So far, 2009 has not been a banner year for greens in Los Angeles. As the area's mainstream enviros buddy up with self-described green politicians and deep-pocketed land speculators and unions who have seemingly joined the “sustainability” cause, an odd thing is happening: Environmentalists are turning into servants for more powerful, politically-connected masters.
On March 3, voters shot down Measure B, a controversial solar energy initiative pushed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and endorsed heartily by many prominent environmentalists. The stunning defeat in this liberal city came after critics accused the mayor and his friends of secret deals that rushed the measure onto the ballot as a favor to a city union whose workers be guaranteed almost all of the resulting solar jobs.
Then, on April 29, U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder placed a temporary injunction on part of the “clean trucks” program at the Port of Los Angeles, whose air pollution is so foul that the EPA warns its emissions cause cancer in suburbs like Cerritos, miles upwind of the port. Judge Snyder rejected efforts by Villaraigosa and the Teamsters to force port truckers to give up their independence and work for companies – spun as a green rule, but ridiculed as a move to pressure the truckers to become Teamsters.
Today, labor unions, big businesses, and politicians are embracing a green economy to solve their own political and financial woes. And the green agenda – repairing a damaged planet and protecting the local environment in which we live – is at risk of ending up an after-thought.
“I don't think the traditional environmental organizations are up to speed,” says Miguel Luna of Urban Semillas, a grassroots environmental group. Alberto B. Mendoza, president of the Coalition for Clean Air, concurs: “If we don't become more modern in our approach, we'll become obsolete.”
In Los Angeles, developers now market, or “green wash,” big new buildings as “sustainable” – meaning healthy for the planet over the long term. The city of Los Angeles requires large buildings to follow “LEED” rules – low flush toilets, on-site renewable energy and the like. But do these projects cause more congested streets filled with idling cars, for example, than the energy they claim to save? In truth, nobody knows. “If you have a project that would normally be four stories high and now it has 20 stories,” says Hollywood activist Bob Blue, there's a “net increase in power, water, sewer, traffic, pollution – and impact.”
Yet among many greens, LEED is a closed debate – and represents a profound shift. In the 1990s, greens like Marcia Hanscom, Rex Frankel, Bruce Robertson, Cathy Knight, Sabrina Venskus, and Patricia McPherson took on Los Angeles City Hall, preventing it from wiping out the Ballona Wetlands to erect a vast housing development, Playa Vista. Those greens publicly trounced the pols and their speculator friends over absurd “sustainability” claims — including an effort to count the grassy median strips as “open space.”
Nowadays, though, Los Angeles enviros are sliding toward the argument that big development is good for the air, land and water – and small bits of green are enough. Environmentalists rarely engage in the city's intense development hearings. “Maybe one time an environmentalist showed up,” Blue says, “but it was on the behalf of the developer.”
Within the green movement, Andy Lipkis, the founder of Tree People, and Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay, have reputations as heavyweights with access to Villaraigosa and other politicians. Neither of them, though, wants to jump into rough-and-tumble politics. Lipkis, a likeable and dedicated activist, proudly says he is politically “naive.” Gold, a smart and equally dedicated environmentalist, says he is not “even a little” worried that politicians, labor unions or speculators are hijacking the greens' issues.
But today, developers regularly peddle their proposed apartments near L.A. freeways as “sustainable” – claiming they bring workers closer to jobs. The developments are backed by Villaraigosa and the L.A. City Council – to the horror of health experts. Researchers now know, for certain, that children living in these projects are burdened with often lifelong lung disease. “They are putting individuals at risk,” says USC professor Jim Gauderman, whose 2007 study confirmed it.
Heavily focused on lowering emissions region-wide to fight global warming, greens now praise freeway-adjacent housing projects, utterly forgetting about the young humans involved. Incredibly, city Planning Commissioner Michael Woo, a Villaraigosa-appointee, hasn't heard a word of opposition from them. Two years after USC's study, he says, “I'm not sure there's a political will to stop housing projects at these locations.”
Grassroots activist Marcia Hanscom, who has never gotten anything by staying quiet, worked for years with other environmentalists to save the Ballona Wetlands. In 2003, that relentless effort paid off – the state bought more than 600 acres to protect and restore. But now, she says, the environmental movement in L.A. has lost its way. It's time to talk openly about a “mid-course correction.”
L.A. politicians “sometimes call me as if I'm one of their staff members,” she notes, “and I'm supposed to do what they say. They have their roles mixed up. I'm here to advocate for the environment, not to advocate for them.”
Pro-green politicians control the office of mayor, almost every Los Angeles City Council seat, every Los Angeles Unified School Board seat, and, for years, have controlled the legislature. Yet the greens seem oddly incapable of asserting power. Mark Gold of Heal the Bay, for example, went out of his way to endorse solar power Measure B, even though Villaraigosa clearly dissed him by dreaming it up utterly without Gold's input. What L.A. union boss would stand for that?
Stefanie Taylor, interim managing director interim of the Green L.A. Coalition, a group of over 100 organizations, says, “We have to make sure we're at the table when these decisions are made about the new green economy.” But right now, says enviro-lobbyist John White, environmentalists are “more like the menu.”
The stark difference between the daily work of Hanscom, the grassroots environmentalist, and Jonathan Parfrey, the political insider and mainstream environmentalist, is instructive. When the Weekly talked with Hanscom, she was in the middle of an almost surreal battle to keep glaring, Vegas-style digital billboards, made up of 480,000 piercingly bright LED light bulbs, from being allowed adjacent to the blue herons and wildflowers of the Ballona Wetlands.
Says Hanscom, “The city has the Ballona Wetlands as a part of a billboard 'sign district?' It's outrageous! I even had [developer] lobbyists and lawyers ask me what they were thinking.”
As Hanscom aimed her firepower at City Hall, environmentalist Parfrey, one of Antonio Villaraigosa's newest political appointees, was getting ready to visit a Department of Water and Power wind farm way out of town, with the idea of creating “educational tours” for environmentalists. Nothing wrong with that, but it sounded like a public relations campaign for the big utility.
It's hard to escape the fact that Los Angeles power brokers regard the environmental movement not as a passionate force they can tap to improve the quality of life and to clean the air, water, and open spaces, but, increasingly, as just another jobs program. And some of the greenest greens have begun to wonder if their own leaders are taking part in the movement's demise.
Patrick Range McDonald is a staff writer at L.A. Weekly, and this piece appears in full at www.laweekly.com. Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.