For a number of years, Tamara worked in the outdoor environmental education field teaching youngsters to love, care for, and protect the environment. Today, she currently works as a geologist at an environmental consulting firm. Always happy to expose others to the outdoors, she took us on our first backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada where she taught us the importance of knowledge and caring for the outdoors. Tamara is a kid at heart and always inspires us to take on greater adventures.
What sparked your interest in the environment?
I’ve had an interest in the environment from a very young age. In the days before the internet, we had catalogs called Scholastic Books, and I remember flipping through the pages when 50 Things Kids Can Do To Save The Earth caught my eyes. I remember thinking, “I want that! I want to save the Earth!” But the tips ended up being things like putting a brick in your toilet, and I thought, “that’s not saving the Earth…” As a kid, I wanted to fix everything and it took me a long time to realize little actions add up to a lot.
How did your involvement in the environment grow?
The first time I went camping was during a geology trip in college. In that class, I met a friend who worked for the outdoor recreation program at UCLA. She took me under her wing and taught me a lot about the outdoors, like how to pee and how to navigate being outside. I tagged along on a couple of her trips and she helped me get into the outdoors that way. Between my Junior and Senior year, I had a friend who worked for the concessionaire at Yosemite National Park and suggested I do the same. So I applied, got the job, and packed my car to go live in Yosemite for the summer. I worked at the tour desk and it was a life-changing transition in my life. I knew that this was what has been missing –– I’ve never figured it out until then. Soon after, I got into backpacking and climbing and that’s how it happened.
What is your perspective on sustainability?
The environment and sustainability are definitely connected. As humans of the planet, we are not always attuned with the impact of our daily lives and how that impacts the world. Sustainability can be an overwhelming concept for people. Part of it is people think, “I’m just one person, what can I do?” So they experience a sort of paralysis and end up not doing anything.
“Spending time in beautiful places makes me appreciate the natural world. I feel more connected to the environment because I’m in it and I see it.”
Can you talk about small actions you do to try and live more sustainably?
A lot of these are popular now, but I’ll bring my own grocery bags to the store, limit my plastic usage, and cut down on waste. Being a conscious consumer is a large part of living more sustainably too. The economy is driven by money and where I put my money determines what will get produced [because money is power]. Sometimes it’s difficult; we are raised on the idea of capitalism where buying “stuff” is cheap and convenient. We can go on Amazon, purchase something, it’ll show up at our door, and we’ll get a rush of happiness in our brains. I think it’s good to ask ourselves, “Do I really need this?” when shopping.
Do you have tips on being a more conscious consumer?
A resource I like to use is the Better World Shopping Guide. It’s a pocket guidebook that outlines companies and gives them each an A through F rating based on different criteria, like “how a company treats their employees” or “if a company gives charitable donations to the environment.” Ultimately, I want to use my money to support companies who do good things. But it’s not always easy because to be a conscious consumer, I have to put a lot of thought and energy in purchasing an item. Sometimes I just need to get through life and not have to spend hours [at the grocery store] deciding if my bread is the most sustainable brand.
What has been the most challenging part of living a more sustainable lifestyle?
I think picking and choosing what you want to focus on can be challenging. My own philosophy is to eat in moderation and not waste food. I’ll eat my leftovers and freeze food that is about to go bad –– sometimes due to poor planning I throw away food that has expired and that makes me very sad. I’m not a vegetarian, but I do this “reduced meat diet” that I’ve sort of made up and have done for several years. I don’t cook meat at home and will only eat meat when I am out, when others cook for me, or if I have people over and they want something like chicken.
Has being in the outdoors affected your views on the environment?
Spending time in beautiful places makes me appreciate the natural world. I feel more connected to the environment because I’m in it and I see it. It’s hard to not want to protect the Earth after being exposed to it. There are not many wild places left in the world.
Has this perspective made you more aware when you’re in the outdoors?
When I’m hiking and camping, I follow the Leave No Trace Principles. These are ground rules to follow so you’re not trampling over flowers or sensitive areas, taking things from the environment back home, or leaving your own waste improperly. Human waste is a big problem. For example, after the summer season in Yosemite, when millions of visitors leave, there is litter everywhere. If one person is thinking, “I’ll just drop this gum wrapper here,” and then everyone else thinks the same, at the end of the summer the park is a trash haven. It goes to show that if one person drops one thing it really adds up. It’s important to do our part as an individual.
“There needs to be a balance of both knowledge and caring to have a positive impact. And it’s not just for the environment, it can be applied to anything.”
Having worked in the outdoor industry, you’re knowledgeable in caring for the natural world. Can you tell us a story about how you applied that knowledge when you’re in the outdoors?
I recently camped in Utah and we didn’t have toilets. When we needed to poo, we couldn’t dig a hole in the ground because we would ruin the living soil. Utah has these living soils called Cryptobiotic soil, an organism that lives on top of the soil and takes hundreds of years to grow. They’re important to the ecosystem and when disturbed can take decades to grow back. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of our surroundings. If we go off trail –– even if we dig a hole to poo, we’re essentially hurting the ecosystem. Instead, we had a groover to do our business. To mask the smell, we added kitty litter and then one lucky person will have to take care of the box. I know it sounds gross to some people, but we love the land and we want to protect it, so we do this. When I go camping in the winter, I would bring brown paper lunch bags filled with kitty litter to poo in. These would be thrown in a paint bucket that was strapped to sleigh and be hauled out when we left. We called it the “poo sled”. I haven’t had to haul one out … yet.
What would you say to someone who doesn’t think they can make a difference?
One of the quotes we used to share with students is, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” (by Margaret Mead). Thinking back to when America had all this wild land –– people saw it as endless and abundant land to exploit, so they mined minerals and cut down trees. When people realized they were diminishing our resources, a small group of people decided to set aside some of these lands to preserve them and that idea grew into the National Park system. Don’t doubt that small changes add up.
Any last words?
At my first outdoor education job, we followed a motto to teach knowledge and caring. It’s one thing to be educated about the environment, but if you don’t care, you won’t implement the knowledge. The flip side is, we have people who care, but they don’t have the knowledge to apply it. For example, when people feed squirrels in a national park, they are coming from a good place and had no intention of hurting the animal. But feeding a squirrel can do more harm than good; the squirrel will become dependent on human food and be more aggressive in seeking it. There needs to be a balance of both knowledge and caring to have a positive impact. And it’s not just for the environment, it can be applied to anything.
Read more about our Zero Hour Story: What’s It All About series.
*This interview was modified for the purpose of the series.