Profile #4: David Brower
Air Date: Week of May 19, 1995
Here’s one 82-year-old environmentalist who is as active as ever. Brower was the Sierra Club's first executive director, and went on to found two other advocacy organizations. Cy Musiker reports on his recent visit with the influential leader in this Living on Earth profile series’ segment.
CURWOOD: George Bernard Shaw once wrote that the reasonable person adapts himself to the world and that the unreasonable person adapts the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable person. There's probably no environmental activist who fits that description of a change maker better than David Brower. The first activist director of the Sierra Club, Brower quit to form another environmental organization, and then left that group to start yet another. And at age 82 he's got a new book out that's as radical as ever. As part of our series on 25 intriguing people in environmental change, Cy Musiker went to Brower's home in Berkeley, California, and prepared this report.
MUSIKER: The first time I really wanted to meet David Brower, I was climbing a couple of 14,000-foot peaks in the Sierra Nevada, and finding my way with help from an old Sierra Club guide. According to the book, Brower and a friend made 65 first ascents in the Sierra back in 1934. But it turns out that the year before, Brower had nearly lost his life in these same mountains.
BROWER: I stupidly put all my trust in one block of rock which decided it wasn't going to stay on the mountain. Fortunately, I did; it didn't. I just reached up for the wild, reached with my left hand and with 2 fingers got a little ledge and that held me there. And I finally quieted down; I was pretty nervous at that point. It would have made my climbing career pretty short.
MUSIKER: Brower learned to climb more safely, but he never lost his willingness to take risks. In the late 30s Brower was elected to the Sierra Club board, but it wasn't until World War II, as an officer in the famed 10th Mountain Division, that he developed an environmental conscience.
BROWER: We were over in Italy, and I was looking at what had happened to the wild places in the Alps, that they just got rid of their wilderness. I wrote a piece for the Sierra Club Bulletin from Italy, entitled, "How to Kill a Wilderness." And then I had to come back home and make sure that we didn't kill any more.
MUSIKER: As first Executive Director of the Sierra Club in the 50s and 60s, Brower transformed the organization into a major player in shaping US environmental policy. But Brower takes his greatest lesson from something he failed to do. The Sierra Club agreed not to fight the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River in exchange for keeping dams out of the Grand Canyon. Brower was lobbying in Washington at the time.
BROWER: I should have got the first flight home, and called an emergency meeting of the board. We'd built up an extremely good case against the entire project. So here, here were things that I could have just got off my butt and worked hard on this and we could have stopped the whole thing. So I bear that cross. And it, I think it taught me quite a bit, that you don't give up and you don't postpone.
MUSIKER: Glen Canyon taught Brower not to strike deals, and in 1969 he resigned under pressure from the Sierra Club board. He wouldn't change his opposition to California's Diablo Canyon Nuclear Reactor.
BROWER: And in a pluralistic society, where you have all the different views, there has to be compromise. And we hire people to do it, and we send them to Congress. But it is wrong for the environmental movement to come up and suggest compromises. They should say what they stand for.
MUSIKER: After leaving the Sierra Club, Brower founded Friends of the Earth, and later Earth Island Institute, where he could take direct action on a global range of issues. From the ozone layer to marine mammal protection, to environmental justice in urban America. In Brower's new book, Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run, he writes the way he talks, in a sometimes wandering discourse, about supercars, about the Wise Use Movement, about substitutes for wood pulp for paper. He also argues for a new ecological ideal. CPR: Conservation, Preservation, and Restoration.
BROWER: I want to scream: Why don't you listen? When you put off maintenance, somebody's going to have to pay for it. You can save money by not putting oil in your car, but not for long. Since World War II, the United States has used more resources than all the rest of the world in all previous history. We can't keep that up, but we are determined to try to do it across the board.
MUSIKER: I interviewed Brower in his home in the hills above Berkeley. Just before I left I asked him to talk about a photograph on his living room wall: a famous shot by his friend Ansel Adams from New Mexico, of aspens lit by what seems a transcendent light.
BROWER: When we were working on the book, This is the American Earth, I had not seen that photograph. And Ansel had made some big prints about, oh, this wide, and I was used to going through them like this. And I turned to that one and I cried. So that was on the cover of that book. But it is just so wonderful. I'm used to it now, so I don't cry.
MUSIKER: Shortly after our interview, Brower was hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat. Doctors inserted a pacemaker and he's home again, still planning to go on tour promoting his new book. Brower says his passport doesn't expire until 2003, so he has a few years left to work. For Living on Earth, I'm Cy Musiker in Berkeley.
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