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How to Stop the Bush Administration? Start Talking.
Going Beyond Green
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The Planet
How to Stop the
Bush Administration? Start Talking.

Our most important job is educating our fellow citizens.

by John Byrne Barry.

Carol Frey, a lifelong Pennsylvanian who joined the Sierra Club to go on hikes with her grown daughter, had never been to a meeting or taken any action on behalf of the Club. Then she received an e-mail from Pennsylvania Chapter organizers in October about a community walk in the nearby Mt. Airy neighborhood to hold the Bush administration to the fire for weakening clean air and clean water rules. She decided it was time to do something. So she signed on to be a "walk captain," working with 8 other captains to train and coordinate 54 volunteers to knock on neighbors’ doors.

Spreading the Word: “The Bush administration is dismantling three decades of environmental progress,” says Sierra Club President Larry Fahn, “and most Americans don’t even know it’s happening.”

"I tried to go with an open mind, picturing receptive people," she says. "And they were. They were in a hurry, but thankful we were out there doing something." Volunteers talked to more than 200 residents that Saturday. The goal was to engage neighbors likely to support environmental protection, but who were not aware of the extent of the Bush administration’s actions.

In a nutshell, that’s the Sierra Club’s plan to stop the Bush administration’s assault on the environment. Start talking.

As Sierra Club President Larry Fahn says, "The Bush administration is dismantling three decades of environmental progress and most Americans don’t even know it’s happening." But the vast majority of Americans do support clean air and clean water and protecting wildlands. And our most pressing environmental problems do have solutions.

George W. Bush campaigned as a uniter, not a divider. Well, he’s divided the nation, and the world, but he has, in a way that no president has done before, united the Sierra Club and the environmental community. In a sense, Bush and his accomplices have simplified things. The best way to protect the environment, whether you’re working to protect roadless areas in Idaho or clean up rivers in Kentucky, is to stop the Bush administration.

Unfortunately, Bush has misled the American public about his administration’s actions. He uses fuzzy feel-good terms like "clear skies" and "healthy forests," and says soothing things in front of national parks while cameras roll.

So our most important job is to educate our fellow citizens about the Bush administration’s anti-environmental record. And the best way to do that is person-to-person. When asked for his secret to organizing, United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez famously said, "First you talk to one person, then you talk to another person, then you talk to another person...." The Sierra Club is encouraging members to get out into their communities and start conversations—with neighbors over the fence, with friends on e-mail, with work associates over lunch. We’re also organizing community gatherings and hosting book and film discussion groups.

For example, in Vancouver, Washington, the Sierra Club Loo Wit Group hosted a community meeting that attracted 145 people to hear U.S. Representative Brian Baird speak on the Bush administration’s record, and discuss efforts to protect the Dark Divide Roadless Area from logging. Getting all those people to attend didn’t happen by accident. Volunteer Holly Forrest and organizer Shannon Harps devoted countless hours to the event, and many others, including Nick Forrest, Linda Wolfe, Roger Cole, Joy Halme, Virg Birdsall, David Benedicktus, and Joan Pescheck contributed to the successful gathering. It took the proverbial village. And that’s the approach the Club is trying to nurture across the country.

The goal is to build environmental communities and develop ongoing relationships with fellow citizens, not just one-time interactions to sign a postcard.

Sociologist Robert Putnam says Americans have become spectator citizens in the past few decades. In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, he documents that interest in public affairs has declined by 20 percent, voting by 25 percent, attendance at public meetings by 30 percent, and participation in party politics by 40 percent. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club have continued to grow, but only a small percentage of our members are active and engaged with other members. The Sierra Club’s Building Environmental Communities campaign is devoted to changing that, to building more of what Putnam calls "social capital"—the grease that keeps the machinery of a democracy running, that makes solving problems together a satisfying shared duty. The Club plans to train and engage 1,000 committed volunteers in 15 communities nationwide, and collectively establish repeated one-on-one contacts with 300,000 to 600,000 citizens. The Club will also be collaborating with allies in labor and religious organizations to shine the spotlight on Bush administration misdeeds.

You know how there’s usually someone in every crowd who’s good to talk to when you’re trying to understand what’s going on with the environment? You can be that person for your friends and family. People want to think things through. They do that by talking. And listening.

Afraid you’re not informed enough? Just reading this story makes you more informed than the average American. And if you you need more facts, and succinct examples of how the Bush administration is taking us backwards, you’re in the right place. The Sierra Club has plenty of opportunities for you to learn more about the issues, as well as the most effective ways to communicate about them. You don’t have to have all the answers to get a conversation going, just the desire to engage others in thinking about what’s important.

Last fall, Sierra magazine launched "Let’s Talk" to encourage people to talk with friends and neighbors about environmental protection. In each issue, the editors recommend an illuminating movie and book, and provide background reading materials and questions to help spark a good discussion. While supplies last, the Club is even offering free coffee (shade-grown fair-trade Sierra Club coffee, bien sur) to those who send comments from their "Let’s Talk" book or film discussion.

In January, the book selection is The Great Unraveling, a collection of economist Paul Krugman’s columns in the New York Times. The movie selection is "Blue Vinyl," a documentary following filmmaker Judith Helfand and her parents as they attempt to remodel their home using "products that never hurt anyone at any point in their life cycle." (It’s not easy being green, but it’s possible.)

For more information, see the January/February 2004 issue of Sierra or go to sierraclub.org/sierra/letstalk. Sierra will be featuring Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them in March.

A number of chapters and groups have similar salons—the Pikes Peak Group in Colorado Springs and the Bluegrass Group in Lexington, Kentucky, host regular book groups, and the Miami Group in Florida is launching a movie night.

The Bluegrass Group has been holding monthly book discussions for seven years, says Ray Barry, excom member and host for the past five years. "Every month, there’s a designated leader who facilitates discussion and brings snacks and wine. The conversation is always interesting, even if the book isn’t."

In Pittsburgh, where the Allegheny Group launched a similar effort to the one in Philadelphia, Sierra Club life member Ed Dinnen recently hosted a letters-to-the-editor night at his home. Seven other Club activists joined him to write letters to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, mostly focused on the Bush administration decision to drop an EPA lawsuit against 50 of the nation’s most polluting coal-fired power plants. Dinnen is planning another letters night in January.

The Sierra Club has plenty of resources to help members start, or continue, these important conversations. The best place to find out more—other than The Planet, of course—is to go to the Club Web site at sierraclub.org. You can find links to local book and film groups at sierraclub.org/planet/200401/talk.asp.











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