Labor Advocate Online

Why Iím Not Renewing My Sierra Club Membership
by Bill Onasch

Iíve had a decade-long relationship with the Sierra Club that has been alternately marked by hope and disgust.

A mass membership organization dedicated to environmental struggle is clearly needed and the Club claims 800,000 members. Thatís bigger than most unions and many churches.

They have done some worthwhile research and education around critical issues, especially that embodiment of all our most crucial challengesĖurban sprawl. They have also made some partially successful overtures toward the labor movement, attempting to overcome traditional suspicion through collaboration in the fight against "free trade."

But their attempt to become "players" among the movers and shakers in society has led them astray on more than one occasion. In fact, I dropped out of membership for a year in 2000 in protest of negative election campaign ads paid for with precious Club political action dollars. The ads that were a deal breaker for me were not directed at Bush, or even Gore. No, they dove-tailed the Democrats frantic efforts to sully Ralph Nader.

Like a pro-choice Catholic, I later tried once more to make my peace with a PopeĖin this case Carl Pope, long time Sierra Club CEO. It hasnít been easy. Today, I received a "Sierra Club Insider" e-mail that has convinced me that the Club has become more of a problem than a hope for solution.

It seems a major new project for the Club will be to shill for Fordís new SUV, Mercury Mariner. Of course, most environmental activists have reacted to SUVs as enthusiastically as the Devil takes to Holy Water. Dubbed by some as urban assault vehicles the sport utilities have been a veritable symbol of the excesses of our rubber meets road way of life. Not long ago the Club told us, "When it comes to wasting energy, SUVs are unrivaled."

But with Fordís new entry of this hybrid SUV the Club can hardly contain their excitement. Their "clean car and global warming expert," Dan Becker, has become point man and explains it all to a hard hitting interview by none other than the editor of the Sierra Club magazine, The Planet.

Planet: The Sierra Club has been very critical of Ford for years. Did the company undergo a conversion?

Becker: Maybe not conversion, but we've been saying for years that Ford could make an SUV get better mileage by using a hybrid engine, more advanced transmissions, sleeker aerodynamics, and high-strength lightweight materials. Now they've designed an SUV that does all that. What, we should beat them up for doing what we've asked?

When reminded the Mariner is still, after all, an SUV, Becker counsels realism. "The reality is that there are some people who are going to buy an SUV. It would be much better for them to buy this one that gets more than 30 miles per gallon than one that gets half that."

Itís hard to argue against this logic. Thirty miles to the gallon is better than fifteen. But the thirty mile figure is a bit deceptive. Thatís what Ford claims you will get in low speed, urban traffic driving, when the more efficient electrical motor does the work. But, to propel your SUV down the highway or freeway at 70mph means going back to relying on a gas-guzzling internal combustion engineĖworking harder than ever because it must drag the now useless electric motor along with everything else on board.

But thatís not the main problem. As a matter of fact, I think there is a role for hybrid technology in a transition to better forms of transportation. This hype of a new marketing gimmick by Ford though perpetuates our auto-centric culture. It promotes the illusion that, with just a little tinkering here and there, we can clean up the environment, and conserve fuel, without any major changes in our economy or life styles.

The reality is major changes are inevitableĖand not that far off. Even leaving aside the problems flowing from global warming and other pollution dangers resulting from everybody having a car, the fact is that the oil is running out. Estimates vary but certainly within the lifetime of many riding in todayís SUVs there will be insufficient oil to keep all our cars, trucks, boats, and lawnmowers running.

The only questions are will we start planning for realistic alternatives that can support an acceptable, but quite different, standard of living? Or will we do nothing as shrinking supplies of oil lead to economic chaos and war?

Acceptable restructuring will be challenging but is achievableĖif we start soon. The longer we wait the more painful transitions will be.

The Sierra Clubís adaptation to Detroitís environmental scams is a big disservice. They have defaulted on their responsibility to lead us. The working class needs to build an environmental movement of our own. Iíll have more to say about that in a future article.

7/11/2005