“We didn’t think it would be controversial to say Calaveras County likes nature.”
So said Calaveras High School senior Kati Giblin, who with fellow Earth Club member Cierra Allen came before the Board of Supervisors last week for approval of a seemingly innocent resolution designating April 15 through 23 as “Earth Week” in the county.
Earth Club members will mark the week with a variety of environmental activities, including recycling batteries, bottles, cans, compost and used electronic gear, giving away reusable grocery bags and sponsoring documentary films.
It wasn’t to some audience members and supervisors.
Earth Club President Giblin got her resolution, but only on a 3-2 vote and only after an hour-long, at times nasty debate over whether Earth Day had been co-opted by sinister forces.
Some audience members even hinted that the students might be unwitting pawns in a conspiracy involving socialists and the United Nations, and aimed at stripping Americans of their liberties.
Also questioned was a line in the club-drafted resolution calling for “a peaceful, just and sustainable world.”
“When you use ‘just,’ in my opinion, what you’re talking about is environmental justice,” said Supervisor Tom Tryon. “That has a whole agenda around it. And ‘sustainability’ has become, in my opinion, a term for economic stagnation.”
“I just want you to know we meant it in the most non-offensive way,” Giblin countered.
On her side is Webster’s, which defines “sustainable” as “of or characterized by a practice that sustains a given condition, as economic growth or a human population, without destroying or depleting natural resources, polluting the environment etc.”
But Tryon persisted, adding that Earth Day “is part of a well-organized political agenda” that “involves the role and size and scope of government in our lives more than it has to do with a sustainable environment.”
“We don’t have any particular political leaning in this organization,” Giblin told him.
Seemingly lost in the debate was the high school Earth Club’s 20-year history of environmental involvement and its commendable Earth Week plans.
“We clean up highways, plant trees, serve older people food,and recycle all the bottles, cans and paper here on campus,” said Jim Pesout, a 27-year Calaveras High math and science teacher who has been a club adviser since 2006.
Given its history and planned activities, Pesout found it “ludicrous” that the club somehow got tied in with an alleged leftist agenda.
Because of previous board debates over “sustainability,” however, he was not surprised. “There seems to be a phobia about the word,” Pesout observed.
Such board skepticism is acceptable when it relates to county decisions.
If supervisors really want to reject an engineering firm’s low bid because the company say it is committed to “sustainable development,” that’s their business. And if a couple of board members don’t want to apply for a “Sustainable Communities Planning Grant” because they think it amounts to a “wealth redistribution scheme,” they have that right.
But second guessing a high school environmental club is a step too far.
Supervisor Darrell Spellman, a former Calaveras High teacher and Earth Club sponsor, saw the difference.
“I see at its face value,” said Spellman, who at past board meetings has looked askance at claims of “sustainability.” “This resolution is not tied in any way to any national or international organization. This is across the spectrum, I think, people working together for positive outcomes.”
He’s right, as were Supervisors Merita Callaway and Steve Wilensky, who joined him in supporting the Earth Club resolution.
Tryon and colleague Gary Tofanelli, whose dissent made it a 3-2 vote, have a lesson to learn:
Dedicated high school students working to improve the environment deserve the county board’s support. The treatment they instead received from the board minority was embarrassing.