Green Beyond His Years


Act Now, Apologize Later, by Adam Werbach, New York: Cliff Street Books/HarperCollins, 307 pages, $25.00

He describes his college education as "just mental dildonics, fucking yourself with all the knowledge you've learned." He notes that the student film he made about Barbie concludes that the popular doll "is definitely not fuckable." And he says that he learns primarily "from the combination of cultures I'm immersed in, which is fashion, movies, and art."

Who is he? A young East Village person-in-black filmmaker wannabe? Perhaps a Venice Beach sun-and-surf-addled Hollywood hanger-on? No. He's the current president of the Sierra Club, Adam Werbach.

Notoriously, when baby boomers suffer midlife crises, they try to recapture their fading youth by ditching their old spouses for younger, hipper companions. Now we know that it happens to boomer institutions, too. In a bid to rekindle its youthful fire, the 105-year-old, 600,000-member Sierra Club's board of directors chose Werbach, a 23-year-old graduate of Brown University, as the group's president. Werbach had been elevated to the Sierra Club's board of directors at age 21 as the founder of the 30,000-member Sierra Student Coalition. He won a narrow 8-7 victory with the support of arch-environmentalist and board member David Brower.

Werbach's press notices assure us that he's a hip, cruelty-free vegetarian filmmaker with his own rock band. He's supposed to be very media savvy (after all, he has a degree in media studies and he likes MTV). And, you know, he just may be: Werbach did slap together this bunch of windy green platitudes and insipid stories about green heroes into a book which is being marketed on the notoriety of his two-year sinecure as the president of the Sierra Club. Sadly, it proves that this enfant terrible is green in more than just the environmentalist sense. But what the hell, taking the money and running is as media savvy as it gets.

Werbach began his career as an environmental activist at the tender age of 8 when he collected signatures in his Southern California second-grade class for a petition to oust then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt, for offering oil and gas leases in U.S. National Forests (not National Parks). Werbach has been at it ever since. He makes it clear that he is bored by the nitty-gritty details of science and economics. Heck, he just knows what's right. "I don't care why someone cares about the environment, only that they do," he writes.

"Cliff's Notes for the Unabomber" is the way a friend of mine described Werbach's book, but that's taking this intellectually lightweight tract far too seriously. According to Werbach, greenies just wanna have fun. In the spirit of Nike's "Just Do It" slogan, Werbach fills his book with simplistic catch phrases like "good kids draw outside the lines" and "it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission."

Of course, the irrepressible Werbach is absolutely giddy about politics. His hero is his good friend, Vice President Al Gore. "I'm going to throw an outrageous party the night this guy takes over," gushes Werbach about Gore. Werbach hopes "the environment can serve as the issue that ignites a newborn faith in politics." He grumbles that Rush Limbaugh is "taking some of the joy out of politics," but he bravely takes up Limbaugh's challenge to name a federal government program that works (in fact, Werbach points to six–count 'em–six).

The list is instructive. He cites child labor laws–an arguable point, but old news since they were passed in the 19th century by state governments. He cites drinking water protections, which, like child labor laws, are both old news and off-target: Cities, without federal help, began filtering and chlorinating their water supplies more than eight decades ago. Then there's the Endangered Species Act, which Werbach claims saved the bald eagle (the national bird was actually saved by banning DDT–admittedly a federal initiative–but the ESA had nothing to do with it). He likes the Superfund program, which is in reality a full employment act for lawyers that has made cleanups vastly more expensive while doing little to protect either the environment or public health. He touts the phaseout of DDT in "1973" which he considers a deadly carcinogen (DDT has not been shown to be a carcinogen in humans, though the feds did ban it in 1972). Rounding out his list of "successes" is America's National Parks. I like them too, but Werbach should read Alston Chase's Playing God in Yellowstone if he thinks the U.S. Park Service is managing them well. That's 0 for 6, the sort of batting average that gets a fellow sent back down to the minor leagues.

The reason that the Sierra Club board selected Werbach was to refurbish its image as an exclusive preserve for the white haute bourgeoisie. "The Club was mostly white and had a reputation for being a yuppie joint," admits Werbach. And despite all of the egalitarian blather he deploys, Werbach can't quite suppress the elitist disdain he shares with his Sierra Club elders for ordinary Americans. The book is littered with examples of eco-snobbery.

"For me, the wild quality of my community was the only thing worth saving," writes this former San Fernando Valley resident. "I'd be happy to see all of the boxy stores destroyed in the next quake." Translation: Look out, you low-life Angeleno shoppers! Or consider his praise for a plan to remove campsites, garages, a gas station, and hot dog stands from Yosemite Park: "People asked why we should remove these modern conveniences. I question how we could have built them in the first place. If you want stuffed animals, go to an amusement park," sniffs Werbach. Message: Only yuppie backpackers who can afford to hike for a week in the wilderness should be allowed in such cathedrals of nature. Along similar lines, he dismisses Wal-Mart as "a new breed of toxin." As Werbach sees it, the problem is that poor people are too attracted to the "convenience of row upon row of imported, low-quality junk–anything you might need for your work, home, or pleasure."

His alternative is a homey version of bioregionalism in which people should buy only locally made products. "We should demand that the Safeway in Idaho carry only native potatoes," declares Werbach. Like so much else in the book, this is incoherent on many levels, not least of which is that potatoes are "native" to the Andes Mountains of Peru.

Werbach's lack of critical reflection shows up in other ways, too. "We need to be savvy, but we don't need to employ scare tactics and misleading information to communicate our message," he writes, even as he lards his pages with the usual litany of eco-horrors declaring that modern American civilization is poisoning kids, causing epidemics of cancer, warming the globe, and degrading the landscape. In fact, Werbach can't resist the standard-issue Gen X whining. "Our birthright is environmental devastation and a crumbling educational system–thank you very much, Mom and Dad," he writes.

What can he be talking about? Even he admits that the water and air are much cleaner than they were a couple of decades ago and that most of the pesticides that he regards as dangerous have been eliminated. If he would look around, he would find forests have been expanding since the 1920s, that people are living longer, that food and energy are cheaper and more abundant than ever before in history. But I guess he's more intent on proving his point about being a victim of "a crumbling educational system."

Perhaps Act Now's biggest howler is, "Environmentalists differ from private companies in that there is no direct self interest in our message." And just why do you think the Sierra Club board turned to a 23-year-old naif, if not as part of a desperate bid to bolster its sagging membership and falling budget? Certainly not out of self-interest.

Of course, it is certainly acceptable for a 23-year-old to express callow, outlandish opinions, to test the limits of propriety, and to elevate attitude over substance–indeed, such behavior is almost to be expected, if not encouraged. But the presumably intelligent and experienced adults who boosted him into this high-profile position ought to be ashamed of themselves. (Could California Social Services charge them with child abuse?)

Werbach recounts that he once "received a call from an irate C-SPAN fan. `You kid,' [the caller] fumed, `you're an ignorant, insolent, precocious, left-wing, pinky [sic], hippy, enviro-freak! What do you think about that?'

`Wow,' I paused a second to absorb it all, `you learned all that just from seeing me for an hour on C-SPAN? You're pretty perceptive.'"

As this book clearly documents, the viewer was, indeed, quite perceptive.