A Preacher’s Son, Mathematician, Philosopher, Advocacy Father and Renaissance Man: A Tribute to Dr. Brent Blackwelder, President Emeritus at Friends of the Earth
On Thanksgiving Day, 2023, our planet lost one of her great champions. Terry, Matthew and Laura lost a husband and father. I lost my mentor and advocacy father: Dr. Brent Blackwelder.
Earth Day in 1970 was a life-changing moment for Brent. Brent, a preacher’s son, a mathematician and philosopher, was moved by the Archdruid, David Brower, to focus his life’s work on what Brent would later call “the great moral challenge of our time…to reverse the widespread degradation on the Earth.”
Brent pursued this challenge with the moral certitude of a preacher, the curiosity of a philosopher seeking out the truth and interconnectedness of an issue, and the discipline of a mathematician. He tried to piece together the right coalition, the most salient arguments and a voting majority to win the fight of the day. He also brought a wicked sense of humor to that fight.
At the beginning of his career, Brent was deeply focused on protecting streams and rivers from development, particularly by the Army Corps of Engineers. During the 1970s and early 1980s, Brent was responsible for blocking more than 200 dams and water projects. As John Passacantando, former head of Greenpeace and Ozone Action observed, “by defeating the Cache River Channelization project, he helped protect the habitat that is likely the reason the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker came back.”
Brent defeated many of these projects with a simple formula that is key today. He went to the communities to listen to those impacted by the proposed project and spent time on the water. Brent marshaled all the arguments necessary to win. He could talk about endangered species and habitat protection as fluently as he could discuss fiscal and economic issues. Brent was humble as he respected and empowered individuals to speak for themselves. As for his sense of humor, Brent would serve roast pig at press conferences to chastise members of Congress seeking to authorize pork barrel projects.
During this time, he started as a volunteer at Friends of the Earth and helped found the Environmental Policy Center and Environmental Policy Institute, his advocacy home before its merger with Friends of the Earth. He also chaired the League of Conservations Voters and was the founding board chair of American Rivers, which expanded rivers protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act from eight rivers in 1973 to more than 250.
After thoroughly flummoxing the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation for more than a decade, Brent the philosopher, mathematician and preacher’s son followed his advocacy to protect rivers internationally. This is where his more expansive view of environmentalism took root, I believe. At the time, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were funding big dams and other mega projects across the world, without considering their social or environmental impacts. As Brent reflected, “The cruel irony is that just as the U.S. began to protect rivers and to remove dams that were doing more harm than good, the rest of the world failed to learn from our experience.”
In 1985, Brent helped found International Rivers, to help protect the world’s rivers from development. More importantly, Brent initiated some of the first campaigns to reform the World Bank and other international financial institutions, which were wreaking environmental havoc. Brent understood that the United States had an inordinate amount of influence at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and sought to use its votes to influence how these institutions assessed their impacts.
After several years of campaigning, the reform efforts launched and supported by Brent resulted in the passage of the 1989 Pelosi Amendment. The Bank Information Center describes the amendment passed by freshman member Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as an amendment that “helped to crack open the opaque and inaccessible development finance institutions, providing an invaluable platform for poor and marginalized communities to have their voices heard, and spurring a major reform movement that it continues to sustain today.”
To say Brent was solely focused on river protections would be to miss the Renaissance Man Brent was to Friends of the Earth and the environmental movement. Perhaps informed by his fight with the World Bank and his earlier battle over the Super Sonic Transport, Brent would become more vocal about the ills of globalization and economic growth and also provided our movement with a healthy dose of techno-skepticism.
Brent preached attacking the root causes of environmental destruction. Brent once wrote “Our global economy is treating the planet as if it were a business in a liquidation sale. Even environmental organizations — devoted to environmental protection — have been slow to acknowledge the major causes of environmental degradation, such as perverse economic incentives encouraging raw resource extraction and non-renewable energy use. We need environmental leaders to speak out for a new, just, and true-cost economy; and to challenge the mindless embracing of economic growth — even ruthless and futureless growth.”
His thoughts and actions would help fuel the creation of the Green Scissors Campaign, a left-right coalition seeking to cut environmentally harmful and wasteful spending. He also worked with labor unions and development groups at the Citizens Trade Campaign fighting against global trade agreements such as Northern America Free Trade Agreement, the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs and the World Trade Organizations. His fight against the WTO and other globalizing institutions led to his first and only arrest for civil disobedience, earning him the moniker of one of Grist Magazine’s “Magnificent Seven” for protesting the World Bank in 2000.
Philosophically, Brent questioned the use of technology. Whether fighting against the Super Sonic Transport as a Friends of the Earth volunteer, expressing deep skepticism about nuclear power, or questioning the health, environment and safety implications of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, geoengineering and other untested technologies, Brent adhered to the precautionary principle. To Brent, if new a technology was unproven it shouldn’t be supported. If new technology created greater inequality or more corporate control, it shouldn’t be supported. If we didn’t understand the unintended consequences of the technology, it shouldn’t be supported. In many aspects, he considered technology “guilty until proven innocent.” Chris Pabon, a former Friends of the Earth staffer, reflected “Brent may not have been a techie himself, but he grasped the importance and influence of technology.”
Brent was known throughout the environmental community for his deep knowledge of almost everything environmental. In meeting with members of the Green Group or on Capitol Hill, environmental leaders would marvel at Brent’s encyclopedic recall of obscure facts or environmental battles. What many folks didn’t see was the state of Brent’s office. When asked by Grist Magazine “What’s on your desk right now?” Brent quipped “So that’s what’s underneath all the papers! My desk!” He had a massive yet somewhat rationalized filing system consisting of 3 years of research and a rotation of reading. The newest materials sat feet deep on any flat surface in his office; year two files often sat in file folders stacked on the floor; and year three files were in overflowing filing cabinets. Somehow, he was always able to reach into the piles, and gingerly wiggle out the right document. The system would get reset every summer by his assistants (or Matthew and Laura coming in as “volunteers”) while he was offsite reading the rivers and dunes around Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park.
There is no doubt that Brent was an environmental visionary, but you wouldn’t know it from talking with him. Brent was a profoundly humble man. While he testified before Congress more than 100 times, he put other people first. Brent always deferred credit to young staffers or the activists on the ground, providing them the opportunity to talk to the media, members of Congress, or funders about our work. He made sure the spotlight was shining on the people doing the work or the community leader needing their story told, not on himself.
He was the consummate teacher. He showed me, like he did countless other individuals, how to advocate for what’s right. He did this through getting out of the office and doing, rather than just discussing.
Jon Sohn, another former Friends of the Earth staff member, reflected a familiar story. On his first day of work, “Brent took me down to the bowels of the Capitol Building and showed me a trick up his sleeve. We would ride the underground trolley (then open to the public pre-9/11) and jump on it anytime a Senator got on to take it to or from the main building. ‘It’s a captured audience,’ Brent explained. ‘Get your 2-minute trolley speech ready by the time this taxi ride is over!’” Similarly, Brent would explain the etiquette of DC parties to young staffers, like Kate McMahon as such, “See, the key to these events is to get a glass of wine and drink it really quickly to loosen yourself up. Then, get a second glass and slip it slowly throughout the night. When you’re done with that second glass, it’s time to go home.”
Brent was a listener. When you talked to Brent, it always felt like Brent was focused on you. He would write down every piece of information in his notebook to process or to refer to it at some point in the future. Despite, or maybe even because of his deep knowledge, no idea was ever too outlandish or too bold, he could listen to a conversation, ascertain the “root” of the problem, and help you find a pathway forward.
Brent was broad-minded and pragmatic in his problem-solving. Though deeply progressive or liberal in his thoughts and opinion, Brent was willing to work with anyone on the left, right and center to accomplish the goal of protecting the planet. As Michelle Chan, Friends of the Earth’s VP of Programs, noted, “He was a consummate advocate, of course, with decades and decades of experience, so he had many political adversaries. But no enemies. How many people can you say that of in Washington? That’s because Brent was decent through and through; he held strong convictions but never let it get personal.” This is a valuable lesson for today’s politics.
When devising campaigns, he thought about the goal of success, allowing the best tactics to flow into the goal. If we needed to litigate, we did, like in the United States Supreme Court precedent-setting Laidlaw Case. If we needed to run ads, we found funding. Protests and rallies, lobbying, research, corporate campaigns and petitioning governments were all tactics Brent and the staff would use in service to our goals of winning for people and the environment. Brent was unafraid to criticize friends or allies in the process. Friends of the Earth Action’s endorsement of Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) over Vice President Al Gore in 2000 demonstrated an independence of thought that made Brent unique amongst leaders.
In all of this, Brent was an extremely generous individual, perhaps no more so than substituting his career trajectory and goals for saving Friends of the Earth. At the time Brent took over Friends of the Earth in 1993, he was at the height of his influence in the environmental movement. He was the consummate lobbyist, the progenitor of new ideas, new thinking, new coalitions. As Mike Clark, former head of Friends of the Earth reflected, “Brent had more good ideas in a day than most environmental activists had in a year.”
I talked to Brent about this point many times and am convinced that Brent never truly wanted the responsibility of running an organization. The inter-office politics, working with a board of directors, fundraising, and setting up internal systems were distractions that prevented him from reversing “the widespread degradation on the Earth.” He took the reins of Friends of the Earth in 1993 because that is what Friends of the Earth needed, though it was likely not what was best for Brent or best for our overall movement. This role kept him in the office, rather than out in the world. But Brent did this time and again, either through his own monetary support, opening his house to activists to make them feel at home in Washington D.C., or listening to staff or communities in need. Brent, as preachers do, gave himself to a higher calling, being generous with his time, wisdom and career.
Brent had well-known vices. He had an extreme sweet tooth, often ordering multiple desserts at events. This sweet tooth was enhanced by his own baking skills. His Chocolate Whiskey Cake was always a top item at the staff holiday party auction. He also indulged in telling classic dad jokes to a captive audience at the beginning of many staff meetings. Often, Brent could not deliver the joke in its entirety because he was laughing at the punchline before delivering it.
I am just beginning to process what the passing of this giant means in my life and the environmental movement. As my advocacy father he taught me how to be tenacious, intellectually curious, political and resilient to internal and external conflict. He helped to steer an organization that I was aligned with nearly 100 percent of the time and encouraged his staff to push the envelope on advocacy and policy thinking. Always, without fail, he backed the staff publicly when we were in conflict in the outside world.
I will continue to reflect on Brent’s accomplishments, how he helped evolve environmental thinking outside of the classic conservationism, helped build river conservation in the US and around the globe, and defined what it meant to an environmental lobbyist. I’m beyond grateful for his nearly 50 years of service to Friends of the Earth (in its various evolutions) as staff, president, board chair of Friends of the Earth Action, and loving advisor.
In this moment of mourning, I will reflect on the great joy he brought to his advocacy and campaigning. I’ll remember his laughter that carried through the office, the troublemaking smile you would often see as he was puzzling through a campaign issue, his contagious positivity and optimism regardless the circumstances, and his encyclopedic knowledge of environmental issues.
Brent’s legacy will be the thousands of activists and leaders he mentored and raised in the ways of advocacy. His legacy is in the millions (if not billions) of people he positively impacted, and is in the rivers, forests, species and whole ecosystems that he helped save from destruction. It will be how he helped shape the course of environmentalism in the United States and the world to be more just.
Rest in Power, Brent.
Read more about Brent’s life and work: