TEDxUCLA 2015: Beyond the Box
Trees: the superheroes we’ve been waiting for
Climate change, and the extreme weather that’s accompanying it, is stressing an overwhelming our infrastructure that was set up to protect our lives and meet our needs for water, for safety, for economy.
Look at our drought. Look at what’s happening right now here, in Texas, Oklahoma, around this country. The infrastructure that we’ve counted on, we can no longer trust to protect us.
It is scary. It’s scary for me. Is it for you? Yeah. When you think about the magnitude of what we need to do to protect our cities and ourselves and our families, it’s an overwhelming thought.
And when things get that big, we look for someone to help us. Someone else, certainly. Not me. Maybe it’s them, or a superhero, or some magic bullet technology.
Well, I’ve got good news for you. We have superheroes right here amongst us with amazing powers, with designs, with engineering that can actually retrofit cities and the land to save us.
Who are these superheroes? They’re trees. And people.
And I’m not kidding. And I’m not just a liberal tree-hugger. Well I am, but I could never admit that before. I really resisted it. But I’m going to tell you today I love trees. I’d seriously, I could never say that before, because I didn’t want to get labeled.
It’s such an honor to be here with you. For me, back at UCLA 43 years after I went to class here. I was struggling in one of my favorite classes, geography, because I could not calculate runoff tables. And it seemed so irrelevant to me, I quit. I nearly failed that class and I returned to full-time work with my passion, which was community forestry and the organization I founded called Tree People.
I’ve spent my life witnessing the incredible power and healing that comes from a practical partnership between trees and people. And it is so moving.
Trees aren’t just pretty. And people? We’re not just consumers.
Let me introduce you to a great example: Eudora Russell, a retired school teacher who instead of choosing just to play cards, enrolled and got trained as a citizen forester at Tree People.
When she got the skills, she really started to dream about what her city could be. She imagined Martin Luther King Boulevard being a beautiful, massive monument to Dr. King.
She went to the mayor, Mayor Bradley, 25 years ago, shared her dream, and he said, “Oh, that would be great! But it’s going to take at least five years, millions of dollars, and in that current recession, it’s not going to happen.”
She made the mistake of sharing it with me. I said, “Let’s take the beauty of your dream and the power of community. Let’s do it in a day.”
We hired another extraordinary volunteer, Fred Anderson, whose day job was a hotel concierge. Together, Fred and Eudora organized the community, raised money, put the plan together, trained a thousand volunteers in advance.
On King’s birthday in 1990, 3,000 volunteers lined all seven miles of King Boulevard. And within three hours, all 52 blocks were planted. Today, the trees are over 40 feet tall and you can see that green line right through south LA from space.
Eudora does not seem radical. But she is. So is this.
This is an acorn from a native oak tree. It would be a mistake to underestimate its power, despite its tiny size. It has within it the DNA knowledge from this land that there are often throughout history long-term droughts, and it’s programmed to survive it.
When it sprouts, it sends down its route up to nine feet deep before a leaf emerges from the ground. Foresters call that root a radical because it has the ability to break rock and dig and move through extremely hard soil until it finds water. And then a leaf pops out and then it begins to spend its water as it evapotranspires and lives and grows.
So this seedling grows into a lovely big tree. Imagine this one: a hundred feet in diameter, practically as wide as this room. Imagine all of us sitting in the shade under this on a hot day, where it’s 20 degrees cooler. It has created an incredibly safe environment for us and for the ecosystem. It in fact has transformed the ecosystem as it’s grown. Because when that root went down, it started interacting with soil, chemicals, and critters, microscopic organisms.
As it dropped leaves and twigs, those became mulch and humus and then soil. It created a home for as many as 300 species of critters that all dig and drill and create underneath it a sponge-like tank that’s also a water treatment plant. Every bit of water that flows through that comes in contaminated, goes out the other end clean, and recharges the aquifer.
What you see here is an engineering model that we should be biomimicking and replicating to make our cities sustainable. And that’s exactly what we did at Tree People. We put in a cistern, a hundred feet in diameter just like that tree. You see the hole on the left. We had to use a helicopter to get a shot. That’s the cistern just before construction last year.
During the drought, during a fire emergency, they came and said, “We heard you had water.” This is resilience. This is sustainability. And this is what we can do.
But let’s return to the tree. What happens when you remove it? If you take the tree away, the next time there’s a flood, it carries the water away with it. I was so struck by the power of the tree, I asked the head of the Forest Service under President Clinton why he was focusing instead of on timber management, on water management.
And he said, “When I was a young forester in Petaluma, California, I witnessed several years of severe flooding. And I asked a local old-time farmer, ‘What happened? What’s different?’ And the farmer said, ‘They took away all the sponges.'” What he meant was they cut down the oak trees and they replaced them with track homes and streets and that stopped the flood protection.
So I then went to the Forest Service Research Lab in Davis, California, to ask them: “What is the volume of that sponge under a tree?” Turns out it’s 123,000 gallons during a twelve-inch flash flood. The water is captured in the canopy, held in the roots. Water running by the tree is captured, treated, and sent to the aquifer.
So then when, if we take that away, we’ve got a flood. Someone’s going to get hurt downstream. And we’re seeing that every day this week.
But what do we replace the tree with? Concrete. Homes. Bureaucracy. Separate agencies, government agencies come together to try to recreate the brilliance of the tree but the challenge is we disintegrated that community action of the tree, the critters, all of them working together.
We created different bureaucracies. For example, water supply. Los Angeles spends three quarters of a billion dollars a year to import water to LA. It’s the largest single use of electricity in the state, to pump water over the mountains and into Los Angeles.
But we also have a flood control agency who takes away the water to make us safe. We spend several hundred million dollars a year doing that and more to clean up the pollution that water’s carrying to the ocean. This is a recipe for unsustainability.
The rainfall, we think here it doesn’t rain much, but the rainfall that does hit us is pretty extensive. For every inch of rain that falls on the city of Los Angeles, we throw away 3.8 billion gallons of water. Doesn’t sound like much, maybe.
But on the driest year in recorded history, 2013, two years ago, it only rained 3.6 inches. But you do the calcs, we threw away 13.68 billion gallons of water for Los Angeles. That was enough for 3,420 gallons per person for each of the four million people living here.
Had we captured it, we’d be in pretty good shape to get through this drought. But we didn’t. We threw it away. Recipe for disaster. Unsustainability. Unacceptable. When we throw away the water, we throw away money, we throw away jobs, and we throw away lives.
Doesn’t have to be this way. If we use that engineering blueprint of the tree and begin to engineer the retrofit of the city, we get to sustainability.
I sought to show this to the agencies from water supply, flood control, and they didn’t understand. I think they thought I was crazy or wondered what I was smoking.
I had to show them. I raised money for a six-year research project to prove that it was technically, economically, and socially feasible to retrofit all of LA to function like a watershed ecosystem as the way for us to get to sustainability.
This is what I showed them. If we brought them together to collaborate like the tree used to do, all the overlap is solutions: more water, more flood protection, sustainable food supply, on and on and on.
We actually took all the engineering — oh, we brought together 100 engineers from architects, engineers, planners, landscape architects, geophysicists to come up with the plans.
And then we built a house — sorry, we retrofitted a house in South Los Angeles. We gathered all the agency heads, gave them umbrellas, and then Hollywood-style created a flash flood on that house, dumping 4,000 gallons on it in 10 minutes. They didn’t get wet because they had their umbrellas.
No water left the property because it had been retrofitted, a large cistern along the fence. The yards were turned into rain gardens, sponge-like sunken areas that were beautiful, that captured all the rain and more.
Carl Blum, the head of flood control, who we had to challenge to join us, called me the very next day, said, “We’ve read all your research and I’m sorry, we didn’t understand. We think you’ve cracked this. We have to take your plans and blow them up countywide as soon as possible. Let’s get started.”
And he brought us a project. And under his leadership, we pulled together state agencies, city agencies, county and federal, and began building demonstration projects across Los Angeles, retrofitting homes, schools, parks, streets. Other nonprofits joined in, other agencies joined in. And this has now become, watershed management has now become the law of the land here.
The changes are happening around us, but slowly. It’s going to take 85 years at this pace to get us to resilience. But it doesn’t have to wait that long. We can do this quickly.
Our proof of concept is Australia. They went through a very similar devastating drought. It was 12 years long. It finished four years ago. What they did to survive is a guide for us. Why? Because the population is so similar. Their cities are so similar.
Climate scientists said that they and other countries would be experiencing this severe and extreme weather. Hotter hots, drier dries, colder colds, wetter wets, more flooding, all of that. They said California wouldn’t be far behind. We’ve denied it. It’s here.
So what they did to survive? Many things, but quickly, three successes and three challenges. On year four, just like ours, they mobilized their population to radically conserve water. Most people reduce their water use by half.
They deployed the beautiful sponge tank cistern technology as residential cisterns from a thousand gallons to 20,000 gallons per house to millions of homes across the country. In some cities, half the homes now have these. They captured the rain, they nearly doubled their water supply and they got through. They took that approach throughout the city and went deep in many, many other strategies.
On the challenge side, they had to decide and prioritize what trees were going to live and what were gonna die because big picture they weren’t they didn’t have enough water to keep everything green, like us.
Their trees started to die, but they saved their best, their most beautiful, their largest, their most protective. Trees that were 120 years old, they gave them miniature tanks filled with rainwater or recycled water and they survived.
Second, by year 10 of the drought they were overwhelmed, thinking it may never go away. And they used the magic bullet and spent billions of dollars to build desal plants in every major city. It didn’t work.
By the time the drought was over, they finally finished building them. They weren’t needed. People had their water because they learned to conserve and they had their rainwater. No one bought the water, and the cities couldn’t afford to run them. And they’re basically, they’re mothballed in almost all cities.
The third challenge is the one that’s most scary: the severe heat arrived. Temperatures got to close to 115 degrees or more in every major city and people started to die. They rapidly figured out what was happening and said, “We need to create tree canopy in every community to save lives”
In Melbourne, they’ve extended this to a goal of creating 40 percent tree canopy over the whole city. And they’re extending the whole urban forest concept to adapt that city for safety. This is what they did. This is what we can do here.
Back home, we face the same threats. We need to move fast. We haven’t been moving. It’s time to act. There’s no one to blame.
Imagine if we create that here. Retrofitting Los Angeles with beautiful canopy in homes, parking lots, schools, streets, deploying millions of sponges across the city to equip us to capture that water and protect us from flooding and get us through. We can do it.
I challenge you and invite you to listen to our superhero partners, the trees, and answer the call. Be radical. Plant sponges. Take care of these trees. Together we can do it. Let’s heal the nature of our city. Thank you.