Responding to global climate change means thinking big. Changes in personal lifestyle are extremely important – but so are massive programs involving broad coalitions of citizens, lawmakers, and long-range planners.
The Green Century Project, which Huey Johnson directs, is just such a program. Huey Johnson is a practical visionary, a legend in environmental circles, and best known for his work as California Secretary of Resources under governor Jerry Brown. While in office he put together a multimillion-dollar environmental protection program that is still in place today. He offers some valuable insights on what made that program work, and he reports on the progress of his current efforts.
For more information on the Green Century Project, write the Resource Renewal Institute, Building 1055, Fort Cronkhite, Sausalito, CA 94965.
Bill: What convinced you to start the Green Century Project? What were the issues that prompted you to take this kind of all-encompassing approach?
Huey: I’ve been looking at problems professionally – and as a kind of art form – over the last 25 years, and often building organizations to address them. For example, I was working for the Nature Conservancy, but nobody was concerned about urban open space. We were out saving the estates and ranches and backyards of the affluent. So I started the Trust for Public Land, which helps inner cities to get more open space, and that worked very well.
When I was in the land-saving business, "saving a project" was fun and exciting, and I got great joy out of walking back over those parcels of land that were saved – and there were hundreds of them. But after running California’s resources, I became more ecologically aware. Things were more serious than I realized, life on Earth was threatened. To respond, I realized I needed to move from projects to policy.
Considering the scale of the problem, I decided I would try just once to define a model that could be applied state by state, then nationally and – I’m hesitant to say it – also globally.
Bill: Because nobody hesitates to agree that the problem’s global.
Huey: It sure is. One of the difficulties in dealing with recapturing environmental quality is that it’s a systemic condition, so there’s no simple solution. It doesn’t do any good just to plant trees. You also have to deal with air quality today, because acid rain is going to kill those trees or create soil problems or hamper regeneration. In other words, there is a whole range of problems that are interconnected. Environmental recovery is complex stuff. We haven’t learned to think in systemic ways yet, and we’re going to have to.
Bill: Especially with something like global climate change, which relates to so many systems.
Huey: Yes, it will force the issue. So the Green Century Project is, in essence, a three-step scheme on a massive scale, because it has to be massive to deal with the systemic complexity. First, it involves building a broad-based constituency of people in many fields – business, labor, science, environmental organizations and citizens action groups – as a source for ideas, and second, developing long-term resource projects as part of a 100-year plan for environmental restoration. Third, this plan – which would already be widely supported by this broad constituency – is presented to the state legislature for implementation and funding. It’s modeled on the program we put in place in California back in 1978.
We’ve got the 100-year plan, but implementing it is a challenge because we need to have massive funding. In the meantime we’re doing the fundraising, and being patient is the toughest part. To get started at the scale we’re able, I’ve selected one resource out of the whole spectrum we need to manage – forests, soil, air, and so on – and that’s water. It’s a part of that spectrum that people can respond to emotionally, because they recognize the wildlife in streams or marshes as part of our natural heritage. That wildlife isn’t guaranteed an existence, because the water is owned by somebody or, as we often forget, is the subject of a policy.
We established The Water Heritage Trust to set aside certain water habitats – like Mono Lake [in danger of being drained by the diversion of its feeder streams into the Los Angeles water supply] – as a permanent part of our heritage. It’s a very easily grasped thing, and it’s easy to raise funds for. And we’ll do the same thing with forest trusts and other things as we proceed.
This way we’re implementing our larger plan by putting some building blocks under it, some actual working institutions.
Bill: Responding to global climate change is going to require implementing a lot of massive programs. Besides funding, what other obstacles stand in our way?
Huey: One of the problems you face when you’re going to implement something is that it’s too easy to talk about it. I’ve spent my life sitting in meetings with people who have usually thought through something very well and want to discuss it philosophically. The U.S. Green Movement is ineffective at the present time because that’s all we do.
I was recently in the Soviet Union, and after seeing the Soviets literally marching right out in front of guns and shutting down nuclear power plants, my main impression is "Good grief! We are so soft by comparison!" They’re educating the nation, they’re demonstrating courage and commitment to purpose, they’re keeping very well informed. They’re serious.
So implementation is something we’re not used to doing. It’s easy to philosophically expound – I’ve probably done that as much as anybody – but it’s very hard to find people who are willing to jump into the traces and pull the plow. It’s important to approach a problem with the belief that you can solve it. The theme of the Green Century Project is to define the problem in such a way that we can solve it a step at a time – working with the resources we have, but doing a real job.
Bill: How has global climate change affected your sense of the likelihood of change – particularly the kinds of policy changes that are necessary in forestry, energy, amd so on?
Huey: It’s made me more optimistic. Because I now know that we have to have a global response. Until the threat of climate change, we could afford to do what humanity has always done – and that is build barriers, like the Great Wall of China or huge armies that shut a nation off from the rest of the world. You could do that as a nation if you had enough power, but no longer. Acid rain just drifts back and forth, you can’t control the winds. So now we all have to pull together.
The world will have to respond, so it will. There will be lots of traumas, but I believe it will respond in time.
Bill: When you were over in the Soviet Union, what kind of awareness did you find on the environmental issue?
Huey: Very broad. The environmental issue is a safe one for them to rebel around, and the fact that Gorbachev is pushing it gives them safety to demonstrate – he’s cheering them on.
Bill: As opposed to issues of nationalism.
Huey: Yes, for nationalism the tanks might come out. But the Soviets commonly talked about global climate change and ozone depletion, the impact on the Soviet Union, the uncertainty of it.
Bill: Did they seem to understand the implications of the greenhouse effect, the specifics of sea-level rise and shifting rainfall patterns that have been so widely publicized here?
Huey: I think so. Of course, we were dealing with environmental activists, many of them elite scientists, managers, and well-informed people. They need to be well-informed. Around here anyone can grab a green flag and run out into the streets, but there it is far more serious – you can disappear, I suppose. It was less than a year ago that this environmental passion came out in the open, and now there are hundreds of environmental groups in the Soviet Union.
Bill: Do they talk a lot about international cooperation?
Huey: Yes. They just know the jig is up on the military’s way of running things.
Bill: You’ve been quoted a number of times as saying that the military is very effective in lobbying, and that’s why they get all the money. Now that the environment has become a security issue, how can we lobby for the kind of program the Worldwatch Institute has talked about – using part of the military budget for reforestation and other programs?
Huey: Well, the military just does textbook influencing of the political process. Part of the need is to copy what other people are doing successfully. The other part is seeing politics as an exciting, positive area to be involved in. One of our problems is we that don’t view it that way.
Bill: Because we’re repulsed by it, or we think it’s beneath us. But that’s where the power is, so we end up having the moral high ground but no effectiveness.
Huey: Exactly. You have to get involved in the process and the people for a plan to work, to implement anything on a permanent basis. And you can’t start in the capitols. The mistake we idealists generally make is that we think "Gosh, we can just give a political leader a hundred thousand dollars and he’ll pass a bill for us." Politicians will pass any bill for you for a hundred thousand dollars, but it’s meaningless as far as policy is concerned.
Bill: Why is that?
Huey: Because the fine print will suddenly pop into the debate at the last minute, or next year somebody will cut it out of the budget. There has to be a force to sustain it outside of government, or it just gets swept away like so much flotsam. The state legislatures pass several thousand bills a year that are unusable for this reason.
In order to get this Green Century theme passed in California when I was Secretary of Resources, I put together an unstoppable public force. I looked at each agency – Water, Forestry, Fisheries and Wildlife, Energy, Agriculture, etc. – as a cell’s nucleus with all kinds of subinterests surrounding it. The banks care a great deal about water, for example, because they make loans to the farmers and to the industry that lays pipe, so the bank lobbyist supports water development. Agriculture is surrounded by universities and engineering societies, and so on.
So to change analogies, traditional users of the Treasury – like the highways, housing and welfare, and the military – might be seen as big fish. They’re guarding the Treasury because they know that if others get at it, the money will come out of their hides. The little fish – like water, forestry, and air quality – only get the crumbs in the feeding frenzy at budget time. They’re fighting each other needlessly, and often not managing very well. So I proposed that we form a new nucleus, a new center, and that we call it the Investment Fund. It would guarantee more support for individual programs, but it would require their linking up together.
Bill: They needed to form a new, larger cell.
Huey: Exactly. I wove them together in such a way that we had a very formidable structure. This included lobbyists, legislative groups, citizen activists, professionals, the Society of Elected County Officials, the State and County Board of Supervisors, business, labor – one way or another they all got wired into this thing. So when it came rumbling along at budget time, there were no competitors that could deal with it. We just rolled right over them and got $125 million a year from the State.
Once you go through the process of doing that, you have a very powerful entity. But the mistake I made was that I didn’t construct an entity outside of government to serve as a watchdog and make it permanent – though the State still spends about $80 million a year on this program.
Bill: How does global climate change fit into this scenario? Will it create a nucleus for what were previously different cells?
Huey: Yes, it will strengthen them – because we have no choice but to tackle the problem. The word "involvement" is crucial to dealing with any issue in any nation. We are lucky in a democratic society, and the Soviets are lucky too, because if you’ve got an organized communications process, you can bring the power of it to focus on solving the problem. Maybe some developing nations will have a tougher go of it, but the developed nations are where the bulk of the problems are as far as global climate change is concerned.
Bill: Except for the burning of tropical forests.
Huey: Well, the burning of tropical forests is bad, but equally bad is the wreckage of the California for-ests. It would be great if we could start saving those and demonstrate by our example. You know, we all want to look far away, but the mess in our own backyards corrupts our integrity in the eyes of the world – and all the stuff we dump everyday out of the sewers of San Francisco and Los Angeles and Santa Barbara is an important factor too. We absolutely have to recycle the water and nutrients and quit dumping the stuff. The misuse of chemicals is another big problem.
Energy conservation also becomes a premier issue, because it affects air quality. It also lets people get involved by turning off a light. The real premier issues are the ones that let people react: water conservation is very, very important – not just for the amount of water you save, but for the avenue of involvement it gives to people. We’ve got to reinforce people that way. Anything they can do is important, and everything they do is cumulative.