An interview with Hollywood eco-crusader Laurie David
Those who are quick to snub Hollywood environmental activists as dabblers in eco-chic or peddlers of a pet cause would likely have a change of heart after shooting the breeze with Laurie David.
Photo: Tierney Gearon.
David began her career booking comedians for David Letterman and met her husband Larry David — co-creator of Seinfeld and creator and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm — when he was a no-name angling for a five-minute spot in her lineup. She went on to produce comedy specials for HBO and MTV and develop sitcoms for 20th Century Television. More than a decade into her Hollywood career, David turned her Tinseltown savvy toward a very different kind of client — the environmental movement.
After signing on as a member of the board of trustees of the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1999, David began holding influential eco-salons in her home to educate the leading lights of Hollywood, persuading them to open both their minds and their pocketbooks. She has since helped to raise millions of dollars for green organizations and convinced everyone from Tom Hanks to Jack Black to hoist the environmental cause up the flagpole of mega-stardom. And she has worked to promote fuel efficiency among the masses by producing catchy anti-SUV ads for the Detroit Project, a campaign she cofounded with Arianna Huffington.
Still, David is the first to admit that her mainstream brand of environmentalism does not require sacrificing a Hollywood standard of living. Though she wouldn’t be caught dead driving anything with lower gas mileage than a Prius, she offers no apologies for her super-sized house, her extensive wardrobe, or her frequent-flyer lifestyle. It’s time, she says, for environmentalism to lose its purer-than-thou attitude.
Grist caught up with David at the Peninsula Hotel in New York when she was in town to moderate a MoveOn.org town-hall meeting on global warming keynoted by Al Gore.
Your husband made a hilarious speech at an NRDC event in which he described his early impressions of you as “a materialistic, narcissistic, superficial, bosomy woman from Long Island … But then after a few short months I began to sense that something had changed. She started peppering her conversation with words like ozone layer, sustainable forestry, and toxic runoff … what was now all too painfully obvious was that I, Larry David, the shallowest man in the world, had married an environmentalist.”
Tell us about your eco-epiphany.
Photo: Alex Berliner.
I sat down to breakfast with Bobby Kennedy and I got up from that table and I have not been the same since. Alan Horn and Rob Reiner, who were at Castle Rock where Seinfeld was being produced, had been involved with the NRDC for many years. I told them I had inklings about wanting to learn about the environment and asked if they could recommend a group to get involved with. They said you need to meet Bobby Kennedy and [NRDC President] John Adams. So when they came out to Los Angeles, they set up a breakfast for Larry and I to meet them.
When Bobby talks about the environment, he frames it like a civil-rights issue, and it is. That resonated with me. It rearranged me completely.
So what did he say?
Nothing specific that I can remember. It was like 10 years ago. I’m sure we talked about global warming and rivers and oceans and pollution and pesticides and toxins. What I remember is the mood.
The gist was that everybody should have the right to clean air and water the way they should have the right to affordable health care and racial equality. What’s more basic than the right to health? One in four black kids in Harlem has asthma because of pollution — now that’s a civil-rights issue. It’s an environmental-justice issue. A human issue.
I walked away from that breakfast and I said, OK, forget TV producing. My full-time job is now to work on behalf of the NRDC and to help them do the work that needs to be done.
Your work seems to have crescendoed in the last year or two in terms of galvanizing Hollywood, raising money, and bringing these issues into the mainstream.
Well, I spent the first two years educating myself. I started reading all of these books. There was a big pile of recommendations — a John Muir book, a forestry book by Todd Wilkinson. Mark Hertsgaard’s book Earth Odyssey was also a major influence. I started combing the newspaper for environment stories and blocking out all the other news. I started going to briefings for NRDC. I’d have lunch with the oceans people and they would teach me about oceans issues. Then I would read about sprawl issues. And so on.
Then I started doing events at my house to brief other people. I would pick a topic and Bobby would come out. We did a session on how the opposite side was using PR firms and misinformation and false scientists and false advertising and greenwashing. We did a session on pesticides. I would invite 50 people and 50 turned into 100 people and then it turned into 150 people.
So is your mission to draw ever-bigger crowds to the environmental cause?
It’s not so much a mission as a gut instinct. Soon after that first breakfast, I had seen Bobby speak at someone’s house and there were about 12 people there. I was just horrified that he was speaking to 12 people. I said, this man should be speaking to thousands of people. So I created this event called “Earth to L.A.” which we just did last month.
[Laughter.] Earth to L.A.!
That was Larry’s title. There were thousands of people. It was reported in Variety as the biggest industry turnout since the Oscars. There were three motion picture presidents there, a television network president, every agency there. And we raised $3 million in one night for NRDC.
On a personal level, how did your life change as a result of these experiences?
My philosophy about this stuff is, it’s not all or nothing. A lot of people have that attitude: So you drive a fuel-efficient car, what about your giant house? What about this, what about that? I just got asked that on Paula Zahn and I was like, I’m not looking for perfection in any of this. We’re an imperfect people. But I really feel strongly that if everyone did one thing, we would be well on our way to a better planet. And I try to do more than one thing in my personal life.
What else beyond the Prius?
Of course, I’m obsessed with telling my kids, no long showers and don’t run the water too much when you brush your teeth. I always use both sides of the paper for printing and faxing. I recycle obsessively. And since I get a lot of clothes dry-cleaned, I take a garment bag to the dry cleaner so I don’t waste the disposable plastic covers.
But why not shrink your wardrobe or move to a smaller house, given that less dry-cleaning would do more for the environment than saving the plastic bags? Or that the energy saved in heating and cooling a smaller house could be more substantial than what you save driving a Prius?
Everybody has to strike their own balance between how they want to live and how they can reduce their impact. If the environmental movement wants to be mainstream, it has to lose its purer-than-thou, all-or-nothing attitude. It has to be pragmatic enough to bring everyone onboard. If perfection is the measure, we will fail to appeal to anyone but the fringe.
Sure, I have a big house, but I use it to gather hundreds of people for eco-salons. That’s not to justify the size of it, but it does create opportunities to spread knowledge and raise money for the greater environmental good. Sure, I could always cut down on clothes and dry-cleaning, but the point is not necessarily what more you could do — we could all do more — the point is that we do our part. And even with the house and clothes, I think I can do, and am doing, my part.
Photo: Alex Berliner.
Has environmentalism hit home more with you than with your husband?
Larry is an accidental environmentalist, or I should call him a reluctant environmentalist. I drag him into everything I do. He made the wife on his show work for the NRDC. That was like a little gift he gave me, and every time the NRDC is mentioned on the show I am super nice to him for that whole day. He doesn’t have to buy me jewelry or anything. Just mention the NRDC as much as possible and I’m happy as can be.
What advice do you have for people who are trying to convert their friends and family to the environmental cause?
Set an example — practice it yourself.
Larry is forced to be educated on all of these issues because the eco-salons are right outside his bedroom door. And you know, the truth is that once your eyes are opened, once you get educated on this stuff, it’s really hard to go backward. Mercury is a great example. Larry knows all about mercury now, and it’s ruined his life because he can’t order tuna-fish sandwiches for lunch anymore without fear of brain damage. He wrote a skit about it.
Tell me about your efforts to get brands like NRDC and Toyota Prius placed within sitcoms. You got a Prius on Curb Your Enthusiasm, for instance.
Yeah, I got Larry to drive it and he put it on his show. I nag my friends who produce shows. My friend Howard Gordon is one of the producers on 24 and I got him to buy a Prius and put it on the show. J.J. Abrams put it on Alias. I try to convince people that this is smart and they ultimately agree and use their power to help spread the word.
Is it wrong to send the message to consumers that we can buy our way out of environmental problems?
It’s more complicated than that. I think that we have a tremendous job ahead of us on that front because we’re such a consuming public. Our waste levels in this country are astronomical, not to mention the whole consumer attitude that things shouldn’t be reused, everything’s disposable, nobody is responsible for anything.
Is your mission mostly consumer-oriented — to turn the tidal wave of consumer energy in this country in the direction of environmental good?
You’ve described it much loftier than I’ve thought about it. I’m a product of popular culture. I used to work for the David Letterman show, I used to manage comedians, I was a TV producer, so I come out of that world. For me, one of the things I try to do is to take the wonk out of all of this, bring it down to a very simple thing that everybody can relate to. And face it, consumerism is a — if not the — common denominator in this country.
So it’s about time the environmental movement gets some marketing savvy. The old image of the environmentalist as this granola-eating tree hugger is over. It has to be over for the message to reach soccer moms and factory workers and anyone who drives a car or eats tuna.
Humor, of course, is also key. The woe-is-me stuff can be a major turnoff, which is why the Grist slogan is “Gloom and doom with a sense of humor.”
That’s great. The “Earth to L.A.” event is all comedy, music, and message. Larry performed his tuna monologue at this thing. Last time I had Ben Stiller, this time I had the guys from The Daily Show do some funny pieces. Will Ferrell did an impersonation of George Bush trying to save a rainbow. Jack Black shot a piece for me.
Photo: Alex Berliner.
Tom Hanks says, “Jack Black is our first guest but he’s not here yet. He’s devoted to the environment, let’s see on the GPS system why he’s late.” And of course he’s at a gas station filling up his Hummer. The numbers are spinning and it’s up to like $450 and it’s half full. He finally drives out of the gas station, saying, “I’m late for this fundraiser, I’ve got to get out of here, I’ll have to leave with it half full.” So he drives out, he’s going up the street, and the car runs out of gas halfway up the block.
[Laughter.] Speaking of Hummers, what are your thoughts about the Governator?
Well, I’m in a major wait-and-see mode, because [Arnold Schwarzenegger] seems to care about these issues, and I adore Terry Tamminen, who is his EPA chief. The governor has actually been supportive of this legislation that I’m working on to allow single-occupant hybrid cars in the carpool lane as an incentive for people to buy them. That said, why isn’t he driving a hybrid car?
I’ve heard that you pull up alongside Hummer drivers on the highway and yell at them.
I’m very confrontational. I work at the grass-tops but I also work at the grass-roots. You might see me on the corner leafleting and yelling at people on the highway, but I also have access to high-level people, so I work from both sides. It’s gotten to the point where my kids in the back seat of my car see an SUV coming and they say, “Mommy, please! No! Don’t say anything!” They’re horrified. But I believe in peer pressure. Look how peer pressure has worked for people not wearing fur coats or smoking. We have to spread the message that it isn’t cool anymore.
What are your thoughts about John Kerry?
John Kerry has been a great environmentalist for a really long time. He clearly understands this dependence on oil, he has an energy plan, and he’s been working and fighting for fuel-economy standards for a long time. On energy and the environment, there could not be a better candidate.
Who are the people in Hollywood that you’ve really been impressed with on these issues?
Roland Emmerich really gets it. He just did more for this movement than anybody who’s come before him.
The director of The Day After Tomorrow?
It’s fantastic. I think it’s going to be a tipping point. I think people are going to look back [and point to it as] when the national discussion got serious on this issue. They’re going to point to this movie the way they pointed to The Day After for the nuclear-freeze movement and Silkwood and Erin Brockovich and all these other movies that have come out of Hollywood and had a major impact on the national discourse.
What about the climate scientists who say it distor–
Blah, blah, blah, blah. Meanwhile, a major motion picture got made on this topic and millions and millions of people are going to see it. It makes this big, confusing concept — global warming — emotional and human. As far as I’m concerned, slam dunk.
And real things have already happened as a result of this movie, like the incredible media response. When Time magazine says, “the movie is science fiction, but global warming is real,” it gets people thinking. And the Weather Channel, the most trusted weather authority in America, has hired a full-time warming expert to work for the channel because of this film. They’ve declared the problem real.
Are you an optimist?
Let me turn that question around: Are you an optimist?
I don’t know a single environmentalist that is not an optimist. When I realized that, that made me very hopeful. Everyone I know — even people who have been working on nuclear issues for 20 years — they’re optimists. The truth is we can solve a lot of these problems. These are all man-made problems and they can be man-solved. That’s the good news.
But we have a reputation for being so gloomy.
Yeah, but that’s a myth. How could we keep on fighting if we weren’t optimistic? We’d just give up.