This week, I attended the Glen Canyon Institute’s symposium on “Climate Change and The Colorado River.” The predictions are convincing, and the future is scary. Wallace Stegner’s arid West is becoming even more arid. Park City will have the climate of Salt Lake City; St. George will need to adapt to the same fiery thermostat as Tucson.
The last panel of the day addressed the question: what is a conservationist and how do we create new ones? Three people spoke: Ken Sleight, the venerable river runner and activist chosen by his friend, Ed Abbey, as the model for Seldom-Seen Smith in The Monkey Wrench Gang. And two of David Brower’s children, Barbara and Kenneth.
Ken Brower talked about the origins of the modern environmental movement. He noted that some people track that birth from Earth Day 1970 or link it to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Ken believes that the movement began in the mid-1950s, with the fight over dams in Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah/Colorado border. To rally the country to his cause, Ken’s father convinced Wallace Stegner to edit the first conservation “battle book,” This Is Dinosaur. The Sierra Club proceeded to wield those words and photographs as weapons to stop the dams.
Barbara and Ken Brower spoke of their father’s remarkable gift to inspire young people. Barbara remembered her father tottering into a classroom as an elder and then catching fire as he spoke to her students, shedding years, igniting the passions of the young, and then going out on the town to close down the bars.
I looked around the conference room filled with grayhairs, and pondered the transfer of inspiration from generation to generation. Many people in that room met Ed Abbey, David Brower, and Wallace Stegner. Lives were changed. Writer after writer has written of Wally Stegner’s generosity, his encouragement, his model. Abbey became the grizzled prophet of Earth First!
And yet many people under thirty have never heard of these three mentors.
How do we appropriately pass along the sparks in our culture lit by these leaders? I picture these coals, held tenderly in a shielded vessel, passed from hand to hand. How long can the embers glow after the person who lit them is gone?
We don’t want to idealize Stegner, Abbey, and Brower; they were complicated, flawed people in addition to being people who changed the world. We don’t want to ask their children to spend their lives tending the flames of their fathers’ fame. And of course there are biographies in print and the bookshelves of writing left by the men themselves.
But their influence was so pervasive, their personal magnetism so powerful, it seems inadequate to simply turn their written work loose in the world to speak for itself. Can their inspiration as people continue to lead us to action? Can we keep that spark alive, even as those who knew them dwindle in numbers?
I don’t have answers. When I asked Barbara and Ken Brower about this at the panel, Barbara said: “When you figure it out, let me know.”
Ken is convinced that “what we really need to do is create a whole new generation of David Browers.”
That is our task. The personalities of our grandmothers and grandfathers, of our lost loved ones, recede into the past as family stories, told and retold by one generation, lost to the next. The friendship and encouragement of Abbey, Brower, and Stegner can no longer touch new people directly. But their teachings, their words, their ethical stances, remain.
We turn to them, as we turn to Thoreau, Leopold, DeVoto, Carson. On this level, their energy, ideas, and reassurance can indeed fuel the lives of new Stegners, Abbeys, and Browers all over the world, in every hue of race, gender, and ethnicity.
While I cannot disagree with Ken Brower on the origins of the modern environmental movement, I feel strongly that he left out an important milestone event–the legal case which defeated Consolidated Edison’s plan to embed the world’s largest pumped storage hydroelectric plant into the face of Storm King Mountain, on the Hudson River, near Cornwall, New York. It was a lengthy (1963-1981) and controversial case that had a huge impact on environmental and legal issues affecting both the Hudson River Valley and the nation. The landmark case set important precedents in environmental law– the right of citizens to participate in environmental disputes, the emergence of environmental law as a legal specialty, ideas Congress incorporated in the country’s first National Environment Policy Act (NEPA), federal and state regulation of the environment– it is credited with launching the modern environmental movement.
While I am sure that many cases and events lay claim to being the event that launched the movement, I believe that all have a claim and that none should be forgotten.
The issue of how to pass along the word and wisdom of the “conservation elders” to the next generation toward a goal of cultivating a whole new generation of conservationists is one that has been pondered by many. I have no answers except to do my best to pass along the coals at every opportunity that comes my way.
I wonder if Ken Brower and I are both quick to elevate the Colorado River fight over equally critical milestones like Storm King because of our West-centric view. I confess to being thrilled, on the most personal (and, therefore, provincial) level, with the notion that the modern environmental movement might have begun in my home river basin.
I believe the modern environmental movement would not have caught fire without David Brower striking the match, gathering around him many of us yearning for action from our 60s activism. It was David’s strength as a recruiter to appeal to our sense of the ironic, the subversive, and a willingness to throw caution to the wind, also borne out of our backgrounds spent on ledges and boulders. On the second point, our children will eventually adopt our path when they see we are connected to the wilderness within. We can’t expect the next generation to be Stegners, Browers, Snyders or Rowells any more than they were asked to become other than who they were destined to be.
I agree that Brower was instrumental in lighting the fire under the modern environmental movement. My point about Storm King is that it was a landmark case and it gave the citizens the right to participate in environmental dispute.
And with that right to participate, we move on to Paul Hawken’s global environmental revolution. In his book, Blessed Unrest, he argues that a new worldwide movement makes our discussion here moot–with two million grassroots organizations worldwide, working to connect environmental sustainability and social justice.