groundWork pays tribute to Denny Larson
27 March 2019 - I remember the booming voice in the Texanco oil refinery passage way. “Don’t go there, back off.’ It was in response to an oil industry hack questioning the science behind the air pollution sampling system, the community-developed Bucket Brigade, that the man with the booming voice trail-blazed throughout the world.
Yes, it is a strange name, the Bucket Brigade, for an air pollution sampling system. But it’s name aside, it was an invention which brought science into grassroots communities and the environmental movement domain, giving people the capacity and the intellectual confidence, through hard evidence, to challenge power. That man was Denny Larson, founder of the Global Community Monitor. He was a man who was not easy to work with, nor live with. But then very few activists are – ask my wife. But what he was dedicated to at all cost, even at times to the detriment of himself, was making sure that people had power via science.
I got to know Denny when, in 1995, we were challenging the ex-Mobil oil refinery 143m from my then-house. We sent a message to the oil refinery activists list serve in the US – yes the early days of list serves – and Denny was the first to respond with advice and the Good Neighbour Handbook. This was to be a start of a long relationship.
Denny visited South Africa in 2000 – and a few occasions after – in the first year of groundWork’s formation. Together with the South African Exchange Programme for Environmental Justice, he set in place one of the building blocks of the democratic environmental governance that is promised in our environmental air pollution laws. His work with South African community people was not all smooth, however. He had walked out of Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental justice organisation in the US to make the SA visit happen. And in South Africa, he often frustrated the very people he came to support because of his ‘cowboy attitude’. But that was him. He did it his way.
After his South African visit, he travelled to many parts of the world: India, Gibraltar, Ecuador, Scotland, The Netherlands, among them, always trying to find new ways to give people more power against the oil industry. He gave many corporations hell, but I will particularly remember him for taking in Shell and Sasol. In the US, from west coast to the Gulf, he was an institution.
I always remember his story of early activism. How he knocked on people’s doors trying to convince them to give the environmental justice cause their support. Not what you expected from a brash, blond male who threw political-correctness out the window which resulted in a love-hate relationship with many of his compadres. But Denny didn’t fit into a mould, and was comfortable doing so. We will all miss him and remember his colourful personality. May his soul rest in peace.
The science of the Bucket Brigade gave a confidence to people who have to live with corporate lies, and this Denny will always be remembered for. His legacy will continue. He leaves behind Josephine, his daughter with partner Ruth Beech. Denny was also partner to Linda Feagles for many years.
Denny past away on the 6th March 2019.
This tribute was written by groundWork Director, Bobby Peek.