Brent Blackwelder, Friends of the Earth chieftain, answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I am president of Friends of the Earth.
What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Friends of the Earth is a national environmental organization celebrating our 35th anniversary this year. We are part of Friends of the Earth International, with member groups in 68 countries. We defend the environment and champion a healthy and just world.
FoE often serves as a pioneer on environmental issues that are later adopted by other groups. For example:
- FoE helped launch the campaign to reform international financial institutions such as the World Bank.
- FoE was the first group to expose the threat of genetically engineered ingredients in our food supply.
- FoE was the first group to establish a watchdog position to monitor the Department of the Interior in the Bush administration.
We believe that economics are the root cause of environmental degradation. In a very real sense we are “environmental accountants.” Our flagship program is Green Scissors, in which we point out wasteful and environmentally harmful spending in the federal budget. In the last two years, we have taken our program to the next level and begun working on state-level budgets.
Our other campaigns also get at the root causes of environmental problems here and around the world.
“Mission accomplished” would consist of having an environmentally sustainable global economy; in other words, nations and transnational corporations would not be gobbling up natural resources faster than they can regenerate. The economy would be powered primarily by renewable energy, industrial agriculture with its inhumane treatment of animals and massive use of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics would be a thing of the past, and pollution with all its devastation and injustice would be largely gone. It would be a world in which we could all breathe easier.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
My day is usually packed with stuff to do. In the morning, I check my voicemail and email. After that my day may be filled up with any or all of the following activities:
- meet with decision makers in Congress and the federal agencies;
- meet with other environmental groups;
- give speeches or appear on panel discussions;
- talk to the press or do a press conference;
- call major donors or write fundraising proposals; or
- conduct strategy sessions with staff.
Toward the end of the day I will make and return phone calls and review the daily mail, email, and faxes, and take note of the news of the day. I strive to keep an open-door policy, so that if my staff needs to talk with me about something they consider important I always try to make time for them.
The day does not stop for me at 5:00 p.m. In the evenings on several nights a week I often attend fundraisers and receptions. For example, last week on Tuesday it was a dinner and panel discussion by the Interfaith Religious Partnership on the Anacostia River; on Wednesday the annual dinner of the Natural Resources Council of America, which honored Ted Turner; and on Thursday a fundraiser for the Environmental Leadership Project. No rest for the weary!
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
In the words of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, “What a long and strange trip it’s been.” I did not set out to work in the environmental arena. I received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Maryland and an M.A. in math from Yale University. I thought my whole life would be devoted to teaching at the college level. For two years (1966-68), I was chairman of the math department at Philander Smith College, a black college in Little Rock, Ark. Everything seemed to be going as I envisioned it would, until that fateful day back in 1970. It was the first Earth Day — by the end of the day my life would change forever, after I heard Friends of the Earth and the League of Conservation Voters make presentations.
I began by doing volunteer work for each group. Little did I know at the time that this would start me off on a 35-year career in environmental advocacy, helping to start organizations like American Rivers and serving on the boards of others like the League of Conservation Voters. In 1994, I became president of Friends of the Earth.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
I have hundreds of emails. I run through these daily and read all the in-house ones first as well as any others that are important and leave the rest unopened. Because my name appears on so many documents, I have become a prime target for spammers. We have a filter system in place, but a lot still gets through. So if anyone needs a new mortgage, I have an email I can forward them.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Here are two thorns currently in my side:
Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the House majority leader, has authored legislation to repeal the Clean Air Act and runs the House of Representatives so as to prevent progress from being made in cleaning up our air, land, and water. The Hammer, as he is known, does all he can to prevent pro-environment amendments from ever coming to a vote on the floor of the House. He has brought environmental progress in the House to a halt.
Deputy Secretary Steve Griles, the No. 2 person at the Interior Department, has been the key person opening up America’s public lands to oil, coal, and other mineral extraction and has violated his conflict-of-interest agreements. He has been receiving about $1 million over these four years from his former firm, which deals in energy.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
I found some members of Congress exceptionally fine and understanding people. To name a few:
- the late Republican Congressman Hamilton Fish of New York;
- former Congressman Bob Edgar, who now heads the National Council of Churches;
- former Congressman Berkeley Bedell of Iowa, who with Edgar helped reform water policy; and
- former Congressmen Mo Udall and John Seiberling, who did extraordinary work to protect Alaska and many magnificent areas.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and now live in Washington, D.C. I traded cold for humidity.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
The worsening air and water pollution in the 1960s really concerned me but not until the first Earth Day in 1970 did I connect with two organizations that showed me many ways to make a difference, including how to lobby Congress.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Having to testify before the House Appropriations Committee on dams in 1972, when the committee tried to humiliate me as a witness and suggest that I had no right to testify against the worthy canal and dredging projects they were considering. I was young and had minimal experience testifying in front of a hostile committee, and I let them intimidate me.
What’s been the best?
Defeating the 1978 rivers and harbors bill full of disastrous projects for the Army Corps of Engineers by lobbying three straight days and two nights without stop at the end of the session. They were trying to sneak over a billion dollars worth of river-destroying projects through under titles like “The Emergency Pothole Repair Bill” or “A Bill to Rename a Federal Office Building after Congressman Wagoner.” This marked a real change in momentum in reforming water policy in the United States.
What’s on your desk right now?
So that’s what’s underneath all these papers! My desk!
The things I am concerned with right now are:
- how to keep Congress from passing the disastrous energy and transportation bills and from cutting funding for environmental programs;
- how to raise money for our major campaigns at FoE for the coming year;
- how to get the Homeland Security Department to take seriously the lax conditions at chemical and nuclear facilities and the problems with hazardous cargo; and
- how to come up with new strategies to reform the tax code and to change the lending practices of international financial institutions.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
The use of jet skis really rubs me the wrong way. These machines have destroyed the tranquility and the swimming conditions of the lakes I used to enjoy growing up. Far too many jet ski operators are oblivious to the noise, the massive water pollution they create, and the hazard they pose to sailboats, canoes, and wildlife. Thoughtful people should not take their recreation at the expense of others’ recreation.
Who is your environmental hero?
Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold provided the underlying challenge to modern industrial civilization and today serve as an inspiration to me. Thoreau provided the case for simpler living, and he was one of the first to write about how dams wreck rivers. In his A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold described the urgent need for a land ethic — how we humans relate to the land.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
President George Bush, who is the most anti-environmental president we have had this century. This is not a partisan judgment. Under two Republican presidents, Bush senior and Richard Nixon, important environmental progress was made; but Bush Jr. has put polluters in charge of agencies and weakened protections on more land than Teddy Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton were able to protect.
What’s your environmental vice?
I have to admit that I use a clothes dryer and do not hang my laundry out on the line. Also I eat desserts with a ton of sugar. I bake a lot of them myself.
How do you get around?
I am a very big advocate of public transportation. I ride my bike and the subway to work every day. For intercity travel on the East Coast, I always take the train to New York. FoE is pushing for dramatically improved intercity rail passenger service so that people have genuine transportation choices.
What are you reading these days?
Carl Hiaasen, Skinny Dip; Jerry Dennis, The Living Great Lakes; John Herman Randall Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind (a 750-page history of the best ideas of the 20th century in music, art, literature, science, and philosophy).
What’s your favorite meal?
I enjoy pasta dishes, corn on the cob, and fruit cobblers. I also make a delicious Irish whiskey cake and a dense chocolate mousse cake. These can give you a boost any time of the day or night.
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
When not reading Grist (great interviews with John Kerry and Andre Heinz, by the way) I read The Washington Post and The New York Times, watch CNN, and listen to NPR. I am not a 24/7 news junkie, but try to keep abreast of all breaking environmental news.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I am a tree hugger. Clear-cutting of forests should be outlawed and only selective cutting allowed. We cannot as a nation afford to lose any more magnificent ancient forests. There are so few left that they should be off-limits to logging.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
For vacation, I like Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakeshore in northern Michigan. In the Washington area where I live, the remarkable Potomac River and its gorge just outside the city is my favorite.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Get the ecological price right on every product (i.e., no more shoving health and environmental costs off on society, future generations, and the rest of nature). Today the price of oil and coal does not reflect, for example, the cost of the military needed to safeguard Middle East oil or the long-term consequences of the Martian landscape left from blowing the tops off West Virginia mountains to get at the coal.
Who do you think (not hope) is going to be elected president in November?
Kerry will win in a landslide because people concerned about health, the environment, civil liberties, social justice, war and peace, etc., are mobilizing in a way I have never seen in 35 years of work. I also serve as president of Friends of the Earth Action, a non-tax-deductible organization with a bipartisan PAC. The Friends of the Earth Action PAC has endorsed Kerry, who has an outstanding environmental record — 92 percent lifetime average on the League of Conservation Voters scorecard. In contrast, Bush is too close to corporate polluters and has attempted to weaken protections for clean air and clean water to benefit his big campaign contributors.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
I am an environmentalist. That means I aspire to environmentally sustainable living. That is why I do not drive to work, why I purchase green power for our house, and why I try to purchase organically grown food. I try to practice what I preach.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Protecting open space, wilderness, and ancient forests. As a movement, we have increased the number of protected national scenic rivers from eight in 1973 to more than 2,000 today. Major wilderness areas have been set aside in Alaska and the lower 48 states. State and national land trusts are protecting more and more critical parcels of land for future generations.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
Changing global energy use. We know that it’s technically possible to run the global economy largely on efficiency, solar, wind, and other renewable energy, but we have not produced the strategy to overcome the power of big oil and coal, which now dominate both Congress and the White House. The tragic irony is that global climate change, sparked by the massive use of fossil fuels, could undo the great gains cited above in protecting important natural areas. These areas possess diverse plant and animal life, all of which could disappear with a major shift in climate.
What important environmental issue is frequently overlooked?
The environmental movement does not pay enough attention to the tax code, which today rewards big polluters. The tax code is the biggest driver of behavior and should be written so as to reward clean, renewable energy businesses, for example, rather than dishing out subsidies and exemptions to oil companies and gas-guzzling SUVs. Almost unbelievably, urban assault vehicles like Hummers are now eligible for $100,000 tax write-offs for small businesses.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Fats Domino played at our high school prom, so I would pick him and his band. The lyrics on many of the old rock and roll songs were pretty superficial. An exception is Paul McCartney’s remarkable Yesterday. Today I most like to hear the greatest classical pianists playing Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Mozart.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
I don’t watch that much TV, but do follow Duke basketball closely. I like the documentaries that Bill Moyers pulls together.
As for movies, my wife and I go to theaters near us several times a month. I like submarine movies — I don’t think there has ever been a bad submarine movie. Escapes and high seas adventure movies are among my favorites — Master and Commander and The Great Escape are especially memorable.
Mac or PC?
Mac at home; PC at the office.
What are you happy about right now?
Personally, I have a wonderful family of thoughtful, caring people. In broader terms, the amazing cleanup of a lot of pollution and the protection of some of the world’s most magnificent rivers has brought great joy to me. This is something for all of us to cheer about.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Vote their environmental values in every election at every level. We need a better group of elected public officials at all levels of government in order to progress.