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The Planet

'Times That Try Men's Souls'

by Carl Pope - Sierra Club Executive Director

What we can learn from Washington and Lincoln

"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."

Thomas Paine wrote these words in the winter of 1776, when Washington's army, battered by defeats in New York and New Jersey, teetered between dedication and desertion.


Undaunted: Carl Pope, applauding at the Sierra Club annual banquet.

Dedication prevailed. Just weeks after reading Paine's words to his troops, Washington struck back on Christmas Eve, crossing the Delaware and defeating the British at Trenton and Princeton.

From the messages I've received, and the work and ideas I see around me, it's clear that the Sierra Club is not teetering-we're signed up for the duration. So we've already heeded Paine's lesson-we're year-round soldiers in the battle to put our country back on the road to a brighter environmental future.

But there are some things we all may want to learn from Washington.

Most important, when you've been whipped-and we have been-the first you thing you do is take care of your troops and reach out to your friends. Before Washington could strike across the Delaware he had to pull his army together, get it fed and housed, and inspired (by Paine's eloquent words). He had to solidify his allies in the Continental Congress, show that his fighting spirit was undimmed, and train new recruits.

Instead of trying to hold a long defensive line against the British and the Hessians, he pulled his army back to Pennsylvania and waited for his enemy to make a mistake. Then he moved fast and struck hard. Judging that the British had posted an inadequate forward picket line on Christmas Eve, he threw his entire army at them. A week later he assaulted British forces in Princeton. Only then, having beaten his enemy locally, did he make his winter quarters in New Jersey, where he could prevent the British from occupying further patriot territory.

What, you may be wondering, does this have to do with the challenges facing patriots who love America the beautiful, its spacious skies, its purple mountain majesties? Well, I think our moment and Washington's have a lot in common.

Washington was at the beginning of a seven-year struggle. The patriot army was hurting, as we are. Like Washington, we have not yet mustered enough public support to hold off our wealthier, more organized opponents. It took Washington time to prevail, and its going to take us time to turn this country around. So what could we learn from the winter of 1776?

First, we must heal and take of ourselves. We are the patriot army, the ones who are going to restore America's environmental dream. But we can't do that if we don't rest, reconnect with family and friends after a long campaign, and feed our souls. Napoleon said that an army marches on its stomach. Maybe environmentalists march on their time in the wild.

Strengthen our forces. This is a time to be talking to our friends and allies; to think, plan, mourn, and celebrate together. The Sierra Club attracted thousands of new volunteers in the last two years. Let's keep them involved. We elected hundreds of friends to public office. Let's strengthen their resolve and lift their spirits with our support. We find people who share our values in lots of places besides Sierra Club meetings or hikes-in communities of faith, rod and gun clubs, labor unions, small businesses, schools, neighborhood groups. Let's listen to their concerns, share ours, get a dialogue going over how to make this country's future brighter, its skies bluer and its waters more crystalline.

Preserve our strength. We can't let the radical right pick the battlefield. Right now, Congressional committees are stacked against us. Tom Delay won't even let our allies offer amendments on the House floor. We shouldn't get sucked into the battles our enemies in Congress have chosen. But many state capitols are far friendlier. The courts are ripe with opportunities.

We need to plan and prepare. When the new Congress convenes we will face a storm like none we have ever weathered before. Weather it we will, but we will fare better if we are prepared and know how we plan to respond-indeed, if we have already launched our own initiatives and our own campaigns to take back the public conversation.

For always there is the battle for public opinion. If Washington is my model for how to hold our side together after a defeat, Lincoln was the master of building a majority around enduring values, clear moral choices, and the longstanding dedication of Americans to optimism, fairness, responsibility, and vision.

Americans don't think power plants have the right to put out pollution that triggers asthma attacks. We think those who dumped toxic waste should clean up the mess they made. We think destroying our children's wildlife heritage is wrong.

Americans share our values-but don't always understand our solutions. We need to communicate them more clearly, hold tight to the truth Lincoln laid out in the first Lincoln/Douglas debate:

"In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed."

Washington's time came round-Lincoln prevailed in his struggle-so will the Sierra Club.


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