Grist chats with Andre Heinz, environmental activist and stepson of John Kerry
Some may cry nepotism when they see Andre Heinz, the middle son of Teresa Heinz Kerry, take to the podium as one of the leading spokespeople on the environment for John Kerry’s presidential campaign, but his ascent is hardly without merit. True, he has deliberately steered clear of a career inside the Beltway, so in some senses he is new to the political scene. But having grown up in Washington, D.C., the son of former senator John Heinz (R-Penn.) and now the stepson of Kerry, he is as conversant on the inner workings of Capitol Hill as he is on the environmental principles he’s been studying and working to implement for more than a decade.
Since graduating from college in 1992, Heinz has earned a master’s degree in environmental studies from the Yale School of Forestry and spent years working closely with environmental luminaries including Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and William McDonough. He’s become a student of the “industrial ecology” movement, which aims to shift global industry and economics toward sustainable strategies. For the past six years, Heinz has worked in Europe for The Natural Step, which advises government entities including the E.U. and the U.N. and companies ranging from Nike to McDonald’s to BP on how to make their business models sustainable.
In the first long-form interview he has given to any media outlet — three months on the campaign trail, he says, has been more than enough time to come to distrust the American press — Heinz spoke with Grist about his equal devotion to his Republican roots and the Kerry campaign and his life as a self-proclaimed “resource pig.”
You’ve been making regular campaign appearances where you have the opportunity to address the environmental problems of today with broad audiences. How does it feel to be on such a prominent platform?
It’s both exciting and frustrating. It’s exciting to try to represent the really progressive and, I think, farsighted ideas that you find in the proposals of the Kerry-Edwards platform, such as the plan for 20 percent renewable electricity by the year 2020 and aggressive proposals for becoming oil independent in the short term. That alone is amazing — not to mention reengaging the world with the Kyoto Protocol, and protecting our wild areas, our forests, and our fisheries. It’s a thrill to represent candidates who understand the real nature of nature, the real value — intrinsic, subjective, and objective.
These are candidates who understand that by doing one thing you help achieve another goal. By having a 2020 goal you’re also helping create the clean-technology markets of tomorrow. You’re helping to make America better able to be a moral leader in the world.
And the frustration?
The frustration comes from not being able to say, at this stage, everything that might come to mind. You kind of want to promise the moon, at least I do, because you sense the urgency surrounding the challenges facing sustainable development in America. But I can only talk about what the Kerry-Edwards platform has thought out and proposed.
What are concrete environmental achievements that Kerry could make happen as president?
If he could do the 2020 plan, succeed there, and become independent of imported oil, that would be his biggest achievement. It would transform the economy, moving it closer to a carbon-free, hydrogen-based system. It would address climate-change concerns and national security. It would gain us allies internationally. We could help developing nations materialize by leapfrogging into clean technology, without going through dirty industrial cycles. It would be gigantic.
How would Kerry handle the formidable industry forces he would face as president, which would be far stronger than any he has faced as a senator from a liberal, pro-environment state?
Those pro-industry forces aren’t so much a threat as an opportunity, and John understands that as well as anybody. I think he will be able to bridge the divide between environment and industry as president. He’s the one to drive home the message that moving toward sustainability is pro-industry. He knows how to make that argument and build support around it so people realize that they really do win, rather than some win and some lose. That’s why I get so damned mad at the Bush administration for wasting time. The longer we wait, the more we’ll fall behind our foreign competitors in the global market for green technologies, the harder the decisions will have to be, the more people will lose. We’ll have big losers — not just from an environmental standpoint, but the costs to industry will get increasingly severe.
Do you plan to play a role in the administration if John Kerry wins the election?
Right now I’m focused only on what happens between now and November, and I can’t predict beyond that. I’m in a position where, arguably, I could have some influence on a potential Kerry administration with regard to the question surrounding sustainability. Whether or not that translates into my having a direct, public role would remain to be seen. The only thing I feel first and foremost is that I would never want to have influence solely due to who I am. Access, fine. But I would want influence due solely to the merits of the ideas.
Have you always — or ever — been interested in entering politics?
I’ve always shunned politics because I grew up in Washington. I did not like the people I often ran into in D.C. who were there clearly because they were wide-eyed and titillated at being around the power center. I didn’t like the sycophants, I didn’t like people with hidden agendas. I didn’t know how my dad could [deal with] that. With my father, I thought, “Here’s a great public servant. Here’s a guy who’s got a stomach of steel so he can put up with the nonsense and keep his eye on the prize and do the right thing.” I don’t think I have that sort of patience.
After your experience on the campaign trail so far, have you become more or less interested in going into politics?
The nice thing is that on the campaign trail, you meet normal people. When we did the Boston-to-Oregon trip after the convention — on train, on boat, on plane — we’d meet the normal, good folks who come out. You read the hope in their eyes, you read the concern in their face, you feel it in their hand, and there’s no BS there.
I always thought that even though I was kind of built like a politician — I feel comfortable speaking in public, and I spend a lot of my free time thinking about making things better — it wasn’t for me. But on the campaign trail you’re often confronted with reminders of why you’re doing it. That said, I don’t know yet whether I am more or less likely to go into politics.
Are you a Republican like your father?
I grew up a Republican. But now I actually decline to state. In Pennsylvania you have several options; one is you check a box saying “decline to state.”
As a spokesperson for the Kerry campaign, and someone helping to pull in blue votes, does that make you a Democrat?
No. I’ve always had the philosophy that you vote for the person, not the party. The assumption is that you can only associate with people in the same party, and I think that is a very divisive set of rules to live by.
Having been raised Republican, I always wanted to make sure the Republican Party had people that were talking some common sense. The Republican Party today is not at all the Republican Party that I observed growing up — it is extremist, liberal, dangerous, fundamentalist, naive, romanticist. They are as scary as I could possibly imagine. They’re not conservative, they’re not prudent. Quite frankly, they’re not Republican.
How big of a role will the environment play in this election?
I think more than in previous elections. But not as big a role as it could have if the Bush administration hadn’t been so masterful at rolling back all of these hard-fought environmental victories and keeping it all under the radar. Over the past two years there has been better coverage of what is going on, and people are connecting the dots better, but still so much is untouched. If our worst fears are true about the Cheney energy task force, for instance, and if that hidden information had come to light, how might that have affected the election? The effect would have been huge.
What concerns you most about Bush’s environmental rollbacks?
People often say the biggest concern is that Bush puts industry interests first at the expense of public interest. But I would clarify it this way: Bush does the bidding of certain industries and certain voices within industry. There are some who would be ready to make the move toward sustainability with the right leadership or a few incentives.
More importantly, for all industry, Bush is their gravedigger. He’s the worst business leader as a president we’ve had. He sticks his head in the sand. He doesn’t realize that the markets of tomorrow are already being defined and will continue to be increasingly defined by the indisputable fact that we have fewer and fewer resources, and more and more pollution on our planet, and the dynamic is being accelerated as a function of more people with higher standards of living at high levels of certain kinds of materialization worldwide.
What would four more years of Bush mean?
It would mean another four years of Americans dragging their asses with respect to modernization. Imagine the rest of the world gets to a level four years from now where they go, OK, we’ve got huge purchase orders for clean technologies from India and China, the economies of the other countries have grown. America is all of a sudden the one that can provide only the dirty services, only the dirty products.
Four more years of Bush would mean less and less regulation; more and more localized pollution; more and more globalized pollution; more and more externalization of problems in other nations; less and less international goodwill.
Do you think there are inevitable ethical compromises that come with the role of a politician?
I don’t think there are any inevitable ethical compromises. I think it’s inevitable that you will be faced with choices, and one choice could be to compromise yourself, and the other is not.
I would think, though, that the theater of politics — the media, the pageantry, the oversimplification of the messaging that’s required — inevitably presents ethical conflicts. You are forced to oversimplify things.
That’s precisely why I hardly ever do interviews. Most of these folks want a sound bite, and it drives me bananas. I can’t believe how in America today we’ve gotten so far away, as a culture in general, from making time during our day to actually listen and think. It’s an American problem. In Sweden, where I’ve spent considerable time these last five years, the political process is so different, and one of the ways you can sense that is the reporting and coverage of it. There is a consistency between how it’s covered and how it’s conducted. If you were to just repeat sound bites all the time and name-call and lie, you would be considered a Neanderthal back from the deep freeze. Here it is par for the course. And it’s very sad because what in the hell are people making their decisions based upon?
Kerry seems to have gone out of his way to avoid oversimplification, to talk in shades of gray — and of course he gets slammed by the other side for flip-flopping.
Despite the pressures, despite the pundits, despite the hammering in the press that he takes for not slinging crap and mud back at the other side, for not being exciting, despite it all he doesn’t buckle. He believes that people deserve to be told clearly what they’re being offered. I think he believes in people making informed choices and taking responsibility for those choices.
You’ve made the environment the central focus of your career. Where did it begin?
It all started back in 1992 when I graduated from college. It was no mystery to me then that the environment was an incredibly important issue. It’s something most young people understand inherently, intuitively — that the conditions are getting worse and worse. At that time, there was an increasing focus on global and environmental problems. There had been a lot of talk about the impact of tuna fishing on dolphins, about climate change, endangered species, deforestation. For me, as an English major at Georgetown University, I thought, what am I going to do about this?
I got involved with Campus Green Vote, which was a nonprofit, nonpartisan campaign organized around the idea of using the environment as the impetus for getting students to vote.
Did you stay on this political track?
Not exactly. After that, I kind of knocked on doors of environmental organizations in Washington and met a lot of really smart people who were doing great work, but none of it really spoke to me. It wasn’t until early 1993 when I met Bill McDonough, the green architect. It clicked. I’d finally met someone who could articulate a way of seeing the world and its problems in the way that I felt. I felt something was missing, and he could explain why. We have a design problem, as he puts it. We’re designing without principles. We are taking, making, and wasting things according to a very linear, cradle-to-grave design process, which is not something that fits very well within the natural word.
And you began to work with him?
I was a project assistant for Bill for the next year, working on things ranging from sustainable community planning for one of the Lakota reservations, to working with city planning for Chattanooga, Tenn., to collaborating with different ecological thinkers like Paul Hawken and the chemist Michael Braungart on various forms of industrial ecology. It was really fast exposure in one year.
Later, in 1994, Paul Hawken gave me a call and said, “You might consider coming to Boston for this meeting. It’s the organization of The Natural Step. I think you’d like it.” There was never a truer word spoken. I went to the meeting and was just completely jazzed. It was the same feeling I had when I met Bill, but more so. The same sense, the same logic, the same click. It’s an attractive pedagogy based on basic scientific principles — a transparent and an intellectually tight way to recruit people into a constructive dialogue around sustainable design, investment, planning, and thinking.
At that point Paul asked if I wanted to work for him. I spent a year as a research assistant on the book he wrote with Amory and Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism. [Editor's note: Read an excerpt from Natural Capitalism, about making the shift toward a sustainable economy.]
Thereafter I decided to go to grad school at the Yale School of Forestry. I had been working with visionary folk on the environment, but I didn’t have a very traditional grounding in the field. I thought that the mainstream viewed them, in many cases, as fringe. I thought that if they had certain kinds of resistance to their ideas, it would be even harder for me without having some kind of credential.
How did you take to academia after all the visionary work?
At the end of the two-year experience, I basically concluded that what I had been learning from the other folks was even more valid. So I went to work for The Natural Step in Sweden as the director of international affairs. It was a combination of management and administration and communication. It was a really cutting-edge place to be. After two and a half years of that, I decided I wanted to get deeper into the actual work of The Natural Step, which is to say the advising services that we perform for governments and companies. So I’ve been consulting with them in Europe and the States and traveling a lot, up until the last several months, when I’ve been strictly campaign-oriented.
What do you see as the biggest weaknesses within the environmental movement?
I think to some extent we can be our own greatest enemy. There are a lot of egos in the environmental community. It has been a field launched by charismatic personalities because these are people who had to go it alone — they had to stand up like Davids to the Goliath, in the face of huge odds. But big egos don’t fit so well in the same room.
We also tend to believe that if you have any experience or perspective that is grounded in a mainstream business or public-policy perspective, that you are incompatible with the environmental movement. Because of that we organize ourselves sub-optimally. We tend not to have good management skills. On the whole, we don’t actually understand the benefits of marketing, financial planning, communication, legal protection, and all the things you need nowadays to maximize your time and power and money down the line.
Does your environmental concern come from your family?
Absolutely. It’s hard for me to figure out where the policy and political talk started and stopped. We talked about everything all the time as a family, about the world, people, what’s going on.
I remember the environment coming up as a topic in the mid- to late ’80s and early ’90s. For example, dolphin-safe tuna. This was an issue close to us because the Heinz company owned Starkist and we were thinking, wait a second, what’s happening here? Is Heinz unintentionally involved in decimating the dolphin population? I remember my mom talking to the then-CEO about it.
We know your mother is an active environmentalist. Did your father have as much of an influence on your environmental interests as your mom did?
Yes, from two perspectives. It was something we talked about together from a policy standpoint, but he also taught me an appreciation of the outdoors. We fished together, walked together; he loved spending time on the farm and very much respected the value of nature and wilderness.
What about you personally? Are your personal habits environmentally sensitive?
Not on average. My level of materialization because of my income and consumption choices is much higher than the average person, so if you look at it that way I’m just a resource pig. With the amount of traveling that I do — not just with the campaign, but traveling back and forth to the U.S. — I will spend most of my afterlife in carbon debt hell. I am off the charts.
But for the most part I try to be mindful and conscious when I make purchase decisions or investment decisions — from organic foods to compact fluorescents to taking public transportation to an investment portfolio.
There are certainly times when I say, you know what? I’m just going to do something that’s really fun. Now it’s just awful for the environment, but it’s fun. Maybe I’ll take a two-stroke motorboat out onto the lake, or drive a snowmobile or a sports car. The good news is that it’s a motivating factor to try and pursue greener technologies so you can still have your zero-to-60-in-under-five-seconds but you do it on hydrogen. I would love to see someone create a quiet, biodiesel, hybrid-drive snowmobile.
Do you drive a sports car?
For practical purposes, I don’t use a car. In Europe, I just take the bus and the train everywhere. I do have a two-seater gas-guzzler sports car, but I only drive it like once a year.
What make is it?
None of your business! [Laughter.] The reason I don’t want to go into these details is that it brings attention to the wrong issues. I’m wary of cleaner-than-thou, holier-than-thou discussions. The central concern should not be about personal virtue, but how you are trying to change the world and whether your theories of change hold water.
Still, we are the consumers who are driving the demand for clean products and moving sustainable markets. Shouldn’t we be held accountable for our personal decisions?
Sure, and I try to do my part in that. Let’s put it this way: I’m somewhat ashamed to have a gas guzzler, but I’m relieved that I never get a chance to drive it. [Laughter.] My point is there are still those who say you can’t talk to the environmental issue unless you live in a cave and wear a hair shirt. But I’m not sure that that’s the best poster child for recruiting people to this movement. The future of the environmental movement is going to be less about asking people to change their lifestyle, and more about changing the rules that cause the footprint.
In other words, we have a design problem.
Yes, we have a design problem. Once you get that, once you see it, once you know it, it really alters the way you think. You always want to relate everything that’s being done back to the overall question: Is this moving us closer to or farther from the goals for a sustainable society? What we need to do is get our leaders in industry and policy to see that. And despite the tremendous obstacles posed by the current administration, I think we’re on our way.
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