David Brower and Diablo Canyon

This post is written by Tom Turner, author of David Brower: The Making of an Environmental Movement

The recent announcement that the Pacific Gas & Electric Company will close its Diablo Canyon nuclear power plants by 2025 made big news across the country as maybe, just maybe, signaling the end of the nuclear experiment in the United States. Time will tell about that, but there was an odd rewriting of history by at least two of the country’s biggest newspapers that needs correcting.

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant — by marya from San Luis Obispo, USA via Wikimedia Commons

Both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times reported that in 1969 David Brower, then the executive director of the Sierra Club, was so angry at the club’s refusal to oppose the reactors proposed by PG&E that he quit his job and founded Friends of the Earth to fight the Diablo proposal. A tidy story, particularly since Friends of the Earth has been key to finally winning the campaign to shutter the reactors, but way off the mark.

The Diablo proposal nearly tore the Sierra Club in two in the mid sixties. The plant was originally proposed for a site near the Nipomo Dunes, also on the California coast. The Sierra Club, led in this case by the photographer Ansel Adams, had long supported establishment of a state park at the Nipomo site, and several of the club’s directors worked with PG&E to find a site that would save the dunes. They identified Diablo Canyon as a site the club could live with.

Only one of the fifteen members on the Sierra Club’s board of directors had ever visited Diablo Canyon, and when a motion to put the club on record as not opposing the site he—Martin Litton, then travel editor of Sunset Magazine—was out of the country. The motion passed by a large majority, despite David Brower’s urging that the vote be postponed until the directors could visit the site and see for themselves. When Litton learned of the board’s action he flew into a rage, accused the promoters of the project of fraud, and vowed to overturn the vote.

A year or so later the balance of power on the board of directors changed and the board adopted a resolution to the effect that its vote to tacitly approve the site was a mistake and a violation of club policy. Dave Brower stayed quiet through much of the battling, which raged for months. His sympathies were no secret—he and Litton were staunch allies—but he was being criticized by several directors (including Adams) for alleged profligate spending on the book-publishing program and for defying board orders on a variety of matters, and he needed to keep his head down.

In the end Brower ran for a position on the board and lost badly. He resigned in May 1969 to avoid being sacked. He always thought that the Diablo battle was a key to his demise (there were rumors that PG&E had helped conduct the campaign that brought him down), but there was no proof.

Still, to say that he quit in anger over the club’s refusal to oppose the project is simply incorrect. There is a nice symmetry to the story, however, in the end. Brower did oppose Diablo, he did found Friends of the Earth, and Friends of the Earth did lead the negotiation with PG&E that should see the end of the Diablo reactors by 2025.

Brower died in 2000, but wherever he is, no doubt he’s smiling.


Tom Turner has worked at the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, and Earthjustice. He is the author of Wild by Law; Sierra Club: 100 Years of Protecting Nature; Justice on Earth; Roadless Rules; and hundreds of articles and op-eds on the environment.


For Dave Brower, every day was Earth Day.

Brower 1

Frequently compared to John Muir, David Brower was the first executive director of the Sierra Club, founded Friends of the Earth, and helped secure passage of the Wilderness Act, among other key achievements. Tapping his passion for wilderness and for the mountains he scaled in his youth, he was a central figure in the creation of the Point Reyes National Seashore and of the North Cascades and Redwood national parks. In addition, Brower worked tirelessly in successful efforts to keep dams from being built in Dinosaur National Monument and the Grand Canyon.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a dramatic blossoming of the environmental movement with the creation of Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, Greenpeace, Environmental Action, and the Environmental Defense Fund, among others.

Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin sensed the public’s growing concern for the environment and proposed a national environmental teach-in (borrowing language from Vietnam protests) that was soon dubbed Earth Day. Nelson recruited Denis Hayes, then an undergraduate at Stanford, to sign up supporters and organize rallies and demonstrations and other activities. The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, and was the largest such outpouring of concern to that date.

When Dave Brower heard of the plan for Earth Day, he got in touch with his old friend and collaborator Ian Ballantine of Ballantine Books, who is sometimes credited with pioneering inexpensive paperback books. Brower and Ballantine had cooperated on publishing projects when Brower was still at the Sierra Club, most notably producing a line of calendars illustrated with beautiful nature photographs that were an instant success. Brower suggested that Ballantine and Friends of the Earth collaborate on a book to complement and inform Earth Day. It would have to happen fast. Ballantine agreed. Brower recruited a Cal student named Garrett DeBell, who assembled previously published material and solicited original pieces from here and there.

The contents were an eclectic mix. One piece on “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” blamed Christianity for the problem. Paul Ehrlich decried the population explosion. Ken Brower, Dave’s eldest son, reminded readers of the importance of wilderness. Garrett Hardin of UC Santa Barbara explained his theory of “The Tragedy of the Commons.” There was a short piece titled “Ecopornography, or How to Spot an Ecological Phony,” criticizing misleading advertisements being run by oil companies and strip miners.

DeBell somehow put a manuscript together in around three weeks, and Ballantine produced bound books in another three or so weeks. It was titled The Environmental Handbook and it took off, selling more than a million copies in a few months.

Earth Day was off to a good start.

David Brower

About guest blogger and author of David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement, Tom Turner: Tom has worked at the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, and Earthjustice. He is the author of Wild by Law; Sierra Club: 100 Years of Protecting Nature; Justice on Earth; Roadless Rules; and hundreds of articles and op-eds on the environment.


An Editing Love Story at UC Press

Legendary environmental leader and publisher David Brower (the subject of an exhibit at Doe Library at UC Berkeley until March 31) worked as an editor at UC Press 70 years ago and met his future wife, Anne, on the job. In the current issue of the Cal alumni magazine, their son Kenneth Brower shares this story of how his parents met:

My parents met in 1941 as editors at the University of California Press. To my mother’s annoyance, the press manager assigned my father a desk in her small office. The new hire—a mountain climber, tall, unpolished—irritated her not just by his personality and his invasion of her space, but by his salary. Gender equality was not yet a blip on the radar. (Radar itself, coined just the year before, was not yet a blip on the radar.) My mother had seniority, yet from his first day my father, with his Y chromosome, drew a paycheck nearly equal to hers.

In time she relented. Their conversations grew warmer. My father found he could make her laugh.

It happened one week that Anne Hus, my mother, was struggling with a dull manuscript overloaded with footnotes. David Brower, my father, waited until she was away at lunch and then typed up a page himself and slipped it in. His insert began in the author’s stuffy style, then slowly morphed into parody and finally into ridiculousness, complete with nonsensical footnotes. My mother, pencil in hand, was halfway through the page when she realized her manuscript had been hijacked. The look on her face, and then her laughter—it was a small triumph my father would never forget. There were complications to the stunt, unfortunately: When the author asked for the manuscript back to make some changes, my mother forgot to remove the apocryphal page. The author was not amused.

But it all worked out in the end. As nearly as I can figure, I owe my existence to a slow day at UC Press and a bunch of counterfeit footnotes.