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The Greening of San Diego : A New Environmental Movement Takes Root

Times Staff Writer

Dawna Knotts, a credit reporter for a San Diego mortgage company, had taken a few small steps toward acting on her environmentalist ideals. The young, native San Diegan regularly recycled her leftover food into fertilizer for her back-yard garden, and quietly encouraged fellow workers to stop using Styrofoam cups for their coffee.

But Knotts wanted to do more. So did Daniel Tarr, a 34-year-old glass artist in El Cajon, who had tried and failed to find a place for his ecological and political philosophies in Democratic and Republican circles.

Then, about two years ago, the Green movement emerged in San Diego. And today, amid the Green of giddily ambitious college students, artists on the fringe, never-say-die ‘60s activists and white-collar professionals, Knotts and Tarr have found gentle strength for their convictions.

‘Kind of a Loaner’

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“I always argued for environmental causes, but never made too big of a stand. I was always kind of a loner,” said Knotts, 21. “The Greens opened my door.”

Knotts and Tarr, like at least 100 other San Diegans, have found their niche in Greenness. For them the local and the U.S. movement, born in 1984 of the strong Green Party influence in Europe and fueled by a growing public awareness of ecological issues, is not just another environmental sounding board.

So far, it has been a chance to plant trees in East San Diego, publish brochures on local groceries’ food quality and help develop a sewage-recycling plant in Tijuana (and push the concept as a comprehensive water plan for San Diego).

Later, it could mean developing a Greens TV news show and collecting support for a 1990 state initiative that seeks to elect California politicians

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by proportional representation rather than the current winner-take-all system.

And while it is not yet a registered political party in the United States, the Green movement already has begun to stir talk of a Green national agenda and potential Green influence on local and state elections.

“It’s a mistake to say the Greens are just an ecology party. That’s only part of it,” Tarr said. “We see ecological issues tied into other issues, like economics. We see everything as being interconnected.”

Interconnection of Problems

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The Green movement, San Diego Greens explain, examines the social, economic and political aspects of ecological problems, and how social problems like poverty relate to the environment. It is neither right nor left but forward, they say, adding that it espouses philosophy and practices reality.

“That’s what sets us apart,” Tarr said, matter-of-factly. “We’re different, and that’s where Greens hold the key to future politics.”

Such definitions only vaguely answer the question, “Just who are the Greens?” But Knotts, Tarr and other San Diego Greens may be better at showing than telling.

At a Greens meeting last Tuesday, 13 people (of a dues-paying membership of 100), most young--20s to mid-30s--and all Caucasian, gathered in a makeshift garage near San Diego State University to discuss the weekly agenda. Many took off their shoes, offered introductions and shared several moments of silence (reflection, not prayer), while a friendly tomcat wandered in and out of the meeting.

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An open forum for thought and action is intrinsic to Green operations, members say. In fact, decisions are made by consensus. “If someone has a serious, fundamental philosophical problem with an issue, then he can actually block” a majority opinion, Tarr said.

Steve Saint, a young free-lance writer, agreed to be the “facilitator” of the meeting. Two others volunteered to take notes and keep time. Although discussion was informal, Saint rigidly followed the agenda and the clock. Afterward, upon a suggestion by a member, all stood, linked arms and offered comments on the meeting.

Greens shun leadership, hierarchy and pigeonholing. Instead, members say, they rotate key positions and seek diversity.

‘No Ideological Purity’

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“There’s no ideological purity to Green organization now, and that’s one of the things about it that’s appealing,” said Jerry Russell, a 33-year-old engineer and newly elected member of the Rancho Bernardo planning board. His wife, Janet, a former lab technician with degrees in chemistry and physics, also is a Green.

“If we all thought alike, that probably would mean there was somebody telling us what to think,” Russell said. “And right now, there’s nobody telling the Greens what to think.”

Greens are so disdainful of centralized power that a local committee will split when its membership exceeds several dozen. Just a few weeks ago, members of the original committee, the Greens of San Diego, splintered off to form the Ocean Beach Greens. Another subdivision may occur in the near future, when Russell and others try to form a North County Greens group.

Ocean Beach Greens “sympathize with” the Greens of San Diego, but take no direction from them, said Pete Dustrud, a free-lance photographer and co-founder of the former. The new group, with about 12 members so far, has activities and ambitions of its own.

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Two members have opened the Green Store, an independent clearinghouse for information about the Greens and other political and environmental groups. Dustrud publishes “All Together Green,” a local journal. Members have begun pushing for a recycling program in Ocean Beach, and participated in recent Greenpeace demonstrations at the harbor over whale and dolphin killing. And besides getting the word out about the Green movement and its issues, Ocean Beach members are helping to coordinate a demonstration against the Exxon Valdez when it docks here this month).

Political Future

Additionally, members are considering sponsoring a candidate for local elections in the fall, Dustrud said. The idea is so new to the group that they haven’t identified which offices they may run for.

Individuals “will have to take the initiative, if they want to seek office,” said Dustrud. “But we’d like to see a Green platform developed. We’d like to get some people involved.”

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But while Ocean Beach Greens are considering running a candidate in immediate elections, San Diego Greens have dismissed the idea, arguing that with virtually no chance of winning, they would simply gain a reputation for losing. Instead, San Diego Greens are mulling over the idea of screening the candidates in upcoming fall elections and publicizing a list of those whom they support.

That potential problem may be evidence of a larger dilemma: how to form a unified Green policy on major issues while maintaining independence and diversity among local committees.

“The basic values are shared by all Greens,” said Tarr, citing the four pillars of the Green movement: ecological wisdom, economic justice, nonviolence and grass-roots democracy. “But beyond that, there’s a lot of room for different ideas. In our group, the debate ranges from what’s the ideal solution to what is doable. We decide which position is most Green.”

Local Greens, aware that their membership is mostly white and middle-class, acknowledge that attracting diversity--particularly ethnic minorities--to its membership will be a priority. But they maintain that their economic, political and social issues, all with ecological roots, involve, and thus can appeal to, everyone.

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“There are things all of us have in common. All communities want to breathe clean air, eat good food and drink clean water,” Tarr said. “There must be a lot of people who share these values who don’t know where to convert their energies.”

Dustrud added: “Saving the Earth means we’re going to need everybody. We need all these different groups and all these ideas to come together.

“Because the whole world,” he concluded, “needs the Greens.”


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