Char Miller, formerly a professor of history at Trinity University, is director of the environmental analysis program and W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College. He is the author of the award-winning “Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism,” “Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas,” and “Public Lands/Public Debates: A Century of Controversy” and the editor of On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio.
Robert Rivard: You were a longtime voice for progressive urban policies and growth in San Antonio, but you left just as the city was starting to enter what has proven to be a sustained period of urban renaissance. Do you still follow San Antonio from California? Any impressions from afar?
CHAR MILLER: I follow San Antonio’s development as closely as possible; it remains an anchor for me in terms of thinking about the entire Southwestern region, the hub I still know the most about. That’s why my new book, “On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest” starts with the Alamo City and then heads west to the city of Los Angeles, a reflection of my orientation, real and imagined.
But it also is suggestive of the way that this broad sweep of land functions as a region. Whether in Texas or California, questions of urban development – who pursues and promotes it; who benefits from it and who does not – remain pretty similar as do the answers. Building sustained and sustainable communities, insuring that everyone has access to clean air, water, and food, and committing public dollars to public education so that it is robust and challenging are dilemmas that no one place can claim as its own.
As an example of one of the ways that San Antonio has been pushing to change its political culture for the good, note how the past set of mayors and their allies have worked assiduously to nurture a more metropolitan commitment so as to replace the “sides” – East, South, West, and North – by which folks have often articulated how and where they live. To think of San Antonio as one place, with an equitable distribution of goods and services, has been the ideal, and in ways that would have seemed unimaginable 40 years ago has become more true every day.
Achieving that cosmopolitan perspective in Los Angeles is a much-more complicated process, in part because of geography: coastal hills cut off one valley from another, a physical separation that underscores some of the great communal divides. So being alert to and trying to track how these cities and others are attempting to accomplish socially-just policies amid contested political arenas is what was has made living in and writing about the southwest so invigorating (and frustrating).
RR: Tell us a bit about your new book. You’ve gone to California, but you’re still writing about the Southwest.
MILLER: For me, SoCal is part of the larger Southwest, bound to it by means of culture and borders, because of the politics of water and immigration that define much of its shared public life. Indeed, “On the Edge” got its start when we left Olmos Park for Claremont – a relatively straight shot of 1,321 miles on I-10 – and I started to realize how linked together this landscape was.
The railroad offered the first clue: as we followed the sun’s arc, blasting along in the other direction was an endless stream of trains pulling mile-long couplings of boxcars and flat-bed containers from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to more easterly markets. Lots of other signs were there, too, and the book tries to capture their meaning for us who inhabit this terrain, built and natural, and to set them within the framework of place.
RR: What do you think of the inaugural Texas Book Festival/San Antonio Edition? What will you talk about when you take the stage?
MILLER: The fact that the Texas Book Festival/SA Edition has come into being is a reflection of the community’s hunger for cultural events that link it to the larger world of ideas. That it is happening now, after failed efforts in the past, is also symptomatic of the wealth – intellectual and fiscal – that has transformed San Antonio in the past decade or so.
The city has always had very bright and committed souls, but it seems now to have a sizeable enough population of such folks to make the Festival possible – and crowded (please!).
What I hope to contribute to the day-long dialogue is why this particular place, San Antonio, and the region within which it sits, the Southwest, matter. I hope to identify some of what these landscapes and communities teach us about ourselves, what they can convey to us about the society we live in and the ideal one we’d like to create in its place. Why our striving for a better world in the future is intimately connected to the grounded one we inhabit today, which is itself bound up with the legacies of another time.
As I suggest in the first paragraph of my book: “To live in place is to live in many places.” This multilayered reality is manifest every day as I look out my window at the snow-capped Mount San Antonio and dream about the city that bears the same name.
RR: San Antonio is starting to show up as a so-called Brain Gain city instead of the Brain Drain city it once was for so many decades. You, however, are one of the creative class leaders who got away. What took you to Pomona? Do you miss life and work at Trinity? Wish you could come back?
MILLER: It has been so much fun reading about the in-migration that San Antonio is enjoying, about the artists, innovators, entrepreneurs who are coming to town because of an unfolding array of opportunities. That is such a change from the 1990s when it appeared that the Sunbelt boom was pulling people away from the city.
At Congregation Beth Am, which my wife and I helped establish in the late 1980s, we used to joke that a moving van should be our logo because so many of our members were leaving for Dallas, Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta (even the north). Our departure 20 years later was something of a surprise to us (and our grown children, who have yet to find a substitute for Tex-Mex food in greater LA), and a fluke: a close friend who was Dean at Pomona (a former colleague at Trinity) offered me a one-year appointment in the history and environmental analysis programs, that evolved into a second year when a number of historians went on leave, and then into a permanent position.
None of our friends in SA thought we’d come back once we hit I-10 in 2007, heading west, but we certainly did. And I return at least once a year because I cannot not. Although I love Southern California (beaches! mountains! Deserts! forests! gray whales and coyotes!), I also dearly miss blue northers, red brick, and soft air. Food that bites back. Good friends. Even Republicans.
RR: The Eagle Ford Shale play is the biggest economic windfall in contemporary South Texas history. A recent UTSA study found it had contributed $61 billion in direct economic impact and helped create 116,000 jobs. Some fear that this economic windfall is obscuring the long-term environmental costs, including declining air quality in San Antonio and the region, and threats to the local and regional water supply. You write about the historic tensions between water users in your new book. Do you see the Eagle Ford as a boom play that eventually will turn into a bust with cities and communities having to face environmental issues they ignored during the good times?
MILLER: For all its remarkable economic impact, for all the wealth it is generating for those who own mineral rights within the Eagle Ford play – I have been hearing from some very giddy friends – this boom will bust, a playing out of the resource that will be consistent with other such mineral rushes that have occurred across time and that in fits and starts have driven the west’s extractive-based economy (think gold, silver, uranium, coal, and oil, etc.). As with those other runs, this one will have some significant environmental and public-health consequences (the two being parts of a whole).
Central to this, as your question indicates, is the short-term and long-term impact on air and water quality. I wrote about some of these looming costs last year and expect to do so again, if only because this is an intense of intense and vital importance to South Texas; how it handles the flush flow of money and uses it to prepare for the cutoff to come will determine the future of life in this arid land.
RR: CPS Energy, the largest municipal utility in the country, also has one of the most diversified energy portfolios. SAWS often cites statistics that show San Antonio’s population almost doubling over a time period that saw water consumption levels remain almost static, the results of conservation efforts. Do you see San Antonio and other regional energy and water users taking the necessary steps to keep up with urban growth, or do you think we have much more to do in the way of conservation and adopting other progressive sustainability policies and practices?
MILLER: The upside is clear – San Antonio, once one of the great energy consumers and water hogs, has morphed into one of the more nimble and conservation-minded communities in the west.
Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, and El Paso could learn a great deal from the beneficial changes in policy and pricing that has made it possible for CPS and SAWS to alter their approach to the production and distribution of their essential resources. There is always more that could and should be done, as new technologies come online to ratchet down use and cost, that make it easier to be more efficient.
San Antonio cannot rest on its laurels, not least because of the EPA’s projections about the next century’s climatic shifts for the Southwest suggest that the current crippling drought will become a norm. So, that’s the downside, and ought to bring a sense of continued urgency to governments, utilities, nonprofits, and for-profit enterprises. Otherwise the moving vans are going to line up.
RR: How do they feel in Pomona, California about lush lawns of St. Augustine grass and automatic irrigation systems?
MILLER: Although St. Augustine is not the preferred grass here, there is far too much lawn in Southern California. Indeed, the joke among contractors and landscape architects is that residents of Claremont and other suburbs have turned the region into western Oregon, joyfully spraying 200 inches of irrigated rain on their yards. In a landscape that gets 12-15 inches of the natural wet stuff.
This is a desert and ought to look like one. When we bought our house here, we tore up the lawn front and back, and planted as much native material as possible – I love the aesthetic and the chance to diminish our household’s part in the region’s larger take of imported water; more than half of the water used in LA is imported, either from snowmelt from the northern Sierra Mountains or the northern Rockies; when it rains here, the flood-control systems flush the water to the Pacific as fast as possible, a huge mistake. The need to replenish underground aquifers is critical and is slowly dawning of folks – there is work to be done (and words to be written about this work).
RR: How is Mayor Castro seen in your part of the world? Do people know about his SA2020 initiative or his pre-K early childhood education initiative underway here?
MILLER: Mayor Castro has been getting a lot of play nationally (it was a blast watching him at the Democratic National Convention, for example). However bright his political star has become, his work in education is not well known in LA. That’s something of a surprise because Los Angeles is also struggling to develop a richer set of educational opportunities for its less privileged children, and might benefit from the thoughtful way he and the council (and the voters) have responded to what has a many-decades-long problem in San Antonio.
Author Char Miller will be at the Texas Book Festival/San Antonio Edition this Saturday, April 13, for a panel discussion, “At War Over the Environment: Two Experts on the Politics of Parks and the Natural World” with George Bristol and moderator Weir Labatt. This talk will take place at the Southwest School of Art Navarro Campus at 2:45 p.m. in the RHR Lecture Hall.