Homage to Iconic Conservationist David Brower Omits Population

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By Leon Kolankiewicz

Leon is an Advisory Board Member and Senior Writing Fellow with CAPS. A wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner, Leon is the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska's Raincoast, the essay “Overpopulation versus Biodiversity” in Environment and Society: A Reader and was a contributing writer to Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation.

In a career that spans three decades, three countries and more than 30 states, Leon has managed environmental impact statements for many federal agencies on projects ranging from dams and reservoirs to coal-fired power plants, power lines, flood control projects, road expansions, management of Civil War battlefields, NASA's Kennedy Space Center operations and a proposed uranium mine on a national forest. He also has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop comprehensive conservation plans at more than 40 national wildlife refuges from the Caribbean to Alaska.

The writer's views are his own.

March 25, 2014
David Brower

David Brower

David Brower (1912-2000) was compared more than once to John Muir, and that’s no mean compliment, since California historians once ranked Muir (1838-1914) as the single most influential Californian in history.

Along with Teddy Roosevelt, Muir did more than any other American to save wilderness from being trampled to death by our country’s rapidly growing population and ever-more voracious economy in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Brower’s contributions to the modern-day environmental movement were also the stuff of legend. He almost single-handedly kept dams out of Dinosaur National Monument and Grand Canyon National Park.

When Brower was executive director of the Sierra Club, he transformed that clubby hiking and outings outfit into a hotbed of grassroots citizen activism on behalf of the environment. Brower wasn’t dubbed the “Archdruid” for nothing.

After being kicked out of the Sierra Club for insubordination, Brower went on to found Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters and the Earth Island Institute.

Brower was also outspoken about population, and even immigration, but you would hardly know it from reading a collection of interviews with his associates and admirers compiled by his son, author Kenneth Brower.

The Wildness Within: Remembering David Brower includes 19 interviews with some of the prominent figures the elder Brower mentored and inspired, all of whom went on to remarkable careers in their own right.

Virtually the only reference to population, and a scurrilous one at that, is by Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, who says:

So many people…have come to consider concern about population control as a sort of a racist movement. And of course there have been a lot of racists in the population movement. I run into a lot of them myself….And a huge amount of the immigration issue in this country has to do with skin color. It’s not a pretty picture.

Kenneth Browers, "The Wilderness Within"Unfortunately, this is all too typical of the inane twaddle on immigration Ehrlich has peddled over the years.

To set the record straight, while David Brower was indeed a progressive and a visionary – something made quite clear by all the contributors to this volume – he was also deeply troubled by overpopulation, as well as what he called “overimmigration.” And this is not contradictory, but consistent. It does not detract from his legacy, but reinforces it.

Brower first became concerned about population in part thanks to his neighbor, scientist Daniel B. Luten, Jr., who taught a course at UC Berkeley for years called “Population, Environment, and Development.”

Back in 1966, Brower told a gathering of the nation’s conservationists: “We feel you don’t have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy.”

Brower was one of the original supporters of a 1998 Sierra Club referendum in favor of reducing immigration to stop U.S. population growth. When this was defeated after a bitter fight, Brower told Outside magazine:

The leadership are fooling themselves. Overpopulation is a very serious problem, and overimmigration is a big part of it. We must address both. We can't ignore either.

Yet in spite of Brower’s admonition, the Sierra Club continued to ignore U.S. population and immigration.

In May 2000, during his final year, in a dramatic gesture reflecting Brower’s disenchantment with the organization to which he had dedicated so much of his life, he resigned from the Sierra Club board. And he told the San Francisco Chronicle:

The world is burning and all I hear from them is the music of violins…Overpopulation is perhaps the biggest problem facing us and immigration is part of the problem. It has to be addressed.

Brower also supported CAPS and was once listed on the masthead of the CAPS newsletter.

One gets the impression that all too many of my fellow Baby Boomers are now embarrassed by, or want to distance themselves from, the forceful pronouncements of our elders on the topic of overpopulation. They were giants, and we are midgets by comparison.

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