Turmoil at the Sierra Club?

The Sierra Club is one of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />America's wealthiest tax-exempt organizations.  In fiscal 2002, the Club reported $23,619,830 in revenues, and disclosed $107,733,974 worth of assets to the IRS.  It claims a national membership of 700,000 people.  As Sierra's website proclaims, “the Club is America's oldest, largest, and most influential grassroots environmental organization.”<?xml:namespace prefix = u1 /> <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

An old Chinese curse goes, “may you live in interesting times.”  Well, these happen to be interesting times for the Sierra Club.  A small chunk of its membership is worried about what it calls “impact of mass immigration on the environment and quality of life for future generations” of Americans.  These dissidents want the Club to promote public policy that will restrict America's future population growth.  In particular, they would like the Club to endorse a reduction in the number of immigrants the U.S. accepts each year.  These dissidents have formed their own pressure group.  They call it Sierrans for US Population Stabilization (SUSPS).


SUSPS may look small, but it is becoming a force to be reckoned with within the Club.  It now controls 20 percent of the 15 seats on Sierra's board of directors.  It hopes to expand that control after this spring's board elections.  To get a feel for the tension raging inside the Club, it may help to read an email purportedly sent by Paul Watson, a pro-SUSPS Sierra Club board member, to Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director, last March.  The email documents SUSPS' central arguments about why the Sierra Club's position on immigration (currently neutral) must change.


Some people on the political left don't like SUSPS's position on immigration.  As the Nation magazine once put it, these activists don't want to see the Sierra Club “hijacked to fight immigrants rather than loggers and polluters.”  Betsy Hartmann, an academic, believes SUSPS is the thin edge of an effort by “the right wing” to “penetrate the mainstream environmental movement.”  She calls it “the greening of hate.”  For Dr. Hartmann, implying that immigrants are responsible for environmental degradation represents a kind of “racism.”


But is this really just a straight fight between the right and the left?  If we shift our perspective on this battle within the Sierra Club slightly, we may come to a different conclusion about what is really going on here.  We may begin to wonder if there may be less here than meets the eye.


Here's what I mean.  Both the Sierra Club's present leadership and SUSPS' leaders share a basic pessimism about the future.  They are neo-Malthusians.  That is, they are all unwitting followers of Robert Malthus, an 18th century British thinker who hypothesized that population growth will always overtake mankind's ability to find adequate food, water and other resources to sustain the resulting extra population.  Malthus did not believe that mankind could innovate its way out of this predicament — our species would always be stalked by starvation.


Put another way, he did not think that mankind could produce the sort of scientific and technological progress, such as devising more efficient ways to grow food, that would give it an escape route from the perils of overpopulation.  (By the way, it's thought that, in his marvelous story “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens made Scrooge into a hard-hearted spokesman for Malthus.  Like Malthus, Scrooge worried a lot what society would do about its “surplus population.”)


The people at SUSPS share this pessimism about mankind's ability to innovate, too.  They believe America “will have to build practically an entire new infrastructure equal in size to our existing infrastructure in order” to sustain its expected future population growth—and fret about the “environmental consequences” that will ensue.  And they definitely do not believe new technologies will create ways to sustain that projected growth—hence their wish to keep the U.S. population from swelling further.


If you look carefully at the Sierra Club's policy statements, there are good reasons to consider its current leadership — the folks SUSPS wants to replace—a neo-Malthusian-minded set of people as well.  They, too, favor slowing down America's population growth.  Like Malthus, and like the SUSPS, the Club's leaders also seem to have little faith in mankind's ability to forge continual scientific and technological progress and accommodate a larger population.


The Club, for example, is not exactly a booster of cutting edge technologies.  Take genetically modified (GM) foods.  These foods represent the best hope for a technological leap forward in mankind's ability to feed itself, but the Club keeps ratcheting up fears about such foods and portraying them as hazardous.  The Club wants to decommission most nuclear reactors, even though many researchers believe that nuclear power provides an eminently safe, clean, and cheap source of energy.


And the Club's promotion of a zero-growth economic ideology it calls “sustainable consumption” could have come straight from Malthus' 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population.


Whatever differences they may have when it comes to immigration, there doesn't appear to be even a dime's difference between the two sides when you stack up their neo-Malthusian credentials.  From this perspective, whether SUSPS ends up running Sierra, or whether the current board stays in charge, will make little difference to the Club's overall policy direction.  The Club will continue to spread a neo-Malthusian attitude towards the supposed limits of technology.


Another old Chinese saying tells us that when two tigers begin to fight, it's best to retreat to a mountain and watch.  As I watch the two tigers in the SUSPS vs. Sierra Club fight, I find that it's hard to tell the two neo-Malthusian competitors apart.  It looks as if there's less here than meets the eye.