Why was the '06 election the most successful in the movement's history?
Carl Pope is Executive Director of the Sierra Club. Since Pope’s appointment in 1992, Sierra Club has added 150,000 new members, bringing the total membership to 700,000. Pope has a distinguished record of environmental activism and leadership.
Prior to his work with the Sierra Club, Pope served on the Boards of the California League of Conservation Voters, Public Voice, National Clean Air Coalition, California Common Cause and Public Interest Economics, Inc. He is the co-author of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, and other books including Hazardous Waste in America and Sahib, an American Misadventure in India. Pope was educated at Harvard University and spent two years in the Peace Corps in India on graduation.
Question: Why was 2006 the most successful election in the environmental movement’s history?
Carl Pope: If you look back to 2005, we had a Congress where you had the leadership was in the hands of people like Tom DeLay. Ted Stevens was the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Don Young was the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Richard Pambo was the head of the House . . . These were all people whose fundamental ideological attitude was the earth is on fire sale. We’re here to use it all up. The more of it we can use up, the better job we’re doing. And they were running the show. They were completely in charge of the U.S. Congress. Coming out of the 2006 election, to pick one symbolic example, the House Resources Committee, which in 1993 had been known as the House Natural Resources Committee, and the leadership took the world “natural” out of the title. The word “natural” got back into the title. And suddenly you had people running the House Natural Resources Committee who actually think the natural forests are a legacy for our children rather than petty cash for next week’s binge. So that was an enormous difference. How did it happen? I think a number of things came together. First of all I have to say it is very helpful when your opponents get really greedy and really sloppy simultaneously. Having a bunch of ‘em go to jail was definitely an asset on election day, and they haven’t stopped. I mean we now have this ridiculous situation in Alaska. We’re people who routinely . . . routinely took $800 million dollars of public money and gave it to one of their buddies, and on the way out the door pocketed $20,000. And what really is flabbergasting to me is not just that they did it. I mean I understand human greed. I’ve seen it in my lifetime. But how you could be so cheap is flabbergasting. That helped. The other thing that helped, frankly, was that after the election of 2004 when Bush came back in, almost immediately there was a huge amount of buyer’s remorse. People around America who had voted for George Bush – because they didn’t like John Kerry and they were worried about terrorism and the war – looked around at their communities . . . both the educational problems . . . they looked at the environmental problems and they said, “Wait a minute. Washington is not gonna help.” And what you saw after 2004 was state and local governments stepping forward, beginning to solve problems on their own, being very creative. You saw the face of the Republican party at the local and state level change from George Bush, and Tom DeLay, and Richard Pambo to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlie ________ and Michael Bloomberg. Those are very different faces. And as America moved and the leadership in Congress didn’t move, they just kind of became irrelevant and the public threw ‘em out.
Question: How does the Sierra Club fit into that process?
Carl Pope: Well where we try to fit – we do it well sometimes and sometimes we don’t do as well as we should – is our belief is that these people do work for us. They don’t mostly act like it. And because they don’t act like it most Americans forget that politicians work for them. Our job is to remind people, hey, these men and women work for you. You need to expect them to do what you want. And you need them to expect them to listen to you, and here’s their phone number. And then when people get a good response, we see that as a good response. You were heard. You should thank him or her. Or if, as too often happens, they get the brush off, we say well you should remember that. You should tell your neighbors about that. There’s gonna be an election in two years. You’ll have a chance to remind these people they work for you. That’s our role. Our role is to remind Americans that politicians work for them.
Recorded on: September 27, 2007.
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