We in California typically spend this week trying to get along with our relatives, eating far too much food and watching far too much TV, and occasionally thinking about what parts of our lives we're thankful for.
I have too many Native American friends to get completely behind the Thanksgiving holiday, which probably means I'll never win office in the Coachella Valley.
But as it happens, this is the 1,000th piece I've written for KCET, and so it seems like a good opportunity for reflection on those things in my life, and my work, for which I am grateful. And given the nice round number, I hope you won't mind a bit of self-indulgent sharing of the things I'm grateful for.
Since my first entry here in April 2011, I've been able to write about topics ranging from cuddly bunnies to outsider art to utopian book reviews to stargazing. That diversity even shows up in the writing I'm tasked with at ReWire, which you'd think would be far more limited in scope. Since KCET launched ReWire in July 2012, I've found myself writing pieces about topics as diverse as wildlife biology, particle physics, zoning and building codes, and global trade -- all linked through the issue of renewable energy in California. It's stretched my mind and I hope it's done the same for some of you. And credit where due: the whole thing was the idea of KCETLink Blogs Editor-In Chief Zach Behrens, so add him to the list.
Whether you find my work here or on Facebook or on Twitter or somewhere else, whether you have mere passing interests in the topics I cover or deep abiding passions or I report on the agency you work for, whether you like my writing or argue with every single piece of mine you see, you are why I do this. You keep me on my toes, you send me ideas, you say kind things and sometimes less-kind things from which I learn. I thank you all. (And those of you who made ReWild's Kickstarter a success will be thanked in more detail very shortly.)
The chance to make a difference
The word "blogger" was once more or less synonymous with "ineffectual" and "unprofessional." People who have been paying attention don't think that way anymore: most newspapers of record now proudly advertise their retinues of bloggers, as do respected science publications. Over the last couple years and 1,000 posts I've written things that seem to have made a difference: they've been passed around, shaped people's thinking, and even been introduced into evidence in formal proceedings on projects I've reported on. We all hope that our presence in the world will make the world a better place. It seems like my work has helped people make the world better, at least in a few small ways. That's got more to do with what people have used my work for than it does with me, but it's an incredible honor nonetheless. I think that's the most rewarding kind of activism: reporting the facts as you see them, being honest about your biases and the weaknesses in your arguments, and trusting in your readers to make of your work what they will. I'm grateful for the chance I've gotten to be a blogger and an activist.
But enough about me.
The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)
Quite possibly the strongest environmental protection law in the country, CEQA has been protecting the environment in California since 1970. The law is being targeted for weakening by powerful people, one of whom is currently occupying the governor's office. The law requires that any project that gets state or local government permitting, approval or regulation must be assessed for its environmental impact. Unlike the similar Federal National Environmental Policy Act, CEQA says you have to craft your project so that it avoids the worst harms to the environment. Agencies do get around that requirement: for examples, see just about every environmentally horrible renewable energy project the California Energy Commission has approved. But even with that loophole, CEQA gets in the way of grand plans and easy profits in the name of preserving the parts of California that we love. Those folks back in 1970 had the right idea.
The Mojave National Preserve
1.6 million acres of still-wild Mojave Desert landscape, protected controversially in 1994 and delivered to the management of the National Park Service. My true home. It's set upon from many directions by developments or proposals to develop the desert, ranging from solar to wind to off-road vehicle parks. And loath as I am to criticize the National Park Service, the Preserve will never truly be protected until they rid the place of the starving cattle that still roam it, sacrificial animals offered up in the name of Protecting Tradition. Still, even with the cattle stumbling about the desert with every single rib showing, the Mojave National Preserve is where I'd like to draw my final breath.
Surprising no one who's ever read a word of my writing, the main focus of my larger gratitude fo my photosynthesizing cousins. The Joshua tree is an ungainly holdout from the Pleistocene, just like some of the rest of us. It's also my vegetative desert sensei since the mid-1990s, when I realized I knew nothing about the trees and got curious. In my mind, this species is a place where all the big questions about biology, evolution, environment, culture, and the nature of knowledge converge. And the trees pay no mind to any of it: they just keep on putting out leaves like fists full of daggers. As should we all.
I am only a recent migrant to the desert: I started visiting in 1996. But even I remember a time when you saw a whole lot more desert tortoises in a typical day in the desert than you do now. Moving to the Ivanpah Valley as late as 2008 I saw them all the time. It seems clear that won't be the case for much longer. Mojave visitors in 2030 may well regard stories of desert tortoise sightings the way I thought of stories of the passenger pigeon when I heard them in the 1960s. That's not something to be grateful for, especially because the poor things are apparently being deliberately driven to extinction by public policy decisions. But I'm glad they're still here and we can still see them now.
People who care about the desert
I noticed last night that Shaun G. from Mojave Desert Blog had taken the reporting I did on bird kills at a solar power tower project and linked to recordings of all the birds in question. What a lovely way of paying tribute! I live in a community where people revere the desert and its non-human inhabitants: while some rural Californians seem to live in mortal fear of our state's generally inoffensive predators, my neighbors in Joshua Tree changed the law this year to protect the state's bobcats because they identified so strongly with the predators in our neighborhood.
I speak to groups from time to time about desert plants and animals, and -- phenomenally -- I see them not fall asleep as I talk. Sometimes their eyes light up, and they walk out of the talk thinking new thoughts about where they live. And more and more I talk to people who live outside the California desert, in Los Angeles or Oakland or Tasmania, who have started to think it might be a place worth allowing to exist for its own sake.
For that I am impossibly grateful.