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Environmental Ideology and Populist Environmentalism in California.

May 23, 2012


At one time I had a significant role in the planning and implementation of California’s monumental coastal program. During that period I often found myself on one side of an ideological divide among environmentalists. The split separated those with a focus on the protection and rehabilitation of identifiable coastal resources (my leanings) and those that believed that no development is good development. The no development side had a valid point, if we eliminated all development along the coast (or at least all new development) the natural environment would return to the state nature intended.

As with most absolutist ideologies, it overlooked some inconvenient facts including the fact that no part of California’s shoreline no matter how remote was free from the impacts of the vast migration of population to the coast that had occurred over the last 150 years. Unless we somehow drove off all or most of those people, the resources would continue to degrade as a result of the impacts of their continued presence, no matter how much we restricted future development.

Concerns about the continuing impact of existing development on coastal resources caused me to take the position that the focus of planning, regulation, and preservation should concentrate on protecting unique coastal resources along with the restoration and expansion of degraded resources. In addition, consideration of simple equity prompted a sensitivity to the nature and extent of the options available to those caught up in the struggle to preserve those resources.

Before discussing the economics of the situation A little story will help elucidate the evolution of my view about equity.

Early in the program, we received a development proposal for a small resort hotel on the shores of one of the myriads of inlets along the coast. There was no other development along this section of the coast and the sensitive resources in the area that could be impacted by the development of the resort were significant. The developer was someone largely self-financed and not by any means could be described as a “large developer.” In fact, essentially his entire financial resources were tied up in this property. During a meeting with him, as I discussed the various concerns we had with the proposed project, he became visibly agitated. Finally unable to contain himself he jumped out of his seat, rolled up the sleeve of his shirt to reveal the telltale tattoo of identification numbers that indicated a survivor of the Nazi death camps. He shouted at me to the effect that the situation he found himself in was almost as bad and that of the concentration camps.

Now, without getting into the appropriateness of his analogy or whether or not it was simply a cynical ploy to play upon my emotions for his benefit, it did place in hard contrast the nature of my actions.

Ultimately we denied this project so that the Coastal Plan could be completed without compromising its effectiveness by actions potentially inconsistent with that plan as we were required to do under the law. Although the denial was ostensibly temporary, I am sure the impact on the developer was devastating since he probably was not financially strong enough to maintain his position and could force him into bankruptcy or worse. I also knew that any plan that we came up with would have as one of its goals maintaining this short stretch of the coast free from development.

I realized then that my decisions, did not simply preserve resources, but often acted against the economically weak, and at times in favor of the economically strong. Our actions actually gave an advantage to the large landowner or the well-funded development corporation who could lie in wait for political fortunes to change or could afford to spend whatever it took on political and economic consultants to obtain the economic reward from the exploding value of an entitlement for development along the coast. A value that we had created.

This leads me to the economics of the situation and its social impacts. You see, because a permit to develop along the coast became immensely valuable, those with the wherewithal to wait for a politically propitious time or to buy the political and technical consultants (of which, following my departure from governmental service, I was a reasonably successful one) to acquire the prized permit, were often successful. Those without the wherewithal often lost everything.

As a result, it became my approach and that of several others on the Coastal Commission staff to inform the prospective developers early in the project approval process, as precisely as we could, what we wanted as part of the development, what resources to protect and equally important what resources to restore or expand. Including the restoration element where possible was necessary because I believed that absent such action, environmental resource degradation and loss from the ongoing effects of already existing development would continue. If you are not increasing the extent and health of the resource base you inevitably are losing them. This the “No Development” ideologues simply failed to understand.

There was another reason why we as staff sought to resolve things in the permit process rather than the stark option of either denial if the development as proposed violated the regulations, or taking your chances by appealing to higher authorities or the courts. That reason, at least in my thinking was prompted by a meeting I had with the great environmental conservationist David Brower who told me, ” In the conservation of resources, every victory was temporay and every defeat permanent.” That is why the simple denial of a permit for development could never be considered an environmental victory since the permit application could always be resubmitted when the political or legal winds may have altered. Therefore, I believed, it was incumbent on us that the permitting process ended with the critical resources, not only removed from the economic market but expanded, and where needed restored.

If the Permit to develop was as valuable as we had made it, then not only could we use that increment in value to improve the resources, I believed we could also use it to reduce the inequities between the economically powerful landowners and developers and the much more common, small entrepreneur. Now the burden was no longer on the agency to maintain an untenable position but upon the applicant who must decide if the value in hand is worth more than the uncertain future value possibly gained by fighting on.

This raised the question of whether we merely were forcing current development to bear the costs of governments past errors. The answer is, yes and no. Land use regulation increases the value of the entitlement as well as the project.  That increment is simply redistributed.

On the other hand, costs increase, perhaps not to the extent that in the long term they would be by a failure to regulate in terms of the costs of environmental degradation. In either case, however, these costs fall heaviest on those least able to bear them, so among the so-called coastal resources one includes those things considered replacements in whole or in part for that impacted by the increased cost; replacements such access to coastal recreation by the public, preservation, and expansion of lower cost facilities and the like.

As a result of this the plan and the legislation that ultimately emerged attempted to address most of the issues I mentioned above without surrendering its strong focus on coastal resources. This included the creation of a regulatory agency with specific, not general, policies to focus the regulation on the particular resources of the coast and to encourage their expansion. Funding for acquisition of those areas of great value for recreational, environmental and even equitable purposes (such as the purchase at fair market value the land of the resort developer referred to above).  And finally the establishment of an environmental redevelopment and public access agency to begin the process of undoing the damage already done.

Following in the passage of the massive California Coastal program, alas, those ideologically committed to the belief that no development is good development gradually prevailed in the regulatory program. Ironically this resulted in: favoring the large and powerful developer over the small and financially weak; a hodgepodge of poorly designed projects, both large and small; a spate of inequitable decisions falling primarily on the economically defenseless and; a slowing down of resource preservation and restoration even to the point of interfering with the other agencies ability to carry out the policies they were charged with in the coastal legislation.

Does this make me a “liberal” on environmental matters? Not to a certain segment of the environmental community. I consider myself, if tags are necessary, more an environmental populist who believes that even in environmental matters the statement that I have made several times before that I believe should qualify every social, political, environmental and collective action we make, and perhaps individual actions as well:

“Why would anyone be morally bound or wish to be morally bound to a civil society that does not share the goal that its citizens deserve a fair distribution of wealth, income and power? If the civil society is not dedicated to that end what else could it possibly be dedicated to? What is freedom to those without wealth, income, or power?”

Anything less is neither patriotic, good public policy nor moral.

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  1. Iddo Wernick permalink

    Great piece. This link makes a similar point and offers a complementary perspective

    Iddo Wernick


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