Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Archdruid


"David Brower was the greatest environmentalist and conservationist of the 20th century." -- Ralph Nader.

David Brower was born on this day in 1912 in Berkeley, California.

Dubbed the "Archdruid" by environmental writer John McPhee, Brower was an iconoclast who started out as a shy kid who liked hiking and was transformed by his experiences into an evangelistic, single-minded campaigner on behalf of Earth conservation, the kind of fellow who could get kicked out of organizations he himself had activated for his sometimes maddening inflexibility.

During the 1930s, Brower made a number of first ascents of Western mountains, including Shiprock in New Mexico (1939), leading Camel Cigarettes to consider signing him as a handsome young athlete endorser. He drifted, however, into volunteering for a small organization of outdoor enthusiasts and day-trippers called the Sierra Club, guiding knapsack tours of the Sierra Nevadas. In 1941, he secured a job as an editor with the University of California Press as well as a seat on the board of directors of the Sierra Club.

The Club would never be the same. Using the Club as his pulpit, Brower launched an all-out assault against roads, bridges, tourist development, power lines and dams which threatened precious wilderness land. Funding the organization by producing and selling expensive coffee table books with his friend Ansel Adams' photos of Yosemite, as executive director of the Sierra Club (from 1952) Brower turned the Club into an environmental activism organization with a membership swelling from 2,000 to 77,000, fighting successfully against the damming of the Colorado at Dinosaur National Monument and at the Grand Canyon; getting the Wilderness Act of 1964 passed; and saving Point Reyes National Seashore.

In 1963, he bargained for the cancellation of dam projects at Echo Park and Split Mountain in Utah in exchange for agreeing not to oppose a project at Glen Canyon, but it was a loss for which he never forgave himself; "Glen Canyon died in 1963," he wrote in The Place No One Knew, his subsequent guilty documentation of the disappearing habitat there, "and I was partly responsible for its needless death. So were you." Meanwhile, the Sierra Club was stripped of its tax-exempt status for its political activities, and with financial losses mounting, Brower was fired by the Club in 1969.

He immediately formed Friends of the Earth (FOE) and broadened his efforts, taking on nuclear weapons and advocating solar energy and population control within a more media-directed format. Here, as before, Brower shined as a speaker: with his incantatory phrasing, lyrical evocations and sometimes biting humor, he appeared to college students and before fundraisers as a wild-eyed visionary-poet of the vanishing wilderness.

Although FOE raised lots of money and eventually took root in 68 countries, Brower's plans were always larger than his budgets, and in 1986, at the age of 74, he was fired by the FOE board. Within months, he was busy getting the Earth Island Institute off the ground, an umbrella organization for smaller self-funded projects concerning peace, environmental and social justice. He returned to the board of directors of the Sierra Club during the 1980s and 90s (by then possessed of a membership of 600,000), carping at hypocrisies and distractions as a relentless outsider. He was still busy at his work when he died at 88, on November 5, 2000.

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