MEDALS OF HONOR
As a Sierra Club leader from 1966 to 1999, Michael McCloskey traveled around the country, watching the environmental struggle grow from a grassroots insurgency to a national movement. Wherever he went, local activists would ask him to support their efforts--fighting a dam, saving a wilderness area, or electing a green candidate--and often pin a button touting their cause on his lapel. Back at his Club office, McCloskey would deposit the buttons in a coffee can. His casual collection would eventually belong to one of the world's most prestigious museums: the Smithsonian Institution.
"I was quite mindful that we were making history, so I was anxious to hold onto things that illustrated our movement," says McCloskey, now retired after a career that included 17 years as the Sierra Club's executive director. He describes his collection as "mementos of the vitality and diversity of the movement." Some of the buttons promote (or attack) political candidates or local initiatives; others, like the classic big "e"--for, as it reads on the back, "ecology, environment, earth, existence, end?"--express more universal sentiments. Some advocate for causes that still concern the Club today--like a reform of the 1872 Mining Law, or environmental justice for low-income communities ("EJ or Else"); others recall past victories. "'Sonic Booms Are Unsound' is from our successful campaign against the Supersonic Transport," McCloskey says. Environmentalists fought the development of these noisy jets in the late 1960s, and in 1971 the U.S. Senate voted to cut federal funding for a prototype. "No one thought we had a chance," McCloskey remembers. "But in 18 months we had killed it."
As a group, the buttons show how the causes people cared about--and the ways in which they communicated with each other--evolved with the times. "In the early buttons, you see a lot of wilderness issues represented, since the Wilderness Act had only been passed in 1964 and there was great concern about population growth and setting aside land," says Jeffrey Stine, the curator who acquired McCloskey's collection for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. (The two men first met when McCloskey spoke at the museum about the Sierra Club's centennial and the work of famed photographer Ansel Adams, a longtime Club activist.) "As you move into the seventies and eighties, you find activists dealing with air pollution and noise and recognizing that quality of life isn't just out in the deserts and the mountains, it's also where we live and work and play and worship."
As curator of engineering and environmental history, Stine is the first Smithsonian researcher to focus on the modern conservation movement. His small-but-growing collection of eco-artifacts includes political leaflets; Earth Day T-shirts; mini promotional recycling bins; and a string of recycled Christmas ornaments, which were made by Tennessee schoolchildren and displayed outside of then-vice president Al Gore's residence. For a 25th-anniversary exhibit on the first Earth Day, Stine tried and failed to find bumper stickers with green slogans. "When we asked around, we learned that the activists felt they wouldn't be getting the right message across if they advertised on the backs of automobiles," Stine says. His search showed him that "there are things we can learn about our history and our values that you can't always find in the written record." That's where tangible items like the buttons become so important.
Less than 5 percent of the Smithsonian's vast collection is on display at any given time, but its artifacts are loaned out to other museums and used by researchers, illustrators, educators, and documentarians. Each of McCloskey's 90 buttons has been carefully cataloged and preserved for future generations to enjoy and learn from. Such objects help people establish a personal connection to the original owners, who cared enough about a cause to emblazon it on their chests.
"When you come right down to it, most of our campaigns don't generate much in the way of artifacts, other than paperwork and buttons," McCloskey says. "Nature is our biggest artifact, but it's out there, and not in museums." In the name of the activists who proudly wore those buttons, let's keep it that way.
Environmental Summerby Jennifer Hattam
The young people growing up today will write the next chapter of environmental history, so the Sierra Student Coalition wants to equip them with both a strong ecological conscience and the tools they need to change the world. Each summer the SSC, the student-run arm of the Sierra Club, offers week-long training programs in environmental issues, campaign organizing, media skills, and other activist essentials. High school students must apply by June 1; programs will be held in Minnesota, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia. (College students can plan ahead to meet next year's May 1 deadline.) All programs cost $160 (or $179 if the student is not already a Sierra Club member). For application and scholarship information, please contact the SSC at P.O. Box 2402, Providence, RI 02906; (888) JOIN SSC; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Not-So-Curious Giftby Jennifer Hattam
Thanks to the success of their Curious George books, husband and wife H. A. and Margret Rey were able to leave behind two legacies: the beloved children's series, and their support of environmental causes. Upon her death in 1996, Margret Rey left a generous bequest to The Sierra Club Foundation. Over the years, the German-born pair shared their home with a menagerie--including turtles, monkeys, alligators, chameleons, and newts--so it is only fitting that their love of wildlife lives on after them. For more information on the Sierra Club's planned-giving program, please call (415) 977-5639.