Monday, March 27, 2017

Outlawing the Internal Combustion Engine

“Weʻre not going to do any fucking hobby farming bill!” 

I had just joined the California Legislature after being selected as a ʻsenate fellowʻ to work for a year with a state senator. My real passion was teaching. Without any job prospects and our resources being largely nonexistent, my partner and I figured that a short stint working with the California Legislature wouldnʻt necessarily hurt my academic resume. I wondered again about my choice.

“Fucking hobby farming?” I repeated to myself. Born and raised in Oakland and having worked my early years in college as a Teamster, I was not easily shocked. Still, I found the statement somewhat stunning, particularly given the source. Just across the street from my cubicle in Californiaʻs state capitol, stood a suite of offices maintained by the University of California. As we both took a seat at an intimate conference table, and I opened my file to discuss proposed legislation, the vice president for one of the nationʻs largest agricultural research programs leaned across the table, displaying undisguised contempt; “Weʻre not going to do any fucking hobby farming bill!” The meeting ended as abruptly as his remarks.

One of the worldʻs most recognized names in academia refused to even discuss the bill. Crossing the street toward the major pedestrian walkway leading back to the capitol, I wondered again, “Is this how they make laws? Is this how laws should be made?” I found myself wrestling with this dilemma only because in late 1984 I landed an unusual temporary gig -- working for one of the more powerful members in the California Legislature, Senator Nicholas C. Petris, who represented a distinctive district ofttimes known as the Peopleʻs Republic of Berkeley. Though I had recently completed my doctorate in political science, I knew next to nothing about state politics. In truth, I regarded anything connected to American politics as a pursuit for the brain dead. My partner found it a constant source of amusement to now witness me deep in the belly of the beast.

Senator Petris, the elder statesman, with a mane of prematurely greying hair, was known for his oratorical flourishes. In the Senate chambers he would hold forth on many topics of the day, seeking to influence his colleagues about the right thing that must be done to protect poor communities and farm workers, to end the death penalty, and a myriad of other causes - including lavishly providing for the stateʻs premier institution of higher education, the University of California.

In a political career spanning four decades Senator Petris established a reputation for designing laws based on a dialogue about justice. During the 1960s, many of his peers characterized the Senatorʻs skill for problem-solving as predicated on a deep and abiding respect for social justice; and on frequently honoring otherwise unheralded voices at the legislative table. While based on a complex exchange, the Senator’s notion of justice contained two dominant strains: one a place, the other a principle. The first could be found when he was asked how he could author such an array of outrageous laws. He would quip: “the people of Berkeley made me do it!” Strangers might find such explanation off-putting, but staffers lauded his earnest belief in the virtues of democratic institutions and in decisions led by citizens.

This basic notion -- that citizens and their government exercised control over private sector activities -- characterized many of Californiaʻs representatives, especially among those who experienced World War II; government taking control of basic industries was simply a part of how things got done. It also explained a moment in the 1960s when the public was poised to turn a key fossil-fueled crisis in a wholly different direction. With Californiaʻs major metropolitan areas increasingly shrouded in smog, millions of constituents demanded to hear what elected leaders intended to do. A group of Southern California legislators responded by requiring Detroit to produce cleaner cars.  For a legislator representing the so-called Peopleʻs Republic, the answer was clear, as Senator Petris proposed a measure to outlaw the internal combustion engine.

The proposal immediately outraged car manufacturers, the business community and the oil industry. The oil industry reaction, according to Petris, argued that no viable alternatives were readily available or affordable. Despite the aggressive push-back, Petrisʻ suggestion to ban the internal combustion engine mobilized others to prompt Congress to consider federal funding for research into electric vehicles. The oil industry actively opposed the entire concept on the grounds that needed research into alternatives was already underway.

The push by Californians and their legislators set in motion a series of laws placing the state at odds with letting the market decide. “In 1961, the first automotive-control-technology in the United States was mandated by California to target hydrocarbon crankcase emissions. It went into effect in 1963 on all domestic passenger vehicles sold in California, which eventually meant everywhere, since California was, and remains, the biggest market for all new and used vehicle sales in the country. That was followed by tailpipe emission standards, established in 1966 -- also the first in the nation….The Federal Air Quality Act of 1967 included a waiver for California to set and enforce its own more stringent emissions standards for new vehicles sold in the state.”

Years later fuller exploration would reveal that even as industry dismissed Petrisʻ proposed ban, various oil companies gathered patents on technologies for reducing engine emissions. By 2016 a group of states’ attorneys general filed a massive lawsuit against the oil industry for having perpetrated what might be considered the most massive fraud against humanity.  Petroleum interests began mounting a decades-long campaign to perpetuate continued use of their lucrative product, despite their own recognition of the growing hazards associated with the burning of fossil fuels. 

By 1970, the state senator from Berkeley would be lauded as among a group of influential leaders who played a catalytic role in the passage of the Clean Air Act by Congress as well as the California Clean Air Act of 1988. Nicholas C. Petris, however, would dismiss the praise, citing his usual attribution that he was merely following the guidance provided by his constituents. His glib response did reflect a shared perspective among many of his colleagues; they too were not shy about placing citizensʻ demands above that of corporate lobbyists.
Oh, and the farming bill? Please return again on Wednesday.....

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