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Is the Founder of the Sierra Club Still Relevant to Environmentalism?

In the century since his death, John Muir’s environmental legacy has been appreciated across America.

Muir is famous for founding the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. A geologist and botanist by training, Muir extolled the virtues of leaving pristine wilderness untouched. An avid hiker, Muir trekked up and down the West Coast and, a prolific author, documented all the natural wonders which he observed. Many environmentalists credit Muir with having saved Yosemite and creating the national park system.

Yet many environmentalists also question the relevance of Muir’s legacy today. Muir’s emphasis on isolated national parks seems out of place in an America where most people’s primary experience with nature is in the local park or their own backyard. Additionally, leaving national parks “pristine” and “untouched” prevents many people from exploring them and discovering their value – all for a lack of adequate roads and trails making the natural environment more accessible.

As Louis Sahagun puts it in the LA Times,

As the first president of the Sierra Club, Muir shaped enduring perceptions about how the wild world should be prioritized, protected and managed.

But now some critics are arguing that the world has changed so much in the century since his death that Muir has gone the way of wheelwrights.

He is no longer relevant.

Personally speaking, I love the outdoors. My college degree is a BA in Environmental Studies. One of my favorite classes was Outdoor Recreation in which we did some rock climbing. Climbers have become some of my favorite clients in the insurance business. My office has refined the art of pre-qualifying them, and making sure underwriters know the difference between bouldering, and rock climbing, and mountaineering.

Interesting side note: my first job after college was as a fundraiser for a group that gave leadership training to high school and college environmental activists. One of my first projects was to put together a directory of environmental organizations. I naturally wanted to include health organizations, as I was aware of the impact the environment has on our health. To my surprise, some of the old-time environmentalists affiliated with the organization didn’t agree. They saw no connection between people and the natural environment!

I ultimately prevailed by explaining how interconnected we are: we use natural resources, and if we use them conservatively, they remain available to us for future use. We discharge elements into the natural environment, and if they are clean and non-polluting, they do not harm us when we take them back in.