The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) --
important national organizations in the U.S. environmental movement --
are both celebrating environmental victories in 1996.
Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, wrote recently, "It's
been an extraordinary year for the Sierra Club. We were able to stave
off the war on the environment waged by the 104th Congress and prevent
the dismantling of 25 years of environmental protections for our air
and water. In fact, we managed to push some positive environmental
legislation through in the last few weeks of Congress, such as
protections of the Presidio National Park in San Francisco and the
Tallgrass Prairie in Kansas." He goes on, "The Sierra Club was able to
make the environment a salient political issue. For the first time in
history, the environment was a decisive issue in a number of
John Adams, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council
(NRDC), assigned even greater importance to the same victories that Mr.
Pope mentioned: "Now it is the end of 1996," Mr. Adams wrote recently,
"and all of us who care about the environment can look back on what may
be the single most significant victory in the history of the U.S.
environmental movement. In the past two years, we have turned back an
attack that the entire country thought was unstoppable--an attack on
our National Parks, our public health, our keystone environmental laws
that have stood for twenty-five years."
So the U.S. environmental movement had a successful 1995 and 1996,
according to these national leaders. But what about the environment
itself? Here are a few facts gathered from the nation's newspaper of
record, the NEW YORK TIMES:
** In 1996, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature
[IUCN] in Gland, Switzerland, issued an updated worldwide "red list" of
threatened species. The new list is "startling," says the TIMES:
1096 mammals --nearly one-quarter of all the mammalian species on Earth
--are critically endangered (169), endangered (315), or vulnerable
(612). This is the first time the IUCN has assessed the status of the
world's 4630 mammalian species. More than 500 scientists contributed to
the latest edition of the IUCN's "red list." Many national governments
are members of the IUCN.
The terms critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable have the
following meaning to the IUCN:
Critically endangered means an organism faces an "extremely high risk"
of extinction in the wild in the immediate future. Immediate might mean
10 years for some species, longer for longer-lived ones. Endangered
means a species faces a "very high risk" of extinction in the near
future --in 20 years or more, for instance. Vulnerable means a species
faces a high risk of extinction in the medium-term future, which could
be 100 years or so depending on the species. These categories are not
comparable with those established by the United States' Endangered
Species Act (ESA), which assigns imperiled species the status of
"endangered" or the less serious "threatened."
In addition to one-quarter of the world's mammals being threatened with
extinction, the latest IUCN red list includes 1108 species of birds --
more than 11 percent of all the bird species on Earth.
In addition to mammals and birds, the red list of 1996 includes 253
reptile species, 124 amphibian species, and 734 fish species in danger
of extinction, but it emphasizes that thousands of groups of animals
have never been assessed, so the truth is very likely worse than the
IUCN has reported.
All told, this year's red list includes 5025 species that are in danger
of disappearing forever.
That's worldwide. What about in the U.S.?
** In January, 1996, the TIMES reported that the Nature Conservancy (a
private organization) had evaluated 20,481 species of animals and
plants. The Nature Conservancy reported that about one-third of the
species studied are rare or imperiled in the U.S. Specifically, 1.3
percent were already extinct (or possibly extinct --extinction is hard
to prove); 6.5 percent were critically imperiled; 8.9 percent were
imperiled; and 15 percent were considered vulnerable.
The four groups with the highest percentages of species in danger of
extinction are freshwater mussels (67.1 percent), crayfish (64.8
percent), amphibians (37.9 percent), and freshwater fish (37.2
percent). The groups with the LOWEST percentages of species in trouble
were birds (13.9 percent), and mammals (16.1 percent). This study
listed only full species, not subspecies, so endangered creatures like
the northern spotted owl in the northwestern U.S. were not included.
Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson told the TIMES that the Nature
Conservancy study was scientifically valid and was representative of
the nation's fauna and flora, even though some groups, like insects,
were not well represented. There are an estimated 100,000 species of
plants and animals in the U.S., so the Nature Conservancy only looked
at about one-fifth of all species --the ones for which scientists had
sufficient information to make an assessment.
There is only one cause of this decimation: humans and their economic
activities, which are premised on the unspoken assumption that humans
are the master species of the Earth and can do whatever they please
If the problem really has only one cause, why can't we make headway
against it? For one thing, we can't seem to admit a defeat when we
experience one. We insist on calling it victory.
Against the IUCN's and the Nature Conservancy's catalogs of
destruction, we have Sierra Club's Carl Pope celebrating the year's
accomplishments: managing to hang on to the environmental laws that
have permitted the destruction for 25 years; protection of a former
military base (albeit a park-like one), the Presidio, in San Francisco,
and a slice of prairie in Kansas; and making the environment "a salient
political issue" in a handful of Congressional races. For his part,
John Adams celebrates the fact that 25 years of ineffective U.S.
environmental laws have been retained. Adams calls this "the single
most significant victory in the history of the U.S. environmental
movement." If these evaluations are correct, then the environmental
movement in the U.S. is bankrupt.
The national environmental organizations are continuing to work
exclusively on the symptoms of our distress. They are working to pass
laws and regulations, one at a time, to apply a zillion bandages to a
zillion small wounds, each of which is oozing blood. This is a strategy
doomed to fail. It has failed year after year, and it will continue to
fail into the future until the human animal has disappeared.
Let's be blunt. Few will disagree with the following assessment by John
Stauber and Sheldon Rampton: "The business class dominates government
through its ability to fund political campaigns, purchase high-priced
lobbyists, and reward former officials with lucrative jobs."
(Obviously this is true not only in the U.S.; this is a global
If this is so, why do we keep trying to tweak government, to pass one
more law that either won't be enforced or won't change anything that
matters? Instead, why don't we focus our attention and resources on the
institutions that give the business class the undemocratic power to
dominate government (as well as to dominate our vision of what's right
and good)? Think of where the environmental movement could be today if,
25 years ago, we had begun to focus our creative energies on
diminishing the excessive power of the corporate class instead of on
tweaking ineffective environmental regulations.
Before government can help the environment in any significant way,
government must be restored to a point where it can debate real issues
and seek real solutions. That will require us to get private
(corporate) money out of our elections AS A FIRST PRIORITY.
To his credit, Carl Pope went on record in a recent SIERRA magazine
saying that the key institution of the business class --the corporation
--is a "major obstacle to the defense of clean air and water and the
preservation of wildlife habitat." This was an important, positive
Despite this, the Sierra Club spent almost $7.5 million trying to
influence the outcome of Congressional races in 1996 --during an
election campaign where total spending exceeded $1.8 billion. This
$7.5 million represents a breathtaking amount of cash, when compared to
the money that is available to work on campaign finance reform --the
effort to get private/corporate money out of elections --where even one
million dollars is a huge sum. That $7.5 million could have funded a
major effort to achieve campaign finance reform, but could make almost
no difference in a $1.8 billion national election. Spent on a national
election, those funds could do nothing to diminish the excessive power
of the corporate class. Despite Mr. Pope's recent --and welcome --
acknowledgement that corporations are a key problem, the Club evidently
still doesn't have a strategy that can lead to anything but more of the
same old stuff --and I offer this saddening assessment as a member and
supporter of the Club.
Still it should be said that the Sierra Club is among the more
progressive of the nation's 15 large national environmental
organizations. At this point, the rest of the groups are far off target
with the exception of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. NRDC seems
unlikely ever to understand the centrality of the corporation to
environmental destruction. Indeed, most of the Big 15 are committed to
failed strategies, supporting Clinton/Gore, pretending to themselves
that success will arrive when the Democrats come up with the corporate
cash needed to retake control of Congress. History tells us it is a
But isn't it really individual lifestyles that are the problem, not
corporate money and power? It is difficult to imagine people in an
industrialized country like the U.S. successfully curbing their
appetites while corporations are spending $23 billion each year
promoting hedonism (usually called "consumerism") through advertising.
Corporations have spent a century intentionally reversing our "old
fashioned" attitudes of frugality, thrift, simplicity, and religious
reverence for life. (And most recently they are in our schools,
dismantling environmental education programs, intentionally exorcising
the knowledge and attitudes our children will need for survival.) A few
people have been able to withstand this ceaseless barrage of corporate
propaganda, but not many. Before people can sort out what it's going to
take to prevent the extinction of humans, we will need to clear our
minds and focus on fundamentals, in preparation for a difficult
national debate. Getting corporate money out of the institutions of our
democracy is the first requirement.
--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 Undated letter to "Dear Friends" from Carl Pope, Executive
Director, The Sierra Club, received December 9, 1996.
 John H. Adams, "A victory against all odds," AMICUS JOURNAL Vol.
18, No. 4 (Winter 1997), pg. 2.
 Les Line, "1,096 Mammal and 1,108 Bird Species Threatened," NEW
YORK TIMES October 8, 1996, p. 4. The IUCN is part of the World
Conservation Union, Rue Mauverney 28, CH-1196 Gland, Switzerland.
Telephone +41-22-9990001; fax: +41-22-9990002. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Washington, D.C. their telephone number is (202) 797-5454. To order
their publications from within the U.S. or Canada call toll-free 1-800-
 William K. Stevens, "Fierce Debate Erupts Over Degree of Peril
Facing Ocean Species," NEW YORK TIMES, September 17, 1996, pg. 1.
 William Dicke, "Numerous U.S. Plant and Freshwater Species Found in
Peril," NEW YORK TIMES January 2, 1996, pg. B12. The Nature Conservancy
can be reached in Arlington, Virginia: (703) 841-5300.
 For the best explanation of this unspoken assumption, read Daniel
Quinn, ISHMAEL (New York: Bantam Books, 1992 [hard back], 1995 [paper
 John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, TOXIC SLUDGE IS GOOD FOR YOU!
(Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995), pg. 78.
 Carl Pope, "Corporate Citizens," SIERRA Vol. 81, No. 6
(November/December 1996), pg. 14.
 John H. Cushman, Jr., "Environmentalists Ante Up To Sway a Number
of Races," NEW YORK TIMES, October 23, 1996, pg. 21. The $1.8 billion
is from the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C.;
telephone (202) 857-0044.
Descriptor terms: sierra club; natural resources defense council; nrdc;
elections; corporations; species loss; carl pope; john adams; iucn; red
list; extinction; mammals; amphibians; fish; reptiles; international
union for the conservation of nature; nature conservancy; ishmael;
daniel quinn; corporations;