July 1, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of David Brower, a mountaineer and one of the most important environmentalists of the Twentieth Century. As a mountaineer, he is credited with over 30 first ascents in the Sierras. His love for the backcountry led to his involvement in the environmental movement. He was director of the Sierra Club for many years and founded Friends of the Earth and Earth Island Institute. As a fierce advocate for the preservation of wilderness for wilderness’s sake, he often found himself at odds with other environmentalists who were more willing to negotiate with developers and government agencies.
In 1971, John McPhee chronicled some of Brower’s confrontations with his “ideological enemies” in Encounters with the Archdruid. The enemies included an engineer who hoped to exploit mineral reserves in Glacier National Park, a developer who planned to create a resort on a Georgia Sea Island and a Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation who wanted to dam the Colorado River in northern Arizona. Brower won the first two fights and lost the third.
The New York Times noted in Brower’s obituary that “he seemed to maintain a level of indignation that would have burned out a lesser man. ‘I wish we didn’t have to be angry all the time,’ he said. ‘But someone has to get angry.’”
Bill McKibben noted that even though it sounded as if Brower “specialized in conflict (and though he always advised environmentalists to leave compromises to the politicians), he was in fact beloved throughout the activist community, always willing to lend a hand to other people’s causes and always willing to talk deep into the night at the local bar with whatever young environmentalists he could find.”
For Earth Day in 1975, Brower penned a short essay for The New York Times Magazine called “The Third Planet – Operating Instructions.” Today, we rarely receive a manual or instructions with our purchases – a link to a website is usually the most we can hope for or a series of inadequate graphic representations on a single sheet of paper. But back in the 1970’s almost everything came with a manual that extolled various features and earnestly warned of potential harm in the case of misuse. With this bit of historical context in mind, “The Third Planet – Operating Instructions” reveals itself as both a straight forward reminder and an entertainment. The elements that make life on our planet possible and our responsibilities for the planet’s maintenance are stated clearly but with humor:
“This planet has been delivered wholly assembled and in perfect working condition, and is intended for fully automatic and trouble-free operation in orbit around its star, the Sun.
However, to ensure proper functioning, all passengers are requested to familiarize themselves fully with the following instructions. Loss or even temporary misplacement of these instructions may result in calamity…”
Read the full essay “The Third Planet – Operating Instructions”
David Brower was one of the heroes of the Environmental movement of the Twentieth century. The organizations he built, the battles he won to save wilderness areas from development, and the generations he inspired to action and engagement are a testament to his devotion and hard work for the benefit of our planet and us all.
Learn more about David Brower and his legacy.
This is one of an occasional series of posts celebrating the birthdays and accomplishments of environmentalists, ecologists, travelers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, writers and scientists who have inspired us to a greater appreciation of and participation in life on planet Earth. Who has inspired you? Please let us know, so we can add them to our celebration list.