As the California wildfires tapered in fall 2019, the worst wildfires in decades spread across and ravaged Australia, partly made worse by the most serious drought in years. An estimated 1 billion animals are dead, and the images out of the disaster are apocalyptic. Then early this year, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that 2019 was the second-warmest year since scientists began measuring temperatures in 1880. Meanwhile, the Arctic is warming, and annual sea ice extent dipped to its second-lowest levels in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.
Santa Monica College’s Board of Trustees recently passed a resolution to meet climate change and sustainability goals within the next few years. One of the greenest campuses in the nation, SMC also happens to be the only California community college to be designated a bike-friendly university by the League of American Bicyclists, and has championed several innovative environmental courses and programs. In this critical time for the planet, SMC in Focus sat down with four “eco-warriors” (admittedly, there are dozens and dozens more) who have helped create a campus culture where sustainability is the norm and not the exception.
“Twenty-five years ago people could be excused for not knowing much, or doing much, about climate change,” Desmond Tutu said. Today we have no excuse." The goal of this wide-ranging conversation—reproduced here in an edited format for the sake of brevity and clarity—is simple: The facts are dire. So what can we do to save the planet? Moreover, what avenues exist right here at Santa Monica College to be the change? How do we rise above despair, given the bleak circumstances?
Here are brief introductions to our four experts (more extensive bios are at the bottom of the article): Garen Baghdasarian holds a PhD in biology from UCLA and teaches marine biology and environmental biology at SMC. Most recently, his research has focused on the effects of climate change on coral reefs; he and some of his SMC students are involved in an ongoing research project in Tahiti along with other teams from CSU Northridge, UC Santa Barbara, and more. Alexandra Tower is the Chair of the SMC Life Sciences department and has taught Environmental Biology, Marine Biology, and Botany; Alex has also taught study abroad courses in Belize and Costa Rica. Stuart Cooley is a Professor of Renewable Energies (a first of its kind discipline at a Calif. Community college) who teaches Energy Efficiency and Solar Photovoltaic Installation courses at SMC. And Ferris Kawar is SMC’s Sustainability Manager, who’s responsible for the Center for Environmental & Urban Studies and all things sustainability.
How precarious is our planet’s future – in the event that there are deniers out there yet?
Ferris: Top-level scientists have given us 10 years to take real action before the window closes. If we don’t reduce our carbon footprint by about 50 percent compared to 1990 levels, there’s no turning back. It’s really important that we have a hard date because we always thought someone will come up with a solution between now and then. Ten years goes by really fast. It has been two years since they made that announcement. What has really happened? Not that much.
Alexandra: Since 1983, when I was a freshman in college and I first heard about the consequences of unchecked increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, the acceleration of those predicted consequences has increased and increased. We’re seeing now a lot of things—the melting of the icecaps, and changes in weather patterns, for example—happening faster than ever predicted.
Stuart: I am going to try and shed some positive light. When we look at the energy situation, the economics of it have finally caught up – solar is even cheaper than coal. People can go about their lives and there will still be positive change towards a decarbonized future.
Garen: I see two sides of this, too. On the one hand, the idea that [we have] 10 years implies we’re okay now when we’re anything but okay. When I go diving and look at the corals, I see the effects of climate change. That’s concerning but it’s important to emphasize that a lot of things are endangered—but we’re not doomed. Right now is the time to take action – the action we take now will make the difference for the next few hundred years.
Alexandra: I’d add that in every case where we've actually gone about protecting and restoring a particular ecosystem, that system responds with incredible resilience. Additionally, we see species rediscovered decades after they were thought extinct. There's a resilience in the natural world that is a source of big hope. The other source of hope for me is the younger generation, ages 20-29. They are a large, informed, aware and energized generation with the most tools at their fingertips.
Can each of you give a few ways that our readers can help make a difference?
Stuart: The built environment is responsible for about 40 percent of our carbon issues. The choices that we make in terms of choosing a home and knowledge of energy use become critical. And also, just the mindfulness, which is the most important thing because there are so many different facets. Even as a 40 year veteran in this field, I'm learning every year about some new aspects of effects on the ocean which has been saving our bacon—bad analogy—for a long time, absorbing the CO2 we have been putting into the atmosphere. Now ocean acidification is a huge issue. Either all the evidence is there that we ignore or we put a Band Aid on the symptoms and don’t go at the root cause. So, mindfulness.
Ferris: Two things that are the most impactful: one, composting. When we throw our food waste into the trash, there's a whole story there. A 30,000-pound truck picks it up, and takes it 60 miles out of town to a landfill, where it turns into methane gas, which is a greenhouse gas 70 times worse than carbon for the atmosphere. If you take that same food, put it into your backyard and turn it into nutrient-rich soil, you cut out all the negatives and create something that is very valuable to your plants. You don't have to buy fertilizer from Home Depot, which is probably made a few hundred miles away and trucked there. So you're cutting out all of these transportation miles and it's such an elegant solution to so many of our problems, because it's closing the cycle of life.
The other is—no surprise—getting out of the car once in a while. For me, it's biking. I love to walk, and I love to bike. I have a cargo bike in which I take my kids to school and run errands. I even take my wife to dates on it—and we’re still married. It is one of the simplest, joyful things I can do every day. And why is it that we wait for a weekend to get out of our car and go for a bike ride when we can actually do it every day if we wanted to, or at least a few days out of the week? Just give yourself that joy every day.
Garen: Everything that we can do to reduce our carbon footprint would be fantastic. Also being a mindful consumer. I like the old saying that “the best things in life aren't things”. That when we do consume, actually being mindful of what we consume, how we consume. And start speaking up, talking to friends and family, demanding action from our politicians whose primary focus is to get re-elected. And I'll be a little controversial here and say have fewer kids. I joke around with my students that they don't need to have their own baseball team-they can join the league! One more thing: don’t get discouraged. We can make a difference, and we will make a difference. We will win this fight. Just keep going. Keep pushing.
Alexandra: I've spent my entire life trying to make my ecological footprint as small as possible and it takes little steps and little changes all along. There were times I thought I was doing the right thing—and then I learned later that I wasn't. And so being able to not get totally distraught about it and commit to doing better the next day is important.
One thing that hasn't been mentioned yet is to lean toward a plant-based diet. The amount of grain that it takes to feed a cow to get a pound of meat is insane. I want to kind of piggyback on what Garen said about being a mindful consumer. Part of that mindfulness, I think, is to sit down and question the meaning of the word “need” compared to “want”. What do we really, really need? If it is needed, do we need it to be brand new or can we get it used? Also: fast fashion and disposables are really problematic. We need to reduce our consumption of water, energy, the amount of plastic we bring into our lives. We need to be mindful of what we put back out into the world in the form of waste. Buying in bulk is one solution. Using reusable containers is another. It’s important to remember that recycling is not the solution. It doesn't work the way we thought it would.
How can the SMC community—or anyone out there—take advantage of a resource here at the college to become better advocates for the planet?
Ferris: Attend the Environmental Affairs Committee meetings—we get together in the spring and fall, every first and third Tuesday of the month from 3:30 p.m.to 4:30 p.m. We're a group of cross-disciplinary employees trying to figure out how to get sustainability woven into every area of curriculum. You can also just contact me as a resource (Kawar_Ferris@smc.edu). I have students that can help do research. We know people are really stretched and may not immediately see a way of connecting what they're teaching to sustainability. We can look at their syllabi and figure out where there are some opportunities. We also have a website where anyone can see their transportation options (smc.edu/transportation). Take a walk through our Environmental Center to see how off-the-shelf technologies can solve our global problems. We don’t need to invent our way out of this hole. We already have the solutions; we just need to choose them.
Alexandra: One thing that Ferris championed with another professor in our department, Poliana Raymer, are these signs all over campus that together form an educational walking tour of some of our sustainability infrastructure. The signs describe the vermiculture, the solar panels, solar water heating, the Organic Learning Garden, the cisterns, and so on. It's a nice walk around campus, and a faculty member in Earth Sciences developed an outdoor laboratory exercise with these signs.
It's going to sound cheesy. But JFK's words keep ringing in my head: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. I keep thinking about that in terms of the planet. Ask not what your planet can do for you, but what can you do for your planet. Get involved. There are advocacy groups like Heal the Bay and Natural Resources Defense Council and the Santa Monica Bay Foundation. There are internships at the Ballona wetlands. There are restoration days, ways to look after the marine protected areas. There are ways to get involved, and it brings it closer to home that way.
And then: just go outside. Put your feet in the ground and listen. Try to avoid the noise pollution, and instead listen to the sounds of the natural world—try to reconnect to nature because when we are disconnected, we don’t feel the need to protect.
Stuart: The City of Santa Monica, Santa Monica College . . . this is ground zero for what's happening in the environmental movement. As Santa Monica goes, often goes California. As California goes, so goes the country. Sadly, I think we're at the point where we can't just talk sweet about this stuff. That carrot approach, if you will, isn't working. What's working best right now is sort of a stick approach where there's regulation and people have to respect it. I often find myself voting against my personal interest if it's on behalf of the planet.
Garen: Incorporating these ideals of sustainability into all of our courses should be part of a fundamental way we do things. But at the community level, recognize how privileged we are, and we should accept the responsibility that comes with that privilege. And recognize that you can make a difference as an individual. We have a lot of decision makers around campus, in the community . . . and I would encourage them to really pay attention to their daily decisions, not only for themselves but also in their jobs, whether it has to do with building, or deciding what plants to plant or what policies to make, and so on. I'll go back to the whole idea of recognizing that true long-term solutions are in the intersection between environmental sustainability, social justice, and economic prosperity. We can be making good money and be socially just and do the environmentally right thing.
Stuart: And now for your commercial break! SMC has three new free noncredit certificate programs: Sustainability Assistant, Sustainability Services Technician, and Sustainability in Organics Aide. The idea behind these is to train people with skills sets they can use at an entry level in these fields . . . and they are also stepping stones to the more rigorous academic programs that we offer.
Ferris: We have a free bike maintenance class, too, plus in sustainable technologies we have certificates in recycling, solar installation, energy efficiency. We’re developing one for water—SMC is one of the few community colleges that have these types of courses. These are the jobs of the future.
How do you keep from despair when you look at the news? How do you stay focused on the work?
Garen: I tell my students there are two kinds of problems: conceptual problems and management problems. Most of the problems we deal with in life are management problems—we need to stop worrying about the management problems and focus on these few conceptual problems. This is going to sound really cheesy and it is something I tell my students—and that is to address the conceptual problems from a point of love and not fear. Recognize that everything around us—the media, politics, and so on—is based on fear. Say: No, I'm not going to let fear dictate my actions. I'm going to focus on the love and do the right thing.
Stuart: Where I find the reward is teaching. I also go back to that [concept of] mindfulness. In my twenties, I lived at the East-West Center in Hawaii in a communal environment, shuttles would take us to the shopping mall in groups. Living sustainably . . . and of course living in a beautiful environment doesn’t hurt. Just get out there and put your toes in the grass or the sand, like Alex was saying, and listen. Your rewards are there.
Alexandra: That's exactly right. I have a need to get out to some area with big sky—the top of a mountain, the ocean—and just take it all in. I have to go for hikes and listen to the birds. Garen and I will sit out in front of the Organic Learning Garden to watch the hummingbirds while we drink our coffee. Because if I turn on the news right now, it's depressing. Instead, I may post something cool on social media about a beautiful butterfly or bird, or an amazing plant that's making a living with no soil. I marvel at those kinds of things.
Garen: Go diving!
Alexandra: Yeah – go diving!
Ferris: What gives me hope is realizing that when we are lacking the leadership at the federal level, our local and state governments are picking up the slack, making commitments that are actually far bolder than what we would have gotten from federal legislation. And so the City of Santa Monica, Los Angeles, California, we are doing things that everyone else has been saying can't be done. Getting to 100 percent renewable energy is happening right now. It happened this year. The City is currently within 90 percent of renewable energy. We just need to look around at the people that are actually doing it right, and that gives me hope. We need to have the media focus on the right things.
Alexandra: And I would add that if there's anything that provides a source of inspiration to continue to and stay positive, it's the children. They are wide-eyed and amazed by everything, they want to learn, and have hopes. And I don't want to get in their way. I want to join forces and look forward with them.
Garen: I was thinking about Willow, my daughter, who is turning six, and as you were saying that I was thinking that ten or fifteen years from now when she asks me: “So, all those years ago, when you guys knew all this was happening, what did you do?” I want to be able to have an answer for her.
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For all things sustainability at SMC, check out smc.edu/sustainability. Also, check out this video featuring four SMC professors who’ve incorporated sustainability into their curriculum. Full Bios for Garen, Ferris, Alexandra, & Stuart follow:
Garen Baghdasarian was born into an Armenian family in Tehran, Iran. At age 12, he and his mother migrated to Germany. His father joined the family a year later, and in two years, they migrated once again, this time to the United States. He completed his bachelors, doctoral, and post-doctoral training in biology at UCLA, and began work at Santa Monica College as a full-time instructor in 2001. At SMC, he has held various positions, including chair of the life sciences department, and director of the center for environmental and urban studies. In addition to his teaching and environmental activism, he has an ongoing research program to study the effects of climate change on coral reefs. He enjoys traveling (has been to over 30 countries), camping, kayaking, and SCUBA diving. He has also achieved a fifth degree black belt in Okinawan shoryn Ryu Karate, and has been teaching martial arts at Santa Monica College since 2014.
For the past 20 years, Ferris has been using his degree in Marketing and experience working at an ad agency to promote environmental awareness instead of product consumption. Over this period, he has taught sustainability, produced a climate-related website, researched and published green business guides to LA, San Francisco, and NYC, and served as Recycling Specialist for the City of Burbank. Ferris is currently the Sustainability Project Manager for Santa Monica College where he gets to work with faculty, students and Operations to keep the institution’s sustainability leadership position strong among the community colleges in California. On weekends, Ferris enjoys walking or biking his two young daughters around the city for several hours as they explore their urban and natural environments.
Alexandra “Alex” Tower
Alex was born and raised in a southern Californian coastal community, which may explain why she is a life-long advocate of the ocean and coastal environments. She has been teaching biology for 25 years, and has been a full-time faculty member at SMC for nearly 10 years. She was an active member of the Science and Policy Advisory Committee at Heal the Bay for several years, and served briefly as their Science and Policy Director. She is a new member of the Board of Directors for the Santa Monica Bay Foundation. Her current role as Department Chair at SMC has her in a more administrative capacity, with managing faculty needs, overseeing the budget, and developing new curriculum. With a Master’s degree in Marine Ecology and a PhD in Coastal Plant Physiological Ecology from UCLA, Alex has a keen interest in applying the breadth of her expertise to current environmental issues. When she is not teaching about the natural world, Alex enjoys exploring the ecosystems of the world with her husband and son, or solving the world’s problems with friends!
Stuart Cooley is Professor of Renewable Energies at Santa Monica College in Santa Monica, California. He is the tenured lead faculty of the Sustainable Technologies Program, wherein he teaches courses in Energy Efficiency, Residential and Commercial Building Science, Solar Photovoltaics, NABCEP Exam Prep, Solar Technical Sales, and Green Design for Interiors, and is responsible for the development of curriculum in other courses in renewable energy, storage technology, sustainability, lighting, HVAC, recycling and resource management, and LEED® Accreditation since 2011. Prior to this tenure track position at SMC, Professor Cooley was the Energy Efficiency Engineer within the City of Santa Monica’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment where he managed efficiency improvements to city facilities, managed community projects, and promoted energy efficiency and renewable energy through the City’s SolarSantaMonica program, grown out of a vision for the City’s (net zero and carbon free) energy independence. He has a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Hawaii-Manoa with a Certificate in Renewable Energy Engineering, and serves on the board of the Los Angeles Chapter of the USGBC. Stuart, with his wife DeDe, are currently remodeling their Mar Vista home to be “net zero” – incorporating a lifetime of design knowledge and a novel roof optimized for daylighting and solar PV panels. Stuart also currently suffers under the delusion that he can still play competitive soccer, appearing annually in a national Las Vegas tournament with SMC counselor Dan Nannini and former SMC President Chui Tsang on a team called Santa Monica Old Stars.