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A Really Ugly Shade of Green

March 28, 2004

Dick Lamm, public policy gadfly and former Democratic governor of Colorado, is being denounced these days as a right-wing extremist, a neo-Nazi and a racist. “In all my years of public life, nobody has ever talked that way about me,” he said. His offense is that he is one of three men running for the Sierra Club board of directors on a platform of limiting immigration to protect the environment.

In response, the leadership of the club and its allies have been playing the race card with berserk ferocity. Among the charges are “environmental racism,” and the “greening of hate,” which presumably means that the three represent dark forces gussied up in environmental green. These arguments assume that any urge to cap or slow immigration is a form of anti-Latino or anti-Asian bigotry. “It’s hate,” Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope said of the splinter group endorsing the insurgent candidates. He also said the group, Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization, is profoundly infected by “a virus.”

The candidates tarred by these charges are:

Lamm, who was widely seen as an ally of the civil rights movement during his term as governor, and who helped organize an NAACP chapter when he was at Berkeley. He is chairman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) board of advisers.

Frank Morris, retired U.S. Foreign Service officer and former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

David Pimentel, a Cornell professor of entomology who has been studying the impact of population growth on the Earth’s carrying capacity.

The background of the dispute is that the Sierra Club does not want to make the obvious move for an environmental organization in an era of mass migration — calling for limits on immigration to relieve pressures on the ecosystem. Thirty years ago the Sierra Club committed itself to “stabilization of the population, first of the United States and then of the world.” In those days, stabilization in the U.S. meant urging native-born Americans to have fewer children. By 1996, when stabilization meant doing something about mass migration, legal and illegal, the Sierra Club backed away from stabilization and adopted a policy of neutrality on immigration.

The current fight has split conservationists. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. supports the Sierra leadership. On the other side is former Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson, a founder of Earth Day, who thinks that the United States cannot argue for world population control without setting an example by stabilizing its own population. Far-right groups, including nativists and white racists, are urging their members to join the Sierra Club for the current mail voting, which ends April 21. On the left, is supporting current Sierra leadership. So is the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is supposed to limit itself to confronting hate groups. It was Morris Dees, controversial leader of the law center, who contributed the line the “greening of hate.”

Carl Pope has shamelessly tried to connect Lamm, Morris and Pimentel to the most extreme anti-immigration people. He told The New York Times: “If somebody who isn’t a Nazi is put on the ballot by the American Nazi Party” it can be difficult to tell the candidates from their dubious backers. Good grief. Next we will be hearing that Franklin Roosevelt may have been a commie because Stalin fought on his side during World War II.

This is surely an odd episode in Sierra Club history and getting odder. Lamm and Morris have made an issue of two anonymous donations to the Sierra Club Foundation totaling $102 million. Most directors of the club don’t know who the donors are, said Pope, and even the president of the Sierra Club, Larry Fahn, said he doesn’t know. Transparency by do-good organizations would be nice. Morris said he wonders whether the anonymous donors are calling the shots in the campaign against the three insurgents.

Perhaps the Sierra Club thought it could brush away dissent by depicting the dissenters as sinister. To dampen the election chances of the challengers, the Sierra Club attached a notice to the mail ballot warning that white supremacist groups had expressed interest in the election. Lamm understandably calls this “environmental McCarthyism.”

Early media coverage focused on incendiary charges of a “hostile takeover” of Sierra by extremists. Soon the media will figure out that the club is actually conducting a smear campaign. This disgraceful effort by the Sierra Club has turned the spotlight on the leadership itself, its lack of candor about who its powerful donors might be, and its tactic of trying to sway an election with ugly charges. The organization should act quickly to make things right.

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