With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I am deputy director of the Energy and Environment Program at Public Citizen. We have campaigns on energy (fighting nuclear power and electricity deregulation), against the privatization of our water supplies, and on food safety (fighting food irradiation and other methods of industrialized food production that negatively affect people’s health and the environment). I work primarily on the food campaign.
What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Public Citizen is a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress, the executive branch, and the courts. I think “mission accomplished” for PC would entail many specific policy changes — we cover issues ranging from campaign finance reform to international trade agreements to prescription drug safety — but overall it would be a government that is not driven by corporate interests but is transparent and accountable to citizens.
For the food campaign that I work on, mission accomplished would mean that we had a strong government meat inspection program to prevent contamination of food, rather than being told to accept technological fixes like food irradiation to zap the problem at the end of the line. We would also have regulatory agencies that acknowledged the way food is raised really does matter, instead of the current attitude which is that an industrialized food supply is a foregone conclusion and we just have to learn to deal with the consequences.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I majored in environmental science in college, decided I wasn’t cut out to be a scientist, went to grad school for environmental policy, and then worked for 3.5 years for a group called the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice. CHEJ offers organizing and technical assistance to grassroots groups working on environmental issues in their community. I did a lot of editing and writing there, and spent a lot of time trying to help local activists translate science and government agency-speak into English that they could use to work in their communities. It was a great first job because on any given day I would talk about stuff ranging from dioxin, sewage sludge, recycling, and tire fires to how to run an effective community meeting.
I came to PC in January 2001 to work on the food irradiation campaign because I wanted to try working on one issue for a while. I was definitely nervous about “leaving” enviro issues, but it’s remarkable how similar food issues are to environmental issues — not just because the environmental and health impacts of how we feed ourselves are enormous (and really interesting), but because the politics and dynamics involved are basically the same.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Right now, there are 397. About 50 of the most recent are actually there for a reason. Beyond that it’s mostly articles I think I’m going to read eventually but will probably never get to. I try to be a good filer, with lots and lots of folders, but the amount of articles that fly around is really overwhelming and lately I’ve just accepted that you can’t read ’em all.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Philadelphia, grew up in the Philly suburbs. Now I live in Washington, D.C.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
Growing up I was always interested in “nature” and animals (which was not the norm in the semi-industrial suburb where I lived). But going to college and realizing that other people were not only interested in this stuff, but spent their lives working on it, was a turning point.
A more specific moment that crystallized my interest in environmental health issues was watching the local TV news coverage of an environmental fight in a city near Philadelphia called Chester in the early 1990s. Chester is a predominantly African-American, economically depressed city, home to most of the waste facilities (sewage sludge incinerator, municipal waste incinerator, contaminated soil incinerator, etc., etc.) in that part of the state. And the reporter was just so obnoxious about it — his overall tone was, “look what these people are complaining about now,” as if they should just shut up and take it. And that totally pissed me off and led to my interest in policy issues that went beyond the nuts and bolts of how ecological systems worked.
When it comes to the food issues I work on now, I think my entire first year at PC was pretty influential. I always thought I knew a decent amount about food, but there was just an enormous amount to learn.
What has been the best moment in your professional life to date?
A “best moment” was with a local group I was working with at CHEJ. They lived in Baltimore, in a neighborhood that was literally surrounded by chemical plants, with only one road that had hundreds of tanker trucks full of chemicals traveling on it every day. If there was an accident that blocked the road, they were completely cut off. They were fighting to get the city, state, and federal governments to help them relocate. They had a really important meeting with the mayor and we had spent days practicing what they would say to reporters after the meeting. They were super nervous and were really not digging our advice that it’s okay to “respond” to a question the way you want instead of strictly answering it, to make sure that your message gets out. But they walked out of the meeting, completely ignored the first question (which was pretty snide and could have tripped them up) and just delivered the message they had practiced. And that’s what was on the news.
Who is your environmental hero?
I’ve been very lucky to have worked with some amazing women. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend Mary Beth Doyle, who was recently killed in a car accident. She worked at the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor on environmental health issues, and she was an amazing organizer — always smart and strategic and fun, and she did everything with a style that was all her own. Definitely the kind of person I want to be when I grow up.
What’s your environmental vice?
I just moved into a house, and I find myself buying more stuff than I ever thought I would. And I’m having these bizarre debates about whether it’s okay to buy plastic sheeting for the windows that is made of vinyl (which I try never to buy) if I’m putting it up to conserve energy …
What are you reading these days?
I just finished a book called Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs, which is a compilation of interviews with people who have every type of job (kind of an update to Studs Terkel’s book Working) and I am now starting What’s the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
The plastic bag thing. I’m fairly religious about bringing my own bags to the store, and I compulsively reuse plastic sandwich baggies — I’ve been on the same box for over a year now, which I’m realizing, as I type this, is a little neurotic.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I can’t pick just one. Top two:
1. The Precautionary Principle: If there is scientific uncertainty about the long term health/environmental impacts of something, maybe we should wait before we use it. Basically, people should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but chemicals/technologies don’t deserve the same treatment.
2. Some kind of full-cost accounting for “external” costs that society gets stuck with. This would go a long way toward showing that our “cheap food” policy really isn’t cheap if you consider the health, environmental, and social costs of how we produce it.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Then it was probably a tie between Depeche Mode and The Cure. Now the heavy rotation CDs at my house are Modest Mouse, Neko Case, and Johnny Cash. They’re all somehow conducive to home-improvement chores.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Do something to educate yourself about what you eat. Read Fast Food Nation, go to a farmers’ market and talk to a farmer, find a sustainable meat producer in your community, and don’t buy irradiated food!