Table Talk | Spring 2016 Issue

Gov. Jerry Brown: The Long Struggle For The Good Cause

Jerry Brown has been fighting for the environment for decades. He reflects on that history.

By Jim Newton

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. He traveled, 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.

The Brown-Newton conversation:

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

Jerry Brown: 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.

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

JB: 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.”

BP: I didn’t know that.

JB: 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.”

BP: And hope that nothing happens?

JB: 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.

BP: In that sense, it’s different from other areas of disagreement – abortion or capital punishment, say?

JB: All those things you can make a good opinion, you can make an argument for. There are very good arguments on both sides. And by the way, it’s very hard to live with no opinions. That is why it’s better to live with not just facts — because the facts are themselves constructs — but [also with] interpretations that are well grounded, well founded.

BP: Back to your point that the environment won’t be mocked, that you can’t defy the environment…

JB: Well, to go against nature, to go against the nature of things.

BP: But how do we know what the environment wants? I mean, what if the Earth wants to be warmer?

JB: Yeah, that’s fine for the Earth. But for human beings it won’t do.

BP: It’s our relationship to that environment?

JB: It’s human beings. The Earth is going on. It’s been 4.5 billion years.

BP: It’s going to be OK.

JB: The Big Bang is fine. But we won’t be fine.

BP: These are issues you’ve been talking about for 30, 40 years probably, and early on they attracted some skepticism — “Governor Moonbeam” and all that. Do you feel vindicated by the way that the public has come around in areas like solar energy or satellite technology that once seemed so exotic?

JB: I don’t find “vindication” a particularly apt word.

BP: What’s the right word for it?

JB: Well, vindicated would be: I was accused, and now I’ve been vindicated. I don’t see it that way. Look, “Moonbeam” is a Royko [Chicago columnist Mike Royko coined the term] thing.

BP: I remember.

JB: But I did talk about space, the space satellite. At the same time, I had some interest that Stewart Brand wrote an article in Co-Evolution Quarterly on space colonies. And I did say my goal as president would be to protect the Earth, explore the universe and serve the people. That was kind of the distillation of my thoughts.

But I can throw out ideas, and for a leader it’s not the same as being a professor or being a provocative journalist. Leaders, if they don’t stick within certain rhetorical realms, risk being perceived as not serious or reliable or predictable. And so I think when they said Moonbeam, it caught on because it just wasn’t the space satellite that I proposed, which would have been a very good idea. But it’s just a general approach. It could have involved Linda Ronstadt. It would have involved — I don’t know — other things. So it wasn’t just, “I’m for solar energy.”

BP: Got it.

JB: It was a kind of a gestalt that he [Royko] latched onto, or he invented. I do jump into things, and I’d have to say there’s a little dilettante element in that critique, and I think that’s reasonable. You know, I had Stewart Brand, we hired him just to bring people through the office. We had Ken Kesey give a talk….

That is different from, for example, George Deukmejian. He’s a sober, serious man… who shows up and has his normal wife and house and is relatively durably placed and positioned within his conservative framework. So I was more a little bit episodic….

If the idea is that I didn’t apply myself with the degree of diligence that one could expect, I think that’s a fair criticism. But it’s true, maybe a little bit of sampling things. And I’ve been kind of — I get bored with things. And I got bored with different things.

It’s interesting. That’s why I was rather reluctant to get married. And I certainly didn’t want someone who I was very much in love with and excited and then get bored a few months down the road and have kids and alimony and everything. But the funny thing is I’ve never been bored one day with my wife. Every day is exciting.

BP: That’s good.

JB: It’s a miracle. But it came a little late, very late to the party, too.

BP: Better late than never.

JB: I do find that there is something about ideas, and I do get very excited about ideas.

BP: And that’s really what I was driving at.

JB: And so a lot of people — growing up, I can remember Sister Alice, she had a question once. I said, “Well, if it’s a venial sin to steal a penny, what if you steal two pennies? When does it become a mortal sin?” And she said, “Do you stay up nights trying to think of these questions?”

I don’t know why I do; I have questions. I had a lot of questions then; I have a lot of questions now. And that can be somewhat diversionary.

BP: My point wasn’t so much to zero in on the word “vindicated” — so I’ll move away from that — as to ask about some of the ideas that went into that characterization…. But the other piece of that is the ideas upon which that critique was based. So advocacy of solar power, using satellite technology, colonizing space; those ideas seem much more —

JB: The Wellness Commission.

BP: The Wellness Commission. Those all seem much more contemporary today.

JB: They are contemporary.

BP: So forget whether that’s vindication or not. Do you feel like some of the things you were talking about in the ‘70s, particularly as they relate to environmental consciousness, now have come to fruition, that they are now more generally accepted?

JB: I think I was on the right track. And I’ve stayed on that track. And therefore, both because these ideas tallied with reality, but also because I am perceived as consistent, that gives more gravity, whereas before it was a little more of the grasshopper jumping.

BP: Let me read to you from the speech you made at the Vatican recently. You said: “There are many challenges, but a fundamental challenge is our inability to imagine where we could end up if we don’t take the measures that we have to. It’s hard to imagine catastrophe; it’s hard to imagine extinction.” And yet, as you say, the possibility of extinction is real.

JB: It’s very real.

BP: So my question is: How do you talk about extinction without sounding like a nut?

JB: It’s very difficult. One of the ways you do it is you go with Nobel scientists. …They’re talking about the Doomsday Clock. That’s talking about it. It’s not me, it’s people who have been talking since World War II. Oppenheimer was very concerned. Same thing with Einstein when he said, “Everything has changed but our thinking.” So we have the ability to create extinction, but our thinking hasn’t caught up with it…. We can’t imagine the evil of extinction.

BP: And climate change is potentially as devastating?

JB: Climate change is slower. The trouble with climate change is that you can pass tipping points, and down the road it is going to be enormously difficult and expensive to change with all the embedded infrastructure. Enormously difficult. Even though today it’s relatively trivial. To de-carbonize the economy, even though it’s massive and would take trillions of dollars, it could be done. But it would take a real mobilization….

And there’s an industry of denial, of manufactured skepticism, all for short-term gain, or because of an ideological fear of more regulation that will curb unfettered market behavior or individual consumption. So people don’t want to believe there’s an absolute out there called the environment, called the climate system. But we know there is. We didn’t make the sun shine today. It was raining for a couple days. We didn’t do that. So what made that? What made that is the whole atmospheric chemistry.

Now, can 7 or 9 billion people, can several billion cars and coal plants affect that? Most of the scientists say yes. And if they can, how are we going to un-affect it? See, that’s the simple-minded thing. Up until 1850 you never had more than a billion people. And what did they do? Run around in their little clothes and with a little bit of gunpowder here and there.

Now we have massive technology. The human impact is multiplied, is unimaginably greater. But the human capacity for wisdom has not improved an iota. So there’s the problem.

BP: What do you make of the fact that there is a significant chunk of the American people who do not believe either that climate change is occurring or that human beings are responsible for it?

JB: People can’t imagine it. We can’t imagine it. Could the Muslims in Srebrenica imagine they would be rounded up and shot? They would have gotten the hell out of there. Couldn’t imagine that.

Could the people in Hiroshima imagine that they were going to get an atomic bomb? People in Nagasaki?

But there it is. We don’t imagine — or it’s hard to imagine because it’s something that threatens our particular attitude and way of life. And it’s been branded by commentators, anti-climate change commentators, as leftist. Leftist, liberal, Obama.

In their view, it’s bad people who are doing bad things, threatening the free enterprise, God-given, American, Western way. So it’s almost like telling the Romans that no, it’s time to become Christian and put away all your gods. It’s very threatening. It’s a paradigm change for these people.

So the authority figures — if you look at the Republicans — they’ve closed ranks. Maybe from the liberal point of view, some of it is political correctness: You can’t deviate from that. You’ll pay a high price if you do. If you have an open debate.

BP: It is a shame certainly for the responsible management of this issue that it becomes associated with one political party or one ideology. There is no liberal environment or conservative environment, right? I mean, it’s ultimately not a political question.

JB: But it does take rules: Energy efficiency, tailpipe emissions or requiring zero emissions — those are regulations. Regulations generally are bad. “Government is the problem,” Ronald Reagan said, “not the answer.” So if the government’s the problem, then this climate change story is just a call for more government. More problem, not more solution.

BP: I was recently at an event with Gov. Pete Wilson, and he was making the point that he believes — and many people believe this, I think — that California’s regulatory attitude with respect to the environment, climate change in particular, puts it at a relative disad- vantage to places like Oregon or Nevada in terms of trying to bring new business in. Therefore economically this is hurtful to California. I assume you disagree.

JB: Well, that’s a comment. Let’s assume we’re just two guys at the bar, and that’s what you say. I say the opposite. What does that mean?


JB: California’s a $2.2 trillion economy. You’ve got that, and you’ve got this, you’ve got Uber, you’ve got space missiles, you’ve got farmers, you’ve got marijuana growers. You’ve got the University of California, you’ve got the L.A. Times. This is a complex world.

Now, are you saying because of regulations that we’re at a disadvantage to Oregon? First of all, Oregon is going to have certain advantages. Nevada has space; you do a lot of warehouses, and maybe Nevada has a tax advantage. But there are all sorts of positives and negatives that people calculate. Why doesn’t Silicon Valley move to Reno? Or to Corvallis? It hasn’t. Is it growing? It’s growing as rapidly as ever….

So that’s a general statement. I think you have to ask: What rules do you want gone, which ones? But here’s the point on climate change: If we do nothing, that’s not going to help advance the ball…. What is the disadvantage? We’ve created — 2 million jobs have been created in California, and the percentage growth is greater than the nation’s. Compare California in the last 10 years, our growth rate is higher.

So it has benefits, and it has burdens. But when he [Wilson] says that, it’s because there are a lot of local rules. A lot of local rules. And yeah, these are problems. But OK, they’re problems. I agree with you. But it’s easier to build in Texas. It is. And maybe we could change that. But you know what? The trouble is the political climate, that’s just kind of where we are. Very hard to — you can’t change CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act].

BP: Why not?

JB: The unions won’t let you because they use it as a hammer to get project labor agreements. The environmentalists like it because it’s the people’s document that you have to disclose all the impacts. And, of course, the developers have a problem because “impact,” boy, that’s a big word. Everything’s an impact. I pound on the table, that’s an impact [POUNDING ON THE TABLE]. You know what I mean?

So there’s a lot of stuff here: Stanford, there’s [Hewlett] Packard, there’s [Steve] Jobs. Why did Facebook come out here? There are a lot of bright people. And by the way, Silicon Valley doesn’t always have to expand. I’m sure there’ll be limits. There’s always a limit to every culture. Toynbee is somewhat discredited, but his whole idea of challenge and response: You have a challenge, and the response builds the civilization. But then somebody else comes along. So that can be true of California. We’re not going to be the same state we were in 1860 or 1910 or 1940, before World War II and the Space Age. Stuff happens. There’s historic momentum.

BP: As you look forward on the issue, particularly, of climate change, are the obstacles that you see toward getting to a successful place in terms of our relationship with the environment technological? Are they political? Are they philosophical?

JB: They’re both.

BP: All of that?

JB: Well, they’re technical because you need to get more efficient buildings, you need to get more efficient cars, you need to invent things. We need to invent biofuels. You need to invent lighter, more durable, more efficient batteries. If we can invent the right kind of battery, that would displace the normal car. Somebody just told me he thinks in five years or thereabouts the combustion engine will be obsolete.

BP: I just bought an electric car. I must tell you, I don’t want for a combustion automobile at all.

JB: What kind of a car?

BP: A little Fiat.

JB: How many miles?

BP: It gets about 80, maybe 80 to 90 on a charge….

JB: It’ll get better because we’re in the early frontier. So it is technical, but it’s also — what’s the other word?

BP: Political.

JB: It’s political. We have 26 states fighting Obama’s clean coal, clean air regulations. Why? You need them. And a lot more. It’s vital for their children, their grandchildren, at least.

We’re looking at 2050. It’s not that far away. 2050 is what, 35 years away? … Thirty-five years ago I was governor of California. That’s not very long. That’s not very long at all. It’s pretty scary. But the political is a problem. And why are they all locked in?

A lot of this stuff, the way we form opinions is only in part based on the evidence. A lot of it’s who thinks what and who do we identify with. Identity is a big thing. Identity. Identity can be gay, the LGBT, that’s how you identify with that. Black Lives Matter, La Raza, the conservative movement, the left. Those are all identity brands.

And people say, “What does it mean to be on the left?” And you check that out. “OK, that’s what I think.” What does it mean to be on the right? People read The National Review, or they read The Weekly Standard, and they feel comfortable. Those people don’t read The Nation.

BP: Right. When they turn on the television, they watch Fox News, or they watch MSNBC. They identify.

JB: And I think generally people like to have their own place in the world reinforced.

BP: Which is all well and good, as you said earlier, when it’s in areas where people of good will can honestly disagree. It’s more problematic when it butts up against something absolute, when it butts up against —

JB: Right, but they don’t consider that. First of all, do we really know? Do I understand [everything about] climate modeling? No. And it’s very complex…. All I can say is when I talk to people, climate change fits with my point of view. So then it could be a little bit despairing that there is no objectivity and there’s no way to agree. There’s only a way to fight…. Generally, I never feel I fully understand things. So that’s why I… have a tendency, an inclination to probe. [Author Carl Schmitt] talks about how the political is all about the distinction of friends and enemies. And whatever he once was — he was in Germany and had a role under the Nazis for a couple years before he retired into a more privatized world — he writes thoughtfully about “friends and enemies.”

It’s not, “What are the facts?” [Instead, it’s,] “Which side are you on? Which camp?” “Pete Wilson, what camp are you in?” “Tom Hayden, what camp are you in?” Or who’s the head of the Sierra Club? Or whatever. They have camps. And then they fight.

Jim Newton

Jim Newton

Jim Newton is a veteran author, teacher and journalist who spent 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief, editorial page editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of four critically acclaimed books of biography and history, including "Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown." He teaches in Communication Studies and Public Policy at UCLA.

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