Sierra Club’s Michael Brune

Posted on in The Interview by Rob Sidon

The Battle Spirit of an Eco-Activist

Michael Brune leads the Sierra Club, the SFbased environmental organization with 2.4 million members, founded in 1892 by preservationist John Muir. Born in 1972, Michael grew up on the New Jersey shore and credits his parents for stoking his results-oriented activism. Prior to joining the Sierra Club in 2010, Michael organized at Greenpeace for 4 years before working at the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) for 11—including 7 as its young executive director.

In 1999 while at RAN, Michael succeeded in getting Home Depot to stop selling wood from old-growth forests—an action Time magazine listed as its top environmental story of the year. A globetrotting environmental leader whose priorities are climate change and the transition to renewable energy, he balances a frenetic schedule with “surgical precision” in order to spend time with his wife, Mary, and coach his two children’s baseball and basketball teams.

Common Ground: How did you come to be an eco-activist?

Michael Brune: I grew up into a family of do-gooders in Toms River, New Jersey, where my dad was the mayor and Mom was a teacher. They weren’t activists in that we were going to protests, but we talked every night at dinner about the world and what was going on—about how different people were facing injustice and why it’s important to fight for what you believe in.

That kindled an interest in social justice and is the bedrock of who I am now. Being in politics was a part-time job for my dad; he was also a builder. I worked with him building and remodeling houses and learned a strong work ethic. When I first started doing activism I called home every weekend and described the different campaigns we were working on or how we were fighting a nuclear plant dumpsite here or a toxic waste incinerator there. The guidance I got from my parents was always, “What are you getting done?” They didn’t want to hear about the different conferences or meetings I spoke at. They wanted to know, “Are you actually prevailing? Are you winning? Are you changing the minds of the people on the ground?” That sticks with me today; it’s what makes me tick. I’m as much a social activist as an environmentalist. I care about a better planet and wildlife, oceans, but I care equally about people and how we treat each other and to standing up against bullies in all forms. I don’t want to just be a part of the fight; I am in this to make a demonstrable impact on people’s lives.

Could you share your activist trajectory before you got to Sierra Club?

I started at Greenpeace and worked there for 4 years. Then I worked for a year at the group known as ForestEthics that is now called Stand. Then for 11 years, I was with RAN [Rainforest Action Network]. And now 6 here. Before coming to Sierra Club, to sum it up I learned how to organize, and to negotiate with corporate CEOs. I learned how to run effective campaigns and what makes the difference between the powerful social change movement and one that doesn’t really do all that much. I tried to pay attention to what else is happening across social justice movements and learn from those as well.

What’s the distinction between running the Sierra Club and RAN?

I loved my time at RAN. I think RAN did a great job of punching well above its weight. What I liked was walking around the office, and within an hour you could get a feel for how the entire staff was doing. Sierra Club has been the best job I’ve ever had. I love its grassroots nature and volunteer spirit, but it’s massive, with 600 staff and more than 10,000 volunteers who have titles and are giving 10 to 40 hours a week of their time without pay. It is this massive and powerful force that has cultivated an ability to be effective and powerful on the outside and effective and powerful on the inside. We have great access to decision-makers at all levels, and yet we have strengthened our commitment to organizing and solidarity with other grassroots groups. I am deeply inspired by the Sierra Club’s commitment to strengthen the diverse movement to fight for climate justice and equity.

Let’s talk about climate justice and about the Paris talks specifically. For readers who don’t know, can you summarize the purpose of these talks?

Paris was called the COP 21, the Conference of Parties. It goes back to 1992 when the United Nations set up this Framework Convention on Climate Change. In 1992 all the countries got together in Rio and said climate change is a global problem that will require global solutions. It began to set up a process by which countries would evaluate the extent of the problem and develop solutions. This had been done before, such as at the Montreal Protocol to reduce ozone depletion [1987] and for other issues. Since Rio there has been a COP every year, but these gatherings have made glacially, painfully slow progress.

But what happened in Paris was extraordinary! It was extraordinary and insufficient at the same time. It’s important to hold both perspectives. It was extraordinary in the sense that for the first time, almost every country made real and substantial commitments to cut their carbon pollution and accelerate a switch to clean energy. There was also a renewed emphasis to limit warming to 1.5°C. In particular there were commitments made by China and India and other developing countries, whereas before there had been a developing vs. developed, rich vs. poor dynamic that inhibited significant international breakthroughs.

What is also true is that these commitments are nonbinding; they are not written into law. There’s no global consequence, there’s no penalty that a country would pay beyond being vilified by the international community if they don’t make their commitment. This is due to a lot of reasons, mostly domestic opposition in several countries, including by Republicans in Congress. That is one significant weakness of the Paris agreement. The other weakness is that the commitments made are not enough. They won’t limit warming to 1.5°C [above pre-industrial levels, a recognized point that would reduce the risks and impacts of climate change]. Even if every country met its obligations to cut carbon pollution, it wouldn’t even limit warming to 2°C, but probably closer to 3°C. So like most things, we have to acknowledge the deficiencies in this agreement even if we are accepting and celebrating the progress made.

What was your role in Paris?

Both things again—the inside and the outside. On the inside, I was representing the Sierra Club, meeting with delegates from other countries and leaders from other NGO groups discussing how to strengthen the agreement and increase the pressure on the various negotiators. On the outside I joined different public events and smaller-scale protests to draw attention to trade and the need for a just transition.

Do you sense a real interest to de-carbonize and transition to renewable energy?

Yes. It’s exciting. I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but the world has changed significantly in the last two or three years. People are seeing the horrifying effects of climate change in their own backyards and experiencing the allure of clean energy. A majority of countries are seeing that solar and wind are cheaper than coal and gas and nuclear power. The fact that solutions to climate change are often cheaper than their causes has enabled countries to be more visionary and ambitious and to see this as an opportunity to be seized rather than a problem to be solved.

How do you gauge the naysayers? Those who say climate change is a hoax?

I don’t.

But they are out there.

Not to be disrespectful, but I don’t have time. There are people who think Elvis is still alive, and people who think tobacco doesn’t cause cancer. I barely have the patience for such people, who are willfully not seeing the world as it is.

Is anger and outrage the common denominator among green activists?

Historically, yes, but I already see activists with that duality who are adept both at fighting against things and for the world they want to create. They will be fierce in fighting fracking and coal trains and oil export terminals but will be visionary and relentless advocating for community-owned solar, or electric vehicle car sharing, or for energy efficiency programs in low-income neighborhoods.

What more can you say about the activist’s spirit?

The best encapsulation of the movement is on a placard I see at protests everywhere that reads, “I can’t believe I have to protest this shit.” It’s relevant when it’s a protest against cops shooting unarmed black children, or for immigrant rights activists who don’t want to see families broken up. It’s relevant to people protesting at a pipeline or fracking near a watershed. Let’s get real, folks. It’s 2016. We know about climate change and that solutions are available and affordable like never before. Let’s do this.

You’re often doing this arm wrestling in Washington, DC. What does a typical day look like for you there?

I go maybe once a month, sometimes more. My day, like my job, is split. I am likely to meet at the White House or with people on the Hill, and I will probably spend a couple hours meeting with other NGOs and local groups and spend time talking to reporters or going on TV to help broadcast a message of informed optimism or whatever it might be.

Can you give readers an inside view of what the tone is like in those meetings?

Before going into a big meeting, I take a moment to remember two things. One is that I am representing the Sierra Club, which means I am carrying 2.4 million people in there with me. I do that to remind myself that I have a constituency of people who are expecting me to fight, not for what is politically comfortable in that moment, but for what actually needs to be done. So I need to be reasonable and respectful of the prevailing political wisdom, but not too quick to compromise.

Second, I think about my children and I go in as a father. I do that to keep it real. What I found—not exclusively in DC but particularly in DC—is that it gets very cloistered, with artificial conversations about how many votes something will get in Congress or what soand-so leader of some committee will say in the next hearing. The culture in DC prevents people from talking to each other as one human being to another about problems and solutions impacting people’s lives. So I try to hold onto my humanity, particularly when I’m in Washington.

Whether from Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, there is a groundswell of people who are jubilant about this “nix the status quo in Washington” frustration. How do you see it?

People are sick of it because it’s not real. You have people there creating controversies and false senses of outrage over what one leader of one party said or what a leader of another party said. I do think the Republican Party should accept a lot of blame for obstructing any kind of progress and for working so hard to prevent the president from taking credit on anything. But I don’t think Republicans should take all of the blame. A lot of Democrats too are disingenuous and distort issues.

Climate change is a perfect example. Everyone knows it’s a problem. Even those who deny it know there is a problem, but it’s almost impossible to find ways to reduce our dependence on oil and make our country more independent. It’s almost impossible to have smart energy legislation and find ways to stimulate investments in clean energy—which everybody knows will create more jobs, cut air pollution, and help small businesses and local economies become more resilient. I totally sympathize with people’s anger and frustration. My worry is that someone like Donald Trump can appeal to people’s frustrations but not have any real way to help solve the problems.

Whether it’s Paris or at the Capitol, many of my readers must wonder: “Should I be optimistic about the planet, or is it just perpetual lip service?”

I think it’s important to have both emotions at the same time, in your heart and in your head. There are a lot of reasons to be angry and cynical and skeptical about commitments that are being made in the private sector or by cities or states or national governments because there is a lot of lip service.

We have a long way to go. We are way behind, and it’s questionable whether we will change in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change. That skepticism is fully justified and useful. We don’t want to be complacent. At the same time, the change that is happening is undeniable. I used to give speeches and say the work we are trying to do around fossil fuels is difficult because we’re up against the richest companies in the history of the world. ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell. But that is no longer true. The most profitable company in the world now is Google, and they have committed to 100% clean energy. No. 2 is Apple, and they have committed to 100% clean energy and are 93% of the way there.

This does not mean that the world has changed, that climate change is solved, but it does mean that when you have utilities like MidAmerican Energy in Iowa closing coal plants and now getting 40% of their electricity from wind, that this is a significant data point. When you combine that with the Omaha power district closing coal plants and switching to wind, and utilities in Oklahoma and Texas and New Mexico and Minnesota, Colorado, California that are also switching to solar and wind and all saving their customers money. And you combine that with Apple, Google, Starbucks, and Walgreens, and the countries of Denmark and Germany, and you see all this progress, it adds up to something that is powerful, historic, and meaningful. It gives hope that we are not incompetent as a species, that we have the ability to solve some of the biggest problems facing our planet. The question is, Can we do it in time? So I have this hope and anger in my heart every day I go to work.

How would you prioritize your concerns for the planet? Where are you fighting the fights that most bother you?

It depends on the time of day, but generally speaking, it’s fossil fuels, fossil fuels, fossil fuels. The fact that we still burn coal to produce electricity is silly in this day and age. Even though we are down to 33%–35% of our electricity coming from coal, that’s 33%–35% too much. It angers me that we are destroying watersheds and ruining landscapes across the country because of the fracking for oil and gas. It’s an outrage that we would pursue such a reckless method of producing fossil fuels. Those are the top few things, but I have a long list. I have no shortage of things that make me angry or get me out of bed in the morning. I was just down in South Florida yesterday looking at what the sugar industry is doing to the low-income community with the air and water pollution resulting from some their activities. Sadly, there seems to be sometimes no limit to what we have to fight.

Last year I interviewed Leilani Münter, the vegan carbon-free racecar driver who is an intense green activist. I am reminded how she said if we want to make a difference for the planet, that we’re better off being vegan or vegetarian [because of the heat-trapping methane gases emitted from factory farming] and drive a Hummer than to be a meat eater and drive an electric or hybrid car.

People should eat less meat. We certainly do that in our family, although we are not fully vegetarian yet. We need to draw the connections between food and climate. That’s an important step people can take, whether it’s by the individual choices we make or generally by how food is produced and consumed in this country. That’s probably the biggest area the environmental movement hasn’t taken on. There are a couple groups that have done good work there, but it hasn’t become as much of a focus as is deserved. Leilani is right; more attention should be drawn there.

Traditionally, there has been this divide between what I call the marchers and the meditators. It goes back to the ’60s in the Bay Area where on one hand—and I am speaking in generalities here—you had outwardly loud, angry protestors, and on other side there was the introspective, navel-gazing seeker crowd. It’s been a mission of mine at Common Ground to help bridge that divide—to have the activists take better care of their internal health and embrace spiritual wisdom, and for the yogis to take a stand. Increasingly, I see this crossover and wonder what you see.

I appreciate that observation on the Bay Area and the world. Sometimes people ask me, “What is the most important thing that I can do to help save the environment” or whatever the issue may be. I often answer by saying, “First, do what makes your heart sing.” Some people are drawn to activism and get energy and inspiration from being part of a movement that is public and fighting and protesting and challenging power, building power. Other folks are more drawn to an internal exploration and examination. Do what you’re drawn to. But the second thing I say is, “Stretch yourself.” Don’t get stuck in your comfort zone.

I appreciate the way you put it. The fighters need to take care of themselves and ask, “Why are we here? What is our purpose on this planet?” To those who are more adept at introspection, come teach us and then come on out and engage. And while maybe they won’t join a protest, it sure would be great if they voted, or at least voted with their dollars at the grocery store or with their bank accounts and investments. All of it is important; I wouldn’t elevate one above the other.

What was your religious upbringing? Do you try to bring a personal spiritual perspective to your work?

I was raised traditionally as a Catholic. I don’t know if one can be raised as a lapsed Catholic, but that was my upbringing—a casual, almost obligatory Catholic upbringing. That didn’t stick too well, although some vestiges remain. My faith is more personal. I think my spirituality really centers on nature and family. Those things mean the most to me.

The life of an activist is a tough grind. How is your own health holding up?

Good. I feel very lucky. It is a priority for me to enjoy my life. What a sad irony it would be to spend my entire life fighting for a better world and not enjoy the world I am in right now. I pour a lot of my life force into my work and am proud of my ability to work hard and find balance. Holy shit—that is the biggest challenge. I feel I have to have surgical precision in my life to be a good dad and a good husband to Mary and be an effective leader of the Sierra Club, but I am also the manager of my boy’s Little League team, and I coached my daughter’s basketball team. Every now and then I pay attention to myself to stay happy and healthy. I do have the opportunity to get outdoors a lot and visit some beautiful places. I’m active with my family and my community, so for most days I feel the balance is close to where it needs to be.

Who are your mentors? Where can you give credit to those whose shoulders you’re standing on?

My dad is my biggest mentor, my parents. My wife, Mary. Nadine Block is the first person who inspired me back at Greenpeace in terms of how to use civil disobedience in a way that would inspire. John Sellers was an early one who continues to be an inspiration. He runs The Other 98. The Black Lives Matter movement for how to fight with principle and inspire people to change their worldview. Christopher Hatch, who used to run Rainforest Action, taught me a lot. Jennifer Krill at Earthworks.

You’re carrying on the tradition of the house that John Muir built.

That is a thought leader if there ever was one. He invented a language, really, about viewing and experiencing and appreciating nature. He didn’t just create the Sierra Club or help to protect Yosemite; he changed how people looked at wild places—from something to be feared to something to be revered.

How would you distinguish the Bay Area’s brand of activism versus other hubs?

Paris is pretty awesome. Their level of political engagement runs deep. Great things are happening in LA. I am inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement happening across a hundred cities in America. The Bay Area has a great mix of creative, rebellious inspiration and technological innovation, and it’s an amazing time to be alive here at that intersection, but it’s not the only place where cool things are happening. Sometimes you have to look a little harder, but it can be more inspiring to find activism in places where it’s more underground.

What sorts of things please you? Conversely, what pisses you off?

Someone who is mean pisses me off. Somebody who is arrogant. Someone who doesn’t shut up when they have little to say. Bullies more than anything else. Whether it’s a traditional view of a bully, someone who is at school, or grownup bullies running for president or running a company or a news network. Someone who abuses their power to keep their foot on the necks of other people. That annoys me. That is a fuel for how I move in the world.

What makes me happy? Music, getting outside, spending time at the beach, the redwoods. Little League practice. Art, film. Time with the kids. A walk with Mary. A good sleep. A good result in Paris. A pipeline rejection here, a coal plant closed there, fracking banned there—all that.

I meant to ask this earlier about what it was like for you, personally, to be in Paris right after the terrorist attacks there. Of course, this has just come to light again after the Brussels atrocities.

It took a lot of courage and spirit. It was uplifting to see tens of thousands come together, some to negotiate, some to protest, some to do both, and to do it after this horrific event. It gave me so much encouragement about the decency in the human race and our resiliency. I was moved by how people carried themselves at a time of great fear and anxiety.

This Green issue is usually the most challenging to my psyche, because I learn about many awful environmental truths.

Paul Hawken says, “If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.” That’s about how I feel. There’s a lot of reason for anger and despair, but just slightly more reason for excitement and anticipation.

Any final words to our readers? Some who are possibly budding activists?

The writer-philosopher Anaïs Nin said it well. She said, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s own courage.” If I were sitting down with someone who’s exploring activism, I would bring up this quote and say, “Throw yourself in.” Activism can be one of the most rewarding human experiences. The opportunity to find an affinity with people across cultures and economic and racial differences—to develop a common vision of how the world should be, to fight for that vision and to prevail—is life-affirming. It can be hard and tiring and frustrating, but we encourage people to throw their hearts in. But it should always be fun and never feel like a chore. Don’t give up.

Rob Sidon is publisher and editor in chief of Common Ground.

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