I was a rookie interviewer in 1992, when I had the good fortune to be able to interview Peter Berg of the Planet Drum Foundation about the concept of bioregionalism. When I listen back to the audio, I wince, at the affectation and the inexperience I had at the time, but we’re supposed to evolve, right? Given that I started a bioregional poetry festival and am 4 years into a twenty year cultural investigation of Cascadia, the bioregion in which I’ve lived since October 1988, I think it is important to put my vanity aside and share this important take on how our world could be and some of my early inspiration for the course I am on now.
And hopefully this will be the first of many of my old interviews rescued from the possibility of disintegration, as I’ve been hauling these reel-to-reel tapes from home to home and office to office, including at least three iterations of SPLAB in that time. So thank you Jack Straw for the excellent digitization. Thank you 4Culture and Charlie Stobert for your generous contributions to my interview work, archived at American Prophets.org. Thank you Nick Francis for giving me the chance to do radio interviews at KKNW. Thank you Judy Goldhaft of the Planet Drum Foundation for the transcription and thank you Peter Berg, for being patient with a young radio host who somehow had a notion of what was important a couple of decades ahead of time.
Transcript of phone interview with Peter Berg (PB) by News and Community Affairs Director Paul Nelson (PN). Transcribed by Judy Goldhaft, February 2016.
April 12, 1992
PN: This is Sunday Morning Magazine on 106.9 KKNW. I’m news and community affairs director Paul Nelson. Sustainable living is something we hear a lot about nowadays, but what exactly is a sustainable lifestyle? Well, the Planet Drum Foundation is dedicated to concepts that could be placed under that sustainable label. Peter Berg is the executive director of the Planet Drum Foundation and he’s our guest this morning on KKNW’s Sunday Morning Magazine. As once again we dive into the depths of sustainability. It’s a phrase that’s being tossed around a lot nowadays Peter isn’t it?
PB: It is and I suppose people should be aware that there are two senses of it. One is continuing to sustain the kind of life we’re living now in the way that we’re living it. And the other is to undertake a life that in the long term would be sustainable. The difference being that the way we’re living now in many respects is not sustainable.
PN: Well there are many different categories I’m sure that you would include in that. First of all, our method of transportation, with Seattle being the fourth most congested city traffic-wise in the nation, and pollution which follows that kind of traffic pattern, that’s a big problem here.
PB: Well, not only air pollution, but also an amazing fact in San Francisco is that 40 % of the pollution of San Francisco Bay, that is not related to industrial pesticides or fertilizers that get into the water up around the Delta, forty percent of the non-agricultural pollution, comes from run-off of city streets. Which means that when it rains, simply our lifestyle in the city, pollutes the Bay. About half of the pollution comes from just the way we live. And it’s not all automobile related, although a lot of it is. And some of it is stunning. The fact that people change their oil over storm drains that go into the Bay, or well I’m sure you’ve seen it in Seattle too, I’m sure it’s true in Seattle as well all kinds of things end up in the street—antifreeze, acids, toxics of all kinds.
PN: In fact antifreeze is something that, when it ends up on the street, animals are attracted to it because I understand it has somewhat of a sweet taste and they lap it up and they die as well.
PB: Right. So there are a lot of aspects to our current use of private automobiles that are secondarily injurious. They’re important injuries but they’re secondary to the direct ones, like air pollution.
PN: What kinds of things do you recommend as far as getting away from the kind of a lifestyle where it’s one person in one car going 30 miles from their home to the downtown core area and back?
PB: Well two things. One would be to reduce the need for automobiles by arranging for more work, recreation and residential living to be done in the same area. Currently zoning laws very often mitigate against that by having areas that are just residential or just industrial or just recreational, including, say, theater and nightclubs, that sort of thing. So that people literally need a specific and unique form of transportation to be able to go to all of those places. So the presence of the automobile made it possible to zone in ways that mitigate against not having an automobile. So one would be to change those zoning laws and those kinds of development and to do redevelopment along the lines of having more life-work-play take place in the same area.
The second one would be to duplicate what an automobile does in other ways. And the way to do it best from my point of view, this is a personal opinion, is to expand the kind of transportation that’s currently used to take people to airports, for example, in shuttles, or to pick up elderly people or to pick up disabled people or children which is van transport. That’s called “point to point.” One point being your home and the next being the place that you need to go. And to be picked up at your home, taken to where you need to go, seems to be easily worth whatever that might cost and if it was done on a mass basis, the cost would be fairly low. So you’d be riding in a van with ten other people who have their own agendas, but you wouldn’t all be using private cars. Nevertheless, you’d get all of the accommodation of a private automobile by traveling point to point.
PN: I think you’d find that Metro, which is the transit and sewer agency in this area, has a very progressive program regarding that. But I’m not hearing anything about Mass Transit.
PB: Well, because I think there’re a number of things have caused the idea of mass transit to be over-emphasized. There are things mass transit can do certainly, for example, there are towns where bus drivers or trolley drivers have a control within their cab that turns the light green when they come up to it, which of course you know, keeps traffic rolling and causes fewer delays and makes it much faster to travel on public transit. And the other form, of course, is light rail. The kinds of trains that you see in, for example, zoos – an elephant train sort of thing, where the accommodation is very light, the amount of energy to move it is very small and it could travel, for example, on a single track. But I personally think mass transit, this is personal Paul, is over emphasized, and that the kinds of transit we want are group transit…that would duplicate what an automobile currently does. Mass transit will never do that.
PN: That’s interesting. Now you’re speaking a lot from a personal level. Tell us about the Planet Drum Foundation and what they espouse and what they do to further the concepts of living a sustainable life-style.
PB: Planet Drum was formed in 1974 to be an ecological educational organization with the purpose of creating consciousness about bioregions. Bioregion is a way of looking at the place where you live as an organic whole. People often do this about wilderness areas they talk about the ecology of a wilderness area, but people don’t talk about the ecology of the Cascadia Bioregion with Seattle in it, say, unless they have a bioregional perspective. And that….in your area that is the way it’s referred to. The Ish River Bioregion in the greater Cascadia Nation or Country. And bioregion then is all the natural systems that operate in a place, including urban areas, and how people can fit into them rather than obstruct or destroy them.
PN: So, what would a bioregion entail? How would we define what Cascadia is—where it starts, where it ends?
PB: Well you have people there that are busily engaged in that and I would prefer that they speak for themselves. The reason being that I think bioregions are defined by their inhabitants as in cultural terms as well as in natural systems terms, but I can relate some of what I’ve been told by people that live in that area. The northern terminus of the bioregion would go up into Canadian British Columbia. The Ish River Area would be all of the rivers that end in the syllable ‘ish’ and others as well.
PN: And would that be the suffix? Yeah.
PB: There the Snohomish, the Squamish that end in the Salish syllable ‘ish’ and essentially empty into Puget Sound. The rest of Cascadia would be below that and would run south along the Cascade mountain chain at least until the point where it meets Mount Shasta in Northern California or Mount Lassen in Northern California. That area from the Cascades Range all the way west is called Cascadia.
PN: That’s quite interesting. To take the concept of bioregions further, would all what is necessary for survival come from that bioregion instead of importing meat from, say, Kansas City? Would we live off the area, basically?
PB: Well let’s, in order to answer, let’s start with the imperative. The imperative is that we learn how to live in harmony with natural systems in sustainable ways. That means that the ways that we live would change, the kinds of things we would do to get basic human needs, such as food, shelter, water… and I would include culture in that, would be more adaptable to the place itself. And the imperative, if I could get back to that, is to live in sustainable ways. How can you do that if you’re importing materials to your bioregion and exporting them as a primary activity? If you’re primarily an importer and exporter—importer say of food, exporter of say minerals. Then you’re not going to be living in a sustainable way. So, starting from there, yes, one would look for the ways to live in terms of what’s available in the bioregion itself. (The Imperative, 1:19.)
PN: So in terms of sustainability we would have quite drastic ramifications of our economic system as it now exists.
PB; I don’t know if ‘drastic’ is the word I would choose. There would be modifications certainly in the ways that people use natural resources. For example, take the two logging methods, one sustainable yield logging and clearcutting. Which one would be bioregional? I think it’s fairly easy to answer that a sustainable yield method would be more bioregional. In terms of fisheries, one would want to restore native stocks of fish and to maintain them at levels that were in line with historic levels in rivers and streams. That would require an outlay of funds to breed the fish, develop programs to keep them coming back to certain streams, streams where they originate, and to build up the level. So if we want to be eating salmon for example, in our own bioregion, we’re going to have to restore and maintain the natural systems that provide it. So what do we have so far that’s economic impacts? We’re changing logging methods; we’re devoting more of our treasure to restoring and maintaining natural systems.
PN: Well if you want to get the Salmon to their historical levels, regarding the stocks of salmon, it would have a serious impact on the power source that we have in this area, and that’s hydroelectric power.
PB: Right, I knew when I used that term ‘historical levels’ that I would be immediately inviting protests or criticism…
PN: No, no, now I’m not necessarily criticizing, but I’m just suggesting that if in fact we want to return to the historic levels it’s going to…there’s another shoe that going to drop. And that means that we’re going to have to pay for it in terms of much higher power rates. And as far as agriculture there would be a ripple effect in agriculture and in other businesses that are related to the hydroelectric system we’ve had since FDR.
PB: There’s a well known public policy decision. This is going on currently in the United States Congress, this problem is being presented and solutions are being sought. The proposition that I would lay out would be that there are other sources of energy, that there are other ways to get power, that micro-hydro, for example, is much less deleterious to fish runs. To get back to this historic levels thing again, I don’t really think that will be possible, personally. But I think that’s the kind of thinking—that’s the direction of thinking—that must be undertaken if people want to start living sustainably. And you had said before what are the economic impacts and I was trying to make it clear that there’s a different goal involved. One isn’t trying to conserve the resource to continue using it up in the historic role of conservation, one is trying to restore the resource constantly in order to be able to approach it as a sustainable source of food.
PN: There are other changes in lifestyle that would be necessary to become more sustainable. Another item in the Planet Drum Foundation works on is garbage and our solid waste disposal situation. What kind of changes could we make regarding garbage that you see would go in line with living sustainably?
PB: Well, first of all, that there be a full scale recycling program for industry and individual households, of the type that for example, has begun in some cities, San Francisco included, where blue recycling bins go out once a week with divided household wastes such as bottles, cans, newspapers. But once that’s accomplished, Paul, the real problem is what to do with the materials that are accumulated, and very often, the prices of recycled materials plummet, once one of these programs is put into effect, so that there’s very little profit margin for the companies that do the collecting of recyclables. What really has to happen is a matter of public policy and that’s that local governments have to give a priority for using recycled materials, one, and two, insist that as often as possible they be developed by local remanufacturing groups. So what we really have to do with our recycled materials is start thinking about them as being a source for local consumption. For example, replacement of park benches by recycled materials, supplying the kinds of office equipment or office supplies that are needed out of recycled materials, computer paper would be a beautiful example. And that as often as possible these recycled materials be supplied by local remanufacturing groups.
PN: What other the concepts regarding garbage and solid waste reduction do you find important? I imagine composting is high on the list.
PB: It would be, and household composting on a neighbor basis is very possible. Everybody doesn’t have to have a garden to stop wasting important compost material such as coffee grounds, banana peels, fruit skins, vegetable matter, etc. Those could be collected for example on a neighborhood basis and used in a neighborhood composting program. So I think that if we insist right away that everyone develop a compost pile in their backyard that we’re going to be asking too much of apartment dwellers for example. But we can get apartment dwellers to start saving material if it’s collected on a local basis and used, say, in a neighborhood community garden.
PN: And with the amount of coffee we drink in this town, certainly there’s a lot of grounds that could be put to good use.
PB: Not only coffee, but herbal tea. I mean all of the people that drink organic herbal tea are throwing away the material that is literally worth it’s weight in gold.
PN: Are there any other topics that we need to address that kind of stand out in your mind as very important issues regarding sustainability?
PB: Well, from one point of view are the human factors, for example the use of renewable energy—that would be solar energy, collected on the roof; energy from micro-hydro sources. This would be small dams of the Pelton Wheel variety, that sort of thing. Or small mills of the Pelton Wheel variety. But another wing of the whole thing is the natural world itself. So if we’re using renewable energy is at one end as a human activity, primarily benefits humans, the other end would be to preserve urban wild habitat. To preserve what’s there now and to expand it where it’s been disrupted or destroyed in the past. That would mean aquatic birds, I’m thinking about animals, deer for example, other mammals, fish that aren’t necessarily food fish but are important to ecosystems, grasses, shrubs, trees in native formations—that would be the way they would be naturally found, rather than having a stand of just say Firs because they were planted there or whatever. And the importance of this is, of course, primarily for wildlife, for birds, for plants and animals, but the reason why this is an important human activity is that the free run of native plants and animals shows you how natural systems are being preserved and conserved and how they are being rebuilt and maintained so that they become part of human consciousness. And that’s an extremely important thing. If people aren’t aware of what the native plants and animals are for example in an area they really aren’t aware of where they are, and this is a very serious question in the United States especially where the average person moves every three years. When that occurs people simply don’t know where they are. And knowing native plants and animals helps them establish a relationship with the natural world that keys into all these other relationships. I mean why go to the trouble of developing a solar collector on your roof or building a micro-hydro facility if you think you can just keep getting it from gasoline and big dams. Well the reason is that it helps the rest of the natural world proceed and gives you a reference into it. So it’s probably as important as important as saving energy which could of course save money as well for the individuals. It’s of enormous importance to be reminded of what the natural life is in the region so you can identify with it.
PN: Many of the topics you talk about are covered in a book called The Green City Program which you publish. And If someone should want information on that, if they want that booklet or if they’d like to talk to you. What number can they call and what address can they write?
PB: The telephone number is area code 415-285-6556 and the address is Post Office Box 31251, San Francisco, California 94131. And we always add Shasta Bioregion to our address. Shasta is S-H-A-S-T-A. That’s area code 415-285-6556, and Post Office Box 31251, San Francisco, California 94131, Shasta Bioregion!
PN: Peter, always a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks for your time.
PB: Good to talk to you, Paul.
PN: Peter Berg, the Executive Director of the Planet Drum Foundation on KKAW’s Sunday Morning Magazine.