The Sierra Club has had its share of environmental successes over the years. It prevented the damming of the Grand Canyon in the 1960s. It ran successful efforts to expand Sequoia National Park in 1926 and create the Redwoods National Park in 1968. And it has helped persuade multiple college campuses to divest from fossil fuels and phase out coal-fired power plants on campus.
But until recently, there’s one thing the Sierra Club — and, some say, the broader environmental movement — hasn’t done well. It hasn’t shown support for other social movements, hasn’t added its voice to other calls for change. That’s something Michael Brune, president of the Sierra Club, wants to change.
“Whenever we see things that threaten our democracy, whether it’s the influx of corporate money into our political system or the erosion of voting rights, or things like [police violence] that are a violation of human rights, we feel it’s our job to speak up,” he said. “And we’re happy to do so.”
And, for Brune, the recent police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio have touched a nerve. During the first week of December, the Sierra Club posted multiple statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has grown out of the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and the high-profile police killings that have taken place in the last few months.
“Whether it’s the planet itself or the people who inhabit it, we hold the ideals of respect and reverence in the highest regard,” the organization wrote on its Facebook page on December 4. “For these reasons, we stand in solidarity with the organizations who are protesting and demanding justice in the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and every other victim of injustice.”
The choice to have the Sierra Club show support for the movement was simple for Brune, as he explained in blog posts following the Facebook-issued statements. All people, regardless of race, deserve a clean and healthy planet, he wrote. They also deserve to be able to live their lives without being fearful of the police, and without being subjected to discrimination.
These two issues, Brune wrote, “are not separate. Indeed, we believe that working toward a just, equitable, and transparent society is not only morally necessary but also exactly what we need to confront the unprecedented environmental challenges we face.”
Opal Tometi, Executive Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter Movement, agrees. She said in a statement to ThinkProgress that environmental issues are “inextricably linked to a racial justice agenda,” and that she’d like to see more people of color — especially those who are already leaders in the environmental justice movement — rise up to leadership roles in the larger, national organizations — organizations that, as a whole, have been found to skew white.
“Black communities in the U.S. and around the globe are impacted the worst and should be central in shaping and leading the national environmental justice movement,” Tometi said.
Brune isn’t the only one in the environmental movement who thinks so. The Sierra Club was among multiple environmental groups to put out statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in recent months: the National Resources Defense Council, for one, published a blog post this month stating the group’s support for the movement, and Greenpeace did the same in August.
In November, Friends of the Earth International put out a statement of support for the protests that erupted in Ferguson after unarmed teen Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer, saying that the shooting was “an affront to Friends of the Earth International’s vision of a society of interdependent people living in harmony.” The group’s U.S.-based arm put out another statement in December, after the police officer who used a chokehold to kill unarmed Eric Garner wasn’t indicted.
These types of statements are a sign of progress for the environmental movement, said Van Jones, environmental and civil rights advocate and founder of Green for All and Rebuild the Dream. Jones said environmental groups need to continue to engage with relevant social causes if they want to grow and evolve, and also if they want to gain supporters from the non-white community, a demographic which, polls have found, is often supportive of efforts to protect the environment.
A Yale poll from 2010 found that black Americans, Hispanics and people of other races are “often the strongest supporters of climate and energy policies and were also more likely to support these policies even if they incurred greater cost.” A 2012 poll found that 71 percent of Asian Americans would call themselves an environmentalist, compared to the national average of about 41 percent. And, according to a 2013 poll, 86 percent of black Americans support the President taking “significant steps” on climate change, compared to 76 percent of Hispanics and 60 percent of whites.
“It’s only natural that, if people who make up a large part of your growing base are under fire — literally — that you should express some sympathy and some concern,” Jones said. And, he said, now that these statements have been made, environmental groups should be sure to make their members aware of any legislation that might come out of the Black Lives Matter movement.
May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, said she hopes environmental groups’ statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement is a sign of a new era in environmentalism.
There have been other signs in recent years that major environmental groups are starting to branch out: the Sierra Club came out in favor of immigration reform in 2013, an issue that had sparked internal arguments in the group in past years. It was joined by 350.org and Greenpeace. And Friends of The Earth has been fairly outspoken in the past about issues that fall outside of the traditional bounds of an environmental organization. The group’s D.C. office marched in support of healthcare reform in 2010, and President Erich Pica said they’ve also supported the marriage equality movement.
Pica said the Black Lives Matter movement was another reminder that the group that it can’t achieve its mission — to defend the environment and champion a healthy and just world — if it doesn’t address the “deeper, systemic” issues in American society.
“As an environmental group, we can focus too much on the healthy world piece,” Pica said. “On the justice piece — the ‘just’ piece — it’s hard for Friends of the Earth to accomplish that mission if there are blatant injustices that are occurring out there, where Americans — African Americans, black Americans — don’t have the basic rights to a justice system, where they fear that an encounter with a police officer could be their last.”
For the groups that issued statements of support for the movement, the decision to do so was fairly easy. But not everyone is happy about these statements — or, at least, not everyone on the Sierra Club’s Facebook page. Some wondered why a group whose main goal was the protection of the earth and the advancement of renewable energy sources bothered to put out a statement of support for a cause that, at first glance, had little to do with the environment.
One commenter called the Sierra Club’s statement “out of line,” and said he was disappointed that the environmental organization would choose to associate itself with “controversial criminal justice cases.”
Brune said he understood why some people were confused about the group’s statement — police violence, after all, isn’t an issue that’s typically discussed in the same conversation as carbon regulations and sage grouse protection. He can see why some might be concerned about the implications of the Sierra Club putting out statements of support for other issues: that it could water down the environmental movement or make the public confused about the movement’s goals.
But ultimately, Brune doesn’t agree with those concerns. He didn’t think twice about making the statements of support, and he wants to do more to address social issues in the future. He and his family have joined in some of the marches against police violence, and he said that Sierra Club organizers are “working in solidarity,” with Black Lives Matter organizers.
“I’m proud of the way in which we’re acting and engaging. For us, it’s not just about a post on Facebook or a blog entry or a series of supportive statements — we’re determined to engage on these issues over the long-haul,” he said. Externally, we’re always thinking about ways to both strengthen the environmental progress that we’re making and address some of the underlying obstacles towards that progress.”