Lillian Light Is No Lightweight – The Environmental Lioness of the South Bay is Fired Up, Ready To Go!

hummin-v27_3-lillian-lightThe more time I spend with Lillian Light the more I admire, respect and flat out like her.

Our relationship started about a month ago when we spent an evening together carpooling to a UCLA workshop on communication climate change that we both participated in.

I wrote about our experience at the time in Greenius On The Green Scene The South Bay Report.

I dug Lillian right away.  She speaks her mind, she knows what she’s talking about and she does more than just talk, she walks the environmental walk.  Lillian is the real deal and a rare commodity in this world – authentic and genuine without the slightest hint of pretense or self-importance.

Lillian is also the President of the Environmental Priorities Network (EPN) and I wanted to learn more about them and more about Lillian herself.  When I asked her if she’d agree to be interviewed for Creative Greenius she graciously agreed.

epn-logo1

It was a cold, rainy Friday morning in February when Lillian warmly welcomed me to her Manhattan Beach home and invited me to sit at the table that looks out on her backyard so we could enjoy the birds while we talked.  I’m a bird lover too and a fellow member of the Audubon Society so we had yet another thing in common as we began what turned out to be a lively two hour conversation that went by in a flash.

Before I left I knew two things.  1.  I wanted to be part of EPN and I gave her my membership fee on the spot.  And 2. I want to be as vital and meaningful as Lillian Light is when I grow up.

changed-priorities1I began our interview by asking Lillian about the early days of EPN which she helped found in 2001.

JOE
Your organization is called the Environmental Priorities Network.  What was your environmental priority in 2001 and what is it today?  What’s the difference, if any in the group’s “sense of urgency?”

LILLIAN
In 2001 we started by making a list of what our environmental priorities were and then we brought those to the public by recruiting speakers to present those topics on Earth day.  We covered: global warming, nuclear power, clean air, smart growth, globalization and the environment.  And on globalization we actually had a union person speak.  (United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union, Local 324, AFL-CIO)  I was big on bringing the environmentalists and the labor unions  together.

That was our first Earth Day event which we called “Saving Spaceship Earth.”  In October of that same year we offered the forum, “Nuclear Threats Haunt America Today.”

pelican-oil1Then in 2003 we presented a forum on Iraq, “Voices From the Streets.” We got in a lot of trouble for that.  Because we had some people come and fuss.  We put it on at the Unitarian Church and it was considered too political.  People came in opposition and said “You can’t come out against the Iraq war.”

JOE
Did you approach your opposition to the war from an environmental standpoint?

LILLIAN
Yes!  Although there’s been lots of debate about that in our internal committee.  I personally want us to do more about us getting out of Iraq but the committee voted against me and said it was not an environmental issue.  But I say it is because the money we spend there cannot be spent on fixing the environment.  Number two, we’ve made a terrible mess of the environment there.

JOE
We’ve made it a Superfund site in essence.

LILLIAN
It’s terrible.  And using all this money to kill people is exactly opposite of what it should be used for – for the environment.

JOE
I agree, but I can see where you could get in political hot water with that.

LILLIAN

In April of 2003 on Earth Day again, we presented “Saving Spaceship Earth” sponsoring conference topics on Dangerous Nuclear Policies, Clean and Affordable Power, and a panel discussion on “Keeping our Communities Healthy and Sustainable.”  That was a very good event.

green-prioritiesOther Forums the EPN has presented since 2003 include:

  • Depleted Uranium: Wonder Weapon or Toxic Hazard? – 2003
  • Diesel Fuel Emissions: A Public Forum – 2003
  • Public Policy Conference on Clean Air – 2004
  • Earth – Environment – Economic – Election – 2004
  • Patriotism is Conservation – 2005
  • Climate Change: The State of Current Knowledge – 2005
  • Dangers of Nuclear Energy – 2005
  • Our Endangered Ocean – How to Preserve It – 2007
  • Tackling the Water Crisis – 2008

JOE
What’s the geographical scope of EPN?  Are you the South Bay Environmental Priorities Network?

LILLIAN
We’re Palos Verdes/South Bay.  We include the beach communities, Torrance and all of the Peninsula and San Pedro as well.

JOE
Are you a chapter of a larger organization or a standalone?

LILLIAN
We’re a standalone organization, but we do work with other groups on most of our events.

Part of our mission is to hold public forums.  We’ve been doing about two forums a year focused on these issues we care about.  When we have them at the Pacific Unitarian Church we usually get a pretty good crowd, 60-80 people, sometimes 100. The best we’ve ever done was in November of 2007 when we held a public forum on the ocean crisis.   Mark Gold from Heal the Bay came and spoke and that drew 150 people.

htblogo

JOE
You’re coming up on EPN’s 8th anniversary this year.  Have you had the impact you hoped to have when you started the org in 2001?

LILLIAN
I’m proud of all the things we’ve done, particularly the Energy Fairs and the solar homes tours.  And our public forums have been very, very good and very informative.

I think we’ve had quite an impact.

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JOE
Do you think as a result of the solar home tours you’ve inspired any homeowners to go solar?  Do you have any evidence or anecdotal stories to indicate that some people went solar because of what they learned on your tour?

LILLIAN
Yes, yes.

JOE
That’s a very big accomplishment.

LILLIAN
Yes.  We’ve had several people who have done that, including a former President of the Audubon Society.  I’m the conservation chair of the Audubon Society and they’ve been a great friend and supporter of EPN.

pvsb-audubon1

LILLIAN
Another of our accomplishments that we’re very proud of is, having picked up a brochure in 2006 at the Sierra Club table, we found out about the Cool Cities program.  They coined that name.  Cool cities are ones that have made a commitment to stopping global warming by signing the U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement.  And we decided that we would try to get our cities to do that.

We assigned four of our members who lived in different cities where that could happen.  So I took Manhattan Beach, Virginia Hilker took Torrance, Barbara Epstein was Rolling Hills Estates, and Ed Hummel was Rancho Palos Verdes.  Hermosa Beach already had a person working on getting them on board.

And we prevailed in all four.  Manhattan Beach voted 3 to 2, but Torrance was a unanimous vote and so was Rolling Hills Estates.

cool-cities

JOE
Let me play Devil’s advocate about Cool Cities.  Is it really a big deal for the cities to make the pledge?  Do they actually have to do anything other than make the pledge?

LILLIAN
Well, you yourself said, if they make a pledge, or say they’re going to do it, then you can be after them to do something about it.  Now it’s my understanding that within the COG every single city has taken the pledge.

JOE
Yes.  That’s what Heidi Aten told me.

LILLIAN
I really think that’s great.  And 900 other cities across the country have also taken it.

mapshemp

JOE
But I bet you the average citizen who lives in the 16 cities that make up the COG has, a) never heard about the Cool Cities program and b) doesn’t know that their city has taken the pledge or what it means.  Environmentalists know.

LILLIAN
Well my article is going to go into the MB Residents Association publication.  So that’s going to reach residents with the news about the climate agreement.

JOE
Well I certainly haven’t read much about it in the Daily Breeze.

LILLIAN
Well on the questions of newspapers, newspapers are terrible when it comes to environmental issues.

022009_dinosaurs

JOE
So you’ve talked a little about what you’ve achieved with only a small number of people.  What’s the key to being so effective with so few people?  You have a small group that’s predominantly senior citizens…

LILLIAN
It is.  Although we’ve had lots of young people help us with the energy fairs.

JOE
So is it the passion of your people that makes up for your lack of numbers?

LILLIAN
It’s passion.  It’s definitely passion.  And I’m a great believer in passion.  You have to have it.  You have to have passion and you have to care!  I can’t understand, I really cannot understand not caring!  I have real trouble understanding people who don’t care.  I mean when they see that their world is endangered how can they not care.  But some people don’t.

crossroads

JOE
And that brings me to EPN’s priorities here in 2009.  You started out with some big, broad issues.  Have you narrowed the focus of your priorities?

LILLIAN
Well notice that recently we’ve gotten into the water crisis, the oceans’ crisis, so it’s still pretty widespread.  And of course global warming, which we’ve always focused on.

JOE
Of course you could make a case that all of these things are related – the water, the oceans, the global warming.

LILLIAN
True, they are all related.  So I suppose we’re focusing on global warming overall and I do think that global warming is the primary, major environmental disaster that awaits us.

JOE
And do you feel a huge difference in the sense of urgency and the ticking clock as it were, now here in ’09, compared to when you started in 2001?

headerlogoLILLIAN
Yes!  Oh, yes!  Every new report sounds more desperate than the last one and puts the time when horrible things are going to happen closer to us.  That’s why on the Cool Cities program, I’m really eager for our city of Manhattan Beach and every city, some 900 across the country who have taken the pledge, to get moving on it. The question is, are they taking action to really carry out that pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2012?

For instance, Santa Monica is working really hard to reduce them but they’ve only reduced their emissions by 1% last I heard.  And they have to reduce it 7% over the next three years.  They are our local model.  So people have to be more proactive.  They can’t be so slow and pokey as we have been.  I’m very concerned that people are moving too slowly.

When we took the communication climate change workshop together at UCLA they cautioned “moderation,” but I’m wondering whether moderation can do it.

JOE
Well, just as an aside, I wonder if that workshop that we attended had been put on by people who were in their 40s or 50s, if their sense of how much patience they have and how much time is available might be diminished.  I wonder if because the workshop was put on by young people, if they don’t feel that the world is their oyster and they have all the time in the world.

Speaking of time… You’re coming up on EPN’s 8th anniversary this year.  Have you had the impact you hoped to have when you started the org in 2001?

LILLIAN
I’m proud of all the things we’ve done, particularly the Energy Fairs and the Solar Homes Tours.  And our public forums have been very very good and very informative.

I think we’ve had quite an impact.

epn-energy-fair-topper

JOE
What is your plan to recruit more young people and get them more involved?  How do you do that?

LILLIAN
Well it’s interesting about young people.  If you’re talking about teenagers…

I am a former high school chemistry teacher and I’m very fond of teenagers.  I retired in 1991.  All the time I was teaching I would run Earth Day events and the young people cared and they would write essays about Earth Day and environmental problems.

And what actually happened was that I got into birding.  Ollie (Coker), my husband, got me into birding and I started with him.  Before I was into conservation issues, I was more into political issues.  When my kids were little I was involved in the Democratic Club in Whittier where we lived.

But when I married Ollie we started going to Audubon conventions.  I almost have to credit my interest in conservation issues to the former President of the Audubon Society.  He was very much into conservation.

They had conventions all the time and it was neat.  I used to go to all the conservation breakout meetings while Ollie went to the birding breakouts.  The conservation ethos appealed to me so much after teaching chemistry, physical science and biology.  I would go to all these conservation meetings and I started getting very, very interested in the environment.  So that I almost did a lot less on politics as such, and got more into environmental issues.

JOE
It kind of transcends politics in a way.

LILLIAN
Yeah, well you have to use politics in the environment.  I don’t think they can be separated.

There is no way, there is NO way that you can have an effective environmental group and not take action on political issues.  Because the only way you can carry out environmental improvements is through legislation.

hybrid_owner_for_obama_political_bumper_sticker-p128877969419299596trl0_4001

JOE
Talk to me about your experiences dealing with this digital world we’re living in.  We know that the way to reach young people today is through the communications devices that they’re using… through e-mail, through the web.  Do you text?

LILLIAN
Well before we get to that I’d like to say that I love having young people involved.  And as the President of the Audubon Society for three years I got a lot of young people into the Audubon board.  And we were running a “Sharing Nature With Children” workshop in the park.  We got lots and lots of young people who came and helped us with the children, from so many high schools.

And Audubon is doing one great thing – it has the Youth Environmental Service and they give awards. It was so successful for years and young people came to the board meetings and to events and to Asilomar State Beach

Then when we started EPN we wanted to have a young representative from one of the high schools and we did.  But after she graduated we have not been able to replace her.  We have reached out.

JOE
Any idea why?  It would seem like a natural thing for them.  We know that so many young people are environmentally focused.

LILLIAN
Even the Youth Environmental Service is not as robust as it used to be.  I was at an Audubon meeting a couple of weeks ago.  And they were having trouble finding young people to give awards to.

It seems to me that there’s a declining interest on the part of young people in the environment.

JOE
Well we’re in big trouble if that’s true.

make-history

LILLIAN
I agree.  It’s partly teachers.  They don’t seem to be as involved.  I think that’s part of the reason we only had 60 people at our water crisis forum.

JOE
I also think that we’ve just gone through eight years where science has been diminished, silenced, kicked to the curb and covered up.

LILLIAN
And newspapers haven’t been much help either, but I doubt if young people read newspapers.

JOE
No they don’t.  Readership is lowest among the young, and if they do read newspapers they’re not reading printed hardcopies, they’re reading them on-line at the paper’s website.

LILLIAN
And television is totally impossible.

JOE
I agree, with the exception of PBS, Plantet Green, National Geographic and Discovery Network.  But people who don’t have cable have far fewer choices.

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LILLIAN
Young people are people I really want to attract to EPN.  And we’re going to keep trying.  And on the Manhattan Beach Environmental Task Force I’m working with two eighth graders who are representing their generation.  They were put on the Task Force along with some members of the School Board.

The young man I’m working with on my subcommittee is a member of the Tree Musketeers.  The Tree Musketeers started even before EPN. We had Tree Musketeers in 93 and 94 come to our Sharing Nature with Children program and they gave programs on trees.

JOE
If I magically gave you a conduit to reach the young people of the South Bay…

LILLIAN
I want to, I love working with young people.

JOE
Okay, what’s your message to them?  If you had their ear for five minutes what would you want to tell them?

LILLIAN
It’s your future that you need to worry about.  Our world has been set up to function on the climate that we have had so far.  And now we are changing this climate in ways we don’t know what’s going to happen as a result.  It’s your future that is endangered by what’s happening with climate change.

JOE
And how can they make that any better as a member of EPN?  What would you do with these kids if you had them in the group?  What would they be doing?

LILLIAN
They don’t have to join EPN, but they have to be aware that their future depends on their taking action to reduce the dangers of global warming.

JOE
A lot of them think it’s hopeless.  That our generations have pretty much screwed them and that—

LILLIAN
How can you give up your future?!  Look, I’m not that optimistic about the future either.  But I think because it’s our future the only thing we can do is try to make it better.

In general you have a world here that has a lot of problems.  How can you not focus on doing something to make the world better!?

3324911512_4c9fc1d0d6

Click on this photo

JOE
Well, of course the instructors at our UCLA workshop would say we can’t talk to the kids this way.  We’re “preaching.”  We’re being “too serious.”  We’re “dire.”  We’re not giving them hope.

So let me ask the question a different way.  If they DID get involved and they were aware, do you think they could make a difference?  Could they turn it around?

LILLIAN
I think they can.  I really do.

JOE
Well that’s the primary reason they should.

LILLIAN
Any reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is going to help.  And the more people reduce their GHG emissions and the more action they take to do so, the better our future will be.

JOE
It seems from this discussion that a great deal of what you do is educational.

LILLIAN
That’s true.  That’s our primary purpose.

JOE
So would you say a big part of your ultimate goal is to make sure that everyone knows the facts and what the situation really is.  And going hand in hand with that is probably your feeling that right now, and even going back to 2001 when you started EPN, that people don’t really have a good foundation of knowledge and information about these issues?

knowledge-is-power

LILLIAN
They don’t.  Certainly they’re not getting it from the television.  And they don’t get it through the newspapers.  I think we serve a very good purpose.  I think we’ve mostly educated the people from the Pacific Unitarian Church (laughing) but they were receptive.

JOE
It’s interesting to me as I listen to you talk about this and I think about it, this is really an extension of your previous career.  You were educating then and now you’re still our teacher.  You’re still in the teacher’s role.

LILLIAN
Yes.  Yes.  But not only education, activism as well.  And we want to educate for activism.  Because just talking about it isn’t going to do it.

JOE
How do you define activism?

LILLIAN
Contacting the legislators.  Writing, calling, showing up personally to testify.  We’ve visited legislators some too.  We’ve been hand writing cards lately.

JOE
What makes you think they listen to you?

LILLIAN
I know for example that Diane Feinstein’s staff discusses whatever you write to her.  But its getting more difficult with some on e-mail.  Most of them say we don’t accept e-mail now due to the high volume and they force you to use their form on the website.  That’s discouraging.

JOE
You’re right, because they’re taking away the easiest way to reach them.

LILLIAN
Exactly.

hands

JOE
So with all these handicaps and challenges that you have, how is it that you’ve been so successful dealing with the local governments?

LILLIAN
Passion.

JOE
Is it passion alone, or is it perhaps something else I’ve been thinking about – is it an advantage to have senior citizens as the bulk of your force when you’re dealing with these city officials because they dare not marginalize, disrespect or mistreat you.  Is that part of your effectiveness or is that just a misguided theory on my part?

LILLIAN
It’s not my impression that city council’s mistreat their citizens.  Do you think they do?

JOE
No, I wouldn’t put it that way.  But I think that they are not inclined to give weight or respect beyond just the cursory courtesy to citizens.  I don’t think they take the average citizen very seriously if that citizen doesn’t have a political connection or you don’t have a big business interest and you’re not someone who has donated to an office holder’s campaign then I think you get paid a lot of lip service as a citizen and I think that they’re not that interested in what you have to say.  That’s why typically you’re given only three minutes to make any public comment.

LILLIAN
Well, it’s my impression that senior citizens are somewhat looked down on.

JOE
You’re not treated as the wise elders of our society?

LILLIAN
I don’t think our culture does that.

JOE
So it’s not that.  To me that makes your achievements even more significant.

LILLIAN
We’re not all senior citizens though.  They’re not all as old as I am.

JOE
How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?

LILLIAN
(laughing)
I do.  But I’m in my 80s.  Most of our members are younger than me.

JOE
Okay, we’ll I’m going to have to figure out another reason for how you’ve done it then.  Because I think all things considered that EPN has been more effective and more successful than one would expect given the resources…

peoplepower

LILLIAN
I think we have.  I would evaluate that we have been more successful than I thought we would.  I think that just surviving for eight years is remarkable.
And I attribute it to the enthusiasm and passion of the people who make up EPN.  We have had really unusually passionate, devoted people.  Very capable.  People like Virginia Hilker, people like Beth Muir, like Ed Hummel.

JOE
If you lived in the South Bay and your really wanted to get involved with environmental issues and become active, it seems to me that the Environmental Priorities Network is your best bet.  In Torrance where I live, there’s no way to serve environmentally without being appointed by the City Council – and there won’t be an opening till 2111.  In Manhattan Beach you’ve already got your 19 citizens on the Task Force.  Hermosa Beach is looking for their six citizens who will make up their Green Task Force.

But the EPN looks like a terrific opportunity for any citizen that wants to do something now.

LILLIAN
We are, because we always take action.  You know we got started because of the terrible things George Bush was doing nationally and that was more our orientation at the time.  But now that Obama is in office I don’t think we’ll have to do so much nationally and we’ll be able to focus more locally.

The thing about joining a local group of people who are all working together in this area is that you can work on local issues, state issues, national issues and actually work on ways to address them in our own community.

I think that people who come to our meetings rather enjoy them because there’s a lot of interesting people there who are making very good points.  And they’re all dedicated to helping the environment.

JOE
It seems like if you live in the South Bay and you are concerned about our local environment as well as the impact of all the national and global issues right here where we live that this is you best opportunity to A) get specific information about what’s happening here.  Knowledge is power and we want to help you understand to get that power.  Then B) Once you understand we want to help you have a voice here locally to do something about it.

LILLIAN
Right.  Action.  Because another thing we do if you  join and give us $12 we’ll be sending you information about action you can take.  You don’t even have to come to the meetings in order to act.  We’ll email you at home and you can write to your Governor or our Senators or our County Supervisors or our Council people.

JOE
Is a part of it also being able to physically network with the other people who live in your area who have the same concerns that you do?

LILLIAN
That’s a very good point. Network with other interesting and interested people in your area who share your concerns.  Because when we get together, in unity there is strength.

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2 thoughts on “Lillian Light Is No Lightweight – The Environmental Lioness of the South Bay is Fired Up, Ready To Go!

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