The sustainability tribe
By Amanda Witherell
I spent my undergraduate years at a microscopic liberal arts college set in the shadow of a national park on an island in Maine — a remote idyll where people abhor locking their doors and you can almost smell the Atlantic whale migration when a southeastern wind blows.
The college is overtly environmental and so small it’s possible to practice what’s preached: food is grown on the school’s farm, students cycle around on communal bikes, ceremonies strive to be zero-waste. My graduation in 2000 was the largest the 31-year-old school had ever hosted, and all 97 of us stood in a haphazard row listening to keynote speaker and hobo musician Utah Phillips. After Phillips counseled us on how to avoid becoming a “blown-up” (his word for a bloviating grown-up), my friend Dan turned to me and said, “When I came to this school, I was, like, ‘Aah, here’s my tribe.'”
I had the same feeling a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon the Urban Alliance for Sustainability. Maybe I’ve finally found my people. In the 18 months that I’ve lived in San Francisco, I’ve watched global warming go from a marginalized theory to a universally acknowledged threat. That’s triggered a lot of hyperactivity about how to be green, which seems more commercial than communal. Companies are setting up booths to hawk magic elixirs, but carbon offsets seem about as realistic as get-out-of-jail-free cards. They don’t really shift what actually needs seismic adjustment: the bottom line in your life.
The UAS is different. This is a group with the serious intention of living what it believes. On top of that, it wants to help you do the same.
The organization’s basic mission is so simple it seems like it must have been done already — be a clearinghouse for all the environmentalist activity in the Bay Area. The Web site www.uas.coop lists events, and the hotline answers questions, but the coolest thing the UAS is doing is using the delicious blossom of technology to connect people who really ought to know each other by now.
For example, the group tracks members’ addresses, and when it has enough in the same area, it facilitates a potluck so everyone can meet and discuss how to green their streets. As someone who’s participated in some funky social networking experiments, I think this is simply brilliant. In a world rife with a cruel suspicion of strangers, city living can be hard duty, and trust hard-won. This is kind of like finding your tribe.
Membership isn’t free, and in the interest of full disclosure, the UAS just gave me one after I expressed interest in it while working on another story for the Guardian. But the group is a cooperative, and kicking in gets you discounts to events and something called a sustainability consultation. Mine was a meeting I approached with suspicion. Remember: I went to a hippie school where the Earth Day piñata was full of natural cotton tampons. I already ditched my car and store my quinoa in old yogurt containers. What could this guy tell me about sustainability?
But this was much more than I expected. Kevin Bayuk sat in my yard for two and a half hours, and we discussed practically every aspect of my life — what I eat, how I get around, what I read, how I take care of my health. His suggestions were realistic, and he reminded me of things I let go of back when I ripped up my rural roots. I hadn’t even considered composting here, but he told me where to get a worm bin and offered me some worms from his to get started. He knew what kinds of edible plants could grow in the shade under the jasmine in my garden and the cost of a permit to rip up the sidewalk to grow food.
People often move to San Francisco because this is a city that can handle them. The uniqueness of the citizenry and the genuine desire to do good are what I love most about this place, but there are things I deeply miss about where I came from — the smell of freshly turned dirt in the sunshine, the shimmer of uninterrupted moonlight on water, the silence in the absence of cars. But I love this place, and I’m not going anywhere. Those things are just going to have to come to me.