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February 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more At Length With . . .
Editor’s note: In the February 15, 2009, issue of Booklist, Adult Books Associate Editor Donna Seaman spoke with Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Edward Humes to get the Story behind the Story on his latest book, Eco Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers, and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet. As is so often the case, their wide-ranging discussion contained more of interest than we had room to reproduce on the printed page, so we’re offering here a lightly edited transcript of their talk. Read on as they talk at length about love of technology, fear of science, and the day Ronald Reagan took the solar panels off the White House.
BKL: How did you come to write Eco Barons? Environmentalism is new territory for you.
HUMES: I’m asked this often because I’ve been somewhat of a generalist throughout my career in terms of the topics I’ve chosen.
BKL: I would say, though, that your books are all connected by your interest in justice.
HUMES: Yes, definitely, and that holds true here. And I’ve always had a nascent interest in science-related subjects, so this felt like a natural progression. But my main interest was my desire to look at the subject of conservation and environmentalism from the outlier’s viewpoint. The people and organizations I looked at in Eco Barons are making their impact because they’re outside the mainstream in how they decided to make their mark. I think that’s part of their appeal and their effectiveness—that they’re asking questions and looking at problems in different ways than most of us do.
BKL: One of the things that surprised me was the degree of resistance these creative environmentalists faced, the intense, even bizarre adversity. This vehemence reminded me of another subject you’ve written about in Monkey Girl (2007), the battle over evolution in the schools. Did you see any parallels?
HUMES: Absolutely. There are common threads there as well. It’s amazed me over the course of writing both of these books how much Americans love the fruits of science and technology—we are just crazy about our iPods, our plasma screens, all the things that science makes possible. I was just looking at a Pew Charitable Trusts poll that came out a few weeks ago about what Americans consider to be luxuries and necessities, and air-conditioning and microwave ovens are considered absolute necessities by the majority of Americans. I thought, my God, my parents were children of the Depression; there’s not a single thing on that list of 15 necessary items that they even had. How enthralled we are with that aspect of science. And yet we are so distrustful of it as a people in terms of the environment, in terms of climate change, in terms of evolution. We love technology, but we distrust science, and fear it and resist it in many ways. That conundrum has put us where we are today. Because even as we enjoy the fruits of science, we are oblivious to, or willfully ignorant of, the impact that those activities and products have on the world around us.
BKL: It is a paradox.
HUMES: And that’s what I love. As far as adversity goes, the other point you made is really a good one because people like Doug Tompkins, the founder of the North Face and the Esprit empire; the people at the Center for Biological Diversity, in fact, all of the characters in the book, thrive on conflict. It energizes them; it doesn’t defeat them like it does most of us. It drives them on because they’re so convinced of their correctness. Righteousness might not even be the wrong word to use. They’re not the least bit discouraged by the fact that they’re tilting against the odds.
BKL: So would you say these eco barons, these strong individuals, share certain qualities or traits?
HUMES: Yes, and I hope that really comes through in the book. The visionary aspect, the way they approach a problem, the questions they ask. In some ways, I associate it with good journalism, because if a journalist is doing his or her job, they’re asking questions that everyone else has overlooked. It’s about finding the right questions. And I think in some ways that’s one of the qualities the people in Eco Barons share. In the course of doing the research, I talked to an environmental consultant named Jib Ellison. He’s only briefly mentioned in the book, but he’s a really interesting guy. This is the fellow who became a consultant to Wal-Mart and guided them in their new sustainability efforts. He talks about how even CEOs of major corporations such as Wal-Mart and Microsoft don’t see what’s right before their eyes. What’s wasteful and polluting, or that our profligate use of energy is bad for the environment, and bad for their bottom line. It’s like it’s invisible to them because it’s the way we’ve always done it, or because conventional wisdom has it that environmentalism is somehow irreconcilable with making a buck.
What the eco-baron personality does is look at that completely differently. So it took a Jib Ellison to say, “Hey CEO, waste is bad for your company, not just for the environment. Don’t you get it?” It is a revelatory moment when you listen to these people. You sit in a room, and you say, geez, why doesn’t everybody realize this? Why does it take these unique individuals to make us see it? But, of course, that’s human history in a nutshell.
BKL: One of the most appalling and maddening stories in your book is the one about Andy Frank and the electric car.
HUMES. That’s one where I took time to look at the history of it. Because I wanted to explore what Andy Frank sees so clearly. Namely, that all the choices we’ve made since Henry Ford, and even before, all the choices that seem so inevitable and so intrinsic to our lifestyle, were not inevitable but, rather, due to the luck of the draw or really clever marketing or malfeasance. We’re now locked into this situation where we can’t imagine something different. The spike in gas prices in 2008 certainly started to alter people’s perspective, but now we’re right back where we were.
So, yes, Andy Frank has been beating his head against the wall for a really long time. But he seems utterly unfazed by it. He just knows that his views will prevail in the end. But the problem is becoming increasingly critical.
BKL: Some of the brilliant eco activists you profile are, frankly, so wealthy most of us can’t identify with them. But you also write about Carole Allen, the “turtle lady,” who lives a modest life yet embarked on an incredible mission.
HUMES: Her presence is really crucial. Not to minimize what she’s done—bringing an entire species back from the brink is an exceptional accomplishment, but, yes, exactly, she didn’t have to have a huge bank account. Or, conversely, the willingness to live in a $17-a-month cabin with no amenities, which is what Kieran Suckling and Peter Galvin, the founders of the Center for Biological Diversity, chose to do. Instead, she strikes a happy medium. She’s a person who lived basically an ordinary life yet did something extraordinary. I think that’s an important thread of the story to include.
My choices were all completely subjective. These were stories I was personally interested in, but I tried to run the gamut so that there would be personalities and personal histories anyone could identify with.
BKL: What surprised you the most when you were doing all the research and conducting all these interviews?
HUMES: I had some familiarity going in with some of the ideas they spoke about, but the electric car story was not something I knew a lot about. Hydrogen and fuel cells were really being hyped at the time as the future of transportation and energy, as a seemingly pollution-free source of power that was going to be an answer to a lot of our ills. And, boy, did Andy Frank ever set me straight, saying that this fuel of the future was always going to be the fuel of the future. His comprehensible explanation of why it was not just a bad idea but also a deception was illuminating and surprising. You’d think, after all these years as a journalist, I wouldn’t be surprised by the sheer wrongheadedness of a concept championed by government and industry leaders.
Then it was one surprise after another with Kieran and Peter of the Center of Biological Diversity, because their stories are really harrowing. And delving into the environmental policies, particularly the endangered-species policies, of the last eight years, well, the damage that has been done in that regard––either through neglect or direct action to undermine environmental protections that have been in place for decades––was much worse than I expected.
BKL: It has been shocking to see achievements undone and reversed so rapidly.
HUMES: But it’s also fascinating, because the history of the Endangered Species Act and all the great 1970s-era environmental policies is totally bipartisan. They were practically all signed by Richard Nixon and touted by him, and passed unanimously, or nearly so, in Congress. And how is it that in the course of 30 years, these mainstream, bipartisan ideas were turned into partisan and extremist perceptions. How does this happen? I still haven’t quite figured that out. But I think it’s worth talking about and reminding people that what now seem to many to be damaging and fringe ideas about endangered species that somehow elevate some crappy little mouse above the needs of the economy were once understood as reasonable and necessary. Read Warren Earl Burger’s opinion on that: we can always put a mall anywhere we want, but extinction is forever. That’s a pretty conservative view. And that’s one of the things I really wanted to make clear in writing this book.
BKL: What could be more conservative than conservation? On a related front, now that the economy is tanking, and with a new president in office, do you think some of the enormous, ill-advised developments you’ve written about, projects environmentalists have been fighting, might be abandoned? Is this an opportunity for environmentalists to press forward?
HUMES: I think that’s the big question. On the one hand, yes, the idea of building a luxury resort and new developments in pristine wilderness might be more economically challenging. On the other hand, undertaking a remaking of how we get and use energy under difficult economic conditions is also going to be a challenge. You have President Obama coming in with a promise of green-collar jobs and alternative energy as the mainstay of stimulating the economy. It remains to be seen if it can be pulled off in such a difficult time. There’s a paradox: we have to do it, yet can we do it? I think that’s going to be the big story to watch.
BKL: Books such as Eco Barons and Thomas L. Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded (2008) anchor the essential bridge between business and environmentalism, between the need to address the climate-change crisis and other urgent environmental matters and the need for people to earn a living.
HUMES: It’s a very healthy trend that people such as Friedman and Al Gore and Barack Obama have talked about environmentalism as an opportunity rather than a liability. The more that perspective is discussed and brought into the mainstream, I think the more the terms of the debate about these issues will shift, probably in a way that is going to hold out the potential of changing our mental landscape.
BKL: It’s a great hook to have such famous figures to write about, including Ted Turner. His story is quite compelling.
HUMES: You could write an entire book about Turner’s environmentalism, his life as an eco philanthropist, his real life’s work. Climate change, hunger, and disarmament seem to be the three things he’s most devoted to. His story really is intriguing. Of course, there’s the iconic CNN connection, but somehow, his creating the modern cable television station business model hadn’t sunk in. His impact has been almost incalculable.
BKL: By coining the term eco barons, you remind us of our ardor for rugged individuals, our heroes. And, indeed, the degree to which visionaries of great wealth have shaped society for better or worse is astonishing.
HUMES: Yes, it true. If you followed the environmental philanthropy thread, well, so many people have been involved before and along with Ted Turner, you could fill encyclopedias. But I have mixed feelings about this group. They are fascinating, we love to read about them, and they are important. Private philanthropy, for example, has made possible the preservation of many of our wilderness areas, including many of our national parks. On the other hand, I’m uneasy focusing too much on just those stories because it can be paralyzing. These are the kings and the elite. What can the rest of us even hope to accomplish, given our meager resources?
So while I think environmental philanthropy is an important aspect of this story, you have to balance it out with the story of a pool cleaner, Terry Tamminen, who brings the nation forward on climate change, advising Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
BKL: It seems that we always forget that the rich become as wealthy as they do because of us. Because we buy what they sell, whether it’s coal or computer operating systems. And what we buy and accept and support, however passively, costs us so much more than we realize. Conversely, if we stop spending money on goods and services, we have an immediate impact. We forget that we have the power of the wallet. We’re not consistently conscious of our role.
HUMES: You’re right. Doug Tompkins is interesting in this regard because he came to detest the industry that made him so wealthy. He and his wife, Susie, started out so humbly with their little out-of-the-car clothes sales, you’ve got to love that; it’s literally a rags-to-riches tale. But what an utterly unsustainable business in every sense of the word. So first he achieves his wealth by convincing people that perfectly good clothes are no longer fashionable and need to be replaced, and then he starts to bristle at the very idea of doing that and starts putting tags on his clothes saying, don’t buy this unless you really, really need it, and the stockholders say, hey! But he had to have this evolution before he could just bail on the whole enterprise and start giving away his money and undoing the damage he had done. How many of us reach that place, make that calculation, and make up for our sins?
BKL: We spoke earlier about how the economic downturn may slow environmentally adverse development, but it may also make it more difficult for eco barons to do good.
HUMES: It is a mixed bag. Tough economic times slow the sprawl and slow development. People are driving less, driving hybrids, and, therefore, buying less gas, and that’s killing the state, which depends on the gasoline tax. The unintended consequences will always make this a difficult transition. But if science is correct––and everything I’ve learned and read in the process of writing this book tells me it’s probably more dire than most people realize in terms of the effects of greenhouse gases on the environment––then these kinds of changes are going to happen one way or another.
It’s impossible to write about this subject without talking about the urgency of people who understand climate change and other environmental concerns. The urgency they feel in terms of what we need to do as a country and on a worldwide basis is pretty sobering. So, there had to be some discussion of that in the book, even though that’s not its main purpose. I really had to think about that, not because I was reluctant to write about those questions and concerns, but because it turns people off. You have to get around that. Surveys show that most Americans don’t consider climate a critical issue for them, one needing immediate attention. There are so many more pressing concerns, seemingly. And I don’t know what we do about that. I guess we keep the information flowing because it is critical, which is what I learned from talking to all the people in this book. Kassie Siegel, who started the polar bear watch for the Center for Biological Diversity, says our hair is on fire.
BKL: You need to seduce people with compelling stories. And by portraying people, individuals, you make the situation human and, therefore, more manageable and even fascinating rather than repellent. Another intriguing aspect is how difficult it is to convey a fully ecological perspective, to drive home the point that everything is connected. You change one thing, you change everything else. This reality eludes us in everyday matters.
HUMES: Here’s the classic example. Wal-Mart is the biggest company on earth. They have 175 million customers a week, or some absurd figure like that, and they decide, because they want to launch a sustainability program, that they’re going to stop selling gallon jugs of laundry detergent. They’re going to focus on the concentrated kind because you can put the same amount of cleaning power in a ketchup-bottle-size container instead of a gallon jug. And the only reason it’s not been done is because people think they’re getting more when they see that big, heavy container. But they’re not getting more value. So it’s decided, OK, we’re going to have the small laundry bottle, that’s what we’re going to sell, that’s what we’re going to push. And what is the ripple effect? Well, it changes the entire industry because if that’s what Wal-Mart wants, everything has to be retooled. And it means hundreds, if not thousands less cargo vessels traversing the oceans. It means millions of gallons of fuel not burned. The ripple effect of that one decision is enormous. And, yes, that is ecology, too. It’s a decision that makes perfect sense, yet it was resisted for decades because of marketing concerns.
BKL: It is something to contemplate, how commercial interests became the driving force in our society, and how little most of us understand the living world.
HUMES: I grew up in Philadelphia, in the middle of a very urban environment, and I was remembering a fixture of my childhood. We now have this farmer’s market movement, and everyone says, Oh, we’re returning to a local economy. Well, when I was a kid, I lived in a neighborhood of row houses. You have a street running down the front of the buildings and a communal driveway running down the back. And all summer, if not every day, a couple of times a week, a farm truck would drive up and down with produce grown locally. And we called him the huckster, and he would call out, “Jersey tomatoes, 3 pounds for 50 cents,” or whatever the price was. He sold them out of his truck with a little scale and brown paper bags. These luscious peaches, whatever was in season, that’s what he, and several other farmers, would sell. It was a completely local economy and we never really thought about it, that’s just the way things were done, and that wasn’t so long ago. We’re talking about the 1960s. Of course, it disappeared over time, because the family farm began to disappear. So I chuckle now, that this is suddenly being rediscovered by environmentalists. How short our memories are. We think these are amazing new ideas, when really we’re just crawling and scratching our way back to where we were not so long ago.
BKL: If there are people in the future writing about this time and our strange enthrallment to all things corporate, they’ll see this as a bubble, an aberration.
HUMES: More than one person has said that the turning point was Ronald Reagan taking the solar panels off the White House. I’m persuaded that that was an iconic moment.
BKL: You make a striking point when you write about Reagan and his fantasy Star Wars defense project and how the massive amount of money wasted on that debacle could have gone into alternative energy sources we now so desperately need.
HUMES: We practically canonized Reagan. I’m agog at that. Every time you scratch beneath the surface and scrutinize what really went on, you see what a disaster his presidency was. There is where the path began that led us to where we are now. Part of our job in writing about this history is to shake up conventional wisdom and assumptions.
That’s something I learned while writing the evolution book. People believe a lot of things that really are not well supported, and I’m not talking about religious beliefs. One of the things I wrote about in op-eds after Monkey Girl came out is that there are two theories of evolution: one is the one everyone thinks they understand and that they hate, and the other is what the science actually says. All the things people find the most objectionable, it turns out, are just misunderstandings or misinformation, or bad education or propaganda. If you explain evolution coherently, explain what it’s really about, people say, oh, that’s not so bad. I can live with that, what’s all the fuss about? I think that applies equally to the whole history of how we reached the point that we’re at now with energy, climate change, and the environment. A lot of people think they understand it, but they have no idea.
BKL: Will you continue to write about environmental matters?
HUMES: Yes, absolutely. Environmentalism, sustainability, this is the most important story of our time. I intend to devote several future projects to this.
BKL: As we talked about earlier, the trick is to get people to read about these harrowing subjects. Having read many books about the environment, I do feel that books like Eco Barons, narrative nonfiction that tells personal stories, are the most involving, the most effective, the most memorable.
HUMES: I think that the most effective way to reach the broadest group is through stories, the humanization of important topics. You look at the great nonfiction books, and it’s the narrative approach that stands out and endures. Nonfiction works by the giants—Norman Mailer, Tracy Kidder, Truman Capote—endure beyond the issues of the day and retain value for generations of readers. That’s what has always inspired me.
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