Remembering S. David Freeman, the ‘green cowboy’
by Erich Pica, Friends of the Earth president
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It was nearly ten years ago when S. David Freeman started hanging his now infamous cowboy hat at Friends of the Earth as a senior advisor. At the time, we had just ramped up our anti-nuclear work following the Fukushima disaster and we were pledging to transform California into a nuclear-free generation state and finally stop the expansion of nuclear reactors in the United States.
I’ll admit today, with some shame, that when Dave and I first met — him with his cowboy hat and newly minted, ever-changing pair of running shoes, bright smile, self-depreciating humor and southern drawl — I had no idea who Dave was. Let alone why he was called the Green Cowboy. Our Climate Director at the time, Damon Moglen, brought Dave into the office to show him around and meet the staff. The relationship that Dave developed with Damon and Friends of the Earth changed the trajectory of Friends of the Earth, energy policy in California and the plan for a vast nuclear power renaissance in the United States.
Dave brought energy, deep knowledge, a vast network of relationships developed over decades in the public power sector, an idealistic practicality, a fierce green fire for change, a demand for resources and, most importantly, a drive to fight for smart, scrappy and uncompromising decisions to fight climate change. Dave wanted action, not philosophy or debate. Dave in his late 80s embodied more vigor and bite than advocates half his age.
Dave forced Friends of the Earth to think bigger and be more sophisticated, and he was unwilling to take no for an answer, from anyone — friends or foe. And it was hard to say no to Dave. For every campaign Damon and Dave ran, Dave’s strategy was to spend months extensively researching the economics and technical details of the nuclear reactors and the companies operating them, and bring on the best experts possible to devise the regulatory, legal and public advocacy strategy. And, of course, there was always a big budget request to go along with each campaign. Then they’d conquer. Dave’s confidence made it feel like we had won before the battle started.
Dave wasn’t idealistic in his advocacy. Though he considered nuclear power boosters “religious zealots” because of their unwavering belief in technology despite the failing economics and safety issues, he believed in providing the utilities, workers, and communities a way out.
This shrewd approach to achieving environmental protections has been the basis for Friends of the Earth’s greatest successes for decades – even in our 50th anniversary year, no less. In the effort to shutdown Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant under Dave’s tutelage, Friends of the Earth negotiated the historic Joint Proposal between Pacific Gas and Electric, Friends of the Earth, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and communities impacted by the closure. The Joint Proposal shut down the last operating nuclear reactors in California, provided a pathway to replace the nuclear power with renewable energy, and contained significant resources for worker transition, as well as revenue for the counties impacted by the shutdown. This deal was so politically significant that the California State Legislature passed legislation to override a decision by the California Public Utility Commission to not fund the transition plan.
During our growing relationship, I asked Dave why or how he sought out Friends of the Earth. Dave recalled that while he and Ralph Nader were in a meeting with Senator Ed Markey, the senator complained about how Friends of the Earth fought against his compromised climate bill in 2009 and 2010. Upon hearing that, Dave set his mind to testing out Friends of the Earth.
As many folks who knew Dave can attest, working with him was never easy. We disagreed on many things, especially resources, which lead us to part ways. But Dave was a force. He brought me some of the toughest and most intellectually challenging decisions I have had to make as president of Friends of the Earth. He pushed us to be uncompromising realists, yet ambitious at the same time, forcing us to truly consider what winning looks like and to what lengths we would go to get that win. In exchange for making us a more impactful organization, Dave had a place where he could take on the nuclear zealots: transforming California’s energy grid, shutting down more than a half dozen reactors in under ten years, while putting more nails in the nuclear renaissance coffin.
Dave was a giant in the fight against climate change and nuclear power. His lasting legacy will be the green energy “seeds” he planted across the country and the communities that are safer from his successful efforts to shutdown nuclear power and fossil fuel plants. He was a force for nature and will be missed.
Header image via E&E.