Looking A little Green

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

"They can't spread their legs, like, outward," the woman on-screen is explaining. She is staring right into the camera, holding a Barbie doll. The doll has its legs split, a broad-jumper in the Olympics of love. The curtains of the room in this trendy Tenderloin hotel are drawn against the late-afternoon light. The television set shines like the white of a long-dead eye. "Like, straddling someone. My Barbies," the woman on the TV says, "always had sex like scissors."

Outside, beyond the perimeter of the hotel, life goes on. Drug deals, hookers, broken glass. Inside the hotel, in the open-air courtyard that frames a pool, the management broadcasts bird calls, which ricochet off the concrete walkways as if tropical creatures had somehow found their way here and were trying to get back home. As if it's possible to erase pain with beauty. Or present-day life with the recorded recollection of another time and place.

"It's definitely not fuckable," another woman on the TV says. She's looking at her Barbie doll with disdain. As, indeed, John Muir might have.

John Muir?
In a chair in a corner of the room in the dark, Adam Werbach is sitting and watching the TV screen. At 23, Werbach has a title: President of the Sierra Club. On this Tuesday afternoon, he's had the job for one week and one day. Tomorrow, he'll get his cellular phone. The day after that, he'll visit the White House. Werbach made this Barbie movie in college last year. Directed it, shot it, the works. It's a post-structural look at an American icon, he explains. "It was not regular Barbie. It was hooker-agency Barbie," another woman on the television says. "Ken was the pimp."

The pimp? Exactly what is this Werbach person doing running the nation's pre-eminent environmental organization? The Sierra Club isn't just a gold star on someone's resume -- it's 104 years old, for heaven's sake. It protected Yosemite. It stopped the government from turning the Grand Canyon into a reservoir. Parks for the people. American icons.

These days, though, the Sierra Club is at a crossroads. Decades of lobbying in Washington have given the club a place at the political table, but that seat has been earned with compromises that don't sit well with more progressive, grass-roots environmentalists. And recently, the club's national leaders have been seen to waffle on the issues, which has caused an uproar in the club's membership. Allow commercial logging on nationally owned lands? Well, hell, if you have to, the board says. Over our dead bodies, the membership declares.

Enter Werbach. Younger and hipper than most Sierra Club members, Werbach's not your typical Volvo-driving green bean.

"If I hadn't decided to take this position I'd sort of be in film school next year," Werbach says. "That's sort of where my passion lies."

Werbach wants to transfer that passion to reshape the image of the environmental movement. And already, his election as president has sparked a spate of gushing stories -- everywhere from Newsweek to the New York Times -- about the club's rebirth. After all, Werbach's environmental record is impressive: While still in high school, he formed a national student coalition within the Sierra Club that has grown to 30,000 members and given the club new life among younger people. While in college at Brown University, he mobilized a savvy telephone campaign widely credited with turning the U.S. Senate vote that won crucial protections for California desert lands.

But image is one thing, and impact is another, especially given the labyrinthine structure of the Sierra Club and the powerful political forces at odds with each other in its national leadership. Werbach now finds himself surrounded by equally determined and more experienced people who will try to use him for their own ends.

Will he be able to effect real change? Or will Werbach find that, like Barbie, he's just a plastic pleasure figurine in other people's hands?

The last few years have been rough for the Sierra Club, which, with 600,000 members, is the nation's most famous environmental organization. To start with, the Republicans in Congress have taken it upon themselves to denude American lawbooks of environmental protections. In Washington, the group's legal wizards have been working overtime to at least gain a draw in the political chess game. But the club's successes have been overshadowed by one very big loss: In 1995, President Clinton signed into law a bill that allowed publicly owned lands to be pillaged for lumber. Big setback for the green team, needless to say. Bad enough that it happened at all, but that it happened on a Democrat's watch was appalling to some activists.

Congress isn't, however, the only thorn in the Sierra Club's garden. On the money front, according to the most recent documents filed with the California Department of Justice in Sacramento, the Sierra Club was managing to lose $1 million a year as recently as 1994. That's not a bad party trick, given that the club has yearly revenues of some $40 million, two-thirds of which come in the form of donations and dues from the environmentally minded public. The club spent a total of $33 million on lobbying; on producing books, a magazine, and catalogs; on its outing programs; and on support for its 63 volunteer chapters and 400 groups. Another $8 million, or one-fifth of the total budget, went for management expenses and fund raising; $1.4 million was spent on travel alone. During that same time, the Sierra Club gained some surprising stock investments, including two separate holdings of Fruit Of The Loom stock. Fruit Of The Loom is a company that, for obvious underwear reasons, depends on cotton for its profits. Cotton and salmon feed off the same water sources, in California at least. One wins, the other loses. If you're the money-losing Sierra Club with a financial interest in skivvies, what do you do?

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.

And Werbach is media-savvy. He majored in the subject at Brown, you know. For his interview with the New York Times, for example, he wore a suit, which the reporter noted with the kind of approving nod that only the Times can muster in print, at once condescending and laudatory. For SF Weekly, he's dressed hipper -- like, hey, this is an alternative newspaper, so cool clothes are OK. It's basic spin. The image as the message. The kind of thing you might learn in an Ivy League classroom.

Only with Werbach, it's hard to tell where it begins and ends. Try and write him off as mere loom-and-thread material and there's something in him that won't let you. He's got these amorphous ideas, which seem almost naive -- celebrate your television? -- and then you remember, wham, that this guy has figured out how to be president of the Sierra Club at a very early age. Maybe he knows something. Maybe he's right. Maybe the image is the message. Maybe the message does matter.

On the other hand, maybe it's just transcendental environmentalism. Visualizing whirled trees.

"I think there needs to be a lot of refiguring of what environmentalists are," Werbach is saying. "It's not a question of being green. It's a question of being red, white, and blue. These are basic American issues."

But once people start thinking about the environment, then what? Say everybody agrees on the fact that the air needs to be clean. What happens next?

"It's probably not going to be direct," Werbach says. "It's not going to be 'write a letter to your congressman.' It's going to be much more broad."

Like, what?
"You're asking the mechanics of day to day. That's good," Werbach says. "I haven't figured that out."

Robbie Cox, on the other hand, definitely has. "I think the Congress is becoming slicker," Cox is saying. "They're putting a kinder, gentler face on their efforts to roll back 25 years of environmental protections."

Cox is the immediate past president of the Sierra Club. The election that put Werbach into the top job also put Cox, who had stepped down after two years as president, into the vice president seat. He's talking on the phone from his home in North Carolina, his voice not so much drawly as gentle, like clothes on a line above a summer lawn. Cox, who is 50, is a professor of communication studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Being president was exhausting, he says. He'll settle for the No. 2 spot. And why not? His job responsibilities don't seem to have changed that much. A new face might be out front but, behind the scenes at the club, Cox talks like he's still the guy in charge. In fact, weeks after Werbach's election, Cox is still issuing directives to other board members, according to Sierra Club elder statesman Brower. "Those should be coming from Adam," Brower says, sounding peeved.

But power is difficult to relinquish, as anyone who has ever had it knows. Particularly when the stakes are high.

"This Congress, from the beginning, has been impervious to the voters' expressions of concern over the environment," Cox is saying. "They have responded essentially to their corporate backers."

And so the Sierra Club, Cox explains, will be fighting back. This fall, as the country rolls toward its biannual congressional elections, the Sierra Club will unveil a $1 million war chest, money that will be spent in specifically targeted elections to help re-elect friends and defeat foes.

Instead of contributing the money to individual campaigns, Cox says, the club is going to spend it the way the big corporate boys do, staying independent and slathering it on unrestricted by federal campaign finance limits. The Sierra Club can do it because, unlike most other environmental organizations, the club doesn't have a 501(c)3 nonprofit status, which means that contributions made to it are not tax-deductible. As a result, the Sierra Club can get directly involved in political efforts, which tax-deductible organizations, with few exceptions, cannot.

And campaign financing isn't Cox's only focus. Over the last two years, Cox has presided over a restructuring of the Sierra Club -- in part to stem the tide of red ink that was washing over the organization. It's been a controversial effort in some quarters. Not the saving money part, but the hows and whys of the reorganization.

For more than two decades, the Sierra Club has focused its efforts on lobbying in Washington. "Inside the Beltway," it's called -- finding the power brokers at the table, pulling up a chair, and hammering out a compromise. It's a strategy that, to a large extent, has left the individual Sierra Club chapters high and dry. Sure, they've been sponsoring bike trips and selling calendars, but when it came to actually influencing public policy, they received little encouragement or direction.

In fact, the club has taken for granted its community support. Particularly when the Democrats won the White House. We all know the environment is important, right?

But these days, due in part to the Republican ascendancy in Washington, the club has had to go back to its roots. Grass roots, that is. Cox and Executive Director Carl Pope, who runs the day-to-day operations of the club according to the board's direction, have cut some committees, rearranged others, and started pilot programs to try to train Sierra Club groups to organize their communities. The moves have saved money, Cox says, and strengthened the club as a whole.

"What we did two years ago when I first became president was make some very hard financial decisions to put our house in order," Cox says. "We actually laid off some staff and concentrated our resources on our core mission -- protection of our public lands and the protections of basic environmental quality."

"We've gone through a whole series of things," agrees Pope. "It's about community dialogue. It's quite a dramatic change."

Maybe. But the evidence isn't in yet. The process isn't far enough along, Pope says, to have actually produced results. They know it's going to happen; cross their hearts. Look -- the board elected Adam Werbach, didn't it? He's young, isn't he? Well, that's a difference right there.

Not that Cox is planning to give up control of the club's reorganization, you understand. "I will be largely supporting Adam and working with him on this 'stop the war on the environment' campaign. I will also be tending to some of the internal restructuring of the club we've initiated in the last couple of years."

But, Cox says, he's totally behind Werbach.
"I have the greatest confidence in the world that Adam is the right person at the right time," Cox says.

So does David Brower. But not, perhaps, for exactly the same reasons. And caught in the middle is the Sierra Club's destiny.

Next to Muir himself, Brower has been the single most important voice in the century-long history of the Sierra Club. He's also been one of its most incendiary members -- storming in and out of power and favor, quitting and rejoining, exhorting and admonishing. For 17 years, from 1952 to 1969, Brower was the club's executive director, its first. He was fired from the job, but during the time that he held it he built the club's membership from 3,000 to 80,000, increased its national reputation exponentially, and led the fight on some of the most important environmental battles this country has ever endured.

"In America, we stopped man's hubris in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, one of the planet's most sublime chasms," Brower writes in his newest book, Let the Mountains Talk; Let the Rivers Run. "There the battle was fought and won in the name of Beauty. They wanted to dam the waters."

Now, there's an idea. Damming the Grand Canyon. There's no way that would fly today. Defeating it seems simple. But back then, Brower's full-page ads against the project in the nation's major newspapers enraged so many powerful people that the Internal Revenue Service abruptly ended the Sierra Club's tax-deductible status. You don't want to sit and eat with us at the table? Then get the hell outside.

These days, Brower answers the door at his home in the Berkeley Hills with the pallor and red-rimmed eyes of old age. At 82, he has the mementos of a life lived outdoors on the walls of his house: Across from the couch, where he's sitting, hangs a photograph taken by Ansel Adams of a rock climber standing on the top of the world. The climber, of course, is Brower. Touching the sky is not, however, a feeling Brower has much anymore.

"Why, why do people capitulate?" he asks. "Why do they do what they do?"
The Sierra Club, Brower contends, has lost its nerve. Instead of drawing lines in the sand, the Sierra Club leadership is concentrating on being included, rather than being effective. "It's exactly what the Sierra Club shouldn't be doing," Brower says. "It's losing its effectiveness. I want it to be effective."

And nowhere is the debate over nice vs. tough more evident than in the current dispute over trees.

Trees, as you can imagine, are important, Sierra Club-wise. People in the club love them and want to protect them. In fact, people in the club seem to love trees more than the people who run the club love trees. Or at least, they're more willing to say so. And they want the club to do something about it.

Recently, a ballot initiative went out to all 600,000 Sierra Club members nationwide. It asked a simple question: Should the Sierra Club oppose all commercial logging on nationally owned lands?

The board of directors, you see, hadn't quite decided. Maybe scorching the earth was a reasonable compromise. Maybe taking such a hard stand against tree-cutting would piss off the lumber industry. Maybe it might be better to go along and get along.

Wrong, the membership said.
"The members are tough, and they want things done," Brower explains. "We were just surprised and pleased that the initiative passed by a 2-to-1 margin."

"There are times when compromise is called for," says Oakland's Ted Hamilton, who heads the Ancient Forests Committee for the S.F. Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, the local arm of the national group. "But there are times when one needs to take a really strong stand. Put your demands out there, and don't back away."

That's what the Sierra Club grass roots will be expecting from the new president, Hamilton warns: "In his position, he pretty much has to support it and promote it."

But when one of the initiative's prime supporters visited the board recently to ask for help bringing the idea to Capitol Hill, "they wouldn't give him the time of day," Brower says.

Brower would like to see Werbach change that. For example, Brower says, the Sierra Club's decision-making processes should be more accessible to club members. Right now, the board makes many important decisions in private executive sessions. Throw open the doors, he says. Ask questions and listen. Start gearing up for the future. Make the club more inclusive. "We've got to get people of all the colors, of all the sexes, working on this," Brower says.

"I'd like to see [Werbach] take a hand in restoring the Sierra Club," Brower says. "I think democracy would be very helpful."

It's not exactly the same goal that the still-powerful Cox seems to have in mind for the young president, though. Cox says Werbach's mission is to take the Sierra Club message, as it is right now, to young voters. Both these men are on the same board of directors that Werbach now ostensibly runs. If he wants to avoid being a Barbie doll, Werbach will have to steer his own course, when he figures out what it might be. In addition, there's the board member Werbach defeated in the race for president, Lafayette resident Michelle Perrault, who, along with her husband, Philip Berry, has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the club. Werbach beat Perrault by 8-7. One vote is not a big mandate. And Executive Director Pope doesn't think the student organizing Werbach did was financially valuable to the club, Brower says, implying that Pope could be someone for Werbach to watch out for. In other words, for all the flowery words following Werbach's election, it's still a plantation of cacti behind the scenes.

"There's all kinds of ways they can bring you down," Brower warns.
But if the battle on the Sierra Club board seems pitched, the members -- and this is, after all, supposedly a grass-roots organization -- don't seem to care much one way or the other. There is, after all, work to do.

"We don't expect the president of the Sierra Club, whoever it may be, to be active in the work that we're doing at this level," says Jeff Golden, chair of the S.F. Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club. "Here, locally, we pretty much keep our noses to the grindstone."

Locally, the Bay Chapter of the Club is organized into dozens of committees staffed with volunteers who donate time and energy to different projects. Among the top priorities, Golden says, are keeping development off the ridgeline in the East Bay, targeting specific politicians for replacement in November of this year, the forestry initiative movement, and, of course, battling privatization at the Presidio.

It's basic grass-roots stuff: keeping people informed and active. If the leaders at the national level provide overall guidance, great. But the shirtsleeves rolled up aren't theirs.

Case in point: the Presidio.
"There have been no directives issued from the president's office of the Sierra Club regarding the Presidio," says Michael Alexander, who is the Sierra Club's point person on all things concerning the ex-military base in San Francisco. "At least, I haven't seen any."

Does he expect input from the new president?
"Not in any way I can imagine," Alexander says. "I'm not sure that the president's job reaches down to ways that directly affects Sierra Club projects."

The two local leaders like what they hear about Werbach, of course.
"We care about the environment, for our families and for our future," Golden gushes. "Adam is symbolic of that."

"I just hear he's very sharp," says Alexander.

"Studying in the Ivy League is just mental dildonics, fucking yourself with all the knowledge you've learned," Adam Werbach is saying.

He's sitting in a chair in his room at the Phoenix Hotel, which is around the corner from the Sierra Club's old Polk Street digs. The club's newer, posher headquarters is opening up soon close to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, whose patrons, presumably, can afford to care about the air. But for the moment, the Tenderloin is Werbach's temporary home, and he's brought a college friend to his room for the evening to play some guitar. Isaac Peace Hazard, the Brown buddy who lives nearby, is sitting on the bed, cross-legged, smiling in a striped sweater and ratty bluejeans and sneakers.

"It is often much for its own sake," Hazard agrees.
It is early evening, and the two have been playing songs they performed last summer in a bar tour of Japan. "Polyester Esther," for one. They are surprisingly good. Or maybe it's not surprising. It depends, in a sense, on what you expect from the world.

For Werbach, it isn't so much that the problems are complicated. It's that the solutions are simple.

"The ability to explain everything you want to do in short sentences, that's what vision is," he is saying. "Politicians have gotten themselves wrapped up in details, in intellectual processes, haughty intellectualism. I don't know all the answers. I do know the questions."

Knowing the questions, he and Isaac agree, is key.
"I think it's important to be able to state things succinctly," Hazard says.
"If you really want to use that to help change, you have to make it accessible," Werbach says.

"I think saying things clearly is more important than saying them shortly," Hazard says.

It is possible, of course, that problems are actually solvable. Not for nothing is despair a sin. But despair pretends to wisdom's throne. So much more fashionable to say nothing can be done than to try and fail. Werbach knows that people are watching him. That there are those who want him to fail. Every day, he says, he fails in one way or another. Eight months from now, he says, picking a number out of the air -- eight months from now, if there is still cryptosporidium in San Francisco's water, then he will have failed. If he can't instill a sense of hope into this country, he will have failed. If he can't get people to take responsibility for themselves, he will have failed. His goals seem huge. His passion -- well, his passion, for better or for worse, is what he has to see this through.

"Safe drinking water. It's so fucking simple it blows my mind," Werbach says. "Air and water. Let's talk basics here. I want to be able to breathe. I want to be able to drink."

"I want to think more about why people care about trees so much," Werbach says. "I really don't know.

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help

Around The Web

©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.