An inspirational video about Andy Lipkis and how he founded TreePeople, his struggle to share the importance of trees and how his work has taught him that each of us really do make a difference in what choices we make every day. His story about the values of one oak tree and the services that it provides is not to be missed. Andy also provides insight into building healthier and more resilient cities.
Andy Lipkis grew up in Los Angeles, and began planting trees when he was 15. He was hooked when at summer camp in the San Bernardino Mountains he heard the naturalist say that the forests surrounding the camp were dying from smog; and much of that drifted up from the LA Basin. He founded TreePeople to plant smog-resistant trees, and has served as its president since he was 18.
As a leader in the movement he named—Citizen Forestry—Andy’s vision has helped make Los Angeles a testing ground for successful community-based efforts. As of 2011, TreePeople had planted over two million trees in the Los Angeles area. And the organization has distributed over 200,000 fruit trees to individuals through community churches, and to public orchards, to provide food for those in need.
What he has learned over the past 40 years is that trees and forest-inspired technologies are what can make cities sustainable, while mitigating floods, drought, pollution, and climate change. In this way, Andy reminds us of our friend and Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, who founded and led the Greenbelt Movement’s efforts in Kenya from 1977 until she died in 2011, with over 51 million trees planted so far. In years past, Andy collaborated with Wangari to inspire and empower people all over the world to plant trees. Like Wangari, Andy is dedicating his life to the simple act of planting a tree—an act of love for the planet and all its creatures that grows and grows.
Andy Lipkis: You are never in neutral. You know one of the things that really pisses me off is when people say, “Yes, people can make a difference and I love what you do because you show that people can make a difference.” And I went “No, you do make a difference. In every step, in every penny you spend, every step you take, you are making a difference. The belief that you’re been in neutral and not making a difference but some day you might decide that you will because you can, its bullshit. I’m sorry.” You know the people of L.A. work really hard and spend a lot of their time and a whole lot of their money to make sure that every day we have smog. Having grown up in Los Angeles, there was a very smoggy city. My parents would send me to the mountains every summer to get away from the smog so I could actually play and breathe.
Those mountains, the San Bernardino Forests a 100 miles from here is what I fell in love with as a place to play, to connect, to be with the trees and be able to play safely. The summer that I turned 15 in 1970 is when we learned that the forest was dying because of the smog. We were told as kids that the trees were dying so fast that if nothing was done, the forest as we know it, would be gone by the year 2000. And I started planting because it felt so good to work with kids and see that we, with our hands, could literally change and bring back to life a piece of dying forest. I set out dreaming right away because it felt so much better than the option that was being presented to me as a kid, which was shut up, go to school, learn, graduate, sometime get a degree and maybe you can get hired doing some work. And I said, “I can’t wait. I need to start this thing and get thousands of kids involved.”
And it took three years of trying and failing and trying and failing and quitting and then getting the dream back. And in that period, I failed so much that I built a massive pile of compost, which turned out to be full of nutrients for success. I’m a college dropout. I quit Sonoma State. I went to UCLA and quit that, but the lessons of trying and failing and just as quickly as possible saying “Each time we do something, what worked? What didn’t? What do we need to do better next time?” It makes you smart, no matter how smart or dumb you are. Our staff say that we have now involved over 2 million individuals who have planted trees, but we don’t count the numbers because the number of trees is the wrong game. This is about people involved and their ability to consciously plant a tree and it’s more like acupuncture, the right tree in the right place and caring for it.
And yes, it has to scale to numbers but simple numbers really don’t do the healing work that we have to do. And the healing is of the land and the watershed and actually our attitudes and our participation as humans. You know I always heard forestry being synonymous with watershed management, I never – I just accepted that but I didn’t ever think about what it meant until the Rodney King Riots. Twenty years into Tree People’s work, we had become really good at mobilizing communities, having them launch a dream and carry out that dream with our support instead of us doing it to them. So trees lived, communities were looking better, people were connected, but when the riots happened, every sociological agency around studied L.A. and said we needed 50,000 jobs for urban youth, chronically unemployed urban youth to prevent the violence. We’re looking, where do we create those jobs? Well, all this federal money came in just to repair, to repaint, to rebuild, but nobody came in with the cost of what it would take for 50,000 jobs, a half a billion dollars except the Army Corp of Engineers came to L.A. with a half a billion. Not in response to the riots, but because they discovered a couple years earlier that we had so over paved Los Angeles, sealed the land. We were throwing away so much rainfall that the L.A. river system was now insufficient to handle a 50 to 100 year flood.
And so they were going to spend a half a billion dollars to make the river walls bigger and raise bridges in order to throw away more water to make L.A. safe. And I went, “This is insane.” Bringing water to just the city is the largest single use of electricity in the state of California and we only get 11% of our water locally. And I thought god, is there a solution? And I went back to our – we’re practicing urban forestry, are we practicing urban watershed management? And the answer was no. But could we? Yes. What would happen? So it went back to what does a tree do? We asked the U.S. Forest Service Research Lab to calculate the water capture volume in the root zone and the canopy of a tree of a big oak tree. That’s the state’s tree. So it turns out that a huge oak, 100-foot diameter canopy that’s been dropping leaves and twigs for hundreds of years making mulch, correlates this amazing space underneath.
It’s a sponge. It’s a tank. It’s the water treatment plant. It’s how water has moved through the ecosystem since the earth was born; you know there’s no new water. Well, what’s the volume of that space? Several feet of leaves and mulch and rocks filled with critters that are processing the water that space holds, it turns out, 57 thousand gallons in a flash flood. What happens when you remove that tree? Next flash flood takes the soil with it, sends a flood downstream that may hurt or kill people. The water may never make it to the aquifer again and the water’s not cleaned. So what do we do to replace that loss of that one tree? We have to build a bureaucracy, a flood control agency, a water supply agency, a pollution prevention agency, a soil conservation agency, each one of them with a budget to fix a problem. But never did they return to collaboration. What we did was raise the money from a lot of these agencies to say “let us show you what’s possible if you collaborated and used the tree and the forest as this model to reintegrate,” and it was stunning. The economics were so, so powerful that yes, there could be as many as 50,000 new jobs in Los Angeles.
Not with new money, but by collaborating – having these agencies collaborate and begin to manage the ecosystem together. And you know the first thing we did is bring together scientists and economists to collaborate and build a cost benefit model that showed that that could happen. We brought architects, engineers, designers, landscape architects, biologists together to design a retrofit of the city, to show how easy it could be done. And then we took one single family home in south L.A. and created a flash flood on it. I mean first of all, we retrofitted it and people were stunned, no water left in sight. We dropped a 5,000 gallons on the house in 10 minutes and the trees, the mulch, everything captured it safely, cleaned it, stored it in a cistern, stored it in the ground. It changed lives from “this makes no sense, people will never do it.” They saw how beautiful it was and how people would embrace having a more beautiful, safe, functional home and it opened up a world of change.
We were able to show that if we retrofitted Los Angeles to capture the rain like a forest does and utilize it, store it, that we could replace up to half the water that we need, we could source it locally instead of throwing it away. It’s amazing you know what happens when we start consciously conserving and hooking up science and economics and ecology together, very powerful mix.
Huey Johnson: Looking at Los Angeles in the years since we worked together its grown tremendously and it’s projected to grow more.
Andy Lipkis: Yeah.
Huey Johnson: How do you see managing the quality of the place with increasing population density that you face?
Andy Lipkis: I pose the question, are we one of the most destructive ecosystems to the planet? Not just because of our footprint carbon water waste, but because the lifestyles that we model and export around the world. And so conventional wisdom is, if you add a million more people here you know it gets that much worse. But what’s really incredible about our impact and others, not just Tree People, but people – the environmental movement in general deploying here. In the drought 30 years ago, we had a million fewer people. The city, the county, the water agencies and some of the environmental groups did a massive water education campaign during that drought. It was so effective; people cut their water use by 30%. It never returned to the level. So today, with a million more people in the city, we use less water than we did 30 years ago. Now, several things happened, good education, very important feedback. There was a water use thermometer in the media that told people that what they thought was their little drop of water, shutting off the tap while brushing their teeth, shutting off the tap while shaving, taking shorter showers.
All humans need to know that they do make a difference and they change because of the feedback. But also, we did something that’s really important for today. We created the market for policy change. You know here we are in the last country on earth to confront climate change because our so-called leaders, our elected representatives are afraid to tell us what to do. They know, they believe that we’ll throw them out of office.
We have to demand, be the market for change and we can do that outside of normal politics just by showing that we’re interested in changing our behaviors and having tools that support that. And when people conserved, didn’t matter their politics, they did it. Then politicians went “oh, you’re interested in that. Let us give you some more tools.” And so they then passed policies that paid for toilets that used only 1-½ gallons per flush instead of 7, over a million toilets were distributed around Los Angeles. People were given incentives to swap and that helped lock in that conservation. If we will move out of denial and really confront the very real threats of climate change that are diminishing our quality of life and truly threatening us and move it into a positive because it’s a massive opportunity for us to work together, the outcome is safety, its health; it is a much more revitalized economy.
It’s possible to retrofit this city, stop the hemorrhage of cash, create jobs and really celebrate together. The one thing I’ve learned about making change is, and growing a tree, it just takes some time. You know we’ve been sold this bill of goods that change has to happen fast. If you give any dream the time, the energy and allow the time to learn, to fail, to learn from the lessons, it takes root and it grows. And giving ourselves the time, makes an amazing difference and we can build this world of our dreams with our dreams and there’s still time. We have to act fast, we have to act, but we can absolutely do it.