LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : David Brower : Creating a National Movement Dedicated to the Environment

<i> Bill Stall is a political reporter for The Times</i>

The Bay Bridge loomed in the window behind David R. Brower as he sat in Sinbad’s Restaurant on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. A buzz ran through the luncheon crowd. “Who is that?” someone asked. “It’s David Brower.” A woman walked up to the 82-year-old man with the striking shock of white hair and angular mountaineer’s face: “I know you are David Brower. But why are you famous?” Brower looked up and said quietly, “I have been a member of the Sierra Club for 61 years.”

Brower is known for many things but not necessarily his modesty or retiring manner. He has reigned for four decades as the nation’s most cantankerous, durable, at-times despised and perhaps most-quoted crusader for the environment. Some call him the Archdruid, from the title of a John McPhee book about Brower.

Brower is best known as the first executive director of the Sierra Club. Under his aggressive leadership, from 1952 to 1969, the environmental organization evolved from a mostly regional hiking club into a national political power. He launched the club’s costly but successful exhibit-format series of coffee-table books. They were political tools designed to stir emotional responses to key themes, such as fewer dams and more parks and wild lands. Brower also used controversial national newspaper ads to generate support.


The most famous ads responded to Bureau of Reclamation suggestions that construction of two dams virtually within the Grand Canyon would be welcomed by recreationists, because they then could view the canyon walls up close--by boat. The Sierra Club response: “Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?”

The dams were not built. But over time, Brower’s leadership became too contentious and problem-filled for the Sierra Club board. He was fired.

Brower went on to found a new organization known as Friends of the Earth, and after battles with its board, the Earth Island Institute, which he still heads.

Brower’s new book, “Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run,” published in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the first Earth Day, contains his prescription for revitalizing the environmental movement and promotes an ethic of conservation, preservation and restoration of the environment.

Brower and his wife, the former Anne Hus, will celebrate their 52nd wedding anniversary on May 1. They have four children. And this year, Brower is again running for the Sierra Club board of directors.


Question: Given the mood of the new Congress, what is the state of the environment these days?


Answer: What we’re contending with is the greatest man-set conflagration in my lifetime, in any lifetime I can remember. I’m worried, because we are too slow in the environmental movement, and the other movements, in setting the backfires. That includes the human-rights movement, the justice movement, the peace movement. All of these. We’ve got to get going.

Q: You talk in your book about raising the average age considerably by attending a Grateful Dead concert some years back. Are young people concerned about the environment these days?

A: In 1983, my wife and I came home from a peace conference and stopped by the University of Syracuse for Earth Day. There were about 300 or 400, a pretty small part of the student body compared with the first Earth Day. That night, the Grateful Dead filled the stadium. So the people were looking for something else.

I think we have not been very entertaining. Environmentalists and a lot of other do-gooders are a pretty sourful lot; they’ve got to add a little humor to the action.

Q: You talk about Rule 6. It’s not clear what the first five are.

A: There are no other rules.

Q: What is Rule 6?


A: Never take yourself too seriously.

Q: Over the years, a lot of people viewed you as too combative, too abrasive. Did you come too late to your Rule 6. A: Those adjectives were spoon-fed. I think I wasn’t quite the stand-up comic I am now. I do think it was important to get your audience to feel good and to laugh. It’s an important capability that people haven’t been able to enjoy as much as they should.

Q: You talk about the leaders of the environmental movement having gone a bit soft. You emphasize your roots in mountain climbing, that you’ve got to take risks in order to achieve something--

A: In order to lead an interesting life. Climbers, I think, do that rather more than most. But then there are lots of other people getting into the risk business now to add a little spice.

Q: How do you achieve a balance between what you call softness, on one hand, and eco-terrorism, on the other?

A: It has gotten attention. I wish Earth First! were unnecessary. But it has livened things up and it has made it possible for the other organizations to move out of their conservative, reasonable stand and sound a little bolder, with somebody out there in front being so much bolder. I think that’s helped.

Q: When you were executive director of the Sierra Club, you were criticized for being too bold and plunging into costly projects, such as the exhibit-format series of coffee-table books.


A: I feel perfectly vindicated by the publication of the books. They had a great deal of power. They very much helped what we were doing.

Q: Do we need a new David Brower, somebody with your charisma and ability to get popular attention?

A: We aren’t doing the kinds of things that work and that, I think, still work. That book program needs to be reinvigorated, and if I’m elected, I’ll try to push a little harder for what we used to be doing.

Q: How does climbing relate to what you are trying to do now?

A: The climber wants to be on top. He has a vision of a way he’d like to handle that problem. . . . Now, we need to be thinking, well, what do we want the country looking like, not a couple of days from now, but 50 years from now. So you define the top. Then you try to make sure you don’t do things that preclude your getting there. The climber tries to avoid the cul-de-sacs.

Q: Pressure for deregulation of the environment is very strong right now. Was some of that legislation written in too much detail and locked into a bureaucracy? Were there flaws in it that then led to this frustration?


A: I’m sure a lot of it could have been done differently, done better. For the most part, the regulations were the result of bad performance on the part of corporations. We had to do something about it. When people speed, you put up speed limits. And people who like to speed don’t like them, but the rest of the world is safer for them.

The most important challenge we have is to help corporations apply conscience to their operations. Right now, it’s almost illegal for them to do it. If you’re a CEO or on the board of directors of a corporation, and you bypass an opportunity for profit for ecological reasons, or even social reasons, you can be sued by the shareholders. You can be removed by the shareholders.

Q: Where do you start? The gasoline-powered automobile? What can happen to change that?

A: Mass transit is one of the most important investments we can make as a society--make it possible not to kill 50,000 people a year in automobiles. This takes a staggering amount of creative thought and a lot of good salesmanship. But we’d better get that pretty soon.

Q: Are you disappointed in the Clinton Administration and (Interior Secretary) Bruce Babbitt in terms of how they have pushed the environmental agenda?

A: Oh, very disappointed. Al Gore, Bruce Babbitt, Tim Worth, Jim Baca--who could have done wonderful things and was fired for doing wonderful things. Then again, I don’t have the courage to run for office, to get all the flack we’re willing to dump on those people I just named. It just seems to me they could have decided to be candidates for a new edition of “Profiles in Courage”--and they didn’t. And we need that.


Q: What’s your biggest victory?

A: It’s hard. It’s a little--only a little--like which of your children do you like best. I’m pretty happy there are no dams in Dinosaur National Monument and the Grand Canyon. I look at that list of 30 exhibit-format books, plus others related to it.

Q: Your greatest defeat or regret?

A: Oh, yes. Glen Canyon Dam. That was done (as a trade-off) to save the national-park idea by not letting them go into Dinosaur National Monument.

Q: But Glen Canyon stores water in wet years that helps give California water when the state is having dry years. That’s a benefit, isn’t it?

A: That’s a benefit, but we already had the storage capacity at Lake Mead. It was intended to take the place of Lake Mead when it filled up with silt.


Q: Now Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon, is a part of the parks as a national recreation area.

A: So you water ski over where the beauty was. I wasn’t a good enough salesman.

Q: You are in a new phase of your life where you talk about restoration. What do you mean by restoration?

A: Well, restoration of natural and human systems. Seven years ago, at a conference called Restoring the Earth, the then-executive director of the Sierra Club said, “We can’t spend time on restoration. We’ve got to protect. That’s our mission.” So I began to build into all my speeches after that: “Look, you can’t do one without the other.” You can’t take, take, and take without putting back. When you begin to lose the productivity of the Earth, you have nothing on which to base economic growth. People just don’t want to understand that you can’t have an economy if you destroy the life-support system.

Q: Are you a visionary ?

A: I don’t like the word visionary . I don’t like the word radical . In fact, I don’t like names very well, or labels. I like pretty much what Garrett Hardin said: “Don’t call me names. Tell me where I’m wrong.”

Q: That lady came up and asked why you were well-known. And you talked about the Sierra Club . Is that important to you ?

A: It is very important to me. I’ve had my ups and downs in the Sierra Club. Although I left the staff on request, I never left the club, and I don’t ever intend to. I wanted to be a needle, or whatever it is. I think they’re the most powerful conservation organization on Earth, potentially, but they’re not using their potential the way they should.

Q: If there’s an environmental doomsday clock, what time is it?


A: Well, we’re at the dawn of a new age. Between now and the end of this millennium, which is coming any minute now, if we sell this story right, people will realize, “Hey, this was fun while it lasted, but it was a binge and you can’t keep a binge going that long.”

Q: If back in 1952, you could have looked forward to 1995, how would you feel about what has been achieved? Would it have been worth it? Has there been enough progress?

A: We have slowed the rate of things getting worse. And if we hadn’t been there, things would be in one helluva mess. And they’re not. I would have been encouraged that the Cuyahoga River is not burning any more. That’s good. We have a national wilderness system that doesn’t begin to have in it what it should have in it. But we have a system. And the national-park system is protected from incursion. We have not gone ahead with what we should designate as special lands and protect them while we develop a civilization on the rest.

Q: Someone once said these battles never end.

A: No. They never end. We never win. We never win. If someone pours the concrete for a dam, they’ve won. If I save Glen Canyon, I haven’t won. I’ve just got a stay of execution.

We can do things about what man has done to the Earth. We can redesign human systems, and we can make money by doing it right. You can run an economy, you can run a civilization, on respect for your home planet. And we will develop that respect, because we have no alternative. But it’s a little but hard to get people to understand that at the moment. We will. We must do that.*