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Life Arts    H4'ed 10/24/15

A Stroll Through the Mind of a Genius

By Ken Brower  Posted by Daniel Geery (about the submitter)       (Page 3 of 4 pages) Become a premium member to see this article and all articles as one long page.   2 comments
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So it was always an adventure. I had not dealt with somebody before who was so strategic and decisive. I think a lot of that came from his military background, but I only understood some of that a bit later. In those days, telephones, long-distance phones, were much too expensive for a student, or even for a don, to use much. In calling many countries, you often actually had to prebook when you wanted to call and for how long. And the phones didn't work very well. You could easily pay five or ten dollars a minute to call across the Atlantic. But Dave used the phone all the time. If he needed to talk to somebody to get something done, he would just pick up the phone and call. Of course, there were no cell phones in those days. It was all wire line with predigital stepper-switch rotary dialing, and switches at the phone-company switching center. I rather quickly realized how effective he was at figuring out what to do and doing it, thinking many steps ahead. And I've been much the same way myself ever since. It was a profound influence on my thinking about how to be effective and what to be effective about.

Eryri was quite a project. It took most of my time for a couple of years. By the end of that effort, when we won on the mining, I had become much more interested in who Dave was and what he did. The kind of issues that he cared about, I came to care about them too. Then, in 1971, Oxford wouldn't let me do a doctorate in energy. It was two years before the '73 oil embargo, and they said, "Energy? What's that? It's not an academic subject, is it? We haven't a chair in it! Pick a real subject." So I said, "Well, I'm sorry, but I think energy is going to be really important."

As I was leaving, they gave me a master's, by virtue of being a don.

Dave was the big catalyst in allowing me to realize that what I was doing in academic life was intellectually interesting but ultimately not that important. If we end up understanding mitochondrial membrane kinetics, or tertiary structure of proteins, which were two of the puzzles that intrigued me at the time, it would be important, but not as much as keeping the planet livable by solving energy problems, or preventing nuclear proliferation, or addressing climate change.

So I went to work for Dave. For the next ten years in London, I was British representative of Friends of the Earth in the United States. The British Friends of the Earth, which had been in formation since I first met Dave in 1969, was very sensitive about issues of colonialism, so I became sort of the ambassador from the United States branch of Friends of the Earth. Once I was working for Dave, starting in fall of '71, I would travel a lot more over the world with him, mainly in Europe. I worked from my London base all around the world, chiefly Europe, and then I'd come back to the US to guide in the White Mountains each summer. The trips with Dave were learning journeys, working on a wide range of issues, increasingly about energy. A lot of the work was on nuclear energy and nuclear proliferation issues. Everything, you name it. I worked on the Stockholm Conference Eco. We hit most of the European capitals pretty regularly. Dave was paying me enough to more or less cover my phone bill. I would live by my wits for the rest by writing, lecturing, broadcasting, and consulting. In 1979, I married Hunter. It was kind of a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence. Hunter hunted and I gathered. We moved back to the States in 1981 and settled in Colorado in 1982.

My parents were disappointed that I had left a promising academic career. But I didn't realize that until twenty-odd years later. My dad finally told me. At the time, they very kindly gave me no intimation of their concerns. They were just completely supportive of whatever I wanted to do. Both my parents lived to ninety-seven. Their philosophy of child-rearing was love your children, support them, and get out of their way.

What I picked up from Dave was the importance of humor. And turn of phrase. And aesthetic principles--Dave was a consummate aesthetician. He was a great editor, and his aesthetic sense is in all his books. In 2010, I wrote a little recruiting essay for Rocky Mountain Institute, "On Whom We Seek." One of its eleven hallmarks of success in our work starts: "Do you strive to get the concept clear, the number right, the word precise, the image moving, the layout beautiful, the message compelling, not just because it works better, but because you have high personal standards? We do too."

That sense of duty to aesthetic standards is one of Dave's greatest gifts to me. That, and obviously the content of the work, the purpose of the work, the passion behind it. I started to learn from him what I would now call aikido politics. Because although, on the one hand, he was utterly uncompromising in pursuit of his high purpose, on the other he was never rigid or disrespectful in how he dealt with adversaries. This is what emerges so clearly from Encounters with the Archdruid. The way he interacted in that book with the dam builder, Floyd Dominy, and the developer, Charles Fraser, and the miner, Charles Park. "Narratives about a conservationist and three of his natural enemies," is the tagline on the cover. But Dave wasn't inimical to his enemies. McPhee catches that very well in the book.

It's respectful engagement. That has never left me. I think I'm now a lot better at it for understanding more of its roots in Taoism and Buddhism. It's transformed how I work. The more adversarial, classic conservation-battle stuff I did in the early days with Rio Tinto Zinc and others, I wouldn't dream of doing now. That had its time and place. And I'm glad that there are still people who do that, also in Dave's tradition--they fight the battles in the classic way, and that makes those of us who do it differently seem terribly reasonable.

There's another lovely piece of history to round all this out. More than two decades after the fight with Rio Tinto Zinc over copper mining in Snowdonia, I was asked by the Copper Development Association to come give them a talk about copper, electricity, and energy efficiency. Most things that you do to save electricity use more copper, and they wanted to sell more copper. Fatter wires, fatter pipes, better motors, better heat exchangers with bigger area, and so on. Well, several years later I ended up doing some consulting for Rio Tinto, as it's now called. It's still one of the top mining companies in the world. At Rocky Mountain Institute we have now done many engagements with Rio Tinto around the world, helping them redesign existing mines, or design new ones, or use renewable energy at their remote sites, in order to avoid the high costs and logistical risks of hauling fuel in. Rio Tinto is now leading the greening of the global mining industry.

So this has come full circle. Very few people in the company remember the history. Sometimes, when we've had a nice dinner after working together for a week on a project design, I will recount some of our early mutual history. We'll all have a good chuckle about it. I think it's the most delicious irony. One of our most valued and constructive relationships at RMI, in changing how industry works, is through the company whose initial efforts to build a bad mine brought me close to Dave's work, and into Dave's world, and into what I've been doing ever since.

Of course Dave had extraordinary leadership skills. You would know better than I how much of that came from mountaineering and how much from the war, or elsewhere. But he really knew the difference between leadership and management. I've had the privilege in the past decade or two to work with many flag and general officers in the Services, people of extraordinary personal and professional quality. They're about in Dave's league. I have no doubt that if he'd continued his military career he would have been a three- or four-star general.

I started to pick up some elements of leadership. As Dave and I were having a conversation, we would figure out whom we ought to talk to, and who ought to get an idea from a certain source at a certain time to cause him or her to behave in certain ways. He would get on the phone and call whomever it was around the world and start activating his social network to actually make things happen.

What he brought to his work was a detailed and exact knowledge of how things are connected. Nonlinear thinking. Strategic thinking informing tactics. Not simply doing what's right in front of you, but what's the bigger pattern that this supports and connects. I never knew him as a military officer, but I would think he was an exceptional one, and must have inspired great loyalty. He was fearless, and that rubbed off. His mountaineering would help in that, too. He wasn't foolhardy. He would take calculated risks and know what he was going to do if it wasn't working out. His climbing must have figured here: he was very aware that gravity is not an option; it's the law. Your gear must be in order, and you have to use it properly to protect yourself.

There were probably half a dozen times--not that I remember them anymore--where I would think he was wrong about the course of action that would bring about the result we want. But I would do it his way. Within one or two or occasionally three years, I would realize he was right. He just had more experience to bear on it. And I even told a number of people that, over the years, when they had a disagreement with him about what to do. I advised them my experience has been that he turned out to be right.

Neither of us took kindly to being micromanaged. When Dave was kicked out of Friends of the Earth, it became clear that I would be, too, unless I wanted to get micromanagement, and it was clear that would not be a good idea. So Hunter and I went and started our own outfit. We began Rocky Mountain Institute in 1982 with two or three people and ten thousand bucks out of our back pockets. It grew fairly steadily. For many years it held at around forty or fifty people. It briefly went a little over one hundred, and then back to about ninety, and it's been eighty or ninety ever since. I no longer know all the names, at this point. There are a few people at staff meetings I don't quite recognize. We're now getting our various business and people systems working a lot better. We grew a little too fast for a while, but we're now catching up with ourselves. We're attracting some terrific talent.

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In my run for U.S. Senate against Utah's Orrin Hatch, I posted many progressive ideas and principles that I internalized over the years. I'm leaving that site up indefinitely, since it describes what I believe most members of our species truly (more...)

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