By Michael Feinstein, Inside/Outside. July 15, 2019 

Today most people have some idea what ‘sustainability’ means. But it wasn’t always so — and even when people have an idea of what it might mean in theory, it isn’t always clear how it applies in practice.

That’s why Dean Kubani’s retirement on July 1st as the Santa Monica’s Chief Sustainability Officer is so significant.  With the City since 1994, Kubani has done perhaps as much as any individual in the United States to help define what ‘sustainability’ means in the operations of modern municipal government.

Origins of modern sustainability

Back in 1972, the groundbreaking book The Limits to Growth (published by the Club of Rome) was a study of the earth’s carrying capacity in relation to the population explosion (when global population was half what it is now!). According to Donella Meadows and co-authors “It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future…The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.”

Then in 1987 Our Common Future, the UN-commissioned study known as the Brundtland Report (after then Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland), stated “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Santa Monica as sustainability model

But despite these paradigm shifting documents, few comprehensive examples of sustainability were being developed at that time. That’s where Santa Monica and Kubani came in. In 1994 Santa Monica embarked on its Sustainable City Plan. According to Kubani, “it was likely the first to begin to address community sustainability in a comprehensive way – not just focused on environmental sustainability, but realizing that the environment is integrally linked with social equity and the economy, and that as a city we need to address all three in order to ultimately be successful.  In other words, we can’t have a sustainable community if our economy is strong but we are continuing to damage our local environment, or if some of our residents can’t meet their basic needs.  Recognizing that our community is supported by our economy and both are fundamentally dependent on the environment was groundbreaking at the time.”

In many ways Kubani’s time with the City mirrored the growth of the sustainability movement in the U.S. – and also reflected Santa Monica’s role as a ground-breaking municipal sustainability experiment and export model.

“In my 25 years here in Santa Monica I’ve seen sustainability go from a somewhat fringe concept (most of the sustainability conferences I went to in the mid-1990s were attended by a lot of people wearing tie-dyed shirts) to the mainstream.  I recently spoke at a sustainability conference in the Midwest and met staff from some very conservative farm towns in Kansas and Missouri that are doing great sustainability work.  They are feeling first-hand the effects of climate change – more intense flooding, tornados and storms – that have hit their local economies and impacted their residents really hard.  They have looked to sustainability as they rebuild, not because it is a fad, but because it is essential.”

Kubani lectures on sustainability at universities throughout the country, and has presented information about Santa Monica’s programs at state, national and international conferences.  With perhaps only a decade left to radically reorient our planetary lifestyle towards full sustainability before runaway climate change dooms most of our species (and millions of others), Kubani’s role speaking outside of Santa Monica can not be overstated, nor can the city’s role as an early sustainability model.

“I have been very fortunate to witness and participate in a big part of the evolution of sustainability, from a somewhat ill-defined concept in the early 1990s to something that is integral to municipal planning and operations throughout the world today.  Because we did a lot of the early work here in Santa Monica, our impact has been felt widely beyond our city limits and provided the groundwork for other cities, and even mega-cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, to build upon.”

In 2007 Santa Monica co-founded Green Cities California with about 10 other like-minded cities throughout the state that had made similar commitments to sustainability.  In 2008 Santa Monica was one of the founding cities of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network which now boasts over 200 member cities from throughout North America. Yet many cities do not have Santa Monica’s inherent financial advantages nor the environmental orientation of its electorate. What has been Kubani’s message to them?

“I tell them that many of the successful things promoting sustainability end up saving money. Replacing inefficient streetlights and traffic signals with LED bulbs have multiple benefits – they cut energy costs by a factor of 5 to 10, they require less maintenance so they reduce staffing costs, and they cut greenhouse gas emissions. These things any city can do and even if they don’t have the resources to do it alone, there are many resources that cities can take advantage of – foundations, utilities, state and federal grants and loans, public/private partnerships, etc.”

Santa Monica highlights

“I am very proud of developing our Sustainable City Report Card back in 2005, because it led to a much greater understanding in the community about sustainability, has been used as a model by other cities, and been an effective tool to move the needle on sustainability goals.”  I am also very proud in the role I played to help get community choice energy off the ground in Southern California, which involved working with a small number of staff and community leaders from a few coastal cities over a number of years – ultimately resulting in the creation of the Clean Power Alliance which now provides 100% renewable electricity to Santa Monica homes and businesses – the biggest thing we have done to date to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the board.  Then most recently is the adoption of the Sustainable Water Plan last year, which puts Santa Monica on a path to be water self-sufficient by 2023.  It is a huge lift, but essential if we are to weather the local and regional impacts of climate change on our water supply.”

What’s next for Kubani?

“I’ll be sticking around Santa Monica, but instead of sitting behind a computer working on policies to help the environment I will be spending more time out enjoying the environment.  I am also interested in spending some of my time teaching and helping future sustainability leaders launch their careers.”

Thank you Dean, for your 25 years of service to our community and planet.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004) .  He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.



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