Opinion: In Berkeley, the homeless can teach us about climate change

If we care about the planet, we need to live like the homeless. Let’s embrace them, not drive them from our midst. They are our homegrown Greta Thunbergs.

In Berkeley, as in just about any city or town you care to mention these days, two issues tend to dominate the conversation.

The first issue is the climate.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody in Berkeley who doesn’t agree: We should do everything we can to save the planet. Council members can count on their constituents being all-in on reducing their carbon footprint, consuming more wisely, reducing their dependence on fossil fuels, recycling more, and taking personal responsibility for their consumption.

So, the City Council votes unanimously that all dine-in plates and utensils will need to be reusable and all take-out containers compostable by mid-2020. A single-use cup will cost you 25 cents. Food vendors won’t be allowed to offer you a straw or a utensil unless you ask. “Recycling is no longer a solution – if you want to save the planet, it’s time to reduce, reuse and compost,” proclaimed Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, the author of the bill

Begone Styrofoam! Shame on you if you don’t bring a usable bag to the Berkeley Bowl!

And it doesn’t stop there. This year, with another unanimous vote of the City Council, Berkeley became the first city in the United States to ban the use of natural gas in new low-rise buildings. “We have a climate emergency,” said Councilwoman Kate Harrison, the author of the bill. “The ordinance will allow a significant reduction in greenhouse gas-emitting devices and systems.”

Perhaps. But at night, seen from a satellite, Berkeley is lit up like a twinkling Christmas tree; the stars drown in its glare.

Issue number two is homelessness.

Here, we are at loggerheads. We disagree mightily.

Some of us pass a person lying on the sidewalk covered by a thin blanket and think to ourselves, “There, but for the grace of God (or the luck of the draw) . . ..” We see the homeless as castaways, jettisoned by a merciless, predatory system that cares only for profit and tolerates obscene inequalities.

For others they’re a pain in the ass; not just a minor inconvenience, but bad for business, nasty to look at, morally degenerate. We offer services they don’t seem to want; their numbers keep increasing. Councilmembers are inundated with complaints so they pass ordinances designed to corral the homeless, move them along, preserve streets and plazas for the rest of us. And whenever those ordinances come up for a vote, there’s a furious row and meetings that run past midnight.

Now for my modest proposal:

Let’s look at these two issues together.

If we really care about climate change, if we want to reduce our carbon footprint, where can we look for a model of how to live lightly on the planet?

That person in a tent on the sidewalk? What’s their carbon footprint.?

What about those folks on the edge of the freeway, under ramshackle structures of tarps and plastic sheeting?

They don’t drive carbon-consuming vehicles.

They don’t cook with electricity or natural gas.

They are ferocious recyclers – dumpster diving and feasting on our leftovers.

They walk. They bike.

They sleep in tents.

While there was still a community of homeless folks living in ramshackle shacks with million-dollar views on the Albany landfill, I saw a satellite photo of Albany at night. A dense spiderweb of lights spread across every millimeter of the city. Except for the landfill. Which was black. Zero energy consumed.

What is your carbon footprint?

What is the footprint of your homeless neighbor?

In 2009, Berkeley voters passed Measure G mandating that Berkeley reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 2000 levels by 2050. In 2009, Berkeley adopted a Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 33% below 2000 levels by the year 2020. How are we doing? In 2018, a report on our progress contained a graph showing that in 2016 Berkeley contributed over 600,000 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

600,000 metric tons!

We may have clean teeth, but we are apex predators of the environment. Lords of the universe, we drive to the feast in Priuses, bring cloth bags to the supermarket, and in the evening, with our bellies full, we carefully sort our trash, paper from plastic.

And we know it’s not enough; not even close. The planet continues to heat up like a kettle that’s been left on the stove with the flame under it, forgotten as we rush out to our next appointment.

My proposal is simple:

If we care about the planet, we need to live like the homeless. Let’s embrace them, not drive them from our midst. They are our homegrown Greta Thunbergs. They are doing it right and we are doing it all wrong. When the shit hits the fan, the next big one comes, and the climate really goes haywire, they will be the ones with the survival skills. And we will be the ones begging for a handout.

Osha Neumann is a supervising attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center