Looking A little Green

Taking the Sierra Club's helm, boy wonder Adam Werbach confronts more than his own inexperience

Then came the whole flap over immigration. In March of 1993, the Sierra Club found itself on the brink of endorsing a measure that basically said newcomers and the United States environment were a bad match. Keep those folks south of the border, you see, and they won't be standing on line in Wal-Marts across America getting ready to buy aerosol sprays that could deplete the ozone layer.

"And you thought cars and industry polluted air, lack of recycling regulations made solid waste such a problem and the water shortage was because of a water subsidy policy that makes it profitable for big growers to raise rice in arid California. You were wrong: according to the national Population Committee of the Sierra Club, it's the immigrants, who are increasing California's population with their higher fertility rate and their desire to learn our lifestyle, who cause these problems," Hannah Creighton of Earth Island Institute wrote in the summer 1993 edition of Race, Poverty, and the Environment, which devoted an entire issue, guest-edited by Creighton, to the topic of racism within the environmental activist community. The debate over immigration ran hot enough to ignite Sierra Club fires for months. Has the fury died down?

"No it hasn't, and nobody talks about this," says Sierra Club board member David Brower, still burning.

But then, maybe all the policy bickering makes things needlessly complicated. "Instead of saying, 'Kill your television,' say, 'Celebrate your television,' " Adam Werbach declares.

Midday, midweek, the new Sierra Club president is sitting on a couch in his office on Polk Street, down the strip from where the hustlers work oblivious to the needs of faraway trees. He's wearing black jeans, brown shoes, a green jacket, and a dark shirt. And sweat sox, which look as if they might be on upside-down, arches where the soles should be.

"Use a pop-cultural device that people have a lot of interest in," Werbach continues. "Use it to explicate issues: Body image. Sex. Consumerism."

When the Sierra Club announced Werbach's election to the position of president in May, it blew some pretty loud trumpets. "Sierra Club passes torch to youngest president," the press release read, as if, by virtue of his age alone, Werbach could pump new life into the organization.

Well, he's trying.
Consider his film, Buy Me a Barbie. "Everybody's interested in Barbie," Werbach says -- and, in that same way, everybody could be interested in the environment. That's the plan. Get people moving. Get people thinking. Get the message out there. Use the arts, use artists, to communicate what needs to be said. Move into many different areas -- music, visual arts, video. Nothing's too certain yet, because no artists are actually involved, yet. He'll find them. They'll help him come up with the ideas. He'll use the media, use celebrities. Put the message out there. This land is your land. Clean water. Clean air. Protect the wild places.

"This isn't your grandfather's Sierra Club anymore," Werbach says. "Your grandfather would never watch MTV. We have no choice but to."

At Brown University, in Providence, R.I., Werbach studied political science and modern culture and media. Imagine, for a minute, taking a step back from this life and realizing that we've been told all the things we believe. They're not organic, within us. They're communicated from the outside. So how does that happen? How do people learn?

"I learn from the combinations of cultures I'm immersed in," Werbach says, "which is fashion, movies, and art."

Why not, Werbach asks, weave the environment into that culture equation? Rather than writing position papers about it. Teach people the way they learn. Reach people where they are. Have every single person think about clean air every single day. The way people think constantly about the things they see on TV. Won't that make things better?

"In some ways I want to focus the organization more on communicating basic simple messages that basically resound in people's heads," he says.

"The ideas need to be simple. The ideas need to be things we can work out -- have a natural environment that doesn't kill you, safe drinking water, clean air, get involved in your community. Where you live, vote. That is the single biggest environmental issue -- people aren't voting."

In the last week, Werbach's own environment has gotten a lot more complicated. For one, the phone won't stop ringing. It's ringing right now, as he speaks. Werbach is learning to just let the phone go. Pick it up, and it'll run your life. For another, there's the White House reception he's been invited to. A friend has an art gallery opening in New York the same day, and before all of this happened, Werbach had promised to be there. He'll have to cancel on her, and that hurts. Friends should come first.

Pretty dizzying. But Werbach is not as much of a newcomer as he might seem. Because of his work organizing students for the Sierra Club, he has had a chair on the club's national board of directors for the last two years. He has literally paid his dues, $15 a year for the last 13 years.

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