Andy Lipkis founded one of the largest independent nonprofit environmental groups in Southern California, TreePeople, which is famous in Los Angeles for helping battle the floods of 1978 and 1980, planting a million trees in the 1980s, helping teach the city to recycle in the 1990s, and, recently, working to green its schools. Lipkis just returned from a briefing trip to Washington, which he took because he and his team at TreePeople are concerned that President Obama’s vaunted economic stimulus program will go mostly towards roads, bridges, and airports — gray infrastructure — and prolong some of the problems caused by it, such as flooding, water shortages, and pollution.

Lipkis sees an extraordinary opportunity to invest in greening cities, adapt to climate change, reduce energy dependence, and relieve the chronic unemployment of urban youth. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal. Yet what’s interesting about Lipkis, to this observer, is the nature of his advocacy. He finds ways to make his point without demonizing or dismissing his opponents. When a Los Angeles columnist named Bill Boyarasky warned in the Los Angeles Times that environmentalists could stall Obama’s reconstruction efforts, Lipkis disagreed forcefully in an op-ed, but at the same time wondered out loud if he could find a way to bring Boyarsky over to TreePeople’s side.

He sat for an interview last week.

Kit Stolz: You were just honored with an Ashoka Fellowship, which is an award given to social entrepreneurs to help bring their work to greater numbers of people. How did this feel for you, and where do you want to take your work next?

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Lipkis: It’s encouraging. I’ve been in this business for 38 years, and it’s a nice pat on the back. Ashoka gives a three-year, stipend-funded fellowship that’s intended to lead to bigger things. It’s saying we’re investing in you because of your track record as an activist, and because we think you could make a bigger difference. In the application process, Ashoka asks for a five-year plan. This meant we [at TreePeople] had to think hard about the next five years. Because a group of climate scientists had announced a deadline for [acting against] climate change, which is now 94 months, I made that part of my process.

We now have 94 months to make a difference. We’re facing severe weather now because of climate change. We have to radically reduce our carbon output. For me, the missing link is not just to make my city sustainable, but to work profoundly to improve all cities, to protect people from climate change. OK, I say, that’s my charge. What can I do to take these innovations, which we have piloted in Los Angeles and shown to be viable, to a larger arena? How can we scale this up? We can’t just move along as we have been doing — we don’t have that luxury. We have had some success, but now we have to move much more rapidly towards climate protection and adaptation. So I said, that’s what I’ll do. They’ve given me this award, now I need to make use of it.

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Stolz: TreePeople is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization, which is not unusual, but unlike many environmental groups, you have gone out of your way not to play an oppositional role — to avoid filing lawsuits, attacking politicians, and so on. Why do you avoid these kind of battles?

Lipkis: Politics unfortunately is all about divide and conquer. Sometimes advocates can spend years or decades in political battles to try and get the money to solve a problem or pass a law to force a change, but in the meantime, the urgency is lost. People are hurt or killed by toxins, or left behind in floods, or suffer needlessly. Our object [at TreePeople] is to mitigate human pain and suffering as quickly as possible. Public safety should be the overriding concern. If the process is pulling people apart, we delay profoundly the healing we need, the delivery of the medicine or the salve.

This is not a romantic idea. Human civilization, whether built on communities of faith or not, is about gathering together to solve problems. That got lost as villages grew larger and anonymity became commonplace. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be environmental laws, we absolutely need them, but sometimes we can solve problems much more quickly when we put our hands to work. At TreePeople we have a track record of bringing people together to solve short-term crises, like flood-disaster relief, and using those connections to prepare for the future. The antidote to divide and conquer is building a foundation of deeper understanding and consensus.

We’ve gotten to the point as a society where we don’t work together at all. I never liked the title “environmentalist.” As if you had to become some other kind of person in order to care about your country! I hate it when I see a story on the news about how environmentalists are upset about the Bush administration allowing the dumping of toxic selenium in creeks. Why do you have to be an environmentalist to care about that? This is a human issue, and a moral issue.

My point is that we all lose when we allow ourselves to be divided. When TreePeople was working to save neighborhoods in the big floods of 1978 and 1980 in L.A., we put out a call for help, and some of the best help we got came from four-wheel drive clubs. Students were working side by side with construction workers, some of whom were driving vehicles with a “Kill a Sierra Clubber” bumper stickers. Sometimes sitting next to them in the car were Sierra Club members. They were sandbagging together, working in mudslides together, and in that process we discovered that, you know, the other guy wasn’t so bad. Purely because of a label, a lot of hatred and fear builds up and prevents us from seeing that we actually need to take care of each other, to protect each other.

Stolz: What is the Ashoka Fellowship?

Lipkis: It’s the equivalent of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for innovation and social entrepreneurship. It’s saying this stuff I’ve been doing is valid. That’s wonderful and also a little scary. Wow — what if I actually do make a difference? But it encouraged me to go to work immediately, on Smart Green Infrastructure — to make this happen and make people think. At TreePeople we’ve brought a lot of solid innovations to the urban environmental planning process; now we need to take those innovations to scale, and produce a better city, not just in L.A., but across the country.

Stolz: Can you talk about some of these innovations?

Lipkis: The central idea is to approach the city as a living ecosystem. This means we weave together a host of larger innovations, based on tree-mimicking technologies, to provide a practical blueprint for our work. The idea is to overlay a cycle and system of a forest on to a city, and when you do that everything starts to make sense. When you do that you start to see the interconnections. One of the biggest urgencies that pops out is water. And from that realization comes the idea of retrofitting cities with cisterns, fed by rooftop rain capture, which can be networked together, so we can capture and store as much rain that falls in the city as possible. This protects against drought, minimizes stormwater pollution, and provides for emergency preparedness in case of flood, fire, or earthquake. It also saves energy and mitigates the impact of taking water from other regions.

The Los Angeles Times had a story about homes in a fire area in Orange County that burned in part because the city and state failed to build a reservoir that the experts said was needed for fire protection. Well, you know, is it one big reservoir that you need, or a thousand little cisterns? If networked together, the cisterns can provide the same amount of water, to supply an automatic deluge fire fighting system. They also work in partnership with trees, to clean the air and cool the atmosphere, and to give the green infrastructure a chance to do its job.

Stolz: How do you open the minds of people in official agencies to these kind of new ideas?

Lipkis: We have to show that everything we’re doing is viable. Any change has to be feasible, and we have to show it, demonstrate it, and build it. If we have to build a demonstration project on recycling that reaches a million kids, that’s what we do. Over the last 10 years, we have pioneered a cost/benefit modeling software to help show multiple agencies that this idea of water management instead of flood control can work. This helped convince Los Angeles to move towards an Integrated Resource Plan, which means counting the benefits realized by keeping water on site and using it to replenish the aquifer, and by not hauling off green-waste in big polluting trucks to landfills. But the larger objective — the network of cisterns — has yet to be realized.

Stolz: How does this fit into Obama’s idea of infrastructure rebuilding?

Lipkis: We’ve been working for almost 10 years to bring watershed management to the Sun Valley area of Los Angeles. Because the County and the City of L.A. are already substantially invested in it and have already begun building it, we can go to the feds and say, look, we’re underway, and can bring them in relatively quickly. Sun Valley is a multipurpose project that fixes multiple problems at once. It uses Smart Green Infrastructure, which includes strategic tree-planting, mulching, and on-site rainwater retention. When it’s fully built, implementation should include training at the community-college level in urban watershed management skills, which means jobs. Some people worry about the safety of storing water, but that’s something many people in Los Angeles already do in what we call swimming pools. This is not rocket science, it’s vision, with a little practical application of science. The job here is to retrofit 4,000 homes with on-site rainwater harvesting and get them on-line, and once we show that can work, then we can think of scaling it up to a million homes. And the good news is, the Department of Water and Power [in L.A.] is backing our push for Smart Green Infrastructure.

Stolz: How new is this idea?

Lipkis: Cisterns go way back; the new idea is to network them together. In Austin, Texas, the city is already paying to provide people with cisterns. In cities that combine sewage and stormwater, such as Seattle, they’re bringing in cisterns so they don’t have to build a larger combined system for stormwater and sewage. In Philadelphia and other Midwest and Eastern cities, what we call Smart Green Infrastructure they call “rain gardens,” but it’s the same idea — capture rainfall and keep the water on-site, to avoid the pollution that comes with sending stormwater “away,” to the ocean, usually.

Stolz: TreePeople has been working with school kids for decades, and is given a lot of credit for teaching Los Angeles how to recycle. Your organization has always had an affinity for youth, since you yourself started it when you were only 15. How do you think this affiliation has helped your work, and what lessons might it offer to an Obama administration?

Lipkis: First of all, we’re truly non-partisan. It’s a great privilege that we have been given — to bring environmental education to the schools in Los Angeles, and we are proud to carry that traditional without a political persuasion. Kids translate what we teach back to their families, and help make environmental concepts real, and help hold their parents accountable. We were hired to help design and launch the Los Angeles recycling program by the city, but I don’t think the authorities thought it would work. They planned to build a train line to take it to the desert.

It’s part of the same myth that says that people won’t conserve, that they won’t change. Many changes are possible without diminishing our quality of life at all. We’ve seen that with recycling, and we could do the same thing with transportation. Would it be fun to have family outings on the bus once a week? If you want to implement a change, talk to kids. Kids can do things quickly, that don’t require a lot of capital. Politicians cannot mandate lifestyle changes. But kids can help attract people to the idea of change rapidly and positively without a great upheaval.

Stolz: The Obama administration is promising huge reform of our energy policy as well as action on global warming. Are you encouraged by what you’ve seen so far?

Lipkis: Yes, and its implications are even bigger than many people think. Infrastructure rebuilding is on everyone’s agenda, but energy is the dominant paradigm. The assumption is that green-collar jobs are about saving energy. Energy is huge, but when we look at the system in a disintegrated way, what we don’t see is how much energy is part of other infrastructure projects, including transportation, water, and sanitation. If we really want to succeed at saving energy, we need to see the larger picture. This bigger approach represents a doubling of the green-collar jobs concept. That’s why Van Jones asked me to speak at a national green-jobs summit, and why I gave a talk on the new set of opportunities in this area, which I call “the Waterfront.”

Even before climate change became a big issue, the EPA did what they call their gap analysis of water management, and found a potential $300 billion in savings around the country, because the water projects on the books separately upgrade water supply and storm water projects, which is a disintegrated way to look at it. They put out a “request for innovations,” and TreePeople’s response was one of six selected, along with one from the Rocky Mountain Institute, but then the Bush administration took over, and nothing came of it.

Stolz: How do you convince people to see past energy to other issues?

Lipkis: The single largest use of electricity in the state of California is to move water, and we already know that the first effect of climate change will be to lose water supply. No one has the means to deal with that problem right now. We’ve had eight years of official denial on water issues; if we hadn’t had that, I think we would already be moving on plans to rebuild our water supply system. But the point is that when it comes to infrastructure, an integrated urban water system will save energy and create jobs, and that’s the direction we should be moving.

Stolz: In some ways you’re a very traditional man, a man of faith, of family — your father lives with you — and a man who much prefers mass transit to driving on freeways. Yet your career could not have been less traditional. How do you reconcile your nontraditional career with these traditional beliefs?

Lipkis: When I was young I questioned all authority, and sometimes TreePeople still gets in fights with agencies because of this rebelliousness, which I guess is embedded in our DNA. But the truth is that a lot of conventional wisdom
isn’t wisdom at all, and as a young man who wanted to make a difference, I wanted to be taken seriously. When people didn’t believe me, or placated me, I got a chip on my shoulder. I didn’t think about it in terms of activism, I always thought of it as a kind of art, of putting a frame around a piece of reality and showing it to people so they could see it differently. Whether it’s planting a tree or closing the Marina Freeway, it’s the same process. It’s like Christo, it’s about recreating a relationship you already have.

We closed the Marina Freeway for a 10K run. What I realized was that what was holding people back was the belief that we couldn’t change things. The freeway itself was a monument to that belief. Freeways are built by people; they can be unbuilt by people. But we can’t start cleaning the air, or changing our motoring behavior, or fighting wars overseas because we think we can’t change the freeway. We can’t even get out of our car on the freeway because it’s so deadly. So my own weird stuff with driving on the freeway maybe helped me to see what a lot of other people couldn’t. So I set out to close the freeway. I couldn’t tell anyone that; I said we were doing it as a fundraiser. But the new frame around it became the front-page photo on the newspaper that Sunday.