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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Environmental Activists, Heroes, and Martyrs

David Brower

Building Bridges and Stopping Dams

Lena Eyen was a 2016-2017 Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

“All I’ve done in my career is slow the rate at which things get worse” - David Brower [8]

Scattered amongst the barstools, David Brower’s students had forgotten about the lecture during today’s class. Instead, Brower utilized his “infectious enthusiasm” to shift their attention towards the newly emerging environmentalist movement [3]. Having been born two years before John Muir’s death, Brower would become a successor to Muir’s legacy, drawing both passionate advocates and harsh critics.

David Brower, the son of two editors at the University of California Press in Berkeley, was born in 1912 [3]. His environmentally-centric life would be molded by early family experiences that pushed to him view nature as something greater than an unending resource. After his mother lost her sight due to complications during the birth of his younger brother, 8-year old Brower began taking his mother on walks around Grizzly Peak and Strawberry Canyon in the Berkeley Hills. During one particular walk, Brower became enthralled with a butterfly that was emerging from its chrysalis. As he attempted to help the butterfly emerge by further tearing open the seam, the delicate natural process was tampered with beyond repair; Brower watched the butterfly die. The lesson of “do not interfere” had explicitly been painted for a young boy that would dedicate his life to relaying that very message [7].

After graduating from Berkeley High School in 1929, Brower attended UC Berkeley for two years as an entomology major [7]. Rather than graduating four years later, Brower joined the Sierra Club through sponsorship from artist and environmentalist Ansel Adams. During this time, Brower would also work towards  becoming a world-class mountain climber, making more than 70 first ascents. He eventually settled into the position of editor for the “Sierra Club Bulletin” and later became editor at the University of California Press, where he would meet his wife Anne Hus [9]. In 1942, Brower chose to join the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army, which would put his mountaineering skills to the test in Northern Italy [9]. Upon release from duty in 1946, Brower returned to the Sierra Club Bulletin. By 1952, he transitioned to becoming the first Executive Director of the Sierra Club.

“Calling David Brower an important environmental activist is like calling Hamlet an important member of the Danish royal court. Brower invented modern American environmental activism.”—John Nielsen [4]

One year after becoming director, Brower and his family took a trip to Dinosaur National Monument, located in the Uinta Mountains between Utah and Colorado. Twelve months after that trip, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation revealed plans for the Echo Park Dam, set to be located within the national monument. Unsettled by the potential environmental consequences, Brower utilized his publishing skills to create the book “This is Dinosaur,” a marketing tactic used to encourage votes against the project. By 1955, conservationists won, and Congress eliminated the dam from the Colorado River Project. Given the effective reception towards the book, Brower began creating more exhibit format books that brought awareness to wilderness preservation. In addition to igniting a boom in membership from 7,000 to 70,000 during his years of leadership, Brower took on on another battle with the Bureau of Reclamation, this time preventing the construction of two dams that would flood the Grand Canyon [9].

“Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?” - Sierra Club full page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post

However, Brower’s delivery was not always well received. During the exchange regarding the fate of Dinosaur National Park, the chief of Reclamation called Brower “God-damned ridiculous” given his inability to reason with the man [7]. Eventually, Sierra Club members got fed up with Brower’s inability to compromise. Given the unforeseen costs that continued to escalate during Brower’s leadership, the Sierra Club board elections reflected the widely felt dissatisfaction with Brower’s priorities and perceived financial recklessness [10]. Brower’s apparently singularly shared sentiment, in addition to his unwillingness to compromise, pushed Brower away from what he thought had become a corporate environment, not conducive to achieving environmental goals. Despite having transformed what was previously a glorified hiking fraternity, and having proven victorious in additional conservationist fights in Yosemite and Diablo Canyon, Brower resigned in 1969. He eventually relinquished ties and sat on the board of directors, however his executive duties shifted towards new projects.

“Polite conservationists leave no mark save the scars upon the Earth that could have been prevented had they stood their ground.” - David Brower [5]

After his resignation from the California-bound Sierra Club, Brower established Friends of the Earth, an internationally reaching organization. A similar chain of events led to Brower’s resignation and final major feat, the creation of Earth Island Institute in 1982 [7]. This time, Brower funneled his efforts towards igniting youth involvement. He believed the most important goal was to hand young people the torch rather than hindering them and preventing progress. Finally, Brower was able to have the one-on-one conversations with young activists that fueled his activism in the beginning. After asking a particular student what he or she had spent the last few years studying, Brower would respond, “We need you!” [3]. He understood how to capture the minds and motivations of the individuals most capable of sparking change. Brower’s approach towards environmentalism can offer tremendous insight into how to move forward with today’s current environmental crises.

Brower’s outstanding communicative abilities allowed him to draw a passionate and like-minded group of activists. Gaining inspiration from friends like Ansel Adams, Brower published exhibition-format coffee table books, filled with photographs of the exact plots of nature being threatened. Brower understood that it was not until individuals were able to visualize what was at stake in the natural world, that they began to care about its protection. His psychological acuteness continued to be utilized through the creation of promotional advertisements and videos that would reach audiences far beyond the usual gang of weekend hikers.  

“Thank God for Dave Brower; he makes it so easy for the rest of us to be reasonable.”- Russell Train, EPA Administrator under President Nixon [5]

Brower’s work has been recognized by a number of different realms. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978, 1979, and 1998. In 1998, two years before his death, Brower received the Blue Planet Prize [9]. Regardless of the awards he won during his lifetime or continues to be acknowledged for today, Brower’s accomplishments are most accurately reflected by the physical environments that remain standing, due to his unending willingness to fight on their behalf.

Image Sources

[1] AP ID: 7908010106

[2] AP ID: 7005130146


[3] Go Green Radio. The Wildness Within: Remembering David Brower. Jill Buck, 2012. Podcast.

[4] "Who Was David Brower." The David Brower Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2017. 

[5] "David Brower Legacy." Earth Island. Earth Island Institute, n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.

[6] "David R. Brower." David R. Brower - Famous People Influenced by John Muir - John Muir Exhibit. The Sierra Club, n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.

[7] Brazil, Eric. "David Brower Dies At 88 - Militant Visionary Inspired a Generation to save the Earth." David Brower Dies At 88. San Francisco Examiner, 6 Nov. 2000. Web. 01 Feb. 2017. 

[8] Guber, Deborah Lynn. The Grassroots of a Green Revolution: Polling America on the Environment. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003. Print. Page 4.

[9] "David Brower (1912-2000)." David Brower Timeline. Sierra Club National, 07 Feb. 2013. Web. 01 Feb. 2017. 



David Brower in his San Francisco office in 1969.