Hope in the New Year, Part Two: Local Government Action

With a new year ahead and the days growing longer, we can renew our sense of hope for the future. With many national politicians currently more interested in denying social and environmental problems than addressing them, hope may be seem elusive. However, in our complex democracy and system of federalism, state and local government can make policy and take action.  Local governments, for example, are taking action to promote healthy, sustainable communities through shifting land use patterns.

Land use decisions have enormous influence on community development, economic activity, our impact on the environment and how we connect to each other and nature in our daily lives. I’m hopeful when local governments responsible for such decisions factor in these many impacts, recognize the problems with existing land use patterns and act boldly to shift these patterns. Two recent such decisions in the San Francisco Bay Area give me such hope.

The city of Mountain View approved a plan to build nearly 10,000 new homes on land that has largely been used for parking in a large business park area. It includes 20% housing for low-income residents, many acres of public parks, retail space and infrastructure for biking, walking and using transit. This will allow for residents to work, live and play locally; reducing traffic congestion in the region, providing opportunity for community building and benefitting the environment. We need development to look like this in the future. Plans for Mission Rock in San Francisco and the Diridon Station area in San Jose are other examples.

Further north, the Trust for Public Land, in partnership with Marin County, has bought the San Geronimo Golf Course to convert it to public open space. While golf courses can provide space for nature (Audubon International certifies golf courses that adequately provide sanctuary for wildlife) and recreation, this conversion opens up this space for many more people, returns the landscape to a more natural state including protection for endangered coho salmon and substantially reduces water use and runoff from fertilizers and herbicides.

Land use patterns are difficult to change. The complexity of local and state policy, resistance of the status quo and vested interests, and the need for coordinated effort and funding can deter change. Examples such as in Mountain View and Marin County, however, can demonstrate how bold action can take place to support healthy and sustainable communities.

Hope in the New Year: Social Movements and Local Government Action

Hope is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door…Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”   (Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark)

 

With a new year ahead and the days growing longer, we can renew our sense of hope for the future. A better future to me includes communities in which nature thrives, a planet that is safe and stable for our children, and social relations grounded in equity, justice and inclusion. This future may seem elusive, especially after a challenging 2017 in which many national politicians seemed more interested in denying social and environmental problems than addressing them. However in our democracy, social movements can build awareness and exert influence and organizations can work together in a myriad of ways to drive change. I’m finding hope for the new year in developments taking place that may build our collective awareness and action into a rising tide of positive change.

 

Social Movements- Equality and Justice

African-American voters played a decisive role in the election of a U.S. Senator in Alabama in December. The suppression of the African-American vote in Alabama was a catalyst during the civil rights movement that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The ruling on a Supreme Court case in 2013 brought by a county in Alabama struck down some of this historic act. Nonetheless, intense organizing by the African-American community and supportive organizations prevailed and may foreshadow elections decided by voters that are representative of the diverse demographics of our country.

The constant barrage of revelations of sexual harassment, misconduct and violence in 2017 was disheartening and troubling. It has broken the silence and led to movements to end this behavior such as ‘Me Too’ and ‘Time is Up’. In bringing to the surface one of the worst manifestations of unequal power between men and women, the broader movements for electing more women to public office and equality in the workplace have also been further catalyzed.

These and other growing social movements in our country provide hope for ending devastating cycles of injustice and mistreatment and changing systems so that individuals may realize their full potential. These movements are fundamentally about how we view and treat one another.

 

Social Movements- Children and Nature

Just as social movements for equality and justice can alter our relationships with each other, the growing children and nature movement can alter our relationship with the natural world upon which we depend. Richard Louv, founder of the Children and Nature Network, described the power of this movement in bringing people together around a new story with the potential to change society in his blog post, the New Nature Movement:

Our story – our shared yearning to reconnect children to the natural world – represents one of the few concerns in America that brings people together across partisan and religious lines. To change a society, as the philosopher Ivan Illich wrote, ‘you must tell a more powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into our future so that we can take the next step’… We must continue to support the birthright of all children to a healthy environment and a connection to the natural world, and to teach the responsibilities that come with that right.”

This movement for children and nature is taking root through the Cities Connecting Children to Nature initiative and organizations working strategically together through the Children and Nature Network.

 

Taking action motivated by the story of a better future is the essence of hope. For more on hope and action, check out Annie Burke’s website and blog The Sun Rises. Social movements that strengthen our relationships with each other and advance equality and justice; social movements that strengthen our connection to and protect nature; and organizations working together to advance these movements- these all give me hope.

What gives you hope in 2018? How may this hope call you to action?

Climate Change and How We Respond

Here in the Bay Area, we are greatly saddened by the immense loss of lives, homes and buildings in the recent North Bay fires. So soon after the hurricanes that caused heavy damage in Texas and theCaribbean and devastation to islands like Puerto Rico, anticipation of more severe weather events weighs on all of us. Climate scientists have been warning for years, and even decades, that with increasing global temperatures and climate change, weather events will become more frequent, severe and devastating to human communities. This is hard to process cognitively and emotionally. For now, our North Bay neighbors need significant resources and time to heal and rebuild in resilient ways. In addition to helping communities impacted by severe weather events, how do we respond to climate change?

Climate change is a complex, abstract issue and in the past decade, has grown into a source of controversy across political and cultural divides in America. With these recent devastating weather events and other changes in local weather and conditions, climate change is becoming a more concrete and directly experienced phenomenon. Nonetheless, controversy and debate over the nature and extent of it may remain along partisan lines in our country with different identities, worldviews and political beliefs lined up on each side. How can we find ways to not get stuck in the tribalism of you either believe in climate science or you don’t and move towards action?

We can start by considering 3 fundamental responses people can have to climate change. Climate change skepticism is one response representing a range from denying climate change is taking place to accepting climate change but questioning its extent or the role of anthropogenic, or human, causes. This response allows an individual to oppose policy or action that seeks to explicitly address the anthropogenic causes of climate change. Another response and a common one is climate change ignoring. In this case, an individual accepts climate change and its anthropogenic causes but lives everyday life largely as if climate change is not happening. With a problem as large as climate change and the presence of other everyday life priorities, this response is understandable. Our brains, in fact, are largely wired to ignore problems such as climate change. The third response is climate action– accepting the science and increasing urgency of the problem and taking action to address it. This action may be modifying lifestyle choices to reduce one’s carbon footprint, engaging in the political process to push for change and/or working to make changes at your workplace, school or other settings.

We’ve come to a point where taking action is urgently needed but that doesn’t mean the third response is the only way to approach it. Someone who generally falls into the climate change ignoring (again our brains are wired this way) and leads a resource/energy intensive lifestyle may be contributing far more to climate change than someone who is more of a climate change skeptic but conserves for other reasons and consumes less. In such a case, a climate change skeptic is doing more to mitigate climate change than someone who accepts climate science but has not shifted their lifestyle or choices to reduce his or her carbon footprint. Given such dynamics, can we focus on making lifestyle changes (and related policy and systemic changes) that address the root causes of climate change but tap into a variety of values, perspectives and beliefs?

Lifestyle choices (and related policies and systems) that most support climate action involve use of energy at home and in the workplace, personal transportation, diet choices, food waste and overall consumption of items, especially disposable products. Many values, worldviews and beliefs can support motivation for ‘climate action’ in these areas at the individual level. A sense of appreciation for the work of others in making products, coupled with pride in taking care of material possessions, can lead one to consume less material goods. A value for building community can engage people in participating in reusing goods through community swaps and events (such as above picture). A desire to spend time outside and in one’s community can lead one to bike, walk or take transit rather than drive whenever possible. An interest in personal health supports one choosing a more plant-based diet and reducing consumption of meat, dairy and processed foods. The need or desire to save money can motivate one to save energy at home. A desire and appreciation for fresh, seasonal food can encourage one to buy local produce and not waste it. And for those concerned about climate change and ready to take action, any of the above lifestyle choices will help one be a part of a world that will be less ravaged by climate change. However, to move the many of us who are climate change ignoring to climate action will require motivations, such as ones outlined above, beyond a concern for climate change and environment.

Let’s find common ground in living in ways that promote individual, community and environmental well-being. People with varying perspectives and belief systems can engage in actions that will provide them with satisfaction and also reduce the threat of climate change. We can move from a narrow focus on climate-motivated action to an approach that utilizes a variety of benefits to individuals to motivate action and drive an effective response to climate change.

 

 

Taking Down Walls

Diversity is our reality. In a blog post last Fall, I discussed the importance of biodiversity and human diversity within the places we live and experience everyday. Our connectedness to one another and nature sustains, nourishes and rejuvenates us.

Walls separate us, diminish diversity and threaten the ability of people and nature to thrive or even survive. The most prominent and perhaps controversial discussion of walls today is the proposal of a 30-foot high wall along the US-Mexico border. The proposed wall and related policies will separate people who live and work across the border in binational communities (such as the large metropolitan areas of San Diego-Tijuana and El Paso-Ciudad Juarez), and disrupt the migration of many species, threatening their survival (including the jaguar profiled in this recent article in Sierra magazine). Walls disrupt the natural diversity of humans and all life.

While much of our attention on walls these days relates to this border wall proposal, walls exist all around us and limit daily interaction among diverse people. These walls are often not physical, such as the border wall or a gated community, but rather our social, cultural, economic and political divisions that separate where we live, work and play from each other. Ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) creates uncertainty and fear for many in our country and builds another wall that diminishes diversity in our country. Over time, the large income gap in America has led to much different everyday realities between large groups of Americans and barriers to mobility; walls that while not physical or sometimes even visible are very real. How can we take down the walls that stand between us and embrace the reality and strength of diversity?

Communities have to be intentional to break down walls that separate us by race, income and other demographics. Cities and communities that welcome all people, bring diverse people together in everyday life settings and support affordable living for a wide range of people take down walls, providing benefits to all involved.

Columbia, Maryland opened fifty years ago and was designed to be such a community. This city of 100,000 residents remains racially and ethnically diverse and consistently ranks as one of the best places to live in the United States. While this community has taken down many walls between people, income inequality and market forces are challenging its socioeconomic diversity. As discussed in this Next City Experiments ebook, Columbia is wrestling with how to provide affordable housing and remain a community for families with a wide range of income levels. It’s history and culture suggest that many in the community will work hard to address affordability issues and keep the city diverse and a great place to live.

Mountain View, California is another community with ethnic and economic diversity that ranks high as a great place to live. Mountain View is also struggling with how to keep housing affordable for new and existing residents. In addition to government and collaborative action to address affordability, many residents and organizations in Mountain View strive to maintain and further build an inclusive community. The proposal for a We Are Mountain View  campaign builds on community values of compassion, empathy and inclusion. The organizers share that “Our community will come together to explore and articulate what makes one of the most diverse cities in the world a great place to live and work. At a time in our country when negativity pervades the messages filling our inboxes, we will shine a light on something positive; Mountain View, where diversity is valued as integral to the fabric of the community.”

Close to home, I’ve been deeply inspired by how Dance Mission (my daughter participates in their youth dance program) in San Francisco ensures, values and celebrates the diversity of its students. In listening to their Director Krissy Kiefer speak at a parent meeting last year, I was struck by how this organization has also played a role in breaking down walls in the larger community. Some parents expressed concern about a potential move of the theater to another location in the Mission District in which crime and drugs are perceived as prevalent. In response to this concern, Krissy shared how the current location had similar safety issues when they first moved there and how much it has changed since then, in no small part due to the presence of Dance Mission’s children and families. This allowed the group of parents to imagine how the new location could not only be safe but how Dance Mission’s presence could potentially benefit the larger neighborhood and community. This example illustrates how taking down walls can mean moving yourself into new communities as much as welcoming all into your community.

These are just three ways communities are working together to proactively take down walls and embrace the reality of diversity. We need to be intentional about building and sustaining communities that welcome all people and build strong bonds among diverse people. The reality across America is that the walls between us are pervasive and often create large inequalities between groups of people. No community is perfect, but communities and organizations that strive to take down walls, serve as examples of how we can build strong, inclusive communities whose diversity benefits all of us.

Nature serves as our best guide. The strength of any ecosystem relies on the presence and flow of biodiversity and the beneficial interactions among all the species and elements in the system. Nature knows no walls and actual walls, like the one proposed at the US-Mexico border, threaten ecosystems and the survival of many species. We all belong to nature. For our ability to survive and thrive, our work ahead is to take down walls of all types (and not build them) and embrace the reality and strength of diversity.

Your feedback and comments, including sharing other examples of how communities are embracing diversity, are welcome.