Or, How Environmental Groups Need to Lose the Dogma
Last summer, I found out a coworker was the head of the local Sierra Club chapter and he suggested I get involved with some local campaigns. I admit to not being terribly involved. The major campaigns near me have emphasized stopping Washington from exporting coal to China and I just don’t have much interest1. But earlier this summer, as I publicly expressed support for genetic engineering2, I happened to check the Sierra Club’s policy. I found it absurd. The Sierra Club’s official policy was a complete moratorium on all planting of GE crops, even ones that have been approved for a decade. It even seemed to deny the possibility of significant humanitarian advances like Golden Rice ever being a good idea. The policy was also ten years old — how much has happened in that time? Friends however pointed out that you can’t agree with every policy of an organized group and the Sierra Club seems pretty effective politically, especially in the regulatory space. So I stayed.
I subscribed to the biotech mailing list, misleadingly called “Sierra Club’s Biotech Forum”. Recently I was kicked off that list seemingly for privately asking the head of the biotech committee why the biotech policy can’t be revisited. Neither the committee head nor Sierra Club’s member services have responded to my enquiries. My membership is up this month. I probably won’t be renewing.
Please see a newer post for my current thoughts.
A Timeline of My Interactions With the Sierra Club
- Summer 2011: I dip my foot into activism and specifically help out in a campaign against the state route 99 viaduct replacement project. This was essentially a last ditch effort to reject an extremely expensive deep-bore tunnel.
- September 2011: I became a paying member of the Sierra Club.
- May or June 2012: I join the misnamed “biotech forum” email list. I quickly discover that the list is one-way: short emails with links about current GE issues, often petitions.
- June 14: I sent a single email in response to a “take action” message to sign a petition to tell my senator I support Senator Bernie Sanders poor GMO labeling legislation. Since the list is moderated, it must be approved. It is not. The moderator does not separately reply as to why my message was inappropriate.
- August 6: I again try responding, only this time to a story about GMO crops and Kevlar tires which I knew probably wasn’t as simple as it was being purported. Again, my email was never posted.
At this point we get to the depressing part. On August 30, after getting an email about “Six GMO foods that may soon hit your dinner table” complete with a link to a Natural Society story which I won’t link here3, I emailed the moderator and head of the biotech community directly to ask what was specifically so harmful about the Arctic Apple (since it was on the list) and why she considered that news source reasonable. Our conversation over the next few days was brief. Ultimately I was curtly told that the policy was the policy and wasn’t going to be revisited. When I replied pointing out that the field of biotech has advanced a lot (Golden Rice!) since the policy was approved, I was independently informed by the mailing list software that I had been removed by another person. I emailed the moderator to ask if this was intentional, but have not received a response. Since I haven’t received a response, I doubt asking for permission to post private emails would be fruitful, so you’ll have to take my judgement for the tone of these messages. The moderator’s responses were dogmatic and short. The contradiction in calling the mailing list a “forum” was clearly lost.
Still, biotech really isn’t a topic the Sierra Club spends much time on, despite having a policy. So I waited a few days to see if my query about being removed from the mailing list was intentional — obviously it was intentional, but I wanted to give the moderator a chance to respond. My email traffic could hardly be called abusive: a total of two sent to the mailing list directly (neither approved) and five to the moderator (including my final query) with three responses from her.
The Club Doesn’t Respond
On Monday, I emailed member services for the Sierra Club to explain that (a) I think their biotech policy needs to be re-visited and (b) to ask if it was Club policy to remove people from one-way mailing lists. I chose member services because it seemed the best option on their contact page and because presumably someone actually reads it4. The email included the full email conversation that led to me being kicked off the list — since the moderator (and head of the biotech committee) was acting on behalf of the Sierra Club, I do not consider it a violation of privacy to share them with the Club. I also noted that this has made it much less likely I would renew my membership. I’ve not received any response, not even “we’ve received your email”. I can only assume they think I’m a crank and are ignoring me. Well, perhaps I am.
But I don’t think I would be so cranky if the Sierra Club and its officials showed the slightest interest in discussion. If the head of the committee had just said she doesn’t have time to discuss the policy right now but hadn’t kicked me off the list, then I could probably just accept that I should wait. But why remove me from the list? Is just knowing there’s one person on the list who doesn’t agree so damaging? Worse, the Sierra Club leadership, when informed of this, chooses to be silent.
Why Dogmatism is a Problem
I knew that the Sierra Club was dogmatic. All large environmental organizations are. That’s their choice of course, but it’s my choice to decide not to give them money for it. I can also tell my friends why I don’t support the Sierra Club. But I also think it represents a larger problem than just making me cranky: if you repeatedly tell your supporters that something just has to be stopped, then they will take a dogmatic view. Discussion of other options or trade-offs isn’t possible. Even if, behind the scenes, the Sierra Club’s lobbyists are good at arguing for “least bad” options, the perception is far different. It encourages dogmatic and unreasonable position-taking. Possible political allies can become firm opponents even if a compromise could be made. Even if a compromise is critical to actually getting anything done.
- China has to get coal somewhere and while China at least is not dogmatically and universally opposed to nuclear power, the Sierra Club is. My argument for my previous post applies here: I’d rather coal be extracted here under at least a working regulatory regime than elsewhere. So I couldn’t really bring myself to help out with anti-coal campaign. ↩
- In general, I support it. As always it matters what traits, how they are used, other farming practices that go with them, etc. ↩
- I won’t link to the Natural Society’s web page because it is full of non-scientific pages on many health topics including anti-vaccination misinformation, anti-fluoridation nonsense, miracle claims for various health products and so on. There’s even a story about how turmeric and black pepper “prevent” breast tumors. So no links for them. ↩
- It seems the likely email for contacting them about payment problems which presumably they do respond to. ↩