Questioning Questions

by Carolyn Chase
February 6, 2002


Y ou learn about people by the questions that they ask – how they are framed reveals much about the framer. This was brought into great focus recently during a presentation I was asked to give at a recent LEAD event. Leadership, Education, Awareness, Development – LEAD graduates, including Mayor Dick Murphy, are prominent throughout San Diego.

    I had been invited to share the dais along with Cameron Gray, a Bonita-based developer and Duncan McFetridge, Save Our Forests and Ranchlands. Originally I was asked broadly if I would make some remarks about the environment in San Diego. I said sure, easy enough – thinking they wanted some kind of overview about environmental issues in San Diego. A couple of days before the event I received an agenda with the loaded topic title, "Environmental regulations – how far is too far?"

    I decided to go early and see how the stage was being set prior to my segment. The panel that preceded mine was entitled, "What does it take to do something big in San Diego?"

    Discussed by John Chalker, Managing Director of LM Capital Management, Inc., and Vice-Chair of the Public Policy Committee of the Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Patrick Shea, Immediate Past Chair, San Diego Convention Center Corporation, the short answer to achieve big projects was "consensus." Shea did caution about the manipulation of that consensus, though. His sorry tale of Brown Field as political roadkill was attributed to "anything the public doesn’t understand, doesn’t exist."

    Both cited San Diego’s lack of shared vision as a key impediment to megaprojects. "We are the biggest small town in American," Shea observed. Another factor cited was the unique nature of the San Diego economy, dominated as it is by small businesses and few major players, where "few people have ever done deals in excess of $100 million" – which in terms of "big" projects is "nothing."

    Shea related, "The economics of the community – we sense we understand – but we don’t. The economy is the backbone for survival of any community."

    Shea, a "player," urged others to get into the game. "You can take it over – there isn’t anyone in this room who isn’t as smart or smarter than anyone currently making things happen. San Diego desperately needs more players since we have institutionalized the junior varsity here. We need more smart, tough, ugly people to make things happen."

    McFetridge began our segment, "Environmental Regulations – how far is too far?" by taking the high ground, pointing out that environmental regulations were a poor response to a system that’s without a sound "regional foundation."

    "If you build a house without a sound foundation, sooner or later you will end up dealing with the broken windows, unset doors, and all the other problems that wouldn’t need to be addressed, if the foundation were sound."

    Moving the analogy to environmental regulation, McFetridge pointed out that "we are regulating the wrong things at the wrong points in the process and getting poor results all around – whether you ask environmentalists or builders. End-of-the-pipe regulations are the most expensive to the public and to business and the results are seldom satisfactory from an environmental perspective as well."

    Regulating pollution, endangered species and traffic – all the outward manifestations of a broken system – after the fact is always more expensive and time-consuming for the taxpayers and the environment than designing things properly and preventing problems to begin with.

    I took to the tough, ugly trenches. "Yes, the economy is the backbone of a community. And the environment – the water, air, ocean, canyons, nature – that is our lungs, our hears, our circulatory systems. They are also who we are. Ultimately, you won’t have an economy if you destroy the environment."

    I chose to ask questions from a different place:

  • When has asthma, diabetes and lead poisoning in children under ten gone too far?" There are now cases that pediatricians will tell you they never used to see in children that young.
  • When has farmland loss gone too far?
  • When has bioversity loss gone too far?
  • When has energy price gouging gone too far?
  • When has untoward political influence gone too far?
  • When has commercial irresponsibility gone too far?
  • When has whining from the rich and powerful gone too far?
  • Traffic is a symptom.
  • Pollution is a symptom.
  • Crashing biodiversity and fisheries are symptoms.
  • Global warming is a symptom.

    The way we do growth in California – and our nation – is broken and dysfunctional. Blaming environmental regulations that are rarely enforced is an outrage.

    How many of them were aware that the current District Attorney has reduced, dismantled or eliminated both the political corruption unit and environmental enforcement unit?

    Not very many.

    Without real accountability, projects are even more susceptible to the many forms of corruption – both petty and substantial – as well as increased political intervention. There is no doubt that there is a linkage between San Diego’s forms of political corruption and the difficulties of getting big projects through, regardless of the merits. Because, fundamentally, we don’t really have a merit-based system functioning at this moment in time.

    Unfortunately, neither Shea nor Chalker cited this aspect of the problem. When asked of a place that’s done big projects well Chalker cited Los Angeles, and the legendary Edward Muholland. "He got a group of people together and stole it. They had a vision and did whatever it took."

    Not exactly the consensus model being discussed earlier.

    Shea made one of the most powerful observations of the morning, "there are moments you have to preserve assets or they are gone."

    Environmentalists couldn’t agree more. This is the essence of the conservation ethic. As a matter of fact, the entire movement is built upon that fact - that San Diegans daily see those assets and our quality of life declining because we are not moving to protect them properly. If this region truly protected what needs protecting then I daresay that building what needs to be built would go down a lot easier.