Interview with Bridgett Luther, Director of the California Department of Conservation
TH: What's been one of your most rewarding projects?
BL: The recycling goal was 80 percent, and when I started with the administration we were at a 62 percent recycling rate. We said, we've really gotten everyone that's going to take it back or go curbside, so how do we get individual communities to put in the resources to get them to that 80 percent rate?
We started going into individual communities to measure their recycling rates--we had never measured by the community before, only measured statewide. First we went and marketed and sent resources to the Monterey Peninsula, which has lots of special events, so we made one venue its own recycling center--so they return recyclables to the state and collect the refund, whereas before they would collect them and take them to a center. It became the community's own profit center. If you have 10,000 people at an event over a weekend, you can make $500--and you would have picked them up anyway because they're trash, so all you need to do is sort them and apply back to the state.
TH: How did that community involvement work elsewhere in the state?
BL: Then we had such a cool dynamic in the communities. We thought, what if we took some other goal? The state and the governor have said we're getting back to 1990 greenhouse gas levels by 2050, if we had one healthy little community, what would that look like?
We launched the program in one city, Riverside, and the community has been super engaged. Before we went down and started working, they had the goal to get to 33 percent renewable energy, but when we looked at their community we realized the goal was too low. They adopted a goal of being at 75 percent renewable energy over the next ten years. They had a natural conservation protection area, a goal of 100 acres, and the pushed it back to 1,000 acres. We need individual communities to give it we're hoping to make these benchmarks, but it needs to be a partnership between state goals and local communities.
TH: California must have it's own unique challenges, since it's so huge and so diverse, both culturally and environmentally.
BL: Well, it certainly makes it interesting. One reason I wanted to work for this governor, he's really got green in his soul. But the challenge is to weigh the people who live there with the preservation of resources. How do you build low-impact so that runoff doesn't go into the streams, how do you grow food in a state that's mostly desert with limited water, and still provide water for the people living here? We have the most incredibly rich topsoil--you can't grow artichokes anywhere else, dates are only grown in California, avocados...I hate to think we couldn't provide the world with almonds--80 percent of them are grown here. California has been a leader on green initiatives but also on the cultural aspect of getting people to adopt green lifestyles, the conservation lifestyle, that not only makes your life better but saves you money. Because it's so big, it makes it fun and interesting, but there are also cultural challenges--you have to think more broadly, and come up with a message that will resonate not just to your family but to all the families around you that come from different backgrounds.
TH: What's the most frustrating part of your job?
BL: Change doesn't happen quickly. Not having been in government, it's hard to have these jobs and feel like, everyone agrees this is a good idea, why is it taking years instead of months or weeks? But that's part of the public process. When you're doing something that concerns so many people, you need time for them to say, yes, I like it, or no, I don't...
As I told my team, you never know the tipping point when it happens, you only know when you look back. So in five years we'll look back and say, that was the tipping point. I think we'll continue to have green government, but not as unique as Arnold, who used his international stardom to really push through these issues. I don't think it would have gone as far without him; I think he deserves a lot of credit for that.
TH: Has your job inspired you to make any green changes to your personal life?
BL: I really try to give up bottled water. It's hard because you get thirsty, and you're not out somewhere with a tap, and you're standing in front of a soda machine...the other big thing is thinking about where stuff goes, every container, where does it get recycled, what happens to that plastic. You think about standing in front of your bathroom cabinet, all those little containers, and the resources used to make those containers. On the other hand, after working with the California Geological Survey, I also think, do I really want to buy a house on that hillside? If it shakes too much, will it come down? I've become much more aware of geology.
TH: What's one thing you wish everyone understood about conservation?
BL: Conservation's easy! That's the one thing. And I also wish people would appreciate the work that went in, the foresight. There are so many cities around the world that need to think about, where is the open space, where are the kids going to play, where are we going to hike, and a lot of places now are really thinking outside the box to come up with incredible green spaces. California is the model for preserving and protecting those places for future generations.
TH: Any advice for people who really want to get involved?
BL: Get involved in a policy making job at the state level, work on the inside. What I see a lot is, there are lobbyists and environmental organizations that have a huge presence and a really positive effect, but they need partners--people on the inside who can say, let's work on this together and let me work with you from the inside. That's where a lot of the really good work gets done. You can really put yourself out there and run for office--lots of states go through redistricting, so if you're working at the bank, or you're a stay-at-home mom, and you wake up and say, the world's got to change, you can gather your friends, get them to gather their friends, and before you know it you're in Congress.