Utne Reader Visionary: David Brower

We need to learn what the earth is worth

| March-April 1996

David Brower has “won more battles in his life than I’ve ever fought,” said an admiring fellow environmentalist about the ebullient 83-year-old patriarch of the American environmental movement. Brower’s record of outdoorsmanship and ecological communication and accomplishment is staggering. After making 70 first ascents of mountain peaks in the High Sierras and Yosemite, he set to work to turn the sleepy Sierra Club into a national force for the protection of the wild as its first executive director—while editing and designing the beautiful Sierra Club books that have given American environmentalism its visual signature. Brower led the fights to protect Dinosaur National Monument and to prevent the Grand Canyon from being dammed, and he founded the League of Conservation Voters and Friends of the Earth. The list goes on and on—like Brower’s own energy and his optimism about the movement to which he’s given his life.

The marketplace is a dismal failure at telling us what the earth is worth. You can start with a simple question: What’s a tree worth? (I picked this up from a high school student who asked it in the question period after one of my talks.) I don’t have the answer to the question. The marketplace tells us what a tree is worth as pulp or two-by-fours; it doesn’t say anything about the impact of the forest as a bank of carbon dioxide, or its role in freeing oxygen—which we humans like to use, don’t we? It doesn’t tell us how trees keep soil in place—soil isn’t much use otherwise—or how they provide habitats for millions of species. It doesn’t tell us anything about their beauty. The marketplace is giving us 5 percent of the picture instead of 100 percent.

“So what’s a tree worth? What’s a bird worth? What’s clean air worth? If we asked these questions, we’d get some startling answers—and if we had those answers we’d be careful to defend things that are so hard, so expensive, to replace.”

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