By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff

Michael Brune, the executive director of the national Sierra Club, told an audience of some three dozen in Carbondale on June 29 that he got his first taste of environmental awareness while growing up near the shore of the Atlantic Ocean in New Jersey.

He recalled that hospitals were dumping medical waste that often turned up on beaches in the form of used needles and other potentially infectious equipment, and area chemical companies were dumping vast amounts of their own waste into the ocean, which together rendered the beaches all but unusable for nearby residents and visitors alike.

It was only after Greenpeace and other environmental groups started agitating against such practices, he said, that regulatory relief was achieved and the beaches were rid of the toxic soup that was poisoning them, Brune recalled, adding, “I saw that as a really great victory,” and one that put him on a path of environmental activism.

That path included work with the Rainforest Coalition and its work to prevent the complete deforestation of rainforests around the globe, among other organizations, before he ultimately joined the Sierra Club, with its chapters around the U.S., including clubs around Colorado.

The Sierra Club was founded in 1892 by the legendary conservationist John Muir and now has 64 chapters nationwide and more than three million members, according to its website, which offers viewers a stroll though the organization’s accomplishments and aims.

These days, Brune and the Sierra Club are working to hang on to progress made in recent years on many fronts, which is threatened with politically motivated despoliation by the administration of President Donald Trump and his cabinet.

“We’re living in a time when, if you care about the environment … democracy, or journalism, or human rights, a lot of the things we care about are under severe assault from this administration,” he told a group of intent listeners at the Third Street Center.

Speaking of recent announcements that the nation’s collection of National Monuments, including some in Colorado are under review, Brune said that federal officials appointed by Trump are not just seeking to overturn former President Barack Obama’s monument designations.

“We’re seeing an attack on the Antiquities Act itself (and) an attempt to privatize campgrounds in public parks” as part of a campaign to get the federal government out of the land preservation business entirely.

He said the administration is acting with “full confidence” that it can ignore what Brune called “a huge resistance movement” in opposition to such efforts and declared, “What we’re seeing from the administration is a stone wall,” with little to no effort to reach out for public input or even to listen to citizen demands for openness in the administration’s decision-making.

But, Brune said, citizens calling their elected representatives “is working … we are building power as a movement … we’re beginning to see an effect,” as private corporations and local politicians are being emboldened in their own efforts to oppose the Trump administration in some of its goals.

He noted that 36 cities around the country have committed to achieve 100-percent reliance on renewable energy sources over the coming decades, instead of sticking with coal, oil and other carbon-based sources of energy that scientists have concluded are contributing significantly to global warming and climate change.

In the past several years, Brune maintained, more than 250 coal-fueled power plants have been shuttered in favor of technology.

“We’re going to fight this administration” and Trump’s determination to undo environmental protections enacted by Obama and previous presidents.

But, he said, “We’re also going to be fighting for a world that we want,” that does not rely so heavily on fossil fuels, that is protective of wild lands and wildlife, that values laws that protect society from the worst effects of consumerism and business profiteering, and that counts basic human rights above those of corporations.

“We have weathered difficult times before,” he reminded his audience, speaking of earlier hostility toward the environmental movement, “and we’re strong enough to withstand this.”

To achieve these goals, he encouraged his audience to remember that citizen activism remains a potent force that “makes a real positive difference in the world. We need it.”

Following his talk of approximately 45 minutes, Brune took questions from audience members that covered a wide gamut of issues, from ways to reach out to the conservative side of America’s worsening political divide, to worries about the potential effectiveness of such ideas as a carbon tax on companies that are found to pollute the air and water with fossil-fuel emissions.

“The solutions that we’re putting forward really have to work for everybody,” Brune declared, explaining that it is the work of activists to reach out and demonstrate how that can be the case, even those who initially deride such thinking.