Still Ambitious After All These Years
Being ambitious requires personal transformation. When one is in the political spotlight, transformations need to occur more frequently, not less. Take Jerry Brown, for example. The Californian has been a lot of things. A former pre-Vatican II Jesuit seminarian, the self-proclaimed ‘serial born-again politician’ has run for government positions that have varied widely in duties and scales of responsibility. Brown has refashioned himself in each elected post he has held, changing his political game and public image, leading observers to call him ‘uncategorizable’, ‘unusual,’ and the ‘Madonna’ of American politics. But one thing has remained constant throughout his die-hard political career: his anti-establishment resolve to ‘assault the citadel’ of US politics by introducing progressive agendas and using his official powers in unconventional ways.
In 1974 Brown gained attention after being elected governor of the US’s largest state at age 36. While California’s governor he appointed Whole Earth Catalog and Global Business Network holistic entrepreneur Stewart Brand as the state’s special advisor, protocybernetics educator Sim van der Ryn as the state architect, and an eco-industrial designer, former Buckminster Fuller student and supposed inventor of the geodesic ‘pillow’ dome James Tennant Baldwin to lead the newly formed Office of Appropriate Technology. Brown baffled the political mainstream with his recurring themes, ‘protect the earth,’ ‘serve the people’, ‘explore the universe’, and ‘Spaceship Earth’, which became the basis for forward-looking initiatives such as calling for ‘wellness’ measures for the natural environment, ‘positive medicine’ (what would later evolve into the industry-wide practice of preventive health care), and for advanced information networks including the state’s use of telecommunication satellites.
One political analyst has described Brown’s journey after those heady days as ‘quirky.’ The two-term governor ran unsuccessfully for the US presidency in 1976 and 1980 as well as for the US Senate in 1982. He then traveled to Asia to study Zen Buddhism and work with Mother Teresa. He returned to the US and campaigned for the American presidency again in 1992, hosted a West Coast radio talk show in the mid-1990s regularly interviewing the likes of Noam Chomsky, Ivan Illich, Paolo Soleri, Allen Ginsberg and Gore Vidal; and in 1998 was elected mayor of Oakland, a northern California city of 400,000. Since 2006 Brown has served as Attorney General (the state’s chief law enforcement officer), and it is anticipated he will campaign for governor again in 2010 when Arnold Schwartzenegger steps down.
While recognized by both supporters and critics as ‘visionary’, it soon became apparent during our interview that in his current role as California’s top-cop his ambition to kick government into action requires Brown to be very un-visionary. While he once famously told Time magazine that ‘[Ronald] Reagan was anti-intellectual. I am not’, he now avoids political philosophizing – irritatedly referring to it as ‘too vague’ and ‘abstract’. That is understandable given that his job is to enforce existing laws not envision new ones, and as such he has transformed his public persona into an enforcer rather than a ‘governator’.
Still, in his present incarnation he is just as adroit at using his powers in innovative ways. He has promised to use the ‘persuasive and coercive’ powers of the Attorney General’s office to improve the state’s environment. One example of this is his proactive oversight of county planning agencies. He has taken it upon his office to review and comment upon the compliance of counties’ long-range plans with California’s global warming legislation. He has already filed suit against one county’s plans which led to an agreement for the county to amend its general plan and land-use policies to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions ahead of the state’s schedule. Another example of his strategic use of the office’s powers is his enforcement of California’s vehicle emission standards which are more stringent than federal US measures. He has already threatened to file suit against the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Bush Administration if the state is not allowed to enforce its stricter standards. Volume had an opportunity to talk with the irascible Attorney General.
JI: Throughout your political career you’ve been involved in setting agendas for the environment. As California’s governor from 1975 to 1983 you viewed the entire state as an ecological system that needed to balance its resources. This was far ahead of its time. Do you still prioritize environmental issues as Attorney General?
JB: Yes. The Attorney General has the job of enforcing the laws of California. One important law is the California Environmental Quality Act that requires local governments, among others, to consider any significant or potentially significant effect on the environment of growth. And a growth plan, such as the one propounded by San Bernardino [County] for the next twenty plus years, envisioning as many as 400,000 additional people, would have a significant effect on the environment and it would contribute to global warming. Because of that [the Attorney General’s office] asked them to take greenhouses gases into account in their planning and to take appropriate steps to reduce the green house gases that could be fairly attributed to the activities approved in the plan San Bernardino was adopting. They resisted that and we brought a lawsuit; we’ve now had an extensive conversation and we hope they will agree in the next few days on a plan which would identify greenhouse gases, set a target, and then reduce where feasible. It’s reasonable and in some ways it’s modest.
JI: You are enforcing the laws that deal with California’s management of resources and with its environmental emissions. In that way as Attorney General you’re fulfilling one of the agendas you set as Governor.
JB: Exactly. But California is not just one ecosystem. It’s many watersheds and many microclimates, and it’s also a very wealthy, fast-growing market with links to the whole world. Now making this very dynamic economy compatible with the environment is a Herculean challenge and since Governor Schwarzenegger made a bold move by signing AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, the implementation of that is at hand.
JI: Do you mind if I ask a number of questions about your political views?
JB: Go ahead.
JI: You have expressed an interest in Martin Buber’s ideas in Paths in Utopia. Do collective values about the environment and resource allocation have a positive impact on the way people form and interact as a community?
JB: Well, if people can collaborate more, they can probably live more closely together, and if they live more closely together, they can generate less CO2 and methane. To the extent that people can find intellectual or spiritual outlets they won’t have to constantly rely upon bigger packages to find meaning. I haven’t thought about how Martin Buber relates to what we’re trying to do in California, but to the extent people can be more enlightened about how to live I think it will be very compatible with what is demanded of us as we try to curb our greenhouse gas emissions.
JI: You are one of the few politicians who openly talks about spirituality as a higher order of collective awareness unrelated to any one particular religion. Do you want to talk more about that?
JB: Well, spirituality is a word that has different meanings to different people. I think it is difficult within the public political sphere to engage in any specific type of spiritual inquiry, but if we look at spirituality in a larger sense it would be a factor in how we shape and evaluate our communities and our neighbors. These are the places that encourage higher-order thinking and the kind of human conversation activity that will strengthen relationships, families, and our connection to nature. These are the kind of considerations that don’t always get cranked into development, but which are, at least in the minds of some architects, being incorporated in planned communities.
JI: Our audience is international and may not be familiar with California politics. It would be useful for our readers if I could ask you questions to enable them to understand larger political views and those issues you believe to be important in the near future…
JB: …that’s so general and not what politics is about. We react to problems – health care, the Iraq war, pollution from cars, lack of transportation. Those are very concrete. What do you want? To design the universe? It’s very vague!
JI: But one of the keys to being a politician is bringing problems to the forefront that people do not currently recognize. You had a particular vision when you were Governor in…
JB: …but that’s all too much. We’ve got to talk concrete. Otherwise it becomes very mushy.
JI: Saying ‘we’re going to reduce greenhouse emissions’ is sort of an obvious thing we’ve got to do. I know you have much stronger opinions about that than what you’re saying, but I guess in your position as Attorney General it is not really possible to talk on the record about your larger…
JB: …but talk about utopian – Paths in Utopia, the book Martin Buber wrote about a village cooperative. Look out the window. Utopia is ‘nowhere’. It’s a dream. I’m trying to be practical. I’m a practical guy. I’m the Attorney General. I enforce the law. Politicians act through laws and the laws follow the initiatives of individuals. Creativity is not generally part of the political process. It lies in the individual and in the private sector where wealth is invested to support whatever it is they want to support. Government plays a much more modest role. It’s there to deal with problems as they come up.
JI: Well, we can talk more about the environment, but your intentions as the Attorney General with respect to the environment are very clear. It would be great to get a fuller picture behind…
JB: …well, if you want to know the meaning of people’s lives, that’s something individuals really work through and I don’t think you can expect government to provide meaning. I’m trying to make a very precise point: creativity resides in individuals. Communities of creative people can do things other communities can’t do, but government is not a major player in that. Individuals are. Your magazine is. That stimulates thinking and attracts certain individuals who then share and learn and produce. In the government domain, it’s much more mundane.
JI: As Attorney General you have values, you’re interested in the environment, and you have found mechanisms you can employ that can have concrete consequences. The way you do it is by working at a local, county level and until now no one has thought about the State Attorney General working at a local level to review general plans in an effort to improve the environment. That’s a strategic move on your part to be effective politically.
JB: The Attorney General’s office has been commenting on about thirteen different regional plans regarding how they might take greenhouse gases into account. That’s very preliminary. Now some of them are coming back to us and are doing it, but the steps to implement the comments will take several years. Even in San Bernardino one of the agreements we’re talking about is a thirty-month process to inventory the greenhouse gases emitted from the county and then setting the reduction target and meeting it. The fact that [this review process] has been invented is an extremely creative idea and that’s the product of the creative people working down on the 20th floor [of the Attorney General’s office]. It is a rather slow and methodical process, putting one piece in place and then another and another.
California is grappling with [the Kyoto Protocol], but we’re in the preliminary stages. I think the baseline is that there is a challenge, a threat, global warming which is caused by human generated emissions. That generation of gases is embedded into the whole mechanism of prosperity and growth and economic production. How does one keep that prosperity going while controlling greenhouse gases? My letters [to counties] are a tiny part of this global effort to deal with the problem. Even though I would describe these as small steps, they are bold leaps into the future.
By the way, I don’t know if you’ve ever read anything by Jacques Ellul, but he wrote about technology in The Technological Phenomenon. That’s a whole other level, a literary, philosophical level… We are engaged in practical stuff, with people who earn their living by selling houses or moving trucks or heavy equipment. They are very concerned that their well-being will be adversely effected by what I’m doing. So I have to not only develop the environmental ideas, but must also bring people who are effected by these ideas into the dialogue to hear what their concerns are and incorporate them into the actions we’re taking in order to achieve global greenhouse gas reduction.
JI: Yes, you’re being innovative as an Attorney General in that you’re looking at the county, but you’re also inventing review processes, you’re inventing ways in which this thing moves forward. Is it innovative in terms of setting new procedures and…
JB: …that’s a characterization I’d rather leave to you. You decide what it is. Just try to get what it is. We’re doing a lot of stuff and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. What I’m doing is actually very modest. That’s the real story. So you ought to dig into that and that may not be the meaning, utopia, spirituality you’re looking for. That’s a whole other bag. We’re at a much more fundamental level. We’re at the basics. This is first grade. We’re not in graduate school yet in terms of global warming. And I don’t want to go to graduate school yet because I’m just getting the basics. I’m laying the foundations. We’re laying the foundations of this edifice.