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In This Section
  May/June 1998 Features:
The War for Norman's River
Reading, 'Riting, and Ravaging
The Invisible Hand
Field Guide
Ways & Means
Food for Thought
Good Going
Hearth & Home
Lay of the Land
Sierra Club Bulletin
Natural Resources
Last Words

Sierra Magazine


In his January/February column, "Ways & Means," Carl Pope states that sport utility vehicles are responsible for "shifting global temperatures into overdrive." What proof is there of this? Zilch. None. Nada. The comment also shows that Mr. Pope is out of touch with many Sierra Club members in the climbing section of the Club's largest chapter, the Angeles. Most of the leaders on these trips and many of the participants use these vehicles on chapter outings. If Mr. Pope has a problem with such vehicles, that is his prerogative, but let's keep with the facts, and attempt to do it in a way that does not alienate many active Club members.
Wayne Norman
Long Beach, California

Carl Pope replies: Sport utility vehicles, pickups, and minivans are our country's fastest-growing source of global-warming gases. The EPA estimates that these vehicles will spew out 34 percent of the total increase in U.S. energy-related carbon emissions from 1990 to 2010. That doesn't mean no one should drive them. But the many sport utility vehicles I see from my window in downtown San Francisco are being used as single-passenger vehicles on streets and freeways.

If we charged appropriately for gasoline and gas-guzzlers and made Detroit produce them as fuel efficiently as it knows how, then people who genuinely need large vehicles could still buy them, but emit less pollution—and the rest of us would have an incentive to buy the right car for our needs, not to show off the latest status symbol. People do face conflicting goals, and we need to give them the right price signals so they can properly resolve those goals.


I agree that a change from two-stroke to less-polluting four-stroke engines would be desirable ("Lay of the Land," January/February). But bans play into the hands of environmental opponents. Why not use a market-based approach? Include in the original price of all outboard motors a fee based on the pollutants the motor is expected to dump during its useful life. The proceeds could be put into a fund supporting cleanup of already-polluted lakes, research into clean engines, and so forth. Such a fee would make the price of the two-stroke motor prohibitive.
Paula L. Craig
Falls Church, Virginia


Mindy Pennybacker's essay on genetically engineered foods ("Food for Thought") in your January/February issue is both heartening and dispiriting. She correctly points out that genetic engineering is intimately linked with the patenting, ownership, and monopoly control of the world's food supply, and the subjugation of the small farmer. [Then she advocates] labeling of genetically engineered foods.

I have my suspicions whether much of beauty will come from intellectual manipulation and alteration of nature's basic laws, when driven by greed and lust for control. I can imagine almost infinite ugliness, disaster, and horror emerging from that source, however. It's time we realize the magnitude of this threat, and act to oppose it. Those who are creating altered organisms, those funding the creations, and those who stand to profit have not shown the grace to ask our permission before forcing upon us fundamental changes. And what are we asking of them? Labels? If we stay this meek, we had better consider what sort of world will be there to inherit.
J. Martin Sproul
Pleasant Hill, California

"Food for Thought" reflects little understanding of DNA biology. A central error is Pennybacker's notion that there is something inherently unnatural about adding or subtracting genes from the genome of an organism. This has been going on since the earliest efforts at agriculture. The only difference is that the earlier geneticists had to wait for the genes in question to appear by spontaneous mutation or by transfer from species to species. This is exactly how the Aztecs were able to improve a small seed-producing plant into maize, and exactly what Luther Burbank was doing in his selective breeding experiments.

Virtually every food plant we consume has been improved by such selective breeding. Thus "bioengineered" plants are basically no different from other hybridized and selected strains. There is a serious need to continue to develop such strains to feed an increasing population in a world where many children already are malnourished or even starving.

Another example of scientifically weak reasoning in the article: "crops that are resistant to viruses...may spur the creation of new viruses." The viruses in question already exist. They will spontaneously mutate if that is possible, without the assistance of molecular biologists, as they do, for instance, each flu season. The introduction of a virus-resistance factor into a domesticated plant does not cause the new mutations in the genome of the virus.
John P. Kane
Professor of medicine
University of California
San Francisco

Biotechnology is a tool that can be abused as well as used to good purpose. Coupled with organic agriculture, it has the potential to dramatically reduce on a wide scale the noxious pesticides in our food and water. To undermine this through unfounded fears is simply wrong, and counter to the welfare of the environment you are trying to protect.
Alan F. Krivanek
Davis, California

Mindy Pennybacker replies: There is a vast difference between the Aztecs' breeding maize, a plant suited to their local environment, and multinational Monsanto's pushing farmer dependency on uniform crops of corn, wheat, and soybeans aimed at rich Western markets—not at feeding the poor. Adoption of these monocrops could displace indigenous food staples such as finger millet, sorghum, cassava, and cowpea in Africa and Asia, says biologist Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In addition, Aztec and other traditional farmers were limited to breeding varieties of the same species, such as corn with corn. The power of biotechnology to combine genes from widely different organisms, such as corn and cows, or bacteria and soybeans, introduces elements of uncertainty and risk that we have never encountered before, Rissler warns.

Mr. Krivanek hopes that biotechnology will be used to reduce our use of noxious pesticides, yet Roundup Ready Soybeans are expressly engineered to allow for uninhibited use of the toxic weed-killer Roundup. The point of my article was not that all bioengineered products are bad, but that lack of labeling violates consumers' right to know. Allowing bioengineered foods to be labeled "organic," as proposed in new national standards, would be even more misleading. [Editor's note: A copy of the Sierra Club's policy on biotechnology issues is available free from the Sierra Club Information Center, 85 2nd St., San Francisco, CA 94105, from our Web site (, or by sending an e-mail request to]


That Paul Rauber doesn't agree with the idea of splitting the Ninth Circuit Court is fine ("Lay of the Land," January/February). But [he shouldn't] generalize and denigrate the "cowboy," the livestock grower who is committed to his profession, proud of the contribution he (and she) makes to America's health and stability, and who, like any of us, will take most any reasonable steps to protect his interests and promote good management.
Tom McGowan
Redding, California


I have a few thoughts about the question raised in the January/February issue about whether environmentalists are too extreme ("Last Words"). When it comes to extremism, nothing comes close to our free enterprise system. I love it and all its goodies dearly, but it is a mindless machine, its own internal logic pushing inexorably to overcome competition, to get the most for the least. It is perfectly made for converting a wilderness into a place of safety for human beings, which is no longer what our society needs. Against the power of this machine, what seems like compromise is in reality a giving of ground to a force for which giving ground means only slowing down a little. Perhaps it is time to address the whole system—to insist that as a society we must, for the first time, put economic growth in its place among other values.
John E. Mann
Somerville, Massachusetts


We apologize for misspelling Jennifer Ferenstein's name in "On the Grizzly's Trail" (January/February, Homefront). In "Ways & Means" in the same issue, we overstated the amount the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides for "pre-disaster flood mitigation," which is $20 million a year. One botanically astute reader chided us about our "Way to Go" article, which described as fir forests groves that are mainly composed of Douglas firs, which are not true firs.

Sierra welcomes letters from readers in response to recently published articles. Letters may be edited for length and clarity. Write to us at 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; fax (415) 977-5794; or you can e-mail us

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