Dividing the Sierra Club

The Sierra Club is holding a member referendum on one of the most potentially divisive issues faced by the environmental movement in years. The issue is what position, if any, one of America's largest and most influential environmental organizations should take on immigration.

In 1996, Sierra Club members adopted a resolution saying the organization would take no positions on immigration levels or policies. However, a successful petition drive followed, mounted by those who want the Sierra Club to advocate for US population control through immigration restrictions. The debate has been divisive and bitter, with the controversy spilling out into the pages of The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, and numerous other newspapers.

Those who want the Sierra Club to endorse restrictions on immigration – those favoring “Alternative A” – include economist Herman Daly, Worldwatch Institute president Lester Brown, and former Sierra Club associate executive director Brock Evans. They argue that the organization needs to advocate rapid stabilization of the US population, both through lowering fertility rates and through restricting immigration. In a fact sheet sent to Club members and available on the Sierra Club Web page, Alternative A proponents cite studies that link a predicted US population boom and its ensuing environmental degradation to immigrants and their offspring: “The US will add 125 million people in the next 40 years if current birth and immigration rates are not changed. The impact of this many Americans on US and global ecosystems will be severe.”

The Carrying Capacity Network, an advocacy group based in Washington, DC, sent a newsletter to its members, urging them to “help Sierra Club members demonstrate that immigration is an environmental issue.” The letter warns that “to accommodate population growth, the US paves over an area equal to the state of Delaware every year and will lose 120 million acres of farmland in the next 60 years if the current population growth continues.”

The opposing viewpoint, “Alternative B” – supported by Carl Pope, current executive director of the Sierra Club, Carl Anthony, executive director of Earth Island Institute, and Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers – affirms the need for population stabilization but rejects adopting a stance on immigration levels.

The New York Times reports that most current and past Sierra Club officials favor Alternative B, and many local chapters of the Club and leaders of other environmental organizations are advocating that the Sierra Club remain neutral on immigration issues. Many say that such issues are not the Sierra Club's area of expertise, and it should focus on the areas it knows best – corporate logging, mining, oil drilling, inappropriate technologies, and the protection of endangered species.

Peter Kostermayer, executive director of Zero Population Growth, says, “The Sierra Club can vote to define immigration as a numbers issue, a position that literally blames immigrants for our problems. Or it can continue to cast its lot with those of us who see the complex relationships between migration and global issues such as poverty, human rights, and environmental protection. I hope the Club follows this latter course.”

Fueling the debate is the question of whether advocating reductions in US immigration levels discriminates against minorities. A Club resolution to support immigration restrictions would be offensive to people of color, even those who think we should limit immigration, says Carl Pope. “It says to the world, ‘We in the US can enjoy a lifestyle that is a threat to the planet. We will not let you come here. We have no intention to get off this lifestyle, and please don't aspire to it back home in Moscow, Buenos Aires, or rural China.' It is seen by people in the immigrant communities as saying: ‘You are a form of pollution.'”

Activist Mark Palmer, a wildlife activist and Club member from California adds, “We have only one Earth – it does not stop at our arbitrary US borders.”

– Sarah van Gelder & Tracy Rysavy

Find a full set of arguments on both sides on the Sierra Club Web site:

Editor's note: As YES! went to press, the Sierra Club announced that members had voted in favor of Alternative B, keeping the Club neutral on immigration issues.

Niketown No More

Although many children in America pay big money for sneakers and clothing with the famous Nike swoosh, others are now taking off their Air Jordans and taking on the corporate giant. Across the US, children are organizing protests against the conditions inside Nike's Asian sweatshops.

New Jersey fourth graders staged a play that was produced on Broadway about the working conditions in factories that contract with Nike. And instead of carrying out pairs of sneakers from the Niketown store in New York City last fall, young activists carried four garbage bags of old sneakers back in. This “Give Back Your Sneakers” protest was staged by the Edenwald Gunhill Neighborhood Center in the Bronx, New York, to call attention to Nike's unfair labor practices. The protest drew more than 200 people, 110 of them teens.

Youth attending programs at the center wrote more than 100 letters of protest to Nike CEO Philip Knight and Nike spokesman Michael Jordan. After waiting four months for a reply and then receiving an unsatisfactory form letter from Nike, the kids took action.

“Their pay is not enough to feed their families,” said protestor Gary Johnson, 16, referring to the fact that Vietnamese workers get paid $1.60 a day to make sneakers that US children buy for up to $170 a pair.

Said 15 year-old protestor Iesha Harrison, “Nike, we made you, and we can break you.”

– Ms. Magazine

Protests slow MAI

Opposition to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) derailed negotiators' hopes to have the MAI ready for signing this April. However, opponents of this international trade agreement point out that provisions of the MAI are already showing up in other areas. Commitments have already been made to launch MAI negotiations at the World Trade Organization.

The MAI is an international economic agreement designed to make it easier for individual and corporate investors to move assets – whether money or production facilities – across international borders. Under the MAI, corporations would have the right to sue local, state, and federal governments if an environmental law or labor regulation, for example, reduced or restricted profits (see YES! #3, Fall 1997).

On March 24, Frans Engering, chairperson of the Negotiating Group on the MAI, announced that he would recommend that Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) governments not sign the MAI treaty at the OECD Ministerial Conference in Paris this April. This means a delay in MAI negotiations at least until October, when the OECD countries are scheduled to meet again.

Over 600 international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have signed a joint statement against the MAI, and national campaigns have been launched in dozens of OECD member and non-member countries.

A Dutch group reported: “It appears that all hell has broken loose in some European Union member countries over the MAI, with a combination of street protests, NGO critiques, outraged parliamentarians, and interagency fights within governments on key issues.”

Half of the Canadian provinces and numerous municipalities have released statements against the MAI. And after anti-MAI editorials and news of protests graced the front pages of many French newspapers, the Prime Minister was forced to declare that France would not sign. In response to public demands for greater protections for labor and the environment, US negotiators have stated that such protections have become “essential ... for public perception of the MAI.”

Several Canadian and US municipalities – including San Francisco and Berkeley, California – have gone so far as to pass “MAI-free zones,” aiming to generate local press and spark community discussions about the MAI and the broader impacts of globalization on local sovereignty.

Unfortunately, warns Public Citizen's Chantell Taylor, the MAI gets trickier now. “Already, talks have begun to figure out where the MAI could be buried from public scrutiny.” For example, the US Crane sub-Saharan Africa Trade Bill (H.R. 1432), which recently passed the House and is headed for a Senate vote, would cut off existing African trade and aid benefits unless African countries are certified to have met a new list of MAI-like conditions.

These conditions include:

* providing MAI-style “national treatment” to foreign investors. “National treatment” means that no laws or regulations can be passed that put foreign investment at a disadvantage relative to domestic investment.

* obeying International Monetary Fund (IMF) structural adjustment programs. These programs have typically included: cutting government spending, especially “human infrastructure” spending, such as public health and education; privatizing public services; providing tax-breaks for corporations; and cutting subsidies for domestically oriented food production.

* joining the World Trade Organization (WTO). Even the OECD admits that WTO rules hurt sub-Saharan countries.

In addition, Senate majority leader Trent Lott has indicated that he will attach the Fast Track bill to the Crane Bill. Fast Track authorization, which failed to win approval last fall, would facilitate rapid congressional approval of trade legislation, like the MAI, with a minimum of debate allowed (see YES! #5, Spring 1998).

Says Taylor, “The cooperation between groups working on the MAI has been incredible, and it shows us all how effective we can be when we work together. However, the fight is far from over.”

The news that the OECD has developed another draft of the MAI, with many of the provisions that the NGOs had protested intact, underscores that the MAI is still a live issue.

– Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch

Move the Money!

Concerned business leaders across America are joining forces to urge the government to “Move the Money” from defense to schools, communities, and the environment. Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities (BLSP) includes over 350 major corporate CEOs and retired military experts who aim to use their collective marketing and budgeting expertise to “redirect US federal budget priorities away from Cold War military expenditure levels and toward meeting the basic needs of our citizens,” says the BLSP Executive Summary.

BLSP founder Ben Cohen, who also is chair of the board of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, says, “The well-financed, sustained ... marketing effort that we envision – while standard in the business world – has never before been used to promote this agenda.”

As part of this campaign, participating businesses have pledged to flag over 30 million consumer products, packages, and catalogs with the “Move the Money” logo and a toll-free number that concerned citizens can call for information and to send an instantaneous fax to their legislators. The logos will appear on a wide range of products, from toys and tweezers to compact disks and clothing.

– Tracy Rysavy

The Move the Money consumer toll-free number is 1-888-MOVEIT-1. Interested businesses can join the campaign by calling Richard Foos at 310/441-6506.

Army Charm School

Thomas Ricks of The Wall Street Journal had the privilege of being the first reporter allowed to attend a unique kind of US military training at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Its purpose – to allow brigadier generals and colonels up for promotion to get in touch with their “inner jerk” and then to lose that part of their personality.

At this “charm school,” as the Army informally refers to it, the soon-to-be generals are exposed to a new level of military morals, manners, and management. They learn how to eat, drink, think about the Army, and deal with everyone from members of Congress to journalists.

As Ricks reports, much of what the “baby generals” are told here could apply to corporate life. The attendees look and talk like their corporate counterparts, except they have a higher level of physical fitness and include more blacks and Latin-Americans than usually found in top business ranks.

The training week ends with some final advice from Gen. Dennis Reimer, the Army chief of staff. He emphasizes time management and avoiding burnout, leaving the podium with this parting shot: “Get your own coffee. It keeps you humble.”

– Susan Callan

Progressive Groceries

When Monsanto and Ciba Geigy tried to sell their genetically-engineered products in Europe, they were unprepared for the backlash from European consumers worried about adverse health effects. As more and more buyers rejected the products, some retailers, food producers, and governments took steps to keep the foods off grocery store shelves.

Iceland, one of Britain's biggest grocery chains, announced last April that it would not use genetically-modified plants or bacteria in its own brand of food products.

Malcolm Walker, founder and CEO of the supermarket giant, which runs 770 stores in the UK, said, “Consumers are being conned. The introduction of genetically modified ingredients is probably the most significant and potentially dangerous development in food policy this century, yet the British public is largely ignorant of it.” Iceland's market research shows that 80 percent of its customers are concerned about genetically altered food.

Greenpeace International reports that several EU countries – among them Germany, Switzerland, France, and Spain – are calling for widespread labelling of genetically engineered foodstuffs, particularly products containing soya. And following the European Commission's decision to allow Ciba Geigy's genetically engineered corn into Europe, the Austrian government decided that health and environment concerns had not been adequately considered. In late 1996, they announced that they would not allow the importation of the corn and are currently challenging the Commission's approval.

– Tracy Rysavy

Responsible Taxes

A number of affluent Americans have pledged to give away some or all of their capital gains tax cut from the 1997 Tax Act. At a March 1998 press conference, United for a Fair Economy's Responsible Wealth Project unveiled the Tax Break Pledge, which was created to call attention to the lopsided nature of last year's tax cuts.

According to Responsible Wealth – a network of businesspeople, investors, and wealthy Americans working for a fair economy (see YES! #5, Spring 1998) – the 1997 Tax Act reduced the tax rate on long-term capital gains from 28 to 20 percent; this means an estimated $87 billion in capital gains tax cuts will go to the richest five percent of Americans over the next five years. Less than two percent of the capital gains cut will benefit the bottom 60 percent, they say.

Mike Lapham, project director for Responsible Wealth, said that so far, 125 people have pledged over $1 million to charitable and public-interest causes, including a campaign for more even-handed tax policies.

In an April press release, Responsible Wealth said, “The Tax Break Pledge is a way for us to publicly oppose this tax cut targeted at the wealthy. We are counteracting Congress's misplaced priorities with our money as well as our words.”

– United for a Fair Economy

Contact Responsible Wealth, c/o United for a Fair Economy, 37 Temple Place, 5th Floor, Boston, MA 02111; 617/423-2148

Asian Pollution

A new World Bank survey has estimated that air and water pollution in China costs the country $54 billion a year – about eight percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – in damage to human health and lost agricultural productivity. According to the report, China's booming economy faces a $34.5 billion bill in the coming years to clean up an environmental mess caused by lax enforcement of pollution laws, outdated technology, and massive underfunding of environmental protection.

China's National Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 0.85 percent of the GDP is spent annually on environmental protection, but to be effective, the spending needs to reach 1.5 percent of the GDP. The World Bank report states that environmental spending is only likely to hit 1.0 percent.

The effects aren't confined to China. Recent research from the University of Washington says that the pollution in China and other Asian countries is affecting North America. Using a computer model that combines pollutant levels with known emissions and wind patterns, UW professor Dan Jaffe claims that about 10 percent of ozone and other pollutants over the US West Coast are coming from the industrialized nations of East Asia.

– Tracy Rysavy

– Scott Morris

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