John Muir Guides the Sierra Club to Activism

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1892

A difficult upbringing under a fanatical father turned John Muir into a loner and wanderer who spent long stretches isolated from other people in remote places. Once he had formulated his own quasi-religious gospel of nature, however, he recognized that he needed to enlist other people, and ideally government, in his crusades against exploitation of natural areas. So in 1892 he and some likeminded activists founded the Sierra Club. He was president for 24 years, until his death.

One of the Sierra Club’s founding goals—“to explore, enjoy, and render accessible the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast”—echoed the purpose of the Appalachian Mountain Club started on America’s opposite coast 16 years earlier. (See 1876 entry on the Roundtable’s list of philanthropic achievements in Nature.) But the Sierra Club’s third goal became its distinguishing characteristic: “To enlist the support and cooperation of the people and government in preserving the forests and other natural features of the Sierra Nevada.” Rather than becoming an operating entity aimed at the enjoyment of land, the Sierra Club turned into a protectionist group focused on lobbying.

Sustained in its early years by small donations, the group eventually reached a dominant financial and political position amid the growth of the environmental movement. Muir’s popular writings on nature continued to attract followers long after his death in 1914. And in recent decades new generations of activists have been inspired by the radicalism of his previously unpublished work, which includes rejections of people-centric policy, capitalism, nationalism, and Christianity. The Sierra Club is now a large national organization at the center of environmental politics, with a budget exceeding $104 million as of 2013.

  • Donald Worster, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir (Oxford University Press, 2008
  • Franklin Rosemont, “Radical Environmentalism,” in Encyclopedia of the American Left
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