SoCal environmental scientist answers questions
What environmental organization are you affiliated with? What does it do?
The Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy (SCERP) is a consortium of universities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border that cares about the environment, ecology, and people of that region.
What’s your job title?
I am the managing director.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
Our staff tries to translate complex technical information for use by individual people, communities, resource managers, policy-makers, and governments so they can make the best decisions. For example, not all environmental hazards can be seen, so we want people to know how they can avoid poisons they can’t perceive, and we want government and industry to limit the amount of harmful materials in the environment.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
I get about 100 a day and answer all of them as soon as I can so none are unopened in my inbox.
With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job? What types of people? What other organizations or government agencies?
We work with international commissions, state and local agencies, tribal nations, schools, advocates, and communities. We work with everyone. We have to in order to be effective.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Those who cannot recognize the regional, indeed global, nature of environmental problems are exasperating. By investing in quality of life and a clean environment in Mexico, we are helping ourselves. But some people can’t understand the way pollution crosses borders all by itself. It’s called the “Right Sharing of Resources.”
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
The new Schwarzenegger administration has some extraordinarily nice people working in it.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Ohio but live in San Diego now.
What was your environmental coming-of-age moment?
I was raised in the countryside, read a lot about animal behavior, and was inspired early in my career by people who had worked so hard for most of their lives for something they really believed needed protecting.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Can’t think of any bad ones.
What’s on your desk right now?
I work in piles, so right now my two desks have the six or seven piles I’m doing now — transboundary ecosystems conservation, environmental health indicators, an assessment of the NAFTA environmental record after 10 years, a summary of our work with tribal nations, environmental education, environmental ethics, and some modeling software.
What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?
Our world’s socio-economic politics are dictated primarily by where we get energy (mostly somewhere else), how we use it (not very wisely or well), and where the waste goes (into the air and water), so the biggest exasperation is sharing the road with the extraordinarily wasteful, large vehicles that are exempted from efficient fuel standards.
Who is your environmental hero?
Edward O. Wilson at Harvard for his brilliant intellectual advocacy on behalf of biodiversity, which represents more than 3 billion years’ worth of biological experimentation that, once it goes away, can never come back.
Who is your No. 1 environmental villain?
I’ve seen so many people who really believe they are doing the right thing but have a flawed view of the world, so the only real villain is anyone who stands in the way of enlightenment, education, and an expanding worldview.
What’s your environmental vice?
I used to smoke cigars and still eat meat.
How do you get around?
I run, have a bike, two horses, and four cars. It’s worse than a vice — it’s an addiction we Southern Californians can’t seem to solve fast enough. Next year I will be relieved that I can get to work by train.
What are you reading these days?
This week, Lester Brown’s Plan B.
What’s your favorite meal?
Red wine (local), usually Mexican cheese, fresh bread, and fruit of the season.
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
It’s sad that so much media feeds upon itself. I read The New York Times but hear the same stories on NPR. Utne, World Press Review, The Economist, and Orion have new perspectives.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
With so much nature disappearing in our suburban environments, even if replaced by parks, golf courses, and other human-friendly open space, I hunger more and more for truly wild places — the farther away the better.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
I spend most of my time in the water — doesn’t matter what kind.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I have seen, especially recently, a re-polarization of the environment vs. economy debate. It seems all of us are so intent upon being right we’ve lost track of why we’re arguing. I wish I could have an honest discussion with someone from the other side about human quality of life.
When was the last time you wore tie-dye? How about fleece?
I have a tie-dyed T-shirt my daughter made me 20 years ago that I still jog in, and I wear fleece skiing.
Do you compost?
Yes, and the roses show it.
Which presidential candidate are you backing in 2004?
Moseley Braun had the best things to say about the environment, but now it’s Dean. Some Green Party candidates have a holistic view that’s admirable.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
I have been an environmental scientist for more than 20 years, and somehow adding “scientist” gives me and what I say credibility with those willing to listen. But there is a growing contingent that as soon as the first word, “environmental,” appears, becomes entrenched in their belief that somehow they are going to lose something and rebel at almost every point I make.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly?
We have not groomed and promoted enough messengers to become the heroes that Jacques Cousteau and others once were. It was almost a lifetime ago that the environment had a real spokesperson.
What’s one issue about which you disagree with other environmentalists?
I do believe population is the key, seminal issue and that to work for population control means working for economic development, which means working to educate women — not really a disagreement as much as a clarification that to work for world peace means working for justice.
What could the environmental movement be doing better or differently to attract new people?
Aha, the critical issue. Until we can recruit women, people of color, foreigners, and ethnic minorities, we’re lost. My classes have so few of them that I sense we have missed attracting them at an earlier age. Perhaps the best opportunity is real and challenging field trips for students in the upper elementary school grades so that those kids can be awed by the wonders of nature as well.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Jethro Tull then, and Dave Matthews now, but I have always listened to a lot of Beethoven.
What’s your favorite TV show?
The Simpsons, of course.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
I like the idea of taking a hike and writing a letter to the president when you get back. The purpose and clarity of what you write will be unchallengeable.