The Sierra Club’s reactivation of its eight-year intra- and extra-mural war over its policy concerning immigration is the latest exhibit opening at the Great American Madhouse.  In 1996, the club officially announced itself neutral on the subject of immigration and population control.  Two years later, a faction proposed a measure advocating immigration restriction in behalf of protecting the North American environment.  The measure was defeated by 60 percent of the voting members, but the anti-immigration minority has remained determined to prevail ever since.

This year, with the club’s spring elections looming, they are back.  Controlling 20 percent of the 15 seats on the board of directors, the insurgents hope to extend their influence even further by electing a slate of restrictionist candidates including Colorado governor emeritus Richard Lamm; Frank Morris, a former director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation; and an entomology professor at Cornell, David Pimentel.  A gain of three seats, they say, would enable them to set policy for the organization.  This time around, the insurrection is complicated by the restrictionists’ alliance with a group of animal-rights activists who want the club to make a stand against hunting, fishing, and eating meat; one of their leaders, Paul Watson (the cofounder of Greenpeace and head of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, whose specialty is ramming whaling ships), already serves on the board.  This untoward complication has not prevented the dreaded “R” word from being raised, despite Executive Director Carl Pope’s magnanimous concession that the oppositionist candidates are probably not racists.  “But they are clearly supported by racists,” he added.  That was enough for Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who immediately mailed in his membership fee along with notice of intention to stand for board member himself.  “I’m running to sound the alarm of an attempt to take over this organization by the radical element of anti-immigration people,” Dees explained.  “They are interested in keeping this country white.”

The Sierra Club, which has 750,000 members and an annual budget of $100 million, is best known for its failure to save Hetch Hetchy Valley near Yosemite and Glen Canyon on the Colorado River (which lies today beneath the stagnant waters of “Lake Foul,” as Edward Abbey called it).  Operated nowadays by cosmopolitan marketing types more adept at selling T-shirts and attracting donations from other progressive (i.e., pro-immigration) organizations than at building a campfire without a match, reading a topo map, or carrying an 80-pound pack, the club has long since abandoned the legacy of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt.  According to Mr. Pope, Sierra’s “dominant perspective has been to protect nature for people.”  (Is that so?  San Francisco needed a water supply, but Muir started a club “to make the mountains glad.”)  “But by pulling up the gangplank on immigration,” Pope continues, “they are tapping into a strand of misanthropy that says human beings are a problem.”  Paradoxically, this is a form of misanthropic thinking that Carl Pope seems himself to share.  “Birth control—not border patrols—is the common sense solution to overpopulation,” he explained four years ago.  If we can all just sit down and add up how many immigrants are coming into the country each year and calculate from that figure how many babies native-born Americans should be allowed to have in terms of maintaining an environmentally friendly human population, we will have solved our big problem in a rational and humane way.

Adam Werbach, the club’s president from 1996 to 1998, deplores what he calls “a sad attempt by a very small special-interest group to take over the entire Sierra Club organization.”  Nonsense, Paul Watson counters.  “It’s a democratic process.  To accuse these candidates of taking over the Sierra Club is like accusing the Democrats of taking over the White House.”  To combat revolution from below, Pope and the Sierra Club’s president, Larry Fahn, hatched the idea of a one-page notice, to be mailed with every ballot, warning of “an unprecedented level of outside involvement” and urging members to vote for those candidates “endorsed by club leaders whom you trust.”  To prevent this attempt at influencing the election, Lamm, Morris, and Pimentel filed suit in San Francisco Superior Court against the Sierra Club—on the same day that Sierra sued the City of San Diego to stop construction by the federal government of a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border.  (The fence, the Sierra Club complains, would siltate a federally protected estuary in the vicinity.)

A takeover of the board of the Sierra Club by anti-immigration directors would be a welcome development, of course.  It is not easy to see, however, what that could accomplish in the long run.  On the one hand, organized environmentalism’s refusal to recognize the contradiction between saving North America from people and continuing to import more people to North America from abroad is one of the foremost obstacles to environmental preservation today.  On the other, it represents, as almost no other such contradiction does, the futility and self-destructiveness of the liberal ideology.  Adding the Sierra Club to the restrictionist ranks might—conceivably—educate and embolden (some) other environmentalist groups to endorse the anti-immigration cause, thus contributing a potent special-interest lobby to the restrictionist coalition.  Unless the entire environmentalist movement, or almost the entirety of it, can be mobilized for that purpose, however, the likelihood that the systemic irrationality (of which America’s insane immigration policy amounts to Exhibit A) can be rationalized is slim indeed.