December 03, 2014

THE WORLDWATCH INSTITUTE: Excerpt from Breaking New Ground

Late one summer afternoon in 1973 in Aspen, Colorado, after the day’s meetings were over and the sun was slanting behind the mountains, Bill Dietel of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and I were the only ones left in the swimming pool. As we chatted, we discovered that we both sensed the need for a research institute to work on global environmental issues.

Bill suggested that I write up a description of what such an organization would look like and send it to him to critique. It should be short—much like an informal grant proposal. Not long after, I sent him a six-page, double-spaced description of the proposed research institute and how it would function.

Bill responded with a few minor suggestions, and I then formally submitted a request for a $500,000 start-up grant. The grant was approved in June 1974.

At the heart of the staff for this new organization, which we called the Worldwatch Institute, were Erik Eckholm, my ODC research assistant, and Blondeen Duhaney (later Gravely), my administrative assistant. Blondeen was a vital force. In 1965, shortly after graduating from high school in North Carolina as valedictorian, she moved to Washington, DC, and began working in the secretary’s office at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This is where I met her and we bonded immediately. Her vivacity and energetic work style endeared her to all who worked with her. Worldwatch took our working relationship to another level as she became the institute’s office manager—taking the lead in setting up the new organization—and later vice president for administration. We worked together in various capacities for twenty-nine years until she had to take medical retirement.

Newly recruited researchers included James Fallows, former editor of the Harvard Crimson; Kathleen Newland, a recent graduate of the Princeton master’s program in public affairs; and Denis Hayes, the coordinator of Earth Day in 1970. I convinced Bruce Stokes, whom I had met at the 1974 World Food Conference in Rome, to abandon his master’s program at the Columbia School of Journalism to head up our office of information.

Kathleen Courrier, a freelancer, was our part-time editor in the early years. When she took a full-time job, Linda Starke, who was on our outreach staff, became our editor. She went on to edit all our books and monographs. Shortly after she left in 1982 to begin her own freelance editing business, I enlisted her for the annual State of the World reports that we launched in 1984. With those reports under her belt, she was very much in demand to edit various international commission reports, in effect becoming a jet-set editor.

Felix Gorrell, who was comptroller of the Brookings Institution, advised us during the early years and also served as our treasurer. His assistance with investing and accounting was invaluable. Orville Freeman agreed to serve as chairman of the board. In late November 1974 we moved into our new quarters on the seventh floor of 1776 Massachusetts Avenue NW, just across the street from Brookings and the Overseas Development Council.

These early years were exciting. We were fashioning a new genre of research institute, one that did interdisciplinary research. This would not be a traditional economic or international affairs research institution, but rather one whose research centered on the environment broadly defined but that also included food, energy, population, water, and particularly the relationship between the environment and the economy. Our goal was to make our published material accessible to lay readers, publishable in scientific magazines, useful to the media, and indispensable to policymakers. We were caught up in the excitement of this challenge.

We also envisioned Worldwatch serving a worldwide constituency, a goal that only added to the complexity of the challenge. It is one thing to study global issues; it is another to reach a global population with the research results.

Erik wrote our first book, Losing Ground: Environmental Stress and World Food Prospects, which was released in early 1976. Losing Ground broadened the near-exclusive focus in the environmental community on industrial pollution in the developed world to include deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion, desertification, and other environmental threats in the developing world.

While the book was at our publisher, Erik pulled material from it on the fast-growing demand for firewood, expanding it into the first in the monograph series. Entitled The Other Energy Crisis: Firewood, Worldwatch Paper 1 was published in September 1975. It was a huge media hit, generating a ton of stories, including a front-page story in The New York Times. The key to its success was the juxtaposition of the firewood crisis—affecting a third of humanity, but largely below the radar—with the oil crisis—of which the industrial countries were, at a time of quadrupling oil prices, keenly aware.


To read more of Lester Brown's life, purchase a copy of Breaking New Ground .



Reah Janise Kauffman