An Environmental Journey: Assaults to Reconciliation

by Chris Bowman / The Mindful Californian

You know you’re getting old when a historian asks you for a first-hand account.

I received such a call not long ago from a Penn State professor who is writing a book about the first Earth Day. My name turned up as one of the teen-aged Bay Area organizers of the spring 1970 events. Could I tell him more?

Students take turns whacking s clunker

SMHS 1971 yearbook photo

I unearthed my San Mateo High School Ecology Club scrapbook. The titles of seminars I helped organize for the school’s Earth Day Environmental Teach-In reflect the issues of the time:

“Warning, Warning (A film on Earth’s exploitation through man’s ignorance)… Should Family Size Be Limited?… Bay or Bare Area? (On developers filling in the bay.)… Ban the Bombing of Bugs? (Pros and cons of insecticides); Controlling Car Crud (smog)…”

I left my Captain Ecology days behind at San Mateo High. I made my living as a newspaper reporter. But my youthful activism helps explain why I devoted 24 of my newspaper years covering the environment, mainly California’s environment.

As activist and journalist, I’ve had a front seat to the environmental movement for more than 40 years. I was coming of age at the dawn of the environmental movement when assaults on our water and air were vivid and went largely unchecked.

Heroes and villains

Later, as a news reporter in the 1980’s and 90’s, I covered battles over natural resources in California and across the West: water wars, redwood wars, grazing wars. It was an era of confrontation — owls vs. loggers and fish vs. farmers.

Journalists helped fuel those false dichotomies. We were trained to write in he-said/she-said lockstep under the pretense of balance. We framed environmental stories as political contests with winners and losers or heroes and villains.

The black-and-white reporting seems silly today. Pollution that can be seen, smelled and tasted is mostly history now in the United States. The environmental problems are more insidious and the solutions more elusive. They are abstract and long-term cumulative threats like the buildup of hormone-disrupting chemicals, biodiversity loss and global climate change.

Partnering with nature 

I eventually developed a more complex and holistic approach that environmental reporting really required all along. The First Law of Ecology — everything is connected to everything else – guided my thinking. The best environmental stories, I decided, are those that illuminate and make connections for people.

The goal of this blog, California Hybrid, is to do just that – spotlight and connect the dots. The broad theme is “partnering with nature,” a new environmental narrative that I see taking hold in California.

Perhaps the most vivid example of this partnership is the planned rejuvenation of the Los Angeles River.

The Los Angeles River

Yes, L.A. has a river, though you wouldn’t recognize it as such. Deadly floods in the 1930s led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to straighten and pave the river channel in concrete – nearly all 52 miles of it. About 50 years later, some local artists began a grassroots campaign to transform the giant, trash-strewn storm drain into something resembling a river.

The fanciful idea is now the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, on file at city hall. Artists’ renderings show a hybrid of natural and man-made. Flood protection would be maintained. But tons of concrete would be ripped out and replaced with terraced tree-lined banks and wetlands that link bikeways, parks and neighborhoods.

The goal is not so much to restore the river but to reintroduce nature to residents of a harshly unnatural environment. As local author D.J. Waldie commented in the Los Angeles Times, “Nature was always there, like the patient egrets in the flood-control channel. It only required a greater intimacy, like a riverside walk, to restore us to it.”

Environmental reconciliation

Academics call this re-naturing of urban areas “reconciliation ecology.” Michael Rosenzweig, an ecologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson, defines it as “the science of inventing, establishing,

and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work and play.” Rather than insist on protecting habitat from human use, Rosenzweig says, reconciliation ecology works in and with the human dominated habitats.

I don’t know that Californians’ domination of their landscape has peaked. But I do sense more Californians wanting to reconnect with nature in their everyday lives. They are doing this by re-conceptualizing nature as a hybrid of wild and man-made.

What counts for nature are not just the spectacular Yosemite and the remote Mojave Wilderness. It’s also the more humble urban, suburban and agricultural environments closer to home. It’s backyards as botanical gardens, creeks for urban runoff and trout, and farms for rice and waterfowl.

Call it California hybrid.


  1. Chris Bowman

    Thanks, John. What a fabulous location to be teaching environment science! While water is a scarce resource in California, there’s no shortage of excellent teaching resources on the subject. My first stop would be the California Water Education Foundation, home of the best wall maps of water in California and numerous other helpful materials, educational tours and Project WET (water education for teachers) workshops. The state Department of Water Resources also offers water education materials. DWR’s education guru is Michelle Robinson
    Also, keep an eye out for stories by The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Weiser and its opinion page editor Stuart Leavenworth. I know first-hand that they provide some of the best coverage of water issues. I literally worked side-by-side with them for years.
    Almost nothing you may have learned about water back East applies west of the 100th meridian. To book up on water in California and the West, see the nonprofit California Forward’s California Water Primer and the list of ten top readings and links recommended by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences (under Education tab).
    As for the Delta, check out the new web page All About The Delta , which recently debuted on the Water Education Foundation’s Aquafornia California water news blog. If you want something in pulp, get the Foundation’s Layperson’s Guide to The Delta ($10, updated in 2010).
    Best of luck, John. Spread your passion!
    ~ Chris

  2. John Sierra

    Well written and insightful article, Chris! I am a fairly new environmental science teacher in Oakley, CA, but I am a native of the eastern U.S., so I’m learning about the history in California as I’m teaching about it. We live in the delta where the battle for water is being fought. Yet, it’s surprising how little percentage of our local population is even aware of the political decisions being made. The more I learn about it, the more passionate I become. I can only hope to instill that awareness and appreciation in my students. Let me know if you have any good leads. Thanks!

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