This Is Great! Drink a Little Beer, Play a Little Frisbee, and Save the World!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1996

This Is Great! Drink a Little Beer, Play a Little Frisbee, and Save the World!

All rise for Adam Werbach, the Sierra Club's new 23-year-old president
By Paul Keegan

Adam has the munchies. "Oh yeah, sandwiches and soda and lots of yummy desserts," says Roni Lieberman. She's the Sierra Club's media liaison, shepherding him up the stairs of the group's Washington office so he'll have some quiet time to prepare for the big press luncheon at noon.

They reach club chairman Mike McCloskey's office, now being occupied by two interns and an older staffer. "This is Adam Werbach, our new president!" Roni beams, gesturing Adam through the door. The two young women look up, startled to see a gawky kid standing there in a dark suit and tie, barely older than they are.

As the interns gather their belongings and scurry out the door, Adam looks embarrassed. He's tall and gangly, with his hair combed into boyish bangs. His features are still slightly out of proportion--the nose and mouth a bit too large for the rest of his face--and he has the kind of lost-puppy look that will cause someone at National Public Radio, spotting Adam in the hall the following day, to ask, "Is that David Schwimmer?"

Adam apologizes several times for kicking the interns out of the office. He seems genuinely uncomfortable being the big shot, bursting in from the club's San Francisco headquarters for a whirlwind East Coast tour so that he, the new power in the environmental movement, can be introduced to the media and political cognoscenti. After all, only a few weeks ago, he was just another unemployed 23-year-old with vague ideas about finishing a novel or maybe going to film school. Now, suddenly, he's the youngest president in the 104-year history of the Sierra Club. The event was heralded in last week'sNewsweek, Werbach photographed sitting in a tree, grinning like he just ate the Cheshire Cat (which he never would, since he's a vegetarian). There were interviews with the Washington Post and Tom Brokaw, and MTV is discussing how to feature his call for America's youth to destroy the myth of pandemic slackerhood by getting involved!

Even MSNBC, the all-news cable channel started by Microsoft and NBC-perhaps registering the Schwimmer resemblance-wants him to be a talking head on a program they describe, unironically, as a cross between The McLaughlin Group and Friends. (Adam's interested; being president is a two-year-long volunteer position, so the $30,000 network fee would certainly help.) Last week, though, brought the ultimate thrill: He went to the White House and met the president.

"Ah wuz hopin' ewed come." That's Adam's dead-on impersonation of Clinton, which he offers from behind McCloskey's barren desk. "Ah heard owl about ewe."

All these events might be enough to convince most 23-year-olds they were phat, but Adam is just not like that. His dominant personality trait is niceness, a quality much on display when he emerges from his temporary office and wanders through the Sierra Club's Washington digs, searching for a recycling bin in which to deposit his emptied cans of orange soda. After much wandering, he discovers it wedged into a corner of a tiny kitchen, but access is blocked by a housekeeper doing the dishes. (She's African-American, one of the few black faces to be seen at the Sierra Club, though Adam says creating more diversity is among his highest priorities.) When he leans over to gently place the two cans on top of an enormous teetering mound, the whole pile comes crashing noisily down. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he says, straining to reach across the woman to stop the avalanche. She says not to worry, she'll clean it up, but Adam is beside himself, lunging again toward the pile. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he says, still holding his soda cans. Finally, in frustration, he just hands them to her.

Life can be awkward at that age, but also exhilarating. Adam makes no effort to hide his excitement over the heady agenda of this week. "Maybe I'll get cynical later--I hope not--but right now this is great!" he said last night, still shiny from a meeting with producers at ABC News. He waved his hand at his plate of ravioli and glasses of microbrewed beers. "Having dinners like this, meeting new people, drinking beer. It's great!"

SITTING BEHIND MCCLOSKEY'S DESK, Adam is supposed to be gathering his thoughts for the big press briefing, readying himself for the show. But he doesn't seem at all nervous. He has been speaking in public for quite some time-as a member of the Sierra Club's board of directors for the last two years and, before that, when he organized an army of 30,000 volunteers nationwide and created the Sierra Student Coalition. Even in high school, at Harvard-Westlake in North Hollywood, California, he overcame the objections of the administration to begin a recycling drive. There's also a polished anecdote that Adam recites every chance he gets: As an eight-year-old he convinced dozens of his second-grade classmates to sign--often in crayon--a petition calling for the ouster of James Watt as Secretary of the Interior.

In other words, Adam's been hanging out with adults for a long time. He knows what makes them tick. He understands that at a certain age, they begin to feel out of touch with young people and desperately want--need--someone to tell them what kids today are thinking. This is especially true of the environmental movement, which has worried itself sick lately that the baby boomers who dominate its ranks are getting gray and wrinkly.

The Sierra Club has had particular reason to be concerned, especially after a dry spell in the early nineties when membership growth and fund-raising stagnated. Both are inching up now--membership is over 600,000 and the club boasts a surplus--but its average member is still 47 years old, and it has never managed to shake the impression that it's become another creaky establishment pillar of the movement. When Adam came along, extolling the virtues of the Internet, MTV, and new media and arguing that he alone could seduce kids using their own language ("I'll say I'm tripping and it doesn't mean I'm on LSD"), the winds seemed capable of change. The election of Adam to the presidency in May was the strongest signal yet that the Sierra Club's board was determined to take dramatic action and let the kids have a voice.

But a funny thing happens at Adam's first Washington press luncheon. For starters, the interns and young staffers aren't allowed at the big-kids' table. They've gathered quietly in back, filling up two rows of folding chairs and spilling out into the hallway. Second, everybody gathered around the giant wooden table--there's no polite way to say this--well, they're so old.

At the head of the table, leading the meeting, is Carl Pope, the club's loquacious 51-year-old executive director, who is here to announce the results of a poll about what young people think. Voters under the age of 25 care deeply about environmental issues, he says, and could dramatically affect the outcome of the '96 elections. The only problem, he adds-and everyone at the table seems quite mystified by this-is that these same young people apparently don't believe they have much power.

It's a point that's seconded emphatically by Daniel J. Weiss, the club's bearded 39-year-old political director, who says young people could provide the swing votes in several crucial races and rid the nation of the most antienvironmental Congress in history. Both speakers defer regularly to the star of the show, well-known pollster Stan Greenberg, 45, who argues that if Democrats can just figure out how to harness the strong feelings of young people, they could make significant gains. Their pronouncements are meticulously recorded by balding, gray-haired reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other media outlets.

Sitting quietly at the end of the table through all this, occasionally smiling at friends in the cheap seats, is the president of the Sierra Club. Theoretically, Adam could fire both Pope and Weiss should they ever get his dander up. Yet 30 minutes into the presentation, he has yet to say a word about anything, leaving Pope and Weiss and Greenberg to their pronouncements.

"I'd be happy to answer any questions," Greenberg says when the formal presentation ends.

A look of panic flickers across Pope's face. "Uh," he adds hurriedly, "the next speaker will be the Sierra Club's new president, Adam Werbach." Then he adds, "Who is a voter under 25."

Adam smiles confidently. "Well, talk about being at the right place at the right time," he says. Just so nobody gets the wrong idea, he adds, it was a complete coincidence that his election came less than two weeks after this poll was taken. He then launches into a tight, coherent five-minute speech. "I really see this poll as a crack of light through the door of apathy that we have right now."

Then everybody forgets about him again. The reporters ask the old-timers about 501(c)(3) contributions and political strategy. Adam manages to jump in just once more during the hourlong meeting, following Pope's answer to a reporter's question about how young voters can be inspired to vote.

"Young people are a different beast," Adam explains. "We've been raised on MTV and short-attention-span media, so we'll be reaching out with those things and embracing them. We'll also be turning to music and fashion, looking at how celebrities can work with us. We have to show them politics is something positive, exciting, something they'll want to be involved in."

The briefing ends. Reporters surround Pope, Weiss, and Greenberg for more questions. Adam wanders away, then spots a friend from his activist days at Brown University. "You're his boss, huh?" the friend smirks to Adam, indicating Pope as he passes by. The executive director winces. "I like it," says the friend. "I like it." Adam chats for a minute more and then goes to help the interns clean up the paper plates and cups.

THE MEDIA DANCE OVER, Adam returns to McCloskey's office, where he chats with a ponytailed staffer named Mark Fraioli. As Fraioli leaves, he snaps his wrist in the universal Frisbee-tossing motion. Adam nods enthusiastically--a game of Ultimate is scheduled for tonight--and says, "And afterward..." He tilts his head back and points his thumb into his mouth. It's the universal beer-tossing motion.
But being president can have its bummer moments. While the staffers and interns laugh and chase the Frisbee around a nearby park, Adam stands a few yards away getting his picture taken. It's a key bit of publicity--he'll be seen on posters slathered on the walls of college student unions across the country in the fall--but he looks like a kid made to stay inside for violin practice while his buddies play outside. Fortunately, some friends are still game for a dinner of fast-food burritos on the steps of the Library of Congress. Adam is joined by Fraioli and two young women--one a staffer, the other an intern. Then, burritos gone, they diligently place their empty bottles in their bags for recycling and head off to the Tune Inn, a popular Capitol Hill watering hole. Over pitchers of beer, Adam asks his friends what they would do if they suddenly found themselves running the Sierra Club. One of the women wants to focus on global warming. Fraioli asks, Why not hire a consultant to find out why the Sierra Club membership has so few minorities?

The encounter pumps Adam up. "This is what makes me so excited," he says later. "Seeing them work all day and they're still talking about the environment at ten o'clock at night!" It's now well past midnight, a good time to bring up the delicate question of whether he feels frustrated by events like today's press conference.

"I was aware of the fact that it looked token," he says. "It felt like it."

There's a long pause, and then Adam brightens. "But I have no desire to get up to speed on the various IRS tax codes. I understand them, but Carl explains them better. Whereas the real challenge of the Sierra Club is to reach out in the media that reaches people's hearts and minds. The Sierra Club needs to talk like the American people. I was concerned in my first week in the job: How seriously were people going to take me? The surprising thing is that people have taken me very seriously. When the Secretary of Agriculture wanted a meeting, I'm the one he asked for the meeting with."

Adam keeps talking into the night, even though he estimates there are 400 E-mail messages waiting for him, at least 20 of them urgent. He's also got a report to write tonight and more interviews beginning at 9 A.M. tomorrow. But he still wants to discuss the novel he's writing, called Whirled, which debunks the Generation X label; the film he made in college, called Buy Me a Barbie, about how the dolls affect the self-image of women; the a cappella group he sang in during college, which actually cut two CDs and went on a worldwide tour.

EARLY THE NEXT MORNING, GRITTY FROM too little sleep, Adam is nevertheless just as hyped. He's got breakfast with an environmental reporter, then it's Noah Adams and All Things Considered. At one point, he gushes to the famous radio host, "There are not many $45 million companies run by 23-year-olds!"

Later, Adam is asked whether that's really the case. As president, he would appear to have considerable power: reporting only to the board of directors, overseeing the policy-setting process, and serving as club spokesman. Yet in fact he directly manages only the volunteer side of the organization, which includes 5,000 hard-core enthusiasts and a $1 million budget. That's a lot of responsibility for a 23-year-old. But Pope is actually the one who manages the club's $45 million budget and 350 paid staffers in 16 offices around the country. Could it be that Pope, the Harvard graduate of 1967, is the Sierra Club's ‹minence grise?

Mark Dowie doesn't think so. "I would say Carl Pope is scared shitless about the changes in the Sierra Club," says Dowie, a Sierra Club member who's studied the organization for his book Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century. "That's why he's taking control of meetings."

Sitting next to Adam at dinner in Manhattan earlier in the week, the executive director made certain things perfectly clear: "I'm the guy managing the staff, and I've always been the guy managing the staff." Pope has wavy brown hair and an almost Kennedyesque prep-school air of authority about him. Eighteen months ago, the Sierra Club decided to reach out to young people, he says. "But frankly, if I were to go and try to do that, I'd look like somebody's father!"

To Adam, everybody sitting around the table at the board meeting last spring must have looked like somebody's father, or somebody's mother. That's the moment he decided to run for president. Later, he met with board members privately and some tried to talk him out of it, saying he wasn't ready yet.

But Adam had shown up at just the right time. With the '96 elections coming up, he could promise the board that those 30,000 student volunteers he'd already organized were ready to "dorm storm" to get the vote out. Meanwhile, changes in the board had made the club's leadership somewhat more strident, less eager to compromise. Perhaps more important, Adam won the support of key players such as David Brower, the Sierra Club's 83-year-old conscience, whose longtime split with the club had a powerful influence on Adam when he read about it in John McPhee's book Encounters with the Archdruid.

During the board's secret balloting in May, which some reports have said was bitterly contested, Adam barely edged out the old guard as represented by 55-year-old Michelle Perrault, who'd served twice before as president (the first time in 1984, when Adam was 11 years old). In the end, Adam was formally elected in an open vote by unanimous consent.

"It was a tough decision for the club," says Dave Foreman, cofounder of Earth First! and the board member who nominated Adam. "But Adam had vision for the future, is a very dynamic speaker, and wanted to carry on [outgoing president Robbie] Cox's legacy of reinventing the grassroots culture of the club."

How much power Adam actually has, however, is the subject of some dispute. "This is not an organization whose president has huge, independent power," says Foreman. "The power ultimately rests with the board."

"Adam's a very sweet, uncontentious, accommodating guy," says Dowie. "And a lot of people inside the club believe he won't be able to change things, that the old guard will try to stifle him. But constitutionally, he can do whatever he wants."

Adam himself seems unsure how to characterize his clout, preferring to focus on his PR campaign to portray the Sierra Club as a hip, cutting-edge movement-embodied by its new president. "OK, it might be an exaggeration to say I run a $45 million company," he says after the NPR interview. "I mean, I would never say that to the board. But that's the message I want to get out."

Certainly, Adam's suggestion that kids today have short attention spans and are hooked on ephemera like MTV, fashion, and celebrity should make it easier to convince them that he's already won the power battle at the Sierra Club, that they should forget the club's old-fogey image and sign on now to kick some Republican butt come November.

But just now, Adam would rather describe the sweet backstage pass he scored to the Free Tibet concert tomorrow back at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, where the Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Beastie Boys will be playing. What official duties he'll actually perform, he's not sure. Adam just wants to be there-to be seen, get involved, make a difference. To show young people that-with the proper spin control, of course-you really can change the world.

Paul Keegan is a writer living in New York City.
Photographs by Michael Llewellyn

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