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.

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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.

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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.

Do you know of any studies that look at wildlife-friendly border infrastructure (or procedures) that still “keeps our border secure” while allowing jaguars, ocelots, mountain lions, and other wildlife free passage? We are working to keep wildlife linkages open across the border between Arizona and Mexico and haven’t been able to find much research on the subject.     — Kathy Daly, Conservation Biologist, Wildlands Project, Richmond, Vt.

Funny you should ask. Our annual policy conference, the Border Institute Series, this year will address “Transboundary Ecosystem Management.” Here’s the agenda webpage. If you check the page in mid-April, the papers we’ve commissioned for the conference from border-region biodiversity experts will be posted.

What might you say to assuage a property owner whose land borders a wetland area and who is upset over a proposal of the local conservation commission to expand the no-disturb zone around wetlands?     — David Long, North Reading, Mass.

I have been in a similar situation and often the interpretive role of the conservation biologist works. By explaining the reason, timing, location rationale, etc., for a conservation measure, I was usually able to put several protections in place. I even had one landowner write a check to our effort after we explained what and why we were doing it.

While I agree with the proposition that population is important, and that educating women is perhaps the single most important means of controlling population, why do you seem to rank population above First World hyperconsumption? Developing countries are only following the lead of First World countries in their use of resources.     — Paul Calzada, Londonderry, N.H.

The 300 million of us Americans indeed have an ecological footprint larger than any other and the exporting of our consumptive model to others through our media encourages them to aspire to our waste. But a billion Indians and a billion Chinese and a billion Southeast Asians are well on their way to simply overwhelming their habitats. I think we are both right by this formula: Environmental impact is equal to population times affluence level times the contribution, either positive or negative, of technology.

Since the 1960s I have believed that population control is the answer to most environmental questions. Education helps, but “encouragement” with incentives would speed the process along. Instead of giving a tax deduction for each child, why don’t we give the tax deduction to those who do not have children? Why doesn’t our government lead the way and be an example for the rest of the world?     — Elaine Friedrick, Seymour, Wis.

Our government vacillates on the issue. While never a leader, Democratic administrations fund the U.N. and other world population programs; then the Republican administrations remove and inhibit the funding. The voluntary negative population “problem” will appear here within the century. We won’t need the government to implement it through taxes or incentives.

World statistics indicate overall birth rate is low and life expectancy has increased. Assuming the greater life expectancy worldwide is greatly contributing to the ballooning population growth, what methods do you see that can be employed to control population?     — Steve Bonaker, Mendota, Calif.

All “states” go through a transition from high death and birth rates, to lower death and still high birth rates, to lower death and birth rates. Some even have lower birth rates than death rates. The issue of the last decades and for the decades to come is population growth from more than 6 billion now to more than 9 or 10 billion in your lifetime. The graying of the world population and negative population growth are indeed problems, but problems for our children.

We just read about people within the Sierra Club thinking a good way to deal with population control is to regulate immigration to the U.S. What’s your take on that?     — Pepe Mojo, Bainbridge Island, Wash.

Come to a large city in California and see if you have an opinion on that. I find that people adjust their view several times when exposed to large numbers of immigrants and then after they know and value many immigrants.

If you went to college, what did you study and where? And how did it influence your future plans?     — John Krick, Riverside, Calif.

I went to the Naval Academy and was a SEAL. I got a Master’s degree here at San Diego State University where I teach and I did post-graduate studies in philanthropy at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and in sustainability at Tufts University. I also attended the first Natural Resources Leadership Institute. Each in its own way shaped my thinking today. For example, my special operations training in the Navy helps me teach international environmental security.

Does the organization you’re affiliated with accept interns? Also, what do you think of the argument that energy conservation through green building is more effective than increased fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles?     — Kathleen Bailey, Monterey, Calif.

Yes, we accept interns. As to the second question: While we need both, the growth in monster electricity-dependent homes is increasing as the fuel efficiency for cars increases. If we could build greener houses and locate our homes closer to mass transit or our jobs, we’d solve several problems at once.

What is a realistic approach to preventing deforestation, especially of rainforests that hold so many undiscovered resources?     — Monica Riordan, Cincinnati, Ohio

I have worked in tropical countries where a large stump fee is attached to each tree. The cutter, even if it’s a poor farmer, has to pay a fee or implement some conservation measure. I also believe in co-cropping, planting crops, or harvesting meats within a forest that has a few highly valued trees removed. Shade coffee, many spices, and valuable dyes grow well under jungle canopy.

Outdoor cats wreak havoc on bird peace and populations, use gardens for litter boxes, cause traffic accidents and become fatalities, procreate at will, catch and transmit diseases more than indoor kitties, have shorter life spans — and their excrement is proving to have decimated sea otters in California. Meanwhile, cat owners still let their cats out to roam. Some seem to believe that because Kitty has never brought them a bird, why, they must just be catching mice. How can we as environmentalists address this?     — Maja Ramirez, Chicago, Ill.

I have been in three situations where cats were decimating the local Least tern (Sterna antillarum) colonies. In the one where we were not allowed to do anything, the whole colony was abandoned and lost. In the second, where we trapped feral cats, the colony was half successful, because we still had domestic cats to contend with. In the third, where I was allowed to shoot feral dogs and cats, we won, the birds won, the local community won by not being exposed to the dangers inherent in wild dogs and cats, and several diseased animals won by being put out of their misery.

How long will it take before spent uranium and other toxins from the dirty bombs the Bush administration blew off in Iraq move across central Minnesota in the form of rain or come in on the winds?     — Becky Sheets, Staples, Minn.

Each day, air pollution belched or burned in China and Africa reaches California and Texas, respectively, so it would not be too long before vaporized poisons from war zones around the world reach us. But my understanding of uranium weapons is that the contamination is limited to a small area due to the extraordinary density of the material.

What impacts from globalization on the environment do you see at your level, especially dealing with NAFTA? Do you see workers’ rights as being an environmental issue?     — Megan Kuhl, St. Joseph, Minn.

NAFTA failed to have worker and environmental rights as part of the treaty and the side agreements that are supposed to address those issues are underfunded, don’t have regulatory teeth, and are subject to national and international politics. Worker hours, conditions, pay, exposure to occupational hazards, etc., are a huge part of environmental concern in the region.

I recently heard that the border factories which — thanks to NAFTA — have sprouted up on the Mexican border are in fact subject to some environmental requirements under that agreement. Is that true? If so, are they followed? For instance, if streams are polluted by them, is anybody accountable to anybody?     — Gloria Kuhn, Bayside, N.Y.

One of the organizations created by NAFTA is responsible for ensuring that local and national laws are followed in the siting and operation of industry following the signing of the agreement. But you can imagine what a big job that is and all the issues involved. That’s one reason our organization, the Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy, exists — to study, understand, and explain emerging situations like the exporting of natural gas to Mexico so they can convert it to electricity that is used in California. Are we essentially exporting our pollution to them? Does it have a transboundary effect if we allow private industry to do these types of things? These are the questions we answer.