Our most important job is educating our fellow citizens.
by John Byrne Barry.
Carol Frey, a lifelong Pennsylvanian who joined the Sierra Club to go on
hikes with her grown daughter, had never been to a meeting or taken any
action on behalf
of the Club. Then she received an e-mail from Pennsylvania Chapter organizers
in October about a community walk in the nearby Mt. Airy neighborhood to
hold the Bush administration to the fire for weakening clean air and clean
rules. She decided it was time to do something. So she signed on to be
captain," working with 8 other captains to train and coordinate 54 volunteers
to knock on neighbors’ doors.
|Spreading the Word: “The Bush administration
is dismantling three decades of environmental progress,” says Sierra
Club President Larry Fahn, “and most Americans don’t even know
"I tried to go with an open mind, picturing receptive people," she
they were. They were in a hurry, but thankful we were out there doing something." Volunteers
talked to more than 200 residents that Saturday. The goal was to engage neighbors
likely to support environmental protection, but who were not aware of the
extent of the Bush administration’s actions.
In a nutshell, that’s the Sierra Club’s plan to stop the Bush administration’s
assault on the environment. Start talking.
As Sierra Club President Larry Fahn says, "The Bush administration is dismantling
three decades of environmental progress and most Americans don’t even know
it’s happening." But the vast majority of Americans do support
clean air and clean water and protecting wildlands. And our most pressing
problems do have solutions.
George W. Bush campaigned as a uniter, not a divider. Well, he’s divided
the nation, and the world, but he has, in a way that no president has done before,
united the Sierra Club and the environmental community. In a sense, Bush and
his accomplices have simplified things. The best way to protect the environment,
whether you’re working to protect roadless areas in Idaho or clean
up rivers in Kentucky, is to stop the Bush administration.
Unfortunately, Bush has misled the American public about his administration’s
actions. He uses fuzzy feel-good terms like "clear skies" and "healthy
forests," and says soothing things in front of national parks while
So our most important job is to educate our fellow citizens about the Bush
anti-environmental record. And the best way to do that is person-to-person. When
asked for his secret to organizing, United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez famously
said, "First you talk to one person, then you talk to another person, then
you talk to another person...." The Sierra Club is encouraging members to
get out into their communities and start conversations—with neighbors over
the fence, with friends on e-mail, with work associates over lunch. We’re
also organizing community gatherings and hosting book and film discussion
For example, in Vancouver, Washington, the Sierra Club Loo Wit Group hosted
a community meeting that attracted 145 people to hear U.S. Representative
Brian Baird speak on the Bush administration’s record, and discuss efforts to
protect the Dark Divide Roadless Area from logging. Getting all those people
to attend didn’t happen by accident. Volunteer Holly Forrest and organizer
Shannon Harps devoted countless hours to the event, and many others, including
Nick Forrest, Linda Wolfe, Roger Cole, Joy Halme, Virg Birdsall, David Benedicktus,
and Joan Pescheck contributed to the successful gathering. It took the proverbial
village. And that’s the approach the Club is trying to nurture across
The goal is to build environmental communities and develop ongoing relationships
with fellow citizens, not just one-time interactions to sign a postcard.
Sociologist Robert Putnam says Americans have become spectator citizens
in the past few decades. In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival
Community, he documents that interest in public affairs has declined by
percent, voting by 25 percent, attendance at public meetings by 30 percent,
in party politics by 40 percent. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club
have continued to grow, but only a small percentage of our members are
engaged with other members. The Sierra Club’s Building Environmental Communities
campaign is devoted to changing that, to building more of what Putnam calls "social
capital"—the grease that keeps the machinery of a democracy
running, that makes solving problems together a satisfying shared duty.
The Club plans
to train and engage 1,000 committed volunteers in 15 communities nationwide,
and collectively establish repeated one-on-one contacts with 300,000 to
600,000 citizens. The Club will also be collaborating with allies in labor
organizations to shine the spotlight on Bush administration misdeeds.
You know how there’s usually someone in every crowd who’s good to
talk to when you’re trying to understand what’s going on with
the environment? You can be that person for your friends and family. People
to think things through. They do that by talking. And listening.
Afraid you’re not informed enough? Just reading this story makes you more
informed than the average American. And if you you need more facts, and succinct
examples of how the Bush administration is taking us backwards, you’re
in the right place. The Sierra Club has plenty of opportunities for you to learn
more about the issues, as well as the most effective ways to communicate about
them. You don’t have to have all the answers to get a conversation going,
just the desire to engage others in thinking about what’s important.
Last fall, Sierra magazine launched "Let’s Talk" to encourage
people to talk with friends and neighbors about environmental protection. In
each issue, the editors recommend an illuminating movie and book, and provide
background reading materials and questions to help spark a good discussion. While
supplies last, the Club is even offering free coffee (shade-grown fair-trade
Sierra Club coffee, bien sur) to those who send comments from their "Let’s
Talk" book or film discussion.
In January, the book selection is The Great Unraveling, a collection of
economist Paul Krugman’s columns in the New York Times. The movie selection is "Blue
Vinyl," a documentary following filmmaker Judith Helfand and her parents
as they attempt to remodel their home using "products that never hurt anyone
at any point in their life cycle." (It’s not easy being green, but
For more information, see the January/February 2004 issue of Sierra or
go to sierraclub.org/sierra/letstalk. Sierra will be featuring Al Franken’s
Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them in March.
A number of chapters and groups have similar salons—the Pikes Peak
Group in Colorado Springs and the Bluegrass Group in Lexington, Kentucky,
book groups, and the Miami Group in Florida is launching a movie night.
The Bluegrass Group has been holding monthly book discussions for seven
years, says Ray Barry, excom member and host for the past five years. "Every month,
there’s a designated leader who facilitates discussion and brings snacks
and wine. The conversation is always interesting, even if the book isn’t."
In Pittsburgh, where the Allegheny Group launched a similar effort to the
one in Philadelphia, Sierra Club life member Ed Dinnen recently hosted
night at his home. Seven other Club activists joined him to write letters
to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, mostly focused on the Bush administration
to drop an EPA lawsuit against 50 of the nation’s most polluting
coal-fired power plants. Dinnen is planning another letters night in January.
The Sierra Club has plenty of resources to help members start, or continue,
these important conversations. The best place to find out more—other than The
Planet, of course—is to go to the Club Web site at sierraclub.org.
You can find links to local book and film groups at sierraclub.org/planet/200401/talk.asp.
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