Sierra Club Schism: The Limits of Sharing

By B. Meredith Burke | The Christian Science Monitor, April 21, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Sierra Club Schism: The Limits of Sharing


B. Meredith Burke, The Christian Science Monitor


Some say the fiercest wars occur within a family or nation. The Sierra Club is the United States' largest environmental activist organization - and it's like some raucous families as ugly epithets are hurled in the current in-house controversy. It is ironic that the worst labels are being used by those standing alongside a renegade board against members who are adhering to a stance rooted in the first Earth Day.

In 1971 the Sierra Club led in helping Americans accept that a once-frontier country had finite land and resources. Moreover, environmental justice patently required that we rein in our gargantuan resource use so the globe's poorer people could enjoy a rising standard of living. A year later President Nixon's broadly-based Commission on Population Growth and the American Future called for stabilizing population with alacrity.

Significantly, it based its recommendations not just on quantitative measures and looming environmental depredation but on qualitative lifestyle values endorsed by most Americans and models like Henry Thoreau. These values included a love of small communities, of uncrowded wilderness and solitude, of low-density housing. Operating in a low-immigration era, the commission mentioned only parenthetically that immigration policy would have to honor population policy. When in 1978 the Sierra Club called upon Congress to review immigration for its demographic and environmental effects, it was merely echoing the commission. In 1988 it renewed this call for immigration levels consistent with stabilizing population. An unchanged message has encountered a changing demographic dynamic. US population growth is no longer due to above-replacement-level births to native-born women; the "baby boom echo" was small and short-lived among boomers who embraced late childbearing and below-replacement fertility. Today, nearly 75 percent of our growth derives from immigration and, more importantly, births to immigrants, which swells the numbers of parents in the next generation. Many environmental and human rights groups now try to convince Americans that it was moral to advocate population stabilization in the earlier instance but immoral in the latter. In February, 1996, a Sierra Club board attuned more to political correctness than to physical reality voted to refrain from taking a position on US population and immigration levels and policies. Today, board backers deride the qualitative concerns of the president's commission for preserving the physical environment cherished by Americans, terming these "elitist" and "nativist.

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Sierra Club Schism: The Limits of Sharing
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