Cultural Evolution: Stop AND Build

by Carolyn Chase, Editor

regularly get amazing phone calls "out-of-the-blue." I got one of those last week. The call came from an 85-year-old World War II veteran and Mexican national who had evidently done a study of the future development of Baja California for the Sierra Club back in the sixties.

While he had lost touch with the Club, he had taken it upon himself to purchase some key lands with an eye to eventual 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.

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 good things and doing good work. Now, he was seeking advice on how to build both for nature and for the communities of people living nearby.

I kept thinking, why in the world is he asking me?

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 support it financially. He wanted to connect with environmentalists to help him build the right thing in the right way.


Organizationally challenged


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.

Like people, organizations also have traits and habits. Over time, they are the sources of great success. But when they can't change with the times, they become victims of their habits and inability to adapt.

The Sierra Club, National Audubon and the National Wildlife Federation the largest and oldest groups were founded in 1892, 1905 and 1936 respectively. They were founded by and for elites who sought to experience nature directly through hiking, birding or hunting. Their early conservation efforts were focused on preserving the places they loved for the reasons they loved them. And we all benefit from their legacy today.


Public awareness


The environmental movement, as a wider mass movement, can be traced back to the mid-sixties with the publication of Rachel Carson's groundbreaking book, A Silent Spring. She researched and traced the impact of post-World War II pesticides on the environment, wildlife, the food chain and eventually, us.

Mass public disgust over rampant, irresponsible 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. Earth Day 1970 generated the public support that led to swift enactment of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Occupational Safety & Health Act, as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

A Fortune survey in early 1970 found 53 percent of Fortune 500 executives in favor of a national regulatory agency and 57 percent believing that the federal government should "step up regulatory activities." Eighty-five percent of the executives thought that the environment should be protected, even if that meant reducing profits.

Can you imagine?


Just say STOP


The urgent need was to stop air and water pollution and their underlying causes: population growth and a lack of enforceable standards.

New groups established themselves to enforce new environmental laws and use them to stop bad projects and environmental degradation. The Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund and others became masters of stopping some things. Over the years, environmental groups have been accused of mounting lawsuits just to stop things.

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

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.

But, if there's one key lesson about environmentalism and what must be its ultimate goal, it's that we cannot really save or conserve nature only by stopping things. Stopping is entirely necessary and important, but not sufficient. We have to get folks actually starting and completing good things in addition to stopping the bad ones.

Another problem, of course, is that environmentalists have a mixed record (at best) in stopping everything that should be stopped. Just look around: for every great victory there are dozens of losses. Even if you theoretically could stop all bad environmental behavior, it still wouldn't leave us with a sustainable world to live and thrive in - or the kinds of behavior that will give us one.

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


A sea change


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, 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 building and stopping.

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 us build some things. Prop K (Black Mountain Ranch) and Prop M (Pacific Highlands Ranch) are about getting builders to stop some things and start others.

As difficult as it is for many environmentalists to endorse these projects, we have. The Sierra Club Executive Committee unanimously endorsed these projects east of Torrey Pines State Park. These projects have also been endorsed by the Endangered Habitats League, Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, and the San Diego California Native Plant Society.

The process to ensure that we're making the right decision has been agonizing. Volunteers have walked the properties. Many biologists actively studied what's best for endangered species and habitats 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.

Both projects have been thoroughly evaluated by the city, local conservationists and neighbors of the properties. The choice is between chopping up the area into estate homes (the understandable preference of some nearby property owners, but not the right choice for the environment) or putting in responsible, balanced growth that provides the necessary elements for both human and environmental infrastructure.

Homes will be built, and we need them to be built (and rebuilt) in the best possible way, for the environment and the residents. These projects are designed to be walkable and livable. They will provide wildlife corridor connections, water pollution prevention and control, easy access to transportation alternatives, and housing near office space. They will also provide permanently dedicated park lands, schools, fire and police stations and libraries at no cost to taxpayers.

They are an evolution, not a revolution. This bothers many activists, who fervently believe a revolution is required. It seems almost unbelievable to many people that developers and environmentalists could work together in good faith. But we must learn how. Making them the best possible projects over time is part of an important evolution for everyone involved.

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


Keep the momentum - vote

Some of the environmental "stoppers" would like the stop this evolution. To support environmental evolution that strives for sustained excellence in stopping AND building, I ask all Sierra Club members to please vote for me in the San Diego Sierra Club Executive Committee elections. (If you would like to join the club, please call: (415) 977-5653 and press 1).
  Carolyn Chase is Chair of the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club, Chair of the City of San Diego Waste Management Advisory Board, and a founder of San Diego EarthWorks and the Earth Day Network. She can be reached at .