"From Heresy to Conventional Wisdom at Blinding Speed": A History of Earth Island Institute's 25 Years

By Turner, Tom | Earth Island Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

"From Heresy to Conventional Wisdom at Blinding Speed": A History of Earth Island Institute's 25 Years


Turner, Tom, Earth Island Journal


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David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club and the founder of Earth Island Institute and many other organizations, had many passions. He loved books--the writing, editing, designing, and production of them even more than the reading, or so it seemed. He loved music. He had a passion for mountains, and the sea, and the canyons, and the prairie. Also, Tanqueray martinis and the Biltmore Hotel in New York. In fact, he was an enthusiastic fan of much of what's good in this life and lived it all to the fullest.

Brower believed in passion and its close neighbor, boldness. A favorite quote he repeated thousands of times * was from Goethe: 'Anything you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."

Earth Island Institute was fashioned, in one sense, to encourage people to be bold. The name "Earth Island" came from Margaret Mead, who urged respect for "The Island Earth." Her famous admonition, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has," could be the organization's motto.

But it takes more than thoughtfulness and commitment to repair this abused planet. To make a real difference, a group, sometimes an individual, needs support in a variety of areas--a place to work, for example, money to pay the bills, a Web site, maybe help with press relations or advice on the political process, help in keeping the books in order, and a myriad other tasks, large and small, that can too easily detract from dine better spent on the real work, whether that means combating climate change or saving an endangered species.

This is part of the philosophy of Earth Island Institute, founded in 1982. The general idea was to provide a home for people who had an interesting new strategy for saving the Earth: Encourage them, offer administrative support, process grant money, give advice when asked for it. Earth Island would be a new kind of service organization, % temple for all the people doing good," in the words of Herb Gunther of Public Media Center (PMC), a nonprofit ad agency that was instrumental in getting the Institute started.

Dave Brower used to talk about the organizations he founded as liferafts. He created the Sierra Club Foundation when he sensed that the Internal Revenue Service might some day come after the Sierra Club's tax-deductibility (which, it did, in 1967). He founded Earth Island Institute in case Friends of the Earth (FOE) ever decided to dispense with his services (which it did, in 1985). Until 1986, Earth Island had no staff; though volunteers organized the first in a series of conferences, "On the Fate and Hope of the Earth," under the institute's co-sponsorship.

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When Friends of the Earth moved its headquarters to Washington, DC in late 1985, Brower and several others from FOE set out to turn Earth Island into a new kind of organization. The first staffers were the late Wick Kenney, Karen Gosling, who is still on the staff" a quarter-century later as membership director, and the co-executive directors, David Phillips and John Knox.

"It may not work out," Brower wrote in 1991, when the experiment was still new, "but Earth Island Institute consists of many projects essentially run by the people who dreamed them up, have a proprietary interest in them, seek what complementarity they can from the people in neighboring projects, and Eve as much as they seek. It isn't all as idyllic as it sounds, but it builds leaders and gets things done."

Vision helps too. Brower is frequently referred to as a visionary, "one of those unique individuals who can see around corners," in the words of Martha Davis, the current president of Earth Island and former executive director of the Mono Lake Committee. "He was so far ahead of everyone else in the movement, it was amazing. …

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