The 51 Percent Solution

(By Carl Pope) For the past four years, the Sierra Club focused on stopping the Bush administration's destructive environmental policies...

Time to Reach Out and Talk to the Other Half

For the past four years, the Sierra Club focused on stopping the Bush administration's destructive environmental policies. We fought as we have never fought before, pouring heart and soul and every resource at our disposal into that endeavor. We fought in Washington and in communities across the country, and we won thousands of new supporters, but a nation at war and deeply divided on social issues was distracted and ultimately unwilling to change course. We did our best, but our best wasn't enough.

It's going to be a tough four years. When Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, Bush still took his election by the Supreme Court as a mandate. Now Bush has won outright, with a clear but narrow majority. True to form, the day after the election he was already claiming that his 51 percent of the vote was "a broad, national victory," while Vice President Dick Cheney was again calling it a mandate.

What will the White House try to do with this "mandate"? We can expect efforts to limit the Endangered Species Act and to undo the National Environmental Policy Act, which guarantees that citizens can go to court to defend themselves and their communities against environmental assaults. Science will continue to take a backseat to politics; wildlands will be in danger if they have timber on top or petroleum underneath. Already there are new calls to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Sierra Club will oppose such moves, of course, and block as many as we can. It's what we've been doing for the last four years, and we're very good at it.

Fortunately, it's an altogether different story when you look out across the landscape. In the 2004 election, ordinary people concerned about the environment got involved at an unprecedented level. Thousands of Sierra Club volunteers knocked on their neighbors' doors -- many of them for the first time -- and thousands more telephoned environmental voters. By November 2, we had visited more than a million homes, made 1.5 million phone calls, and recruited 12,000 new volunteers.

Another sign of hope is the incredible array of new partnerships around issues like public health, jobs, and quality of life. In just the last year alone, Sierra Club volunteers found themselves working alongside the Service Employees International Union, the NAACP, and Planned Parenthood. If you want to cut a deal with polluters, you have to deal with ranchers and farmers, hunters and fishermen, doctors and nurses, as well as the Sierra Club.

This broad-based work must continue. After Barry Goldwater's crushing electoral defeat in 1964, American conservatives withdrew, regrouped, and set about the painstaking work of creating an infrastructure to support future efforts. They established think tanks; identified, trained, and supported young candidates; started media outlets; and coordinated political fundraising.

We and our friends can do the same. What counts now is whether we persevere in working together to reach out to new allies. And we will find many: the American people, even those who voted for Bush, will never embrace his shortsighted environmental vision. So we have to hold on to those clipboards and get a conversation going with the other 51 percent. We must tell stories, not just recite statistics. Our common cause with our fellow citizens is plain: the beauty of the country we love, and the health and well-being of us all. As Teddy Roosevelt put it, "This country can never permanently be a good place for any of us to live unless it is eventually a good place for all of us to live."

How long will it take? The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was asked the same question in March 1965, in Montgomery, Alabama. "How long? Not long," he said. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."


Carl Pope was appointed Executive Director of the Sierra Club in 1992. A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Mr. Pope has been with the Sierra Club for nearly thirty years. Under Mr. Pope, the Sierra Club has helped protect nearly 10 million acres of wilderness, including such highlights as the California Desert, Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and California's Giant Sequoias National Monument. The Club brought the litigation challenging the right of Vice-President Cheney's Energy Task Force to conduct its policy making in secret negotiations with major energy interests. The Sierra Club also collected more than a million comments -- the most public comments on a single regulatory issue in history -- in support of protecting the remaining roadless areas in America's National Forests. More recently in Mr. Pope's tenure, the Sierra Club led the charge in pressuring the Bush Administration to reverse its position against new rules that would lower the amount of arsenic in America's drinking water and mercury in our fisheries. The Sierra Club has also continued to hold the line in protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling, and in stopping repeatedly proposed omnibus energy legislation that would give tens of billions in subsidies to oil, coal and nuclear interests.

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