David Brower: 1912-2000

Remembering the twentieth century's greatest environmentalist

American conservationist David Brower sits and plays the electronic keyboard at his home in Berkeley, California,1997. Credit: Joe Munroe/Hulton Archive/Getty

ABOUT A YEAR AGO, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was threatening to rip up a couple of hundred community gardens in the poorest parts of the city and turn them over to developers. I came to New York for the protests, and as I wandered through these tiny urban oases, I found myself thinking, "David Brower should be here." If anyone could explain the shape of the American environmental movement, from its origins in the grand mountains of the West to its newfound concern for garden patches in New York City, it would be him.

And what do you know, I turned a corner on the Lower East Side, walked into a tiny plaza of tomato plants and fruit trees, and who was holding court with a group of Latino activists but the archdruid himself. Brower, in his late eighties, was gaunt and walked stiffly, but his message was as forceful as ever: "We've got to reassemble," he said, "Heal, Cure, Regenerate. You put a 're' in front of it, and I'm for it."

David Ross Brower died on November 5th at his home in Berkeley, California, two days before the presidential election, at the age of eighty-eight, and the news was almost lost in the endless spectacle of that vote. But there is no question; Brower is on the shortlist of the iconic figures of the American twentieth century. Like Cesar Chavez, like Betty Friedan, like a very few others, he changed the way we saw the world. It is not absurd to mention him in the same sentence as Martin Luther King Jr., and there are precious few Americans of whom that is true; the greatest conservationist of the century, the most passionate defender of wild places — but even more, the man who turned conservationism into environmentalism, who took the insights of Rachel Carson and built from them a powerful idea that may yet transform the planet.

Even before he became an environmentalist, Brower was a legend of sorts. In the 1930s, he might have been America's greatest mountaineer. He made seventy first ascents in the High Sierra and figured out the first route up New Mexico's Shiprock, familiar from a thousand car commercials. I can remember hiking with him in Yosemite Valley one winter when he was already in his seventies but still walking faster than most folks in their youth. As we were turning corners on the trail and new vistas would come into view, he'd point out routes that he had pioneered up out of the valley floor. "I don't think we were built to be safe," he said. "I think we were built to try things."

When he took over the Sierra Club after the war, it was mostly a hiking society, organizing camping expeditions across the California mountains. Under his leadership, however, it began rapidly to change. The club looked farther afield, first to the deserts of the Southwest, where the federal government was busy trying to build dams. After conceding a dam on the Colorado at Glen Canyon, which created a bathtub known as Lake Powell, he drew the line farther south, at the Grand Canyon, and managed to mount a campaign that blocked several more dams. His tactics were slashing — full-page newspaper ads calling Southwestern politicians philistines who would flood the Sistine Chapel to get a better look at the ceiling. The Bureau of Reclamation never really recovered from the onslaught, and Bruce Babbitt, the current secretary of the interior, has spent much of his term blowing up unneeded dams on rivers across the U.S.

At least as important, though, was a set of books that Brower and the Sierra Club published in the early 1960s, a nineteen-volume series featuring the work of photographers like Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter and many others. Their spare covers were soon as familiar as Dave Brubeck albums in the living rooms of America's college-educated, liberal-leaning upper-middle class, who energized Sierra Club chapters across the country. In the Everglades, across the Northeast, in the Cascades, people began following the recipe Brower had employed in the Grand Canyon battle; Fight entrenched power with massive and clever publicity, scare politicians and bureaucrats with grass-roots mobilization. The hiking club was quickly becoming the prototype of the modern advocacy group, with the immense mailings, pressure tactics and media savvy that have since spread throughout the nonprofit world.

But Brower was moving too fast for many of his colleagues. Even as he began to embrace a wide variety of international causes — the fight to slow population growth, for instance — his board of directors, still dominated by a conservation-oriented elite, had trouble understanding that the future was about something else. They were still so fixated on saving redwoods that they couldn't understand nature was now threatened by even more pervasive forces. They weren't ready to take on the crusade that was turning into modern environmentalism; the battle against pollution, against endless growth and development, So, in 1969, they fired Brower.

Which slowed him down for about thirty seconds, A few months later, Brower helped start Friends of the Earth, which went on to become one of the most important international environmental outfits. By 1984, he had become too unruly for Friends and was fired. So he started Earth Island Institute, his base for the last fifteen years.

Organizations have effective life spans of about ten years, he told me once: "After that, an institution is more concerned with itself than with its mission. ...… You get comfortable where you are. You get practical…. ... But somehow I've missed that virus — I've got lots of others, but I missed that one."

Instead, he kept on the move, traveling anywhere anyone needed him. After John McPhee's classic 1971 book about him, Encounters With the Archdruid, Brower came to personify the cause in a way that no one since John Muir had managed, and so he was in constant demand: in Kyrgystan one week, Nairobi the next. If you were trying to block a hydroelectric project in northern Canada, if you needed to get out the environmental vote in a last-minute campaign blitz, there he was. Wherever he went, he sought out the youngest, most interesting activists. After a long day's conference, he'd be at the hotel bar sipping his trademark Tanqueray martini and absorbing ideas, offering encouragement.

His natural affinity was not for the powerful, though they would sometimes court him, but for the squeaky wheels. He cared less about negotiating the final compromise than about driving the debate so that the compromise, when it inevitably came, would be further in the direction of the Earth. When the militantly confrontational Earth First! appeared out West in the late Seventies, he was not scared by its tactics the way most "environmental leaders" were. "I think they're right on target," he said. "I just wish they'd use biodegradable spikes in trees." The only real terrorism, he said, was what was happening in the world's forests, where business as usual was cutting down the homes of half the planet's species at an ever-increasing rate: "What are we doing to the world's system? We're taking parts out — maybe we're taking the carburetor out. Then what are we going to do? It's stupidity we're practicing and admiring, while calling radical the people who oppose it." I never met a more charge-ahead man in my life.

He kept that pace up until the very end of his life. If you check his Web site, you'll see his Agenda 2000, with twenty-six to-do items for the year. They range from the practical ("Get railroads back on the track," "Drain Powell Reservoir") to the metapractical ("Imitate nature's abhorrence of waste").

A few days before he died, I talked to him as he prepared to leave the hospital. He was looking forward to the presidential election — or, rather, he was looking past it. "Whoever wins this thing, we're going to need a shadow Cabinet. We've got to keep the pressure on these guys," he said with his usual happy laugh. Even in the face of truly unimaginable new problems like massive climate change and runaway genetic engineering, he remained confident and ready.

It reminded me of something he'd told me that week in the Yosemite Valley, a line from the cartoon guru Pogo: "We are confronted with insurmountable opportunity." As a mountaineer, Brower said, "I've declared many things insurmountable, and they've been climbed. I've climbed some of them myself. That's the thing to do: Just figure out how to get there."