The Sierra Club did something very difficult: it admitted it had a problem. The long-standing conservation organization released a statement acknowledging the prejudices of its founder and environmental icon, John Muir, along with its problematic beginnings and harmful impacts to Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the ensuing protests, there has been reenergized conversation around reckoning with the past in order to create a better future. The Sierra Club’s honest acknowledgment of its origins and its commitment to transparent improvement should be a model for how institutions can recognize their past without invalidating the positive work they have done. A problem can only be fixed once it is acknowledged and deemed worthy of action. Our country should take note.
The Sierra Club is one of the nation’s largest and most influential environmental organizations. Since its founding in 1892, the club has worked to preserve and create new public parks, lobbied for the adoption of renewable energy and the protection of clean water, campaigned against the use of coal, and promoted youth environmental education. It’s co-founder and first president, John Muir, inspired many with his writings and assisted in creating the movement that would become the National Park System, earning him the moniker “Father of the National Parks.”
Despite his achievements, the organization recently issued a public apology for Muir’s harmful writings and beliefs. It noted his derogatory comments and characterizations of Black and Indigenous people that played on racist stereotypes, saying, “As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color.”
The Sierra Club screened out potential members based on race, limiting the historical environmental engagement of people of color. Beyond the club’s membership, Muir’s views and statements were emblematic of many of the early conservation movement’s problems. The very lands that were being protected had been taken by white settlers who drove out its indigenous populations. Muir’s ideal state of conservation seemed to be “the lone white man at one with nature.” This exclusionary view has had lasting effects, including a disproportionately low number of people of color visiting national parks, with 25% of Black and Hispanic people seeing national parks as unsafe.
A founding father who inspired a movement spanning generations but begun on land only considered “free” once its indigenous populations were driven out. An icon whose prejudices ran counter to his overarching positive message, creating a vision he and his generation couldn’t, and frankly didn’t desire to, uphold. A monumental figure who moved the world in a positive direction, while not only excluding but damaging communities of color, creating systemic and generational harm. Sounds familiar.
With its statement, the Sierra Club has already taken a larger step than many in the United States. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that while 59% of Americans believe Black people face discrimination, only 44% believe that it is systemic and perpetuated by policy and institutions – throwing the burden of racism from our largest institution, our country, to a few “bad apples.”
While there is a bit of optimism in this poll that shows 51% supporting the removal of confederate statues, an ABC/Washington Post poll finds that such support was not able to gain the majority. Their polling showed that only 43% of Americans supported removing statues honoring Confederate generals and 42% supported renaming military bases named after Confederate generals. Whichever poll one chooses to believe, the message is still that barely or less than half of Americans believe we should remove statues and names of the military leaders who fought to preserve the ownership and selling of humans.
Admitting a problem is the first step to recovery. It is not saying that we are rotten to the core, have never done good, or are irredeemable, but it is acknowledging that we have done damage to ourselves and to those to whom we have a responsibility. Sometimes it takes an intervention, but it can go no further without self-acceptance. If we are to celebrate the glory of our beginnings, we must also recognize our horrors, and those horrors’ lasting effects. The Sierra Club has begun the work – we should too.