The Berkeley Egghead

One morning in 1975, painter and set designer Ariel Parkinson stood in her living room high in the Berkeley hills, looking out at what is now the Berkeley Marina—and was then an overcrowded city dump. Plans were afoot to add more fill in San Francisco Bay. “I didn’t know what they were going to build there, but I just knew they’d fill it in all the way out to the end of the pier,” she says.

Until that moment, Park-inson depended on her art—and her heart—to sway people to value the forms of nature, “but as I stood there, I realized it wasn’t enough.” Parkinson decided to become a citizen activist—about garbage: “I wasn’t a lawyer or a chemist, but I am a very good generalist. And I’d worked with Save the Bay since the beginning, so I felt I had the background.”

UC Berkeley had just received a grant to study biological controls and solid waste management, so Parkinson convened a committee that became an unlikely success. Loni Hancock chose Parkinson as chairman of Berkeley’s solid waste committee. “I was going to conferences all over the US,” Parkinson says. But she hadn’t “gotten into garbage” to jetset or hobnob; she wanted to change the world. “I realized we didn’t need conferences. We needed to get to the next layer of people.”

Parkinson decided to make a film about the challenge of solid waste disposal. “What makes you think you can make a film?” asked her mother, who had filmed birds for decades.

“I grew up carrying your camera,” Parkinson retorted. Her film, made with two grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, was shown on public television and in festivals. But its funder disowned it: “They said I didn’t show the other side. I said, `I have 26 minutes to make my case, the other side has 24 hours, 365 days a year. I’m not going to make their case for them.'”

Parkinson was then-Alameda County Supervisor Tom Bates’ first political appointee, as a member of the county’s solid waste commission. She soon came to the attention of Governor Jerry Brown, who appointed her to the state commission. Brown was so taken by Parkinson’s feisty attitude—and her expertise—that he wanted to make her chairman. The scavenger lobby nixed that idea: “If you make her chairman, you’ll never get another penny from us,” one of the lobbyists told Brown, and garbage companies were among the Democratic Party’s largest contributors.

Parkinson sat on the state’s solid waste management commission from 1977-82. Because of Parkinson’s presence, during those years and for some years afterwards, there was a hiatus in the opening of landfills across the state. “I was the only person who could read EIRs and understand what was being said,” Parkinson says. “Each and every time I would find an alternative to landfill that was better for God’s green earth and cheaper besides.”

Contracts were the name of the game, and Parkinson was interfering with big business. “We had a big room and there were 50 to 90 spectators whenever we met. These people were mostly in beverages or scavenger operations.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that Parkinson was under siege: “We ate together every night and some could hardly swallow their food they hated me so much.” They branded her “the egghead from Berkeley” and tried to marginalize her as much as possible, even planning committee meetings at the same time so she couldn’t cause trouble at both.

She would come back from an embattled two-day stint in Sacramento to her house, climbing the long outdoor staircase, then up another set of stairs to her husband in his study. “He’d be there with a lamp and a book. I’d stand there with awe and veneration at a man reading a book in this world of money, money, money and complete vulgarians.”

In an era when waste disposal meant finding new landscapes to fill with trash and toxins for profit, Parkinson was a pioneer in challenging the business interests of men who had operated as they wished for decades. This small-framed artist personally prevented scores of landfills, arguing for nature until her certainty became the will of the people—conventional wisdom that was anything but conventional just 30 years ago.

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