Jerry Brown Interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba
The full interview appeared in, "Ambition," Volume 13, edited by Jeffrey Inaba (Fall 2007).
Jerry Brown is in the news for his efforts to meet Paris climate goals, but his belief that environmentalism and tech can grow stronger together goes back to his first days as California’s governor in the ‘70s. To turn the countercultural values of ecology and technological experimentation into policy, he appointed Whole Earth Catalog and holistic entrepreneur Stewart Brand as the state’s special advisor, and eco-industrial designer, former Buckminster Fuller student James Tennant Baldwin to lead the newly formed Office of Appropriate Technology – kick starting what would become measures to improve the eco-system and foster the state’s tech culture.
In 1974 Brown gained attention after being elected governor of the US’s largest state at age 36. Brown baffled the political mainstream with his recurring themes, ‘protect the earth’, ‘explore the universe’, and ‘Spaceship Earth’, which became the basis for forward-looking initiatives such as calling for ‘wellness’ measures for the natural environment, ‘positive medicine’ (what would later evolve into what we call preventive health care), and for advanced information networks including the state’s use of telecommunication satellites.
I spoke w/ Brown in 2007 when he was California’s Attorney General, and expected to run for Governor.
Jeffrey Inaba: Throughout your political career you’ve been involved in setting agendas for the environment. As California’s governor from 1975 to 1983 you viewed the entire state as an ecological system that needed to balance its resources. This was far ahead of its time. Do you still prioritize environmental issues as Attorney General?
Jerry Brown: Yes. The Attorney General has the job of enforcing the laws of California. One important law is the California Environmental Quality Act that requires local governments, among others, to consider any significant or potentially significant effect on the environment of growth. And a growth plan, such as the one propounded by San Bernardino [County] for the next twenty plus years, envisioning as many as 400,000 additional people, would have a significant effect on the environment and it would contribute to global warming. Because of that [the Attorney General’s office] asked them to take greenhouses gases into account in their planning and to take appropriate steps to reduce the green house gases that could be fairly attributed to the activities approved in the plan San Bernardino was adopting. They resisted that and we brought a lawsuit; we’ve now had an extensive conversation and we hope they will agree in the next few days on a plan which would identify greenhouse gases, set a target, and then reduce where feasible. It’s reasonable and in some ways it’s modest.
JI: You are enforcing the laws that deal with California’s management of resources and with its environmental emissions. In that way as Attorney General you’re fulfilling one of the agendas you set as Governor.
JB: Exactly. But California is not just one ecosystem. It’s many watersheds and many microclimates, and it’s also a very wealthy, fast-growing market with links to the whole world. Now making this very dynamic economy compatible with the environment is a Herculean challenge and since Governor Schwarzenegger made a bold move by signing AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, the implementation of that is at hand.
JI: As Attorney General you have values, you’re interested in the environment, and you have found mechanisms you can employ that can have concrete consequences. The way you do it is by working at a local, county level and until now no one has thought about the State Attorney General working at a local level to review general plans in an effort to improve the environment. That’s a strategic move on your part to be effective politically.
JB: The Attorney General’s office has been commenting on about thirteen different regional plans regarding how they might take greenhouse gases into account. That’s very preliminary. Now some of them are coming back to us and are doing it, but the steps to implement the comments will take several years. Even in San Bernardino one of the agreements we’re talking about is a thirty-month process to inventory the greenhouse gases emitted from the county and then setting the reduction target and meeting it. The fact that [this review process] has been invented is an extremely creative idea and that’s the product of the creative people working down on the 20th floor [of the Attorney General’s office]. It is a rather slow and methodical process, putting one piece in place and then another and another.
California is grappling with [the Kyoto Protocol], but we’re in the preliminary stages. I think the baseline is that there is a challenge, a threat, global warming which is caused by human generated emissions. That generation of gases is embedded into the whole mechanism of prosperity and growth and economic production. How does one keep that prosperity going while controlling greenhouse gases? My letters [to counties] are a tiny part of this global effort to deal with the problem. Even though I would describe these as small steps, they are bold leaps into the future.
By the way, I don’t know if you’ve ever read anything by Jacques Ellul, but he wrote about technology in The Technological [Society]. That’s a whole other level, a literary, philosophical level… We are engaged in practical stuff, with people who earn their living by selling houses or moving trucks or heavy equipment. They are very concerned that their well-being will be adversely effected by what I’m doing. So I have to not only develop the environmental ideas, but must also bring people who are effected by these ideas into the dialogue to hear what their concerns are and incorporate them into the actions we’re taking in order to achieve global greenhouse gas reduction.
JI: You are one of the few politicians who openly talks about spirituality as a higher order of collective awareness unrelated to any one particular religion. Do you want to talk about that?
JB: Well, spirituality is a word that has different meanings to different people. I think it is difficult within the public political sphere to engage in any specific type of spiritual inquiry, but if we look at spirituality in a larger sense it would be a factor in how we shape and evaluate our communities and our neighbors. These are the places that encourage higher-order thinking and the kind of human conversation activity that will strengthen relationships, families, and our connection to nature. These are the kind of considerations that don’t always get cranked into development, but which are, at least in the minds of some architects, being incorporated in planned communities.