Gary Horton | Even if You Favor Growth, Hug an Environmentalist

Gary Horton

At a local business meeting a few weeks back a pro-growth participant made a lighthearted quip about our local “so-called river with its so-called stickleback fish.”

I jumped in, quipping back, “Have you ever savored pan-seared stickleback with cream sauce? It’s a tasty little dish…” 

Pardon my pun, but our comments weren’t in the best of taste… 

It is true that the little less-than-2-inch fish has caused local developers as much grief and delay as anything they’ve come up against. The unarmored three-spine stickleback (its proper name) turns out to be a mighty aquatic wonder. Under never-ending human encroachment and habitat degradation, the little guy still musters enough muscle to stop developers in their tractor tracks for years, if not forever. And hence, this odd bit of nature has earned the ire of our pro-growth community while simultaneously becoming something of a cause celebre to environmentalists. 

But outside the environmentalists and “Horton Hears a Who” fans, the stickleback is the Rodney Dangerfield of fish and game. Too small to see, worthless to eat, and certainly not fun and cuddly like a Panda bear – this tough little survivor remains more of a joke than a fish. 

I’m generally pro-growth. I owe most of my livelihood to growth. Most of us live in homes, and without growth we wouldn’t. Growth and building are fundamental to our lives and comfort. Hug a builder. Builders create a big part of your quality of life. But hug environmentalists, too. They’re trying to preserve your quality of life for now and for future generations. 

Interestingly, the quality of our lives is often determined by the smallest, tiniest things – some we can see, and some we can’t – but they impact us and our fellow animals, dramatically. Our Santa Clarita Valley stickleback might be considered a poster-fish for this. And our little guy is in steep decline, as is our Santa Clara River. Indeed, the Santa Clara is a river, and it’s the longest-running river in all Southern California. Today, in our dry years, parts are seasonal, and parts are year ’round, yet the Santa Clara provides habitat aplenty to countless creatures seen and unseen.  

But why does it matter how we treat our sometimes-seasonal river, or how we treat runoff, or how we treat our trash, or air, our land and sea? If we can’t see it, who cares? Polar bears we understand. Sticklebacks? Not so much. Bugs, even less.  

This is where our once-despised environmentalists come into tremendous importance. A few current local stories drive home the point. Environmentalists stand between humans and the ecological catastrophes we seem so preprogrammed to create.  

You remember the days of Los Angeles smog so bad you literally couldn’t see the end of your street. Kids’ lungs would burn like they had a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. With environmentalist help, the Air Quality Management District was born and with it came then-considered harsh, over-reactive rules that… truly cut our smog down to far improved levels.  

Then, there was the very real yet very invisible, “hole in our ozone layer.” This too, a butt of jokes, was a serious issue for any human not wanting all our kids to die of skin cancer and animal populations to implode. Again, strict, then-considered overreacting rules about spray can propellent and A/C gases did the trick, and in just a generation we’re largely back in shape. Crisis averted. Hug an environmentalist. 

Right here in the SCV, we’ve long heard of the Whittaker-Bermite fiasco, where a 1930s-1970s munitions factory dumped war-level quantities of perchlorate into the soil and groundwater of some of the best land in our area. Our city center became a toxic dump that required decades and hundreds of millions to clean up, with groundwater still being cleaned for another 20 years hence. One day we’ll see something wonderful developed on that site. But what a waste that unseen befoulment caused both above, on, and below the ground that factory sat on. 

Perhaps the very worst existent environmental nightmare in our area remains ongoing and unfortunately will be poisoning us, our fish, and every animal up and down the food chain. That’s the 1950s-era mass-dumping of DDT chemicals between the coast of Palos Verdes and Santa Catalina. Just imagine the utter thoughtlessness and greed, to knowingly dump hundreds of thousands of gallons of the most poisonous pesticides straight into the ocean… because it was cheap and once dumped, “Hey, no one sees it.” The stuff never broke down. And local and migrating fish, mammals and seabirds – and us – have been ingesting the stuff ever since. Sealife declines and deformities up? Cancer rates up? Any surprise? You’re eating DDT spewed all over our local food chain. And this one is going to be one tough fix. SpongeBob is screwed. How do you clean thousands of square miles of ocean floor of toxic DDT? 

Traditional Western culture tells us that God gave us the Earth for man’s dominion. Greed reinterpreted that to, “God gave us the Earth to exploit.” Hug an environmentalist who is just trying to save us from ourselves. 

Mass dumping of lethal DDT into oceans certainly isn’t godly nor smart. Ditching perchlorate at an arms factory isn’t godly or smart. Burning leaded fuel to foul our lungs and dull our minds certainly wasn’t smart. What we can’t see can hurt us. And perhaps hurt us the most. 

Wiping out our stickleback isn’t about ditching a meaningless less-than-2-inch fish. That little guy is more of a canary in a coal mine than just a small fry. Willful destruction of habitat is willful destruction of nature’s balance. Just because we don’t immediately see our impact doesn’t mean we haven’t done serious harm. Humanity right now is learning just how interconnected, intricate and delicate our world is. 

Let’s build, because we all need homes. But let’s hug environmentalists, because with their help we might just thrive without harming ourselves and all of God’s creatures in the process.

Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.

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