Deserting Nature for Identity Politics. Why I’m Resigning from the Sierra Club After 52 Years.

To the National Leadership of the Sierra Club,

Nature is paying the price for the Club’s new emphasis on the social conflicts of human beings.

The Sierra Club’s lead mission, one that has inspired so many to fight for Nature, “To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth,” is no longer reflected by the Club’s values, goals, or actions. Instead, the Club is equating polarizing political positions with the protection of old-growth forests, saving endangered species, and helping inspire people to love Nature, creating an exclusive group that shames those who do not align with its opinions on divisive cultural issues.

When Nature needs us the most, it is being left behind.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Lead from a Place of Compassion

One of the key objectives in our Chaparral Naturalist course is to help current environmental activists lead from a place of compassion, empathy, and truth. We do this because the only way to influence others is through emotional connections built on honest, mutual respect. This approach is unfortunately not the norm when different perspectives collide – opposing sides react, tell, and frequently shame and ridicule each other, only causing further entrenchment.

There is nothing new to our approach. Peaceful, compassionate activism was the path Martin Luther King described when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Over the past decade, as the important work of recognizing, acknowledging, and correcting our society’s systemic inequalities has progressed, the Club has been a leader in diversifying its membership and helping to make wild spaces more accessible to traditionally disadvantaged people.

Then the murder of George Floyd in 2020 brought the issue of racism to the forefront for everyone.

After the tragedy, many individuals and groups expressed solidarity in addressing the systemic inequalities we saw around us and to acknowledge past thoughts or behaviors that may have unconsciously facilitated those inequalities. As did many organizations, we expressed our thoughts on these issues in a personal essay, For People, for Nature – Acknowledging the Racist Within.

Addressing a behavior that has caused so much pain for so many is not an easy task. Anger and resentment, blame, and the desire to seek retribution all lie in wait to poison the effort, generating the same attitudes and actions that we are seeking to change, to heal. But acknowledging one’s own mistakes, searching for truth, and using language of compassion rather than anger and shame can create the necessary environment for long term, positive change.

We looked forward to the Sierra Club’s response and solutions as it had a history of embracing diversity long before many other organizations, especially with its LGBTQ group in the 1970s, having more ethnic diversity on its board of directors in the 1990s, and how its own membership rejected by vote a takeover by anti-immigrant forces. Even earlier in the 1950s, the Club’s board overturned a local chapter’s denial of membership to an African-American. And John Muir, the Club’s founder, became a model for the kind of personal change necessary to acknowledge and address the impacts of inequality as he grew older and wiser.

The Club’s Reversal

The Club’s Executive Director Michael Brune published an essay two months after Floyd’s murder. Rather than taking the compassionate path advocated by King and Muir, he employed shame. He condemned Muir as a racist, utilizing guilt by association, hearsay, and cherry picking the past to paint Muir and older members such as myself as engaging in “willful ignorance” to “overlook” the tragedy and brutality of systemic racism.

Mr. Brune didn’t know the thousands of members he was condemning. And he certainly didn’t know me.

Before publishing, Mr. Brune should have stopped, thoughtfully considered what his and the Club’s actual goals were, then acted. Instead, Mr. Brune emoted, accomplishing what shame typically does.

  • Elevated those who already held the same opinion while identifying and belittling a class of people as the “other”.
  • Alienated good people who could have been valuable allies in a just cause.
  • Abetted a political movement that has caused a large portion of the American population to turn away from yet another group accusing them as being “less than,” and aligning themselves with a racist populist who they feel “speaks to them.”

Brene´ Brown predicted these consequences when she said, “Shame corrodes the belief that we can be better and do better, and it’s much more likely to be the cause of dangerous and destructive behaviors than the cure. Shame itself is inherently dehumanizing.”

Brune’s use of shame and divisive language, and the departure from the Club’s mission of environmental protection, has continued despite his departure.

  • The Club’s new Core Values lead with a commitment “to shifting power away from white supremacy, repairing harm, and ending structural racism.”
  • Nearly every statement in the Club’s 2030 Strategic Plan is written through the lens of systematic racism.
  • The list of the Club’s historical accomplishments are now being qualified with references to race.
  • Four out of six of the Club’s action campaigns and two of its three “Happening Now” alerts on its website at the end of June, 2022, highlighted racial/personal liberty issues, not environmental protection.
  • The Club’s recent article on abortion by its managing director, Eva Hernandez-Simmons, proclaims that, “the Club is committed to rising with our allies to counter the hateful ideology of ecofascism,” and connects the recent misguided Supreme Court decision on abortion with encouraging more white infants, “so white racial dominance can continue.”

Is this how the Club thinks it will build a truly diverse, collaborative movement to protect the earth and the wild, living things we share it with?

The Consequence of Shame

The Club’s new path has moved it away from its role as the nation’s premier champion and protector of the environment. Instead, it has helped turn an ideal that once had broad support, the enjoyment of Nature, into a narrow, deeply political one, losing allies along the way. As a consequence, the Club has become an exclusive organization distracted by divisive cultural issues and infighting. The distraction has taken center stage and drawn the Club’s attention and energy away from fighting for Nature, lobbying for environmental legislation, and creating a compelling narrative about preserving wilderness that is capable of inspiring all. As with other environmental groups that use shame to signal their allegiance to identity politics, the Club’s effectiveness has suffered, with Nature paying the price.

Truth has also suffered, as it frequently does when political ideology dominates. When the errors in Brune’s essay on Muir were pointed out by two Sierra Club national board members, Aaron Mair (the board’s first African-American president) and Chad Hanson, the board responded by censuring them, refusing to acknowledge that Brune or the board had made any mistakes – a classic strategy of crowd politics. Observing the proceeding was heartbreaking. I have never witnessed so many closed-minded professionals suffering such toxic levels of cognitive dissonance in my career as an environmental activist.

Therefore, with deep regret and sadness, I am requesting that the Sierra Club cancel my personal life membership and remove the California Chaparral Institute and me from its mailing list. Personally, and as an environmental activist group, we can no longer abide by the Club’s decision to turn away from a value we hold dear – leading from a place of compassion, empathy, and truth to foster the protection of Nature, a value that was once exemplified in the Club’s mission, “To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth.”

Richard W. Halsey
Executive Director
California Chaparral Institute

Our 2019 Chaparral Naturalist Class.

Linked References

1. Chaparral Naturalists. California Chaparral Institute education programs.
To successfully protect the wild (and the chaparral), we must inevitably change how people relate to the natural world as well as themselves.
https://californiachaparral.org/education/

2. For People, For Nature – Acknowledging the Racist Within.
You are going to need to make the conscious effort to move beyond your social group, to get to know the “other,” until the other no longer exists as other.
https://californiachaparralblog.wordpress.com/2020/06/01/for-people-for-nature-acknowledging-the-racist-within/

3. Inspired by John Muir: The Eternal Conflict Between Right and Wrong.
John Muir chose the light and provided the wisdom that we must remind ourselves of every morning.
https://californiachaparralblog.wordpress.com/2021/06/23/inspired-by-john-muir-the-eternal-conflict-between-right-and-wrong/

4. Pulling Down Our Monuments. Essay by Sierra Club Executive Director, Michael Brune.
The whiteness and privilege of our early membership fed into a very dangerous idea — one that’s still circulating today.
https://www.sierraclub.org/michael-brune/2020/07/john-muir-early-history-sierra-club

5. Shame and Accountability. Brene´ Brown. Podcast. July 1, 2020.
We need to understand the difference between being held accountable for racism and experiencing shame as a result of that accountability, and how that’s different than actually being shamed for being a racist.
https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-on-shame-and-accountability/

6. Why Environmental Justice is Part of Reproductive Justice. Eva Hernandez-Simmons. June 24, 2022.
The fact that extreme heat, pollution, and climate disasters reduce our choices around when and how we wish to raise a child, and ecofascist ideologies seek to do the same.  Environmental justice is a key part of reproductive justice.
https://www.sierraclub.org/articles/2022/06/why-environmental-justice-part-reproductive-justice

7. Democrats are having a purity-test problem at exactly the wrong time. Thomas B. Edsall. New York Times. June 22, 2022.
According to Grim (and those other reports), disputes over diversity, equity and inclusion — over doctrine, language and strategies — have paralyzed much of the left advocacy and nonprofit sector.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/29/opinion/progressive-nonprofits-philanthropy.html

8. Justice or overreach?: As crucial test looms, Big Geens are under fire. Politico, 6/19/2022.
Yet departures have continued, as have fights over culture flashpoints. In April, Sierra Club suspended the Colorado chapter’s leadership over allegations of a lack of racial inclusion. Mair partially blamed the Sierra Club’s new process for investigating workplace disputes, which he said uses a “victim-centered approach” that deprives the accused of due process.
https://www.politico.com/news/2022/06/19/big-green-justice-environment-00040148

9. Who was John Muir, Really? Aaron Mair, Chad Hanson, and Mary Ann Nelson. Earth Island Journal. August 11, 2021.
Recent media inaccurately represents Muir as a racist. That portrayal could create damaging divisions within the environmental movement.
https://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/articles/entry/who-was-john-muir-really

10. Edward Bernays and Group Psychology: Manipulating the Masses. Academy of Ideas. July 12, 2017.
Each group… considers its own standards ultimate and indisputable, and tends to dismiss all contrary or different standards as indefensible.

18 Comments on “Deserting Nature for Identity Politics. Why I’m Resigning from the Sierra Club After 52 Years.

  1. I appreciated the honesty of words and the integrity of your intelligence written into your essay. There are so many environmental non-profits who main endeavor is to build an image of inclusion and diversity without acknowledging those who participate do so for the purpose of saving all mankind from its ill-natured treatment of the planet regardless of their race, gender or sexual preference.

    In surveys I’ve completed for the Sierra Club, I continually comment how very little support disadvantaged communities receive from the national level. This willful ignorance is reflected in the writings of Sierra Club magazine when reporting authors only choose stories that promote their ambition and political coverage, neglecting the smaller, lesser important environmental issues involving disadvantage communities.

    So, thank you again and I appreciate your environmental efforts.

    Oscar

    • I am puzzled. I read that Michael Brune’s essay led to a wave of resignations from the Sierra Club and its removal as beneficiary from many wills and trust, and to his forced resignation as executive director of the Sierra Club, with his critics being African-American members of the board. So has there been an internal correction?

      • Ed, you’re right about a large number of supporter/members terminating their support for the Sierra Club. Not sure about the resignations, but unfortunately none of the efforts to present the facts about Muir or evidence about the Club’s self-destructive behavior has altered the Club’s direction. The board moved to censure Aaron Mair and Chad Hanson for trying to set the record straight on Muir at the end of last year, a year and a half after Brune’s essay was published. And the Club’s departure from its mission to protect the environment unfortunately continues to be increasingly diluted by their new social justice focus. At some point, we are hoping the message will get through and the Club will change.

    • President Biden commented that it is time for Americans to heal. This being the case the path to healing can only extend forward and should not look backwards. The healing process doesn’t begin by reopening old wounds and rebuking people of the past with modern interpretations of their behavior. Let’s just admit that no historical figure was ever perfect, and let’s move forward with task at hand. And whatever environmental task to be pursued must be pursued for the greater common good for all people. The principles of environmental ethics is reflected in our relationship with the planet and our obligations to take responsibility for the negative impacts imposed upon its habitants.

  2. Thank you for sharing, Richard. I am disturbed by this trend in other similar organizations. I appreciate the update and transparency.

  3. About Shame…

    We tried our best to avoid engaging in the same behavior we are criticizing the Club of doing. So we took care, for example, in not personally ridiculing anyone as Brune and the Club have done with their accusations of racism against Muir and older members. Yes, we pointed out that what Brune said was not truthful and that the Club has refused to recognize those fallacies when pointed out, but we did not engage in ad hominem attacks on the character of either. We just stuck with the facts. What they have been saying is not true.

    Shaming is a pretty loaded word, and we used it with care.

    For us, shaming means to go beyond legitimate criticism about what someone actually said or did. Shaming is an attempt to punish or silence someone for some social impurity by questioning their morality through the use of innuendo, false accusations, exaggeration, and misrepresentations.

    In contrast, criticism is exposing factual errors, illogical conclusions, and deceit (i.e. that an organization is off its stated mission, is engaging in activities that are compromising that mission, and has failed to acknowledge significant mistakes – in short, being untruthful). So we believe we engaged in legitimate criticism, not shaming.

    Should the Club feel ashamed? Yes, under the basic definition of the term. But not because we engaged in shaming, but because of the Club’s decision to lie about John Muir, to suppress those who offered contrary evidence, and to publicly shame those who do not have the ability to defend themselves on equal terms.

    To restate why we have left the Club, the vast majority of the Club’s actions are now focused on social justice and racial conflict issues as we pointed out in our list. We find that as weakening our fight to protect the environment as it has turned away a significant number of allies and has compromised the Club’s effectiveness. As a consequence, we can not in good faith support the Club because it is doing things that are detrimental to environmental protection and its approach is no longer governed by truth.

    We are hoping our essay will give the Club pause to reconsider its current path.

    • It is time for the Sierra Club National to acknowledge to its under represented members of disadvantaged communities that there is no shame admitting to its lack of its decades of non-inclusionary attitudes. The Club’s deliberate negligence of lesser news worthy local environmental efforts for those more political glamorous political topics that sell magazines and produce political feathers for wanna be environmental politicians can no longer be a viable business model for the environmental movement.

      In his many nature excursions into the Sierra Nevada, Mr. Muir admitted the indigenous tribes of California were victims of European ignorance, greed and violent traits espoused within the western mentality of conservationism. If the Club’s defends its environmental inclusion principles by claiming they are being shamed by its club minority then it is time for them to take a stance for a larger, more meaningful grassroots activism and unbind itself from the shackles of being nothing more than D.C. political lobbyists such as Mr. Brune. Maybe then it is possible to expand the Club’s perspective to include all those Americans who incur the impacts of environmental degradation beyond only those button issue groups that glamorize the social media sphere for donation only activism. Take note; the current SCOTUS’s lack of environmental ethics must encourage Mr. Brune to remove the club’s hobbling from pocketbook activism to strengthen and increase the peoples’ voices who are now and have been dying in their environmentally degraded communities from ruthless corporate tyranny and the shameful environmental NGO disdain for equitable actions.

      • What is really discouraging, Oscar, it that I feel you are correct. This whole business of converting a conservation organization into a social justice one likely had a lot to do with the financial end of things – in search of new members/donations. As the Club has discovered, it has had the exact opposite effect. Had they studied history as they claim they did, they would have known this. Our society would be so much better off if we learned an appreciated history.

    • Criticism of Brune’s essay and the Sierra Club is valuable as is any critique that substantiates its claims with evidence of wrongdoing. However, this criticism is anchored by accusations of shaming, which is not evident in Brune’s essay anymore than it is in critical race theory. I see Brune’s big mistake as not consulting with Mair and other board members of color before posting a piece that they feel was an inaccurate representation of their experience and critique of Muir; in his rush to publish the piece, Brune seems to have fallen into a bit of white saviorism, itself another vestige of white supremacy. Though your cured quotes about shaming are interesting, your broad-brush accusation of shaming by Sierra Club and other green groups are disconnected from the behaviors described by Brene Brown and others you cite.

      • Kirsten, thank you for your comment. However, you are mistaken about Brune’s essay not being an example of shaming.

        Shaming means to go beyond legitimate criticism about what someone actually said or did. Shaming is an attempt to punish or silence someone for some social impurity by questioning their morality through the use of innuendo, false accusations, exaggeration, and misrepresentations. It is a personal attack on an individual. Brune did that to Muir and he did that to me and thousands of other older members with his accusations of racism. The key point though is that regardless of how you may feel, what matters is how those of us who Brune tried to shame, feel.

        The consequence of Brune’s shaming was the exact opposite of what he likely intended – it has compromised the Club’s effectiveness, reduced its diversity, cost the Club millions of dollars in donations from people who could have been allies, and created unnecessary hostility towards the Club. These are the consequences of the kind of shaming Brune engaged in – all counterproductive.

        We have not read any critical race theory documents, but from the negative reaction many people have had over it, the way it has been communicated has played right into the hands of white supremacists. That’s not the way to make positive change. Whether or not you are a strong supporter of critical race theory, the failed way the idea was delivered should be very clear. Brune is just another example of that failure. This is why both Gandhi and King rejected shaming. They knew better. It doesn’t work.

        I’m not sure why you couldn’t see the connection between what we were communicating and Brown’s perspective on how shaming, in relation to racism, creates the exact opposite reaction it is intended to have. Please listen to her complete podcast and you will hopefully see this.

    • I’m confused at why you think that adding racial justice to the environmental justice movment cheapens it? They are intrinsically linked and to seperate them would be almost impossible (and also feels a bit like anti CRT peole wanting to ‘soften’ slavery). Also, John Muir and Tedy Roosevelt were buddies who i’m sure talked alot on thoes long caming trips of theirs-what without our modern distractions. So what do you think they talked about? Tedys lovey ideals about eugenics? Taking land from natives and turning it into ‘national parks’ that would later be degraded in trade deals? We need to be able to critique the past, and knowing what things were wack and what things were then built from that wackiness is a good place to start. Thoes of us that do not know how to critique without shaming- pardon us- as we are still learning, and some are just too angry at decades of injustice to be able to form a rational response (i.e me some of the time).

      The second you put someone on a pedistool, make them a hero or clebrity or god, they become fallible and almost never hold up under scrutiny, becaues we are human. But nothing is all good or all bad, and sticking around to ‘be the change’ is always harder than sticking our head in the ground & ignoring or shunning the things that bother us. The bigger picture is that saying you’d rather not hear about politics from a Club that has historically been netrual on these isses, is a privilege. And idk, lets just have both? Why does it have to be one thing or the other, we can have environmental justice alongside racial justice. Save the people AND the trees. Just a thought. 🙂

      All my best
      Hali

      • Claiming Roosevelt and Muir talked about eugenics and taking land from Indigenous Peoples to make national parks is no different than all the other racist/stereotypical assumptions we suffer. There is no evidence whatsoever to support such a claim. Creating more hearsay only contributes to furthering divisions, making it harder to maintain a civil discussion. This is what the Sierra Club did with their attack on Muir.

        We’ll return to the topic and reiterate what we said in the essay:

        By diverting significant resources away from fighting for Nature, Nature is paying the price. Sure, the Chaparral Institute could spend half our time raising funds to support abortion rights, participate in lobbying for gun control, and claim the main problem in the fire service is somehow connected with anti-feminism (it’s mostly a male institution), but then who would pick up the slack to protect native shrublands? You know the answer – no one.

        A final note. This discussion (and more pointedly, related private discussions) illustrate the point of the essay – Allies on environmental/climate issues remain allies when in common cause, but when one side confounds Nature preservation with other social issues, the alliance can be broken, as we believe it has in this case. Nature suffers accordingly.

  4. Rick, I think your comments are valid for SC National’s political sway in recent years, but it seems that the members have not been in complete support of the direction the Board was taking. I think the recent elections reflected that many have some of the same feelings you do. The newly elected directors to the board, Cynthia Hoyle, Cheyenne Skye Branscum, Allison Chin, Aaron Mair, and Michael Dorsey seem like good choices.

    I was worried about the sentiments of the Club after the “Brune” comment and resignation too, but I think the Club was trying to respond to the state of the Nation and the world’s human failures that have been so apparent in the last several years. In these times, I think the Club needs to recognize these things and not gloss over them. I agree that “shame” and “blame” should not be part of the process, but if there is no discussion, various groups/cultures will blame the Club for being, what one person said to me once, “so, you like fish more than people” types. This is a delicate balance and I’m hoping the Club can attain a better balance now that all this has been brought to light and efforts have been made to make everyone feel included.

    The most recent Sierra magazine (Summer 2022) had a nice content. Articles on Sequoias, carbon capture, the Tongass Rainforest, regenerative Ag, show me that the business of protecting the planet is the first item on the Club’s agenda. In the Opening Remarks of the issue, written by Dan Chu (interim ex. director) , he listed the 2030 framework started with protecting 30% of US lands and water, then went to human needs for clean water, outdoor access, etc,, then to the Climate Crisis and finally diversity for club members. Things will settle down and a return to the hard jobs we are all facing and must unite to solve…… saving our planet. Our Groups and Chapters continue working at the local level supporting the enjoy, explore and protect themes. We are not affected by the bigger, more difficult tasks that the Club must face (and I’m glad).

    I hope you can reconsider you decision and remember that we are all volunteers working at different tiers and realities. I’d be sad to think you are not going to be the long and lasting partner you have been for so many years, Rick.

    Pam Nelson

    • Hi Pam. It was a difficult decision and one I didn’t take lightly. Unfortunately, the comments made by Chu have only affirmed my decision. He is not being truthful. If you read the 2030 framework and the Core Values, that 30% protection claim is in no way at the top of the list. What is at the top and what dominates both documents is how the Club will strive to somehow correct systemic racism.

      Here are the links to the documents:
      Core Values, which starts with addressing white supremacy: https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra-club-values
      The 2030 Framework, which starts out with a token comment about a healthy planet then proceeds to explain how they want to turn the club into a social justice organization:
      https://www.sierraclub.org/2030-strategic-framework

      The Club has a systemic ethical problem. It is really depressing.

  5. Thank you Rick, for taking a stand on a difficult subject. I am eager to take the next Chaparral Institute course. I will continue to support our local Sierra Club Santa Margarita Group knowing the good work we do. Cheers!

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