A Longtime Gadfly Still Stings
An environmentalist since 1938, David Brower now crusades to link the movement globally
DEDHAM, MASS. — NOW into his sixth decade as America's premier environmental curmudgeon, David Brower still comes up with adder-sharp strikes at Americans' wasteful lifestyle. " 'More' is a four-letter word," he told this reporter in a farmhouse surrounded by suburbs. "I'd like to declare open season on developers. Not kill them, just tranquilize them."
Mr. Brower was shelling a reporter with these pronouncements, warming up for some public appearances later that day with a band of Cree Indians from Quebec, lawyers, and economists. He had joined them on a Northeast publicity trip to try to stop James Bay II, a giant hydroelectric project in Quebec that the Cree and environmentalists oppose. (See March 21 Monitor.)
"David is bulldog-ish in his tenacity," says novelist Wallace Stegner, an old friend from Brower's Sierra Club days. "And he has imagination. He sees the whole picture, not like many of us who work specifically on single issues."
This trip is the latest in a lifetime of speaking out. An environmental advocate since 1938, Brower has been a driving force behind keeping dams out of the Grand Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument, saving California redwoods, and helping establish the national wilderness system. He organized and headed the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth. And a year ago, the latest organization he's formed, Earth Island Institute, was credited with getting three tuna companies to agree not to buy tuna caught wit h methods that snag and drown dolphins. Brower's been compared to John Muir and Henry David Thoreau in the scope of his work, and he's twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Brower also has had his tussles with organizations. He resigned as executive director of the Sierra Club in 1969 over policy disputes. He started Friends of the Earth that year, and was asked to leave in 1984, reportedly because of an autocratic management style.
Part of his implacability came after he and the Sierra Club were trying to save the Grand Canyon, Dinosaur National Monument, and Glen Canyon in the 1950s. He has said that, at the time, he felt he had to give up Glen Canyon to save the others. On seeing pictures of unspoiled Glen Canyon later, he regretted giving in.
"I wouldn't give anything away now I hadn't seen," he says today.
For all his reputation as a curmudgeon, in person he's rather gentlemanly, with a quick wit. When he is asked "Are you still..." and the clock interrupts with "Cuckoo!" Brower says, "Yes!" and starts laughing. "You couldn't repeat that timing if you tried!" he says.
BROWER has been known to change even strongly held views. He used to be in favor of nuclear power as a better alternative than fossil fuels. Further research persuaded him otherwise.
Earth Island Institute reflects his latest thinking: that environmental groups have to get together with peace and justice groups, and the movement has to globalize. He's chairman of the group's International Green Circle project. It's an idea inspired by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who called for the restoration of environmentally devastated areas worldwide. Brower wants to see it become a huge, paid alternative service to war.
The institute has taken up the plight of Lake Baikal in Siberia.
"It's the world's oldest, deepest lake," he says. "It's got one-fifth of the world's fresh lake water and some 1,200 species of plants and animals existing nowhere else. The Soviets consider it one of their jewels. But if things go on, it will be dead in 60 years."
He says United States environmentalists met Soviet counterparts to establish a "Baikal watch." So far, three cities around the lake have agreed to talk about shared problems, something they haven't done before.
Companies that do environmentally correct things, he notes, may bypass profit. That can open them to stockholder lawsuits.
"We need to change the law so that they should be able to do something for the environment without being sued," he says.
Brower grew up in Berkeley, Calif., the son of a professor, and spent his childhood exploring the Berkeley hills. He and his wife, Anne Hus, live in the redwood house he built there in 1946.
Traveling and the wilderness are a continuing passion: During World War II he taught soldiers how to climb in the Alps, and he's done 70 first ascents of mountains. Since the 1970s, he's traversed the globe calling for "environmental sanity."
Having the long view of the environmental movement, he's dismayed at how much ground has been lost. But he says there was one heartening thing.
"Last year, I spoke in front of 200,000 people and asked how many would be willing to commit a year of their lives to working for the environment. Two-thirds said 'yes.' I've never seen a response like that before."
What drives him?
He thinks a moment. "Hope," he says finally. "My grandchildren. I can't give up. I'm doing the least well waking up my age-mates - they're all consumed with Medicare and pensions."
Brower is more concerned with what lies ahead.
"Three years ago, I asked for a 20-year extension [on life]. I've got a lot to do, I want to do a series of books for the World Heritage Library at the United Nations. I want to get the International Green Circle going. I also want to set up an international system of biosphere reserves, places where people can see it never grow worse."