Rather than publicly sparring about who is an environmentalist, as the San Benito County Board of Supervisors did a few weeks ago, perhaps it would be more appropriate to ask, what is an environmentalist?
Almost all the talk about the environment focuses on what is actually ecology, “the air, water, minerals, and all other external factors surrounding and affecting a given organism at any time.” However, there is a lot more to the human environment than that. Here is a definition that is rarely, if ever, discussed; “the aggregate of conditions and the social and cultural forces that shape the life of a person or a population.” In other words, humans have environmental needs that go well beyond water, air, or natural habitat that can satisfy the kit fox, blunt-nosed leopard lizard, or red-legged frog.
What about the habitat and environment for the humans and “the social and cultural forces” that impact them? Being poor is the definition of a bad human environment, but you won’t see it in an Environmental Impact Report. Poor people often make jokes about it or cover the difficulties with nostalgic memories, but the truth is poverty can make life pretty miserable. Three families in a home built for one is a bad environment, so are overcrowded and failing schools, gangs, street crime, addiction, domestic violence, broken homes and wasted lives – all overwhelmingly driven by poverty.
Collective poverty, such as suffered by the empty county coffers, results in absence of essential services and cultural starvation. The lack of good educational and cultural resources such as a topnotch library, a decent community college campus, professional development for public employees, travel or exchange, or impact programs, contribute to stunted intellectual and social growth.
There is a pretty good cure for the majority of these uniquely human environmental problems – economic opportunity. Jobs, and the increased individual and collective income they bring, improve living conditions, social and cultural prospects, and the overall wellbeing of the community.
It is past time for our leaders to become real environmentalists and pay as much attention to the special human environmental needs as they do to the ecological environments for animals.
A win-win project such as the fully mitigated Panoche Valley Solar Project may be a once-in-a-decade chance for a county like ours. The animals end up with protected lands 10 times the project size forever and the county reaps jobs and collective income – all the while helping the state and nation get off fossil fuels.
We have to make San Benito County something more than nice scenery and a place to rest your head. Economic progress and the real benefits it brings is as essential as clean air and water in the modern world.