Al Norman, anti-Wal-Mart activist, answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I’m founder of Sprawl-Busters.
What does your organization do?
We help community groups fight off big-box sprawl — strategize their battles, understand key objectives, and develop a game plan.
What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Getting people to stop shopping at these giant stores and invest their money in local businesses.
How does it relate to the environment?
We would end the practice of building shopping plazas consisting of 20 or more acres of concrete and asphalt.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I hear from about three new communities a day. I help them strategize and keep my website updated with the latest developments on the sprawl front.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I fell into this by accident 12 years ago when Wal-Mart came knocking on the back door of my town. When we beat Wal-Mart at the ballot box, my phone began ringing off the hook. What was supposed to be a 13-week campaign has lasted 12 years.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Local officials and developers.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
Local citizens’ groups have been like angels in the midst of battle.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Born in Washington, D.C. I now live in Massachusetts.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
The fact that Wal-Mart now has 358 dead stores on the market — a total of 28 million square feet of dead space.
What is your environmental nightmare?
Being locked in a Wal-Mart store.
What’s your environmental vice?
Using a coal stove to heat my kitchen in the New England winter.
What are you reading these days?
Zoning codes and comprehensive land-use plans.
What’s your favorite meal?
Chinese food, but not made in China.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Every place is someone’s home and should be treated as someone’s — or something’s — favorite place.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
I don’t think we are doing anything very well, and we have to behave as if we are running out of time to get it right.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?
We should work on improving our regional land-use planning and development and reinventing our zoning codes. We need to form new county-based alliances of public and private groups to take back our communities from greedy developers and Wall Street investors and keep out wasteful sprawl. We need better state laws to protect us as well.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Place a cap on the size of buildings.
What was your favorite band when you were 18?
I liked Bob Dylan when I was 18, and my favorite song was his “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
I only watch news on TV. My favorite movie will be the forthcoming Robert Greenwald movie Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.
What are you happy about right now?
Every victory over Wal-Mart makes me very happy. But a good organizer is often happy, never satisfied.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Friends don’t let friends shop at Wal-Mart. I would encourage everyone to think of their shopping dollars as an investment. We need to begin to wean ourselves from Wal-Mart and invest our money locally, where it works better for the economy. The battle against big-box sprawl will be won or lost in the aisles. If you find yourself in their aisles, we are losing the battle.
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