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Green Sierra Man

An interview with Carl Pope, longtime head of the Sierra Club


In the perfect green world, the energy emitted from a light bulb would heat up a house at a cost of about $10 a month, a Ford Explorer could get 35 miles per gallon and not leave a trail of dirty emissions, and the creation of green jobs would stem the deluge of manufacturing jobs leaving the United States.
    These aren’t utopian fantasies or brainstorms a world away. The technology already exists. It just needs to be put in place.
    So why hasn’t that happened? “We have not modernized the energy industry because energy companies have prevented modernization to keep us dependent,” says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. “A lot of money has been spent to convince us we don’t need to change. Rush Limbaugh has spent a lot of time trashing environmentalists for the last 20 years. People need to start paying attention to how we use the stuff we have and how we can make it more efficient.”
    Pope should know. He’s led the Sierra Club, which was founded in 1892 by famed naturalist John Muir,  since their centennial year. Pope has worked with the organization for almost three decades. Since assuming the directorship, the Sierra Club has added an additional 150,000 new members. But despite the growing numbers, the last eight years have been tough for environmentalists.
    “From the era of Teddy Roosevelt, every president since, except for Warren Harding, has left behind stronger environmental laws than his predecessor,” says Pope, speaking from the Sierra Club’s headquarters in San Francisco. “That is until George W. Bush. Not only have we not made gains, but we’ve gone back[wards]. Ten percent of the landmass in this country has been opened up to unrestrained exploitation. Places that were designated as critical habitation have had their status changed. In Appalachia, once the government said that all upland streams weren’t part of the waters of the United States, that opened them up to mining. If you can’t get a boat up it, their reasoning is, then it’s not a waterway.”
    Pope is looking forward to this year’s presidential election having a positive impact on the environment.
    “Whoever gets the presidency will be better than Bush,” Pope says before adding a caveat. “I think the Democrats have done quite a good job in this election addressing the issues, but the media has done a bad job of letting people know that. As for [John] McCain, he wasn’t opposed to mandatory controls on automobile emissions, but now says that he is. At the moment, John McCain has not broken with the George Bush legacy wing of the Republican party in terms of the environment.”
    According to Pope, the Sierra Club did a study about whether the media was reporting the candidates’ stances on the environment. “This was a time when gasoline was headed to four dollars a gallon, and there were more stories about haircuts than about that,” he says.
    Chicago, says Pope, is in fact a green city. “Mayor Daley has a great initiative for heating the public schools called the Energy Efficiency Building Retrofit Program,” says Pope, referring to a program embraced by several other cities. The Energy Efficiency Building Retrofit Program is a project of the former president’s Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI) and is designed to reduce energy use in buildings worldwide.
    “There’s a lot of good coming out of Chicago,” Pope says. “Chicago should be proud. I give Mayor Daley credit for creating green jobs. Chicago is doing more than any other city in the United States.”
    Pope doesn’t adhere to the excuse that going green costs too much and cuts jobs. He says it’s exactly the opposite. For example, he points to jobs in the auto industry.
    “The only way to save those jobs is to green and modernize American manufacturing,” Pope says. “The jobs of the future don’t belong to countries that have 50-year-old equipment. They belong to high performance technology. The American auto industry never got to high performance technology, but the Germans and the Japanese did.”
    One of the reasons, says Pope, is because Detroit auto executives don’t really care about whether jobs are lost to outsourcing. “They just care about market share,” he says. “It was a leadership thing.”
    In terms of leadership, Pope says that his environmental heroes include Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, who was on the Sierra Club’s board of directors for decades. He also admires Ray Anderson, owner and CEO of Interface Carpet. Anderson has been called the “greenest chief executive in America” because of the steps he’s taken to reduce his  company’s waste and conserve energy. At one time, the company plant in LaGrange, Georgia, sent six tons of carpet trimmings to a landfill every day, but since 1997, the trimmings have been recycled. At another one of their divisions, Guilford of Maine, the installation of new computer controls on boilers improved their efficiency and reduced carbon monoxide emissions by 99.7 percent. The bottom line for both these accomplishments was decreased waste and an increase in profits.
    “The new course we’re on at Interface,” Anderson is quoted as saying on www.myhero.com, “is to pioneer the next Industrial Revolution: one that is kinder and gentler to the earth.” To Pope, Anderson epitomizes those who create a triple bottom line.
    “When you’re doing something, you don’t just have one impact,” Pope says. “When you buy the best performing dishwasher, you get clean dishes, you’re saving energy and you’re saving the community.”
    But there are others Pope calls his heroes. “My real environmental heroes are the people who do what I do, but in places like Mexico, Liberia and China,” he says. “They do them at the risk of their own lives. I don’t have to worry about getting hit on the head or jailed for what I do. They do, but they still do it.”
    Pope has always been a social activist. His early involvement was in the Civil Rights movement. He also organized hospital workers and joined the Peace Corps in the 1960s, spending two years in a small village in India helping to promote family planning.
“I drifted into the environmental movement,” Pope says. “I expected to be involved in social change, but I didn’t ever think that I was going to spend my life in one organization.”
     Pope says everyone can have an impact. “We need to pay attention to how we use our stuff,” he says, noting there are ways to truly turn off our appliances,  such as TVs, rather than just letting them “slumber,” which uses energy. “Buying high performance appliances, cars and light bulbs make a difference. If you buy something that’s energy-efficient, you’re making a difference. Often we all like not to pay attention—we think to be careless is to be free, but it’s important to pay attention.”
    And we can all be what Pope calls social entrepreneurs. “Those are people who combine a new idea, something innovative, that also .contributes in a positive way,” he says. Social entrepreneurs can range from developing alternative types of energy and thus creating green jobs to something more simple like organizing a recycling program.
    “People need to do things in their neighborhoods, and if they are, they should be rewarded,” Pope says. “Talking to your neighbors is one way to implement change. If you’re at church, start educating people there. You can help solve environmental issues as a community that way.”
    America is a very innovative country, says Pope. “Look at my laptop,” he says. “Look at my cell phone. Those are very innovative. Look at light bulbs—in those we’re not as innovative.”
    Asked what he thinks about the barrage of advertising that depicts such things as coal as a “clean technology,” Pope responds vehemently.
    “I wish all those ads were required to have 10 seconds of truth in them,” he says.  “Like a mom saying, ‘No Johnny, you can’t have tuna because of the mercury, and that’s caused by the emissions from coal plants.’ Or show a kid who can’t breath because of asthma that it’s caused by what’s in the air. Those are the truths we should be seeing.”

Published: April 06, 2008
Issue: 2008 Spring Green Issue