ECOS director Graham Brownstein is proving that Sacramento’s environmental movement isn’t irrelevant after all
It wasn’t that long ago that The Sacramento Bee dubbed the local environmental movement “marginalized” and “increasingly irrelevant.”
That was in the fall of 2004, and the daily paper was talking in particular about the Environmental Council of Sacramento, a loose coalition of local environmental, health and social activist groups.
ECOS had just suffered a demoralizing defeat at the polls—opposing Measure A, a one-half-cent sales tax to fund millions of dollars in transportation projects in the region. By ECOS’ lights, the initiative was a sprawl-inducing boondoggle, heavily weighted toward infrastructure for new suburban development. Even some of Measure A’s supporters, like Regional Transit, conceded that it shortchanged public transportation.
Heavily outspent by developers and business groups that supported the measure, and in opposition to just about every elected official in the region, the environmentalists dug in their heels, hoping to convince voters that a better deal could be made.
Voters passed the measure in November 2004, by a margin of 3 to 1.
It was right after this that the group hired its first full-time director, a recent UC Davis law-school grad named Graham Brownstein. At that point, being the leader of Sacramento’s largest environmental group must have felt a little lonely.
“When I took the job, it’s my sense that ECOS was really in kind of a low point in terms of the public perception,” Brownstein muses. “I think we’d done a really good job of pissing people off and isolating ourselves and saying no.”
New on the job, he had a lot of fences to mend, a lot of political capital to regain. “I had to do so much schmoozing, which I hate. It took me about a year of constant lunches with people who hated us to convince them, ‘Hey, it’s a new day. Here’s this new guy. He’s not crazy.’”
Brownstein is no wild-eyed pony-tailed environmental attorney. He started off as an astrophysics major, before getting into community organizing and later moving on to law school. Now just 33 years old, he cusses more than many alternative-newspaper reporters (when he can get away with it) and, we’re told, is a good dancer.
“Graham is definitely a new breed of environmentalist,” says Shamus Roller, with the Sacramento Housing Alliance, one of the many member organizations of ECOS. “He’s really interested in the human element, more on the non-tree-hugging side of the equation.” And that may be just what ECOS needs to rebuild its clout in Sacramento.
“He has a real talent for walking into a room and being able to find common ground,” explains Betsy Weiland with the Save the American River Association and an ECOS board member. “He gives us some entry I think we didn’t have with the business community and the political community. He’s not necessarily this flaming environmentalist. When they see him coming, they don’t shut down or automatically just see a tree-hugger.”
Indeed, Brownstein complains that the environmental movement is too white, too male and too predictable.
For example, right now Brownstein is busy trying to organize this year’s Earth Day festivities at Southside Park in Sacramento. Earth Day is 38, older than he is, and in need of some serious rethinking.
“I mean, how relevant is a one-day hippie festival at this point in our world?” he asks. “Are you just preaching to the choir? Are you even giving the choir any new information?”
Which is why ECOS and other like-minded organizers (such as MidtownGrid.com’s Brian Fischer) is launching Green the Grid, in conjunction with this year’s Earth Day celebration. The new initiative is intended to highlight and promote local businesses and groups that are leading in environmentally friendly practices—but also to encourage other businesses to do more. The group is even eyeballing a possible campaign to get plastic bags out of Sacramento stores.
But while the grid makes a good laboratory for trying out new environmental initiatives, the problems facing the Sacramento region are much bigger and more complicated.
To take just one, he says saving Sacramento’s foundering public-transportation system will require very different decisions, policies most elected officials in the region aren’t yet ready to embrace.
“Look, RT has been given an impossible job. Everybody likes to beat up on RT. They say the headways are too long, there aren’t enough routes.” Part of it, he says, is getting elected officials to make different land-use decisions. “Well, yeah. Maybe we should stop building sprawl crap all over the place, then we might be able to give RT a chance to catch up.”
In order to catch up, RT is going to need more money for operations, which has lagged behind its budget for building new stuff (capital projects) and lagged far behind the pace of suburban development.
Which is why ECOS supports, albeit tentatively at this point, another sales tax, what some folks are calling “Son of Measure A,” fully dedicated to public transportation.
The problems with such a tax are immediately obvious to Brownstein. “One concern is that people are going to feel like they’ve already voted for this.” But he adds that the Bay Area and Los Angeles have much heftier sales taxes in place to fund transit.
And some of his colleagues at ECOS are worried that the measure will become a repeat of Measure A, loaded up with new road construction and other sprawl-inducing projects, while leaving public transportation further behind.
“We are talking to RT, we’re talking to developers, we’re talking to everybody,” he says. “We want to make sure we don’t have another Measure A happen.”
And consider that Sacramento is heavily reliant on new development—the sprawling suburban development ECOS hates so much—to fund basic government operations, like police. That’s a conundrum that nobody, not Heather Fargo, not Kevin Johnson, not even Graham Brownstein have figured out yet.
“We’re not naive to the fact that the city is addicted to these [development] moneys,” Brownstein explains. “Stopping new development means a lot of people get laid off,” as the city’s current budget crisis illustrates.
Weaning ourselves off sprawl-budgeting will be painful, just like weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, he says. “You don’t just snap your fingers and break a 30-year addiction to sprawl. There’s a period of time where the transition really hurts. But ultimately, you’re a lot better off.”