By Terry Tamminen, President, Seventh Generation Advisors and former Secretary of the California EPA
While surfing the web recently, I came across a tourist website – – and these are real questions, to which the purveyors of the site could only give humorous answers, but which actually shed light on our topic today…
Q: “I have never seen it rain in Australia on TV – – how do the plants grow?”
A: We import all plants fully grown and then just sit around watching them die.
Q: “Can you give me some information about hippopotamus racing in Australia?”
A: A-fri-ca is the big triangle shaped continent south of Europe. Aus-tra-lia is that big island in the middle of the Pacific which does not…oh forget it. Sure, the hippo racing is every Tuesday night in Kings Cross. Come naked.
Q: “Which direction is North in Australia?”
A: Face South and then turn 180 degrees. Contact us when you get here and we’ll send the rest of the directions.
I mention these because, while funny, they exemplify the real problem we face as we try to deal with the challenge of building a more sustainable world for the future – – too many people just don’t understand the world we live in today. You can forgive them though / because even those of us engaged in green studies and businesses can’t always see the proverbial forest for the trees. Is there a way to help our communities see more clearly / to inspire and lead the way to a more sustainable planet?
When I lived in Nigeria, I met a tribal elder in a tiny coastal village who told a tale that may answer that question. You have just washed up on a tiny, deserted island, he said. This island is no bigger than a ten steps in every direction and is nothing more than solid rock. Waves pound the shoreline constantly, leaving you no opportunity to fish or harvest from tidepools. There is no fresh water and you are utterly alone, but for one living thing – – a palm tree.
It is a coconut palm, so it provides some food and drink. A bird lays eggs now and then that further supplements your meager diet. You notice a dozen coconuts on the ground and several dozen more in the crown of the tree in various stages of ripeness. You use a sharp rock to remove the husk and crack open one coconut. You devour the meat and drink within, careful to preserve the shell to make two small cups to store precious rainwater when it comes. Given this reprieve, and sitting in the shade of the tree, the only place on the island where you are protected from baking into parchment, you begin to ponder your fate.
You recognize the only way to assure a sustainable supply of food and water – – you can only consume coconuts as they fall from the tree. By limiting yourself to fallen coconuts, you know that the tree will provide you with sustenance indefinitely. You calculate how many are likely to fall, over what period of time, and then determine how many days each fallen coconut must last to stretch out the supply for your foreseeable future.
Some nights are cold, wet, and windy, but you are smart enough not to cut down the tree and burn its wood for warmth. Instead, you burn only fronds that have fallen naturally and dried coconut husks. You husband these precious resources carefully, burning only a small amount of fuel at a time to ensure a sustainable supply for all of the cold, wet, windy nights still to come. Each fire is not as robust as you’d like, but you want your supplies to last a very long time.
You could probably get by in this manner for many weeks, months, maybe even years until you are rescued. But the point is / you figured out how to live from the natural resources at hand, by harvesting what the island could afford – – but not more.
Why can’t Industrial Man do likewise? Is it the herd mentality? We might easily learn the sustainable yield of that island when we’re alone on it / but living with billions of others on the somewhat larger “island” we call Earth / are we misguided into consuming more than we really need (and certainly more than our “island” can provide)?
Indeed, Industrial Man consumes like it’s a race, as if there is a prize for consumption itself, like the pie eating contest at the county fair. We don’t see the incremental losses from one generation to the next. Each generation accepts as “normal” the state of affairs they inherit / from which they feel it is acceptable to take their share of the resources of a palm tree that is disappearing before our eyes.
Thus, while we have drained or paved 95% of our coastal wetlands in California, for example, this generation still issues permits to drain or pave more / speaking only of the percentage that a particular proposal would eliminate from today’s remaining acreage / rather than seeing we have already given up so much, that we cannot bear the loss of even one more acre / one more palm frond / one more coconut.
Whatever the reason, evidence of this “eco-amnesia” of our species is all around and is working against the effort to build communities that are in fact sustainable. Why, for example, do we name our communities and high schools after wild animals even as we are destroying their habitat? Why do we pave over our last few wetlands and then call the housing development that replaces them “Sandpiper Ridge”? In California, we have countless sports teams named for the grizzly bear and a grizzly even adorns our state flag – – but we hunted it to extinction in the state a century ago!
So what is the cure for eco-amnesia? How do we begin to see our planet as an island with limited resources, instead of a business in liquidation where everything must go to the highest bidder as quickly as possible? In Jewish tradition, the scribe who writes the Torah, which is the Jewish “instructions” for life, uses traditional ink that is designed to be erasable, so the parchment can be washed clean, and a new generation of scribes can write the Torah, thus assuring the passage of the learning through the ages. Learning something new is therefore said to be “writing on washed paper.” We can learn from this – – we must wash old ideas from our minds / and have an open mind to new ideas of sustainability.
As those humorous questions from tourists highlight / the first place to open our minds – – and open our eyes and hearts – – is to understand the scope of the problem we’re facing. Former US Vice President Dan Quayle said “it isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment, it the impurities in the air and water that’s doing it.” Of course William Shakespeare said it more eloquently when he proclaimed “there is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to Fortune, but omitted, and all of Life’s voyage is bound in shallows, miseries, and regrets.” I propose to you that we are afloat on such a sea at this moment and it is our obligation and opportunity to shape that tide – – and shape our future – – before it shapes us. We can wash away old ideas about what it means to be “sustainable” and find new opportunity and new resources for this generation and those yet to come.
Now this may sound impossible, but you don’t need to be a rocket scientist – – or a climate scientist – – to see that the things we must do to meet our environmental challenges are the same things we would do to secure our economic future. Let me give you a real-world example of this / a way that smart a community just a few miles north of here washed away old thinking to become truly sustainable.
Home to about 8,000 people and some light industrial businesses, Sun Valley sits at the base of a mountain range and was flooded every year in the rainy season as the waters concentrated from a hundred streams and flowed together right through this little town. Los Angeles county drew up a plan to build new stormwater sewers that would efficiently drain the water into the Pacific Ocean. Of course the water would be polluted with oil, pesticide, heavy metals, and everything else it picked up while flowing over a typical urban environment, but the residents of Sun Valley were very happy about ending the flooding until they heard the cost – – $50 million – – a price tag that this very modest community simply couldn’t afford.
Then a clever planner asked a simple question – – what if we went back to square one and re-imagined this project? Would we intentionally spend money to dump polluted water into the ocean? Would we intentionally waste billions of gallons of water at a time we’re spending billions more for precious energy / to ship water hundreds of miles from northern California to the south to meet our needs for drinking and irrigation water?
Instead, he drew up a plan to remodel a dilapidated city park / putting huge cisterns beneath a new set of sports fields and picnic areas. Water could be drained into these cisterns / some recharging underground wells / and the rest used for civic landscape watering. The city could pay for the project by selling the excess water. The revenue would pay for the new park, the solution to the flooding, and a permanent source of revenue to the town.
Well, the project was completed / land values increased near the fabulous new park and the city prospered while solving a massive problem. The net result is that Sun Valley now captures 8,000 acre feet of water each year, about four times the need of its residents, and has a great new source of revenue and re-development projects at no net cost to taxpayers.
The lesson from Sun Valley is that we can succeed, not by remodeling our communities first, but by remodeling our thinking first. That dilapidated park was not a polluted brownfield to be ignored, but actually a great community asset, a blank canvas, to a creative water planner.
Yes, we can save water and energy too by remodeling our thinking. California utility executives tell me privately that they worry about seeing even a few hundred electric cars in any one city if the owners are installing 440-volt fast chargers. But consider this: the Empire State Bldg. in NY has just retrofit lights, windows, and added some insulation / and is now saving 40% of their energy as a result. The Sears Tower in Chicago is doing the same thing, plus upgrading HVAC and elevator motors and adding some wind turbines on the roof to generate clean energy / and saving 80% of their current energy bills. 80%! So without upgrading the grid, you could install a LOT of car chargers with that spare capacity in Chicago or NY.
Of course conservation alone won’t solve our sustainability challenges. We need to evolve beyond things like fossil fuels / to something sustainable / for powering our buildings and transportation. So could we completely switch to renewables within our lifetime?
Well, consider that more sunlight falls on the earth every hour than is needed to power all of humanity’s energy needs for a year. Add to this the potential of biomass, geothermal, tidal power, wind, and other renewables, it’s clear that there’s enough clean renewable energy resources, if only we deploy the technology to use them.
To those who say the technology to harness these clean fuels is too expensive, especially when our economies are struggling, let me tell you about a small business in Sacramento CA – – OCR Roofing. OCR was faced with laying off a hundred workers because of the slowdown in the housing market, but they’re re-training those crews and hiring more workers to keep up with the demand for new solar installations. By thinking green, they’re still growing, even in a down economy, and keeping people working in clean, sustainable jobs that they can be very proud of for generations to come.
And here’s another great example of how to do that. I drive a hydrogen-powered Mercedes Benz electric car. Solar and wind power in my city of Santa Monica are used to electrolyze water to get clean, renewable hydrogen. In places like CA – – where water is scarce and droughts common – – where would the water come from to provide hydrogen to the entire transportation fleet?
There’s enough hydrogen in a gallon of water to power your car the same distance it travels today on a gallon of gasoline, so think “gallon of water equals gallon of fuel.” Consider that there’s enough H2 in the water discharged by sewage treatment plants every day in Los Angeles alone to power the entire US transportation fleet. Yes, we can get 100% of the hydrogen we need for all US transportation needs from our wastewater / water that today is treated at great expense and dumped into rivers and the ocean every day. We’re also making hydrogen in CA from livestock waste and urban greenwaste, two more ways to be more sustainable by turning garbage into gold.
Of course there are many complex solutions to our wasteful habits / to the climate crisis / to our shrinking supply of natural resources / to our fossil fuel addiction and the pain it has caused us. But in the end, igniting this fundamental shift in thinking will not be up to companies or to governments alone. It will also depend on the commitment from each of us as individuals.
So who will be first to say I can do with a little less that our children might have a little more? Who will be first to say that my success will not only be measured by the number on the bottom of the balance sheet, but by the balance of clean air, water, and healthy landscapes that I bequeath to my children? Who will be the first to teach their children to answer the call to action that rang out across this land 5 decades ago, when a President of these United States challenged us to “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
If this is the day we follow that call to action; if this is the day we act upon it by discovering new Sun Valleys / new Empire State Buildings / new Hydrogen Highways / and if this is the day we show others how to do the same / then THIS will be the day we cure eco-amnesia / the day we all graduate. Graduate to a world with a secure, sustainable economic and environmental future / for this generation – – and those yet to come. Thank you and good luck!