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The man who built the Sierra Club: a life of David Brower


At 406 pages this is a large volume that provides a detailed account of the life of David Brower. Many in the UK (and elsewhere) may struggle to identify him, though some will recognise that he was the founder of ‘Friends of the Earth’ in September 1969. Fewer individuals will recall his connection to the Sierra Club; a Californian ‘walking club’ that he transformed into a campaigning, environmental association.

The interest to UK readers is the link to John Muir who, after growing up in Dunbar, emigrated with his family to the United States and who was instrumental in founding the Sierra Club (1892), and also became the father-figure of the American National Parks after his famous camping trip in Yosemite with president Theodore Roosevelt in 1903.

The story of how Brower joined the Sierra Club and developed it into a campaigning, environmental organisation – as well as transforming its membership numbers – is fascinating. At the time, of course, there were massive plans to dam major rivers in the Rockies, and those wishing to preserve ‘wilderness’ were at odds with government. The text, in places, is dense, with frequent references to the American political system and the politicians that few, outside the United States, will recognise. There are, however, some memorable quotes, my favourite being where Brower, on a trip down a river in a deep canyon, was horrified when the politicians suggested that he would get a better view if the river were dammed and he would then be higher up the canyon walls. He likened this to flooding the Sistine Chapel to get a better view of Michelangelo’s ceiling!

After years of campaigning and promoting conservation, Brower was all-powerful but in 1966 there was a change and his role went from Messiah to sage and he left the organisation. Wanting a new challenge he formed ‘Friends of the Earth’, basing it in New York rather than California where he had a ‘history’. This new organisation has gone from strength to strength and is now familiar to all those with environmental concerns. Bower’s vision and building of the organisation is carefully documented though, again, non-American readers may struggle to follow the political history so carefully laid out by the author.

This is a book that is clearly one that those concerned with geoconservation should read as, throughout, there are references to places such as Dinosaur National Monument. One must, however, be prepared for a difficult ‘read’ with only 18 b/w images to lighten the task. Those who are proud of the legacy of John Muir will certainly find items of interest within these pages and – if you have the time – it is quite fascinating in places.

Reviewed by Malcolm Hart

THE MAN WHO BUILT THE SIERRA CLUB: A LIFE OF DAVID BROWER by ROBERT WYSS, 2016, Columbia University Press. Distributed in the UK by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Bognor Regis, West Sussex. List Price: £26.00.  W: