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Barking Up the Wrong Trees

Has Santa Barbara Lost Its Environmental Edge?


SLOW AND SLOWER: The phone rang, and I didn’t answer. It was some guy wanting to know why S.B.’s Earth Day celebration began the same day as Adolph Hitler’s birthday. I had no answer. I kind of doubt one exists. It rang again. Someone else wanted to know if it was merely coincidental that the Earth Day event started on 4/20, the same day potheads worldwide are supposed to toke up. As if any excuse were needed. I said I’d put an intern on it. Then I got a call from S.B.’s former mayor Hal Conklin, the last alcalde of the masculine persuasion to occupy that post in the past 30 years. That call, I took. Hal is now happily retired and, among other things, sits on the board of California Green Communities, which bestows the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on cities that strive to go above and beyond when it comes to cutting-edge green practices.

Angry Poodle

Back when the first Earth Day was being celebrated in 1970, Hal was right in the thick of things. Earth Day ​— ​as any kid in kindergarten can tell you ​— ​started as part of a national response to S.B.’s epochal Oil Spill of 1969. That cause-and-effect connection provides the basis for the claim ​— ​repeated ad nauseatingly ​— ​that S.B. is the birthplace for the environmental movement. If that’s the case, Hal wanted to know, is Santa Barbara now experiencing the empty-nest syndrome where its environmental progeny is concerned? More specifically, he wondered, why are cities like Ventura, Simi Valley, and Riverside ​— ​that’s right, Riverside ​— ​eating S.B.’s lunch when it comes to creative, cutting-edge eco-practices? Have we been resting on our laurels so long that we’ve squashed them beyond recognition? I’m not exactly sure what the answer is, but it’s a hell of a question.

The first thought is that we’ve succumbed to Newton’s First Law of Thermodynamics, which posits that if you stay in any one place long enough, you’re doomed to become dull, enervated, and tiresome. Intuitively, that seems pretty likely. But maybe not entirely fair. Last week, after all, City Hall held a grand unveiling of a new tech-wonk program in which all the fats, oils, and greases ​— ​yes, the acronym is FOG ​— ​generated by the food industry that would otherwise be trucked off to out-of-sight, out-of-mind rendering facilities in places like Vernon are processed here to generate alternative fuels in quantities sufficient to power 700 homes. But however cool FOG is, it qualifies as a nibble, not a bite. That’s not surprising. Around places like City Hall, the acquired wisdom is that people who take big bites risk choking to death and those who stick their necks out are the first to lose their heads.

Just look at how long it’s taken for Santa Barbara to pass a ban on single-use plastic bags. For the record, the idea was first proposed seven years ago. At that time, only San Francisco had adopted a similar measure. The convenient excuse is to blame the council’s conservative bloc. But even before they’d taken power ​— ​swept into office on a rising tide of discontent over bulb-outs, high-density development, and traffic calming ​— ​the previous council (made up entirely of card-carrying Yellow Dog Democrats) showed little appetite for the rhetorical leadership or grand gesture of a bag ban. The first rule of safe government is to do unto others; the bag ban, by contrast, would have had us do unto ourselves by prompting some nominal change in the unconscious convenience of our shopping habits. It got bogged down in committee after committee. Amazingly, it managed to survive, kept on life support by the usual coalition of eat-your-spinach, know-your-facts eco-activists, coupled with a new breed of provocative provocateurs like Save the Mermaids. When Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss opined early that plastic bags posed no health hazard to marine life and that fish could simply poop them out, the Mermaids showed up en masse, dressed in short skirts and carrying trays of mock hors d’oeuvres ​— ​all featuring delectable delicacies made of plastic ​— ​for Frank’s fine-dining pleasure. For a while, it appeared a one-man industry front group calling itself the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition put the ban on ice. This group, lead by attorney Stephen Joseph ​— ​threatened to sue if City Hall didn’t commission an environmental impact report (EIR) to document the effect of such a ban. Joseph had sued other cities throughout the state on similar grounds and won. Typically, such bans spark an increase in paper-bag consumption ​— ​as well as reusable tote bags ​— ​and paper-bag production is not without environmental consequence. City Hall, reeling from the recession, didn’t have the spare change ​— ​or political capital ​— ​to spend. Councilmember Grant House got the bright idea to have one of the most obscure government entities on the planet ​— ​a joint-powers agency dedicated to keeping the beaches of S.B. and Ventura counties coated with enough sand to keep the tourists coming ​— ​pay for the EIR instead. If all the cities and counties that belonged paid just a tiny fraction of the total price, he figured, the cost of the EIR could be easily covered. In addition, he reckoned, the document could serve as a one-size-fits-all EIR for all but two of the cities (Ojai and Carpinteria already have bag bans) in the two counties as well as the two county governments. Rather than one ban, the new master EIR could potentially precipitate the passage of 20. Nice move. Naturally, Joseph freaked and, last Friday, threatened to sue if the EIR were ratified as written. Endowed with a tireless flair for hyperbole, Joseph contends that the document is “disingenuous, dishonest and deceptive,” and has vowed to “draw a line in the sand.” That’s appropriate, I suppose, given that sponsoring government agency ​— ​which held off ratification for another month in the face of Joseph’s threat ​— ​is all about keeping the beaches sandy. But at this point, it’s only a matter of when the bag ban is passed, not if. But by that time ​— ​getting back to Conklin’s point ​— ​72 other cities and counties will have beaten us to the punch. Good thing it’s not a boxing match.

In the meantime, the next time you hear the phone ring, do what I do: let it ring.

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