Top News

Colby Cosh: The Sierra Club begins awkwardly addressing its problematic past

John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, in San Francisco in 1892.
John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, in San Francisco in 1892.

Last week brought a particularly interesting corporate self-criticism ritual: this time it was the Sierra Club’s turn to squirm into the pillory. On July 22 the environmental organization’s executive director, Michael Brune, issued a statement headed “Pulling down our monuments.” This got people’s attention, perhaps because the Sierra Club’s “monuments” might be thought to include much of the American wilderness.

Brune has promised a series of articles about the dark side of the Sierra Club’s past. First he touched on the fact that some of the club’s founders, still personally revered by the club’s core constituency, have become problematic since they were tramping around the Sierra Nevada in the early 20th century. Brune began by harpooning the biggest fish in Sierra Club legend and lore:

“The most monumental figure in the Sierra Club’s past is John Muir. Beloved by many of our members, his writings taught generations of people to see the sacredness of nature. But Muir maintained friendships with people like Henry Fairfield Osborn, who worked for both the conservation of nature and the conservation of the white race.… Osborn also helped found the American Eugenics Society in the years after Muir’s death.”

And Muir was not immune to the racism peddled by many in the early conservation movement. He made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous people that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life.
Brune also made mention of Joseph LeConte, an important geologist who may run a close second to Muir in the club’s pantheon, and David Starr Jordan, a leading eugenics advocate who served on the club’s board of directors. Brune did not discuss it explicitly, but LeConte had done scientific work for the Confederate Secret Service, and his opinions on Reconstruction, “the negro” and the civil rights thereof were about what you would expect.

Brune suggested that the Sierra Club has had a historic problem with the “whiteness and privilege” of its early membership and mentions that members from minority groups have met with resistance whenever they tried to change the outlook and practices of the club. “We are redesigning our leadership structure,” he wrote, “so that Black, Indigenous and other leaders of colour at the Sierra Club make up the majority of the team making top-level organizational decisions.” Perhaps most controversially, Brune undertook to “spend the next year studying our history and determining which of our monuments need to be renamed or pulled down entirely.”

The Sierra Club is wrestling with a complex history that has near-canonical status in organizational sociology. The group is now a political power with a total annual budget around $100 million, but it began as an actual mountaineering club. It was a small group of white scientists, engineers and artists of the visionary sort that California bred between the Gold Rush and the earthquake, and like other clubs of its kind they liked to strike out for literally uncharted territory, see things no white person had laid eyes upon and crawl around on top of them. Usually they were accompanied by large numbers of non-white labourers, cooks and washerwomen.

They took pride in knowing, keeping up with, and contributing to the scientific doctrines of their day. It is no coincidence that there is an “evolution group” of peaks in the Sierra Nevada, one which features a Mount Darwin and a Mount Mendel. (Mendel doesn’t, strictly speaking, belong in an evolution group; I said they knew science, not that they were omniscient.) The crowning glory of the group is Mount (Herbert) Spencer, named for the thinker who turned Darwinism into a political doctrine.

That’s probably the sort of thing that the Sierra Club will try to disavow when the iconoclasm begins, although official mountain names are in the hands of the U.S. Geological Survey once some adventurer coins them. (It should be said that the early Sierra Club was respectful of Indigenous names for natural features whenever they had knowledge of those.)

Even in the current climate, in which a statue of Abraham Lincoln can be threatened if the semiotics are wrong, it is hard to imagine the club taking direct action against any monument to John Muir, who has as good a claim as anyone to being the creator of the modern environmental imagination. If you work for Shell and your Explorer has a “NUKE THE WHALES” bumper sticker, it’s Muir who is on the other side of the argument in your head. He belongs to mankind, not the Sierra Club  — but, then again, every national park on the face of the globe is his monument anyhow.

Brune’s op-ed makes only the briefest tantalizing mention of “issues of immigration and population control,” which have divided the Sierra Club in the past. The club, to this day, tries to hold onto that original kernel of explorer spirit, the “club” nature of the club, and to maintain a strong connection with Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, which the club was founded to admire and protect. Until very recently, as Brune acknowledges generically, this gave white Californians — mostly rich ones, and many of them landowners — the largest say by far in the evolution of the club’s doctrines.

You can imagine how that has sometimes gone. During the 1970s overpopulation craze, which was as intense as the interwar passion for eugenics, the club adopted strong official positions in favour of zero population growth, both globally and within the United States. Some Sierrans, with one eye not-so-secretly on the southern border, took the next logical step and called for restrictions on immigration to the U.S. Today’s immigration-restrictionist lobby in the U.S. is an outgrowth of that battle — literally an internal Sierra Club argument that spilled over permanently into the agora. No doubt the executive director will tell you all about it in the weeks to come.

National Post

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

Did this story inform or enhance your perspective on this subject?
1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

Recent Stories