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David Brower at the kitchen table

Illinois Times

March 27, 1981

David Brower, the legendary environmentalist, came to Springfield in 1981 to give a series of talks at Sangamon State University. One of them was with, or rather to, me.

This version differs from the original in having had a non sequitur deleted.


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 basic components 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 about it these days that is 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 is especially unreasonable about nuclear power. "The present administration," he said while coffee was being served, "wants a CETA program for the nuclear industry." [CETA is 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 both 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 cave bear 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. ●




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