Viable Solutions

Planting the seed of caring

Andy 1974The simplest thing I do to stay engaged is to plant and to nurture. This goes back to the early days of TreePeople, the organization I founded when I was eighteen, when I saw how powerful and life-changing it was for young people to discover their ability to make a difference through planting and caring for trees.

I remember in 1973, at a summer camp in the local mountains where we did some projects, some of the campers were gang members and frankly, that was scary to me. Here I was, just a few years older than these hardened inner city kids, sharing about trees and their wonders, including their ability to feed the animals and clean the air. I was introducing them to the names and varieties of trees, and they were with us doing the hard work--swinging picks and digging holes and planting seedlings. But I could tell I was stifling my enthusiasm, my open-hearted caring, because I could see that these were tough kids, and I worried I was being judged as a wimp.

Smaller footprint, better diet (and a recipe)

    Back in l930's, Fats Waller sang a funny song called Your Feets Too Big, kidding a date about the size of her "pedalic extremities," with lyrics that rhymed "colossal" and "fossil."

    In the 21st century, we as a society worry less about the size of our feet and more about the size of our carbon footprint. To reduce the impacts of global warming, we must reduce the size of our carbon emissions.

    Most Americans emit - directly and indirectly - about twenty tons of greenhouse gases a year, roughly five times the global average.

    In the past I've spoken about reducing my footprint by riding the bus and by focusing on water conservation.  Now I'm writing about something simpler: reducing carbon emissions by reducing consumption of animal-based foods.

     In 2006, a study from the United Nations found that worldwide, 18% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions resulted from cattle production, a higher percentage than produced by transportation. And according to another widely-distributed study, eating red meat on a frequent basis emits about one and a half tons more GHGs into the atmosphere compared to eating a purely plant-based diet.

    "However close you can be to a vegan diet and further from the mean American diet, the better you are for the planet," said one of the authors. "It doesn't have to be all the way to ...vegan.  If you simply cut down from two burgers a week to one, you've already made a substantial difference."

     The truth is I didn't stop eating meat for the sake of the planet. I stopped for the sake of my daughter, who asked me to while we were touring college campuses. But once I stopped, within a few days I noticed that my arthritis went away.  If I ate chicken, beef, or lamb, I would experience more pain, more stiffness, sometimes within hours.

Help Obama spread environmental literacy. Vote today!

What does it mean to be an environmentalist today? The day after Earth Day I was interviewed by a magazine reporter who asked what I thought was a really good question.

We launched TreePeople shortly after the first Earth Day, and in the decades since I've seen four major cycles of eco-passion come and go. In each I heard people say with complete confidence that we'd made a change in the way Americans think about our relationship to the earth.

These people were sure this environmental change was here to stay. In each case the sentiment was overtaken by economic concerns, or wars, or political events.

I've never liked the term "environmentalist," even though I am obviously considered one, because it's a word that can mean almost anything you want it to mean.

Anyone can be an environmentalist - all you have to do is care. In each cycle of earth-friendliness I've seen emotional awareness go up. But although caring is good, it's just a first step.Without environmental literacy, it's too easy for people to be manipulated by those who would use the movement for their own purposes.

If I was asked to define the term as it should be, I'd say an environmentalist is a person who has at least a basic understanding of how local and global ecosystems work and inter-relate, who understands the impacts that human activity can have on the health of those ecosystems, and who, using this literacy, acts on that knowledge. When we look at the magnitude of environmental challenges effecting our future, it is clear that one our highest priorities MUST be increasing environmental literacy throughout the population, and especially in emerging leaders. That may seem like a daunting task. But here's some good news.

Earth day reflections

My bike and tree on the MTA busThis Earth Day marked the 40th anniversary of my first tree planting. To celebrate, I decided to up my personal commitment by taking public transportation and my bike to various events across the city. Seeing so many community celebrations gave me a lot of encouragement and hope. I chose to be a living banner for the occasion, wearing my TreePeople tee-shirt and hauling a three-foot-tall oak tree in my bicycle saddle bag.

The first thing I did was put my bike on the front of the MTA bus (every bus in Southern California now has a bicycle rack). After I removed the tree from blocking the driver's view and brought it on board, he gave me a thumbs up and mumbled his approval for my Earth Day observance.

I transfered to another bus, and this time I left the tree on the bike attached to the front of the bus (pictured above) which generated a bit more Earth Day awareness buzz and thumbs up from passersby. And so onward to a sampling of LA's celebrations.

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