Born in Buffalo, New York, Brent Blackwelder holds a bachelor’s degree from Duke University, a master’s in mathematics from Yale University, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Maryland. After serving as chairman of the math department at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas from 1966-68, he became interested in environmentalism in 1970 as a result of an Earth Day event which he attended that year. Soon thereafter, Blackwelder began volunteering with Friends of the Earth (FOE).
In 1973 Blackwelder was the founding chairman of American Rivers (AR), an organization that vehemently opposed dam-construction and river-development initiatives. Over the ensuing 30 years, Blackwelder and AR strove to expand the reach of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a 1968 law that had designated eight U.S. rivers as off-limits to damming and water-diversion projects. Between 1973 and 2003, AR was instrumental in raising the number of protected rivers to more than 250, and in removing over 1,200 dams from various locations across the United States.
In 1994 Blackwelder became president of FOE, a post he held until 2009.
In February 2002 Blackwelder was a signatory to a letter asking President George W. Bush to: “ratify and implement the major environmental treaties forged at Rio and thereafter”; “reduce United States emissions of carbon dioxide and other global warming pollutants”; “stimulate development and deployment of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies”; “protect critical land and marine ecosystems”; “eliminate subsidies that cause overfishing, halt destructive fishing practices, and enforce controls on ocean pollution”; and “increase U.S. assistance to developing countries to protect their environments and the global environment.” The letter also blamed globalization and capitalism for environmental decay and social strife around the world, stating: “While actions to reduce barriers to trade and investments have stimulated economic growth, there are deep concerns about the uneven distribution of these economic gains among and within countries, the growing pressure on natural resources, and increasing pollution. The failure to address these tensions provides the impetus for unrest, social conflict and violence.”
Blackwelder revisited this anti-capitalist theme in 2004 when he told an interviewer, “We [FOE] believe that economics are the root cause of environmental degradation.”
In February 2003 Blackwelder co-signed a letter requesting a meeting with President Bush to discuss the looming U.S. invasion of Iraq. The note expressed particular distress over the expectation that “catastrophic pollution” would be “unleashed on the people of the Middle East and the ecosystems supporting them … should there be a war with Iraq.”
In 2008 Blackwelder endorsed John Edwards for U.S. President. After Edwards dropped out of the Democratic primary race, Blackwelder shifted his allegiance to Barack Obama. When Obama was elected that November, Blackwelder characterized the vote as a “historic mandate for clean energy” and for “large-scale, transformational change.”
Blackwelder believes that the greenhouse gases associated with human industrial activity contribute heavily to potentially catastrophic global warming. In November 2012 he asserted that although “the American public … has been conditioned to think of national security in terms of terrorist threats,” “climate destabilization eclipses all other security threats to human civilization except for a major nuclear war.” To emphasize his contention that the threat of terrorism has been exaggerated, Blackwelder approvingly noted that Washington Post reporter Greg Jaffe “makes the case that the world has never been safer, if security is to be measured by acts of human sabotage and terrorism.”
Blackwelder claims that in order to save the environment from what he views as the inherent destructiveness of free-market economic systems, the U.S. and other nations must “ecologize capitalism.” “We must move from our current global system of cheater economics and casino economics,” he explains, “to a … true-cost sustainable economy” where “the climate-disrupting effects of coal and oil would be factored into their prices, and prices would rise beyond most people’s idea of affordability.” In short, Blackwelder advocates the equivalent of a government-imposed tax or surcharge on fossil fuels, so as to make them cost-prohibitive and thereby force a greater reliance on alternative energy sources like wind and solar.
In 2016 Blackwelder supported the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, praising her “good environmental record” as being “far and away superior to what we are looking at right now in terms of [Donald] 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.”
Over the years, Blackwelder has donated money to the political campaigns of such notable Democrats as Bill Bradley, Barbara Boxer, Donna Edwards, Sam Farr, Raul Grijalva, Patrick Leahy, Ken Salazar, Bernie Sanders, and Mark Udall. Blackwelder also gave more than $27,000 to the League of Conservation Voters between 1989 and 2016.
Summarizing his views regarding environmentalism, Blackwelder once said: “I am a tree hugger. Clear-cutting of forests should be outlawed and only selective cutting allowed. We cannot as a nation afford to lose any more magnificent ancient forests. There are so few left that they should be off-limits to logging.”
Blackwelder is currently an honorary director of the League of Conservation Voters, where he once held the post of board chairman. He is also a former board member of 20/20 Vision, a left-wing environmentalist and anti-war group.
For additional information on Brent Blackwelder, click here.
Further Reading: “Brent Blackwelder, Friends of the Earth Chieftain, Answers Questions” (Grist.org, 9-21-2004); “Brent Blackwelder, President” (FOE.org); Letter to President Bush (2-26-2003); “Climate Change Trumps Terrorism As Threat To National Security” (Brent Blackwelder on “climate destabilization,” “cheater economics,” and Hillary Clinton’s environmental record, 11-12-2012); Brent Blackwelder’s Political Donations (OpenSecrets.org).