Behind Green Eyes: Four Concepts That Can Change How You See The Environment

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor, Random Lengths News

[Republished from our current edition, cross-posted from My Left Wing]

Unlike abortion, immigration, taxation or gay rights, the environment is not a polarizing issue. It's more like baseball, mom and apple pie. For decades now--at least since the first Earth Day in 1970--Americans, from liberal to conservative, have registered high levels of support for protecting and caring for the environment.  

Yet, although there have been some striking successes, the specter of global warming is grim reminder of the enormous gap between our public policies and our environmental values--a gap that somehow must be closed if we are to pass on a reasonably habitable planet to future generations.

Here in the Harbor Area, the massive problem of port pollution serves to remind us that the environmental policy/values gap is found locally as well as globally.

This gap is partly a function of perspective that comes from exposure to experience and ideas.  Contact with nature is obviously a factor, as Jesse Morton, President of Palos Verdes/ Southbay Audubon Society, observed.

"So many people have lived in urban environments, as well as their parents and grandparents... The environment is somehow distant. The experience of nature itself is not related to their everyday lives," Morton reflected. The result can "become enormous.... It distorts the way people vote, and how they perceive," he noted.

But in the realm of ideas, many environmentalists are starting to flip that around: if nature seems remote to people's experience, their task is to illuminate how close it really is.

Community-Centered Environmentalism

"Nature certainly begins at least at our front doors," said Tom Politeo, Co-Chair of the Sierra Club's Harbor Vision Task Force.  " As our population grows and our national, regional and civic parks are under more and more pressure, it's important to bring nature into the city - or be sure that the city is part of nature. Hence, we restore wetlands in Wilmington to do this."
Politeo was responding to a question about community-centered environmentalism--one of four concepts at different stages of development that can help to bridge the values/policy gap.

Community-centered environmentalism comes naturally to Latino politics, Antonio Gonzales, President of the Willie C. Velasquez Institute, explained to Random Lengths for our Earth Day feature last year. "What we want is to improve the education, and health care and economic position and so forth," Gonzales said.  In doing so, "What you run into all the time are the issues that flow from environmental degradation."

Instead of the environment being something "out there," community-centered environmentalism sees it as a thread running through virtually every other issue you will encounter, much the same way that revitalizing the Los Angeles River promises to revitalize the pre-WWII core of Los Angeles. Latinos may feel the necessity more keenly, but the logic touches all of our lives.

The struggle to clean up our ports is a health care struggle, a labor struggle, a civil rights struggle, an education struggle, a spiritual/religious struggle, and an economic struggle, just to cite some of the organizational affiliations of those who have gotten deeply involved in what once was seen as "only" an environmental issue--and even then, one that most environmentalists hadn't paid much attention to.

Wilmington activist Jesse Marquez formed Communities for a Safe Environment to fight the Port's original plans for TraPac expansion.  But his orientation quickly shifted from negative to positive, and grew significantly in scope.

"We have to bring in the circle of life," Marquez explained, which involves things normally seen as part of the environment--"the planet you live on, the forest, tress, the birds"--as well as things that usually aren't--"your family, your children, what things you have to provide for them."

As a result, he concluded, "In my years as environmental activist, I now see myself as more of an urban planner trying to understand what did happen, and how can I plan a better future."

Externalized Costs

Three other concepts are closely related to community-centered environmentalism, and also help bridge the environmental values/policy gap.  The most well-developed is the concept of externalized costs, an economic concept referring to costs of economic activity--such as pollution--which are not paid for by those involved in the marketplace.

Although it's a long-standing economic concept, elaborated in detail by British economist Arthur Pigou almost 100 years ago, economic measurements of externalized costs have been hard to make until quite recently.

Locally, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) has played a leading role in developing cost models including health, premature death, agricultural productivity, traffic congestion, visibility, and corrosion.

"With each new air quality plan--we update about every 3 years--we do a socio-economic analysis," AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood explained.  "As more and more medical research is done, we continue to get a more accurate picture the monetary health benefits from cleaning up the smog."

The most recent analysis was just days away from being released when Atwood spoke to Random Lengths, but he provided a ballpark picture.
"Total benefits including health and other benefits exceed $20 billion a year, total. Costs on average each year will be $2.35 billion," Atwood said.

The benefits are reductions in negative externalities, but the ports only part of AQMD's responsibility, and significant externalized costs will still remain.

"The state has told us that by 2020, polluting activity from California's ports operations and associated freight transport will have a health impact of approximately $200 billion," Annette Kondo, spokesperson for the Coalition for Clean Air (CCA) pointed out. "That's a huge health bill that hurts the pocketbooks of all Californians," Kondo continued, adding the following breakdown of annual statistics from the California Air Resources Board:
 * 2,400 premature deaths
 * 2,830 additional hospital admissions
 * 360,000 sick days for workers
 * And, 1.1 million missed school days for children in California.

If these costs were included in the price of doing business, it would play havoc with existing business models. Costs of imported goods would skyrocket.  But fortunately, as Atwood's figures remind us, the costs of reducing pollution are much cheaper than costs incurred by producing it.

"No one's arguing we turn off the lights and walk away," said Ed Avol, a health scientist from USC, who has consulted for the Port Community Advisory Committee.  "There's general agreement that correction can be done.  We need to understand the common ground."

The Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle states that if an action or policy could cause significant or irreversible public harm, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action. It is not enough to say, "We don't know of any health effects," as happened for decades with smoking, asbestos, or diesel pollution--particularly since people didn't want to know.

Chemist Jan Greenwood, former President of the Long Beach Neighborhood Wrigley Association, put it simply: "You have a duty to make sure that any of your actions do not cause harm," she explained.  "You can't just say, we followed the regulations. The regulations can't cover every situation."

Turning to the recent example of citing an liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal at the Port of Long Beach, Greenwood pointed out, "You only have 40 LNG terminals around the world.  That's not enough to come up with a risk assessment," which is precisely when the Precautionary Principle comes most forcefully into effect.  

In this case, it would be relatively simple, since other forms of hydrocarbon liquid fuel facilities can be studied for their safety records.

"Once every 15 years something happens. There are standard methods for assessing risk" based on the larger, more general sample of all hydrocarbon facilities, Greenwood said.  "That was not followed in the EIR/EIS" for the proposed Long Beach LNG terminal, she added.

"The Precautionary Principle has been stood on its head in the US," said community activist Bry Myown, who spearheaded opposition to the Long Beach LNG terminal.

"There was a 1250 page report put together by the Carter Administration. They came up with a bunch of recommendations, that have all been ignored," Myown said. "Like don't every cite these things near people."

Ecosystem Services

Finally, the ecosystem services perspective looks at natural systems in terms of the services they provide for human society.  Because we have never had to pay for such services, we tend to take them for granted--that is, until they are gone, when they can be very expensive, or even impossible to replace.

These include provisioning services such as food, water, timber, and fiber; regulating services that affect climate, floods, disease, wastes, and water quality; cultural services that provide recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits; and supporting services such as soil formation, photosynthesis, and nutrient cycling.

The UN-sponsored Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, with 1,300 expert contributors from 95 countries concluded that 15 of 24 ecosystem services studied "are being degraded or used unsustainably, including fresh water, capture fisheries, air and water purification, and the regulation of regional and local climate, natural hazards, and pests."

From this perspective, the unpaid health costs from port pollution are typical of economic costs incurred by the destruction of ecosystem services (in this case, the provision of healthy air to breath).  The loss of thousands of acres of wetlands in the harbor also helped destroy the provisioning of rich fisheries which formerly employed thousands of harbor area workers.  

On the other hand, construction of the Waterfront Promenade promises to recover cultural services previously lost--particularly, Politeo stresses, if we use the waterfront's unique features for things that can only happen there, and concentrate other development in Downtown San Pedro, adjacent to, rather than on the waterfront.

"As we select land uses and businesses for the waterfront, we should make sure each of them has a solid connection to the tidelands," Politeo said. "We shouldn't hope for or fear developments based on square feet, but evaluate them on appropriateness for the tidelands. In the mix, it is important to restore some of the lost wetlands, perhaps in a way that a new lagoon can serve as safe place for youth to learn kayaking or similar skills."

Collectively, these four concepts provide ways of seeing the environment and our place within it that more easily translate environmental values into effective actions and policies.  They help us see past the error of reflexively opposing the environment to the economy. The more familiar we become with them, the more effectively environmental values can be integrated into everything else we do.

Tags: community-centered environmentalism, ecosystems services, Environment, externalized costs, precautionary principle (all tags)



nice article

Just one thing that seemed a little odd: I was surprised to see the following line written so matter-of-factly:

Unlike abortion, immigration, taxation or gay rights, the environment is not a polarizing issue.

Sure, if we ran a poll to measure support for "clean air and water," we would expect liberals and conversatives to be quite in sync. Of course opinions would diverge if we polled support of "Roe vs. Wade" - but it's the same thing with the environment, isn't it? Once you start talking in terms of specific policies - running the gamut from snail darters to Kyoto - it often does get divisive and partisan.  

by Rob in Vermont 2007-04-22 06:04PM | 0 recs

conversatives! :-)

by Rob in Vermont 2007-04-22 06:09PM | 0 recs


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