Model Citizen: Deborah Tull
Bicycle Fixatiton interview, August 2007

Deborah Tull is a sustainability coach living in the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles and makes her living teaching people how to green their homes, businesses, and lifestyles in a way that will make a difference. She is certified in Permaculture Design, Bio-Intensive Organic Gardening, and Compost Education and has traveled the world studying sustainable communities.

Bicycle Fixation: Deborah, briefly describe your personal background--where you were born and raised, what sort of worldview your parents developed, and of course most particularly what first interested you in sustainability, whatever it may have been.

Deborah Tull: I was born and raised here in Los Angeles. My parents were artist/activist/social-worker types, both committed to service, to making a difference in the world, and to teaching us the importance of kindness in the world. We spent a lot of time as a family in the outdoors and on camping trips...and I also spent years going to a Jewish summer camp that fostered a deep love of nature in me and a love of community.

I lost my dad when I was 11, and I think this taught me at a young age that life is precious, that life is short, and that we each have a golden opportunity to make a contribution while we are here. I knew in high school that I wanted to contribute to the environmental movement, and set out after high school to immerse myself in all of the trainings, teachings, travels, and experiences that would help me do that. In college, I had a self-designed major that sort of laid the groundwork for what I did in the years that followed: "Ecology, Community, and Social Change: Design for a Sustainable Future."

BF: You are a student of Zen Buddhism and spent time in a monastery. What harmonies and tensions do you discern between Zen perceptions and your efforts to live a sustainable lifestyle in a consumerist culture?

DT: I've spent the past 7 years training and living as a monk at the Zen Monastery Peace Center in the Sierra Foothills. It is a model for the practice of peace and sustainability, and for me, Zen Buddhism has been by far the most significant part of my education in sustainability.

I only see harmony between the practice of Zen Buddhism and my efforts to live a sustainable lifestyle anywhere. Zen teaches us to live in the here and now, and to make conscious, compassionate choices in each moment, wherever we are. It invites us to step out of a separate existence and experience our interconnection with all of life.

It seems like we have to be coming from a place of interconnection to make sustainable choices. A lot of us were trained to be constantly striving for what is best for "my ego, right now", and that to me is the main reason we're in this mess. It's not our fault, it's just what we were taught...and the more that people can bring awareness to how they live their lives and begin to take personal responsibility, the more we have a chance to turn things around. Simply holding the question in our awareness, "What is best for all?," as we approach life choices is a huge step. We can practice this kind of awareness wherever we are.... Why not right here in Los Angeles? For me, there are no "rules" around sustainable living other than to bring more awareness and more kindness to our lives. From the ground of kindness, sustainability is just a natural expression.

BF: You left the city and lived in a sequestered community for a time, then returned to live in the city. How did you come to the decision to leave, and the decision to return?

DT: This decision was more based on personal and family circumstances requiring me to spend some time in Los Angeles. I am still very much engaged with Living Compassion, the non-profit organization of the monastery, and am enjoying the opportunity to share awareness practice and teach meditation and sustainable living to people in the city right now. (For more information on Living Compassion, please visit

BF: You presently live in Hancock Park of Los Angeles, a neighborhood of huge houses, large gardens, multiple car ownership, and a casual acceptance of hyperconsumption as the good life by even the kindest and most aware of its denizens. How do you see yourself fitting into such a place, given your philosophies and practices?

DT: My intention every day is to strengthen my own practice by continuing to express my values in an environment that seems diametrically opposed to them, while at the same time I hope to model something different for people who are looking for alternatives. Zen teaches that we can reside in conscious, compassionate awareness wherever we are, no matter what the external circumstances are. I miss the trees, I love the sweetness of deep silence, but I'm grateful for an opportunity to practice awareness amidst the barrage of sirens, lawn mowers, loud billboards shouting for attention, and unconscious consumption.

I've spent the past 15 years practicing sustainable living in places where there was strong community support for this. I used to cringe when I visited LA and get depressed. Though it's hard to look around sometimes and witness the unconsciousness "out there," I try to keep my attention focused on how I can bring awareness to every step I take. If we want to ensure a sustainable future, we absolutely must find ways to "go green" everywhere, and if it can be done in LA, it can be done anywhere!

BF: Give us a quick rundown of a "typical" (if there is one) analysis you might make of one of your neighbor's houses, and how you might recommend they reduce their footprint on the earth in a realistically significant way.

DT: Every consultation is different, as I tailor each session to the specific needs and interests of the person or family I'm working with. Some of the basic areas I cover are waste reduction, recycling, and composting; water and energy efficiency; indoor air quality; water quality; substituting cost-effective eco-products for current products; sustainable marketing and organic cooking; drought-tolerant landscaping; and limiting fossil fuel consumption.

For families, there are specific concerns regarding children's health and the environment. I educate people and give specific step-by-step recommendations for them based on their interest, schedule, and financial capacity. The most important thing I try to do is to connect to that part of someone who wants to make a change, who wants to live a life that better reflects their care for the world, and to give them the tools they need to do so.

I find that a lot of people feel "alone and unsupported" in their efforts to live a more ecologically friendly life. If someone is inspired enough to call me and hire me, then I know they care, they're concerned, and they are making themselves available to go through a very fun, eye-opening, and creative process. So far, this work has been hugely rewarding. I can't tell you how much it means for the part of me that used to "cringe" when I visited LA to be meeting so many willing people, and to help them make a positive impact.

One of the most important things I hope people get is that instead of getting depressed about the state of the world, they can choose to engage and have a great time learning how to make simple powerful changes in their lifestyle. I recommend that people replace their addiction to "bad world news" with news of the inspiring people and projects in the world making heroic efforts towards a sustainable future, and let their enthusiasm, rather than their fear, guide them in "going green."

BF: You have said that most of your clients are in neighborhoods alleged to be more conscious of consciousness, such as Silverlake; have you had much success in winning clients in your own neighborhood?

DT: Not a lot of Hancock Parkers have signed on yet, but I haven't been here that long either. In this neighborhood, there has been a lot of curiosity and interest in what I'm doing, and I suspect more and more Hancock Parkers are warming up to the idea of "going green," as they realize that it is not an "us/them" thing or a "you should" thing, but simply a process that enhances well-being, personal health, and environmental health...a "win/win" situation. Most people are lacking basic information. I'm starting to write a little column for the Larchmont Chronicle that I hope helps with this.

BF: How large is your own house, and what have you done there to reduce your personal footprint?

DT: I came back to L.A. from 7 years of monastic life, where I lived in a solar-powered community in a tiny hand-made hermitage surrounded by nothing but meadows and forest. Living as a monk did not lend me the financial resources to suddenly be able to afford rent in I'm renting a room from relatives right now, just living as simply as I can, continuing to do all the things I've done for years. I carry my urban "eco-pack" with me wherever I go: a water bottle, travel mug, cloth napkin, shopping bags, and food container to avoid using plastic, etc.

One myth I think people have is that reducing their personal footprint will lead to a life of "deprivation," but that is not true at all. It's not about "giving up" consumption or "not enjoying" city life. It's about including ecological awareness in all aspects of our lives and plugging into the inspiring "green" efforts, practices, and products that exist to support sustainable living.

People also think that it will be too hard to change habits they have, but the truth is that it is thrilling to let go of an old habit (i.e. throwing away tons of food scraps everyday instead of composting) and finding out how enjoyable it is to compost and participate in the cycle of nature. Some of the things I've done to help the household where I'm staying include setting up a compost, a clothesline, energy-efficient lighting, water-saving shower heads, water efficient dishwashing, replacing unhealthy cleaning products, cutting back on trash and waste, and setting up a plastic-bag drying rack! The house has a lawn, but we've had the gardeners cut back in half on mowing and watering. Our next step is to set up a gray water system.

BF: Cars and airplanes are the two major contributors to global warming, and cars facilitate sprawl, which is wasteful of land itself as well as of resources. In your line of work you go to the client; how often in a month do you drive a car, use public transport, ride your bicycle, or walk for transportation? How often per year do you fly?

DT: I fly to the Bay Area a few times per year, and what is exciting now is the carbon offset programs for flying that people might be required to do for work. In my fantasy world, LA's transportation system and bike paths would be as easy and people-friendly as in the Bay area, and I'd be in as good a shape as any bike messenger!

Transporting oneself in this sprawling city can seem like the biggest challenge of living here, but it is not that difficult. Too many people rely on the car, and forget all of the other options available to them: car-pooling, biking, public transportation, and walking. All of these options are not only more ecologically viable, but they are more fun, they are community-building, they allow you to stop and see things close up, participating in the world around you rather than living in a "drive-by spectator" world.

What I do to lighten my use of fossil fuels here is: 1) walk as much as I can, at least somewhere every day; 2) delegate 4 days per week as NO DRIVING days, at all; 3) I arrange my schedule geographically, so if I have 2 clients and an errand that week to do in Culver City, I do them all on the same day, to save gas; 4) I remember that biking and public transportation are options, and enjoy the adventure that these options provide that the car does not; 5) I plan in advance to set up car-pooling when that is the best option. It is so much more fun to live in a world of many choices rather than being glued to "the car." I admit, the thing I dread most about living in a city now is time spent driving a car.

BF: What's the farthest distance you will walk, and the farthest distance you will bicycle, for transportation?

DT: I would walk all day if I could. I don't ride my bike enough right now, because I'm healing some musculoskeletal issues that limit me physically right now (a temporary challenge), but in Hancock Park, it is so easy to walk or ride to the market, the library, all kinds of restaurants, the park, and most anywhere that people need to go.

BF: Do you offer people here in Los Angeles any "transportation coaching," and, if you do, how receptive are your clients to it?

DT: Yes, I offer all of my clients transportation coaching. In talking with people, I've learned that a lot of people feel trapped by their circumstances and believe in perceived limitations, i.e. "not enough time, not enough money, can't bike because of the kids, not in good enough shape," and while it is true that some people can't ride to work or bike the kids to school, they can start by taking small steps like biking to the market, walking to go out to dinner and do local errands, and finding resources that are closer to where they live so that they don't have to rely on the car as much.

In my experience, these changes infuse people with a sense of newness and possibility, and inspire them to want to do this more...and drive less! They notice that they are able to see much more beauty in the city by foot or bike than in the car, and feel better physically too!

BF: Do you make follow-up visits to evaluate how well your clients might be implementing your suggestions? If so, how have they been doing, on average?

DT: After an initial consultation, people can work with me in a number of ways, from continuing to be coached through the process until they've met their goals or by simply hiring me to set up a compost or simple garden, for instance. On average, people have been taking the steps I recommend and creating a time-line for steps they may not be able to afford now but want to do in the future. They come through the process feeling much more empowered.

Again, the people who tend to hire me in the first place tend to already be inspired to make a change, and from that starting point, there is really no turning back. Most people are more dialed in than ever to the fact that their lifestyle is making a negative impact on both their personal health and the health of the environment, and they are relieved to learn that simple actions can actually make a powerful difference.

BF: Concepts of sustainability are gaining general acceptance now, but habits are deeply ingrained and hard to change. Do you see an acceptance of their personal responsibility to the earth and its communities among your neighbors (not your clients), and of the need to change lifestyles significantly to live a realistic life? For example do you think people in LA will really drive less without the cost of gas going into double digits?

DT: I really couldn't say. One of the fun questions I get to explore down here working with different types of people is "What is motivating people currently? And how can I support the part of this person that wants to make a difference?" I am continually fascinated by the process of how people change, and how we let go of deep habits and live free of them. Unfortunately, it usually takes "having suffered enough" to really be able to let go of a habit. I think that kindness is the most important ingredient as we embark on any process of transformation.

BF: Do you feel that people in Los Angeles really care concretely, rather than abstractly, about these issues?

DT: I think there is a part of everyone, deep down, that cares, yes. I also think there are also a lot of people who are truly distracted and "tied up" with fear or worry about their own little world. What people tend to forget is that stepping back to see the larger perspective and getting out of our own little world not only allows us to participate in the larger world but frees us from our own suffering, and actually is the way to happiness. I am very excited and inspired by how much more environmental awareness there is in LA than even 3 years ago, and I think many more people are ripe for welcoming change. Hopefully the enthusiasm for sustainability will be contagious and authentic.

BF: What role do you see government and regulation playing in support of sustainable living in the near future?

DT: I don't know. I'm not impressed so far, for instance, with the weak energy platform of the US government right now. Their projections for the types of energy we will rely on in 2030 still focus on non-renewable energy sources...oil, coal, and natural gas. Meanwhile, when we look to many European countries, we see a much brighter vision and bolder steps being taken. I hope that we will wake up and join the march soon too, and I suspect that a lot of the impetus for change will come from people and communities, from the ground up.

BF: What movements towards practical sustainability do you see occurring in Los Angeles in the next thirty years?

DT: Major steps towards energy and water efficiency, bike paths and public transportation options, massive tree planting, a move away from plastics, trash reduction, and the implementation of more radical recycling systems, urban composting, and local agriculture. I see a major move away from traditional lawns and towards drought-tolerant landscaping (which is so much more beautiful in my opinion). We can grow almost anything here, so I hope to see more local agriculture and systems to support small-scale organic farming.

We also have sun most days of the year, so I hope that solar power becomes huge in this city and that all new building projects will be 100% green. In addition, Hollywood and the TV/ film industries must make major shifts to model sustainability. If we really wanted to have fun with this, we could learn to harness the power generated by LA gyms and power the city this way! Most importantly, I hope that 30 years from now, people will smile at each other more genuinely in this city, make an effort to take care of stray animals, invite their neighbors over to tea, and take the time to really listen to one another.

BF: Do you plan making any changes in your own lifestyle to reduce your own footprint even further in the next few years?

DT: Yes, I hope to be reducing my own footprint even further every day for the rest of my life. For me, sustainable living is a process of awareness and discovery. There are always more subtle things to bring into my awareness, including how I spend and use the life energy that is coming through me in this moment. Right now, I'm 3 weeks into an experiment to see if I can create zero waste (except for things like tp and q-tips) and it's so easy, I'm shocked I hadn't made this commitment before. Living sustainably is challenging, creative, and rewarding. It's about reclaiming our lives and living in complete reverence for life. How else would I want to spend my time?

You can reach Deborah Tull at