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The Planet
We Can Do Better
by Executive Director Carl Pope and President Jennifer Ferenstein

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The Sierra Club's Strategic Response to the Bush Administration

The Sierra Club faces the largest challenge in its 110-year history. We're dealing with an administration that shows no respect for our nation's environmental values, and holds nothing sacred. It believes that "business knows best," and that the American people don't even need to know what their own government is doing.

The earth beneath our feet has shifted. We're struggling to be heard in a world preoccupied with war, terrorism, and safety.

we can do better!
We Can: A young Sierra Club activist displays her new yard sign before sticking it in her family's front yard in Des Moines, Iowa. More than 35 of the Sierra Club's Environmental Protection Education Campaign sites nationwide participated in a coordinated Earth Week outreach effort featuring postcards and yard signs with the theme "We Can Do Better."

Protecting the environment is a core American value. Pollster Frank Luntz warned that the environment was "the single biggest vulnerability for Republicans and especially for George Bush." Yet Luntz's advice was not for the administration to rejoin the American environmental mainstream by changing its policies, but instead for it to change its language. So, the administration has cynically cloaked its destructive environmental policies in a rhetoric of environmental compassion.

The administration suggests that we ought to let profits, not our health, determine whether dirty power plants will be cleaned up. It is telling rural communities that if they want fire protection, they must sacrifice old-growth forests to pay the bill. Instead of acting to stop the dumping of mercury into the environment, it suppressed an EPA study showing how bad the problem was, while sabotaging a program to reduce mercury pollution.

Readily available engineering improvements could be offered on every vehicle built in America-right now. A Ford Explorer with these improvements would get 35 mpg, not 19. But the administration proposed a 1.5 mpg improvement in fuel efficiency, less than could be achieved by simply installing better tires. It further suggests that we should sacrifice the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the oil industry.

This rejection of well-tested solutions is not myopic; it is strategic. The administration believes that if the American people are told they have no good choices, they will not realize this grim environmental future is being chosen for them by the administration. The intensity and rapidity of their initiatives is not random, it is calculated. The administration is following a strategy of lowering our hopes. In place of solutions it proposes defeatism. In response, we must rally the American people around three principles:

  • environmental solutions are available and tested;
  • we should not expose families and communities to unnecessary environmental risks;
  • America can, and should, do better.

But for these principles to resonate, we need to reexamine our communications habits. We should start by explaining the solutions rather than simply outlining the threats. To rebuild hope we must rebuild community. People can draw hope and vision from their neighbors far more easily than from the evening news or the front page.

No organization in the environmental community has more experience in grassroots organizing than the Sierra Club. Person-to-person communication was our founding tradition. We must make this the organizational centerpiece of our future. We must keep the conversation going with people who sign our postcards and pick up our literature. We should chat about the local park as well as about PCBs, and acknowledge that for most people, acting locally precedes thinking globally. We should then use these personal relationships to engage our friends and neighbors in the business of environmental protection. Door-to-door campaigning must become second nature. Building environmental community means urging people not just to become informed, but to compare notes with their neighbors; to recycle, but also to demand better governmental support for recycling; to buy green products, but also to support green politics.

we can do bettet!
Earth Week Outreach: Activists in Wisconsin worked on building their local environmental community with an Earth Week march and rally calling for cleaner air. By the end of the week, activists had distributed more than 200 yard signs and gathered more than 1,000 signed postcards.

Ever since its pioneering newspaper ad, "Would you flood the Sistine Chapel so the tourists can see the ceiling?" the Sierra Club has demonstrated its commitment to holding elected officials accountable. That ad stopped the dams in the Grand Canyon. Time and again we have demonstrated that Americans do care, and will act to hold politicians accountable, if we carefully and systematically explain to them what their leaders are doing. The Sistine Chapel ad worked because it explained what few Americans knew-that Congress was getting ready to dam the Grand Canyon.

Americans do not yet understand that this administration would put communities at risk from mercury, reduce spending on fire prevention, and shift the burden of toxic cleanup from polluters to taxpayers. We must shine a light on members of Congress and their votes, but we also need to make currently invisible regulatory processes visible; currently low-intensity controversies hot; currently back-room deals public. We must show that our quiet conviction can shake the very foundations of a political establishment recklessly bent on sacrificing tomorrow on the altar of yesterday.

But we must do this with a coordinated approach. We need to focus, but not in the way a laser beam focuses-we are not going to do one thing, or work on one issue, or emphasize one tactic or one state.The focus we need is that of an array of mirrors in a solar power plant. Each mirror captures the energy from its own location, but each is focused on a central target. Energy captured from a landscape is concentrated on a single, intense, and powerful focal point.

Our programs and activities should tell the same basic tale, and model the same approach, everywhere:

We can do better. America has the solutions. Before we talk about the ecological damage resulting from a proposed salvage sale, let's tell people the story of a successful community fire-protection program. If we're bringing a lawsuit to clean up a power plant, let's mention one in the neighboring state that's already been modernized. If we're mobilizing people against pollution from a huge corporate hog facility, let's also tell the story of a responsible family farmer next door.

We need to solve problems at the community level. Concerned Americans need to join us in building a stronger grassroots environmental community. Let's make sure that if someone comes to a membership meeting we find out what they'd like to do, or learn more about. If we're gathering signatures on a petition, let's make sure we capture these people's names and contact information for our activist database.

We need to hold ourselves, our corporations, and our politicians to the same high standard. We need to take care of America the Beautiful and hold our leaders accountable for their stewardship. If our local congresswoman says something outrageous, we should write a letter to the editor and copy the congresswoman pointing out how out of touch with our community her viewpoint is. If our community celebrates the anniversary of the protection of a local wetland, we can be at the celebration with materials explaining how the Bush administration wants to eliminate federal protection of 60 percent of wetland habitat. If our Republican governor takes on the Bush administration and speaks up for clean air, let's make sure we thank him, loudly and publicly, even if he's not perfect.

The Sierra Club is the one national conservation organization with all of the necessary campaign tools available to bring to this effort. Our challenge is to harness and direct this capacity. We will give the highest priority to work that raises our sights, builds environmental community, and holds our leaders accountable. We want every part of the Club to focus its energy on this effort. And we believe the Sierra Club is uniquely equipped, and hence uniquely responsible, for stopping the environmental counter-revolution being led by the Bush administration.

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