Adam Werbach

The Youngest Sierra Club President Is Aiming for the Grassroots and MTV

Werbach says his two-year mission is to “reinvigorate the grassroots momentum” and “focus the movement on winning.”

At age eight, when most of his friends were collecting baseball cards and comic books, Adam Werbach was campaigning for the Sierra Club. He gathered more than 200 signatures from his second grade classmates on petitions calling for the ousting of James Watt, then Secretary of the Interior (and supporter of mining in U.S. national forests).

In high school, Werbach (whose parents were Club members) founded and served as the first director of the Sierra Student Coalition, the national student arm of the Sierra Club. Under his leadership, its membership grew to more than 30,000 volunteers who helped to register thousands of student voters and campaign for the successful passage of the California Desert Protection Act. Then, in 1994, the 21-year-old Werbach became the youngest person elected to the Sierra Club’s board of directors. He was honored as an “Environmental Hero” during the club’s centennial celebration and received the Denny and Ida Wilcher Award for outstanding membership recruitment.

It seems only natural that Werbach would earn the support and trust of the 105-year-old Sierra Club’s membership, and become its youngest president in May 1996, at the age of 23.

“It’s time for Adam and his generation to take the torch and work to protect America’s natural heritage,” says David Brower, more than 60 years Werbach’s senior and leader of his election campaign. “Adam has proven he has the skills, the desire and the vision to lead the charge.”

Maintaining support from such stalwarts as Brower, while keeping in touch with his own generation, Werbach aims to forge a united front to fight for the environment. His plans include spreading the word through the Internet and music concerts, while also directing a majority of the club’s support away from Washington and into grassroots community groups. He is trying to put fun and lightheartedness back into a movement he describes as a “civic success story.”

Werbach is hard at work on a Sierra Club CD project tentatively called Rock the Planet. He’s also working on his first book, Act First, Apologize Later, which relates the stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Werbach’s Gen X approach has drawn scattered criticism, particularly from baby-boomer environmentalists used to a harder edge. Some rued his endorsement of President Clinton, who is much more chainsaw-friendly than the Sierra Club’s membership. Others questioned the wisdom of his call to drain Lake Powell, a popular artificial lake on the Utah/Arizona border that supplies electricity to 500,000 people. And still others wonder if the serious environmental message can survive being wrapped in MTV-style glitz.

The Sierra Club re-elected Werbach as president this spring-a sign that the environmental movement, as well as more than 600,000 Sierra Club members, are starting to listen to the younger voices.

E: What are your goals as president of the Sierra Club?

WERBACH: I’m halfway there. I have a two-year project-reinvigorating the grassroots momentum and trying to focus the movement on winning, not just placing band-aids on everything. We need to create structures and processes that will lead us to solutions to fundamental environmental problems.

Another goal is really focusing on outreach. Our success will not be gauged on how good a club we are but on how well we reach out to other people outside of the club. We started out as a very exclusive organization. You needed two recommendations to be a member in the 1950s. The result of that is that we are predominantly white, our average age is 47 and we are largely urban-suburban. We don’t reach out to hunters and anglers well, we don’t reach out to the religious community well, and we don’t reach out to young people or minorities. I sum it up as saying we need to learn to teach the way that people learn, not the way that they teach.

You’re talking about a fundamental shift in the Club’s makeup, How do you put that into practice?

A lot of it is teaching people the language and getting folks to change some very basic understandings. One of the first things I did was to put the focus on local action. The people that we want to put on a pedestal are the people working in their backyards. They are the stars, not the president of the Sierra Club, not its board of directors, not its staff. It’s the volunteers who come home at 7 p.m. and spend an hour and a half working to protect the Lansdale Marsh in Rhode Island, trying to save the Red River in Kentucky, or trying to protect the air in Cleveland from LTV Steel. Those people are the heroes.

So you’re putting a stronger emphasis on grassroots activism. How are you nurturing it?

We have taken 80 percent of the money we spent on direct lobbying two years ago and now spend it on community organizing and community outreach. It’s environmentalists saying that instead of playing the game in Washington D.C., the game is to have people demand basic environmental rights. My agenda is very simple. I want to make sure that every child has a clean and safe environment to grow up in.

What specific issues go along with the Sierra Club’s move to the grassroots?

We’re launching a major forestry campaign. We’re leaning toward a goal of stopping all commercial logging on the national forests. We are also leading a major campaign on clean air and the Endangered Species Act. If we want to protect the Endangered Species Act, which is very critical for us this year, we need to build a three-legged stool. Right now we have only one leg—the environmental movement. That’s not enough.

“When I was 18, I knew enough to know what was effective, and I wasn’t afraid to make anyone mad.”

There are 44 million hunters and anglers. They all spend money on licenses, which are a huge percentage of our conservation funds for wildlife. They fundamentally believe in the same things we do. They like going out into the woods. They want clean water. And they want to make sure that those things are around for their kids. When we leave them out, we automatically lose a huge constituency. I certainly personally disagree with hunters in many ways, but it’s only about 10 percent of the time. I might want to go out and look at wildlife, and they might want to go out and shoot it, but we both want to save them.

You mention hunters and anglers as an important constituency, but what about animal rights activists? You’re a vegetarian who founded an anti-vivisection study group as a student. Are you reaching out to that constituency, too?

I’m mostly focusing on new groups, because I think we’re still very firm and strong with our natural constituencies. We have to broaden the message because we’re doing a poor job of reaching out to the mainstream American public.

The Endangered Species Act is coming up for renewal in the next few months, and right now it doesn’t look too good for the environmental movement. We’ve been arguing amongst ourselves for too long. The only way we’re going to ensure passage of the Endangered Species Act is with a coalition of environmentalists, animal rights activists, hunters and anglers and Christian fundamentalists. Now in my mind I’ve already got two of those groups convinced, environmentalists and animal rights activists. Hunters are also pretty easy to convince. The Christian fundamentalists believe in protecting God’s creation, so you have to make it pretty clear to them that that’s what’s at risk. God told Noah to take two of every animal. God didn’t say take two of the big, pretty ones that you can sell for a profit.

Don’t you run the risk, in trying to appeal to such a diverse coalition, of watering the message down too much?

Sure you water the message down; you just don’t water the goals down. I don’t care what the message is; I’m not attached to it. My attachment is to the goal-passing a stronger Endangered Species Act than we had before.

That leads to this question: Venues like MTV, almost by their very nature, are going to present a soft message, complete with jump cutting and rock and roll. So how do you make sure the message survives all that?

We are very bad sellers of product in the environmental movement. We try to make the issues we talk about sound confusing and radical. I believe in having stronger goals and milder messages. Protecting every last wild place in America is not a radical idea; it’s relatively simple. To make sure that drinking water is safe for every child in America is not a radical idea. It’s pretty basic. And I can get those ideas across on MTV.

Overall, air quality is improving, yet there is a growing number of asthma cases, especially among young children. Why do you think that is?

Sure, overall air pollution has improved. I grew up in Los Angeles, where we had to open up the L.A. Times every day to see if there was a smog alert. If there was one—about every three weeks—then I couldn’t play T-ball. If I go to L.A. now, I can play ball almost any day. It has gotten better there. That’s progress, and we’ve done a very poor job of celebrating success. People think that we’ve lost, and we’re always complaining. I’m not a dour naysayer.

“My agenda is very simple. I want to make sure that every child has a clean and safe environment to grow up in.”

But at the same time you have to look at the facts. Asthma has doubled among children in the last 20 years; it’s the leading cause of hospitalizations among children. There are other factors involved, like dust and cockroach repellants, but you have to take care of the things that you can control-like air pollution.

For example, at the Geneva Steel Plant in Provo, Utah, there was a labor strike, and the plant was closed for 30 days. At the end of the 30 days, after the plant went back on line, an epidemiological study showed that hospitalizations for asthma went up 50 percent. The connection is really clear—asthma and unclean air are a threat to America’s children.

Critics charge that the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed air quality standards are too strict and burdensome on industry.

The industry is saying that they have no responsibility to public health if it costs a lot of money. But my sense is that you can’t put a dollar value on asthma or cancer. If someone gets cancer, is that worth $1 million, $2 million? It’s not acceptable for industry to say we’ll sacrifice people because it’s too expensive for us to change.

You’ve talked about wanting to remove the Glen Canyon dam and drain Lake Powell. Your critics on the right say that this proves your naivete. The dam provides electricity for 500,000 people and the lake is a popular recreation area.

The dam should never have been built in the first place. More water seeps out and evaporates-over a million and a half acre-feet a year-than is held for water use. Getting rid of Glen Canyon makes sense, not only environmentally but economically, too. If we stopped losing that water we could easily pay for energy conservation measures that would take care of those 500,000 people. We’d also create more water for the arid southwest.

Because you’re the youngest president in the Sierra Club’s history, there’s a great deal of attention focused on you as a spokesman for your generation. How do you feel about being in that spotlight?

I am the least impressive person when we talk about this movement. My success is totally related to the Sierra Club. It’s really a tribute to the club itself. Here’s an organization that is 105 years old, with a huge budget and 300 to 400 staff people, that can trust a 23-year-old to take over.

My message to young people is this: Turn your energy outward. Young people can lead us because they know how. They’ve been sold all their lives. And if Nike can sell me a pair of shoes that I can’t afford in five seconds, then I better be able to sell substance in three seconds. The environmental movement right now is content rich but signal poor. We are full of great ideas which sit on the shelf. We are full of inspiring stories. Now we need to take that signal and say this is who we are.

You have said, “I am far too old for this job. I was a much better activist when I was 18.” How has your activism changed since you became president?

I will continue to say that I was a better activist when I was 18. I knew enough to know what was effective, and I wasn’t afraid to make anyone mad. I’m still very willing to get people angry, but I want to make sure it’s for a cause. What we need right now is for people to come together. To me the environment is not a fire-brand issue that tears people apart. It’s one issue in American politics where everyone agrees fundamentally. So how I’ve mostly changed is trying to say, “How can we bring more people together around this issue,” rather than, “How can we use this issue to make people look bad.”