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Adam Werbach is the youngest and most visible general in the battle for America's environment. His youthful energy and boundless enthusiasm have mobilized the ...
Adam Werbach is the youngest and most visible general in the battle for America's environment. His youthful energy and boundless enthusiasm have mobilized the slumbering Sierra Club, fired the imaginations of the media and fueled a grassroots environmental movement among Gen Xers that most people would have thought impossible. He began his activist career 15 years ago, when he organized a petition drive at school that called for the dismissal of then Secretary of the Interior James Watt. He was only eight years old. At 13, he founded the Sierra Student Coalition, a student-run adjunct to the Sierra Club that now boasts 30,000 members. Today, he is the youngest president the Sierra Club has ever had. Act First, Apologize Later shares Werbach's thoughts on a wide array of subjects in such chapters as Ferns and Cougars: Why We Need Nature; The California Desert Protection Act: The Anatomy of a Victory; Eco-Thugs: Profiles of Members of Congress Who Are in the Pockets of Polluters; and Solutions: Beyond "Band-Aid" Environmentalism. Written with the passion and zeal that has already inspired hundreds of thousands of people, it is an important call to arms in a war America must not lose.
I learned to sign my name in the second grade. I already knew how to scratch out my name in printed letters, but I wanted to make a statement with my signature. It didn't matter whether you could distinguish it from the scratchings of a monkey on an Etch-A-Sketch. It was the best thing I owned, and I was going to do with it what I pleased. Trying to prove that I was stylin', I scrawled my name on every blank surface in school. My Trapper Keeper notebook, once jammed full of puffy plastic stickers, now sported the curling sweep of countless attempts to write my name. Every desk, door, and doorknob was fair game.
I remember returning home from a day of second grade to find the ultimate signature game, a petition sitting on my parents' coffee table. It said something about Watt on it. I knew what Watt meant. I watched The Electric Company.
"Finally," I thought, "I'll have something cool for show-and-tell!"
How was I to know that James Watt was the secretary of the interior? How was I to know that the interior even needed a secretary? I had no idea that the interior included our national parks. I certainly didn't know that James Watt wanted to develop the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. "The Bob" is 1.5 million acres of breathtaking land on the western side of the Continental Divide in Montana. It is one of the last refuges in the world for the grizzly bear. When Watt was appointed Ronald Reagan's secretary of the interior, he immediately offered oil and gas leases for "The Bob."
Watt's idea of bettering thenational park system was to expand the services offered: more hot dog stands, motels, parking lots, movie theaters, Ferris wheels, ski slopes, and Pizza Huts. What's a national park without pewter collector spoons?
It took the Sierra Club about three seconds to decide that Watt had to go. Carl Pope, the Club's crafty political director, and Club president Joe Fontaine, a high school science teacher, decided America needed a call to action. They started a petition drive to oust Watt. My classmates and I added a few hundred signatures to the 1.1 million that were collected.
Though I was eight years old at the time and mostly concerned that Sharon might give me cooties, I contributed to the pressure that removed one of the greatest threats to the environment in history. James Watt helped me discover that all of us, even a naive kid in elementary school, can throw out greedy politicians. Sometimes I dream of meeting him and thanking him for his role in making me the president of the Sierra Club. I'd love to see the look on his face.
Even though I still had to ask for permission to ride my bike to the 7-Eleven, I could make a difference. Little did I know that the threats to our environment were not just in our national parks. They were close to home as well.
I loved to play T-ball. Unfortunately I played about as well as Michael Jordan plays baseball. The coach would stick me in right field far past where any kid could whack the ball. That suited me fine. The other kids couldn't laugh at me for dropping the ball. I spun around in circles and stared at the gophers as they popped their heads out of their tunnels to keep me company.
Every morning before I went to school, I grabbed my mitt and opened the Los Angeles Times to page 2 to check the daily smog report. In San Francisco, there's a weekly earthquake watch. In Providence, the papers print the Hurricane Watch in the spring. In L.A., where I wanted to run around outside in the famous California sun, we had a daily smog report.
A first-stage smog alert meant no T-ball, no playing outside, period. Some days the smog hung so heavily that the papers warned you not to "exert yourself too strenuously out-of-doors." I knew even then that there's something wrong when a child has to check a smog alert to see if he can play.
In the mid-seventies, first-stage smog alerts were common. The newspaper reported them once a month, and as much as once a week in the heat of summer. On "first stage" days I had to stay inside and watch Gilligan's Island to see if Gilligan would sink the coconut boat that was finally going to get them off the island.
When I reached high school, I sat in chemistry class bored out of my mind and stared out at Coldwater Canyon Boulevard from the windows. The road was only one hundred feet across. If I stared at the road long enough and unfocused my eyes I could barely make out the other side of the canyon. On "first stage" days, I couldn't see to the other side of the road. I sat in class struggling to understand chemistry, but aware that I couldn't see across the street. I didn't need to understand the science to know that something was wrong. I knew the air was poisonous.
Growing up in L.A., I suffered as much lung damage as if I were a smoker. I had no choice. Most kids didn't think it was strange that half of their friends toted asthma inhalers. Life in L.A. was sometimes like a Ray Bradbury novel, a surreal mock-up of what I expected.
On Wednesday, October 29, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Adam Werbach, author of ACT NOW, APOLOGIZE LATER.
Adam Werbach: I'm doing great. Enjoying the fall leaves in North Carolina.
Adam Werbach: Good question, John. I see environmental groups like strains of corn. You just don't want to have one strain of corn -- not only because people like more than one but because if there is ever a blight, other strains will survive. In the Environmental movement, when Washington, D.C., politics get crazy, groups like the Sierra Club can turn back to the grass roots. Diversity is our strength.
Adam Werbach: Groups like the Sierra Club need to care about the Bronx as much as they care about Yellowstone because people live in all different situations, and we need to make sure they are doing so in a way that is compatible with a clean and healthy environment.
Adam Werbach: First, you can recycle all sorts of paper, and interestingly enough, the word "paper" comes from the word "papyrus," a plant used in Egypt to make the first paper. It is only in the last hundred years that we have used trees to make paper. The answer isn't just recycling paper, but finding alternate fibers besides trees, and thus avoiding cutting down our last resources. For the Sierra Club Well, Rory, what are your future plans for the Sierra Club? I'm sure you could do an even better job at running it than I do, so stand up and take charge!
Adam Werbach: Thank you for sharing your feelings on this issue, and let me take a moment to tell you why the Sierra Club has taken up the position of advocating the draining of Lake PowellOur best scientists tell us that the Grand Canyon is in great peril because of Glen Canyon Dam. The native fish species are dying, the beaches are being eroded. Now, we can stick our heads in the sand and ignore the risks, or we can talk openly about a new way of managing the Colorado River. We'd like people in Page, as people who know the river, to be at the forefront of the campaign to protect the Grand Canyon. Page was built to build Glen Canyon Dam; for the past 30 years it has been supported by tourism. And for the next hundred years, it could be supported by work in the restoration of the Grand Canyon, from Glen Canyon outward.
Adam Werbach: Ned, I am what you might call a happy environmentalist, which most people would think to be an oxymoron. But I am full of hope. I've seen success in the environmental movement in my lifetimeI've see the air get cleaner in Los Angeles, I've seen the logging stop in the Willamette National Forest, and I've see the oceans no longer polluted by frequent oil spills. But most environmentalists don't talk about the successes; they only focus on the bad news. Americans are sick of bad news. The only way to move forward to the future is by building on the foundations of success. We will succeed because we've succeeded before and frankly, because we're bright.
Adam Werbach: Most people don't say that a problem in America today is that the water is too safe or the air is too clean. That is the reason scientists begin researching; but corporations have found a new trick They call it "greenwashing." They put a recycle label on their package, they tell a story about a small environmental victory they've achieved, and they heap praises upon themselves while ignoring and obfuscating the environmental catastrophe they are creating. The best book on this exact topic is BETRAYAL OF SCIENCE AND REASON, by Anne and Paul Ehrlich, which details the public-relations campaigns that try to portray junk science, as you say, as legitimate scientific research.
Adam Werbach: I don't want to be in this job forever. I'm getting too old. Georgette, it is your turn to take over. I write in my book that a 15-year-old could do the job better. You'd be less afraid to take risks and more willing to demand basic environmental rights. But I still have a few tricks up my sleeve. After this I'd like to use television to reach out into every American living room and show people the simple reasons to save the environment, and the simple ways that they can make it happen.
Adam Werbach: THE WORLD IN OUR HANDS by John Bartlett has essays from a dozen top student organizers on how best to get organized. But in the vein of tactics, you can get the philosophy from other books like ENCOUNTERS WITH THE ARCHDRUID by John McPhee, which tells the story of David Brower, a conservationist and mentor to me, and three journeys with a developer, a dam builder and a miner. It is a required read.
Adam Werbach: The Internet is two things It is the future of democracy, and it is a big old pain in my ass. Because of the Internet we can get action words instantly to thousands of people a day. Also with the Internet, I get buried with information. But all in all, I am a strong believer in the Internet as the backbone to a new information age, where people no longer rely on corporate newsletters and bought politicians for their information; they have the means to provide and find it themselves.
Adam Werbach: God bless the mothers!
Adam Werbach: Initially, people didn't take me seriously. They thought I was just a little kid. But what I represent is not only the power of the 600,000 members of the Sierra Club but of young people across the country who are out there kickin' butt. And if someone doesn't take that seriously, then it makes it all the more easy to run circles around them. So finally, I wasn't prepared for the cynicism of the political world. Every time I said, 'we must,' they said, 'we can't'. And every time I said, 'now,' they said, 'later.'
Adam Werbach: [Laughs] Dr. Seuss was a great inspiration to ACT NOW, APOLOGIZE LATER because the stories and fables like the ones Dr.Seuss wrote convinced my heart to get excited. My mind was already convinced. In tribute to Dr. Seuss, I wrote several fables in to ACT NOW, APOLOGIZE LATER. One about a young man named Jack who could repair cracked rubies; one about a cobbler named Bugsy, who wanted to be the sun; and one about Worabud, a jeweler who could create rings that made the wearer the most beloved person in the world. I hope you can read those sections to small children.
Adam Werbach: ACT NOW APOLOGIZE LATER talks about the concept of radical localism. To begin to peel the layers away to get to the root of our problem. I remember that as what a true radical is, someone who gets to the root of the problem. A radically local community celebrates what it has, it celebrates local stores, local culture, local food, and the unique nature of the local area. It is not isolationist, but understand that until we know our neighbors, and have what author Wendell Berry calls "a sense of place," we won't have the ability to gauge the big picture.
Adam Werbach: We do focus on other canyons. There are a thousand battles the Sierra Club is battling across the country to save places like Glen Canyon. Let's not forget also that if the Sierra Club hadn't spoken up, the Grand Canyon might have been a reservoir or lake as well. I appreciate your concerns, and I hope you'll join with us in looking at ways to better manage the Colorado River and protect the Grand Canyon.
Adam Werbach: The best part of my job as president of the Sierra CLub is that I get to travel around the United States constantly, meeting people who are actively making the world a better place. I could write three books about the local Sierra Club activists in Ohio who have cleaned the Cuyahoga River, helped clean up the steel industry, stemmed the loss of wetlands in Ohio (you've already lost 90 percent of your wetlands). I want to talk about heroes. I can do it only by celebrating them, so the rest of us feel that we can be heroes as well.
Adam Werbach: The name of the book came from a piece of advice I got when I first started That sometimes it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission when you are trying to do the right thing. Go out there and do what you can do.I'm behind you 100 percent.