Protecting the environment - what environmentalists do

by Carolyn Chase


The following is the text of a presentation made by SDET editor Carolyn Chase to a one-day workshop held at the University of California, San Diego last month, entitled "Community Development, Affordable Housing and the Environment - Is There a Common Path to Smart Growth?"

irst, I'd like to thank Nico Calavita for giving me such a great title for my talk today: "Protecting the Environment - What Environmentalists Do." Because it got me thinking. What the heck am I doing? This is always an enlightening question to pursue.

One thing about environmentalists and environmentalism is that you will find a very diverse range of opinions on what to do. Furthermore, there is an almost infinite list of things that someone could do, from the merely trivial to the utterly overwhelming.

When someone actually decides to be an environmentalist, it often has to do with a response to some type of threat to a person's environment, their family or an area or place that they love. This often triggers an activist response. There are also a large percentage of people who I would call "private environmentalists." These folks take personal action but eschew participation in public discourse about issues.

Then there are educational environmentalists. They share about their experiences in nature, lead hikes, volunteer as docents and are part of a wide range of educational and practical activities about nature and ecology.

Finally, there are activists. Activists in any movement have similar aims: to educate others and move then to action to do something to help. To save something. To support or create something. To be a part of the public process that stands up for conserving and protecting things. This includes both lobbying and non-lobbying activities, personal and group activities from traditional letter and phone - and now email - campaigns, to what some consider eco-terrorism. There is a lot of individual environmental activism.

About the most famous environmental activist right now is a young woman name Julia "Butterfly" Hill who has camped in an old growth redwood tree in Northern California for going on two years.

Environmental activists can be found in a range of issue categories, and the politics vary by category too. Generally, the categories are: water, air, waste reduction/recycling and biodiversity. Especially at the local level, it's involvement in land use decisions that impact sensitive habitats.

Many environmentalists work to save remote places from mining, logging or other forms of intrusions. Others are working in urban areas trying to deal with toxic pollution and hazardous waste and the legacy of dirty sites. Still others work to attempt to enforce the range of environmental laws that have been enacted, including those at the federal level: The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Protection Act, Superfund legislation really, the list goes on and on. And there are state and local equivalents.

Most experienced activists can tell you that getting laws is one thing; enforcing them is another. I understand this is an area where we have lots of common cause with housing activists!

Most environmental activists spend time reviewing project documents and responding to the issues that are being brought up - or are not brought up. In California, the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA, requires disclosure of environmental impacts and analysis of alternatives prior to project permitting. Since San Diego has a track record of attempting to get away with inadequate action with respect to CEQA, this can be important work.

You are probably all familiar with the ball park case at this point. Two other recent environmental examples with the City of San Diego illustrate this point.

When the X Games were going for their permit, the City attempted to issue it, declaring there would be no impact and no required mitigation for running these games right next to an endangered least tern nesting site during hatching season. San Diego Audubon filed suit to require mitigation and the City settled out of court.

Right now, there is a permit in the process for an 8-day jet ski event proposed to be held in Mission Bay in October. The City issued a Mitigated Negative Declaration under CEQA. The section for water pollution stated the planned mitigation would be limited to requiring drip pans in the pit areas. Jet skis discharge up to 30 percent of their oil-gas fuel mixture directly into the water. Ignorance, corruption, or oversight - the point is, without citizen involvement there would not even be a chance to discuss this pollution, much less reduce or stop it. As it is, the City is still planning to claim the impact of 750 jet skis spewing thousands of gallons of raw fuel into Mission Bay is insignificant.

So that brings us to another form of environmentalists: attorneys and those citizens who organize to sue for enforcement or implementation of environmental laws. Local examples of this are Baykeeper and the Environmental Health Coalition.

There is also a need for people to lobby and work on behalf of new legislation. Just recently, the city held its public hearings on the budget. Donna Frye of Surfers Tired of Pollution was right there, asking for funding for the storm-water pollution prevention program. I went to ask for expansion of curbside recycling, funding for the Multiple Species Conservation Program, and increased sustainable energy investments, in addition to funding for a number of environmental restoration projects scheduled in many park master plans but without any funding.

What's my form of environmentalism? Besides applying many things in my personal life, my activism work centers around writing and networking and attempting to put environmental connections into the information flow. I'm an amplifier, and a missionary of sorts. I write about issues in what I hope are humorous ways. I run email lists on topics of interest so that people who do care about environmental issues and want to be active in the civic culture have a quick and easy way to tap in to the flow of information and events.

I constantly strive to encourage and inspire people, and empower them to participate by whatever means they can. I founded one local group, San Diego EarthWorks, that organizes the annual EarthFair in Balboa Park each April. EarthFair 2000 will be the 11th annual Earth Day event, hosting more than 200 local groups. Every year, we draw between 50,000 and 75,000 people. It is organized by more than 300 local volunteers. Last year, we estimate that 75 percent of our volunteers were new and had never volunteered for anything before. So, I know that there is a huge reservoir of volunteer ability and capacity in the San Diego region if you know how to tap into it.

I believe strongly that civic activism of any kind starts with connections, awareness, education, more awareness and action. I also strongly believe in Martin Luther King's observation about social change and what it takes: agitate, negotiate, litigate. In our culture, before you can get folks to be willing to agitate, you have connect with them in their busy lives and find ways to sustain those connections. I think Dr. King was referring to what we, as citizens, have to do in order to change the system to get justice. But now I'm afraid it applies to what activists of any kind have to do with the body politic itself. You almost have to agitate to get people to engage in political processes at all.

So I also teach people Politics 101 - or I should say, Politics 1, since it seems that political processes are not being taught particularly well in our schools.

I teach people where city hall is, how to fill out a speaker's slip - and not speak (at first) and how to find out who their elected representatives are. I serve on a few boards including San Diego EarthWorks, Citizen's Coordinate for Century 3 [C3, San Diego's oldest civic group for good public planning], the City's Waste Management Advisory Board and the San Diego League of Conservation Voters. I also serve on the Sierra Club's California Legislative Committee and am a consultant on the upcoming Earth Day 2000 international campaign being planned in 150 countries.

My biggest personal project at the moment is exploring what my family can personally do to identify and reduce our global warming impacts, and write about it. This is also related to the Earth Day 2000 campaign, which is an effort to increase the speed of the required transition away from polluting fossil fuel-based energy systems and into the real "solar age." I just spent two weeks test driving an electric car after identifying that changing to an electric car would be the #1 biggest thing a person with my profile could do [see story on page 2].

With all the other things I mentioned, by now you're likely wondering: where in the world does global warming fit it? Frankly, to think that any one individual can have an impact on global warming is probably a form of arrogance. But the reason for my doing it is to really find out, and share with others what I find out. Because at some point, every change must begin and end with individuals deciding how it fits into their world and understanding how they can change and why it's important. And if they can't change, to be a part of helping to overhaul the systems we're all trapped in, and to ask for change through the political system. A lot of the problems that both environmentalists and housing advocates face are systemic, which makes them terribly difficult to deal with and always requires something beyond an individual's response.

But at some level, it still begins with me. And with a dozen, then a hundred, then a thousand others figuring out what can be done about a problem and determining to do what they can. So my husband has scavenged some solar panels for our roof. And perhaps my mentioning it here today will inspire some others to explore what they can do. Because ultimately we are extremely unlikely to be able to convince elected officials to use the power of government to help without a sufficient number of people willing to work for change at all levels. In the case of global warming, there is simply no chance that the prevailing Congress could do anything substantive. Without leadership from the American people, they literally cannot change away from fossil fuels.

So I consider that it's the job of all environmentalists to connect with others and create change. And that's the main point of just about everything I try and do. It's all connected and all about showing people the environmental connections to everything we do.

Overall, I think that this is the single common purpose that every environmentalist should have: to discover the environmental connections of their actions and do something about improving their actions. To figure out how they are connected to the ongoing health or decline of the natural and, I believe, also the built systems we are dependent upon.

And this is why I'm here today - to learn about the connections that environmentalists should have with supporting progress in the way housing needs can be met, in ways that support the needed healthy environment for everyone.

It seems to me that smart growth is growth that supports the economy, the environment and the community. Like a holy trinity or a defense triad, if you shortchange one of the legs, the stability of the triad is weakened. Powerful forces consistently move to shortchange the community and the environment. The result is reduced quality of life for everyone. Frankly, whenever I hear the forecasted growth from the San Diego Regional Assoc. of Governments of about 50 percent in 20 years - that alarms me! Another million people coming here and the presumed million after that. And don't forget, another million San Diegans means another million cars or more. Doesn't it alarm any of you? The very fact that everyone in the public process spouts out growth figures like that without even blinking an eye should tell you something about our local political addictions to growth at any cost.

I agree with San Diego Mayoral candidate Jim Bell, who has dubbed the County's so-called Smart Growth Coalition as "A Little Less Stupid Growth." There is no emerging effort from that to show any real coalition-building potential.

And what about a future with a sensitive approach to the environment and housing?

I feel it would be remiss of me not to point out that there are divisions within what you might loosely call the environmental community. Many NIMBYs use environmental issues and environmental laws to stop projects they are opposed to for other personal reasons. I should also add that the best way to deal with NIMBYs is to address their reasonable issues. I always try to understand and remember that if I were in their position on many projects, I might be a NIMBY, too.

This also brings me to mention that environmentalists and housing advocates also have common opponents. In working on the Prop K and M in the last election - the Future Urbanizing proposals in Carmel Valley - it became clear pretty quickly that there were major factions who simply didn't want the density near them. This is also the rational marketplace choice: if you could get 1,000 4-acre estates instead of a 20,000-person community next to you, what would you work for? The question I worked on was what was the best for the region, the environment, the transportation and drainage systems, and to require a range of housing be built there. But I also want to add that because it will be new housing, it's likely that none of it can really qualify as affordable, although they will meet the legal standard. And they will be building everything from apartments to mansions.

I do believe that the more environmentalist and housing activists can work together, the more successes we can achieve. Working apart plays into the hands of the status quo.

Although activists rarely seem to feel they have the time for it, most substantive progress is made through the often difficult and time-consuming process of building true coalitions. Personally, I hold out great hope that the use of email and the internet will help in the formation of more effective local networks in support of conservation and quality of life issues throughout the region.

Thank you for your time today.

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