Enviro-wimps: L.A.'s Big Green Groups Get Comfy, Leaving the Street Fighting to the Little Guys


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 pmcdonald@laweekly.com.

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Enviro-Wimps... I like that term...

Enviro-Wimps in the First "Green Era"

In 1983 the electric bill was exceedingly high in my Maple Grove, Minnesota home- office ($300 a month in 1983. I ran my large software business from the home with many high powered (energy consuming) workstations. The home-office was designed for passive solar, so our heating costs were nill.

The City of Maple Grove had recently passed a Wind Generator ordinace allowing a 100 foot tall system to be built on a small city lot by permit! Perhaps the first city in the USA with such a ruling it should have been a revolutionary model that promised to change the way American housing functioned a major move to energy independence.

In 1984, we constructed the 100’ tall 10 kilowatt Bergey Wind System caputing earhs energy through 23 foot diameter blades. When it went up we were front page news in a town (Minneapolis suburbs) known for it's high number of envoirnmental groups, and liberal politics.

The neighbors were not quite as thrilled about the towering generator and waged a suit against the City. This was also front page news, not something that was unknown, and the controversy would have caught the attention to all these "enviro" groups, as well as all the liberal politicians pushing an energy independent agenda during the Carter Presidency era. We thought that this high profile test of energy independence would have been defended and Maple Grove would be rewarded for bringing “Green” to the forefront as a model for the nation to follow. None showed up. The City did suggest that I come to the meetings, but since I directly benefitted financially that would have not served any porpose. The Enviro-Wimps talked the talk, but did not bother to walk the walk. In the end after a short period, Maple Grove was the first city to repeal a wind generator ordinace.

Imagine if the Environmentalists had the guts to defend the ordinance, if the liberal Senators and Representatives showed up to reward Maple Grove. Where was the environmental groups? They show up to demonstrate for causes, but actually attend a City Council meeting or two?

Children of the first Generation of Enviro-Wimps... Today's generation.

A quarter later I found myself building "Green" again – this time as a requirement of a land purchase I made from the City of St. Louis Park, Minnesota. As a condition of the purchase I had to agree to build to MNGreenStar certification, based on LEED modified for Minnesota climates. The land purchase was an opportunity to have first hand experience is the latest available technologies, and to build a home demonstrating the architectural and site design techniques of Prefurbia. Adrienne, my wife, was instrumental in what would be a six month long learning process of what was essentially the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Green. My builder was to also have a first experience with the green certification and construction.

The lot was perfect for passive solar – wooded on the east, west and south side for shade in the summer and solar gain in the winter. Naturally we would repeat the passive solar that worked so well in the past.

The same information that had existed for passive solar in 1983 was current for 2008 – nothing new was written. There were no studies or information as to what floor tiles had the best heat generation qualities (this should have sent me a message that there were very few passive solar homes built in the past quarter century). To determine which tiles would heat up the most under direct sunlight I bought a temperature gun and over two months last summer measured how hot dozens of different ceramic tiles got on sunny days. Most I tested got between 130 and 150 degrees sitting outside in the direct sun.

Passive Solar – NOT! … We were excited to experience the solar gain after months of testing tiles, working with the Architect, the Green Auditing company, and following the recommendations in the MNGreenstar manual as well as the latest online research.

It was a sunny day about 20 degrees (F) outside when the window film (from construction) was removed to finally demonstrate our “free heat” system. Armed with my temperature gun I registered 70 degrees on a section of the floor in the shade, and then measured a bright sun-lit section of floor tiles, also 70 degrees! So what do you think happened? The first home 25 years ago used glass typical of the day, no special coatings that would restrict the suns energy. Older glass had two negative effects – one that it would let in excessive heat (bad in warm southern climates), and the other that solar rays would destroy furniture exposed to direct sunlight. Glass today has evolved to eliminate these problems but also eliminating the feasibility of having a passive solar home.

We had multiple professionals involved – the Architect, the Builder, and the Green Home Inspector. All knowing that this was to be a Passive Solar home from the start, and all taking quite an Enviro-Wimp attitude, sort of a so what, no big deal attitude. The representative from the window distributor when shown that the floor temperature in direct sunlight was the same as the floor in the shade kept on repeating that the window is the best for a solar home… well maybe in Phoenix, but certainly not for a Minnesota passive solar home! He also said there was no such glass that was available to them that could pass Minnesota regulations, then recanted later saying the glass was not available at the time of the order ... both proven to be not true.

The third party Green Home Inspector did tell my builder to be sure to order “clear glass”, but apparently “clear glass” does not mean “clear glass” but a variation of treated glass to still fall within “u” and SHGC (solar heat gain coeficient) requirements to meet Minnesota’s strict building code.

Apparently when the State Code was written nobody raised their hands and asked – what about solar homes? Was this a case of Enviro-Wimps not showing up to another critical meeting to defend their cause? Had they been part of the regulatory process there would be provisions for the free energy the sun provides.

Currently I'm in talks wth the window manufacturer, one of the nation's largest (if not the largest) who has two entire pages on their web site dedicated to sustainability and green... we are awaiting to see how much they really care about these "environmental" issues, or do they just use Green as others have as an excuse to leverage sales?

Unlike the Wind Generator 25 years ago, this is not front page news, as to be fair to everyone involved we want to see how this plays out privately, but so far we are getting the feeling nobody really cares about "green", especially when a problem arises. This includes the architect, the builder and the green rating company. MNGreenstar who promotes Passive Solar cannot be faulted as they relied on the information in the public domain and only reward points based upon the items in their checklist developed by the builder, architect, and third party green inspector. After 8 months of discovering the "problem", last week I finally got a call from the window manufacturer - we will see how much they back up their "we really care about green and sustainability" image.

When I see how this plays out we will break out this story... w

Will it be a lesson for the industry not to pursue passive solar as the States have regulated it out with their building codes? Will the window company change out the 12 panels with glass that does meet State Regulations and allows the suns energy through (it does exist but only on special order) and demonstrate how much they back up their claims they are a green and sustainable company, generating a model for their passive solar glass sales? Certainly the architect would be concerned with his first true passive solar designed home? - Nope, guess not. The third party rating compay also are demonstrating the Enviro-Wimp attitude... as they did not jump in when inspecting the greeness of the specifications to say, hey these windows won't work! They claim I did not specifically pay them for this particular advice as if they would have known about it (the problem is pretty obscure) The builder? He was relying on the others for advice.

Will nothing be done?

So far it seems like Enviro-wimps - part two.