How our concerns about “The Environment” have changed over 50 years

Earth Day’s “Big 5-Oh” (as AARP would call it) was definitely a major breakthrough in consciousness about the relationship of humans to our home planet.  But the rumblings of awareness had been going on for a long time… some might even point to the Roman  philosopher Lucretius, whose De Rerum Natura speculated about the origins of life and postulated the existence of atoms.  Back in 1903, Teddy Roosevelt met with John Muir at Yosemite and became a champion of “conserving” land as a reserve for “nature.”  And in the 1930’s, Teddy’s cousin Franklin Roosevelt established the Soil Conservation Service, noting how mechanized farming was devastating the Midwest, creating dust storms of top soil that occasionally even reached Washington, DC. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring questioned the idea of  “better living through chemistry” by pointing out how DDT not only killed mosquitoes, but also destroyed eggshells of our iconic Bald Eagle and countless other birds.

But most people were only dimly aware of such concerns before the first Earth Day in 1970 when the Peninsula Conservation Center (one of Acterra’s precursor organizations) was founded. At that time “nature” was perceived as a simpler place.  Concerns about the environment were largely about pollution coming from single “point source” like smokestacks and sewage discharge pipes. We aimed to clean up these “end of the pipe” problems with Federal legislation like the 1970 Clean Air and 1972 Clean Water Acts.  These laws required industry to put “scrubbers” on factory smokestacks and water outflow pipes, and provided funding to build multi-level treatment of sewage water before it could be discharged into rivers or the ocean. We thought that would take care of the pollution problem.

After the 1973 passage of the Endangered Species Act, national worries about environmental needs subsided.  The newly established Environmental Protection Agency began to do its work, and thousands of baby-boomers filling college ecology classes moved into the jobs created by those 1970’s laws.  Palo Alto was first in the nation in 1980 with its curbside recycling program for single-family homes.  People began to pay attention to land use planning issues, such as protecting the California coast and wetland areas from development. Prop. 65, passed by California voters in 1986 to protect water quality, required warnings and restricted the use of highly toxic chemicals.

The belief that humans could curb pollution may have reached its height in 1987 when an international treaty — the Montreal Protocol — was signed by 197 nations to protect Earth’s ozone layer by restricting manufacture and use of chlorofluorocarbons.  Silicon Valley — which had been using CFC’s to clean its silicon chips — realized that lemon oil would do the same job!

However, by 1989, one ugly headline about pollution followed another. It was increasingly clear that environmental degradation wasn’t just coming from outflow pipes.  Aluminum pull tabs from beverage cans littered hiking trails, newsmagazine covers showed hypodermic needles half buried in beach sand, and TV news carried the saga of a New York City garbage barge with no place to unload its foul cargo. Cities like Los  Angeles were choking from the smog created by millions of cars.  The cartoon strip character Pogo famously expressed it well: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  In short, pollution was everywhere, caused by all of us because of the wasteful and careless ways we lived.

With this in mind, Dennis Hayes (a student leader of the first Earth Day) decided that 1990 was time for a second major event — this time calling it “International Earth Day” — and it was headquartered right here in Palo Alto!  A new generation of environmental leaders like Peter Drekmeier and others who would go on locally the next year to form Bay Area Action (another precursor to Acterra), drafted position papers on topics like energy, water quality, air pollution, marine mammals, native plants and animal habitats —  all of which underscored the impact of human activities on a broad range of ecosystems.

Still riding below the radar, however, was an issue of even greater magnitude: climate change. In 1988 NASA scientist James Hansen delivered his famous warning about global warming to the US Congress, and in 1989, Bill McKibben’s book, The End of Nature pointed out that with the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, there was now no place on Earth that had not been modified by humans.  With buoyed hopes, in 1992 the United Nations convened the first international Conference on Climate Change in Rio de Janiero.  Rob Shelton, a business sustainability consultant and the Peninsula Conservation Center’s board president at the time, attended, but he returned, wondering if all the rhetoric he’d heard was truly worth what he called “one Rio” worth of jet fuel to convene all the delegates.  His concerns proved well founded when the US Congress failed to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Treaty, an largely unsuccessful international effort to limit carbon emissions.

In the US, environmental concerns again fell into the background, overshadowed first by the dot.com bubble and subsequent bust, and then by the 9/11 attacks in 2001.  But climate change was not going away — and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 showed that it wasn’t really a “future” problem, either. Fortunately, in 2006, Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” offered a serious wake-up call, and as Stanford professor Jon Krosnick’s public opinion poll showed, by 2007 nearly three-fourths of the American public agreed that the climate was changing.  As the country fell into the Great Recession in 2008, however, environmental concerns once again moved off center stage. Reducing public confidence in environmental science was a successful strategy by fossil fuel companies and their allies as documented in the 2014 film, “Masters of Doubt” by Naomi Orestes.  While Barack Obama took some positive steps to address climate change, the topic was still ignored by the media — and almost all presidential hopefuls — as recently as 2019.

Today in 2020, while the latest report of the IPCC warns that there is only a ten-year window to avert catastrophic change in Earth’s climate, the Trump administration continues its relentless assault upon long-standing regulatory protections. And now, as the winter turns to spring and Earth Day is turning 50, we find humanity in the grip of a global pandemic, caused by a lowly virus.

With nearly 200,000 deaths so far from the COVID-19 disease worldwide, the reality of human interconnection is entering our consciousness in a deeply emotional way. We recognize that a virus starting from a wild animal in China, traveling to Italy, passing through an airport in New York and zinging all over the globe proves that we are not immune to what happens in any corner of this planet.  Sheltering within our homes, we feel the pain of losing connection. We yearn for a hug from our grandchild, to touch a dying sister’s hand, to bring flowers to a friend. We’re now deeply aware of our utter dependence on the supply chain of food that comes from Mother Earth. Satellite photos show cleaner air over China and Italy; Silicon Valley’s frustrating traffic jams have disappeared. We seek solace in nature — even if it’s only nature pictures on line. We realize that Life is precious — and for a few moments, we’re slowing down to appreciate it.

These questions await an answer:  What will this virus teach us?  What will be the next stage for humans and the ecosystems we are a part of? How will we change and grow before the next decade of Earth Day?

What are We Learning from the COVID-19 Experience ?

It’s been about 6 weeks now since we in California realized that this new virus infection, COVID-19, was going to impact our lives in a major way. Since then, we’ve learned new memes like “flatten the curve,” that viruses aren’t really “alive,” how to use Zoom, tips on baking sourdough bread — and how much of sixth grade math we’ve forgotten!  But while we’re spending time looking up facts and how-to’s online, a meta/societal level of learning is also going on that transcends our individual Google searching.

I’ve come up with six lessons that are starting to imprint in our collective psyche — social memes that may have a universal impact on our future behavior. These aren’t just “intellectual” learnings — we are grokking them at a deeper, more emotional level. I see most of these as positive, with one significant exception which I will leave to the end.

The first is a deepening awareness of our interconnection and a growing love for the web of life.  We recognize that a virus starting from a wild animal in China, traveling to Italy, passing through an airport in New York and zinging all over the globe proves that we are not immune to what happens in any corner of this planet.  Sheltering within our homes, we feel the pain of losing connection. We yearn for a hug from our grandchild, to touch a dying sister’s hand, to bring flowers to a friend. We find solace in nature — even if it’s only nature photos on line. We realize that Life is precious — and for a few moments, we’re slowing down to appreciate it.

Secondly, we’re newly aware of the need to plan ahead for future emergencies.   A friend who thought her husband crazy a decade ago when he purchased a bucketful of emergency health supplies was so pleased when they opened it to find a dozen N-95 face masks. The erosion of national funding for such supplies makes those of us with earthquake kits in our cars feel somewhat virtuous. And clearly, communities like San Mateo County that are proactively planning for the sea level rise due to climate change are taking the necessary steps to protect their residents and future economy.  Climate protection advocates have been raising a clarion call for decades about the urgent need to reduce green house gases, and the parallel with failing to prepare for COVID-19 is only too obvious.

Thirdly, the divisions in our society based on income and race are now frighteningly visible. The statistics are coming in from all corners: African-Americans and Latinx people are disproportionally being infected and dying from the virus.  This isn’t due to any inherent biological weakness — but to economic inequality.  Stemming from a history of racist policies, people of color have lower income, less family wealth, more stress — and higher rates of mortality from all diseases.  Lower income people of color are more likely to live close to freeways and in cities with high air pollution, both of which are risk factors for asthma and catching COVID-19.  And we’re all more vividly aware that health insurance — and even sick leave — are only available to those on one side of the income divide.  While affluent people have decent health care plans from their employers or Medicare, people in lower income brackets work at “gig” jobs without insurance benefits — or they are undocumented immigrants who pay into the Medicare system, but never receive its benefits. It’s now hard to ignore these statistics — or to create other excuses for them. If we claim to believe in equality of opportunity, it’s clear that we need to address these issues of income inequality — and the underlying racist attitudes behind them.

Fourth, more people are starting to see the value of government as an institution. When we see the efficient, wide-ranging and science-based response of California’s Governor Newsom and the capable experts he has enlisted to handle the COVID emergency, it renews our faith in what a government can accomplish.  As the major social organization explicitly set up to work for the common good, it’s heartening to see a government that is wisely directing resources, being proactive about addressing emerging concerns and planning ahead.  In comparison with the mendacious and fumbling mistakes of the Trump Administration, it’s refreshing to see a working example of how a government is supposed to act. A corollary is the undeniable value of a working public health system, based on data analysis and scientific inquiry, and how it can capably protect its community needs.

The fifth learning is about how quickly we CAN change! Some of us remember the extraordinary winter of 1989-90, which saw not only the Berlin Wall fall within a few days, but also Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, which led to the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa.  Similarly, from the COVID crisis we’re learning that people can change very fast when they see a clear reason for doing so.  During the first week of staying-at-home, our whole society was inundated with the phrase “Flatten the curve.” Our amazing ability to spread information can support the motivation for behavior change. For example, an idea like passing a $2 trillion CARES package would have been considered “impossible” by deficit hounds a few years ago.  Now it is “what we have to do.” We should now apply this lesson to reduce the impact of climate change. We know we must switch to renewable energy and rebuild our homes, offices and factories to run on clean electricity, rather than dirty fossil fuels. Yes, it will cost money to retrofit all these buildings — but the savings in using free energy from the sun and the wind will pay for the upfront equipment cost in short order. We just need to educate people that a Green New Deal is essential for our health and safety — and for a prosperous future economy. (And it might help if we also remind people that the only real barrier is fossil fuel investors who are only thinking of their short-term profits, rather than the health of this interconnected world in which we all live.)

This brings me to the sixth and final lesson from our experience with COVID-19:  the temptation to give in to fear. One obvious fear is catching the virus and dying.  This fear makes some call for cutting back on environmental initiatives such as plastic bag bans and other “zero waste” rules that have recently emerged to prevent further devastation of wildlife and ecosystems. At the deepest level, fears of an unknown future lead some people to a hypervigilance that wastes their life energy and constricts their vision of other possibilities.  Is it really necessary to wipe canned goods from the store with anti-bacterial wipes that don’t biodegrade?  Others, either out of genuine concern or simply blatant self-interest, are leveraging the fear of economic consequences to lobby for excessive subsidies for fossil fuels and other polluting industries. (As just one example, note how Trump quietly removed restrictions on deadly mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants in early April.)  With calls for a return to “normal,” some are denying the emerging awareness of our deep interconnection and the evolving new reality.

Without succumbing to fear, our challenge now is to go forward — with courage — incorporating what we are learning.  As we look into the future, how will we use these lessons delivered by a lowly virus?  Will we forget our deep connection to all beings on the living Earth?  Will we fail to address the patterns of inequality that are tearing our society apart?  Will we again neglect to plan for the emergencies science tells us are looming on the horizon?  With a cautious trust, will we renew a belief that government can act capably and honestly on our behalf — if we invest our energy in participating in democracy ? And can we honestly face the coming challenge of climate change, acting quickly to replace the outmoded technologies and thought patterns that are poisoning our home?

Can We Transform Like Butterflies?

When I look at all the social woes that beset us today, I find solace in the metamorphosis of the caterpillar. Its radical change into a butterfly has a hopeful resemblance to our current human condition. See if you can identify the parallels. . .

A caterpillar starts off innocently enough. A squiggly little worm shape — a start-up if you will — it aims to avoid being eaten by creatures higher up the food chain. But, as anyone who has ever raised tomatoes knows, a caterpillar is essentially an eating machine. It soon gets fat, gorging itself on everything green in its path, rather like the clear-cutting machines of timber companies — or the financial schemes of other capitalists.

Once the bloated caterpillar has eaten all it can, it finds a comfortable niche — and then, it begins to spit out slime. (Sound familiar?) The slime hardens into a protective shell; it’s wrapped up tight and seems unlikely to change.

However, inside the chrysalis, something shifts. The internal structures that supported the caterpillar begin to dissolve. Just as we see the breakdown of social structures — traditional families, religious institutions, secure employment, safe neighborhoods and schools, gender roles, and norms of compassion — the caterpillar’s internal organs disintegrate into their component molecules. They become individual, atomized units swimming around meaninglessly in a sea of goo. (Certainly sounds familiar now, right?)

But within the chrysalis lies a new potential. Small structures called “imaginal cells” — probably strands of DNA — begin to attract molecules within the goo. These imaginal cells remind me of a small co-op grocery, a community garden, a neighborhood “free library” box, farmer’s markets, free clinics, casual carpools, bike-sharing, co-housing — a whole range of new social institutions that are springing up to serve the needs of people ravaged by slime and rapacious behavior.

Within the chrysalis, the imaginal cells collect more and more molecules, pulling them together into new — and much more beautiful! — structures. Ultimately, these new structures grow big and strong and can no longer be contained within the rigid form of the chrysalis. It bursts open and a beautiful new creature emerges, ready to begin its dance through the world.

This is Nature’s model. Can we take hope from it and grow those imaginal cells — bringing forth a future of beautiful butterflies?

© Debbie Mytels, January 16, 2015

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Goslings at the Park

There are many patterns in the natural world that have parallels in our human behavior. This blog will highlight some of them and aim to elucidate how we humans might benefit from observing these patterns and consciously replicating them. The patterns in the natural world have, after all, evolved over many millions of years — and there’s often a lot of wisdom in discovering what one can learn from one’s elders.

As an example, see if you recognize a pattern I saw one day while walking at Mountain View’s Shoreline Park.

Shoreline is a large open space park designed on the site of a former garbage dump located adjacent to the wetlands of south San Francisco Bay. The waters that once lapped against the Bay shore have now been converted into a semi-natural lake for windsurfers and paddle boats, while across the grass-covered mounds of garbage the Bay itself has been tamed into diked salt ponds. The landscape architects who sculpted this place have done a good enough job so that the area not only attracts daily joggers, rollerbladers and parents pushing strollers, but it also supports a fairly large population of shore birds — particularly Canadian geese.

These geese are big — at least 3 feet tall — and so fat and plump that it’s a clear testament to the affluence of our community here in Silicon Valley that they are not shot and brought home for dinner. Maybe the geese know that they would become people food in another place and so choose to stay — and multiply! — here in sunny California? Whatever their reasoning, the flock seems to be growing every year, and every spring I’ve come to enjoy watching the downy chicks paddling in a line after their mothers in the cement lined creeks that feed into the lake at Shoreline. The little fluff balls get bigger as the spring goes on, but it’s still easy to differentiate between the proud and strutting parents and the somewhat scruffy juveniles.

So one day in late spring as I was walking on a path between the lake and the grassy knolls, a large flock of adults — maybe 50 or 60 of them — were spread out all over the lawn area, sunning themselves on the grass. And them I looked to the right, near some trees and slightly behind a hillock. Totally separated from the others by about 50 yards, four or five large adults were standing watch over a bunched mass of maybe 30 or 40 juveniles. It was Goose Day Care!

The goslings were pecking at each other and the grass, while their “teachers” strutted around them. All of a sudden, about a third of the young ones separated out, herded by a few honks from one of the adults. She (of course, I assumed it was a “she”) nudged and cajoled them and waddled behind the batch of youngsters as they headed off towards the water. “Ah, a field trip!” I thought.

I looked back over at the lawn full of adults, sitting there unperturbed. Did the caretaker adults have that role permanently — or did they rotate this role, too, as geese supposedly do when trading the lead while flying in V-formation?

How ever the geese adopt these roles, it was clearly a familiar — and delightful — pattern.

— Debbie Mytels, January 9, 2015

Seasons of Change

Transition Palo Alto

by Debbie Mytels, September 25, 2014

As the Earth’s cycle turns to autumn, many cultures – and our educational systems – consider it the beginning of a “new year.” So as the leaves turn brown and fall, it’s an important time to reflect on what’s been accomplished during the past and what can be done differently in the time to come.  So a dozen enthusiastic members of the Transition Palo Alto/Silicon Valley Steering Committee — along with reps from Heart Beat Earth, Sunnyvale Cool, Move to Amend, the Fools Mission and the Palo Alto Unitarian Church Green Sanctuary Committee — organized an evening workshop on “Seasons of Change” on September 10 led by Menlo Park author and career counselor Carol McClelland, Ph.D.

Carol developed the workshop from ideas in her 1998 book, “Seasons of Change: Using Nature’s Wisdom to Grow Through Life’s Inevitable Ups and Downs.”  This inspiring…

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