Advice to the Sierra Club

I just finished reading Gen. Stanley McChristal’s very fine book Team of Teams, in which he describes how adapting the military to an organizational structure based on the concept of complexity helped defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq, and is helping many other organizations become agile and adaptable. His basic perception is that under complexity, there are so many interactions between moving parts that outcomes are not really foreseeable, and planning flounders because, in a complex and information-fast world, unexpected intervening conditions often radically change the results.  I could not help noticing, with the aid of two articles in your current issue, how an ignorance about the concept of complexity has been heading the environmental movement, at least politically, in a dangerous direction.

In “The Human Environment: Civil Rights are Central to the Sierra Club’s Mission,” Michael Brune argues for expanding the scope of environmental concern to civil rights. Since I became an active Club member in the late 1960’s, the impulse to enlarge our tent and include civil rights, civil liberties, consumer, and other issues with the environmental cause has been recurring, and I was an early advocate of it. But from the standpoint of complexity, this may be a mistake. The brief review of Andrew Hoffman’s book How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate suggests why. 

When I first became involved in the Sierra Club, many of its members and leaders were Republicans, heirs to Teddy Roosevelt. The cause of environmental protection was consistent with their cultural outlook, not in conflict with it. So as long as the Club’s political positions stuck to environmental protection, these people remained active supporters. But in many battles it seemed desirable to seek allies from people of color, consumers, civil liberties lawyers, and the like. So we did. The Sierra Club and many other environmental organizations, even if not exactly by choice, effectively joined a broad “public interest” coalition that now forms an important part of the Democratic Party's base. Perhaps that’s a good thing, but one consequence (complexity!) is that this puts us in opposition to what Hoffman describes as virtually ineradicable cultural views that nearly half the country’s citizens seem to hold, including many of those who formerly supported environmentalism.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing against the importance of civil rights et al; I have spent much of my life working for that and other public interest causes. But there has been a large cost to expanding the scope of our concerns, and the admirable Mr. Brune’s column seems innocent of that awareness.   What if we leave the unification of causes to the Pope, and stick to our fundamental issue of environmental protection?   That gives us plenty to do, and we are nearing an emergency situation.

Keith Roberts
180 W 80th St. 
NY, NY 10024

1 comment:

  1. This is quite a good letter, although I have to say I found myself thinking along similar lines when the Pope decided to tackle climate change.

    Mission creep stems from an unwillingness, for whatever reason, to stay focused on core objectives. It leads to all-around failure generally because a organization's guiding passions become squandered in unfamiliar fields. Old objectives and new ones alike get lost.