As teenagers growing up in Los Angeles County’s northern reach of the Antelope Valley, my older brother, Jim, and I kludged together scrap two-by-four boards and a few rolls of six-ply heavy plastic sheeting to build two gloriously clunky greenhouses that dominated the backyard of our family’s modest tract home in Lancaster. Together, we turned what had begun as a Future Farmers of America (FFA) project into a bustling little enterprise selling house plants and some garden stock to local nurseries. So enraptured was I with the wonder of growing things, that I penned a speech about the fundamental plant-based food making process called photosynthesis and rode it to a couple of FFA competitive public speaking medals.
Soon after coming to live in Los Angeles in 1975, I heard tales of a teen-age tree preacher named Andy Lipkis. Give him a stump to stand on and a crowd of more than one, and Andy would expound – with the voice of a soul possessed – his stirring gospel of trees as nature’s key to global salvation. No wonder that Andy and a tiny but mighty band of followers became known in the region and, eventually, around the world as the TreePeople. Andy went well beyond talk, nurturing an urban forest preserve in the middle of the city that stands today as a flourishing gem of learning, practice and demonstration atop Coldwater Canyon just off Mulholland Drive. Andy turned green before it was the coolest color to be. He was thinking about climate change long before most people conceived of it as even the mildest of games changers, let alone an existential threat to us all.
Today, like a slow, dry wind blowing across the land, climate change erodes the region’s urban forest as surely and steadily as seasonal Santa Ana’s gusting from the San Gabriel mountains periodically uproot old oaks with weak root systems and topple tall pines and sprawling sycamores.
Ask Liz Srkzat, project leader of City Plants, one of the 175 projects currently thriving under the Community Partners’ fiscal sponsorship umbrella. She tirelessly strives to sprint ahead of the “crisis of the canopy,” as she would characterize the hazard we face, as the leader of a project that plants and distributes about 20,000 trees a year in an effort to transform LA’s city streets and neighborhoods. Liz knows as surely as Andy Lipkis that a city sparsely forested will leave the air we breathe more toxic, human endeavor slackened by rising ground temperatures, and a heat-decimated landscape rivaling any Hollywood vision of a dystopic future. And that’s just the start. The tree canopy of Los Angeles pales by comparison to cities like Chicago and Kansas City, but what greenery we have still filters out 2,000 tons of air pollution each year (U.S. Forest Service, 2011). Amazingly, one large tree can provide a day’s supply of oxygen for up to four people (North Carolina State University). Forested watersheds provide quality drinking water to more than 180 million Americans, more than half the country’s population (U.S. Forest Service, 2013).
Facts like these impress, but being merely impressive in the face of real crisis means nothing. Bill McKibben, author, venerable activist and a founder of the climate campaign 350.org, paints a bleak and harrowing picture of life on the planet in the century ahead in his recent New Yorker magazine article “Life on a Shrinking Planet”. He places directly at the boardroom tables of Big Oil a good deal of the onus for an impending calamity that will start by scorching the poorest among us and invariably leave all of us seared, drowned or dead.
McKibben argues that oil and other carbon-industry executives, regulators and shareholders have gotten away with deadly treacheries similar to the notorious cancer denials from Big Tobacco. Big Oil’s profit-driven “predatory delay,” according to McKibben, represents an exponentially greater betrayal: it has left us a crucial generation or more behind in reversing the willful savaging of Earth’s life-sustaining biosphere that we have so blithely brought to the edge of destruction with our habitual, poorly restrained spew of greenhouse gases.
Despite the medals, I know my wonky FFA speech – into which I managed for the edification of my audiences to spell out the entire chemical formula of photosynthesis – fell far short of compelling anyone to action. Straight facts simply cannot infuse the spirit with a sense of urgency quite as fully as the clarion voices, animating energies and tail-blistering indictments enacted by people like Liz, Andy and Bill. They don’t just tell, they take responsibility, guide us with action, call out culprits and show results. And results when it comes to keeping the planet habitable for generations to come are the only facts that matter.
"Photosynthesis" courtesy of Edraw