August 25, 1991

Richard Register, President

Urban Ecology

P.O. Box 10144

Berkeley, California 94709

Re: International Ecological Rebuilding Program

Dear Richard:

I love the way you ask for exactly what you want. For far too long, there has been a tradition among environmentalists and transit advocates of begging for crumbs, and being happy to receive them. Not only don't we have time for that, but it only ensures that we will get exactly what we ask for -- crumbs. In these hard times, we need to husband our resources wisely. Talk is cheap, and yet very effective. Ideas are powerful. We empower our friends to action when we give them verbal and ideational tools. (Look how far the Ten Commandments got. Let's hope your ten ecological commandments go as far!) We still have freedom of speech in this country, and I think we should use it to the hilt. In comparison to communication, physical construction is cumbersome and slow (although it can also be a powerful communication tool: nonverbal communication). Education is probably the most cost-effective solution to almost any problem. By the way, I would also like to see some more acknowledgement of the sources for your ideas and proposals.

One defect of your program is that it is too slow. Rebuilding all of our cities will take decades, whereas we have several currently hemorrhaging emergencies that must be taken care of immediately: ozone depletion, global warming, and wildlife habitat destruction (which is practically synonymous with road construction). In the field of emergency medicine, the priorities are called "ABC": Airway (make sure the airway is clear) first, Breathing (make sure the patient is getting oxygen into his/her lungs) second, and then Circulation (make sure blood is getting to the organs). We need a similar set of priorities for saving life on the Earth.

It is not necessary to totally rebuild our physical environment, in order to begin having a large positive effect. For example, a San Francisco Chronicle survey found that only 10% of the people in the Bay Area cannot access public transit. That means that about 80% are simply being lazy and selfish -- something that education and social pressure can change. We don't need to get a bus to everyone's door; a backbone of high speed rail, fed by light rail and buses, can get everyone within walking distance of their goal with maximum efficiency. A bicycle ride on one or both ends of the trip can make it even faster. Indeed, doctors tell us that the human body is designed to be fully active until death. Almost everyone is capable of riding some form of bicycle or tricycle (and will have to, once our oil runs out). Such a transportation system is only a few incremental changes away from what we have right now.

For another example, a large gas tax would have an enormous beneficial effect, and bring about much of what we are striving for, without the headaches associated with numerous restrictive laws and regulations. People will make the right decisions on their own, simply due to the high cost of auto travel. Other "sin" taxes could be equally helpful, such as a tax on excessive water-, packaging-, or energy use. My personal goal is to see the Interstate 80 freeway through Berkeley upgraded (Caltrans would say "downgraded") to an expressway, with all its interchanges turned into at-grade intersections with traffic lights. That would greatly reduce traffic through Berkeley, and restore easy access to the Bay to bicyclers and pedestrians. The next stage would be to put a section of I80 underground, so that our wildlife could have their bay access back.

As I said earlier, your proposal needs some clear priorities. Specifically, I feel very strongly that wildlife (I include all forms of life except ours) must be our top priority. Animals and plants cannot vote, or in any other way protect themselves from us. If they are going to survive, we are going to have to make it happen. We have stolen most of their habitat, and have gotten into the habit of thinking of all land as ours. Even where we haven't outright taken the land, our roads and our presence have so degraded the habitat that the wildlife have been driven toward, and into, extinction. To me, a life without frogs and snakes and paramecia is not a life at all. I don't think that we can save these fellow forms of life unless we give that our full, explicit attention. I think they should be at least number two in your list (i.e., move number 5 to the number 2 spot), and I believe that saving them will also ensure our own survival. (Perhaps our own disadvantaged members, although far ahead of wildlife, are in an analogous situation, and deserve analogous protection.)

I like your notion of (small) human islands in a sea of nature. But why do human communities need to be circular? Perhaps we could use the natural form of a rail line (a straight or curved line) to form linear communities. As I mentioned above, a high speed rail line and attached light rail/bus feeder lines form a very efficient transportation system. Of course, wildlife need inviolable habitat areas and travel corridors, so all human facilities should tunnel under the wildlife corridors, whenever the two intersect. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that these areas must be entirely off limits to humans, or they will be ineffective.

Because wildlife cannot speak for itself, it is always "behind the 8 ball" -- at a disadvantage. Under current laws, most environmental destruction can go ahead, and the burden of proof is on the protector: We must be constantly running after the destroyers, trying to stop them. There will never be enough of us, nor enough money, to do this. We need to reverse the burden of proof! Those who would like to do something that might damage the (human or natural) environment should have to prove that their actions will be harmless, before they are allowed to proceed. Let's talk this difficult but essential change into existence!

It is obvious that your proposal is a huge undertaking. The responsibility for accomplishing it should be distributed more evenly. Not only government, but businesses, clubs, schools, individuals, and every other human institution should have a share, to avoid the usual finger-pointing. And all of them need a resident biologist/ecologist. A resident physicist wouldn't be bad, either.

In a resource-scarce world, there should be some focus on waste. Streets, automobiles, etc. that are unused at night and most of the day represent enormous waste. The antidote could be a rail line that operates 24 hours per day. Or it could be returning the surplus street space to nature. A habit of looking for and eliminating waste is something that everyone can share. It is as relevant to businesses as it is to nations and to individuals.

Thank you for the chance to contribute to your worthy efforts.


Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.