A Rebel with Numerous Causes

Carl Pope has spent nearly 30 years fighting for the environment.

It was November 1966, and Carl Pope '67, stationed in front of Quincy House, was about to get one of his first tastes of political activism. Pope, now executive director of the Sierra Club, the country's oldest and largest environmental advocacy group, recalls that he and his pacifist friends were geared up for what they called "Indian corraling: where you surround someone nonviolently and hope they talk to you." That someone was then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. He had been invited by the new Kennedy Institute of Politics to meet with a small group of undergraduates at Quincy House. "That was not acceptable to us," Pope recounts. "We wanted a public debate on the war and we thought, 'If he won't do it, then we won't let him leave.' What would that actually accomplish? It wouldn't accomplish much, but we hadn't done anything for a while. We were 19 and wanted to do something" about Vietnam. "I wasn't very happy with the decision and wasn't planning to go. But there was a girl I thought was very cute and she was going."

Carl Pope

Courtesy of the Sierra Club  

As it happened, McNamara was able to make it to a car ("thanks to a bunch of pro-war fellows from Quincy House," Pope recalls). "I was standing right next to the car. Nobody seemed to have any idea what we were going to do to prevent him from leaving, so I got in front of the car and lay down," he says. "It played out very badly. They got my bursar's card. Everyone got a black eye. [Dean of students Robert B.] Watson called me in and said, 'Mr. Pope, I cannot believe that a cabinet officer of the United States of America cannot walk through the streets of Cambridge.' And I thought, 'I can't believe the University doesn't read the Crimson,'" because the students had announced their plans in advance in the campus newspaper.

Pope, now 57, grew up in Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., and lived in Adams House, "known as the House that observed rules much the way Enron observed accounting practices," he says wryly. The McNamara incident wasn't his first brush with University officials. In the fall of 1963, when he was stumping for two school committee candidates, in Boston and Cambridge, he got a call to come in and have sherry with a high-level Harvard administrator. "That was rather intimidating for a freshman," Pope says. "So I went, and he very genteelly pointed out to me that Mel King, running for Boston school committee was really a terrific guy, but the other candidate wasn't such a wonderful guy. It was never quite specified what was wrong. I was very puzzled, so I went back and asked an upperclassman what the hell was going on. What was going on, I found out, was that there was a University faction on the Cambridge school board and [my] candidate was not part of the faction. That was my first less-than-salubrious experience with Harvard.

"While I got a very, very good education at Harvard," says Pope, who concentrated in social studies, "I didn't come away with terribly positive feelings toward its governing structure." But those politics--at Harvard, in the Boston area, and beyond--clearly steered his course. "Did I pick up my activism from the sea in which I swam? Yes," answers Pope. "I came to environmentalism through social activism."


Like many young idealists, Pope joined the Peace Corps just out of college. He went to India, where he promoted family-planning education in villages. "I thought I was going to spend my life working for the United Nations. India cured me of that," he says, explaining that "even with the best intentions, the United States has the capacity to be ineffective. I wrote a book about how I didn't succeed." (Sahib: An American Misadventure in India, an account of his experience, is now out of print.) In the spring of 1970, he moved back to the Washington, D.C., area and thought about becoming a foreign correspondent, but because of his work in family planning ended up at Zero Population Growth.

He credits the landmark Clean Air Act of 1970 for sparking his interest in environmentalism. "We all breathe the same air and there's only one ozone layer," he says. "What attracted me at this point was that environmentalism was one of the causes that brought a broad spectrum of society together. That's still true in many cases."

He worked at Zero Population Growth until he moved to California in 1973 "to live somewhere else and try somewhere different." Once there, he gravitated toward the politically active, San Francisco-based Sierra Club, founded in 1892. Over the years, he has worked as a lobbyist, community organizer, fundraiser, and analyst. He co-wrote what is known as California's Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, and has written widely for environmental magazines; in 1983 he coauthored Hazardous Waste in America, published by Sierra Club Books.

During his tenure, Pope has seen the organization grow from 139,000 members to more than 700,000 members and a staff of 500, which he oversees. "I never actually planned to be the executive director," he concedes. "I was always two or three years away from leaving, and then my job would change. Eventually I outlasted almost everybody else. I found myself in senior levels," and in 1992 got the job. As the organization's highest-ranking staff member (the presidency job, held by Jennifer Ferenstein, is voluntary), Pope is also its most vocal and visible representative.

The Sierra Club ranks as less political and left-leaning than Greenpeace, but more so than the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation, the other U.S. environmental groups with which it is most closely aligned. John Flicker, president of the National Audubon Society, calls Pope "a visionary in public-policy thinking." The two have worked together on a variety of issues since Flicker took his post seven years ago. "Carl is usually on the cutting edge for advocacy for the environment. He's extremely articulate and especially adept at turning a phrase to make it sink in with the public," Flicker adds. "When it comes to a debate on environmental policy, I'm glad he's on our side. He is good."

Pope says "shortsightedness" is the biggest, most frustrating obstacle to enacting environmental changes. "The hardest projects are those that have the longest time horizons and the least urgency, even if they are very important," he says. "Our political leaders are less and less likely, in both parties, to look at the overall, long-term needs of the nation, and more likely to put parochial, narrow, partisan, and local short-term needs ahead of what the nation needs. This was most spectacularly shown by the [March 2002] vote on fuel economy," he says, referring to congressional rejection of a bill that would have raised mileage standards for sport-utility and other vehicles--requiring, for example, that a Ford Explorer get 34 miles per gallon, not 19.

The Sierra Club is launching a major, multiyear campaign to get American auto consumers to demand that the industry offer an option called the "Freedom Package" on all models. "It's a set of technologies like multivalve injection and variable-speed transmissions that would," Pope says, "enable cars to get dramatically more miles per gallon, would save drivers thousands of dollars over the life of a vehicle, would eliminate millions of tons of the carbon pollution that causes global warming, and would reduce our dependence on Middle East oil." (For the record, he drives a 1995 Ford Aspire--"41 mpg," he adds.)

Pope counts among his accomplishments "beating back the Newt Gingrich 'Contract with America'" in 1995, which virtually every major environmental group called an attack against the laws that protect natural resources. As for the current Bush administration, Pope declares that it "is the most diligently opposed to long-range protection of the air, water, and lands of this nation of any we have had in my lifetime." He also faults the Clinton administration for "the decision in 1995 to sign the clear-cut logging rider that delayed for years the reform of the National Forest Service."

Pope is encouraged, however, by a "renewed commitment of America's churches, synagogues, and mosques to do their part in protecting the environment, and the similar dramatic upswing in direct involvement by African-American, Hispanic, and Asian communities all over the country." Though the environmental movement "is still far, far too white," he says, "environmental issues are now engaging a much more diverse cross-section of America."

One of the challenges the Sierra Club faces in broadening its predominantly white, middle-class base, is that "it's quite difficult to get people comfortable with working in a multiclass, multiethnic context," Pope says. For example, "most of our members are well-educated, and better at talking than at listening. That's pretty intimidating for someone without a formal education who comes to a first meeting. Unless we're careful--and we haven't been careful enough--that person is not going to have a positive experience, and won't come back."

The Sierra Club recently announced that it would place more emphasis on what it stands for, instead of what it is against. "We have a tendency to act as if people are motivated mainly by anger or fear, when in fact we know better--that hope and optimism are more critical motivational factors," Pope explains. "We have a large body of data suggesting, for example, that as long as we keep telling people all the awful things that will happen if we don't deal with global warming, they just get depressed, and depressed people don't take action. But if we start emphasizing that they can make a difference just by making sure that they ask their local auto dealer for the 'Freedom Package' when they buy a car, or changing the kind of light bulbs they use, this empowers them to take action."

Meanwhile, along with its book-publishing arm, the Sierra Club is moving into television production. This year it coproduced (with Ric Burns) the documentary Ansel Adams, which first aired in April on PBS. Pope was one of several people featured in short interviews. Other possible projects include a "reality" program in which a family travels around the world, and, if possible, a television version of the book Fast Food Nation.

As for his own long-range professional goals, Pope says he wants "to run the Sierra Club well as long as I have the energy to do so effectively, to hand it off in good shape to a superb successor, and then to find something as interesting, but less physically wearing, than direct management of people to keep me excited and useful." In the limited free time he has now, Pope, who lives in Berkeley, reads, hikes, and paddles in his sea kayak. He knows he wants to "take advantage of as many good years as I have left, and spend more time exploring the world than I have done to date." Over the years, he's traveled to Northern Pakistan on the Silk Route, explored the Belize jungle, done some scuba diving, and gone kayaking in Mexico. He especially loves the Sierra Nevada and southeast Alaska--large expanses of protected, untamed lands.

During his interview for Ansel Adams, Pope noted that the photographer's life occupied almost a century in which Americans debated the question of who they were going to be once the country's frontier had been settled. "At the end of the century," Pope says, "I think Americans decided we wanted to be Americans. We did not want a second Europe. We wanted a place that was still wild."

Does Pope think Americans still feel that way? "Yes," he replies. "I think it is still the case. The question is how we get it."

Diane Daniel is a Boston-based freelance writer and regular correspondent for the Boston Globe.

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