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Do-Gooders, NIMBYs, and Other Insects 

The fight over a proposed butterfly museum shows how nonprofits and neighborhood groups are driving this town buggy

Wednesday, Apr 11 2001
If a nonprofit organization called the Coevolution Institute has its way, the two grassy knolls north of the Embarcadero Center office towers may soon host a first-of-its-kind arthropod museum called Butterfly Discovery Park, a giant, glass conservatory buzzing with tiny fauna.

And if a small swarm of nearby high-rise dwellers has its way, the people behind the bug museum will go back under the rock they came from.

"It's putting a building on the park, no matter what the insect group says," declares Eula Walters, an energetic, retired anesthesiologist who dedicates much of her time to fighting the museum. "I call them "insects.' They say "butterfly' because it sounds prettier than 'insects and bugs.' But that's the real truth: They're insects and bugs," says Walters, who calls her group Citizens for Open Space.

Walters has enlisted the planning activist group San Francisco Tomorrow and an ad hoc group called the San Francisco Tree Council to support her effort to squish the bug museum idea. Paul Growald, the retired cable TV magnate behind the proposed museum, has enlisted the support of the Sierra Club, the Save the San Francisco Bay Association, the Greenbelt Alliance, and the San Francisco League of Conservation Voters.

Financial District bug museums? Prickly retired anesthesiologists? Environmentalists fighting environmentalists? San Francisco's two most revered civic phyla -- nonprofit groups and neighborhood activists -- battling tooth and thorax?

Baffled, I did what confused journalists usually do -- I called a publicist. And Laurie Davies Adams, the corporate marketing specialist hired to be the Coevolution Institute's executive director, said the museum's critics might misunderstand the importance of bug education; helping kids to think about bugs will allow them to better understand themselves.

"When you see ants in your kitchen -- Edward O. Wilson at Harvard, the Pulitzer Prize winner, is our science adviser, and he's written extensively about this -- they all work together," says Adams. "It teaches us about human diversity and biodiversity as well as the diversity of species."

Which all goes a long way toward explaining the battle over the Embarcadero knoll. Edward O. Wilson, it so happens, is perhaps the world's most prominent biological determinist.¹ He asserts that all social organization, culture, indeed all human behavior, is ultimately the product of biology. Love can be predicted by our genes, as can war, because our behavior is hard-wired. Wilson learned this, he writes in numerous volumes, by watching insects.

And as it happens, Eula Walters, the fussy neighbor, and Paul Growald, the benevolent cable TV magnate, represent San Francisco genotypes: the nonprofit organization leader and the noble neighborhood activist. Our sea air and craggy hills seem to form the perfect environment for these disparate yet biologically interdependent species. Here, they're as thick as ants.

In books such as In Search of Nature, The Ants, and his most recent, Consilience, Wilson argues that human ethical systems are ultimately determined by the interactions of biological molecules. Critics warn that this kind of thinking can lead to an ethics that says even the most despicable human behavior is "natural" and therefore, in some way, good.

This has likewise been the fate of San Francisco. Nonprofit organizations and neighborhood associations have been so numerous for so long that they have become part of the San Francisco natural landscape. And they've come to be seen as good, no matter what they do.

That fact has gummed up our city's works and skewed the city's political culture. If tradition were to hold, the question of whether or not San Francisco builds a bug museum across the Embarcadero from the Ferry Building might come down to who becomes more pestering, genus Nonus profiti or genus Activus neighborati.

As anybody who has lived here more than a month knows, this city is lousy with nonprofit organizations. Cashed-out millionaires and other well-meaning types can't seem to resist this beautiful city. They move here, found nonprofit groups, or, if they haven't that kind of money, go to work for them. The situation has gotten so bad that there are 400 times as many nonprofit organizations in San Francisco as public toilets.² These groups range in nature from the World Federalist Association of Northern California on Montgomery Street, dedicated to creating a system of global government with world citizenship, to the Book Club of California on Sutter Street, which devotes a multimillion-dollar endowment to publishing coffee-table books about Old West California.

This proliferation of nonprofits is a very good thing in many ways; it's kind of nice to live in a city full of young, fashionably dressed idealists. But it can also result in city streets becoming backed up with sanctimoniousness. High-toned nonprofits fight each other over city funds.³ And, nonprofit organizations, whatever their stripe, play an outsized role in city decision-making.

It was this San Francisco genetic environment that spawned the yearnings of Paul Growald. Four years ago Growald cashed out a Vermont cable television network he'd founded. The next phase of his life would be one of largess, he decided; one that would be directed from the beautiful shores of San Francisco. He spent $500,000 founding a nonprofit organization dedicated to bugs. He lobbied to lease parcels identified on city planning maps as Blocks 202 and 203 for what would be a world-renowned bug museum. The land, left over from the Embarcadero Freeway demolition, is now covered in grass, petunias, and weed trees.

"A friend who was an entomologist and I hatched the idea of creating a wonderful place in the city focused on the diversity of life by giving attention to the importance of insects," Growald says. "It really comes from my own deep commitment to the natural world and the interconnectedness of life. It comes from the fact that my mother was a Holocaust survivor. When I see extinction of species happening so broadly in the world, and see so little attention given to that, I'm personally committed to that.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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