Op-ed: Look to the Rule Breakers

Allegra Roth, MPP ’23 believes that transformative climate and food justice policy can be informed by strategic and supported civil disobedience.

December 6, 2022
By Allegra Roth

On November 14, the BFI staff and a group of UC Berkeley students traveled to UC Davis to attend the 7th California Climate and Agriculture Summit, organized by the California Climate & Agriculture Network. This is the second in a series of blog posts reflecting on the summit. Read the first post here.

A couple weeks ago, I attended the California Climate and Agriculture Summit at UC Davis with a group of other students from UC Berkeley. I graduated from UC Davis with my undergraduate degree in 2014 and I was grateful that CalCAN and the Berkeley Food Institute gave me an excuse to meander through the arboretum and reconnect with friends who are actively transforming California’s food and farming systems. As I listened to and spoke with the diversity of speakers from throughout the state, some ideas emerged.

First, I have noticed that there is space for non-cooperation and civil disobedience in transformative climate justice. Policy should be informed by those actions. Our local and state agencies have developed a complex set of rules with the goal of simply avoiding bad outcomes rather than incentivizing the good ones. For many land stewards in California, this means that land-based climate-beneficial actions – like composting food waste sourced from restaurants, performing cultural burns on degraded rangeland, or building cob structures to house farm laborers – are considered either illegal or incompatible with existing permitting pathways. As the climate crisis unfolds around us, and our regulatory agencies struggle to respond, I suggest that it is time to break some rules in order to change them.

Land and the people that steward them will be vital assets as climate disasters become more extreme; it falls on policymakers to make this heroic job easier. If our regulatory frameworks don’t adapt, our land and communities will inevitably transform, but they will not evolve in a way that is just, equitable, or urgent. As I was reminded at the conference, “transition is inevitable, justice is not.” For those who have the privilege to break the rules in service to our planet, our movement needs you to do so. Break the rules collectively and in partnership with advocates that can vouch for you. Do it systematically and diligently. Do it to legalize the stepping stones we will need as we walk into the uncertain future.

Of course, it is important to reflect on the conditions that make success of this is strategy possible. As Dave Henson, executive director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, reminded me at the conference, we look back at the paths of our wins like the path of a winding stream: the obstacles, the pivots, what gave us the momentum to keep moving forward.

The history of the movement to legalize greywater systems and build community drought resilience in California can serve as a useful example. Folks including Laura Allen of Greywater Action, Brad Lancaster of the Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond book series, ecological systems designer Art Ludwig, and many others were operating in a legal gray area to install hundreds of decentralized water-saving systems for years. The revolutionary benefits of these simple systems clearly outweighed any perceived risk, and advocates changed the plumbing code to reflect that. Collectively changing the rules sometimes requires collectively breaking them.

The state of California has made immense investments in climate programs, and the state’s Cutting Green Tape Initiative aims to ameliorate the regulatory burdens to effective climate action. It seems now is the time to reflect on our wins, and support those paving the way for an equitable and climate resilient food system.

Being among change-makers, bridge-builders, and strategic agitators in the California food policy space highlighted the humanness of this work. The innovations, research, and policy we individually advance is only as strong as the web of people who can connect to it, use it and build on it. Without the warm strands of connection between our respective visions of the future, our ideas fall flat. The CalCAN Summit reinvigorated my desire to work in the messy space between the land and the law. I hope to keep weaving strands of trust between those who steward our land and those who attempt to govern it, to redefine what governance can look like, to reclaim our relationships with the natural systems that sustain us. I look forward to seeing who joins me.

Allegra Roth is in her second year of the Masters in Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. She co-chairs the GSPP Food & Agriculture Policy Group.