Saturday, March 31, 2012

Environmentalism in California

Jerry Brown’s been making national news in the last week.  Michael Hiltzik gives a rather hilarious account of Wall Street Journal managing editor getting the ‘treatment’.  Now the good editor knows what we in California have to put up with all the time.  But Murdoch’s rag doesn’t quite know how to spin the Governor, who has proven time and again over 40 years that he can always out-manoeuvre his long as it doesn’t involve him accomplishing anything of significance.

In the course of his conversation with Thompson, Brown undercut what some would say is his best claim to an agenda.  His solar tax incentives, focus on wind-generated energy, and regulation floor could give him some claim to an environmental agenda.  But he modestly suggested that he had hardly been going out on a limb, saying, “We didn’t even think of the cost of that tax credit.  Many years later I found out it cost hundreds of millions of dollars.  In those days tax credits were just free virtue, at least in our minds.  Nobody put up any resistance and there were no votes”. 

And the ‘70s were certainly an era when those espousing the use of alternative energy and environmental protection had the wind at their backs.  In January of 1969, somewhere around 100,000 barrels of crude oil were sent into the waters off of Santa Barbara when a Union Oil platform suffered a blow-out.  The company had received a waiver from the U.S. government to fudge safety measures, and reassured the Coast Guard that the spill was a minor one until a rig worker blew the whistle.  The company immediately lied about the extent of the spill, but the oil-covered beaches, dotted with dead and dying seabirds, belied its rhetoric.

Two weeks later a second spill occurred, and again a whistle-blower made the announcement.  The President flew in and announced a permanent ban on drilling that was almost immediately rescinded.  The spills and the incredible reaction from the oil company (its president declared blithely, “I don’t like to call it a disaster because there has been no loss of human life.  I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds”) generated local and national fury, and showed the perils of relying on oil and of tolerating an unregulated industry climate.

The upshot was that California found itself at the heart of an environmental movement which had already been given impetus by the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and which built off of wilderness and preservationist campaigns of an earlier era, such as John Muir’s crusade to save Hetch Hetchy from San Francisco’s insatiable growth.  The state, with its immense coast, spectacular forests, and great southern deserts, manifestly had much to lose from the excesses of polluters and irresponsibility of industries focussed on their bottom-lines to the exclusion of all else.

Since the ‘60s, environmentalism has become a natural part of Californians’ dialogue.    Muir’s preservationist campaign of the early twentieth century, which pitted him against conservationists like Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt, was about aesthetics, and the spirituality of wilderness.  The environmentalism that took shape later in the century was impelled by these sentiments, but also by an ecological sensibility that saw people as intertwined with their surroundings, a more sophisticated land ethic espoused by the likes of the great Aldo Leopold, and an injunction towards self-preservation in the face of environmental disasters like the Santa Barbara Oil Spill.  It became a matter of common sense that industries which, should they engage in irresponsible behaviour, putting profits ahead of communal safety and health, should be regulated.  Equally uncontroversial was the desirability of protecting spaces of great natural beauty which were as often as not also ecologically-rich zones.  Finally, it has long been a matter of faith that getting ourselves off a disaster-prone form of energy like oil is a logical course of action.

As a result, Californians have not found themselves subject to the zany fundamentalism—whether economic or religious—which imprisons people in other parts of the country (although our state Republican Party’s radical right turn combined with the power vested in them by minority rule means that a small minority is now vociferously opposed to conservation).  Politicians are comfortable discussing environmentalism.  In fact, in 2010 high-spending gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman was a little too fulsome of her embrace of Texas’ deregulated environment for the taste of many voters, and had the misfortune to go up against a veteran Californian politician, fluent in progressive-speak if not –action, in a year when Texas oil companies were sponsoring a blatantly self-interested deregulatory bill.  In an illustration that playing the Idiot Card doesn’t yet pay in California, Barbara Boxer pummelled Carly Fiorina over suggestions that profiteering should come at the expense of the cultural, social and health-related benefits associated with a conservation ethic. 

It’s not all been smooth sailing.  Impassioned environmentalists, reprehensibly insensitive to the effects of their efforts on local economies, dialogue-averse, and unwilling to think in the human ecological terms that should come naturally to them, took drastic action in the northern forests of the state when they spiked trees as part of their efforts to save spotted owl populations, unnecessarily dividing themselves from other people who have an equal claim to know and understand their natural surroundings.  But moments of tension have defined environmentalism in California less than those of consensus, as when Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown joined to sue the Bush administration in their effort to implement stricter emissions standards.

But Brown is an opportunist more than a man of conviction, and today, perhaps in aid of his grand bargain to bring business on board with his tax plans, talks proudly of cutting through red tape and has noted that he is looking at the merits of fracking as a method of oil extraction.  Brown may very well be right to quote an ‘expert’ who described fracking as “not as bad as environmentalists say, it’s not as safe as the oil companies say”.  This is an answer sure to appeal to Brown, for it allows him to perch a little while longer on his beloved fence while lesser mortals squabble below. 

But that’s not the point, as we should know by now.  The question is not whether an extractive process is as bad as it could be.  It’s whether, when we’ve universally recognised the need to move beyond oil dependence (with all the perils that such a dependence poses for our security, our environmental and physical health), we should continue to incentivise practises which are ultimately not in our interest, simply so that we can have cheaper gas for a couple of years and let oil companies make stupendous profits.

We have yet to learn that when it comes to the environment, as with politics more broadly, a market-oriented, deregulated approach sets us up for disaster.  In such a climate, which eschews planning in the name of the public good, we will not correct course until we experience something like the Santa Barbara Oil Spill, the Three Mile Island disaster, Love Canal, the recent oil spill in the gulf, or worse.  And while industries might be willing to pay the pittances we ask of them after such disasters, assured of ever-greater short-term profits, the public should not be willing to countenance such an unconscionable approach to the environment on which we depend.

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