March 7, 1999
Bay Area Alliance for Sustainable Development
Post Office Box 2050
Oakland, California 94604-2050
Re: Compact for a Sustainable Bay Area
Thank you for your ambitious and important proposal. Please allow me to make a few suggestions.
Proposals like this one often rely on "feel-good" initiatives that sound good, and are alleged to have positive results, but that fall short in practice. On the other hand, we shy away, for political reasons, from actions that are guaranteed to have the desired results. For example, adding HOV ("car pool") or other lanes to freeways are supposed to improve air quality, but there is no guarantee that they will work. In fact, they probably simply add capacity that will just result in more traffic and more air pollution. On the other hand, removing automobile facilities (e.g. parking spaces) guarantees that traffic will be reduced (you can't drive, if you have no place to park when you get to your destination!). Please eschew the former, and stick with the latter. And in particular, stop adding auto- and truck capacity to the region's road system, a "solution" ("Losangelization") that has already been proved all over the world to only worsen quality of life. Rather than "improve mobility", as the Bay Area Council requests, we need to reduce the need to travel! This should be done by creating committees in every venue to plan for the inevitable (and soon) coming of the end of the oil.
A good example is BART fares. BART doesn't publicize the fact, but it subsidizes suburban living, by charging its suburban passengers less per mile than its city passengers. Besides sending the wrong message and encouraging sprawl, this is also inequitable, since the poor have to pay more than the relatively wealthy for the same service!
Your emphasis seems to be on human welfare. The natural environment is presented mostly as an amenity. As usual, we say that taking care of wildlife is okay, as long as we remember that people always come first! That is actually backwards and counterproductive. Wildlife (all non-human, non-domesticated species -- plants, as well as animals) are the foundation of everything that we need. They provide oxygen, clean air, clean water, food, medicines, beauty, and many psychological benefits. For example, without nitrogen-fixing bacteria, all life on Earth would soon cease. Since wildlife also cannot protect themselves from us, they need to be given top priority, not the status of an afterthought or something nice-to-have, after our more "important" needs have been satisfied. At least two species of animals have recently gone extinct right under our noses in Berkeley, while the East Bay Regional Park District contemplates destroying more habitat in order to "fireproof the parks".
You mention that we need more jobs in the Bay Area. But I think you should also consider what kind of jobs they should be. Some industries are more harmful to the environment than others. Tourism, for example, depends to a large extent on the heavy use of motor vehicles.
Finally, remember that a "sustainable" lifestyle doesn't really exist. Every organism produces wastes incompatible with its own existence. Even a tree would bury itself in dead leaves, if it weren't for other organisms that use its wastes. A "sustainable" lifestyle is only a goal to be approximated.
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.