Review: In the Thick of It: My Life in the Sierra Club By Michael McCloskey Reviewed by Adam M. Sowards University of Idaho, USA Michael McCloskey. In the Thick of It: My Life in the Sierra Club. Washington: Island Press, 2005. 399 pp. ISBN: 1-55963-979-2 (Cloth). US$29.95.
Any "Who's Who" list for the modern environmental movement would include near the top Michael McCloskey, the longtime executive director of the Sierra Club. With In the Thick of It, McCloskey provides an unprecedented inside look at the workings of the Sierra Club and the maturation of environmentalism since 1960. Few authors could give us more insight, and readers of In the Thick of It will be amply rewarded.
In this book, McCloskey traces his professional life. A University of Oregon Law School graduate, McCloskey long enjoyed the outdoors and began working on conservation causes while still a student. Although he once aspired to be a politician, he began his environmental career in 1961 as a field organizer for the Sierra Club and the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs. McCloskey stayed at this position for almost four years, traveling the Northwest, networking among conservationists, and promoting nature protection for places like the North Cascades National Park. By 1965, he moved to San Francisco and soon became the Sierra Club's conservation director, a position from which he directed important club campaigns to establish Redwood National Park and to prevent dams from encroaching Grand Canyon National Park, among other issues. McCloskey also was instrumental in developing litigation as an increasingly important tool in the Sierra Club's strategizing. The book describes these efforts throughout the 1960s well, which is an important achievement since McCloskey was truly in the thick of it during this formative period of activism.
As Congress passed a number of sweeping pieces of environmental legislation during the two decades after 1964, McCloskey rose steadily through the Sierra Club ranks and became one of the most powerful professional conservationists in the nation. McCloskey served a number of roles for the Sierra Club during his long tenure, including two terms as executive director ending in 1987 and chairman of the club following that service. He was simply the most prominent face of the Sierra Club through the 1970s and 1980s-"indelibly a Sierra Club man," in his words (p. 325). His perspective on and role in the major issues of the era such as the energy crisis, Reagan-era public land policies, pollution control, and wilderness designation and management are all chronicled here with detail. Consequently, In the Thick of It consists not only of a useful compendium of environmental issues but also an insider's account of strategy and lobbying politicians, business interests, and federal administrators. The era's personalities from David Brower to James Watt grace these pages as McCloskey dealt with them all.
In addition, some readers may be fascinated with the inner workings and divisions of the Sierra Club and movement as a whole. From the Brower ouster in 1969 to more recent schisms over immigration policy, the Sierra Club has hardly been a model of consensus. McCloskey's account of these and other rifts provide us with a better sense of the complexities of this large, influential organization and the issues with which it has been concerned. By extension, McCloskey shows us competing strategies among environmental organizations, too. Anyone with the notion that the Sierra Club, or the environmental movement as a whole, took an ideologically pure position and rigidly held to it through these many controversies will be disabused by In the Thick of It. …