The UC Santa Cruz campus is ethereal, otherworldly, a school plucked out of a storybook and nestled in the midst of a redwood forest. Where else can one see a coyote from a classroom window and stroll past deer between lunch and lab? Mountain lions have been spotted and, of course, plenty of banana slugs. The air here smells fresh.
In this environment, it’s hard not to be an environmentalist. UCSC has gained renown for its deep commitment to sustainability, and the stereotype of the Santa Cruz hippie has also become familiar both on and off campus.
“People outside of here think everyone here is really radical,” says Michael Tea (College Nine ‘12, economics and environ-mental studies).
Yet the throwback “hippie” archetype is in need of a major update. UCSC students are undertaking serious endeavors that combine pragmatic problem-solving with the optimism and innovation of campus culture. Instead of just carrying signs, they draft plans, research, team up with the greater Santa Cruz community, and achieve real change.
From harnessing wind energy to rethinking food systems and farming organically, environmentalism might be idealistic here—but it’s also very practical.
UCSC on the Wharf
Walk down the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf and look up toward the roofs of the shops and restaurants. If the wind is blowing, the white arms of a small wind turbine will be whirring in rotation, as the turbine generates power for wharf vehicle batteries. The turbine is part of the Green Wharf Projects, a partnership between the City
of Santa Cruz and UCSC.
Tiffany Wise-West, environmental studies Ph.D. candidate, manages the Green Wharf Projects. With years of engineering experience, she gravitated toward practical enterprises.
“Before I got involved with UCSC, I knew environmental activism was prevalent here, but I didn’t know about the applied research in this field,” Wise-West says. “There are so many interesting projects—once you prove yourself capable, everybody wants you on their team.”
Besides the turbine and other renewable energy experiments, the Green Wharf Projects comprise three ventures in development: green business certification, an electric vehicle charging station, and an eco-tour.
The eco-tour will include stops at sea lion and renewable energy testbed viewing spots. Michael Tea, who leads the green business certification efforts, may give special mention on the tour to wharf businesses that meet green business criteria, turning eco-compliance into a marketing incentive.
The Green Wharf idea originated from wharf manager Jon Bombaci, who works closely with the UCSC team.
“This project is a great opportunity because it’s so collaborative, with students, faculty, community members and city reps,” says UCSC Climate Action Manager Lacey Raak.
Such collaborations are important in giving students a balanced view of factors affecting environmental policy. “There are many people who approach environmental issues very differently than the majority of UCSC students,” says environmental studies associate professor Tim Duane. “Students must learn to listen to those perspectives and try to meet others’ needs in protecting the environment.”
Though Tea acknowledges frustration with learning to navigate bureaucratic processes, “at the same time, it makes me more eager to learn the system of implementing environmental projects.”
Hope is action
The Green Wharf Projects are sponsored in part by the UCSC Carbon Fund, created by students and funded through student fees. The Carbon Fund currently bankrolls about a dozen eco-projects.
The UCSC Office of Sustainability oversees the Carbon Fund and other campus eco-programs, including green office certification and sustainability internships.
Aurora Winslade, the office director and founder, arrived as a student more than a decade ago, not knowing much about sustainability. Here, she became aware of the dire state of the world’s ecosystems and the slow implementation of solutions.
She connected with environmentalist Frances Moore Lappe’s message: “Hope is not what we find in evidence, it’s what we become in action.” Though there were like-minded classmates who also wanted to act, efforts were scattered and no one was looking strategically at university structure and policies. The need was there for a system to support a vibrant movement.
After graduating, Winslade stayed on as an employee and the Office of Sustainability was born to provide the needed support. At the time, in 2004, there were perhaps a few dozen full-time campus sustainability professionals across the country. Now there are well over 1,000, Winslade says. She recently was named the first director of sustainability for the University of Hawaii’s new West O’ahu campus scheduled to open in the fall.
Interested students can find numerous ways to be engaged. Gabi Kirk (Kresge ‘12, environmental studies and history), Office of Sustainability events coordinator, helped start a campaign to end the sales of single-use plastic water bottles on campus. The campaign, “Take Back the Tap,” is now the subject of her senior thesis.
“It’s been a great experience for me to meld together social movement theory, facts about water privatization and plastic, and community organizing skills into one project,” Kirk says.
Serving up change
UCSC Dining provides upward of 20,000 meals a day, making sustainability efforts here especially effective. The Dining system was the first place in Santa Cruz to be certified by the Monterey Bay Green Business Program, meeting 175 criteria in areas including water conservation, waste management, and recycling.
Clint Jeffries, green business manager for UCSC Dining, is in charge of greening those 20,000 daily meals. His team constantly tweaks its offerings to make them more delicious and eco-friendly. Two years ago, they introduced a weekly “beefless” day into the menu and last year they stepped things up with a “Meatless Monday.” Each Monday, one of the five dining halls takes a turn serving an all-vegetarian menu.
At first, the meatless menu, heavy on “meat analogs,” brought some negative feedback. This year, they shifted from dishes using imitation meats to those showcasing vegetables, like vegan samosas and palak paneer. Complaints have stopped.
To Jeffries, the dining hall is not just a place where students eat. “As students come through, they learn things they weren’t expecting,” Jeffries says. “They can take what they learned and change things outside the university.”
Simply by getting meals at a dining hall, students are made aware of the movement to eat a more plant-based diet, and why such a diet is healthier for body and planet. Some measures, such as increasing the percentage of campus waste that is composted, take time to implement. Other programs are surprisingly simple, such as turning off lights when natural light is adequate in the dining halls. That program, “Dining by Daylight,” has saved a substantial amount of energy.
UCSC Dining tries to use organic and local sources when possible, and there is none more local than the university farms. An intern working with Jeffries recently realized they were not taking advantage of campus produce and started Farm Fridays, with featured dishes made from items grown at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) Farm and Garden. The first Farm Friday dish was a scrumptious-sounding organic quinoa cake topped with roasted butternut squash, sautéed kale, and blood orange vinaigrette.
On the Farm
As he stands in a CASFS field, Damian Parr, CASFS research and education coordinator, yanks up a legume from the cover crop bed and points at the tangle of roots. On the roots are nodules that house bacteria, Parr explains. The bacteria convert nitrogen into a form plants can use; in turn, the host plant provides the bacteria with carbohydrates. This symbiotic relationship is one of many ways farmers improve plant growth without using chemical fertilizers.
On these 25 acres of farmland overlooking the Pacific Ocean, CASFS tests the ecological principles behind organic farming. There is little bare soil here, as cover crops stretch over the land. Growing season is extended through greenhouses, soil is fertilized with manure and compost, microclimates are created by positioning plants strategically. A hand-dug section enables experiments in growing without machinery.
“Many areas, even in the U.S., have high unemployment rates and food insecurity,” Parr says. “If you can use human labor to produce food intensively, right in the community where people are food insecure, that’s an efficient use of labor and space.”
CASFS also runs the three-acre Alan Chadwick Garden, created in 1967. The Farm was built four years later, with a six-month apprenticeship program run through UCSC Extension, that provides practical training in organic gardening and small-scale farming. UCSC undergraduates can research and intern at CASFS, and some become apprentices as well.
CASFS provides produce for dozens of families, some low-income, in the Santa Cruz community every summer. Apprentices have gone on to start their own commercial farms and inner-city community gardens; some have developed similar practical horticultural programs at other universities. Parr, for example, co-founded the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems major at UC Davis after his CASFS apprenticeship in the ‘90s, before returning to his UCSC roots.
Symbiosis on campus
As on the farm, campus sustainability is more effective when all the parts work together symbiotically. The next step for UCSC, Winslade believes, is to create a strategic plan that includes instruction, research, campus life, and operations.
She compares such a plan to a garden where planting has been thoughtful. “If you plant beans here, they might produce a nutrient that improves squash there—in the end everything grows better,” Winslade says. “Right now, the plants are growing without us necessarily having considered how to create the most effective and mutually beneficial relationships. But we now have the opportunity to position UCSC so it continues to be a sustainability leader.”
Jane Liaw is a freelance writer and UC Berkeley research scientist. She graduated from the UCSC science communication program in 2008 and is now based in San Francisco.