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April 22, 2014

The One Thing to Remember on Earth Day

Note: This piece first appeared on Huffington Post as part of its Earth Day celebration.

People sometimes ask me these days why the Sierra Club spends so much time taking on the fossil fuel industries and encouraging wind, solar, and other clean energy sources. Shouldn't we concentrate on saving wild places and, you know, taking more hikes?

To answer that, I like to bring up John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892. Although he died almost 100 years ago -- long before the first Earth Day -- Muir would have loved the idea of a day dedicated to celebrating (and protecting) our amazing planet. He is often remembered for opposing the destruction of wilderness, but Muir, first and foremost, was a celebrant of wilderness. Just pick up one of his books. His enthusiasm explodes off the page. His campaigns to protect the places he loved were fueled by this inexhaustible passion -- and by his conviction that experiencing the natural world could lift any human spirit as it had his own.

At the Sierra Club, we've never stopped believing in the importance of protecting those wild places, and we've spent more than 100 years continuing the mission John Muir started. I've seen wilderness work its healing power on the lives of everyone from returning veterans to city  kids who have never before seen the stars. I can guarantee you that, today, hundreds if not thousands of our 2.4 million members and supporters are not just hiking, they are scrambling up Rocky Mountain peaks, rafting through the Grand Canyon, trekking across the desert, and listening to Steller's jays argue in the boughs of giant sequoias.

But as the Club entered the 21st century, we realized that simply saving the places we loved wouldn't be enough. If we fail to address the threat of climate destruction, we could see much of the progress we have achieved -- John Muir's legacy -- undone.

So we did what John Muir did when he learned that his beloved Yosemite National Park was threatened: We organized. And, over the past decade, thanks to countless volunteers and the support of millions of Americans, we've succeeded in stopping many dirty, climate-polluting fossil fuel projects. We're proud of that work. But it's still not enough.

Here is where we can really learn from John Muir -- a man who loved wilderness so much that he took presidents camping and hiking to share his passion (and win their support). We cannot succeed if we define ourselves solely by the things that we're against. We must be just as effective, creative, and tenacious at identifying and establishing the positive solutions we do want to see. In other words, before we tell a policymaker what they should not do, we need to be sure we have a counterproposal for what they can do instead. I'll go even further. We need to show everyone in America what we can do instead.

That is what the Sierra Club is dedicated to doing today. We want to do for clean energy what John Muir did for wilderness 120 years ago. We want to show Americans -- show the entire world -- what clean, renewable energy can do for this planet we love so much.

There's no shortage of good news about renewable energy -- I see something exciting practically every day -- and each new development is another reason for optimism. That's what we should be shouting from the rooftops this Earth Day. Because if we don't get the message out there that we can turn away from fossil fuels and embrace clean energy on a larger scale, then who are the optimists? Think about it. If the only news that people ever hear is that carbon emissions are rising at an alarming rate, or that the effects of climate destruction are visible sooner than we thought, or that our leaders don't seem able to summon the political will to respond, well, then why should anybody have hope? In that situation, the only optimists will be the denialists. If we don't articulate a vision for a prosperous society powered by clean energy, then the only "optimistic" perspective is to deny reality and bury one's head in the sand. And that's a dangerous thing to do when the seas are rising.

So here's what I want everyone to remember this Earth Day: The world is a wonderful place. In just 90 minutes, enough sunlight strikes this planet to provide our planet's entire energy needs for one year. The contiguous United States has enough potential wind energy to provide all of our nation's electricity -- nine times over. Renewable energy has become economically competitive faster than anyone imagined just a few years ago -- in many places it is already beating all fossil fuels and nuclear power on price alone. Our progress toward a prosperous society powered by 100 percent safe, secure, and sustainable energy is unstoppable. We will get there -- the only question is how soon. The answer? The sooner the better.

Got it? Now, make like Muir and spread the word!

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