Where Have You Gone John Muir?!

muirWhile concern about preservation of natural wonders and concern about pollution is as old as human civilization, the modern green movement can probably be traced back to the life of John Muir. Muir, a contemporary of Henry David Thoreau, was primarily concerned with the preservation of open wilderness space, and is known as the “Father of National Parks” for his enthusiasm for wilderness preservation and role in passing the 1890 National Parks Bill, and for his role in founding the Sierra Club, which was originally a club for hiking and camping enthusiasts.  As an “earth father” Muir established three missions for the Sierra Club: To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment. Up until 1992, the Club focused on grass-roots defense of local habitat and direct lobbying on federal and state legislative and regulatory issues. 

Yet in the words of philosopher Eric Hoffer, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” Indeed, the club Muir founded, one of the flagship “green” organizations, bares little resemblance to the ragtag group of mountaineers Muir assembled all those years ago.   Sierra Club, and its many allied organizations, is now a big business that primarily employs people in San Francisco, Washington D.C. and other big cities. Muir’s ideas of preserving tracts of untouched land for future enjoyment and recreation, something most Americans enthusiastically support, is increasingly seen by modern “greens” as being out of touch with what they see as more important priorities. Instead, many modern “greens”, such as said Jon Christensen, a historian with the University of California, Los Angeles’ Institute of Environment and Sustainability, claim that, “Muir’s legacy has to go…It’s just not useful anymore,” as Muir was unconcerned with issues such as population growth, urban sprawl, demographic shifts, smaller parks in cities, and climate change.

Indeed, far from being outdoorsman who spend most of their time deep in wilderness areas, big business is the only way to describe the modern “green” movement. For example, take Muir’s legacy, the Sierra Club: Not only does the modern day Sierra Club’s budget run nearly $100 million a year according to most recent available data, it is increasingly funded by industries that want to use their activism to damage competitor industries, such as natural gas, or other “green” energy business interests. In other words, as the greens have become a big business, and in so doing, they have become much like any other big business, seeking their own interests and the interests of those that support them, their altruistic founding aside. They are different from other interest group lobbyists in Washington DC only in terms of how they file their taxes, not in substance.

Notably, however, as high profile an organization as it is, the senior management keeps the Club’s business side secret, refusing even to let local chapters in on major policy and financial decision-making. Thus what we can tell you about the Club must be gleaned not from current records, but instead from reports that are a few years old and from investigations by the media who have obtained insider information. The IRS will need to examine the Sierra Club and its Foundation in depth to reveal the totality of their improper activities.

The Sierra Club and the Sierra Club Foundation have stepped over the line. They have engaged in activities that are charitable only to private interests far from their mission. They have attempted to disguise this behavior in a green cloak of high-minded civic duty, but the reality is that the Club and the Foundation are engaging in classic “rent seeking”1 and profit making – for themselves, for their directors and for private individuals who exchange donations for increased market share. This they cannot do and remain compliant with the law.

Despite their claims of moral superiority, the Sierra Club has become shills for corporate interests.  And the Sierra Club Foundation has been infiltrated and controlled by those with direct ties to companies that benefit from the group’s non-profit activities, pocketing huge personal profits as a result.

Had the Sierra Club stopped at simple issue advocacy, they would not be the subject of this website. But they did not. They have become an arm of private industry, going so far as to become an actual marketing arm of private companies. The have spent nearly a quarter of million dollars a year on a “War on Coal” that directly benefits nearly half of their Board of Directors who either own or manage renewal energy companies.  The U.S. Internal Revenue Service has not examined in depth the gradual movement of environmental public charities and foundations away from their “high moral ground” and into the competitive marketplace. That gradual movement has crossed a line the Tax Code does not allow.