Chris Desser

Fighting for the Commons

Recorded: March 1, 2013

Chris Desser is a multi-talented woman with a deep interest in protecting the "the commons", sometimes referred to as the public trust, which involves public resources such as air, water, the night sky, public lands, and even things such as libraries and more. Chris, a lawyer, has served on the California Coastal Commission and has been active on many boards and foundations. In this interview she shares her reaction to a particular Coastal Commission case that threatened the commons. Through her art and writing, Chris is devoted to helping people understand how much we lose when we allow others to give away, sell, or destroy the commons, the resources that belong to everyone.

Lawyer, artist and author, Chris Desser keeps a foot in both art and law. She is a fellow of On the Commons, a think tank focused on developing the concept of the commons as an overarching analytical structure organizing across sectors and disciplines. Her current project is the Catalog of Extinct Experience, an art installation exploring extinct and vanishing experiences in the natural world – like sipping water from a stream or seeing stars in the night sky – and why such experiences are so important to personal and social evolution.

Ms. Desser served on the California Coastal Commission and the San Francisco Commission for the Environment. In 2003, she co-founded Women’s Voices, Women’s Vote, a project that successfully increased the participation of single women in the electoral process. Chris was the director of the Funder’s Working Group on New Technology, an association of foundations concerned with the environmental, cultural, and political implications of emerging technologies such as biotechnology, nanotechnology.

She also co-edited, Living with the Genie – Technology and the quest for Human Mastery (Island Press, 2003). Chris has practiced environmental law, has served on the boards of many companies, foundations and progressive nonprofits including Women Donors Network, the Rockwood Leadership Program, Patagonia, Mother Jones Magazine, and the Rainforest Action Network.

Huey Johnson:    The existence of the Coastal Commission, the Coastal Act,  is just magnificent. And for any visitor to appreciate the beautiful California coast today–no matter how much development pressure has come along, political pressure, whatever, it has withstood all those pressures because of people like you.  Can you describe the Coastal Commission and your time there?

Chris Desser:    The Coastal Commission is a very remarkable, quasi-judicial agency that probably would probably never come into being today; in fact, various branches of the California government always trying to destroy it.  It is the agency that’s responsible for issuing permits for any activity pretty much that goes on in the coastal zone.  And it’s pretty amazing because there’s 12 commissioners who are making, I don’t know, 10 or 12 dollars a day, making decisions on multibillion dollar projects that developers have before the Commission. And I really learned that politics and decision making is a little like “rust never sleeps,” because the developers–and some of them are good guys, I’m not meaning to castigate them all, but… they’ve got deep pockets and so it’s rust never sleeps and you know, like democracy requires constant vigilance.

There was one vote that came up that had to do with klieg lights on the Vincent Thomas Bridge, which is a big bridge down in Southern California near the port in Long Beach. An artist, a woman named Lita Albuquerque, who was a very well known artist, she had this notion of putting these great big klieg lights up and they were going to create all of these…the images in the sky.  And I looked at it and I was utterly horrified.

We’re not so far from those sailors on the sea, you know, and who had to use the stars to navigate, use the stars to understand where they were.  And I think the fact that the night sky is no longer available to most people on the planet or at any rate, not the proliferation of stars that you can see when you’re on top of a high mountain somewhere, is profoundly dislocating in a way that people aren’t even aware of.  This project was going to make the stars even less visible to people, and I think that the artist and the folks who were representing her before the Commission thought this was a slam dunk, no issue at all.

So up it comes, and none of the other commissioners had any concern about it at all. I mean, this is not how their minds turned.  And here were these – there were astronomers–there was this little cluster of astronomers from the Dark Sky Association or something, and you could see their jaws drop when this commissioner who they’ve never heard of–why should they–all of a sudden goes to bat, you know, in this really vocal and passionate way for the darkness of the night sky.  Ultimately there was some permanent proof for a vastly changed project. And the night sky is dim at best down there anyhow, but it was, you know, winning one for the night sky.


Chris Desser:    In terms of public space and the commons, that to me is about that which belongs to all of us and it is of course air and water and trees and all manner of natural resources.  It isn’t only natural resources; it extends to things like libraries or the post office or jokes or languages.  I am devoted to helping preserve that.  I find it absolutely outrageous that our government gives away our parks, our national monuments, and our water when it isn’t theirs to give away; it belongs to all of us.  

So much of what I have done has really been going after things at the intellectual level, at the mind level, and I’m very inclined that way, I will always be.  But I think that real change, real political change, real social change at any level only happens when there is a critical mass of change at the individual level.

You just never know what’s going to flick the switch and it can be art, it can be music, for me it’s unmediated experiences in the natural world.  I mean they’re so – to use a much overused word, I never use it but I think this is an appropriate case to use it – they are so awesome.  They’re so awesome.  And they hit me in the place that I can verbalize ultimately, but that’s not the first response.  You see yourself as this less than tiny thing in this very massive place, and yet here we are.  And if we are here, then why not do what we can to ensure that other humans have the opportunity to have this experience of awe.