Douglas Gillies
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an interview with

David Brower

Executive Director, The Sierra Club (1952-1969)

Founder, Friends of the Earth and Earth Island Institute

David Brower was interviewed by Douglas Gillies at "The Big Picture Summit," hosted by Tom Van Sant and produced by East Beach Productions for La Casa de Maria in Santa Barbara, CA.

David Brower was the first Executive Director of the Sierra Club Douglas Gillies: David Brower, you've ignited the spark in so many people to make changes. What was it that ignited your spark?

David Brower: A careful choice of parents who had enough sense to take their children out camping. I remember camping when I was six. Highway 80 over the Sierras was a one-lane dirt road then, so that was a wilderness experience.

Douglas Gillies: You have changed many people's points of view. How do you do it?

David Brower: I'm just stubborn, I guess. I keep hitting the same points in as many different voices as I can think of until the point gets home. I draw very heavily on Alexander Pope's poem, "An Essay on Man." He wrote,"Whatever is, is right." That refers to what things were before we started meddling with them so much. And so I just start backwards from there. If it was right before we started meddling, then that measures what harm our meddling is doing. Nature has had about 3-1/2 billion years of testing and our operations on it have not. What 3-1/2 billion years have been able to accomplish is a good base to start from.

Douglas Gillies: What would you say is the most important ingredient in the quality of your life?

David Brower: Well, I suppose that I never grew up. I opted not to grow up and I don't think I've lost my sense of wonder. My older son calls it my "gee-whiz" mode. I'm still marveling at what the Earth has to show.

Douglas Gillies: Do you ever get discouraged?

David Brower: Oh, I suppose everyone gets discouraged now and then but it doesn't last long because I have quite a bit of variety in my life and I go from one thing that might be discouraging into something else and shifting around helps.

Douglas Gillies: What's the thing that we must change now, the most?

David Brower: Well, the thing we must change now is our attack on the Earth. We must stop treating the Earth as if it were a soccer ball. We knock it this way and that and it's a terribly important planet. It's the only one we know of that has life on it, and our biosphere is a very limited resource. You can't go very high in the atmosphere without being too high. You can't go down very low. There isn't that much atmosphere, there isn't that much water, there isn't that much soil. These are the very precious things we've got and we don't know how to put a price on them, we don't know how to put a value on them. We've got to learn to do that. Whatever we do, whatever the Earth is worth has got to be built into our thinking--in the marketplace, in our philosophies, and in our hearts.

Douglas Gillies: Is it a flaw in our human spirit that has caused so much destruction in our environment?

David Brower: I suppose it's a flaw. I just think we've been careless and that we can't be careless any longer. Our carelessness has cost too much. We're running out of the things that can keep an economy, a civilization, a culture going and we've got to think of building back instead of spending more and more of what there isn't that much of left.

Douglas Gillies: Is there a way we can teach people to care more?

David Brower: It's important to have role models, people who are admired or respected. If they start doing the right things then other people will be willing to do the same thing. When our leaders lead or some of our followers set a good example, it catches on. At least that's my hope. It doesn't catch on fast enough for my money, but I'm working on that.

Douglas Gillies: What are the right ingredients to make the necessary change?

David Brower: Well, the right ingredient I guess is the willingness to make changes in our perspective. The world is suffering from what my wife calls greed-lock, and the most important element of that is putting ourself first. We've got to get over that. It's a natural habit, but other cultures have not put so much emphasis on self as we have. We passed through a "me generation" phase and now we must make sure that we don't return to it. One of things that might be urgent, to misquote the Bible, is to "Love our neighbor more than ourself." That'd be a nice switch.

Douglas Gillies: The United States is founded upon free expression. Has this notion of freedom led us astray?

David Brower: We are not having that much freedom of expression. You can get fired pretty easily if you express yourself too freely. You will not get reported in the media if you are too expressive, too free with your speech. So we need to rescue that freedom. I think we still need freedom of the press, and we need to re-think what that freedom should be. We're loaded with freedoms in this country, but how many of those freedoms did we take from someone else? We are taking resources away from other people around the Earth to support what I call the poverty of materialism. There are 250 million people in the United States taking a great deal of freedoms away from about 5 billion people. The most precious thing we have is the next generation, and we'd better remember what that generation is asking us to do.

Douglas Gillies: What are the symptoms of the poverty of materialism? How does one know that they're suffering that form of poverty?

David Brower: I don't know quite how to answer that but I'll give a quick try. If you were to walk down Park Avenue and look at people's faces you would not see very many happy faces. Somehow we're so concerned with our busy everyday lives, with our business of living, that we forget to spend more time just living and enjoying this planet for the brief period we're going to be on it. Since I've traveled in in third world countries, I've seen a lot more smiles than I see here. It's strange enough but with all the poverty they have they still think the Earth is quite worth it and the chance to be on it is worth it. You see better expressions, I'm sorry to say, in the so-called developing countries than you see here. We have so much, all we can do is worry about it, how to take care of what is too much to take care of.

Douglas Gillies: What brings the most joy in your life?

David Brower: Well, I guess one of the things I enjoy doing is finding two or three or more people and talking to them. I just like to make speeches. I'm sorry about that.

Douglas Gillies: Do you remember what your first speech was about?

David Brower: In the Sierra Club I was taking people out into the wilderness. They had campfire talks and I was one of the leaders so I had to talk. I reminded people that the Sierra Club was founded by John Muir, who wanted more people to get out and see the place so they could learn how important it was to protect it. That was the general theme of my early speeches, and I guess I haven't gotten over that.

Douglas Gillies: Going back earlier, was there a period when you became the eyes for your mother?

David Brower: When she lost her sight, I was eight. She lost it very suddenly, near the birth of the fourth child in our family, and never recovered it in the remaining 19 years of her life. One of the things that did influence me quite a bit was being the eyes for my mother, just trying to see things, to describe things I saw, to write about the things I saw. It was a good exercise and it certainly gave me an appreciation for how important an organ the eye is and what it can behold and what it can lead you to do. You forget about that, you don't quite realize how important seeing is. Look again, look harder, look through your heart while you look through your eyes and look at what your eyes are telling you about how to read the Earth. I like that line from Father Thomas Berry: We should learn how to read the Earth. It's a very exciting book.

Douglas Gillies: What would you say now to an eight-year old child to sharpen their observation ability?

David Brower: I would say don't let me dull your observational ability. You watch any child and that child is observing in spades. It's observing, observing, observing and recording. You can't put a child in a concrete box for 12 years and expect the child to come out educated. So we have to get a little bit more outdoors into the training of children and more reading about what's going on in nature.

Douglas Gillies: Will the leaders save us from this environmental calamity or is it the people who are on the streets.

David Brower: I think that the environmental calamity could be avoided if we would listen to indigenous people and watch what they know about the Earth. They treat it, for the most part, with respect. During the 10,000 years that the indigenous peoples were the primary residents here, before they had a bad immigration policy and let us in, they didn't do much damage. They lived on the income of the earth, they didn't start digging things up, everything was being recycled, and we forgot how. So I think we can learn more about what to do by watching the people who didn't lose touch the way we did.

Douglas Gillies: When you speak publicly, what's your relationship to your audience?

David Brower: Oh, I think that I certainly like an audience that is responsive. There are tricks that I try, things that I think are reasonably funny to start with. I talk about my age and what you're supposed to do when you're this old, like the bumper sticker that says, "You're never too old to have a happy childhood," or the one that says, "When you're over the hill you pick up speed." One my favorites is from my friend Ansel Adams, who I knew for 50 years, and he said, "If you're going to get old, get as old as you can get." And he was topped only by George Burns who said, "Shoot for a hundred because very few people die after a hundred." Then we have a good relationship.

Douglas Gillies: Do you try to educate the audience, to challenge them? What's your goal when you speak to a group?

David Brower: I just tell them what I think. I've been known for the most part as not being willing to compromise very much. I like to open up for questions and preferably for statements and that helps the audience because they don't have to pretend it's a question. The audience begins to respond, they're tired of hearing the drone of my voice, other voices come in, they challenge each other, I referee for a while.

Douglas Gillies: What keeps your mind so sharp?

David Brower: I'm a sophomore drop-out. I attended the University of California Berkeley, fitfully, as I put it. My wife said if I had gone longer I'd have found out how many things were impossible but I didn't go long enough to find out. It's important to take the chances. Risk is the spice of life, not foolish risk, but getting out on the edge and doing things that challenge you. I think challenge and response to it what we're here for. We are very well equipped but we've got to stop trying to wipe out species, somewhere between 100 and 1,000 times faster than evolution ever did. This is our greatest talent and we've got to get rid of it.

Douglas Gillies: If we overcome that talent, what do you suppose we'll discover is our next greatest talent?

David Brower: Well, I think that we'll just have to see what happens to our mind as our brain develops, but we have to make sure that we don't wipe out the biosphere or we won't even have a chance to argue about what we should do. That's the danger. While I was here, I was just playing around with the knowledge we had of the wonderful GeoSphere globe brought by Tom Van Sant that's about three feet in diameter. I did quick calculations based on something I learned from Jacques Cousteau long ago and I figured out that all the blue on that globe is so thin that it would just fill a big cup. The atmosphere, if it were liquefied for comparison, would fill a big thimble. It's hard to realize when you look at a planet that what counts, the biosphere itself, is very limited and we don't know of any other place in all of creation where life exists except here. We can't renew wildness, but we can respect it and celebrate it. I think we should have periodic parties where we celebrate our good fortune at being on a planet that is this beautiful and alive.

Douglas Gillies: I quite agree.

Interview with David Brower © Concensus Designs, Inc. For permission to reprint portions of this interview, please contact East Beach® Productions.

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