This morning I announced that I was "opening up my dance card" and stepping down as chairman of the Sierra Club, the role I assumed almost two years ago when Michael Brune assumed leadership of the Club. I'll continue to consult and fund-raise with the Club -- but I want to broaden my scope and take on some challenges that, although essential to saving the planet, are not what some might narrowly define as purely environmental. In response, a number of friends (and I imagine in private some antagonists) have asked, "Why? You've been happy with the Club for 38 years -- why move on now?"
My simple answer is that the most important insight we environmentalists need if we really want to respond to the climate crisis, the collapse of biodiversity, and the impending arrival not just of "peak oil" but of "peak stuff," is to recognize that we cannot solve these problems on our own. There are not enough environmentalists to save the environment. There are not enough workers-rights advocates to protect workers. American manufacturing companies cannot compete, on their own, with China's. America must build much bigger coalitions with much broader visions if we want to lead the 21st century.
The first project I'm undertaking could well be called "Made in America." Its premise is that the climate crisis, the implosion of the American economy, our continued dependence on coal and oil, and the erosion of the American middle class have a common remedy -- using innovation and sustainability, in combination with smart public policy, to restore the preeminence of the United States in manufacturing.
Why manufacturing? Because innovation doesn't happen, and isn't scaled, in a laboratory -- it happens when an entire society engages, with its minds, its hearts and its hands, in finding better, more creative, and gentler-on-the-earth ways to feed our families, heat our buildings, and power our economies.
In my conversations with manufacturing CEOs, whether in emerging clean-tech companies or in established industries, they typically ask, with raised eyebrows, "Why are you here?" My answer is simple: Our politics may be broken, but our country isn't -- yet. If we want smart public policy that leverages sustainability, innovation, and clean energy to rebuild our economy and our middle class, then we need to break out of our boxes.
The old economy has to link with the new, environmentalists with labor unions, and civil rights groups with state and local government. Together, we need to make it clear to our nation's squabbling leaders that we understand that an innovative, sustainable, clean-manufacturing revival is the key to our nation's future -- and we won't be put off by the argument that American wages are too high.
Because this much is clear: "It's not the wages, stupid." It's not the government, either -- we need a stronger governmental role in making sure that we are innovative, competitive and sustainable. What is crippling our society is stupid politics. And the way to deal with that politics is to raise the bar and to broaden the base, which is exactly what the Sierra Club has been doing under Mike Brune's leadership. The latest result? The spectacular defeat of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline proposal last week.
The politics that claims we can't do better or, in the memorable words of Representative Cliff Stearns, that American can't compete with China, will only hold us back. That kind of politics is sustained by the narrowness of the categories into which Americans have been gulled into thinking. When we set that kind of thinking aside, perhaps the idea that a passionate environmentalist like me might care about making it clean and making it in America won't be greeted with raised eyebrows.