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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Sierra Votes No

Air Date: Week of May 1, 1998

In a widely-watched vote, Sierra Club members have rejected a proposal calling for limits on immigration into the U.S. Supporters of the measure argued limiting population growth by restricting immigration is needed to protect the environment. Opponents said the proposition carried too many racial overtones. Steve Curwood speaks with Mark Dowie who is author of "Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the 20th Century."

Transcript

CURWOOD: In a widely-watched vote, Sierra Club members have rejected a proposal calling for limits on immigration into the US. Supporters of the measure argued limiting population growth by restricting immigration is needed to protect the environment. Opponents said the proposition carried too many racial overtones. Mark Dowie is author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the 20th Century. He says that the margin, 60% to 40, shows that times at the Sierra Club have changed.

DOWIE: Well, ten years ago the club was pretty much dominated, as reflected in the board, by Republican backpackers, people who didn't have the social conscience that seems to be developing in the club in more recent years. So I would have thought that during that era of the club's history that they would have supported a resolution that limited immigration.

CURWOOD: Now that it's been voted down, do you think the vote was still significant?

DOWIE: Oh, I do. I think that the whole episode is very significant, because this is an issue that has been discussed behind closed doors throughout the entire environmental movement for quite some time. This brought it out in the air. It forced both sides to articulate their arguments, and the anti-immigration side has been forced, really, to expose their xenophobia and their latent racism. I mean, if you read the material that we were sent, the members of the club were sent, you would see that they talked about and bemoaned the fact that California would soon be a white minority state. They were saying this in their literature. Well, that has nothing to do with environmentalism, but it has everything to do with xenophobia and racial xenophobia.

CURWOOD: Now, this measure was pushed by some folks as you identify xenophobic, anti-immigration. But there were some pretty respected leaders within the environmental movement who signed up in favor of this. I'm thinking of Greenpeace founder Paul Watson, Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute, E.O. Wilson at Harvard. What do you make of their support?

DOWIE: I think that had they known who was prominently behind the anti-immigration referendum, I think they might have reconsidered their positions. I think that they were looking at it in a purely American, purely environmental perspective. And if you look at it that way, that makes some sense. But I think if you look at it more globally and look at it socially and politically as well as environmentally, you start to see that it doesn't make as much sense.

CURWOOD: I take it you were very much against this measure.

DOWIE: Yeah. I voted the other way. To stay neutral. I think that staying neutral doesn't mean you can't discuss it. It just means that you don't have to take a position on it. And the Sierra Club, believe me, discusses this all the time. They have a separate committee that deals with this issue separate from every other issue in the club. And that will continue. And I think that's the way it should be; it should deal with the issue but sustain a position of neutrality on immigration.

CURWOOD: Now, even though the Sierra Club ultimately voted down this measure, do you think all this publicity surrounding the vote has hurt the Sierra Club?

DOWIE: No, I think it's helped the Sierra Club. On either side there were people who had promised they would cancel their membership if the vote went one way or another. But I think that the Sierra Club has been a reflection of American environmentalism for too long. Classic American environmentalism being a secular religion of the white middle class. And it's time now that the club became a truly American association. And if you followed the press conference that they had announcing the vote, there were many, many people of many national origins saying they were now going to join the club. So that will make this club more diverse, more American, more multi-cultural, and it will broaden the environmental agenda, which needs to happen in this country.

CURWOOD: Mark Dowie is author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the 20th Century, and one of the most outspoken members of the Sierra Club. Thank you for joining us.

DOWIE: You're welcome.

 

 

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