Cultural Evolution

by Carolyn Chase


here are plenty of reasons to dismiss sustainable development as an unsolvable oxymoron. But there are equally compelling reasons to pursue its tenets: responsible progress for people, the economy and the environment.

I received an amazing phone call last week that led to an insight about the changing and colliding worlds of developers and environmentalists.

An 85-year-old World War II veteran and Mexican national called me to seek my advice. He had done a study for the Sierra Club back in the sixties of future development issues in Baja California.

He had also taken it upon himself to purchase some key lands with an eye toward sustainable development. One 4,500-acre parcel shelters a pristine estuary with an oyster "cooperativa" and a seven-mile-long beach. Upstream, agricultural development is booming and the pressures of growth are beginning to mount.

My caller's theory is that if he can figure out the right way to do sustainable community development, then this can become a model for Baja California. Without a shift, Baja will be subjected to the default grading, bulldozing and urban sprawl model creeping slowly and surely down from Los Angeles, aided by many internal political and practical factors in Mexico.

My automatic first thought was why not find a way to stop all development there? But as he told me about his life and plans, it became clear that I was talking to a builder. This was a man who had passionately dedicated his life to building and developing good things. Now, he was seeking my advice on how to build both for nature and for the communities of people living nearby.

Fundamentally, he wanted to know if there are enough environmentalists who would help. He wanted to know if there are those who would be willing to invest in it financially. He wanted to connect with environmentalists to help him build the right things in the right way. To him this meant figuring out how to work with local people to keep the area pristine, and build the local economy at the same time.

In this age of justifiable cynicism, it's easy to dismiss this as impossible. But what if we could achieve these goals? I've lost enough battles over the years to know that we must try.

More and more, the environmental movement is being asked to help developers build for both people and for the environment. This is a profound challenge and opportunity for the culture of the environmental movement and its key organizations.

Why a challenge? At their very cores, conservation groups are, well conservative. To some degree, saving, conserving or preserving some things from ruination are all about stopping other things. Conservation, at its heart, is about protecting the things, values and places we love.

The need to stop some things has been embedded in the culture from its early days. John Muir and David Brower ­ legendary leaders of the Sierra Club ­ tried to stop dams. In the thirties, bird lovers at National Audubon worked to stop the market for exotic bird feathers for hats and costumes from decimating bird species.

Mass public disgust over rampant, irresponsible and highly visible pollution was awakened through the first Earth Day in 1970. This began a new era of environmentalism, where the threats from mankind's increasing impacts became a universal concern. The urgent need was to stop air and water pollution and their underlying causes: population growth and a lack of enforceable standards.

Earth Day 1970 generated the public support that led to swift enactment of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

New groups established themselves to enforce the new laws and use them to stop bad projects and environmental degradation. Over the years, environmental groups became masters of stopping some things.

But, if there's one key lesson after 100 years of organized environmentalism, it's that we cannot really save or conserve nature only by stopping things.

Stopping bad projects in the wrong places is entirely necessary and important, but not sufficient. And for every bad thing that's stopped, dozens of others move forward. Even if you could stop all bad environmental behavior, it still wouldn't leave us with a sustainable world to live and thrive in. This actually has to be built.

At the same time we are stopping bad things, or at least slowing them down, we also have to learn to build things in new ways. We have to harness the creative energy of mankind for building a sound, sustainable world.

This brings me back to the evolution of the environmental movement. A lot of the people who know how to stop things aren't good at building things. Some of them are. But overall, in years of working with a diverse cross section of environmental groups and leaders, as you might expect, I've found the stoppers far outnumber the builders.

But evolution happens, right? Such an evolution is happening throughout the environmental movement. Right here in San Diego, the local Chapter of the Sierra Club is moving ­ tenderly and ever-so-carefully ­ through the difficult cultural minefield of learning to support both stopping and building.

On the November 3rd ballot, we have the Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative (YES on Prop B). At its core, RHWI is about stopping things: stopping inappropriate levels of development in inappropriate places. We are also hoping to stop Sea World (NO on D) from an overly-general height exemption.

But we are also attempting to get folks to help build some of the things we need. Prop K (Black Mountain Ranch) and Prop M (Pacific Highlands Ranch) are about getting builders to stop some things and start others.

The process to ensure that we're making the right choices has been lengthy and detailed. Volunteers have repeatedly walked the properties. Many biologists studied what would be in the best interests of the endangered species and wildlife in the area. We spent months considering alternatives. We pressed for and got project changes to address critical issues of community design, water pollution and transportation.

These projects will provide wildlife corridor connections, water pollution prevention and control, easy access to transportation alternatives, and needed housing near offices. They will also provide permanently dedicated park lands, schools, fire and police stations and libraries ­ all at no cost to taxpayers.

They are an evolution, not a revolution. This bothers many, who fervently believe a revolution is required. It seems almost unbelievable to many people that developers and environmentalists should work together. But we must learn how. We still need to stop many things. But we also need to build - and rebuild some things too.

It's difficult, but the time has come to balance both for the good of all.