David Brower had a profound influence on the Environmental Movement and its gradual transition from groups of outdoors enthusiasts and conservationists who focused on protecting public lands and establishing national parks to a powerful political movement with major influences on a variety of important industrial, economic and international policy arenas.
The Movement has had a huge impact on the world’s energy industry and helped to pick winners and losers among the various fuel and non fuel alternatives to powering our society. Though that influence, the Movement has indelibly altered the flows of vast sums of money between consumers and producers on an international scale over a period of at least 40 years.
David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement, by Tom Turner, tells the story of how a shy Berkeley boy who started off being fearful of heights grew up to be an accomplished mountain climber, captivating public speaker and leader of two of the most influential environmental organizations in the world. He was the first executive director of the Sierra Club, serving from 1956-1969 and growing the organization’s membership by ten fold from about 7,000 to 77,000 and the founder of Friends of the Earth, starting from a membership of zero and peaking at over 39,000 during his tenure.
He was also asked to resign from both organizations by boards of directors that felt he was a bit of a loose cannon who undertook his own projects without paying careful attention to budgetary impacts or listening to the restraining decisions of the board.
Brower’s own interpretation of his major contribution to the Environmental Movement was as its publicist. He was a creative and inspiring writer and had a knack for organizing projects to produce books and documentaries that stimulated people to take action to join organizations and to get involved in their activities. He was the creative force behind the Sierra Club’s Exhibit Format (never call them coffee table) books full of incredible photos that made people want to join the Club, visit and/or protect the places depicted.
Brower was also one of the first of the environmentalists to begin questioning the value of atomic energy, even though his initial response to the dawning of the Atomic Age was relief. He was in the Tenth Mountain Division, which was preparing to pivot from winning the battle in Europe to invading Japan in order to finally end World War II. He and his fellow servicemen believed that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hastened Japan’s decision to surrender, making the invasion unnecessary.
Sometime in the mid 1960s, however, Brower began to believe that the risks from radiation to human genetic material along with the risk of terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities or diversion of nuclear materials from power programs to weapons programs outweighed any benefits that the new technology would provide to society. He began to speak out on the topic and to try to move the Sierra Club to an official position of opposing nuclear energy development.
Along with his propensity to spend outside of budgetary limits, the nuclear energy issue was one of the factors that led to his dismissal by the Sierra Club board. In 1969, the majority position on the board was still that atomic energy was better than damming rivers to fill scenic valleys with water that could fall through turbines to produce electricity.
His opposition to nuclear energy was well known before he left the Sierra Club and founded Friends of the Earth (FOE). As Turner acknowledged, FOE’s early success was greatly assisted by a major contribution from Robert O. Anderson, the CEO of the Atlantic Richfield Company, one of the largest oil and gas producers in the United States at the time. Turner wasn’t able to explain why Anderson provided the money; he did say that it wasn’t because of any personal relationship between him and Brower.
Turner also told me that Anderson didn’t provide additional support after FOE began working to halt the Alaskan Pipeline project, which was a major ARCO project. We did not discuss it on the show, but my understanding of the history of that project was that the delay from 1970-1973 wasn’t harmful to the company’s interest. The project could not have been financed without the dramatic shift in the world oil markets and future expectations that happened in 1973.
As described in his book, FOE believed that they achieved a partial victory in the unsuccessful attempt to halt the pipeline by forcing the companies involved to redesign the project for above ground installation instead of using a buried pipe that could harm the permafrost. I suspect that the companies were quite happy to use above ground construction; it tends to be quite a bit cheaper even though it is also uglier.
Underground fuel transportation pipes have largely been the norm in the US for many decades. On military bases and shipyards where there aren’t a lot of organized opponents, I’ve noticed numerous above-ground piping systems for both fuels and steam. They’re cheaper to install and easier to maintain.
During our conversation, I suggested to Turner that the fear of genetic damage from very low doses of radiation had been invented and purposely propagated with the sustained support of the Rockefeller Foundation with the purchased assistance of the National Academy of Sciences. He appeared intrigued and seemed to understand the explanation and implications of the information.
I also probed to find out if he had heard much discussion in the Movement about the harmful environmental impact of large wind and solar projects. He told me that there wasn’t much during most of the time that he was involved, but he noted that there is a growing level of concern as more large projects are being developed. He pointed me to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that appeared just last weekend titled Mojave Desert at stake in far-reaching federal energy plan and agreed that perhaps the sources that everyone wanted to believe were going to save the future weren’t quite as free of impact as they had been led to believe.
We talked about Amory Lovins, Mark Jacobson and the 100% renewable movement.
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