration's refusal to list endangered species such as the sage grouse simply because there is insufficient funding. The ESA doesn't give government the right to choose which species are endangered based on funding. If populations are low and habitats are threatened, the species deserves to be listed. The club needs to put partisanship aside and set an example for the public that the environment is what counts first and foremost, not the party affiliation of people in it. Again, you send a confused and hypocritical message to the public when it's wrong for Republicans to spoil the environment, but Democrats get a pass because they're the lesser of two evils.

The club relies too heavily on ideology in place of science to guide its decisions and initiatives. In the area of climate change a cap-and-trade system is a great idea, but implementing it or a carbon tax or expecting nations to agree on binding international treaties is not likely to happen in the next 20 years, especially with the new Congress. Given this reality we need practical approaches that don't require federal legislation to succeed. There are many other ways to achieve reduced emissions that are not as politically volatile as the club's approach. One area where the club could make dramatic progress is in championing the idea of installing solar power generation on rooftops, especially in places where current policy limits financial feasibility. If policy changed, significant generation capacity could open up that would not have the environmental impacts that wind farms do.

For instance, schools, warehouses, and health clubs have large roof areas, but schools are closed in the best months for solar power and warehouses and health clubs are typically in leased buildings, where the landowner has no incentive to install solar generation because the tenant is paying the power bills. If a public utility were to install, own, and maintain the equipment, these places could be immediately put to use in generating power. Solutions such as this are how we will make progress on reducing carbon emissions, not by putting a tax on carbon. Expecting Congress to solve our environmental problems is not only unlikely, it's a waste of good money to even try. It's better to work at a local level where pilot programs are easier to create and once they succeed are likely to spread nationwide.

Along similar lines, while the club has emphasized national campaigns such as "Beyond Oil," and branched out into unnecessary areas such as toothpaste choices, it has in the process lost touch with important local issues. Two examples come from the Portland, Oregon area where I live. In our region we have a large off-reservation casino proposal in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. This casino would destroy scenic views from roads and trails, contribute to global warming through lengthy vehicle trips from the city of Portland where most patrons live, harm salmon and plant habitat, create traffic congestion and light pollution at night, and increase the fire danger in nearby wilderness. When I contacted the local chapter about opposing this project, they didn't even respond to my email. After that incident I had to seriously question why I belonged to an organization that didn't do anything substantive to oppose a project with this kind of environmental impact.

Another time, I learned that Oregon has a hunting season for the sage grouse where on average 900 birds are killed annually. When the Obama administration refused to list this bird as an endangered species purely because it didn't have the money in the budget to handle the cost of doing so, I contacted the local chapter and asked them to cry foul. They refused to do anything about it even though there were opportunities to get press articles published and influence our governor and legislators. The reason given was that the club had important initiatives in the early stages at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and they didn't want to do anything that would "piss off" the people there and possibly endanger the success of those projects. Now why would I want to give money to a club that purports to be an advocate for conservation but won't even go to bat for a species that is endangered and has a legal hunting season in place, just to save face with a few state officials? Mr. Brune, where are your principles when they are needed to protect these helpless birds?

When I look at the largest impact the environment has had on me and my family, it is in the area of disease. Parkinson's disease and two kinds of cancer have touched us. There is growing evidence that chemical contamination plays a role in these diseases. Look at your web site; toxics reduction is buried in the "more programs" section while Beyond Coal and Clean Energy get top billing. The club's priorities place toxics much lower than global warming and oil dependence, and it's a major reason why my money is better spent elsewhere. It's not that I don't care about those causes or think them unimportant, but I know that making progress on controlling dangerous chemicals in food, air, and water is something we can achieve far more easily than reductions in carbon emissions and petroleum use. Rather than making noise for its own sake, the club needs to do a better job understanding the cost/benefit relationships for environmental initiatives and put the money where it's going to accomplish the most change. The public is far more willing to support initiatives that improve health than it is to give up their cars, pay more for electricity or fuel, or make time-consuming changes to live a zero-waste lifestyle. I expect the club to have a full-court press on requiring disclosure and regulation of toxic chemicals in consumer products, and to rally the public to the cause long before it tries to address ending our use of petroleum. The priorities here are completely reversed.

This is a lot to say, but it needs to be said. I hope someday that I'll be able to rejoin the Sierra Club because it's become a more effective force in putting conservation dollars to work. I'll be watching to see what happens.


Chris Carvalho


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