Berkeley parks

How the antiquated environmentalism of the 1970s led to UC Berkeley’s disastrous decision

California’s Supreme Court upheld on Thursday what most of us who live here already knew: Neither a deadly pandemic that has exacerbated entrenched inequalities, nor the looming threat of climate catastrophe, could unleash the vice of the NIMBYs with free time. and disposable income from the levers of state power.

In a 4-2 decision, judges upheld a lower court ruling that found UC Berkeley failed to consider the impacts of increased student enrollment — including late night parties and crowded parks – in violation of California’s Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA. In short, the judges codified the idea that more students on campus is a form of environmental pollution. The university will be forced to reduce enrollment by around 3,000 students as a result.

Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, the conquering NIMBY group that filed the lawsuit, insists that UC Berkeley hasn’t built enough housing to accommodate more students – while simultaneously claiming that new housing would irreparably damage the character. neighborhood.

The CEQA is the main tool that reinforces this ouroboros of inaction. And if you go back to when it was signed into law by then-California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1970, it’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t at least partially designed to this way.

Much like today, environmentalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s was defined by an apocalyptic philosophy that posited that the end of the world was near. Instead of worrying about climate change, however, Malthusian fears about the impacts of overpopulation dominated the day, stemming in large part from the success of Stanford professor Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 book “The Population Bomb.” Ehrlich postulated the imminent emergence of an overpopulated planet with more mouths than it was capable of feeding and cited the crowded slums of New Delhi as a cautionary tale of what lay ahead for most of human civilization. (Ehrlich’s echoes echo loudly in Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods President Phillip Bokovoy’s warnings that his city “will end up like Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur” if he allows too many people to live there.)

These concerns were not limited to a coterie of Berkeley hippies; They were fully mainstream. Just months before the creation of the CEQA, the Republican Nixon administration created the US Commission on Population Growth and the American Future study, among other things, the impact of population growth on environmental pollution. The commission followed 1971 “Rockefeller” report pushed back against the American idea that growth was inherently good – and could in fact cause serious local damage. “Population stabilization” was presented as a priority, which manifested itself in some good ideas (family planning and abortion rights) and some questionable ones (a de-emphasis on growth in big cities) . A survey of prevailing attitudes in the report found that more than 50% of Americans believe governments should “discourage the future growth of large metropolitan areas” and “try to encourage people and industry to move to cities smaller “.

In other words, for a highly desirable migration destination like California’s coastal cities, “not in my backyard” was seen as an environmentally beneficial response to the global problem of overpopulation. Seen in this context, the people-as-pollution framework of UC Berkeley decisions makes perfect sense.

Of course, the theories of the 1970s on overpopulation have largely demystified. Climate is now the existential environmental crisis at hand. And we now know that urban density built around public transit — especially in temperate regions like the Bay Area — isn’t just good for the environment, it’s essential. Just because the CEQA is an environmental law does not mean that its impacts are intrinsically good for the environment. And some growth — like dense student housing near campus and public transit — doesn’t need comprehensive mitigation. Meanwhile, local environmental impacts, as they exist, must be weighed against the wider damages of not growing at all.

Critics of CEQA hope the absurdity of Berkeley’s decision will finally spur California lawmakers to revise the law in a meaningful way. I would like to share their optimism. We cannot afford to let the misunderstandings of another age continue to get in the way of real sustainability.

Matthew Fleischer is the editorial page editor of The Chronicle. Email: [email protected]