SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Carl Pope is the quintessential modern environmentalist, embodying the merger of a progressive social movement with traditional environmentalism. His moving on as executive director of the Sierra Club may also herald the advent of a new generation of environmentalists. These are “exciting times,” he said, as the “fluid landscape” of the environmental movement becomes more important than ever.
After graduating from Harvard in the late 1960s, Pope worked with the Peace Corps to educate communities in India on overpopulation. In 1972, he published his first book, “Sahib: An American Misadventure in India.”
A hiker and sea kayaker, Pope got involved with the Sierra Club in the late 1970s. He was appointed executive director of the nation’s oldest environmental organization in 1992. Last year, the Sierra Club announced that Pope would be stepping down from his position.
In an interview with Courthouse News, Pope talked about his transition from the group’s San Francisco headquarters.
He directed the organization through what he calls a “profound communications revolution.” It was not the change itself, spurred by advancing Internet and mobile technology, but rather the club’s response that defined it, Pope said. Once a West Coast organization, the group used these tools to spread its reach and broaden its network.
“Now, the Sierra Club is truly international,” Pope said.
In his view, environmental issues have also moved from the periphery to the center of today’s political landscape. The Sierra Club moved with the issues and now exerts significant influence as an environmental lobby. “The club became political because the issues became political,” Pope said.
He said President Obama may be the nation’s greenest president to date — directly after the nation’s worst environmental president.
“Bush spent eight years trying to unravel the fabric of the environmental safety net” and largely succeeded, Pope said. “The institutions were demoralized — I was worried if the feds could still do the job.” Obama, by appointing the right people and requiring agencies to follow environmental law and heed science, has “reversed the Bush damage in one year,” according to Pope. This sets Obama apart from other presidents, including Clinton, he added.
“Clinton lost control of Congress,” Pope said. He said Obama now faces the same threat. We face a “political crisis,” he said, because Congress seems incapable of responding to the Republican filibuster, despite its Democratic supermajority.
“The Republicans are becoming monolithic, while the Democrats are still a diverse coalition,” Pope said. The Democrats must recognize and act on this crisis. And though change is underway, he worried that it may not come fast enough.
Though he’s stepping down as the executive director, Pope stressed that he’s not retiring. He said he’s transitioning into a new role: chairman. “I wanted to get back on the front lines, into hands-on projects and politics,” Pope explained.
A central part of this is the club’s climate campaign. After a member referendum in 2005, climate change and energy became the club’s top issues. Pope described this “climate revolution” as profoundly transformative. He said he thinks it indicates the future of the environmental movement. His own efforts in the club, including building connections with new constituencies such as civil rights organizations, also reflect how the environmental movement has changed.
Pope said there were no political conflicts behind his decision to move on. He’d been considering stepping down for a while and chose to do so now, when the Sierra Club has its most united and cohesive board to date. With several members under 30, Pope noted, the current board also reflects an ongoing generational transition in the environmental movement.
Pope said nothing remains of the internal power struggle involving radical population control activists, which plagued the group in the middle of the last decade. Pope had called the efforts of anti-immigration advocates within the club “a virus of hate.”
Pope’s personal heroes include renowned South African leader and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela and former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Douglas’ famous dissent in the 1972 Sierra Club v. Morton case argued that ecological life itself has legal standing.
But Pope said he can’t take all the credit for boosting the club’s reach, including its growth to 1.4 million members and supporters. He describes himself as the “mahout, who sits on the elephant, making suggestions. The elephant still does what it wants.”
The biggest risk for environmental groups is when they fail to keep up with the times, he said. He has high hopes that the Sierra Club will not make this mistake.
Carl Brune, 38-year-old former head of Rainforest Action Network and author of “Coming Clean – Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal,” will succeed Carl Pope as the Sierra Club’s executive director.