Force of nature

David Brower, the grand old man of the environmental movement, talks about the Sierra Club, why conservationists shouldn't compromise and why tree-huggers should lighten up.


Steve Chapple
June 22, 1999 11:00PM (UTC)

At age 86, David Brower, the conservationist, has become a force of nature himself.

I waited till Sunday to call him at his house high atop the Berkeley, Calif., hills. I figured if he was in the middle of one of his famous waffle brunches, my job would be made easier. I could ask him to put on San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, perhaps, or Randy Hayes, who started the Rainforest Action Network, or Alice Waters, the chef who helped create nouvelle California cuisine. Brower's "conviviality factor" has had a lot to do with his success. He knows everybody, and the waffles have played a big part in that.

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"So, Dave, how's it going?"

"Not so good," he said, and I expected him to speak of infirmity, though he rarely talks about his own health. "I'm burning out on the Sierra Club. I'm running for president of the board again." Dave had been the first executive director of the Sierra Club in the '50s and '60s, helped to save the Grand Canyon, establish Point Reyes National Seashore and Olympic National Park, publish photographers Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, invent the exhibit-format coffee-table book, stuff like that. Then he'd been kicked out by his former friends Adams and Wallace Stegner, because of -- in Dave's view -- his unfashionably early opposition to nuclear power. In a decade or two, he was forgiven and duly made an honorary vice president. Later, in the '90s, after most of his friends on the old board were greening the earth most literally, he got himself reelected, along with a slate of puppy rabble-rousers like Dave Foreman of Earth First. In 1994, fretting that the average age of Sierra Club members was browning again, he sponsored the candidacy of 23-year-old Adam Werbach, a college organizer who has since gone on to host the rad TV enviro show "The Thin Green Line." ("Dave? Dave's younger than me," says Werbach.)

"I have many ideas on how to get the club back to what John Muir was after," Dave continued on the phone, "but the Sierra Club is more interested in process than in getting things done. [Executive Director] Carl Pope sent me a 30,000-word document saying what you can and cannot say, what the standing rules are, what chapters may do, how you may or may not raise money. Forty commandments. I said, 'The Bible got by with 10.' It'd be more fun committing suicide than reading this stuff!

"I've been anxious to get the club back into democracy, back to what the members are saying. A few years ago, the members had a petition to cut all cutting in national forests. The staff didn't want that. I am wary of any organization that gets lost in procedure-itis. The planet is burning, and all I hear is the violins. Whether I win or not, I'll stay on the Sierra board and keep bitching."

About now in normal conversation, the called is supposed to ask the caller how he is doing. I consider Dave a friend; we wrote a little book together -- "Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run: A Call to Those Who Would Save the Earth" (title mine, the rest, resolutely Dave; first book printed on flowers, instead of trees), but once the train (Dave is not a friend of cars) is rolling down the track, Dave, though ever polite, is not easily derailed. He doesn't ask others about themselves much, never has. Yet, unlike some rock-and-critter zealots, he truly likes people, sees us humans as part of the soup.

"The conventional [environmental] organizations are losing their edge," he said. "They are too dependent on their funders. They are like the media, which is too afraid of offending advertisers. We are taking $30 trillion from the earth each year, and putting only $20 trillion back. We'll have to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8,000, to feed the population. We have 300 billionaires, who have as much money as the 3 billion people below them. Everybody wants to be Bill Gates, and the earth is suffering because of it. I have said Wall Street needs therapy. We should invest in things we need, not just in quick fixes. Of course, before we judge capitalism, I say we should try it. I mean, any company that so disregards their natural capital would be put out of business. It's Sunday. I do a count in the Sunday [New York] Times. There are about 10,000 places to invest, all ignoring the earth, and if you keep ignoring the earth" -- [pause on the fiber-optic; I knew Dave was smiling, warming up like William Jennings Bryan] -- "you'll hurt your profits, and kill your kids."

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Strong thing to say. Dave has four kids of his own. But the earth is Dave's garden, his family. He's a megalomaniac, I suppose, and we need more good megalomaniacs around this planet. Dave once put the same phrase somewhat more elegantly, and it is chiseled in stone at the National Aquarium in Washington: "We do not inherit the earth from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our children."

Good line.

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Dave is very good with the good line. That's another of the secrets to his success. He's a quick study who makes others see, instantly, what's happening. Another touchstone is that, though Brower may flounder and question himself, he never deviates from the mission. The sermon, though ever changing, is always wondrously the same. Saving the earth is what he cares about, and he rallies others to the cause. "Nothing I have heard from anybody else has affected my thinking so deeply as what I heard from David Brower," Charles Kuralt, of all people, once said, and there are dozens of strong environmental leaders around the country and the world who got the fire in the belly, and the purpose to their lives, from a Brower speech or, just as likely, from a tavern encounter with the arch-druid. Brower changes people.

"We can't afford the luxury of pessimism," said Dave, in Berkeley. "You wouldn't think that, after what I just said, but we should never say we can't fix it. We just need to work on it."

"So, Dave, are there a bunch of people over at the house?"

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Dave has a great cluttered house, bristle-cone pines next to fossils next to countless first editions. He built it himself of redwood -- "I wouldn't use so much redwood if I were to build it today" -- when he got back from World War II, a war he joined as a private, mustered out of as a major. "I trained thousands of young men to fight thousands of other young men, in the mountains of Italy"; if you've ever seen "The Guns of Navarone," you're watching a version of what Dave did.

"No, nobody's here. It's Mother's Day. It's a pleasant morning. [One of my sons] got married and quit drinking. It changed him completely for the better, and I'll drink to that."

I laughed. When we were up in my office in Montana, writing "Let the Mountains Talk," Dave would quote Li Po, Longfellow, Sir Walter Scott, Goethe ("Whatever you can, or dream you can, begin it/Boldness has genius, power and magic in it") -- Dave loves poetry, he's old school -- and I would say, OK, let me check the wording on that before we put it in the book.

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"We don't have to check the wording. That is the wording."

But it was my job to check these things. Damned if he wasn't almost always right. I was impressed that he could pull quotes out of the air, like catching flies in his fist. I wondered if the juniper berries in the gin he liked to drink might have memory-enhancing properties. One session, I bought him a bottle of Bombay Sapphire and turned on the tape recorder. Unfortunately, after a couple of cocktails, I could no longer speak. Somebody knocked on the door. "Don't let the vermouth in!" whispered Dave.

In Berkeley, Dave was chuckling.

"So Dave," I finally asked, "do you think you've had a successful career?"

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"Not yet. Wait'll I mature."

I laughed again. But Dave was off to the races.

"I feel I'll have had some success when we speed the rate at which things are getting better. All I've done so far is to help slow a little the rate by which things have been getting worse. I mean, 33,000 scientists call fossil fuels a bad idea and a couple of jokers in the automobile industry ... We've got to stop using our rivers to put anything we don't want into the sea. Nobody's asking marine organisms what they think. We've got to stop losing our forests. Trees are more than two-by-fours and pulp. They're home to millions of species, and they hold the soil, and they generate oxygen, and they're beautiful. All that is ignored by the marketplace. That's why I keep hammering away at the California Public Employees. They have $100 billion in their kitty. If it were properly invested, that would be a success for the earth. That's the worst problem right now, to get the marketplace to show environmental responsibility.

"All the Clinton administration wants is NAFTA, GATT and the big money to run their campaigns, and the people that have that kind of money get it from ruining the earth. I did go for Clinton, but I don't now. Clinton doesn't know what national parks are about, and if [Interior Secretary Bruce] Babbitt does he isn't allowed to say.

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"I'm glad I had a hand in adding 10 units to the national park system, set up the Wilderness Preservation System, a few other odds and ends, helped to marry good photographs with good prose in 70 books, took a few thousand people into the mountains, got all but two back.

"But the thing I did best, I guess, is put a little humor in the environmental movement, and the environmental movement is as humorless as the Bible. In the concordance to the St. James version, there are three mentions of the word "laugh." I looked them all up and none were funny. I'm not putting the Bible down. My favorite line is from Isaiah: 'Thou has multiplied the nation but not increased the joy.' The other line that is perfect for sprawl is, 'Woe unto them who have joined house to house and laid field to field till there be no place where they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth.' What's happening in California is just sickening. One of my big ideas is to put boundaries around cities, so we have something left besides city and suburb. I was born here, and it's been a long time. Doesn't seem that long. I thought I'd be out of here before I was 70, and if I hadn't had to quit smoking, I would be, but I got scared at age 40 and quit. I married a patient woman, and I've been lucky. I've lived on a lot of borrowed time and wasn't charged too much. When I was 21, a rock came out as I was climbing in the Sierras. I should have gone too, but I held on by two fingers, got a hand-hold, made it up to a ridge and sat down and thought about it. A few escapes in the war, and a few driving, and a TWA flight out of Cincinnati that caught fire -- I could go on endlessly, and I always do."

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"Dave's an indomitable force," says Randy Hayes. "I am most impressed over the years by the maintenance of his youth, his quest for fresh ideas. He doesn't wind down. He ups the ante. He wants to know what else he can do. He has such a fertile mind, he needs six organizations around him. Party time is as important to him as nature time. Wilderness is his friend, his family, it's part of him. He went where other climbers didn't. [Brower made 70 first ascents in his youth.] He can think in terms of decades, in a way a younger person cannot. He's seen the ramifications of growth, what we've lost. He just makes it a policy decision to think young."

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"Dave's an artist and an insurgent," says the Sierra Club's Werbach. "He's not just an irreverent radical. He understands beauty, as well. Then he slaps his listeners on the back and gets them going."

The changes in Brower's life mirror the changes in the environmental movement. He grew up in nature (as a child he used to lead his blind mother up Berkeley's Grizzly Peak, a starter mountain); came down from the mountains to save them; married the media to the cause; saw early on that pollution was as bad for the planet as untrammeled development; realized that poor people and people of color were taking the brunt of that; always the well-educated amateur, he loved to ask scientists, "Which of your most cherished ideas do you think will be seen as crazy in 25 years?" Saw the problems of nuclear power, supersonic planes, genetic engineering -- yet is the co-inventor of the mountaineer's expansion bolt. Has a special thing for soil. He never stops. Formed Friends of the Earth, now in some 52 countries, after temporarily departing the Sierra Club. Formed Earth Island Institute, where he's still the chairman, when he departed FOE. Earth Island Institute gave us dolphin-safe tuna, sounded the roar against the trade in bear and tiger parts and made Americans aware of Siberian forests and Lake Baikal, which holds a quarter of the world's fresh water. Japan's Asahi Glass Foundation awarded Brower 50 million yen last year, as the recipient of the Blue Planet Prize, the environmental Nobel. That's more than $400,000. Brower gave it all to Earth Island, for projects. "That way, the IRS gets not a cent!"

One last point: Brower does not believe conservationists should compromise. He thinks they should stake out the solid ground and rally the troops. Let the politicians cut the deals. Yet he disdains purity. "Being too pure is about the same thing as being too practical." The point to Brower is getting the job done, saving habitat, restoring trashed places. Whatever it takes. Need money? Call rich people. Want to change opinion? Take out a full-page ad in the New York Times. Congress doesn't get it? Go raft the Colorado with this senator or that secretary. Everybody's against you? Sue. He once finally figured out a way to climb a mountain, at 3 in the morning. He got out of bed and started climbing. The biggest regret of his life was compromising on Glen Canyon -- "the place no one knew," an exquisite stretch of the now dammed Colorado River, above the Grand Canyon -- because he had not gotten out and hiked it until it was about to be flooded. There's a smile on his face now, because his almost whimsical suggestion several years ago that Glen Canyon Dam be yanked out -- the canyon, like the planet, restored -- has become a nationwide, realistic campaign. Brower has lived long enough to rectify his own mistakes, and he takes a lot of pleasure in that.

"If you're going to get old, get as old as you can get."

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Steve Chapple

Steve Chapple is the author of numerous books. He lives in Montana, where he kayaks and fishes out his back door.

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