Environment + Climate

Jerry Brown interview: The long struggle for the environment

Jerry Brown in Blueprint
David Sprague/UCLA Blueprint

It can seem that Jerry Brown has always been governor of California. First elected in 1974, he served two eventful terms — securing rights for farmworkers, balancing the state budget, navigating a tax revolt and the Medfly – before unsuccessfully running for the Senate in 1982. He left politics for a time, traveled and worked with Mother Teresa, learned Spanish and then returned. He served as mayor of Oakland for two terms, was elected attorney general and then, an astonishing 28 years after leaving the governorship, he regained it. He is now the longest-serving governor in the state’s history, one of the youngest men ever to hold the office and the oldest too.

Much has changed about Brown over the years. He’s older, of course; he’ll be over 80 by the time he wraps up his tenure. Once impulsive, he’s now far steadier. But there are philosophical through lines in his long, complicated career, and one of the strongest is his devotion to the environment, an issue that some critics once mocked him for. Looking back, he seems more prescient than fringe.

Brown and Blueprint editor-in-chief Jim Newton recently discussed the governor’s long commitment to the environment and his plans for addressing it in his final term. As with any serious conversation with Brown, their exchange was marked by his bracing candor and curiosity. And, too, it contained the governor’s reflections on Catholicism, marriage and politics. There is no person in American politics who thinks like Jerry Brown.

Environmental issues have been very important to you for a very long time. What first captured your attention about this area?

The idea that there is an environment that we’re a part of and can’t be separated from, and that this environment can be degraded, impaired and altered in a very negative way, more than aesthetically but actually having to do with the vitality of living things and the whole way living beings all function, that this could be affected by decisions.

That was a rather startling thought to me. ... Before the notion of ecology and environment, there was the notion of resource conservation. That’s a very different idea. That’s a partial idea: Let’s protect the forest; let’s protect Yosemite.

And a lot of that was conservation for future use, right?

Conservation, yes, but not just conservation for future use — conservation as applying to a very particular and limited piece of land or river or mountain. The environment is a different concept. Ecology is an encompassing idea. “Eco” comes from the Greek word ekos, “house.”

I didn’t know that.

Yes. So does the word ekos in the economy, but the economy is ekonomos and ecology is ekologos. So this notion of all encompassing — that we live on a thin layer of soil under a narrow layer of atmosphere — that’s kind of a new idea; to me it was. ... And this tallied with my interest in religion or philosophy or the pursuit of meaning, which is certainly a big part of me. It was what led me to go into the Jesuits.

Here we’re not talking about Catholicism or God but we are talking about something that has the characteristics of an absolute. There are a lot of things that are rather relative; you can take it or leave it. You know, do you want a hamburger or a turkey sandwich? Do you want a Chevrolet, or do you want a Ford?

There’s a lot of our affluent modern life where the choices are somewhat trivial. And therefore they don’t inspire the kind of gravity and depth of feeling that spiritual, theological or religious ideas did to me. But the environment does, because you can wreck it.

The idea [is] that there are certain rules that don’t admit of compromise. So you have to get on the side of nature, on the side of ecology. Ecology doesn’t do what we want. We want to go buy a turkey sandwich today: “I want that one. Yeah, and would you please grill it?” That’s different than saying, “Well, we’re going to dump X amount of CO2 into the environment for Y number of years, and nothing’s going to change.”

And hope that nothing happens?

You know it’s going to be a disaster. So that area of life had the kind of uncompromising gravity that made it worthy of attention and study and careful consideration. So that’s why the environment interested me, because some of the certitudes of pre–Vatican II Catholicism fell away, and in their place I saw ecological certitudes.

We may not know what each law is, but we do know there are laws and that they do not admit of exception. In fact, there is a passage that I came across a long time ago, and it was quoted by Gregory Bateson in “Steps to an Ecology of Mind,” but it’s from St. Paul to the Galatians, I think. It says, “God is not mocked.” And in Bateson’s view, he understands that the environment is not mocked. So that right there, you’re comparing God and the environment. God is not mocked. You don’t go against God. You don’t go against the environment without bringing the consequences. ...

When you’re in politics, you see — at least it’s my experience — there are so many issues and so many points of view that as a successful politician you don’t get invested deeply in many of the fighting opinions that you have to deal with. ...

If you want to have an eight-hour day, that’s fine. And the conservatives who said no, that took away the right to contract, which is the right of property, and the Constitution says you can’t do that. Oliver Wendell Holmes took the idea that many of these things are just matters of debate and opinion in a free society. And the court should limit its validating one side or another, except when the Constitution requires.

So that is true of a lot of stuff. I can enjoy reading conservative journals, National Review and The Weekly Standard. I can enjoy reading The Nation. I can enjoy reading Counterpunch. But there are all these opinions, and a) you can’t always prove them; b) you don’t know what the full consequences are going forward; and c) the total context of our society in the world is such that there’s always plenty of unknown that would allow people of good will to hold thoughts of diametrically opposed opinions. So therefore it is a little foolish to latch onto one side or the other.

But when it comes to the fundamentals, [it’s not foolish], and science would fit into that, and the environment now is very much grounded in science.

Go to UCLA Blueprint's Spring 2016 issue to read the rest of this conversation.

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