By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Dick Lamm is far more well-known than Tanton. From 1975 to 1987, the affable Lamm served three terms as the Democratic governor of Colorado. By the 1980s, though, the ex-governor was veering outside the political mainstream by calling for draconian measures to control population. In 1984, Lamm made national headlines when he talked about the elderly’s “duty to die.”
Yet in an interview, Lamm sounds like the same laid-back, outdoorsy guy who helped give the New West a good name back in the 1970s. “The population issue in the U.S. is immigration,” Lamm says. “The Sierra Club has made a deal — you can call it a Faustian bargain — that they will stay away from population and immigration in return for votes. It’s an unconscionable sellout of an important environmental issue, like saying I’m the head of the women’s movement in America and I believe in the women’s movement but I don’t believe in equal pay for equal work.”
Lamm is right that population growth helps drive nearly every environmental dilemma, from soaring energy consumption to marauding snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. At the same time, the related issue of controlling immigration in the U.S. leaves proponents open to charges of First World arrogance — if our quality of life is the result of exploiting developing nations, why shouldn’t their people share in the benefits? — or, at worst, outright racism. Politics also play a role, as the Hispanic vote becomes a sought-after prize for politicians and interest groups alike.
The issue becomes even more complicated when it turns into a culture clash with the organization itself. Like that of many venerable conservation groups, the Sierra Club’s history is rife with white Protestant elitism, according to Michael Cohen, author of The History of the Sierra Club 1892–1970. “A long time ago, the Sierra Club was indistinguishable from the Bohemian Club,” Cohen said in an interview. “The members were elite, white Protestant professionals or academics who believed they were leaders of the renaissance of California. They were filled with all of the phobias of the time, including xenophobia.” Even the club’s founder — the Scottish immigrant John Muir, whose flowery prose made him the first popularizer of the wilderness ethic — had moments of panic when his daughters seemed too friendly to Chinese workers, Cohen said.
By mid-century, the Sierra Club had attracted a more diverse constituency, but the club retained the ambiance of a haute WASP summer camp. Even Jews who became prominent activists were still viewed as outsiders. More recently, the club, which remains 90 percent white, has had difficulty attracting African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics, despite well-intentioned efforts.
If the environmental movement is to remain viable in a world of radically changing demographics, WASP snobbery has to go the way of the dodo, Cohen believes. “Environmental organizations in the 21st century have to accommodate wider demographic and cultural concerns,” Cohen said.
Before the Sierra Club moves toward its 21st-century future, though, it will have to face down its past. Back in the days of cute bumper stickers and the newly discovered wonders of the birth control pill, the club embraced the cause of population stabilization — and that included limits to immigration. In 1969, the Sierra Club’s board called for stabilization of the U.S. population. In 1978, the board urged Congress to study the effects of immigration on population growth and environmental quality in the U.S., according to an article in the online environmental magazine Grist.
Soon mainstream environmentalists realized that while population control was something most liberals could rally around, immigration was a different story. The history of immigration in the U.S. had been marked by a series of attempts to keep out specific ethnic groups. “America has always had a schizophrenic view of immigration,” said Devin Burghart of the Center for New Community, a Chicago-based human rights organization. “We’re always either shutting the door or it’s the Statue of Liberty myth. The fact is that nativists have always been there and it’s always been racist.”
By the end of the 1970s, environmentalists were promoting family planning rather than dramatic immigration limits. People like John Tanton faded into the background. But they didn’t give up. In the late 1970s, Tanton established his own organizations: the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies, U.S. English, and the journal The Social Contract. In 1988, Tanton, who remains a life member of the Sierra Club, co-wrote a memo to anti-immigration activists in which he flirted with overt racism, asking questions like: “As Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion? Why don’t non-Hispanic Whites have a group identity, as do Blacks, Jews, Hispanics?” In a strategic twist, Tanton cast himself as a defender of African-Americans, whom he claimed were adversely affected by immigrants willing to work for low wages. But it was something else in the memo that caught the attention of Mark Potok at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who unearthed the memo last fall. “The Sierra Club may not want to touch the immigration issue, but the immigration issue is going to touch the Sierra Club!” Tanton wrote.
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