By Alison Hewitt
Originally published in UCLA Magazine
Few people have done as much to protect Southern California’s environment as Mark Gold ’84, M.A. ’86, D.Env. ’94. An associate director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IoES) and former president of Heal the Bay, Gold is recognized as one of the state’s leading environmental advocates.
Bringing Mark Gold to UCLA in 2012 was a coup for IoES, which has grown dramatically in recent years. He has more than 25 years of experience on the local green scene, knows virtually everyone in the environmental community, and has authored or co-authored many California coastal protection and environmental bills.
Gold now serves IoES as a fundraiser and professor and still leads the discussion on sustainability in Southern California. He sat down recently for an extensive discussion that ranged from how UCLA’s efforts in sustainability influenced the recent L.A. mayoral race; the chance meeting that got him involved with Heal the Bay; the pioneering nonprofit he worked at for 25 years; and the downside of hiking without a machete through a jungle in Cameroon.
You made a splash with your first big project, a joint effort with the UCLA School of Law that got L.A.’s mayoral candidates talking about sustainability.
That was the sustainable city plan for Los Angeles. We had 70 faculty and community leaders work on the plan to make L.A. more sustainable, and we did the whole plan in five months, in time to inform the mayoral and city council races. It played a significant role in that election. Now with Eric Garcetti, we have a mayor who has made sustainability a cornerstone of his plans for the city, and he has talked numerous times about the importance of UCLA’s Vision 2021 LA plan. Our work is shaping policies in the Garcetti administration, and that’s really important, that UCLA isn’t just working in science and nature. We have to beneficially impact communities, whether they’re local or overseas.
Have you always known that you wanted to be an advocate for the environment?
No, that happened when I decided to go into UCLA’s environmental sciences and engineering doctoral program. When I was in the grad program, a guest speaker came to a class. It was Dorothy Green, the founding president of Heal the Bay, and she inspired me so much that when she asked for volunteers at the end of class I signed up, and I didn’t leave Heal the Bay until 25 years later. It changed my life. She talked about pollution in Santa Monica Bay, and since I’d grown up on the bay and spent half my life in the ocean, it resonated with me. What could beat working on something that would really make a difference in my own community?
Was there a key attitude that you brought from Heal the Bay to IoES?
When you run an advocacy group, you’re always overcoming various obstacles. To me, if somebody says, “No, you can’t do things that way,” it’s almost like a challenge.
What do you want to achieve for IoES?
I know this sounds audacious, but we shouldn’t aim for anything less than UCLA becoming one of the top environmental research and education universities in the nation. We can get there, and I’d really like to be a major part of that. We have the talent, both on our faculty and among our students. We have the support, with backers like the Pritzker Family Foundation, which recently gave $15 million to IoES. What will also move us forward is the UCLA Grand Challenge Project to make the Los Angeles region energy- and water-independent by 2050, while protecting biodiversity and improving quality of life. The Grand Challenge Project will unite faculty who have never worked together before.
What has it been like working more closely with faculty at UCLA?
Our environmental faculty are absolutely brilliant and their research is extraordinary. It has been really rewarding to work with people who want to use their research skills to make a difference, but they haven’t had the opportunity to think about it in the same way as someone who has spent a whole career doing that. I’ve been using other people’s research and applying it to try to make a difference for decades. They’re realizing that the environment is threatened to such a degree that just doing the science isn’t enough. The science has to have an application that’s really going to make a difference in the world.
The environmental science major is one of UCLA’s fastest-growing majors. What’s it like teaching those students?
The students really believe they’re here to save the world. It’s not that they’re blind to the fact that we have a dysfunctional federal government, but they know they can make a difference. That’s incredibly energizing for me. They don’t think about why something should be difficult or not, they just go do it, and that sort of fearlessness is so great in the environmental field.
What’s one experience that really stands out for you?
Professor Tom Smith took me to Cameroon last summer, and it was one of the more amazing trips of my entire life. We went on this 20-kilometer hike in the Dja Reserve, which is one of Africa’s biodiversity hotspots and a big research site for Tom’s Center for Tropical Research. We walked 12 miles through the jungle to get a snapshot of the rain forest, looking for mammals, birds, butterflies and more. For a lightweight like me, it was pretty heady stuff. And at 6 feet 3 inches, I was the tallest person there. There were a lot of cuts on my head by the end of that hike.
Did they give you your own machete?
No, the ones with the machetes were our guides from the Baka tribe, where the average height is under 5 feet. But we didn’t see one monkey during that entire trip. We saw two pit traps, we saw numerous shotgun shells, we saw snares, but no primates.
On our way back, an elderly woman tried to sell us a dead monkey for dinner. It just summed up the problems all in one afternoon. The bush-meat trade is completely out of control. But what gives me hope is that we have Tom, one of the top conservation biologists in the country, trying to get the Dja Reserve to be part of the United Nations’ REDD program [Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation].
If he pulls that off, there will be revenues to protect that rain forest for the next 50 years. Tom’s been working with the Baka tribespeople for 30 years, and they’re hugely helpful to his research: Their tracking abilities and understanding of the plants and animals in the Dja Reserve are second to none. So this could perpetuate their way of life for many, many years. I didn’t see those sorts of human interest stories at Heal the Bay.