My Perfect Adventure: Michael Brune

One of the world’s foremost environmental activists on how the southwestern deserts changed his life, why he hopes to get to the Arctic Refuge, and why optimism is so vital to activism

Michael Brune.     Photo: Lori Eanes

"Picking a 'best' place is like picking your favorite child. Can’t be done."

As the Sierra Club’s executive director, part of Michael Brune’s job is to confront the corporations that sully our nation’s great untouched places and to meet with lawmakers who have the power to make environmental destruction illegal.

Brune, who grew up on the Jersey Shore, started out as a grassroots organizer for Greenpeace. After working for other eco-organizations, including ForestEthics, he joined the Rainforest Action Network in 1998, as a campaigner. He worked his way up to executive director and served in that position for seven years. In 2008, he wrote Coming Clean: Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal, a book about how we can stop relying on fossil fuels and pressure powerful people, especially lawmakers and corporate titans, to change environmental policies for the better.

In early 2010, Brune became the Sierra Club’s sixth executive director, joining an organization whose leadership legacy has included John Muir, Ansel Adams, David Brower, and Wallace Stegner. Brune got to work right away; in 2011, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $50 million to support the Club’s efforts to shut down coal-fired power plants, a huge vote of confidence in Brune’s guidance.

As Brune makes clear in this interview, he believes that a climate solution is imminent. It will involve listening, he says, and commitment to the cause. And not a small dose of optimism and fun: Here, he reveals that his perfect day would involve a tent and his family, that his wife is his role model, and that he might consider trading places with Derek Jeter for a day. He also mulls that if he weren’t doing what he’s doing, he’d very likely be serving up mai tais on some tropical island.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
We get a lot of these days, fortunately. I’m with my wife Mary and our kids. The day starts in a tent in the redwoods, on a soft bed of needles. We’d be up in Mendocino or Humboldt County. A long hike, maybe a bracing swim in the ocean, a guilty-pleasure snack (I’m a sucker for Fig Newtons on the trail) and a soft fire at the end of the day. Kids turn in early.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
Tough choice, but I’ll go with the Arctic Refuge. It’s one of the few places left on Earth where the landscape is still wild, despite the constant pressures from oil-industry benefactors. Another reason to go: There’s still a few million acres we need to protect.

Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
Picking a “best” place is like picking your favorite child. Can’t be done. But as a kid growing up in New Jersey, I had my mind blown the first time I saw the colors and dramatic canyons of the desert Southwest. Never before had I seen such great adventure and beauty so accessible. Mary and I hope to take our kids there later this year.

If you could have lunch with any adventurer or explorer, who would it be and why?
I’ve had lunch with Jim Balog before, but I’d like to do it again. This time we wouldn’t be in an office in downtown San Francisco but on the ice, surrounded by glaciers, under a blinding blue sky. Maybe we’d talk about how glaciers are retreating but smart, creative activism is surging.

What’s something you can’t travel without? And why do you need it?
Optimism. Trust me: In my line of work, one needs a streaming supply of optimism when traveling to meet with corporate CEOs and politicos. And when you’re on the road with young kids, what parent doesn’t need a little optimism?

When you arrive at a new destination, what’s usually first on your agenda?
I unpack everything as quickly as I can, then maybe play some music and stretch. I travel often but don’t want to feel transient, so I use a few tricks to get my feet on the ground. Wherever it is, I want to feel like I’m living there, rather than just staying there.

What motivates you to keep doing the work you do?
So many things, but mostly the fact that we have the solutions to climate change at hand. Many of the world’s problems seem intractable—it’s hard to unlock racism or homophobia or prevent violent conflict. But we have all that we need to stabilize our climate and build a society powered by clean energy. Everything, that is, except enough political will. And that’s what we’re working to build.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, do you have any regrets?
I really wanted to be the Yankees starting shortstop. Damn you, Derek Jeter! But I have no regrets. To quote another famous Yankee, I consider myself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” to have a career in which it’s my job to do everything I can to make the world a better place. Though if Jeter wants to try beating up on fossil-fuel companies, I’d be willing to switch for a day or two.

How did you first venture into environmental activism?
Growing up on the New Jersey Shore, I saw firsthand how water pollution made people sick, harmed wildlife, and hammered the local economy. And then I saw how a few dedicated people who organized together to stop waste dumping in the ocean and clean up a toxic plant nearby. I was forever inspired.

What advice you would give to a young activist?
Listen, and respond. It’s the most important thing we can do, not just as activists, but as humans. Make an effort to genuinely understand the hopes of your supporters and the concerns of your opponents, and respond accordingly. Your allies, adversaries, and maybe even your spouse or roommate will thank you.

Who has been your most influential role model? What has he or she taught you?
This might sound corny, but my wife is a powerful role model for me and many others. Mary is the kindest person I know, and she sees the goodness in people so consistently that it’s humbling. She is fierce in her advocacy for the elimination of toxic chemicals but leads with a grace that is inspiring.

Do you have a life philosophy?
I try to bring a little joy and creativity into everything I do.

Have you ever experienced an accident during your travels that made you think twice about getting out there again?
Mary and I were in Maui on our honeymoon. Ignoring the gathering thunderclouds, I left one afternoon to wade solo up a river through a narrow canyon to swim in a beautiful—and pretty hard-to-reach—waterfall. Then the storm hit. I violated about a dozen rules for outdoor safety—and a healthy marriage. Suffice it to say I’m lucky to be here.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be?
I’m going to have to stick with this career for a little while because the only other thing I can think of is to be a bartender at some sleepy little beachside hut in the South Pacific.

Name three things you still want to cross off your bucket list.
I’d like to hike the full length of California’s legendary John Muir Trail.

I still want to throw out the first pitch someday at Yankee Stadium.

And my work won’t be complete until our power in the U.S. is derived from 100 percent clean, renewable energy.

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