By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Adam Werbach fidgets in his dressing room, swilling bottled water and waiting to tape a talk show called The Couch. A wardrobe guy pops in to eyeball Werbach’s corduroy cargo pants and his wide-lapeled Naugahyde blazer, donned en route to the Burbank studio. The guy nods and Werbach relaxes — he’s captured the MTV look.
Moments later, Werbach is sharing sofa space with Moon Unit Zappa. The theme today, according to the host of this MTV pilot, is people who did something really impressive when they were really young. Zappa, of course, recorded "Valley Girl," immortalizing, for better or worse, the gestalt of the Southern California mall bunny. Somewhat more obscurely, Werbach (pronounced WER-back) is the youngest person ever to be elected president of the Sierra Club. At 23, he won the job with a pledge to bring in a new generation of environmentalists by meeting them on their own terms.
True to his word, here he is, slogging away at ground zero in his quest to capture the imagination of America’s youth.
Zappa turns to Werbach. "I," she tells him boastfully, "don’t even know what the Sierra Club is."
"Clean air, clean water, clean food," Werbach replies. "And a little more wilderness than your parents left you."
As he speaks, Zappa grabs his hand. "I’m happy about what you do," she says. "But if it doesn’t work out, you could be a hand model. Your nail beds are so good."
This leaping departure from "the message" doesn’t fluster Werbach. In fact, he seems pleased with the compliment, and he and Zappa embark on a freewheeling discussion of the effects of vegetarianism on skin tone, the relative merits of armpit hair, lesbianism, and the thrill of guilty pleasures. (At one point, Zappa flops her head into Werbach’s lap, declaring, "This is what you call chemistry.") Werbach even manages to slip in another plug for the cause. "My job is to get young people to feel they can do something," he says. "To actually change things, we need people who don’t know the old ways."
After the show, Werbach scribbles something on his business card (a home number?) and hands it to Zappa. "Just call me," he tells her. "Any time."
It’s all in a day’s work for Werbach, a 25-year-old Jewish kid from Tarzana who launched his environmental career at age 8 by collecting his classmates’ crayoned signatures on a petition to unseat then–Secretary of the Interior James Watt.
Tall and dark-haired, he has the kind of earnest good looks and slightly awkward stance that tend to draw comparisons to Robby Benson and David Schwimmer — not quite the seasoned pro you’d expect to see leading the environmental movement into the 21st century. Yet that is exactly what Werbach aims to do. By shouldering the presidency of one of the oldest, largest and best-respected environmental groups in the world, he is fashioning himself the standard-bearer for the cause.
Job one: redrawing the battlefield. He disdains the environmental movement’s traditional come-ons: the direct-mail appeals, the Yanni-esque ballads, the 50 simple things you can do to save the Earth. That stuff, he says, is of little or no interest to your average 20-something. In their place, Werbach is prescribing a pop-life panacea for a club no longer at the forefront of the movement.
"Instead of bashing kids for watching MTV," he says, "let’s use MTV to our advantage." He’s also working on a Sierra Club–sponsored CD called El NiÃ±o, meant to raise awareness about global warming. It’s slated for an April Earth Day release, and Werbach is counting on a "We Are the World"–type mobilizing moment. "We want to focus on this as a political movement," he says, the idea being to "get people out of their chairs and into their communities."
That won’t be easy. At a time when recycling is as universal as taking out the trash, it’s hard for an environmental group to build a constituency around the standard green agenda. The presence of a Democrat in the White House has only made matters worse, lending an appearance of environmental well-being and draining the movement of its urgency. After Clinton took office, most of the major environmental organizations began hemorrhaging members; the Sierra Club alone lost more than 100,000. Even where activists are still rallying around environmental issues, the focus for many has shifted from global and national issues to their own NIMBY concerns.
This shift toward the pressing crises of the urban environment is of little interest to many Sierra Club stalwarts, who adhere to a nature-preservation ethic. Werbach tends to see this division along generational lines. Older environmentalists, schooled in the preservation tradition, look at the world as a place of finite natural resources constantly imperiled by their worst enemy: people. Younger environmentalists, raised in a global, post–Earth Day world — Werbach primary among them — view humanity as an essential part of the solution. (EarthFirst!, then, would become EarthandPeopleFirst!)
Corralling these diffuse groups is an important element in Werbach’s plan. He’s concocted the term "radical locals" to attract activists who are battling environmental ills in their own back yards. At the same time, he has to avoid alienating the preservationists and the armchair environmentalists — those legion members whose activism is limited to annual donations, calendar purchases and the reuse of grocery bags. His mantra, "Clean air, clean water, clean food," seeks to encompass them all.