Why Jane Hamsher Should Join the Sierra Club

06/16/2010 11:29 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A friend gave me a heads up that Jane Hamsher rips the Sierra Club a new one in her latest blog. I opened it up and, bam, there's the headline: "Why the Sierra Club No Longer Deserves Your Trust."

"Ouch," I thought. That seems a tad harsh. I realize I've only been the executive director of the Club for just three months -- what could we have done to deserve such venom? Let's see... we've stopped the construction of another six coal plants, making it 129 that we've defeated in the last couple of years. We're fighting the tar sands, promoting lands protection to create climate-resilient habitat, scaling up our work on clean energy, building a campaign to challenge the natural gas industry to address risks to our air and water... where's the love?

Before coming to the Sierra Club, I was the executive director of Rainforest Action Network. (RAN). For years at RAN, we designed and directed corporate campaigns to push the biggest companies in corporate America -- Home Depot, Citigroup, Lowe's, Boise Cascade, etc -- to adopt strong policies on human rights and the environment. We'd pick the biggest company in an industry, set a strong goal for what they'd need to do to protect people and the planet, and then mobilize activists around the country to help them change.

So I know a little bit about attacking institutions, and even about picking high-ranking executives and exposing them for one thing or another. And I also know the typical response of those executives: ignore the issue, attack the messenger, or change the story.

Even though Jane didn't single me out for attack, I don't want to do any of those things. In fact, I think Jane makes some strong points. To be sure, she gets a few of her facts wrong, stretches a few others, picks unfair fights, and conveniently ignores a huge body of work. But at the same time, she makes a fair argument in her post about how environmental groups (and progressives in general) ought to be operating with the current administration.

But let me first get a few facts out of the way. Jane insinuates that the Sierra Club accepts donations from BP. We do not. We have not accepted any money from BP and are not soliciting funds now or in the future. (And to be fair, I don't think the Club is likely to receive any offers anytime soon.) However, we did "partner" with BP Wind several years ago, along with a collection of organizations and companies, as part of the American Wind Wildlife Institute -- for the purpose of siting wind farms where they would have a minimal impact on migratory birds. Let me know if that's a bad thing.

Jane understands the true power of the Sierra Club when she writes, "The Sierra Club has one of the most well-known progressive brands, and their membership is both deep and broad. Their ability to successfully advocate for environmental causes doesn't depend on access to politicians." That's right on. Our ability to fight for the things we care about comes from more than a million of our members, volunteers, and everyday Americans who donate their time and their talent to make the world a better place.

Unfortunately, Jane's dead wrong as she continues: "It appears that they have opted for an 'inside' game, and have completely dropped the ball on pressuring elected officials from the outside -- right when their efforts could have the most impact." In fact, the Sierra Club has been doing arguably more than any other organization in the "outside game" -- organizing activists around the country to hold BP accountable and to demand a plan from Obama to move the country beyond oil.

Within two weeks of the disaster, we organized more than five dozen demonstrations at BP facilities around the country. Those demonstrations and subsequent events focused on BP because, after all, it was BP's rig, BP's likely criminal negligence, and BP's lies that created this disaster. But the Obama administration has been far from perfect, and we've publicly criticized the president in interviews on CNN, MSNBC, in the Washington Post, and other outlets. Jane mentions an ad from environmental groups praising the president for putting a hold on drilling in Alaska, but she apparently didn't see the ad the Sierra Club ran in The Hill last week calling for Obama to provide more leadership. Just yesterday, I did a satellite interview tour -- 25 back-to-back interviews on local TV news programs -- and I challenged the president in almost every one. After the president's speech last night, I didn't hesitate in our official response and elsewhere to say that we still need specifics. Finally, after my second trip to the Gulf, I recorded this video, as part of a new Sierra Club initiative to challenge President Obama to get the country off oil once and for all. Suffice to say, the Sierra Club is committed to the outside game. We also know that both corporate and political leaders must be accountable, including the current president.

But Jane makes a larger point about most of the environmental community that I think is fair. She feels that too many enviros have become too close to the administration to be tough and to hold it to a high standard. I think that's true, and in my limited experience working among national environmental groups, I have seen a reluctance by smart campaigners and organizations to criticize the president, primarily because those people or groups support much of what the administration is trying to do.

That's a shame, because it is indeed possible to point out the faults of someone that you support, or to criticize an agency for not living up to its promise or potential. In fact, it is not only possible but also imperative that we do so. If progressive groups don't challenge the administration, Congress, and the people within those institutions to aim as high as they can, who will? Don't we do this in our families and in our relationships when we say, "Look, you know I love you, but you gotta stop..."? Just as we communicate varying levels of support and criticism in our personal lives, we can do the same thing politically.

Sad to say, I think Jane may have inadvertently fallen into the same trap. She pulled a quote from my predecessor, Carl Pope, from the Bangor Daily News (of all places) saying that "President Obama is the best environmental president we've had since Teddy Roosevelt," and takes that as proof positive that somehow we can't criticize the president, nor challenge him to do a better job than he has so far.

We can, and we are. So look a little deeper, Jane, and join us. I'll even waive your membership fee.