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Column: Inspired by Greta Thunberg, this 101-year-old takes a stand against climate change

The Fair Oaks Assisted Living facility in Pasadena
Senior living residents Marion Marx, left, and Marian Sachs, 101, were instrumental in getting meat removed from the menu one day a week at the Fair Oaks Assisted Living facility in Pasadena.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

At first glance, it wasn’t a message that grabbed me.

“I am seeking publicity,” began the email from Marian Sachs.

She must have known I would roll my eyes.

“Stop,” she wrote. “Don’t delete this … please.”

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I didn’t, fortunately.

“I am 101 years old and live in an assisted living facility,” Sachs wrote, saying that she was inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s activism on climate change.

“There is not much we seniors can do to help,” Sachs wrote. “However, I have thought perhaps we could observe one meatless day a week in our dining room. The proposal has met with remarkable acceptance by our residents.”

A little publicity might inspire other seniors to do their part, Sachs wrote.

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“Can you help?” she asked.

Her timing couldn’t have been better, because I’d just met with two climate change experts to talk about the specific threats in California and what we can do about it. So before I tell you about my trip to see Mrs. Sachs at her home in Pasadena, let me tell you about my visit with the experts.

Bill Patzert, a former climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulson Lab, and Steve LaDochy, a semi-retired meteorology and geosciences professor at Cal State L.A, were both quoted in a Jan. 11 Los Angeles Times story by Paul Duginski about the decreased prevalence of tule fog in the midsection of the state.

“In the dry Central Valley, plants, especially native plants, love the extra water that this fog provides,” Patzert said in that story. And LaDochy explained that warming temperatures and a decrease in air pollution — which absorbs vapor — were to blame for the decrease in fog.

Over a cup of coffee with me in Sierra Madre, Patzert and LaDochy had a lot to say, and most of it was frightening.

That’s not surprising when the news is filled with horror stories about melting glaciers, rising sea levels, raging wildfires and killer drought-deluge cycles. Global greenhouse-gas emissions reached a record high in 2019, we just completed the hottest decade on record, and heat stored in the upper levels of oceans is at a record high.

With islands disappearing in the oceans and glaciers melting, it’s easy to overlook the effects in a place like Southern California. But, as Patzert and LaDochy explained, climate change is having a huge effect here, where population explosions and increased emissions have created so-called heat islands.

While the average global temperature has risen about 1.7 degrees above the 20th century average, Patzert said, it’s risen closer to 5 degrees in downtown Los Angeles.

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“In August and September, it’s 8 to 9 degrees warmer than it used to be,” Patzert said, noting that, since the 1950s, California’s population has quadrupled while the nation’s has merely doubled.

“As you build a great megalopolis … you tend to generate your own heat with shopping centers, housing developments, blacktop,” Patzert said.

And then there’s the obvious. More people means more vehicles.

LaDochy drives a Prius. Patzert doesn’t fly as much as he used to. Everyone can find a way to make a contribution, they said. But the greatest tool for change, Patzert said — noting the unconscionable policies of certain so-called leaders — is the ballot box.

Marian Sachs isn’t waiting for an election to do her part. She had left her door ajar and called for me to come on in when I knocked. She did not look her age, and when she began speaking I wanted to check her birth certificate.

After more than a century on the planet, she’s still sharp, curious, engaged. She worked in nursing and then architecture; she and her late husband raised three kids, drove one of the first hybrid vehicles, collected rocks and shared a love of nature. She now aims her binoculars at nearby birds, follows the news closely, and is horrified by growing evidence of an overheated planet.

Her hero Thunberg, 84 years her junior, has stared down complacent world leaders and exclaimed, “How dare you … entire ecosystems are collapsing.” But Sachs — whose home is a gallery of the wildlife painting she took up as a hobby — did not want to talk politics.

“I’m rendered speechless,” Sachs said. “Don’t get me stirred up.”

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She told me she recognized that she and her fellow residents couldn’t change the world on their own, but doing nothing is not an option. The meat-free menu was all she could think of, and her neighbor and friend Marion Marx embraced the idea.

They wrote up their proposal and circulated a memo to the 130 residents of the Fair Oaks, telling them that Thunberg had raised the consciousness of young people the world over, including “our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren.”

“As responsible seniors, we should give them our support in this climate crisis. We feel we can do our part by observing a meatless day once a week. It will be our opportunity to be of some help.”

Residents were asked to say yea or nay. A week later, the Fair Oaks climate change initiative won in a landslide, 44-6.

One resident who voted against added a comment: “God controls climate.”

Another resident wondered if the banned meats would include venison.

“I don’t think they’ve ever even served venison,” said Mrs. Sachs.

Sachs and Marx delivered the news to the chef, Rigo Arias, who said the plan was for Meatless Mondays to begin soon — no beef, chicken or pork for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Arias told me that, with tofu, pasta, eggplant and the new lines of plant-based meat substitutes, menus wouldn’t be hard to put together. And at the moment, fish has not been banned.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Arias said. “I was really surprised, in a good way, that in these kinds of places, there’s still an interest in supporting a cause.”

I followed Sachs to lunch — soup, tuna salad and ham sandwiches were on the menu — and she sat with her pals Marx, Shelley Gutman and Luretta Rideout, all of whom support the motion.

“We have to do something,” said Marx, “or we’re going to be in dire straits.”

Less meat means lower methane emissions, said Sachs. And if we don’t keep cutting down trees to clear space for grazing, that would help, too, said Marx.

A small weekly sacrifice at one retirement center won’t accomplish much, the women conceded.

But it’s better than doing nothing, Sachs said, and the idea might catch on at other retirement centers. If a teenager was able to start a movement, why can’t they?

Steve.lopez@latimes.com


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