IN THE WAKE of David Brower's death at age 88, the outpouring of
praise is universal. But at least some of this praise is coming from
those who, while they admired David's accomplishments, may be just as
glad to be rid of his nettlesome presence.
I had the honor of serving as one of David's "assistants'' during
the last few years of his life. We co-wrote several articles, often
appeared together on panels and worked jointly to stop the
extortionate Headwaters forest deal and Sen. Dianne Feinstein's
attempt to increase logging in the national forests of the Sierra
The rap against David was always that he didn't know how to
compromise. He is described as a crusader, a warrior, pugnacious and
militant. We are reminded that the Sierra Club removed him as
director after he had built the organization 40-fold over a 17-year
span. He went on to found Friends of the Earth, which also dismissed
him due to his aversion to taking half a loaf.
Some trace this reticence to compromise back to 1956 when David,
already the leading environmentalist in the country, signed off on
the building of Glen Canyon dam. It was part of a deal to keep the
Bureau of Reclamation from building the Echo Park dam inside Dinosaur
National Monument in northern Utah. He often referred to this
trade-off as "the biggest mistake of my life.''
In subsequent years, David stood toe-to-toe with water barons, speculators, bureaucrats and politicians to stop the building of dams in the Yukon and
the Grand Canyon. Exhibiting a flair for media, David argued in
full-page ads in the New York Times, "Should we also flood the
Sistine Chapel, so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?''
By 1996, David was the most famous Green Party member in the
country. He was blunt in his criticism of the Clinton-Gore administration, shocking the mainstream environmental community
with his charge that Bill Clinton and Al Gore had done more harm to
the country's forests and streams in four years than presidents
Reagan and Bush had done in 12. David was deeply alarmed by our
current disastrous course, labeling the economic boom of the '90s a
"global liquidation sale.''
David was a coalition builder to the end, bringing union workers
and environmentalists together to found the Alliance for Sustainable
Jobs and the Environment in 1999. At a Houston hotel bar, he and
David Foster of the United Steelworkers of America worked out an
agreement that read: "If you will promise to make sustainable jobs a
product of environmental protection, we will promise to make
environmental protection our most important job.''
Just weeks before his death, David penned an editorial for the
magazine In These Times, in which he cited the latest statistics on
ozone depletion, nitrogen imbalance, climate change and species extinction. He concluded by
imploring progressives and environmentalists to use the voting booth
to send a strong message.
"Don't sell your soul to fear in this election. Choose hope and
vote for a future that is unpredictable, rather than the downward
spiral we can see plainly in front of us. After all, risk is the
spice of life, variety is just the meat and potatoes. Vote Nader, and
begin to create a future you can really believe in.''
Ironically, three of the major environmental organizations that
David is most closely associated with -- the Sierra Club, the League
of Conservation Voters and Friends of the Earth -- all declined to
follow his lead in last Tuesday's election.
The officers of those organization might better pay tribute to his
memory by heeding his sage advice. "The planet is burning,'' he
often said, "and all I hear from them is the music of violins.''
How can a society built on the notion that the natural world
exists merely for the pleasure of and exploitation by human beings
possibly serve the Brower legacy? In my view, not much can be hoped
for from our current political quagmire. As David said, "When they
win, it's forever. When we win, it's merely a stay of execution.''
What is needed is not an issue-by-issue
approach to environmental restoration but a new way of thinking about
the environment. David's vision, shaped over decades of experience as
an avid and expert mountaineer, was about the connectedness of all
life. You don't solve global warming by bringing more nuclear power
plants online. You don't save endangered species by further
compromising their habitat. You don't save the forest by cutting more
The last time I saw David was at the Green Party convention in Denver
last summer. Everywhere he went crowds of admirers young and old
surrounded him, wanting to spend just a brief moment in the aura of a
legend. I watched him talk softly with people, smile and laugh while
he signed copies of his latest book.
A friend who stood by David's bed in the days before his death
told me that he maintained his optimism even as the cancer finally
had its way with him, his body compromised but his intellect sharp,
his spirit serene.
David Brower challenged us to comprehend both the awesome beauty of
creation and the awesome responsibility we have to preserve it.
Whether we meet that challenge will determine nothing left than our
Dan Hamburg is a former member of Congress and was the Green Party candidate for governor of California in 1998. He is currently executive director of Voice of the Environment.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle