Wednesday, December 8, 2004

We're stealing earth from our children

Commentary by Dick Dorworth


Dick Dorworth

"We don't inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children." This well known David Brower quote was later amended and updated by Brower (in a bar in North Carolina while speaking to a journalist) to "We're not borrowing from our children, we're stealing from them---and it's not even considered a crime."

Brower, the most important environmental activist of the 20th century, was executive director of the Sierra Club from 1952 until 1969 when he was forced out because of his "radicalism." He immediately founded Friends of the Earth and coined its oft quoted motto: "Think globally; act locally." FOE is today the largest environmental group in the world, and he was forced out of it as well and for the same reasons. He then founded the Earth Island Institute. He was a visionary, a man whose ideas are worth revisiting, or, rather, never leaving. Indeed, though he wasn't an economist, politician, social commentator or even a moralist, the amended quote above might well describe the environmental, social, fiscal and moral policies of America today. "We're not borrowing from our children, we're stealing from them---and it's not even considered a crime." This might describe America's current defense policies as well.

Brower keeps coming to mind lately, mostly but not entirely for three reasons. First, Kelly Duane has recently made a significant and very, very good documentary film about Brower. It is called "Monumental, David Brower's Fight for Wild America." (It is available through and, in my opinion, is essential viewing for those interested in the world's environment.) Using archival footage of Brower making the first ascent of Shiprock, skiing in Tuolumne Meadows, back packing in the Sierra Nevada, speaking passionately without histrionics in defense of the environment and wild places, resigning from the Sierra Club, and making the compromises that resulted in the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, his greatest failure, deepest regret and object lesson for his "radicalism," Duane has crated a masterful portrait of a great American and the issues he championed. She also has included a good natured interview with Brower's arch enemy, Floyd Domini, the Bureau of Reclamation commissioner who got the Glen Canyon Dam built, calling it the "biggest accomplishment in my life." He also said that creating Lake Powell, "brings man closer to God," a statement worthy of examination and reflection.

Domini's biggest accomplishment was Brower's biggest failure.

This brings us to the second reason Brower keeps coming to mind lately: Lake Powell is drying up. Almost five years into a moderate drought in the Southwest, Lake Powell's water level has dropped a hundred feet and dropping, and its surface area has shrunk in half and shrinking. Computer models predict that at the present rate of moderate drought, Lake Powell will vanish within ten years, less if the drought intensifies. The Glen Canyon Dam was built at a cost of $300 million, and has garnered some $2 billion in hydroelectric profits. From a short-term business perspective, it has been a good investment that does not address the long-term costs to the environment, the earth and its creatures. Brower mourned that the dam was the result of "political horse trading," which by nature encourages a compressed view.

David Brower took the long view, a view in short supply today, especially among the political horse traders leading America and gloating about the political capital they have to spend. The Mister Magoo view predominates, as evidenced by such short-sighted decisions with long consequences as the uncalled for war in Iraq, a national debt that has grown an average of $1.6 billion a day since Sept. 30, 2003, until it now stands at more than $8 trillion (a trillion is a number with 12 zeros after it), the abandonment of the "quaint" protocols of the Geneva Conventions, the "Healthy Forests" initiative, the refusal to sign the Kyoto Accords, the proposal to gut Social Security by throwing it to the sharks of Wall Street, etc, etc.

Some of the consequences of these idiotic decisions are already evident, among them more than 1200 Americans and up to 100,000 Iraqis killed in Iraq with the death toll rising by the hour. The secrecy surrounding other data on casualties makes it impossible to know the number of wounded or the severity of their mutilations, but 10,000 Americans and an incalculable number of Iraqis is a reasonable guess. It is clear that these known and future to be revealed consequences of such blind, unwary madness will not be confused with any fantasists' concept of rapture.

But in the long view, the most disastrous consequences of the Mister Magoo silver spoon view of the world will be to the environment of the earth, the one we're stealing from our children and their children, the only one there is or ever will be.

And the third reason Brower comes to mind is that right now there's no radical, uncompromising David Brower speaking out as an effective activist for the earth. We could use his voice and his person and his long view, though his spirit is surely hiking around the lovely canyons uncovered by Lake Powell's demise and reminding us that he said, "Persevere. That's where it's at."

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