Sierra Club’s global cooling

I listened to the yammering in Sierra Club committee meetings 20 years ago, before I got into technology, and thought that the “real” world knew better.

One little incident convinced me. At one meeting of the group overseeing the Sierra Club’s old ski lodge, Clair Tappaan Lodge, someone wanted to change the name of a room, the Puce Room. A woman who’d just redecorated in there wanted to rename it after the just-passed folk singer Kate Wolf.

I really liked the old name, especially apt for the room’s cold concrete walls and rusty dripping pipes. The committee, though, was about to approve the change. Then at the last minute, the mischievous manager piped up. “Ted has been in touch with a group that’s all upset with changing the name.” I had joked to him earlier that morning that I wish there were such a group.

I played along. “Yes,” I said deadpan, “they call themselves Traditionalists for Puce, and they’re really pissed off.”

I heard throats clear and papers ruffle. Something had changed. A few minutes later we voted: 7 to 1 for keeping the old name.


In the years since, that committee continued to fiddle with the dining hall and micromanage staff. But they seem to have one significant legacy: the Club’s national board of directors has adopted their methods.

Now under consideration, about to be passed: Project Renewal. It’s the fourth or so in a years-long string of plans, reports, frameworks, strategies and schemes cooked up by consultants.

It is admirable in some ways. It institutes metrics for communications, by which I hope some of the nearly unreadable newsletters will improve.

Unfortunately, it does some things just as well as the worst of the business world. It scrubs out the best in favor of the top-down business world’s worst. Like so many poorly led businesses, this organization’s leadership doesn’t know how the place really works.

The deflowering

The flower of the Club, the force, the perfume, the motivation that kept people up all night at kitchen tables to complete work by deadline is about to become as corrupt and dysfunctional as the worst Bush-era federal agency. Something called “coordinating pairs” puts handcuffs on volunteer committee leaders—arrested, in effect, by paid staff. It’s just one example.

I assume the hope—the covert hope—of those who know what they’re doing is that one by one the arresting staff members will see their volunteer counterparts succumb to authority.

Did anyone cry out? Did someone mention the Obama phenomenon, with its surging forces eagerly signing on? Yes, wise leaders did. The Sierra Club, after all, helped show the world that structure’s force. But that was a long time ago before consultants knew that forces driven by emotion wouldn’t work.

Bravo, Sierra Club. You’ve learned a lot from the real world.

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