The remarkable life of David Brower

David Brower

At the corner of Allston Way and Oxford Street in downtown Berkeley, directly across from the campus of the University of California, sits the David Brower Center. Opened in 2009, the Brower Center bills itself as “A center for the environmental movement.” The four-story, Platinum LEED-certified building houses an art gallery, a small auditorium, and some thirty nonprofit organizations, most of them engaged in addressing environmental issues. But who was this man, David Brower? It seems unlikely that more than a fraction of Berkeley residents today could identify him.


David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement by Tom Turner (2015) 322 pages

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Who was David Brower?

If there is a Berkeley native other than David Brower who has achieved more and had a greater impact on the world, I can’t imagine who that might be, and I’ve lived here for nearly fifty years. Brower died at the age of eighty-eight on the cusp of the twenty-first century. During the decades when he was a prominent figure in the news, he was frequently cited as the voice of the environmental movement, at once its most impassioned and articulate spokesperson and the architect of several influential environmental organizations, chiefly the Sierra Club.

Anyone who knew Dave Brower, as I did (slightly), will quickly concede that the man had his faults. Even his long-suffering wife, Anne Hus Brower, was outspoken in acknowledging them. Tom Turner’s new biography, David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement, freely describes those faults, even though the author was a long-time associate and friend of his subject. There are some who might claim that the faults outweigh his accomplishments — I’ve met a few such people — but most environmental activists who know of Brower’s career would argue strenuously that that is not the case. David Brower was a genius. He was a seminal figure in the history of humankind’s effort to right our balance with nature. Turner’s biography artfully gives the man his due without sugar-coating the story.

A life filled with controversy

In the course of his eighty-eight years, David Brower was a pioneering mountaineer with more than seventy first ascents, a decorated officer in the Tenth Mountain Division of the U.S. Army in World War II, the first executive director of the Sierra Club, the editor and publisher of numerous large-format books extolling nature, founder of Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, and Earth Island Institute, and the principal subject of an influential book, Encounters With the Archdruid, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction author John McPhee. He is perhaps best known for spearheading the successful, high-profile campaign to save the Grand Canyon — and for having been publicly fired by the Sierra Club board of directors. Turner describes every one of these events in Brower’s life with sensitivity, acknowledging the complaints of Brower’s critics along the way when they were germane.

Brower was famously impatient with process. Turner quotes him as saying, “‘Process is that which gets between where you are and where to want to be.'” He was a rule-breaker and resisted authority. At a time when books played a much larger role in forming public opinion than they do today, he devoted much of his time and budget to publishing what he termed “exhibit-format” (large) books that matched world-class photography with elegant prose. Brower’s plans for most of those books met strong resistance from within the Club.

As Turner notes, “The Sierra Club had clearly become the publishing arm of the conservation movement; that role would continue and expand as long as Brower was running the show.” Turner credits the books with attracting tens of thousands of new members to the Club. Many thousands of others signed up in response to the full-page ads Brower had placed in the nation’s leading newspapers to publicize the environmental campaigns of the day. He was a pioneer in this practice, working with a San Francisco advertising firm and chiefly with the company’s gifted writer, Jerry Mander. One headline famously asked during the campaign to save the Grand Canyon from two dams proposed to be built there: “SHOULD WE ALSO FLOOD THE SISTINE CHAPEL SO TOURISTS CAN GET NEARER THE CEILING?” The words are probably Mander’s, but the sentiment is entirely consistent with Brower’s devilish sense of humor. In the final analysis, Turner suggests, “Brower’s main role in the Sierra Club and afterward was as nature’s publicist.”

About the author

After holding a job on his staff at the Sierra Club, Tom Turner worked with David Brower at Friends of the Earth for seventeen years (1969-86), editing its widely read newsletter, Not Man Apart. Since that time he has served as a staff writer and editor for Oakland-based Earthjustice, for which he writes a popular blog. Turner lives in Berkeley.

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