Sierra Club Taps Mike Brune as New Executive Director

Brune Head photo

The board of directors of the Sierra Club has picked Mike Brune to replace Carl Pope as the organization’s executive director. Pope, who will take a seat on the group’s board of directors, has headed the US’s largest environmental group since 1992, and his departure has been planned for close to a year.

Since 2003, Brune has been the executive director of Rainforest Action Network (RAN), a San Francisco-based group that runs corporate accountability campaigns to halt clearcut logging, mountaintop removal coal mining, industrial palm plantations, and the tar sands extraction in western Canada, among other types of environmental destruction. RAN regularly grabs headlines for its Greenpeace-style protests against corporate targets such as Bank of America, Royal Bank of Canada, logging giant Weyerhauser, and Home Depot.

Reading the tealeaves on this kind of transition is tricky, since Sierra Club board members and staff I contacted in the past week have been reluctant to discuss a personnel issue. Still, the selection of Brune hints at a coming shakeup at the 700,000-member-strong group as the green movement struggles to translate growing mainstream interest in the environment into meaningful political action to address the cascading collapse of global ecosystems.

The final selection supposedly came down to Brune and Bruce Nilles, the charismatic head of the Club’s coal campaign. In choosing an outsider to run the organization, Club directors may be considering a shift toward a more muscular, in-your-face posture to press its agenda.

Brune comes from the activist-oriented, dark green wing of the environmental movement. Before joining RAN in 1998, he was the outreach director at Greenpeace’s San Francisco office, where he honed his skills in public education and retail politics. While at RAN, he has been arrested in protests at least five times, including mostly recently last June, when he was detained along with Darryl Hannah and James Hansen at a mountaintop removal site in West Virginia. Last July — as part of a campaign calling on Royal Bank of Canada to stop funding tar sands extraction — Brune appeared in a one-minute video appealing to Janet Nixon, the wife of RBC CEO Gordon Nixon, to help with RAN’s campaign. Bank officials told the Canadian newsweekly MacLean’s that the video was “emotional extortion, inflammatory, and ultimately not useful to either party.”

It’s unlikely that Brune will bring such provocative tactics to the Club. But he will probably adopt a more uncompromising tone than did Pope. As the Club’s former political director, Pope’s experience was based in navigating the whitewater of Washington. In contrast, Brune cut his teeth running campaigns to reform corporate policies. As executive director of RAN, Brune sought to focus public attention on the root causes of environmental destruction — namely, corporate predations and the government bureaucrats that aid and abet them. In a 2007 interview with the web site Mongabay, Brune said: “The only way to permanently save rainforests is to transform the underlying economic and social factors that are causing their destruction. … Our primary approach has to been to challenge Corporate America.”

By Sierra Club standards, this rhetoric is radical. But any concerns that Club directors might have had about Brune’s more aggressive politics were probably softened by his charm. At six-foot-four-inches, he looks good in a suit and can, when he wants, attract a room’s attention. He is quick-witted and affable, and is adept at using humor to disarm opponents.

I met Brune right before he became executive director at RAN. At the time, I was working as a campaigner at the human rights group Global Exchange. Brune and I (along with Jennifer Krill, a RAN campaigner who is now the ED at EarthWorks) conceived and launched a “Freedom from Oil” campaign calling on Ford Motor Company to dramatically increase its fuel economy. In often-tense meetings with Ford executives, Brune demonstrated a knack for being, as he told me then, “hard on the message and soft on the messenger.” That is, unfailingly polite and willing to engage in discussion while at the same time keeping firm to his position.

That combination has been the signature one-two punch of RAN’s strategy during Brune’s tenure as its leader. Even as the group wages creative, hard-hitting campaigns that involve civil disobedience, the organization engages its corporate targets in high level negotiations that have led to impressive success, such as getting investment banking firm Goldman Sachs to adopt a comprehensive environmental policy.

Brune’s biggest test will be whether he can bring that fighting spirit to the Sierra Club, which — along with Beltway groups like NRDC and Environmental Defense — often makes the mistake of confusing compromise with victory. Although tightly run and well connected, RAN likes to promote itself as a scrappy green outfit, an underdog storyline reporters can’t resist. At the Club, Brune will have exactly the opposite task: Taking the sometimes slow moving, cautious, $80 million organization and recommitting it to the grassroots dynamism of the John Muir and David Brower eras.

At the very least, the appointment of the 38-year-old Brune marks a generational shift within the leadership of the century-old Club: Baby Boomer out, Gen X-er in. This is part of a trend in the environmental movement as younger leaders take the reins of some of the most influential green groups. Both Phil Radford, the new head of Greenpeace-US, and Erich Pica, the newly appointed ED at Friends of the Earth-US, are in their early thirties. One of the key challenges for Brune, Radford, and Pica will be getting people in their twenties and thirties — who are not “joiners” in the fashion of their parents — to go beyond point-and-click activism.

Brune’s anti-corporate track record might just be what the Sierra Club needs at time when populist sentiment is running high thanks largely to the poorly managed Wall Street bailouts. But even if Brune can make the Club more comfortable with the idea of combat, the organization won’t achieve its goals unless it can mobilize younger people to get our from behind their monitors and, as the organization’s motto says, “Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet.”

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