One of a series of action steps we can take from home to improve our lives and others’ lives.
I never gave much thought to the ferocious summertime sun that blasted Fresno, California, where I grew up from junior high school onward. The average daytime temperature in July and August is close to 100 degrees. One day it hit 113. So you can imagine it was pretty much an inferno all day and stayed hot at night. But fortunately, our home was in an older neighborhood almost entirely shaded by tree canopy. Houses and streets alike were barely grazed by the shards of sunshine that flitted through the ceiling of leaves. To be honest, I took that near-total shade for granted. Being exposed to the sun required a deliberate act. When I ducked out from under our shade to work outside, drive my convertible, play tennis or go sailing, I expected a full blast of sun and took that for granted, too.
The lengths people go to avoid sun didn’t really hit me until the summer of 1966 when I took a group of students to Spain and Portugal for a month. On our ride into Madrid from the airport, I saw tight clusters of six or eight people seemingly hugging each other at random places along the sidewalks. Hmm, that’s curious, I thought. Then a pattern emerged. Ah, not random at all. They were mostly at the end of a block. Ah. At bus stops. But why so objectionably pressing in upon one another?
Then I got it. These little knots of people were huddled around the trunks of small trees, squeezed as close together as possible to get themselves under whatever ragged disc of shade was cast by each tree.
Newly aware of why they were squeezing so tightly together, I then noticed that the sidewalks on one side of a street were completely empty, and the other side crowded. Again, people going out of their way to avoid the sun, jamming together on the shady side.
My definitive lesson in Spaniards’ choices to avoid the summer sun of Madrid came one afternoon when, out of curiosity, I chose to attend a bullfight. As I approached the ticket window I saw a dramatic difference in ticket prices, depending on whether designated “sol” or “sombra”—sun or shade. Still true today at that Las Ventas bullring: I see that the very same front row seat that costs 42.75 Euros if in the sun will set you back more than twice as much—104.25 Euros—if in the shade.
People die because of too much sun. You know why Death Valley is called death valley. Too much sun and no shade anywhere. Can’t survive out there in the desert. But the same is true, surprisingly, of many of our metropolitan areas.
True. Many American cities have lovely shaded neighborhoods like the Old Fig Garden section of Fresno where I grew up, but they also include treeless metropolitan deserts where the rooftops, yards, and streets bake—absolutely BAKE—in merciless summer sun that is getting hotter each day and week and month and year, thanks to global warming. People living in “heat islands”—either urban or residential—experience temperatures 2-5 degrees hotter than area averages. But a well-shaded park in the same area may be 5 degrees cooler than the average.
And people in those treeless urban deserts do really die from the excessive heat they suffer through each summer. That is “die” as in terminal cessation of a human life, not a figurative lament like, “I’m dying from this heat”. You probably recall that just last year there was a brutal and fatal heatwave that killed a lot of people in Europe. How many? Authoritative estimates vary, but the lowest say the excessive heat directly caused the death of 30,000 people—and others say it may have been 70,000. And those who don’t actually die from too much sun where they live suffer a withering array of other maladies caused by too much sun, from respiratory failure and asthma to skin cancer and even mental health disturbances.
And it would be irresponsible and/or immoral not to note that those who live in treeless heat islands like the sprawl of south central Los Angeles or suffocating big-city apartments without air conditioning or easy access to leafy parks are typically among the poorest of our neighbors. Deprivation of tree canopy is just one more inequity they suffer. We who live in well-cooled residences find it all too natural to keep such painful realizations suppressed, lest we be discomfited and/or stirred to take action on their behalf.
Well, too late. The whole point of my having brought you this far—and your having agreed to come along, apparently—is to do something for them and for the habitability of our planet. So let’s get down to business here.
Homemade Lemonade Recipe #2: Making a Shady Deal on Climate
Preparing the chef:
To get warmed up, so to speak, click here to see “303 East Indianapolis Street, Fresno, California” in “satellite” view on the map: https://www.google.com/maps/place/303+E+Indianapolis+Ave,+Fresno,+CAfirstname.lastname@example.org,-119.8562109,13512m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m13!1m7!3m6!1s0x80946799d9054983:0x6fbb1890b82e137d!2s303+E+Indianapolis+Ave,+Fresno,+CA+93704!3b1!8m2!3d36.7995786!4d-119.8082357!3m4!1s0x80946799d9054983:0x6fbb1890b82e137d!8m2!3d36.7995786!4d-119.8082357)
Now zoom all the way in on that red pin-dot, keeping it centered. You’ll arrive at the house I lived in as a kid. But all you can see of it is the roof, and you can’t even see all of that because the entire lot is shaded by leafy canopy. Now slowly ease the zoom back out. You’ll see that the intense greenery continues to the right, and top and bottom, running about twenty blocks high and four or five blocks wide. That’s the “Old Fig Garden” district, longtime locale of the more substantial homes in Fresno. As you ease further back, you’ll see some lesser greenery extending farther north and to the northwest out to the San Joaquin River—a newer area of expensive homes pretty well treed. But to the east and west, all is grey-shingled rooftops; the few trees are mostly along curbs where they decorate the roadway but don’t shade the homes.
Okay, now you see the problem. Overheated houses with overheated residents who, if lucky, are using too much electricity for air-conditioning all summer long. Surely it’s the same somewhere near where you live. So let’s get to work improving that situation.
Step 1. Begin at home. Plant more trees on your own property—or, if you rent, ask your landlord to plant some more trees there. Simple, effective, charming.
Step 2. Become an advocate. There is a terrific bill before Congress right now called TREES (for “The Residential Energy and Economic Savings” https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5615/text). Contact your Senators and your member of Congress to urge them to support this bill which will enable the planting of millions of trees where they will do the most good for people, our economy, and the environment.
In addition, stay alert for impending Congressional legislation in support of the Trillion-Tree initiative announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos last January, which has the support of President Trump and Republican leaders in Congress.
Step 3. Join up for the long haul. Of the many fine organizations that work to ensure more trees, here are several that are doing particularly important work but—more to the point—are very user-friendly (that is, they inform and mobilize their members exceptionally well):
The Arbor Day Foundation
This is your most fine-grained, plant-your-own-tree organization you could link up with. While they organize and promote national-scale programs, they’ll also help you determine what tree to plant where you are, sell you a tree from their nursery—heck, they’ll even give you ten trees free if you join up! https://www.arborday.org/ See especially their “Alliance for Community Trees”.
The Nature Conservancy
At the other end of the spectrum from Arbor Day Foundation, The Nature Conservancy is largely about preserving the trees we have, as the name “conservancy” would suggest. This is the 800-pound gorilla of organizations working this territory, with an annual budget of more than one billion dollars, assets of six billion, and operations in more than 30 countries. They are all about trees, but also address almost everything we think of as “nature”. Famous for preserving open spaces, they have protected almost 120 million acres of land and thousands of miles of rivers. To be part of a large-scale, important effort to protect the precious trees already growing, check them out here: https://www.nature.org/en-us/
This is the granddaddy of them all. Founded in 1875, American Forests got our country started on paying attention to our trees, inspiring and guiding the creation of our national forest system, the U.S. Forest Service, and national parks. They remain leading national advocates for the multiple values trees provide (shade, yes, but also their role in climate change, water availability, wildlife habitat, and biodiversity).
They have funded more than 1,000 forest restoration projects across all fifty states and planted some sixty million trees—including active work in expanding the tree canopy in cities and urban areas. Their website is exceptionally user-friendly and informative: https://www.americanforests.org/
Okay, that’s the recipe for today. Now, in our family, some of us take a recipe and follow it with a devotion to precision that is akin to brain surgery, while others regard a recipe as but a notion intended to do nothing more than begin a chain reaction of creative responses to the general idea. I’d love to know which type you are and what you’re making out of this! Thanks.