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At the Sierra Club, a Focus on Race, Gender and the Environment, Too

As protests after the killing of George Floyd convulsed the nation in the summer of 2020, the executive director of the Sierra Club wrote an explosive blog post about John Muir, the storied conservationist who founded the environmental organization.

Muir, the executive director wrote, had made “derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes.”

That blog post, and the internal debate that followed, led to the executive director’s departure last year. And while the Sierra Club now has an acting executive director, many of its public leadership duties have fallen to the president of the board, Ramón Cruz.

Mr. Cruz, who is from Puerto Rico, has spent decades working in the environmental movement. He was arrested while protesting the Navy’s use of the island of Vieques as a training ground, and has held roles at the Environmental Defense Fund and the Partnership for New York City.

And while the Sierra Club is working to move on from the tumult concerning Muir, Mr. Cruz frames the organization’s work not strictly as promoting conservation or combating climate change, but as being a part of a broader movement for social and environmental justice.

This telephone interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

Where are you today?

I am in Brooklyn, New York, the land of the Canarsee people. When we say where we are these days, we have the land recognitions of Indigenous people. New York was the greater Lenape territory, and Brooklyn was the land of the Canarsee.

Why do you feel like it is important to recognize that?

Especially after the summer of reckoning, after George Floyd and so much focus on the effects of systemic racism in our society, understanding the legacy of racism, of supremacy, of colonialism is very important to understand where we are today as a society. I come from Puerto Rico, which is a colonized land. All of this is very important. So when I introduce myself, I usually say I’m in the greater Lenape territory in the unceded land of the Canarsee people, but I hail from Borinquen, which is the Taíno name of the island of Puerto Rico.

We were not the original inhabitants of most of the places that we step in. There has been for millennia other groups and other nations that were there, and when it comes to environmental issues many of these groups were much better stewards of our natural world than we are right now.

Tell me a bit about your experience as a boy in Puerto Rico and your relationship with the land.

My uncle had a house behind the Yunque National Forest, and that is the place where we would celebrate all the major occasions, everything from the Three Kings Day to Mother’s Day to Holy Week, so that was a place where I was definitely in contact with that aspect. I was also a Boy Scout, so my family would go camping.

And my mom was a big influence. She was a nun, and even though I’m not necessarily focused on the religious rituals, she had a call for service. She was a scientist as well, and she had an ecology club in the school I went to. She was a teacher there, and we were doing recycling back when there wasn’t that much recycling going on.

How does the organization think about balancing conservation and climate change?

I would say both are the same. In the last 10 years or so, the Sierra Club has been focusing a lot on transforming itself to an organization that has justice and equity at the core of what we do. That’s important to recognize, because for many years the environmental movement and the environmental justice movement were not working necessarily together.

When we go to a place, we want to be sure that we’re invited, and that there’s an emphasis on bottom-up organizing. That there is a spirit of mutuality and solidarity, and that we’re inclusive and that we also share resources. It’s that commitment to transformation in the Sierra Club that allows us to be better allies and better partners so that instead of just leading the movement, we’re broadening the movement.

We’re an organization that aspires to be much better allies than we have been in the past. With that comes also a recognition of where we may have effected harm in the past, where are we in the progressive movement, and the interconnection with other parts of the movement — that environmental rights are human rights are justice rights, gender rights and reproductive rights.

You said conservation and climate change are essentially the same thing, but we’re seeing more and more often that these two things at times are in real conflict, for example with offshore wind farms or large transmission lines going across relatively unspoiled lands. How should we be weighing the relative merits of each of these causes right now?

The climate crisis is the biggest threat in the history of humanity. There’s also no doubt that anything humans do has a consequence in the natural environment. That’s why I think the most important part is that when developing strategies and action that science leads the way. So of course, renewable-energy projects may have consequences and negative impacts. However, those are way less than fossil fuels.

To your question of where do we draw the line, it varies a lot on a case-by-case basis. In Puerto Rico, there were many big renewable projects and permits given away a couple of administrations ago, and the environmental community opposed it not because we were opposing renewable energy but because we were opposing projects that benefit only a few, that follow corruption schemes that we have seen from the past, and that also use productive land that could have been used for agricultural or conservation when there were alternatives. There’s always going to be some tension.

When so much of the focus of the Sierra Club is on things like immigration or racial justice, is there a risk of losing sight of the core environmental and conservation mission?

For me it’s not taking our eyes off the ball; it’s really about broadening our vision. If anything, that vision was very limited in the past — thinking that it’s just about nature and not seeing the interactions and how the improvement of everybody in society is important. Beyond that, I’m really convinced that we cannot really win the fight in the climate crisis if we don’t deal with these social and racial aspects.

When we think we can frack gas in Appalachia under the premise that it is good for the economy, the people in those places become disposable. There is an ideology behind that grounded in racism and supremacy. You have to tear that down in order to be sure that we have no sacrifice places, that there are no disposable people.

The legacy of environmental pollution is also the legacy of that system. So what we’re saying is that we don’t only care about the places, but we care about the people in those places, and we believe that in order for us to be able to preserve the environment, we need to also preserve people and to ensure that people have the means to thrive in an economy building a planet that is in balance and that it’s healthy for everyone.

When you say confronting the climate crisis essentially means also confronting things like legacy of racial justice in this country, is there a risk of alienating some Americans who might be prepared to have a conversation about the climate crisis but don’t want to have a conversation about race?

In the last 20 years, any efforts to pass climate legislation were led by broad national groups that would say, “Let’s go with either market mechanisms or focus on the big picture.” And many of the environmental justice and community groups were not thrilled about it, because they knew that they were still going to be affected. As much as I would love to have a national carbon trading program, when it comes to local issues, you can have a trading system but then still have pollution in areas that then become the sacrifice zones. So I need to ensure that we’re better allies.

We have been in the middle of discussions about Muir and his legacy. In California, you may have many things named after him. But even if you change people’s views on Muir, you still have a movement that has a series of goals that are very precise and very important.

How optimistic or pessimistic are you about the international community’s ability to keep warming below 1.5 degrees and avoid the worst effects of climate change?

I’m pessimistic and I’m optimistic at the same time. Pessimistic that we don’t have enough time to continue fighting among each other. However, there were many things that were very successful in Glasgow. [The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference was held in Glasgow.]

Is it enough for what we need? Definitely not. We’re not on track to meet the big goals of the Paris agreement. But are we closer after Glasgow? Yes, definitely. So it’s a mixed bag. International collaboration is essential for the survival of, you know, humans, and the world as we know it right now.


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