Environmentalist Dave Brower: Update on the Threat of Nuclear War

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The nuclear freeze is a step in the right direction, and Friends of the Earth supports a multilateral freeze. I myself think our nation could go further than that. We could make a unilateral move and start dismantling some of our weapons.

MOTHER talks with environmentalist Dave Brower about the latest on the threat of nuclear war.

For 44 years David R. Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth and former executive director of the Sierra Club, has been fighting for conservation. He has helped establish several of our national parks, seashores, and monuments (and led the fight to keep dams out of the Grand Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument) . . . created, edited, and designed many of the Sierra Club’s famous exhibit format books, including In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World . . . and played a major role in the 15-year struggle that led to the passage of our nation’s 1964 Wilderness Bill. (What’s more, Brower led all these conservation fights while earning a reputation as a highly skilled outdoorsman. He was, for example, the first to climb New Mexico’s Shiprock . . . as well as some 30 peaks in Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada!)

In the course of these efforts, Dave has, on occasion, been accused of bending facts in order to win a preservation battle. Indeed, John McPhee — in his book portrait of Brower, Encounters With the Archdruid — went so far as to say, “In the war strategy of the conservation movement, exaggeration is a standard weapon.” However, Brower staunchly — and point by point — denies such charges. He does allow that, when absolutely necessary, he’s willing to accent the emotional appeal of an endangered landscape: “After all, ” Dave says, “people who don’t believe in emotion can be thankful their parents didn’t share that problem. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be here. “

Nine years back, environmentalist Dave Brower was the subject of the MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 21’s Plowboy Interview. (At that time he’d just helped defeat the move to develop the proposed SST aircraft.) Well, Dave’s hardly been treading water since then. Indeed, his current battle may ultimately turn out to be his most important effort yet . . . because the unflagging conservationist has taken the field against the greatest global threat of all: nuclear war. As a result of his long experience with environmental causes and thought, Dave goes beyond simply proclaiming that we should “ban the bomb”; and points out the ecological root problems we need to address in order to make life safe after disarmament . . . and hence make the permanent abolition of nuclear weapons a real possibility.

During a recent visit to Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina, Dave spoke on the interrelationship of the current strain on human and natural resources and the tensions that are leading us toward nuclear war. The following remarks are condensed from his evening talk and from an hour and a half of conversation held — the next day — between Brower and a member of MOTHER’s staff.

If you were to compress the earth to the size of an egg, all of the water on the planet would be but a drop, the air — liquefied for comparison — but a droplet, and the soil a speck barely visible to the naked eye. That trio — drop, droplet, and speck — make the earth unique among all the known planets in the universe, yet we rush to obliterate the difference.

We continue to spew the sulfur and nitrogen oxides that cause acid rain. These emissions have already killed the fish in many lakes in the Adirondacks and thousands in Norway. Now they threaten some 50,000 bodies of water in Canada. We’re also putting too much carbon dioxide into the air. I don’t want to tell you the sky is falling because of all this C02 It’s not, but the ocean is rising . . . and the icecaps are beginning to melt.

The population is still growing — according to the Global 2000 Report, there should be six billion people on earth by the turn of the century — and to feed all our people, we’re mining our soil with intense mono culture plantings. These cause such enormous losses of topsoil that I believe Wes Jackson was right when he said the plowshare, in the long run, has done more harm than the sword.

We’re also, in effect, burning our soil. To cook their food and keep warm, people around the world are desperately using all the wood and dung they can get for fuel. Thus, they’re using up the very materials that allow the soil to renew itself. Consequently, there may be 2-1/2 times as much desert land in the year 2000 as there is now. And by that same date we may also have lost a great deal of our planet’s genetic diversity, since there’ll likely be 500,000 to 2,000,000 fewer species then than there are now.

In sum, as Ray Dasmann says, “We are already fighting World War III, and I am sorry to say we are winning it . It is the war against the earth.” Furthermore, that struggle is leading directly to the war of people against people with nuclear weapons . . . World War IV. The final nuclear quarrel over the resources left in the bottom of the barrel is inevitable if World War III — between humankind and our planet — continues.

To stave off that fate, disarmament of the superpowers is essential. The nuclear freeze is a step in the right direction, and Friends of the Earth supports a multilateral freeze. I myself think our nation could go further than that. We could make a unilateral move and start dismantling some of our weapons. We’d still have more than enough bombs to destroy the other side and everything else, yet such a move would set the necessary example for initiating real Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.

However, whether you agree with my route toward disarmament or not, the fact is that we do have to get rid of nuclear weapons somehow. But still more than that is required. We have to ask, as Moorhead C. Kennedy, Jr. puts it, “What are you saving the earth for, not just from?” We need to outline what we want our planet to be like and how we’ll all manage to live on it sustainably. If we can come up with those scenarios, it’s going to be easier to disarm in the first place.

Right now, the world’s economic systems heavily discount the future. Instead, the superpowers are in a growth race as well as an arms race. The vigorous growing economy all our leaders keep exhorting us to produce is simply not eternally possible on an earth of fixed size, and continuing attempts to produce such growth constitute the basic threat to peace. So we need a blueprint for an economy that will endure in peaceful stability . . . that will not require the war with the environment that leads to war with fellow humans.

Now I’m not saying all growth is bad. The key question is, “What kinds of growth must we have and what kinds can we no longer afford?” I think if you wrote down the two answers to that question, you’d find that the first list would be a fairly short one, and the second very long. We should treat the matter the way nature does. In spring there’s a great deal of promise of vigorous new growth, and that’s good. We’re going to need it. Throughout summer the growth is exploding, and by fall its yield is harvested. But then winter comes and the world undergoes a very severe editing. What is no longer needed won’t show up again. Editing out the things that must not come back is what we’ve forgotten to do with our economy. We do need growth, a new blossoming every so often . . . but we also need to balance that off with what we let die.

We need to stop building roads and dams . . . we already have plenty of those. We need to quit destroying wild places . . . we need all the ones we’ve got left. We who live in America need to stop using so many “advanced” lifestyle trinkets … we’re creating almost half the world’s resource drain. And everyone needs to work to halt — nay, to reverse — the global population increase. I’d be happy to “grandfather clause” all the people who are alive now, but those who aren’t here yet should quit arriving in such large numbers.

This is where those of us in the environmental movement can help the disarmament cause, for we’ve been thinking about planet-sustaining issues for a long time. Currently, many groups are approaching the atomic war issue from different angles, and this is all to the good. The Union of Concerned Scientists has brought its expertise to help scientists and policymakers anticipate the possible consequences of unbridled technology. Physicians for Social Responsibility has made the health disaster of a nuclear war clear to citizens who will believe their doctor, if no one else. The church — at least some of it — is reminding people of the sacredness of life and our moral obligation to preserve it. Now, the environmental movement needs to extend its traditional scope to encompass a nontraditional but transcendent need . . . helping people discover how we can all take care of this planet well enough so that we can afford to wage peace.

This new emphasis doesn’t mean that we conservationists should ignore or forget the usual global threats. As Hazel Henderson says, “It’s not a question of ‘either or’ . . . it’s ‘both’.” We have to assume that we’ll wipe out the nuclear threat, whereupon we’ll still have all the ongoing preservation issues to face. So we have to work on both war and conservation causes at the same time, even if it means putting in a few extra minutes a week for the sake of the planet.

And it’s not, as some critics would suggest, cause-hunting “trendiness” that has led many environmentalists to suddenly try to head off atomic war. It’s not that we’re tired of such ongoing issues as nuclear power, but that we’re frightened of nuclear war. That’s especially true now that we have a President who can talk about limited nuclear war and say we should sell nuclear technology freely because it’s none of our business who has the bomb. The risk of an explosive holocaust has increased since Reagan came to office.

Actually, there’s a direct connection between atomic power plants — which Friends of the Earth has been fighting for years — and nuclear weapons. A country that doesn’t have atomic generators has no excuse to be making weapons-grade plutonium and uranium. Yet we keep on exporting so much nuclear technology to so many nations — remember, for instance, when Richard Nixon wanted to sell reactors to the Shah of Iran? — that the Stockholm Peace Research Institute has estimated some 40 countries will have the bomb by 1990 . . . making atomic war inevitable.

In addition, nuclear power plants produce great amounts of spent fuel that has to be disposed of, and one current popular idea for dealing with much of that waste is to put it through reprocessing plants. But such a facility accumulates an enormous inventory of high-level waste. Indeed, nuclear weapons expert Ted Taylor has said that the destruction of one reprocessing plant that had been operating for ten years could release more strontium 91 and cesium 137 than would the detonation of all the atomic weapons now on earth. If a single such facility were blown up in western Europe, that entire region would be rendered uninhabitable for generations. It’s like building gargantuan land mines and then planting them in your own country!

To stop both the growth race and the arms race from destroying the planet — to keep the human-caused extinction of creatures and ecosystems from being a precursor of our own fate — we need to redefine security. Thus far the disarmament movement has been hard pressed simply to slow the buildup of nuclear weapons, so it hasn’t been able to pay attention to alternative definitions of security. But we do need to establish some. We must search for the types of national security that will sustain the human race, recognizing that real national security can come only if we have improved global security.

I have my own set of ideas as to how we might start working toward that goal. One is for America and Russia to stop standing toe to toe and instead stand side by side, and see not what they can do to each other, but what they can do for the rest of the world . . . to form a U.S./Soviet Marshall Plan that invests in resource recovery, not depletion. And how would they fund such a massive undertaking? Just recall that the two nations, between them, plan to spend four trillion dollars in the next five years — 25 trillion in all by the year 2000 — for their counterproductive attempts to increase security through arms. So just spend that money on healing the earth instead of blowing it up.

I’d also like to propose that Homo sapiens adopt Magna Carta II. Magna Carta I came in 1215 when King John of England was required, by his abused barons, to grant a long list of rights to free commoners. The parallel between the need then for human law and order and the need now for natural law and order — to prevent a nuclear holocaust — provides an extraordinary opportunity for the most important paradigm shift in history. In Magna Carta II, the natural world’s rights to its existence and freedoms would be acknowledged. We would quit trying to imprison and destroy other species and ecosystems.

But those are my personal ideas. To help us all examine the economics of peaceful stability, Friends of the Earth and other organizations are planning a three-day conference in mid-October to be called “Conservation and Security in a Sustainable Society: The First Biennial Conference on the Fate of the Earth”. A long list of environmentally concerned leaders — including Ansel Adams, Wendell Berry, Lester Brown, Helen Caldicott, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Amory and Hunter Lovins, Linus Pauling, Russell Peterson, Pete Seeger, Gus Speth, and Stewart Udall — have agreed to serve as advisers. We want to spend three days looking into the links between the growth and arms races and planning an economically feasible route to a sustainable society so that disarmament will be possible.

The idea of the conference sprang, in part, from the series of biennial meetings we began in 1949 to work for passage of the Wilderness Bill. Those meetings had an enormous effect on the public’s understanding of the need for wilderness . . . and they helped spawn the movement that led, in 1964, to the bill’s final passage. In addition — as evidenced by its title — the conference’s concept comes, in part, from Jonathan Schell’s superb work, The Fate of the Earth . . . a book that may do more than any other single factor to make us end the threat of nuclear holocaust.

To those who say this effort sounds utopian, let me point out that the alternative is oblivion. To those who would ignore the threat of holocaust and hide their heads in the sand, let me say, “All too soon, you may find that sand fused.” To those who think such decisions should be left up to the politicians, I quote Dwight Eisenhower’s words: “Governments will not produce peace until the people force them to.” And to those who believe the public can’t change things, let me repeat that — according to H.R. Haldeman’s book The Ends of Power — Richard Nixon would have used the atomic bomb in Vietnam if it hadn’t been for the demonstrations of antiwar protesters. We all have to look at our own roles as participants in the strongest democracy there is and remember that democracies work best when they’re participatory, rather than spectator, sports.

An individual alone can make a difference. Just think of Amory Lovins, whose first book Eryri: The Mountains of Longing saved Snowdonia National Park . . . Marion Edey, who made the League of Conservation Voters work . . . Rachel Carson, who almost single-handedly sparked the environmental movement . . . and now, Jonathan Schell. These days, we all must participate to see that this planet does not perish from the universe just because one or the other of us had part in letting it go.

We have to act from love, the one resource that will be exhausted only if we forget to use it. I learned from the Nepalese, during a visit to their country a few years back, that there are really just two basic laws for good behavior: It’s a sin to make a child cry, and it’s a sin to embarrass anyone. Now, I don’t break that first rule very often, but — when it comes to dealing with earth-wrecking developers or politicians — I must confess that I keep forgetting the second one.

Yet we all must, as Schell says, replace the Law of Fear with the Law of Love. We have to remember to thank politicians when they do something right and — without compromising our standards — try to understand their point of view when we disagree. And most important of all, we have to acknowledge the rights of those to come . . . to stop stealing from the children who aren’t yet born.

You know, I love this place … this planet. I’m not going to want to leave it. But I’m not going to mind leaving it — since I know I must — if I’m sure that it will survive and that I’ve done my bit for the largest population of all: the billions of people to come and all the billions of children they will wish to have and see grow up with hope in future millenniums.

Their genes are in our custody, and guarding them is our greatest responsibility. After all, we do not inherit the land from our fathers . . . we borrow it from our children.

EDITOR’S NOTE: “Conservation and Security in a Sustainable Society: The First Biennial Conference on the Fate of the Earth” will be held
October 19 to 21 at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. For information about registration, write to Steve Rauh, Friends
of the Earth, Dept. TMEN, San Francisco, California. If you can’t attend but would still like to give your support, you can help fund the conference and receive a copy of the published proceedings (which may not come out until several months after the meeting) by donating $20 to Conference Fund, Friends of the Earth Foundation . . . and mailing it to the same address.


As Dave Brower points out, Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth (published by Random House and available in any good bookstore for $11.95) is one of the most compelling tomes ever written about the threat of planetary extinction by nuclear war and the need to act to save the earth. In fact, Senator Alan Cranston recently read some excerpts from Schell’s work into the Congressional Record . . . including the following passages.

* * * * * * *

Bearing in mind that the possible consequences of the detonations of thousands of megatons of nuclear explosives include the blinding of insects, birds, and beasts all over the world; the extinction of many ocean species, among them some at the base of the food chain; the temporary or permanent alteration of the climate of the globe, with the outside chance of “dramatic” and “major” alterations in the structure of the atmosphere; the pollution of the whole ecosphere with oxides of nitrogen; the incapacitation in ten minutes of unprotected people who go out into the sunlight; the blinding of people who go out into the sunlight; a significant decrease in photosynthesis in plants around the world; the scalding and killing of many crops; the increase in rates of cancer and mutation around the world, but especially in the targeted zones, and the attendant risk of global epidemics; the possible poisoning of all vertebrates by sharply increased levels of vitamin D in their skin as a result of increased ultraviolet light; and the outright slaughter on all targeted continents of most human beings and other living things by the initial nuclear radiation, the fireballs, the thermal pulses, the blast waves, the mass fires, and the fallout from the explosions — and considering that these consequences will all interact with one another in unguessable ways and, furthermore, are in all likelihood an incomplete list which will be added to as our knowledge of the earth increases — one must conclude that a full-scale nuclear holocaust could lead to the extinction of mankind.

* * * * * * *

Once we learn that a holocaust might lead to extinction, we have no right to gamble, because if we lose, the game will be over, and neither we nor anyone else will ever get another chance. We have no choice but to address the issue of nuclear weapons as though we knew for a certainty that their use would put an end to our species.

* * * * * * *

The risk of extinction has a significance that is categorically different from, and immeasurably greater than, that of any other risk. Up to now, every risk has been contained within the frame of life; extinction would shatter the frame. It represents not the defeat of some purpose but an abyss in which all human purposes would be drowned for all time.

We have found it much easier to dig our own grave than to think about the fact that we are doing so . . . At present, most of us do nothing. We look away. We remain calm. We are silent. We take refuge in the hope that the holocaust won’t happen, and turn back to our individual concerns. We deny the truth that is all around us.

* * * * * * *

Such imponderables as the sum of human life, the integrity of the terrestrial creation, and the meaning of time, of history, and of the development of life on earth, which were once left to contemplation and spiritual understanding, are now at stake in the political realm and demand a political response from every person. As political actors, we must, like the contemplatives before us, delve to the bottom of the world, and Atlaslike, we must take the world on our shoulders.


Friends of the Earth