Sierra Club Sits Down

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For the first time in its history, Sierra Club will participate in civil disobedience. Sierra Club Executive Director, Michael Brune, outlined the philosophical basis for this unprecedented tactical move in a Huffpost blog. He writes:

Some of you might wonder what took us so long. Others might wonder whether John  Muir is sitting up in his grave. In fact, John Muir had both a deep appreciation for Thoreau and a powerful sense of right and wrong. And it’s the issue of right versus wrong that has brought the Sierra Club to this unprecedented decision.

For civil disobedience to be justified, something must be so wrong that it compels the strongest defensible protest. Such a protest, if rendered thoughtfully and peacefully, is in fact a profound act of patriotism. For Thoreau, the wrongs were slavery and the invasion of Mexico. For Martin Luther King, Jr., it was the brutal, institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow South. For us, it is the possibility that the United States might surrender any hope of stabilizing our planet’s climate.

Grounding the tactical shift philosophically was an important move. For 120 years, the organization has used lobbying, litigation, and grassroots organizing to advance its environmental goals. Some segment of its membership will not be pleased with this move and, without adequate justification, may withhold financial and moral support.

This move, however, is a smart one for the organization for at least three reasons.

First, it allows the organization to take advantage of a political moment ripe with opportunity. In his inaugural speech, President Obama, made a pitch for clean energy – a sentiment that was echoed in John Kerry’s confirmation hearings. In the minds of environmental activists, this rhetoric conflicts with the push to open the Keystone pipeline and transport “dirty” oil across the U.S. – a point that Sierra Club is well positioned to make.

Second, this tactical innovation may draw in new recruits to the organization. New members often literally translate into more money and more political clout. The organization’s willingness to use civil disobedience signals that it may be open to other kinds of changes as well, including using its clout to do more than lobby politicians.

Finally, Brune is vague on the details of Sierra Club’s intended action, which can only benefit the organization. The group’s intent to use civil disobedience in the future allows it to measure the effect of its announcement now. If the threat of civil disobedience works (e.g., mobilizes people and generates broad support), Brune can proceed with direct action. However, if the organization experiences a backlash, Brune can backpedal and scale down the organization’s civil disobedience campaign.

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About Double take Sociology

I am a Professor of Sociology, a Research Associate in the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy, and an Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Community Engagement in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. I research (and write about) social movements, mass media and politics. To find links to my research, visit www.DeanaRohlinger.com.
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