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Our Biggest Challenge: An Interview With CEC Board President John Steed #actonclimate

Our Biggest Challenge, by Dr. Peter Brill

This post originally appeared in Discovering What Matters, on November 5, 2019


QUESTION: One of the biggest challenges I face as a member of the Santa Barbara community is what to do about climate change. Can you help? . . . Greg in Goleta

Thank you for your question, Greg. I went to John Steed for an answer. He is the President of the Board of the Community Environmental Council (CEC), a leading environmental organization in Santa Barbara.

John is a fit, very bright, well-read and highly articulate man who looks much younger than his years, with a quiet intensity and occasional flashes of deep emotion. He speaks easily and with well-formed thoughts and phrases of an experienced corporate lawyer. His commitment to changing the course of the future, and the impact that humankind is having on the environment, is unreserved and inspiring.

History and how he became involved with the environment:

John’s history gives you a sense of the evolution of how someone becomes interested in and committed to the environment. By 1977 John was practicing corporate, transactional and commercial law with an emphasis on international transactions. In September of 1989, he read an article in The New Yorker by Bill McKibben entitled “The End of Nature” which was the catalyst for his environmental awareness. However, like many professionals in the throes of building their careers, he prioritized professional success and his family’s financial security over his concern for the environment.

“In 2007, I was living in Tokyo when my first grandson was born. I visited him in Orlando, Florida when he was one month old.” He says the next part with his voice quavering. “When I held him for the first time, I had a powerful feeling that I needed to do everything in my power to protect the natural world and insure he inherited a healthy environment and stable climate, which I realized are key to a satisfying life.”

When you think about John’s story, I want you to ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you care about anything besides yourself?
  • Do you care about your family?
  • Do you care about your grandchildren and what future they will face?
  • Or do you just live for today and feel no desire or ability to mold the future?

Intending to devote his time to environmental issues, he retired from his practice at the end of July 2008, less than 2 months before the start of the Great Recession. Not knowing how bad the recession would be, John put his plan to become an environmental activist on hold to earn income from consulting in Tokyo until the end of 2010. After finally retiring, he joined Social Venture Partners Santa Barbara (SVP), a non-profit dedicated to sharing business expertise as well as providing financial resources to local non-profit organizations. John’s first assignment with SVP was to work on a project for CEC and, through this work, John realized that CEC’s mission—protecting our local environment for the benefit of future generations—overlapped perfectly with his own. So, when he was invited to join CEC’s board in 2013, he enthusiastically accepted and has served on the board for 6 years, becoming its President in 2017.

In addition to working to support non-profit organizations, John has been involved in facilitating development of clean energy technologies. As an example, shortly after the Fukushima disaster struck Japan in 2011, John offered to introduce Montecito wind energy entrepreneur Jim Dehlsen, who was then working to harness steady ocean currents to generate electric power, to several of his contacts in Japan. John’s efforts resulted in a substantial investment by a leading Japanese manufacturer into Mr. Dehlsen’s marine energy company which continues to develop the technology to capture power from ocean currents near Japan. So, John is a practical man, deeply committed to the environment, and has developed a deep knowledge about what must change and will happen if we don’t alter the impending future.

Q: Aren’t the problems so enormous, how much can really be done locally?

John’s response was, “That is a crucial question.”
John subscribes to the poet Wendell Berry’s view that our environmental problems are indeed enormous and worldwide, and the climate crisis is the most conspicuous symptom of an over-arching problem—the rupture of humanity’s mutually sustaining relationship with the natural world, Paraphrasing Berry, while climate change “happens in the whole sky,” its “causes are myriad local instances of waste and pollution [including carbon pollution], for which local solutions will have to be worked out, if climate change is to be stopped.”

So, according to John, the bad news is, simply by doing our part to eliminate the waste and pollution that we are contributing to the crisis, we cannot solve it. On the other hand, it is also clear that unless we eliminate our waste and pollution, the crisis cannot be solved.

Fortunately, John feels our community is blessed with sufficient resources—natural, human, and financial—to eliminate our share of waste and pollution and, by our success, to inspire other communities around the world to do likewise.

To quote John again, “How bad will the damage from climate change have to get before humanity’s immune system kicks in with decisive action to reduce GHG emissions?” We can either eliminate our waste and decarbonize our economy voluntarily by intelligent planning and action, or watch helplessly as our fossil-fueled civilization collapses. Of course, big social change is never easy, even in the face of strong evidence that our current behavior risks future calamity. Citing the Exodus story, John hopes that we heed the signs Nature is sending us—fires, floods, extinctions of species, collapse of ecosystems, etc.—and not wait for the Destroying Angel to take our firstborn before we begin to repair our relationship with Nature and de-carbonize our energy system.

Q: What can we do locally to reduce waste and abuse?

John believes that our local elected officials have the power, by regulating land use and setting energy, transportation and waste policy, to reduce and eventually eliminate our own community’s waste and emissions. In fact, due to the actions of our local leaders, most residents of Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties will soon have the ability to receive their electric power from 100% fossil-free sources. Many initiatives of the CEC and other NGO’s in our community are already making huge progress to reduce waste—to cite just one: CEC’s “Rethink the Drink” program to install refilling stations in schools and provide students permanent water bottles has eliminated over 4 million plastic water bottles that would have gone into landfills or ended up in the ocean.

With the concentration of GHG’s in the atmosphere already exceeding 415 ppm and rising, Santa Barbara must also prepare for the consequences (sea level rise, increases in extremely hot days and nights, more instances of intense rainfall, etc.) that are already “baked in” to the global climate system. We must become resilient.

Q: What does this mean for us locally?

“Do everything we can to make sure our community is prepared for what may happen. We must appreciate that we are all in this together. Around the world, those most impacted by climate change are the poor and disenfranchised. That’s as true in Santa Barbara as it is in Mumbai.”

Q: What specifics do you think can be done beyond land use and waste?

We have excellent local solar and wind energy resources and, combined with advances in battery storage and microgrids, we have a feasible path to achieve 100% clean energy by 2030. Using clean energy to power electric cars, trucks and busses will help reduce emissions from transportation, but ride sharing—the simplest way to improve the energy efficiency of transportation—has not yet taken hold in our community.

I hope this begins to answer your question, Greg.


Peter Brill is the founder and first Executive Director of Sustainable Change Alliance. He is also a founding board member of SCA Inc., a profit impact investing firm. In addition to serving on their board, he is exploring ways to change the conversation regarding how people think about affecting social change at the community level by launching his Discovering What Matters with Dr. Peter Brill communication campaign which includes a monthly column in the Montecito Journal as well as his Blog www.dwmblog.com. He received his M.D. from U.C.L.A. and became a board-certified psychiatrist after his residency at the University of Pennsylvania. He also attended the Wharton School of Business where he became a Senior Fellow. He founded and directed the Center for the Study of Adult Development affiliated with the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. He consulted to over 150 organizations, founded and ran two national companies, while carrying out a private practice. He is a best-selling author who has appeared numerous times on radio and television, and has also lectured internationally. Since moving to Santa Barbara, he became the Director of the Third Age Foundation where he lectured and led groups and workshops. His latest publication is Finding Your J Spot, Joy in Midlife and Beyond. He also hosted a radio show titled The Third Age. Additionally, he has served on several boards in Santa Barbara and was a member of Social Venture Partners where he served on the executive committee for 3 years.

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