IT IS PERHAPS a name most Americans have never heard, but Dr. Brent Blackwelder has changed America. The quiet mathematician with a PhD in philosophy has been one of the most consequential environmental leaders of the last half-century. As head of the landmark advocacy organization Friends of the Earth, Blackwelder has for decades represented the vanguard in the fight against drought, pollution and global warming. By emphasizing environmental economics over more abstract appeals to nature, Blackwelder helped change the dialogue around environmental reform from Walden-esque whimsy to pure pocketbook anxiety. Amongst other achievements, Blackwelder will be remembered as the man who saved America’s rivers. Initially inspired to advocacy by his disgust for the pollution of his hometown Washington’s Anacostia River, he went on to oversee the restoration of more than 300 American rivers to their original state. This is the first major interview Dr. Blackwelder has granted.
So, Brent: What took a guy who was playing golf on the Duke team to the front lines of the big environmental battles of the 1960s, and 70s and beyond? What took you out of that comfortable environment and put you into these big battles?
I was studying math and philosophy and had a degree in math, and I was working on one at the University of Maryland – my doctorate in philosophy – and during the 1960s I began to see the water in the Potomac get worse and worse, so much so that at the end of that decade, the river was an open sewer. You wouldn’t want to get near it in the summer. First Earth Day comes along in 1970 and I show up just to see what can be done. Because both the water and the air were getting worse and worse and having lived in the nation’s capital since 1948 I was really outraged by this. And lo and behold at that table I saw great material on what citizens could do, produced by Friends Of The Earth. And so I began volunteering. And that led me into the first client battle of the environmental movement that was around the supersonic transport in 1970, and I saw what citizens well-organized but with not much money could do to influence both the House and Senate to change their mind on whether they should support such an undertaking. That victory then inspired me to do more, after we had won that. And I began to work then on a career in environment, thinking that we could clean up water pollution, clean up the air and so forth, and within a decade I’d be back in teaching at the college level.
Well, what then were the most important – given this career – what became the most important environmental laws you worked on? And in addition, who did you find to be the most effective environmental leaders over your 50 years of advocacy?
The key thing that I saw was that we had a number of people fortunately working on the air pollution problem – and the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970. I didn’t work on that, but I did work on the first Clean Water Act and in that process I saw that we were concerned about water pollution and rightly so; that was what was bothering me. But there was a whole other world that opened to me, which was the problem of river engineering, diversion damming, canal digging and so forth, that had serious and deleterious effects on the rivers and streams, in virtually all parts of the planet and in fact all around the world. So I began work then and was the founding chairman of American Rivers in 1973. The idea there was that we should be protecting great rivers. We had a Wild And Scenic Rivers Act, thanks to the leadership of Stewart Udall who was the Secretary of Interior during most of the 1960s – under both Kennedy and Johnson, Mo Udall, and Senator Jackson of the State of Washington. And the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed in 1968 that designated eight outstanding rivers to be protected and they were not to be dammed, diverted, or changed in character. But nothing new had been added even though the law provided to put more rivers in if they were qualified. So with American Rivers, beginning in 1973, we expanded that number over the next 30 years to be more than 250 rivers protected. Furthermore we have succeeded as a movement in removing over 1200 dams around the country to bring back the fisheries and to restore water quality. A good case is the example of the Elwa River and the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington. Here you had record size salmon – 100-pound salmon – coming in to spawn. But a hundred years ago dams were built on the Elwa River, taking away the fishery spawning ground almost entirely. Only remnant populations were left and decimating the concerns of Indians who had lost their livelihood and their cultural basis. Fortunately, Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey took an interest in this issue, and we passed a law in the early 1990s and that called for removal of these dams and authorized their removal. And fortunately those dams have been removed and we see major recovery of salmon as well as the silt that normally went down and nourished the beaches along the south side of Puget Sound, now that’s all coming back. And with that coming back, the eagles have returned, the bears have come back – it’s quite a story. And the US – as a result of efforts like this, of which there were hundreds – is by far and away number one in a good category: Saving outstanding rivers. No other nation has done what we’ve done. And this is, I think, one of the crowning achievements is that we’ve changed the thinking about the nature of rivers, and so we’re taking that concern globally because rivers are under major assault, virtually everywhere.
Today, as you look at the agenda I would assume that you see climate change as the number one issue and we are getting very different signals. On the one hand we have new scientific studies showing that we may have as much as a six-foot rise in sea level by the year 2100; the implications are absolutely dire. On the other hand we have people like James Lovelock who posit a scenario in which global warming has gone too far to be redressed meaningfully by any individual actions such as recycling and avoiding the use of plastic bags or whatever. Can you inform us about this issue – your view – and what we as citizens can do?
Yes, I will describe exactly what are really the big steps that need to be taken to meet these incredibly difficult challenges. And it’s oversimplifying things and doing a disservice to the serious nature if you say, “Here’s eight easy things you can do to save the planet.” Now, probably those eight easy things are very nice, but they may not even be getting at the big drivers of behavior. So I think Lovelock has got a point – you want to do the big things that could make a change in what is fueling this treating of the planet as if it were a business in a liquidation sale. What does that consist in? It consists in looking at the economic incentives behind the behavior of modern globalized and industrialized society that is chewing up raw resources. Our current system actually incentivizes polluting technologies with government handouts and all sort of subsidies that other kinds of businesses have not had. So I would say look at the economic drivers and focus our attention on those. Ecologize capitalism. For example, the basic rules of Adam Smith – you don’t externalize the cost of your business operation on your fellow competitors or on the public, yet that’s exactly what happens in today’s world. Pollution costs are shoved off on the public. And on the land. And on the wildlife. Those are things that are not incorporated in the price of a product. So there are many such steps that can be taken, but it means focusing, perhaps, on some different entities, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, that could require disclosure of externalities. In other words, getting a true cost economy, if you want to put it that way. That’s a big lever. You’re going also then after the money situation because the most powerful committees in Congress and the ones that I urge the movement to focus more attention on have been the tax and the appropriations committees. These are the ones that really set in motion big drivers of behavior, and they incentivize. Right now, to tell somebody, “Oh, you oughta do something and in 50 years you’re going to see a result.” Well, that might work with Saint Francis, but most people are not of that moral character, and so we better look at some practicality.
For example, the real vision should be that, let’s just take energy for example. What we see is that Wall Street is shying away, fortunately, from big, centralized projects. They see that these big, large power plants – centralized power plants – whether they are fossil fuel plants or nuclear, take too long to build, never come in on time or on budget, and they are looking in contrast at the wind projects – the wind turbines – and the rooftop solar. These come online very quickly. I mean, in a matter of weeks for solar. Six months or so for wind farms. And you can keep adding more solar collectors or more turbines depending on how you’ve got it going, and as you get the first couple up, you’re already starting to generate revenue. Wall Street sees this. So if you look at where the energy investments are going now, they are starting to go exactly in this direction. That’s one of the best signs. But we should stop all of these subsidies for fossil fuels that are getting in the way, and really make a concerted effort to do things such as Germany has done. Germany is producing three times the amount of solar electricity as the United States. And yet that country is physically so much smaller. It’s about the size of Montana.
Looking at this important election year, we have Donald Trump as the Republican nominee and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side. What are the stakes for you and the American public?
They’re the most serious I think that we’ve ever had. We have to really get some change in direction, and one of the things that I am working on is that we do not want other countries or malfeasant actors being able to hack electronic voting machines. So using some of my mathematics background, trying to look at where we have some case studies, some statistical analysis because that would seem to point that there has been attempts at hacking. And so I’ve been doing that. Having said that, what we want to do in terms of looking at the candidates, there was no one among the Republican front-runners that exhibited any kind of concern for environment, in fact you had a bunch of climate deniers. On the Democratic side, in contrast, Clinton has a good environmental record and would be far and away superior to what we are looking at right now in terms of Trump – a climate denier who seems to want to just dismiss whatever kind of evidence is produced showing that the planet is in serious difficulty in terms of planetary indicators of health. And so we ought to be thinking about that and taking every step we can to recapture the election process, both from those people who would intimidate on the front end by preventing voters from going to the booth, and would attempt to change the results on the back end after votes have been cast by using very clever techniques of the hackers who have perfected it. So I would say this is the most important and we ought to get serious and be participants to watch what’s going on and demand cyber security protection for our voting machines.
Is it fair to say you will not be voting for Mr. Trump?
It is fair to say that. I think he does not exhibit any concern for the public interest. He is concerned about himself. But very seldom do you hear any word from his mouth that indicates any environmental awareness. In fact it seems as though he’s got a climate denier that’s going to be his top energy advisor.