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What Does Carl Pope’s Departure From Sierra Club Signal to the Green Movement and to Business?

RP Siegel | Tuesday November 22nd, 2011 | 0 Comments

Carl Pope, the long-time Executive Director of the Sierra Club announced last week that he would be stepping down as Chairman of the organization next year. This follows his move last year, to turn over the Executive Director’s reins to Michael Brune.

Pope’s decisions in recent years to seek cooperative action with corporations, and in particular, his agreement to endorse the Clorox Green Works product line in exchange for sponsorship, caused some deep divisions within the club, particularly among those die-hard activists who had grown up seeing big companies as the enemy.

Yet Brune, who was two years old when Pope first joined the Club, came to Sierra Club, from Rainforest Action Network (RAN), where he secured environmental commitments from the likes of Home Depot, Citi, Goldman Sachs, Kinko’s, Boise, and Lowe’s seems to be philosophically aligned with Pope in this regard, so this does not seem to be the reason for Pope’s departure.

But times are turbulent for relations between green groups and companies, with corporations often sitting on a razor’s edge, supporting green causes one minute and then undermining them the next. One of the companies RAN worked with in the past was Bank of America, a company which is now the object of an action campaign called “Not One More Dollar” that essentially asks its members to boycott the mega-bank for a laundry list of dirty deeds ranging from raising consumer fees, laying off workers, foreclosing homes, and heavily funding coal-fired power plants.

In a statement released by Sierra Club, Pope said that he would dedicate his time to working with business, labor, technology innovators and local government to strengthen American manufacturing. “To be competitive in the 21st century, a revitalized manufacturing sector must deploy clean energy, low-carbon fuels and sustainable technologies.” Of all the issues I’ve seen environmental groups take on in the past several decades, I can’ really say that I ever saw competitiveness as one of them.

But Pope is clearly stepping back in order to take in a bigger, more inclusive picture that I think is essential to making progress on large complex issues such as climate change.

He explained in the Huffington Post last week that he was “opening up [his] dance card,” in order to “broaden [his] scope and take on some challenges that, although essential to saving the planet, are not what some might narrowly define as purely environmental.”

“…the most important insight we environmentalists need if we really want to respond to the climate crisis, the collapse of biodiversity, and the impending arrival not just of “peak oil” but of “peak stuff,” is to recognize that we cannot solve these problems on our own. There are not enough environmentalists to save the environment. There are not enough workers-rights advocates to protect workers. American manufacturing companies cannot compete, on their own, with China’s. America must build much bigger coalitions with much broader visions if we want to lead the 21st century.”

His first post-Sierra endeavor is a project called “Made in America,” which is aimed at restoring the “preeminence of the United States in manufacturing.”

He correctly recognizes that as long as our economy is in a down-slide, it will be difficult to get people to pay attention to environmental issues, a fact that is underscored by the nearly 15 percent decline in Sierra Club’s membership since the economy tanked in 2008. But he, along with other thought leaders like Jeremy Rifkin recognizes that the multifaceted problem of economic malaise, peak oil, and climate change can be effectively countered with a new outlook that involves a merger of what have long been opposing perspectives.

“Our politics may be broken, but our country isn’t — yet. If we want smart public policy that leverages sustainability, innovation, and clean energy to rebuild our economy and our middle class, then we need to break out of our boxes.”
RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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