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David Brower: Monumental
Alex Steffen, 2 Aug 06

David Brower deserves to be an American icon, an activist as important in the history of the second half of the 20th Century as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem or Cesar Chavez. Yet I'd bet most Americans have never heard of him.

They ought to see Monumental, Kelly Duane's biographical documentary of the man who forged the modern Sierra Club, and founded Friends of the Earth and the Earth Island Institute.

Brower, more than any other single individual, with the possible exception of Rachel Carson, forced upon the American consciousness the critical insight that we live on a planet. That the Earth is finite, indeed increasingly small, and that we have the capacity to cherish and steward it, or to destroy it. While many worldchangers today might argue that we've done a far better job of the latter than the former, it is almost impossible, I suspect, for those of us born after the mid-1960s to understand that there was a time when most people had no conception at all of conservation, much less sustainability. That we can use these words, and mean something, and increasingly be heard in public debates from Chicago to Cape Town, is to an astonishing degree the legacy of David Brower.

Long before most of the world was ready to act, he fought for wilderness, democracy and sustainability, and against reckless exploitation, nuclear power and captive bureaucracies. Though he often said controversial things to draw attention to his causes, he was, in fact, a man with an open and complex mind, who (while the classic environmentalist of the old school) in some ways foreshadowed bright green concerns. As he said

I'm not against civilization, technology, or science. I just want us to use them well. We haven't learned to do that yet.

He was uncompromising, rude, sometimes ruthless. Many of the people who loved and admired him resented the treatment they at one time of another received at his hands, but he changed the world. Future generations, as yet unborn, owe him a profound debt.

And he could be magnificent. Years ago, I had the honor of sitting with him for an evening, in a grotto barroom at a conference center in the North Cascades, on the edge of a national park Brower helped create. Though he was quite elderly, he held forth with undiminished conviction, and though there were only a few of us around the table, he seemed to take the conversation as seriously as he did the speech he'd just given earlier in the day. I remember the incredible mix of despair and defiant optimism he shared, and the eloquence that grew with our bar tab. I had to give a talk the next day, and I figured there would be another chance to talk with him, so after midnight I bowed out of the drinking and went off to my room to sleep.

As it happens, I never saw him again. But he remains one of my heroes, and this film will show you why.

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Thanks for that. I'd never heard of him - will certainly try to track the film down. "Despair and defiant optimism" - seems like an appropriate response to the world today!

Posted by: Gyrus on 3 Aug 06

Thanks for that Alex, but don't forget Brower's spiritual fathers, John Muir and Aldo Leopold.

Posted by: David Foley on 3 Aug 06

Great to know about this film. Brower changed his times, and left a legacy of works and words that we must never forget. Among his many rallying calls to conservationists, one that seems particularly pertinent to worldchanging and the stakes we face today is "All our victories are temporary. All our defeats are permanent." He also said (and I paraphrase) "Environmentalists can be tough to live with, but they make great ancestors." Amen.

Posted by: Ted on 3 Aug 06

Great quote, Ted (on Brower's definition of enviro victories and defeats). That sounds like him to me, but I'd love to be able to cite it in a reference. If you have one, please send it along.

Posted by: Kit Stolz on 3 Aug 06

Brower's quotes need to be collected somewhere. Many were off the cuff, repeated and paraphrased by those who heard him. A good place to look for inspiration about Brower's life, legacy, and inspiration is

Posted by: Ted on 3 Aug 06

Thanks, I didn't know him. I just put the movie at the top of my Netflix queue. Any other WorldChanging documentaries worth seeing out there?

Posted by: Bernard Delcourt on 3 Aug 06

it seems so strange to me that people haven't heard of david brower. especially people who read this blog.

john macfee's novel "encounters with an archdruid" is about brower. read it.

also, track down his quote where he condenses the history of the planet into "7 days".

as a 22 year old, it makes me really scared that 'older' "enviros" haven't heard about brower. that's like saying, "who's garret hardin/ dave forman/ ed abbey/ lester brown/ the erhlichs/ daly/ etc.?" seriously, we should come up with a "basic reading list"(or some sort of wiki) so that the fundamentals can get out there and everyone can be on the same page. i'd do it but i don't know how and am focused on schooling at the moment.

Posted by: brian russell on 4 Aug 06



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