A carefree teenager in 1970, Andy Lipkis’ world was changed when at summer camp in the San Bernardino Mountains, a naturalist shared that the very forests they were surrounded by were dying due to pollution.
Lipkis was only 15, but he soon sprung into action to save the trees, organizing fellow campers to plant smog-tolerant seedlings. By the time he was 18, he’d overseen the planting of thousands of trees and attracted the attention of The Los Angeles Times, which published an article urging readers to help Lipkis in his efforts. Within days, he’d received more than $10,000, solidifying the future of the forest and launching Lipkis’ environmental nonprofit, TreePeople.
The organization’s mission is “to inspire, engage and support people to take personal responsibility for the urban environment, making it safe, healthy, fun and sustainable and to share the process as a model for the world,” according to its website. It is now one of the largest environmental nonprofits in California.
“TreePeople’s approach is holistic, not just about trees, but about air, water, soil, community, and, yes, economics,” Lipkis told LA Yoga. “After all, where does the tree start and stop? It makes oxygen and soil, and holds water, but it’s also dependent on soil and water, and in the city, on people too. Our very name expresses this basic interconnectedness.”
TreePeople’s projects include environmental education for children, teens, and teachers; tree planting in a range of settings; and the Natural Urban Systems Group, which uses an integrated management approach to come up with sustainable solutions — particularly related to water issues — that benefit multiple parties. Using their knowledge of urban forestry and what motivates people, they’ve been able to inspire communities to take a real stake in their personal health, as well as the health of the environment.
A Nonstop Quest
“People mistakenly think of tree planting and the other work we do as something that can be fulfilled in a simple gesture, in part because that’s how it’s often been communicated: ‘On Earth Day, we’ll recycle or plant a tree.’ Of course that’s lovely, but it’s not going to get us to sustainability nor save us from this path of destruction we are on,” Lipkis told LA Yoga.
Lipkis’ accomplishments over the years are almost never-ending — he guided the creation of Los Angeles’ curbside recycling program, airlifted bare root fruit trees to Africa, organized a pivotal conference after the Southern California wildfires in 2003, and inspired the planting of 1 million trees in LA in time for the 1984 Summer Olympics, to name just a few of his résumé bullet points.
“Andy Lipkis is one of my heroes because there are very few people in the world who are ‘doing it,’” says fellow Hero of Sustainability Paul Hawken. “What is Andy doing? That’s the question. What is ‘it?’ Andy is tackling the ‘Big One.’ This Big One’s not simply a reframing or redesigning or re-imagination of industrial society. It is the process of creating a new and viable path to the future for humanity.”
Learn more about Lipkis and TreePeople here.