Former Sierra Club head contends the environmental movement has lost its way

Critics of the environmental movement argue that environmentalists need to reshape their message to regain relevance with voters and with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. But has the movement become too fractured to coalesce around a common theme? During today's OnPoint, Mike McCloskey, former executive director of the Sierra Club, and author of the new book "In the Thick of It: My Life in the Sierra Club," talks about how the movement changed during his forty years with the organization. Plus, McCloskey looks back at his time spent battling Reagan-era Interior Secretary James Watt, and his relationship with the previous Bush and Clinton administrations.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining me today is Mike McCloskey, former chairman and executive director of the Sierra Club, author of the recent book "In the Thick of It: My Life in the Sierra Club." Mike, thanks a lot for being here today.

Michael McCloskey: Glad to be here Brian.

Brian Stempeck: Now in your tenure at the Sierra Club the group went from about 16,000 members then to about 700,000 members today. Some of the core issues back when you were at the helm of it were Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act. How has kind of the core message of the Sierra Club changed since you are at the helm?

Michael McCloskey: Well when I began, the core message was largely related to natural resources and nature protection. Then in the mid-70s it broadened through the whole environmental agenda, fighting pollution and energy issues and so on. What's basically happened is starting in the 80s we've been largely on the defensive, not entirely, but as time passed we've been more and more on the defensive. And I think the core message hasn't changed, but certainly our strategic position has changed entirely.

Brian Stempeck: There have been some critics of the environmental movement, Michael Shellenberger was one such critic writing a paper called "The Death of Environmentalism."

Michael McCloskey: Right.

Brian Stempeck: And he suggested that the environmental movement right now is at its weakest point in the past 40 years. Do you think that's accurate?

Michael McCloskey: I think it is in some respects because I think the nature of American politics has changed, organized less around economic issues as it used to be when I began and more around cultural and social issues. And this has led to a phenomenon where people on both sides think they're morally right. This has led to a rigidity in American politics. And it's for a difficult for issues such as the environment that don't fit neatly into this cultural and social dichotomy to find a place.

Brian Stempeck: Do you think that's why, I mean recently we saw the Sierra Club kind of pair up with other groups you maybe wouldn't see them join up with in the past. Labor unions, Fortune 500 companies, you have evangelical Christians, national security hawks. Is that an indication to you that you have to group up with these other types of interests to get something done?

Michael McCloskey: Oh entirely. In this time when we're on the defensive and the politics is that for reasons nothing to do, I think, with the environment. But because of these changes in the American political system, yes, we have to make unusual allies and reach out to people we ordinarily wouldn't pair with. I've had, on occasion, considerable success with that.

Brian Stempeck: Do you think that's an indication though that the environmental movement is at a very weak point right now? The fact that you do have to compromise and join a number of groups that you don't really have the same interests with?

Michael McCloskey: I don't think that's an indication of weakness. That's an indication of, I think, the defensive posture in which the whole progressive agenda finds itself because of the changes that have occurred, almost the seismic changes, in the American political system. What's basically happened is the older people from the Roosevelt generation have died off, are still dying off, that were concerned mainly with economic questions. And the boomer generation, that was concerned mainly with social and cultural questions, was a huge age cohort, has now become the dominant one. Of course other generations are coming along behind them and will challenge them someday. Because that generation was concerned with these issues they've now become the predominant issues in the American politics.

Brian Stempeck: One of the issues that I thought was really interesting that you talk about in the book is when in the 1980s, under Interior Secretary James Watt, under President Reagan, talking about what it was like working under him. Basically dealing with, what you consider to be a very extreme position on a lot of public lands issues, oil and gas drilling, coal exploration. Talk about what it was like basically leading the Sierra Club at a time when you have a very, what you consider to be, an extremist leader in the White House.

Michael McCloskey: Well, I might add that I actually met with him on a number of occasions and I even knew him before he became Interior secretary. He was head of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation before then. And he seemed rather mild-mannered at that time, but he was on a holy crusade when he was Interior Secretary to radically change public land policy. He wanted to get rid of 35 million acres of the public domain. He wanted to commercialize the national wildlife refuges, to change the nature of national parks to make them oriented towards mass recreation and motorized recreation. And he wanted to totally halt acquisitions for the national park system. I actually once met with him and Don Hodell, who was his undersecretary at the time and later became secretary. And they told me that they were so smart that they would make changes in public lands law that we would never be able to undo. And I was just astounded because actually I went to school with Hodell, college undergraduate in law school. And I had many dealings with him and we had exactly the same education. And he and Watt asserted that they would fix things so we could never undo them. I think the only thing about which that was true was if they had succeeded in getting rid of all that public domain we couldn't easily have gotten it back. But of course we blocked them in most of what they tried to do and even played a part in leading to his ouster finally.

Brian Stempeck: You also mentioned though in the book that it was kind of a mixed blessing. Basically the idea that during the five years of James Watt was Interior secretary Sierra Club grew by 30 percent per year.

Michael McCloskey: Oh, we did. He became a prime villain. I mean the editorial cartoonists in the newspapers of the country had a field day pillaring him. And he became kind of public enemy number one and very unpopular. We ran a big petition campaign, got over a million signatures to have him fired. And he once even wrote me he had a copy of one of his, one of our flyers that somehow had gotten into his hands. And he sent it back and said this is very interesting. It looks like I'm your best membership promoter, signed, Jim Watt.

Brian Stempeck: So he was well aware of what was going on?

Michael McCloskey: Yes. Though they viewed it all as just a cynical ploy on our part to promote membership and didn't credit us with any sincerity about actually opposing what he was doing.

Brian Stempeck: Under the first President Bush, you talked about that in the book as well, and you said it was the best treatment you ever received from any administration. That even though you didn't agree with all the policies they were putting in place, you had a lot of contact with that White House. What do you think makes the first President Bush so much different from the current administration?

Michael McCloskey: Well, you recall that in 1988 the first President Bush actually said he wanted to be not only the education president, but the environment president. And he did appoint a number of pretty good people to mid-level positions and agencies and a few Cabinet positions. I think they were trying to cultivate us and working through me to develop a new kind of relationship. What we however discovered in due course was that every time they put a decent environmental minded person in, they put in an anti environmentalist over him. So totally frustrating, those people, and ultimately blocking everything that they tried to do.

Brian Stempeck: We hear a lot of kind of rhetoric from current environmental leaders talking about the current Bush administration being one of the worst track records on environmental issues of any administration in history. You've been around for a long time on these issues, at the Sierra Club for 30, 40 years. Do you think that's accurate? Was James Watt worse? I mean what's your opinion on how the current administration stacks up to its predecessors?

Michael McCloskey: Well I think what James Watt and the Reagan Administration were trying to do was far worse. And they were very overt about it, as well is putting very bad people in. This administration, I think, has fundamentally similar aims. But for the most part it's been much more subtle in pursuing its aims by trying to do them in various, using various administrative devices that are often obscure and very hyper-technical to undo environmentalism. And I think that's just simply a process of learning from Watt's downfall that making a frontal attack on the environmental programs was not a good idea. That they should make a more sneaky attack frankly.

Brian Stempeck: Right. You mentioned that the environmental community, for a long time now, has basically been on the defensive. How do you off of that? I mean I know there's some criticism in the book where you talk about the current director of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope. Saying, well, you're not sure if he has enough kind of political experience going door-to-door really working these issues. We saw the environmental community do that in the 2004 elections. What do you think needs to be done differently to get off of the defensive position?

Michael McCloskey: Well frankly, when I began 40 years ago we didn't have majority support. We were operating in a fairly hostile environment where both parties were skeptical of us. We were treated as heretics. And there were fundamental things we did to claw our way forward. And I think we're basically in a similar position now. Many people today don't even know the three fundamental rules of lobbying, which are; you've got to know exactly what you want, you've got to know exactly who can give it to you and you've got to figure out how they make decisions in your favor. And tailor make your strategy to each case. You've got to pick goals very strategically in terms of whether they're achievable under the climate you're in. Whether they resonate with voters and real people you're working with and they really care about them. You've got to try to change power relationships, set precedents. I don't think our goals are being picked strategically. And I think what's really so sad is that success was a great teacher. It taught us, back in the '60s and '70s and '80s, what worked, what was productive, what was not productive. And so by trial and error we learned how to do things. Now decades have passed with very little success. Sometimes on the negative, defensive side, we have beaten things back, bad things. But on the affirmative side people are no longer learning very much about what is productive and what works and what you should do more of and what you should do less of. So a thousand flowers bloom with every nostrum out there about what might be a good thing to do and none of them are disciplined by reality.

Brian Stempeck: What do you think kind of the core of the problem is? Is it kind of feeling to have a key message you're sticking to when you're working with lawmakers on the Hill? Or is it failure to get that message across to the general public? I mean, obviously, with the Republicans in control that makes it a little bit more difficult to achieve your goals in these issues.

Michael McCloskey: Well what we did back then was to pick a limited number of issues at the national level that were compelling issues that got people excited. We ran national publicity campaigns and we targeted districts very carefully in terms of where we needed to pick up votes. We put in major resources. We ran, I remember on the Redwoods National Park issue we ran national full-page newspaper advertisements in papers like the Mirror-Times on a monthly basis. It was a drumfire of a campaign and we triggered a whole spate of national publicity. Ultimately they became overwhelming and Congress had to respond. I think now we're picking too many issues that, we're not sticking with them long enough. They don't resonate enough with voters. They're not achievable goals always. And I think we've got to go back to learning some of those lessons.

Brian Stempeck: All right, Mike, we're out of time. Thank you so much for stopping by. It's a great book. I really enjoyed it.

Michael McCloskey: Well thank you Brian. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Brian Stempeck: All right.

Michael McCloskey: I hope others do.

Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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