The New Sierra Club Executive Director
A recent (January 30, 2010) episode of Sierra Club Radio begins with an interview of the new executive director, Michael Brune, which was the first I’d heard in detail about him. I found it quite encouraging, in part because of what Mr. Brune said, but more refreshingly, in his tone. The outgoing executive director, Carl Pope, periodically recorded commentaries for Sierra Club radio, which I never really cared for. Mr. Pope’s tone was brash, smug, and confrontational, and his messages were needlessly political: hyping up small or incidental or Phyrric victories, spinning away the setbacks, never allowing that an issue might have subtleties and complications. There were good guys and villains, and the good guys were always winning, most likely thanks to the Sierra Club and its allies. Carl Pope’s commentaries always sounded like a slightly disingenuous pitch. Mr. Brune, by contrast, sounds very much like a thoughtful person.
That I picked up on this contrast is perhaps a bit ironic, as Mr. Brune as an activist was known for a rather confrontational style, as elucidated in a Living on Earth interview, a KQED Forum interview, and in a Grist article. Prior to the Sierra Club, Mr. Brune was executive director of Rainforest Action Network, where his most notorious stunt involved the campaign to get Home Depot to stop buying wood from endangered forests. Sympathetic Home Depot employees contacted Mr. Brune and clued him in to the code for the Home Depot intercom system, by which Rainforest Action Network activists could go into any Home Depot, find the intercom stations, and broadcast messages storewide about the source of the wood products for sale. This campaign worked, although I’m not really sure this is the sort of thing I’d like the Sierra Club to start doing more of.
Mr. Brune made what I think is a salient and subtle point in praising the Sierra Club for “evolving” over the past decade or so, of doing a good job of “holding onto its roots”–protecting wild places and the like–but at the same time “being responsive to the great threat of climate change.” This phrasing speaks to me–it signals an understanding that the environmental challenges we face and our responses to them are not identical to those of twenty or thirty years ago. Urban environmentalists often note a disconnect with what we might call “traditional” environmentalism, manifested as an insistence in saving every tree, and in opposing every development, and in always primarily characterizing the principals involved in any development as greedy, even if the trees that would have to be cleared to make way for a development would enable its future residents to live in ways–without cars, for example–that could drastically reduce their overall environmental impact when compared with what they might need to end up with should the traditional environmentalist’s protests be successful and should the greedy developers choose to build their buildings instead on some further-flung plot of land that’s less dear to said environmentalists. I’m oversimplifying the issue here of course, and I don’t want to presume that when Mr. Brune says the Club is evolving that he necessarily means that it will evolve exactly the way I want it to. But it does seem to me that Mr. Brune is acknowledging the need to look at environmental challenges in a different way than has been considered traditional.
Two years ago, he wrote Coming Clean–Breaking America’s Addiction to Coal and Oil, published by Sierra Club books. That energy was the topic on the mind of someone employed to save the rain forests is, itself, encouraging. He was interviewed on Sierra Club radio for September 6, 2008 upon release of the book, and this earlier interview is perhaps more insightful than the current one. He struck a thoughtful and diplomatic tone, giving respectfully detailed answers to complex topics. He discussed, at some length, the problems with biofuels, beginning with a remark that the idea of growing your own fuels is, no doubt, very alluring. He concludes that “biofuels can only at best be part of the solution” and further noting that if we were to turn every single last ear of corn produced in the United States into ethanol, it would provide a scant 12% of our fuel needs. He resists the temptation to simply classify biofuels as “good” or “bad,” and he uses a quantitative figure in a proper and meaningful way, which is more than can be said of much of what passes for environmental discourse these days. The urbanist will also note that he also understands that biofuels are an attempt at a solution to what is in many respects the wrong question–instead of asking how we’re going to keep fueling our cars in a post-carbon age, we should also be asking whether we need so many cars to begin with. Brune mentions, several times, that “we need to promote ways of transportation that are not centered on the automobile.” When asked for ways in which individuals could get involved in breaking our oil addiction, he suggested getting involved with your local bicycle advocacy organization, to get more bike lanes and to encourage office buildings to offer bicycle parking.
It also appears–although not having read his book, I’m not certain–that he wants to play down the role of individuals greening their own lives and instead look towards action for large-scale, widespread institutional change. In the 2008 interview, the host specifically asks him about a claim in the book that individual actions, like turning down your thermostat and changing out your lightbulbs, won’t be sufficient to solve the climate change problem. And although he’s not as polemic as Mike Tidwell’s Washington Post Op-Ed, the sentiment is the same: to make the changes that matter, we need large scale, collective action. And Brune makes clear in the current interview that be believes that there is no organization better suited to lead this action than the Sierra Club.
Brune, I couldn’t help but notice, is only two years older than I am, and is probably as young as one can be to also have enough experience to be considered a reasonable candidate for executive director of an organization with the size and stature of the Sierra Club. Carl Pope, I gather, is a few years younger than my parents. So there really is a transition here, a passing of the baton from one generation to the next. I’m optimistic about Brune, and will watch carefully to see where the Club goes.