Sierra Summit

[This report was published in the October 2005 Issue of The Santa Lucian]

I just returned from the Sierra Summit that took place in San Francisco September 8 to 11. My wife Jan and I had decided to attend privately to strengthen our connection to the national organization in this dark time and to learn from a luminary lineup of scheduled speakers. When some of our chapter representatives couldn’t go, I became a delegate in return for half price on the registration fee. The delegates’ job was to bridge a gap between leadership and grassroots and to democratically select goals guiding action and budget decisions over the next five years.

We drove up on Thursday morning with Chris, who’d agreed to become a much in-demand under-30 delegate, checked into a cheap hotel in Chinatown, walked to the Moscone Convention center, and fell in with thousands of well-dressed members of the California Dental Association. Finally we found our way to “Moscone North” and what was billed as “Sierra Club’s First Ever National Environmental Convention and Expo.”

The prospect of a four hour priority setting session after a long drive and no lunch in a cavernous banquet hall was not enhanced by lengthy “motivational” harangues by two professional facilitators with deep southern accents. Though the leader admitted that he had no environmental involvement of his own, he assured me that he did not normally work for energy companies like Exxon, but only churches and financial institutions. Sitting at tables in groups of ten, the seven hundred delegates were put through a series of ill conceived icebreaking exercises and endless questionnaires, and asked to prioritize vague, confusing and overlappingly phrased goals.

Midway through the session, delegates started speaking up, expressing bewilderment and resentment. Carl Pope, Sierra Club Executive Director, convinced the audience not to give up and the facilitators to talk less and listen more. By the end of the session a general consensus among delegates was reached: the first two priorities for future national action and budgeting were 1)build a clean and safe energy future with improved efficiency and renewable resources and 2)build vibrant communities assuring environmental justice and reducing sprawl.

This selection makes significant changes in sequence and wording to conclusions drawn from pre-summit surveys. It signals a shift from primary emphasis on recreation and wilderness preservation and clearly reflects the impact of Hurricane Katrina. That impact was reinforced by the surprise announcement that the Convention would be addressed at 8:30 next morning by Al Gore. He had turned down our invitation because of a previous commitment on the same day to talk about global warming to an insurance industry convention in New Orleans.

The onslaught of Katrina is an apt metaphor for the Bush administration’s onslaught on the world environment. The speeches I heard at Sierra Summit on Friday and Saturday gave evidence of an energy that might be able to resist and protect from these storms.

Gavin Newsome, the radiant mayor of SF, welcomed the Sierra Club to his “49 square miles surrounded by reality” by asserting that cities can act when federal and state governments fail to address environmental issues. San Francisco has required all retired city vehicles to be replaced by hybrids, has embarked upon an aggressive green building program, and has been the first city to adopt the Precautionary Principle as a guiding policy.

In his introduction of Al Gore to a packed hall of about 2500 people, Carl Pope told us he had just returned from India where a hardly reported storm dropped 37 inches of rain on Bombay the day that Katrina hit New Orleans. Carl witnessed that within seven hours 15,000 Indian troops were on the streets helping survivors, within 15 hours all buses in the neighboring states were mobilizeed for rescue and evacuation, within 8 hours, everyone in Bombay had food and water, and within two days plastic packaging was banned because it was discovered that plastic waste had blocked sewers and storm drains. The contrasting fate of the Gulf Coast, said Pope, was sealed on a November day in 2000, when the Supreme Court decided the case of Bush vs. Gore.

The gravity and eloquence of Gore’s speech are impossible to convey. I urge you to read or listen to it at He put Katrina into the context of the gathering storm preceding World War II prophecied by Winston Churchill. We have tasted the first sip of the bitter cup that awaits us, he prophesied. Four years ago it was vacation time when dire warnings about the prospect of an attack by Al quaeda and identification of students at flight schools with no interest in learning to land were provided to the President. This summer there were warnings about what could happen if a large hurricane hit New Orleans. Three years ago, there were dire warnings that FEMA was being rendered helpless. He asked us to draw the line connecting the emotions we felt when we saw the images of Abu Graib and the emotionswe felt when seeing the people in the Superdome and then to draw the line connecting those responsible for both tragedies.

Gore compared the warnings about Hitler wilfully ignored by the British government and the West and the warnings about global warning wilfully denied by the American government, quoting Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” He insisted that we have the vision and know-how and technology we need to address global warming, but we lack the political will. “But political will is a renewable resource,” he concluded, and the audience came to its feet and roared.

The glimmer of hope kindled by Gore’s conclusion exploded into sunshine during the next presentation I attended, a talk by Bill McDonough, the author of Cradle to Cradle and prophet of the Second Industrial Revolution. His maxim is “how do we love all the children of all species for all time?” McDonough often works with people the Sierra Club is aligned against, such as the Ford Motor Company, for which he designed a green assembly plant in Dearborn Michigan. McDonough and his company devise products, buildings, industrial processes and cities according to standards that require zero waste and zero pollution. He showed us some of his ecotopian plans for the construction of seven new cities commissioned by the government of China which he said has adopted Cradle to Cradle as their industrial policy. Less optimistically, he alerted us to the fact that the world’s oceans are rapidly lowering in Ph, and that if the present trend continues, by the year 2100, calcium carbonate will dissolve, destroying all coral and molluscs”the bottom of the food chain. If you want to know more about McDonough, a seminal thinker on Sustainability, try

While McDonough spoke to an audience of 800, six other presentations were taking place simultaneously. For the late afternoon session, I attended a small one on “engaging youth” mounted by the Sierra Student Coalition. These young people organize projects like “Victoria’s Dirty Secret” exposing the practises of the catalog industry which is destroying boreal and appalachian forests to produce the junk mail. SSC may be able to help us start a local group bringing together high school, college and university student allies.

Delegates convened again Saturday morning from 7:30 to 11:30 to prioritize means to achieve goals prioritized the day before. First place went to organizing people locally to take action. Second was creating new allies and coalitions. Others included supplying environmental expertise, getting people outdoors, public education, bringing legal action and creating media visibility. Delegates were then treated to a lengthy study by Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz on how the club could increase general effectiveness (NPLA). He concluded we need motivated well trained leaders and lots of attention to engaging new members in club activities. If interested, see

Saturday’s highlight for me was the plenary session featuring Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Security was extensive and the great hall was even more packed than for Gore. Hoarse with laryngitis, at times desperate with anger at others ecstatic with ardor, Kennedy repeatedly brought me to tears. This is a person you could follow to the barricades. Presented with the Sierra Club’s William O. Douglas award, he spoke at length about his childhood relation with Douglas and then went on to indict the present administration”headed by the worst environmental president in history who has corrupted all agencies by heading them with the bought dogs of the corporations who finance his campaigns. A former NY state assistant attorney general who spearheaded the salvation of New York’s Hudson River, Bobby’s son spoke about his three sons who suffer from asthma brought on by the unprosecuted criminal activities of corporate polluters. He talked about the subversion of the free market by the corporations that now control government. He talked about the ignorance of what’s going on caused by the corporate media’s refusal to report it. He talked about his own success at awakening and converting Red-state audiences. And finally he rhapsodized at length about Saint Francis, the Bible, religion and nature. You can find an early version of this speech at

A quiet and lyrical coda to this Riverkeeper’s jeremiad came in a presentation by Robert Hass entitled “River of Words.” Another local as well as national hero, Hass used his position as former US poet laureate to create an organization promoting environmental education for children. As he does with his students at UC Berkeley he encourages teachers to take their students outdoors, to cultivate their senses and encourage their observations of nature, to get them to follow Aldo Leopold’s advice to “think like a mountain,” and then to have them write poems and draw pictures about their experiences. This traditional but nowadays rare approach has generated thousands of submissions from around the world which his organization makes available online and in published collections, and which in turn generate more rivers of words. Rather than reading his own lovely nature poems, Hass spent the hour showing and commenting upon exquisite examples of the childrens’ work. For more information on this project see,

There was much more at this amazing conference than can fit here. The impact of what I heard and saw is still not absorbed. And though I have doubts about the effectiveness of a very abstract exercise in deliberative process, the sensation of simply being together with so many people of like mind, common loss and shared aspiration–people for whom I immediately felt affection and respect–will nourish me for a long time.

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