Patrcia DeMarco speaks at Pittsburgh 350's Mass Rally for Climate Action in 2015. Photo by Mark Dixon/Blue Lens.

Pittsburgh environmental activist Patricia DeMarco wears many hats, but it’s her lifelong love of the natural world that stands out the most. That love becomes especially intimate when she describes the long periods she spent sitting quietly next to a two-acre pond near Chugach National Forest in Alaska.

“The wild birds would come and literally sit on my head,” she says, adding that she often lured them by putting birdseed in her hair. Then there was the mother lynx that came with her three kittens, the moose that wandered by and the hungry eagles that dove for baby ducks.

The pond is but one aspect of DeMarco’s time in Alaska where, between 1995 and 2005, she held positions as President of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation, Commissioner of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, and Associate Dean for the College of Business and Public Policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

She now serves on the Forest Hills Borough Council, as a visiting researcher and writer at Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Green Sciences, and as a senior scholar at Chatham University. She has also explored film as a producer on a Rachel Carson documentary and appears regularly on local radio shows to discuss labor, environment and health issues.

Now at 71 years old, DeMarco is preparing to debut her first book, Pathways to Our Sustainable Future: A Perspective from Pittsburgh. Published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, and supported by the W. Clyde and Ida Mae Thurman Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation, the work examines how the story of Pittsburgh could show how cities can fight climate change and create economic opportunities.

DeMarco spoke with NEXTpittsburgh about the book and how community-based activism is the key to driving sustainability.

What made you want to go into environmentalism?

I’ve always been interested in nature. My Italian grandparents in Mt. Washington had a garden in the backyard and I learned about organic agriculture from them.

It was expanded because my family was in the foreign service, so we traveled all over the world. I collected butterflies and seashells and became quite interested in biology. I read The Sea Around Us in the sixth grade when I was on the boat back from Brazil to Pittsburgh. My father gave me a copy of Silent Spring for a high school graduation present. Rachel Carson became my hero. I was very moved by this lady from Pittsburgh who studied biology and became a writer. I have a doctorate in genetics and have maintained my interest in how the environment affects people and people affect the environment as a career focus for my whole life.

Do you think nurturing a love of nature in people would help them appreciate preserving the environment?

That’s one of the principles behind Pittsburgh becoming a Biophilic City. It’s this whole concept of recognizing and respecting green spaces as part of our cityscape. If you never experience the coolness under trees compared to the heat in an open parking lot, you don’t really understand the buffering quality of an arboreal canopy. But if a cityscape has been planted with trees, now you have shaded walkways in the summertime. And it attracts different kinds of birds. You find that people begin to notice and feel good about the place where they live.

That was what I wanted to write about—how the community is responding to the need for change. That, to me, was what I found so inspiring about Pittsburgh. It’s my hometown and I’m really proud of it, but I’ve been a lot of places. I’ve lived all over the world and all over the country, from Alaska to Connecticut. I just find in Pittsburgh this sense of empowering people from the bottom up is really special, and with [Mayor Bill Peduto] being part of the 100 Resilient Cities in the country and being a leader in sustainability, despite all the odds with the fracking initiative, I think it’s very telling.

DeMarco at a 2014 EPA hearing in Pittsburgh. Photo by Mark Dixon/Blue Lens.

What do you think are some of the major challenges Pittsburgh still has to overcome?

The challenges are endemic . . . We’re facing the deconstruction of the Environmental Protection Agency with what they’re calling cooperative federalism, which means the states are left on their own, whether they enforce federal laws or not. Our budget situation and state government being pretty much in the hands of fossil gas people is not painting a good environmental picture.

And yet, people care a lot about the quality of the environment here. Many of us remember the days when Pittsburgh was this smoky, black city. We don’t want to go back to those days. What I wanted to do with this book was to help people visualize what it can be like. What it requires is our choice to decide that we’re going to go a different direction as a collective community.

There are ways that we can thrive as an economy and as a society without destroying [nature], but rather preserving it. So then the pathways become things like renewable energy systems, to use agriculture in a way that is regenerative instead of destructive, to look at ways of making good products that are by design not toxic and hazardous, and using green chemistry principles and biosynthesis and biomimicry as our pattern for making the things that we use. And then I looked at the institutional barriers that prevent us from going in that direction and the examples of leadership where this is actually moving forward in our society.

That, to me, is something that doesn’t necessarily happen all at once. Major revolutions don’t very often happen like that. For example, solar is now at grid parity with coal in the electric system in many parts of the country. And there’s more of a push to say, hey, why aren’t we doing more of this in Pennsylvania? That kind of thing isn’t going to come down from the legislature, it’s going to be pushed up into the legislature by people who are saying, you know, we can do this. Even the utilities are looking at ways that they can integrate [solar].

What can the average person do if they want to get involved and tackle some of these issues?

There are 20 million things you can do. The first thing is to know and to care about the community you live in. Start with the backyard at your house. Don’t put pesticides in your backyard. They end up in our rivers. And your children and your pets don’t need to be dealing with that poison. And people will say, well, I have dandelions in my grass. Fine! Mow them. And if you’ve seen the honeybees over a field of dandelion flowers, and if you’ve seen little sparrows eating the seeds, you feel differently about dandelions.

One of the things we have to understand is that even in your neighborhoods, whether it’s something growing out of the cracks in the sidewalks or along the edges of a fence, we are part of the living world, not the built world.

You can make a huge difference just by making some of those personal impact choices. You can reduce the amount of meat that you eat. You can buy local, organic foods and support your local farmer.

What can you do to reduce your fossil dependence? Stop using plastic bags. I carry around reusable bags of all sizes, from the little one that folds up in my purse to the pile that I take to the grocery store. Reduce the amount of plastic that you throw away.  Can you drive less or consolidate your trips or walk if it’s less than a mile?

Start there and then look at your community. Do you have a sustainability program in your town? Do you have people who come together to make green infrastructure work for your water system?

What’s next after this book?

I’m already working on another one. I’m using the issue of transition to a socially equitable and environmentally sustainable society. The material I talk about on the radio I think is really important to explore. There’s a lot of sociology and theory, but what I want are the stories. If you’re a coal miner family, what are the issues that you’re facing and how do we deal with it? You planted this big garden that’s attached to a building and the owner of the building is now selling it and what’s going to happen to the garden?

We’re also looking at a shift in the workforce. What’s going to happen when we do 3D printing for manufacturing and robotics are running everything and we have a whole different mode of making things? What happens to the concept of work? How do we provide for the well-being of people when we’re increasingly in a world of drones and machines?

I’m still in the collecting ideas stage, which is the exciting part.

Pathways to Our Sustainable Future: A Global Perspective from Pittsburgh is now available for pre-order from Amazon. It will officially release on September 19, 2017.

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.