Emotionalist

David Brower at the kitchen table

Illinois Times

March 27, 1981

David Brower, the legendary environmentalist, was in Springfield to give a series of talk at Sangamon State University. One of them was with, or rather to, me.

 

We are sitting at a table in a spare kitchen in an apartment in a lobotomized northside Springfield building, late in the evening, confronted by contradictory temptations to eat and to talk. David Brower is wearing a gray tweed sport coat and matching gray turtleneck and white plaster on his wrist. The last is the result of a broken wrist sustained in a tumble from a desk top, the sort of irony that seems eventually to ambush every mountain climber like Brower.

 

Brower looks younger than he is, having shed close to fifty pounds a few years ago—half of it left between his Berkeley house and the train station, the other half deposited in the Himalayas. He is the founder and president of the Friends of the Earth and a confessed egomaniac. John Milton, a friend and ecologist now at Sangamon State University in Springfield, calls him "the grand old man of the environmental movement." Brower doesn't deny it. The jacket, by the way, is wool.

 

In the late 1960s Brower toured Cumberland Island off Georgia with resort developer Charles Fraser as part of a series of dialogues staged and recorded by writer John McPhee. Fraser was fond of referring to conservationists as druids, religious people who sacrifice people and worship trees. So it was that the book which charted this odyssey was titled Encounters with the Archdruid.

 

"Who," he is asked, "is the enemy?" He does not need time to think. "David Stockman. Paul Laxalt. Joseph Coors. The idea that there really are no limits." The kind of people, he would say later, who tinker with nature and don't save all the parts. Ronald Reagan's people, who are urging a policy of "strength through exhaustion, because they seem to believe that the way to protect the national security is to find more of the resources we are running out of and use them faster and faster.

 

"You can't trash the conservation gains made since Abraham Lincoln became President." This is standard Brower, part of a speech he will make perhaps a half dozen times while in Springfield. "You can't trash the social gains made since FDR. You can't trash the progress toward global equity that began in San Francisco with the United Nations and the birth of the new hope." Brower talks about hope the way a plumber talks about pipe; it is one of the raw materials of his trade. "This administration is trashing all three as fast as it can. There is an irresponsibility abroad in this administration that I, in my 68.7 years, have never seen."

 

Time for some more wine. Brower is in town for SSU's intersession, "The Energy Decade," which ran for eight days beginning March 14. He has made many such trips. McPhee noted Brower's evangelical style on the stump, referring to his basic speech as The Sermon. He has a sense of humor, and it shows, but not about the earth, because he finds little these days to be funny. "We're being sent by express mail to the Dark Ages," he goes on avuncularly. "My hope—and I'm still optimistic—is that the 90 percent of the American population that did not vote for Ronald Reagan tells him that he's on a road with the bridge out. The Hoover days are over." Brower remembers those days, of course. He is on his third generation of followers. American young people aren't accustomed to their heroes living so long. "When Hoover left office, the population of the world was one-half what it now is. We can't afford to have a throwback in thinking to a half-populated world."

 

David Armstrong, writing in a column called "American Journal" appearing in a recent Des Moines Daily Planet, predicts that as a part of Interior Secretary James Watt's "new federal scorched earth policy," David Brower was to have been "charged with treason" on March 20 and deported to the Galapagos Islands along with Stewart Brand.

 

Brower loves to tell stories about himself. At SSU he repeated Russell Train's remark that Brower makes it easy for other people to seem reasonable. McPhee said he is "an emotionalist in an age of dangerous reason." Brower himself once said, "Objectivity is the greatest threat to the U.S. today." And it occurs to me that this is all true, except exactly backwards. James Watt is not a man guided by reason's light. "When rampant growth occurs in an individual," Brower once said, "we call it cancer." That seems reasonable enough.

 

Brower is especially unreasonable about nuclear power. "The present administration," he said while coffee was being served, "wants a CETA program for the nuclear industry." [The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a Nixon-era work training program.] And, as anti-nuclear activists have been saying for years, there is an inextricable link between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. "When Ronald Reagan appears to accept the advice of people who think that nuclear war is winnable, everybody on earth must resist this weakness of judgment." Brower notes one prediction that a high-altitude nuclear blast over the U.S. would decimate the atmosphere's ozone layer, with the result that the skin of survivors emerging onto the surface a year later would blister in forty minutes under a now-punishing sun. Said Brower, sarcastically, "The Friends of the Earth thinks that the loss of the Northern Hemisphere is environmentally unacceptable."

 

Brower was instrumental in the fight to keep the big power dams out of Dinosaur National Monument, a fight that McPhee described as the "birth of the modern conservation movement—the turning point at which conservation became something more than contour plowing." He is still at it, thirty years later, with his commitment undiminished, starting over again almost from scratch to tilt against the Watts and the Jim Thompsons, explaining, complaining, knowing that stupidity will outlive him, recommending hope in spite of the fact that hope has so often proved insufficient. He admits that things have seldom looked so bleak. "I'd like to be optimistic," he will tell his audience at SSU, "but the doom-makers are all around us.”

 

* * *

 

There are something like 25,000 members of Friends of the Earth in the U.S. There are something like 85,000 members in Europe who believe, as a Friends brochure says, that we must all be “cognizant of the earth’s limits.” Cognizant? No wonder environmentalists are castigated as elitists. There are only 40,000 people in the whole country who even know what “cognizant” means, and 15,000 of them work for Exxon.

 

* * *

 

I asked Brower whether asking Americans to husband their resources was asking them to cease being Americans, since Americans define themselves in terms of exploitation. He replied, “We as a people have not been modest enough to realize that it was not who we are that explains our success as a people, but what we were given when we got here—unimaginable riches, timber from coast to coast, waterfalls everywhere, enough for kilowatt-hours beyond belief. We got the biggest dowry that any people ever had.” Which is all true, but it is no answer.

 

A further question asks itself: Is environmentalism the best expression of human nature, as we who preach it like to believe? Or is it a perversion of it? If early man was more careful, it was only because the consequences of carelessness in a primitive economy are more immediately and clearly seen. Things are complicated now, and we no longer feel the pinch of our folly. Isn’t rapaciousness mankind’s disqualifying flaw? Hasn’t nature equipped us with a fuse only to watch with supreme indifference first as we light it and then as we fan its flame? What separates us from the dinosaur, except our ability to record the process of our own evolutionary demise? Are we not two evolutionary dead ends, two experiments that failed? Brower believes that man matters, and I wonder as I listen to him whether he is a saint or a fool.

 

* * *

 

Alan Anderson, my old friend from the early days of the Illinois Times, writes that nuclear war will render the earth fit only for cockroaches. From dinosaur to cavebear to man to cockroach; the circle is closing.

 

* * *

 

Brower, concluding The Sermon at SSU, says he's abandoning ridicule as a tactic, in part because of his taking to heart a Nepalese proverb that one should never embarrass anyone. He counseled "A bit of patience, no embarrassment, a bit of love. The alternative is simply not acceptable."

 

The next day, March 15, the New York Times reported that an unpublished Department of Energy study had concluded that conservation and renewable energy sources could enable the U.S. to slash its energy use by 25 percent by 2000 without sacrificing economic growth. The study was done by the Solar Energy Research Institute whose director, Denis Hays, had proceeded Brower to the SSU podium the night before. The Democrat congressman who heads the a House energy subcommittee said that the Reagan administration was trying to suppress the report. □

SITES

OF INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

[STILL A-BUILDING]

BOOKS

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Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of

solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

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Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

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The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

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John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

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Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

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Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

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