Amidst the deafening roar of the BART train passing through and the yelling from a horde of students protesting on the other side of the street, SOL (Sustaining Ourselves Locally) is easily overlooked on this May morning. A wooden sign reading “SOL” dangles from the inconspicuous entrance to their building, intending to welcome members of the community inside. The building’s façade appears in need of renovation, but the interior is full of artistic creations, colors, and refurbishment.
SOL, located in Oakland, is a group of nine unique individuals who practice sustainable living daily by sharing three apartment units in a complex crammed between retail merchants and a vacant lot. The compact rooms they inhabit are filled with their possessions, leaving little room to move around. For them, it makes more sense to live in a confined space rather than a spacious home that wouldn’t be completely utilized.
But sharing a small space is not the highlight of this group’s sustainability efforts. This colossal, five-thousand-square-foot garden breeds edible fruits, vegetables, and native plants so abundant that leaves protrude through the fence, attracting many neighbors. SOL specializes in growing organic products, conserving resources, and hosting classes for youth in the community to assure such skills are encouraged. By reaching out to this urban area where sustainable practices may often be ignored, SOL helps individuals become more aware of how to preserve the environment by doing simple things like shopping at the local farmer’s market or growing food in their own backyard.
“Agriculture is a big problem now, because when people cut down vegetation it leads to pest problems,” says Andrea Parker, a twenty-six-year-old member of SOL, who has been with the group for four years. Parker’s love for native plants is her passion at work, where she is a nursery propagator, as well as at SOL.
The health of the environment, especially climate change, continues to dominate media and most political debates. There is little scientific disagreement anymore that our ecosystem is at risk and that many factors contribute to this international problem—not the least of which is that many people and countries are doing little to sustain conditions necessary for future generations.
“I think that a lot of people just don’t know why we are doing this, and when we explain it to them, they are still confused,” says Parker. “But a lot of schools [in California] are definitely teaching kids more about these issues now and it is a part of the curriculum, so I’m happy about that.”
There are hundreds of organizations on college campuses in California that are active in advocating “greenness” and taking initiatives to raise awareness in diverse urban communities. In the heart of Berkeley, a haven of environment lovers, is the University of California, the birthplace of The Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability (CACS)—a committee of various universities that promotes environmental management and sustainable development.
Recognizing the limits of the Earth’s resources and the need for campuses and students to be more involved in practicing sustainability, CACS, created in 2005, prepared an assessment of what can be done to adopt more sustainable practices. In collaboration with the city of Berkeley and the University, CACS began taking steps to educate the UC Berkeley campus and apply changes in community living, including auditing energy and water usage and hiring students to launch programs that emphasize peer education.
Laura Moreno, co-chair of CACS and a senior at UC Berkeley, is optimistic and feels this effort has a successful outcome and that through peer education people will begin to make changes in their lifestyle. “This is a global issue, not local anymore,” says Moreno. “If everyone makes personal changes and participates, we can make a difference.” Her daily life includes offsetting her carbon footprints when she travels far, and avoiding printing to save paper. She doesn’t even allow herself the pleasure singing in long, hot showers, since her routine allots only two minutes under the nozzle every other day.
Moreno’s enthusiasm and involvement is apparent. She administers a range of programs that encourage other students and on Earth Week, which kicked off April twenty-first, Moreno took pride in being part of an effective and massive rally that attracted almost six hundred people.
Here at SF State people flocked in and out of Jack Adams Hall on Earth Day to hear speakers and view performances. Campus environmental organizations surrounded the area and were staffed by members who sat ready and eager to educate and spread awareness.
During this all-day event, one of the speakers was Keir Johnson, co-founder of HERO (Housing Eco-Friendly Residents Organization). Charismatic and passionate, he reminded the audience that each of them was responsible for helping Mother Nature. Johnson introduced to the crowd his organization’s innovations for sustainable family living through endeavors similar to SOL’s. In 2007, Johnson and Aundrea Dominguez, both members of TREO (Towers Residents’ Environmental Organization), got approval from TREO’s administration to branch out. Unlike TREO, which comprises the three top levels of the apartment units at the SF State Towers, HERO is a small group of twenty committed students who will reside in the townhouses of University South Park in the Fall semester of 2008. They will practice sustainable living through different methods such as gardening, conserving resources, recycling, and outreach to the rest of the campus and surrounding areas.
On the corner of Lake Merced Boulevard and Font Avenue sits four garden beds that were cultivated by the HERO team. The soaring pine trees veil the newly sprouting plants bathing in the sun. Black hoses line the dirt of the beds, providing the water needed for these organic specimens.
Drip irrigation, which helps with water conservation, feeds the shoots, which will soon develop into edible vegetables and fruits such as garlic, peas, cabbage, artichokes, and strawberries.
The complexity of environmental issues can discourage skeptical individuals who don’t care or want to learn more, as the topic seems broad or the solutions difficult to tackle. Many still question what the big deal is; some even wonder what the Green Revolution is anyway, suspecting it’s just a marketing technique. And so the highly intense debate continues.
Though the federal government has been slow to change, many local and state officials are taking their own steps in enforcing eco-awareness. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom initiated a recent ban on plastic bags, and key Democratic presidential candidates Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama have incorporated visions for improved environmental policy into the forefront of their agendas.
For individuals, eating organic products and embracing nature are baby steps toward larger preservation, but every little act helps—be it taking shorter showers or switching to public transportation. Joining an environmental activist group, such SOL or HERO, can link those who want to confront these environmental predicaments and assure that future generations will breath cleaner air. Our children and our children’s children can learn from our mistakes and knowledge.
“In healing ourselves by creating meaningful relationships with each other and reaching out to the community, we can heal the world,” Johnson says.