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The Planet
A Conversation With Carl Pope

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In April, Planet Senior Editor Tom Valtin sat down with Carl Pope to talk about the events that led him to become executive director, and the Club's vision to counter the Bush administration. Pope has served as executive director since 1992 and oversees a staff of 500. Since he joined the staff in 1973, the Sierra Club has grown from 140,000 to more than 700,000 members.

What first prompted your interest in the environmental movement?
Part of what has motivated me as an environmentalist is the loss of the place where I grew up. The fields I tramped, the woods I explored, the meadows where I taught horseback riding-they're all gone. A few years ago I was going to a Maryland Chapter retreat, and we drove through my old stomping grounds in suburban Washington, D.C. But I couldn't get oriented; the roads I knew had been replaced by new roads and I wondered where the heck I was. We drove past a school and I asked the person sitting next to me, "What school is that?" He said, "That's Walter Johnson High School." That was my high school. But when I went there it was in the middle of cow pastures.

Carl Pope
Carl Pope
In a recent Harvard alumni magazine, you described an episode in which then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara visited the campus, and, in an effort to get him to talk with you and other anti-war students, you lay down in front of his car. Was this the beginning of your political activism?
No. That had begun earlier. When I first got to college I helped recruit students to work in elections for the Boston and Cambridge school districts, and I was quite active in the civil rights movement for the first three years I was in college. I also spent the summer after my junior year doing voter registration in Arkansas.

After college you worked for two years for the Peace Corps in India. You've said it was your intention to spend your life working for the United Nations, but India "cured you of that." How so?
I was doing family planning education for the State of Bihar Public Health Department, which was one of the worst in the world. At that time there were only three places in the world where there was still smallpox, and two of them were conflict zones in Africa where there were civil wars. The only peaceful place in the world that still had smallpox was the state of Bihar. Eradicating smallpox is your basic Health 101. If you can't do that, you can't do much else. This health department hadn't done that, and it certainly could not do family planning. You have to actually listen to people to do family planning.

I was in a place where people were starving to death, and as I looked around it seemed the obvious explanation was who was running the place. I realized that as an expatriot, whether I worked for the U.S. government or the U.N., I wasn't going to have any say in who ran the place. I thought the politics were what needed fixing, but as a foreigner, I couldn't fix them. So I decided not to live my life as an expat.

When you returned to the United States, you went to work for Zero Population Growth. How did that come about?
When I tried to get a job back home I discovered I was kind of slotted. I hadn't chosen family planning-the Peace Corps assigned me to it. I came back and discovered that people wanted to hire me to work in population because I'd had two years of experience in that area. It was shortly before Earth Day 1970, and at the time there was no real conservation movement as such. There were David Brower and Mike McCloskey, and a few senior conservation activists who'd worked on parks and wilderness. And there was Ralph Nader. But if you'd read a single book on air pollution you were one of the great experts on air pollution. So I found myself working not only on population but on a lot of environmental issues, such as the SST (Supersonic Transport aircraft) and the Clean Air Act.

You've said that environmentalism is one of the causes that brings a broad spectrum of society together. Could you explain why this is so?
There is only one ozone layer. Yosemite is either there for all of us or none of us. Everyone in the Bay Area, whether they live in Hunter's Point [an African American neighborhood in San Francisco] or Blackhawk [an exclusive community in the San Francisco suburbs], essentially breathes the same air-not entirely, but pretty much. So the environment is one of the great unifying, cross-cutting social issues, and that attracts me. I believe that is precisely why the extreme right hates environmentalism, because environmentalism says human beings are all in the same lifeboat together.

How did you come to be employed by the Sierra Club?
I'd worked with the Sierra Club in Washington and I liked the Club. When I moved to California in 1973, I got two jobs, both half-time, one with the Sierra Club, the other with the California League of Conservation Voters. For my first nine years with the Club I worked on clean air, supervised the California field offices, ran fundraising programs for certain kinds of grants, and started the Club's political program. But in time I was essentially doing two full-time jobs. Ultimately I had to choose and I decided to stick with the Club as political director, after which I became deputy conservation director, then conservation director, then executive director.

You've said you never actually planned to be the Club's executive director.
Well, at some point I obviously did think about it, but only very shortly before I actually became executive director. Michael Fisher left and there was no other internal candidate for the job. I could have looked for an external candidate and broken them into the Club, which I was not that excited about. So I applied for the job.

The complaint is sometimes raised that the Sierra Club, and the environmental movement, is "too white." Do you agree?
Let's put it this way: The Sierra Club is insufficiently yellow, brown, and black. We need to reach out and build relationships with communities that are not currently a significant part of the Club. We do that mainly by listening. And once we've built relationships we decide what we want the future of the Sierra Club to look like. Right now we don't fully understand what would be required for the Club to be a place where more Chinese Americans or African American or Hispanic Americans wanted to come to express their environmental values. We know these communities are every bit as environmentally minded as middle-class white Americans. So the issue is not that they don't share the Club's values. It's that they don't feel comfortable with our culture. We have to learn about that and figure out what we can do to address it.

You've said recently that to stop President Bush, it's essential for the Sierra Club to "raise the bar" for what we as a society will accept on the environment. How do you find this message is being received?
This is resonating strongly inside the Club. Three years ago, when we asked people around the country for their opinions, what we got pretty uniformly was a sense that the country was moving in the right direction. There was an understanding that we'd made a lot of progress, and there was quite a bit of pride at what we'd accomplished, as well as dedication to finishing the job. Now in the past two years the country has been through a lot of shocks. People are anxious, they're dispirited, and they're disillusioned. I actually think this administration is exploiting that disillusionment.

We need to remind people how much progress has been made, and that we've learned a lot in the process. We've had the big national debate about whether we want clean air. There really isn't a big constituency out there for letting the air get dirty, or for mercury in the fish, or for less parkland. We've had the dialog and we've pretty much settled it in terms of the American people's wishes, and now we ought to go out and get people what they want. The elected officials we have right now don't particularly believe in this stuff. I believe they don't reflect public opinion. That's one obstacle, and another is the power of the polluters and the extractive industries.

How do you see the Club evolving in the near future?
We have a mission, which is to stop George Bush. If we accomplish that mission, I don't know what the next mission will be. And if we don't accomplish that mission, life is going to be very difficult.


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