What Does Carl Pope’s Resignation at the Sierra Club Mean?

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Carl Pope, Courtesy of Sierra Club

Carl Pope, the current chairman of the Sierra Club, announced he is stepping down to pursue other projects. Pope led the environmental non-profit for much of the last two decades and was a member for almost 60 years. Dissent and dwindling membership have been listed as possible motives for the resignation, which the organization said is part of a gradual transition in the works for years. So what does this change mean for the environmental non-profit?

The New York Times pointed out that Sierra Club membership has decreased by roughly 100,000 since 2005—to 616,000 people. Financially, the organization has continued to do well, with a recently approved budget of $100 million for 2012 set to be its biggest ever. The increase has resulted from agreements to partner more with large corporations. The San Francisco Chronicle noted that some dissent rippled through the non-profit in recent years after Pope signed a million-dollar deal with Clorox allowing the manufacturer to use the Sierra Club emblem on “green” merchandise and after he supported building solar arrays in a wild part of the Mojave desert. Pope said in an email to Sierra Club staff he was leaving to start a political project in 2012.

My hope is to pull together a broad front of environmental groups, labor unions, clean-economy innovators, mainline manufacturers, civil rights organizations, and state and local officials to insist that candidates for public office in 2012 address the role of innovation, clean technology, and manufacturing in rebuilding the American economy and restoring the American middle class.

“I'm a big-tent guy,” Pope told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We're not going to save the world if we rely only on those who agree with the Sierra Club.”

Michael Brune and his daughter Olivia, Courtesy of Sierra Club

Michael Brune took over as the executive director in 2010 after stints at smaller and more aggressive environmental non-profits—Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network. Pope remained active as chairman and helped Brune make the transition. Brune said the organization has known about Pope's move since 2009. “This announcement doesn't come amid discontent or division,” Brune told Politico. “It’s the end of a process that’s been a long time coming.”

So does the departure of Pope mean the Sierra Club will now become more aggressive with Brune alone at the top? Earlier this month Brune joined the Keystone XL protests at the White House and invited Sierra Club members to do the same, however, he was not arrested like the frontmen for other environmental groups. Jack Darin, the president of the Illinois chapter, told Politico he didn't think the changes at the top would lead to the type of direct action protests Brune was responsible for at other organizations. The Sierra Club's charter states that the club won't practice civil disobedience. Brune said the organization's main goals would remain combating climate change and supporting alternative energy, and told the Los Angeles Times the organization would not renew its deal with Clorox and would take a careful approach to partnering with corporations.

“I'm not going to bring any deals to the board that would negatively impact the Sierra Club brand,” he said. “Nor will we associate with any company that has a green product line and also produces products that can damage the environment in ways they are not willing to address.”

–Joe Spring


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