Santa Monica is issuing a wake-up call to all those who feel environmentally virtuous because they recycle plastic and aluminum cans: It’s not enough.
Given population projections, all the recycling in the world will put the planet in the same place 40 years from now as it is now, experts say. Improving on today’s conditions requires moving environmental consciousness to a whole new level.
The city of Santa Monica hopes to do just that with its proposed “sustainable cities” program.
Sustainability , a buzzword that came out of the Earth Summit conference in Rio de Janeiro last year, broadly means meeting the current needs of a community without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.
The sustainable cities program evolved from the work of the Santa Monica Task Force on the Environment, made up mostly of professionals in the environmental area who have met monthly for two years.
What they are proposing is an ambitious program that if adopted by the City Council would substantially reduce energy use, water use and solid waste, and convert 75% of the city’s vehicle fleet to reduced-emission fuels. The plan covers everything from toxic substances to home-grown tomatoes (in 10 proposed community gardens) to 750 units of affordable housing and the creation of local jobs.
The policy also recognizes the need for economic vitality and the importance of not placing undue burdens on it.
Craig Perkins, who was recently appointed general services manager for Santa Monica after serving as its environmental czar, says the proposal is not filled with pie in the sky pipe dreams but is “nuts and bolts stuff.”
Simple, too, environmentalists say. But the big challenge, they say, will be in changing people’s mind-sets about what they do.
For example, there seems to be no problem in getting people to invest in low-flow toilets, but it is harder to make them understand that a wholesale change of thinking is required to make sustainability work across the board.
“It comes off like mom and apple pie,” said Heal the Bay scientist Mark Gold. “Yet (Heal the Bay) is spending literally hundreds of thousands of dollars educating people that if they throw something on the street today, they end up swimming with it in the ocean tomorrow.”
Gold was one of those who lobbied for the creation of the task force so the city could have a comprehensive approach to environmental matters.
“Santa Monica loves being on the cutting edge on environmental issues,” he said. “We saw so many environmental decisions made in Santa Monica because this is the issue du jour. . . . We told them this is day-to-day stuff. . . . You’re not pushing the envelope.”
The task force has heavy firepower behind it. City Manager John Jalili, Mayor Judy Abdo and City Councilman Paul Rosenstein attend all the meetings, and thus far the group has been insulated from city politics.
“People had gotten tired of adopting policies that just sat on the shelf,” Jalili said. “We wanted policies to be practical enough and realistic enough to be translated into action.”
An important part of the group’s proposal is to develop a checklist so that every city decision, from buying a fire engine to faxing a memo, is made with an eye toward sustainability. Nothing would be done in isolation of its effect on the environment.
The city is already moving forward with some of the components of sustainability. Nontoxic cleaning products are being tested and the city’s storm drains are covered and are marked, “Rainwater Only.”
If the program matches its promise, Santa Monica would serve as a model for Southern California and the nation. Other cities moving forward with sustainable cities programs include San Jose, Sarasota, Fla., and Olympia, Wash.
The next step for Santa Monica is to sell sustainability to the community.
One of the biggest proponents of community participation is Tom Pyne, Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce president. Pyne, a St. John’s Medical Center administrator, is also involved in a comparable fellowship program for hospital administrators on how to have healthier cities.
Pyne said the sustainable cities program for Santa Monica must be community-based or it won’t succeed. He warns against foisting upon suspicious businesses what may look to them like another “Big Green,” which they opposed as being an expensive and unrealistic proposal by environmentalists.
“If it’s a city-driven project, that would be its death knell,” Pyne said.
Despite its sterling reputation as being on the cutting edge of environmental issues, Santa Monica, like other cities, has often operated at cross purposes to those issues, said Perkins.
While Perkins was overseeing the city’s environmental programs from his office above the carousel at the Santa Monica Pier, other city workers were, with all good intentions, thwarting his efforts by doing what they had always done:
Toxic cleaning materials were ordered to scrub City Hall; streets were widened without considering the effect of more concrete on urban runoff; affordable housing projects were approved and partly financed by the city without regard to energy efficiency.
Even Perkins’ environmental programs had a definition of success that did not take into account their long-term implications. Take the disposal of solid, hazardous waste.
Perkins said waste material is ultimately shipped to countries such as Malaysia, where under sweatshop conditions, it is reprocessed or dumped in landfills, long after the city has absolved itself of responsibility.
“Once it’s on the boat to Malaysia, it’s Miller time,” Perkins said.
In a sustainability approach, the city would look at every step of the process, from how goods are manufactured to how they are packed, and even whether the city should buy them at all, Perkins said. And, he added, hazardous waste should be processed close to home, under California’s strict environmental laws.
“If it’s not acceptable for it to occur in our community, how can we turn a blind eye to it occurring in another community?” he asked. “You need to step back and . . . take stock of the trash you created.”
A big part of sustainability involves consuming less energy, which many people and businesses mistakenly associate with deprivation or expensive retrofitting.
Perkins said that in fact energy conservation is good business because over the long haul it offers huge savings in operating costs while having a ripple effect on the environment.
For example, when Santa Monicans rose to the challenge of cutting water consumption during the drought, more than water was saved. The city wound up saving on its sewage treatment bills, and there was less sewage to pollute the environment.
Perkins said he urges business owners to make an investment in energy efficiencies today even though the return will show up slowly over a 10-year period. He also warns them: “You are not going to be able to afford what we are going to have to charge you for this (energy) 10 years from now.”
Perkins admits it’s a hard sell, telling of one company that turned down a proposal in which the city and the Metropolitan Water District offered to finance $60,000 of the $80,000 improvements as a demonstration project, to show the company would ultimately save money on the deal. “Too risky,” the company concluded.
Perkins thinks it’s the short-term thinking of companies, utilities and government agencies that’s risky, and as he runs through the arguments for sustainability, his enthusiasm is contagious. Several people interviewed said Perkins’ appointment to head general services is evidence that Santa Monica is really serious about having a program that won’t sit on the shelf gathering dust. It’s more common for a general services manager to have an engineering background--what Perkins calls a “what can we build to prevent the environment from interacting with us?” way of approaching things.
Clearly, he and other city officials are charting a different course.