Agent of Change

Last October, acting as mayor while Willie Brown was out of town, San Francisco supervisor Chris Daly appointed former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach to the city’s Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the city’s drinking water, sewer system, and power production. The appointment outraged the mayor, who likened the move to a terrorist act. Though the dust has long since settled at City Hall, supporters continue to view Werbach as an agent provocateur at the PUC. But as Werbach gets more acquainted with the commission, he says that most of the ideas he’s proposing aren’t controversial at all.
In 1997, after serving as the youngest-ever president of the Sierra Club, Werbach wrote his memoir, Act Now, Apologize Later. The book was hailed as “a wake-up call for the MTV generation.” Today, he’s founder and director of Common Assets Defense Fund, a nonprofit organization fighting to protect what he calls our “collective common assets”— air, water, the airwaves used by TV and radio, and the Internet. Werbach also founded San Francisco-based Act Now Productions to help progressives use video, the Internet, and music to market ideas to a new generation of activists. Act Now is currently working on a flash motion video for the John Kerry presidential campaign website.
<strong>Given your controversial appointment to the SF PUC, how do you expect to get things done? </strong>
You get things done by doing them. There’s no magic to it; it’s a lot of hard work. This is basically a volunteer position. I get $100 a month. People know where I stand; there are no surprises with me. I believe that the PUC needs to be a leader in terms of renewable energy and in terms of conservation for the whole country. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the response of my fellow commissioners. They’ve been very welcoming and I’ve found that my agenda is their agenda.
<strong>Is it a goal of yours to try to speed up the bureaucratic process? </strong>
I hate meetings —that’s my personal bugaboo. I think long meetings rarely get anything done. At the same time, the budget for the PUC is roughly the budget of El Salvador, so this cannot be taken as a hobby. It requires a huge amount of focus, learning and time. And I committed to that, but truthfully there’s not a day go by where I don’t question why I did it. I’d rather be spending the time with my six-month-old daughter.
<strong>Is building a new dam a decision the PUC will have to face? </strong>
There’s a plan to expand some of the existing dams, which is not as bad as building a new one.
<strong>Isn’t that a compromise you’d rather not have to make? </strong>
The word “compromise” seems to suggest that there’s a compromise between humanity and nature, where harm must be done to both. More and more we are finding solutions that don’t harm either, and that use the abundance of nature to serve human needs. When it comes to dam building, we won’t need to build dams because there are new ways of storing water. We can think about wetlands and aquifers as natural forms of water storage, and look at development patterns where you put people in places where there’s water rather than in deserts.
<strong>In <em>Act Now, Apologize Later</em>, you write about radical localism. How can radical localism manifest in a bureaucratic infrastructure like the PUC? </strong>
The first thing is to think smaller scale. Instead of looking at all the technological solutions to sewer runoff, think of things like doing tree planting, because trees are a great way of collecting storm water runoff. It means things like solar power and distributed power generation. Instead of having a big ugly polluting power plant you have small clean power generation on the roofs of hundreds or maybe thousands of the city’s buildings.
Honestly, part of it is to understand there’s not one solution for every problem. When you have a hammer, you tend to think of every problem as a nail. Although it’s difficult, we need to think of every neighborhood separately. In some neighborhoods, instead of new sewer collection pipe, they might want some money invested for open space and wetlands restoration.
Instead of getting power from elsewhere at a high cost, it might mean committing to being peak-savvy. Being peak-savvy means that when there’s a huge need for electricity, you volunteer to turn yours off. Instead of spending huge amounts of money to buy power, you just ask people, at that moment, to turn off the television and pay them for it. We need to be creative about different options.
<strong>How do you get around the argument that clean energy is too expensive? </strong>
The best thing is to look at higher cost of the polluting industry. A lot of that cost gets paid for in the health care system by people with asthma. And while technologies like tidal power have great potential, there are technologies now that are cost-competitive today, like wind power. Solar power is getting close to being just the same cost. If we want to be the leader in building the jobs of the future, clean energy jobs, than we need to be investing in this; not just because it’s good for the environment and the city, but because it’s going to make us globally competitive. Go around to other cities, they feel like they’re competing with us to keep up. San Francisco has the possibility to be the national leader. And if we want to be a leader, then we need to act like one.

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