Bill Walsh, founder of the Healthy Building Network, answers questions
What work do you do?
I’m the founder and national coordinator of the Healthy Building Network.
How does it relate to the environment?
The Healthy Building Network is the only organization dedicated to linking green building strategies to the specific goals of the environmental-health movement. Our goal is to shift market demand in the building and construction industry away from what we call worst in class building materials, and toward healthier, commercially available alternatives, competitively priced and equal or superior in performance. Right now, stopping the use of polyvinyl chloride plastic, also known as PVC or vinyl, is our top priority. We use a variety of strategies, from technical consultations to grassroots activism, to convince consumers, especially those with major commercial interests, to alter their purchasing habits. Ultimately HBN seeks to reverse the negative health impacts of many commercial industrial policies by influencing laws that affect public health.
What are you working on at the moment?
What I’m actually working on, as opposed to what my job description implies I’m doing? OK. I’ve got this collection of voodoo dolls representing the flacks from the Vinyl Institute, the American Chemistry Council,* the American Forest & Paper Association, and the other 997 trade associations defending the rights of polluters. Each day, after reading their latest press releases on the PR Newswire, I adjust the pins. In some cases I’m hoping to stimulate the heart to see if perhaps we can release any human empathy whatsoever for the people whose lives they make worse rather than better. When confronted with a particularly bizarre assertion — that dioxin contamination comes from trees, say — I’ll focus on the left side of the head to see if I can coax a rational thought to pierce the consciousness, maybe the little voice in the back of the head that says, “Thou shalt not lie.” Alas, it remains a work in progress, with no apparent success, except one. I have some pins permanently lodged in the posterior regions, and the Vinyl Institute will admit that I am a pain in the ass.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
We publish a bi-weekly electronic newsletter that offers perspective on the market and politics affecting the green-building movement. The Healthy Building News is only a 500-word essay or interview each issue, but it takes a lot of time because we footnote every claim or fact reported.
The HBN staff is an eclectic group, as is our larger network of allies, so I also spend a lot of time on conference calls and of course in email communication tracking developments in the green building world and contributing to an appropriate response. Hardly a day passes when I don’t hear about an important move by a major company, like a million-dollar order for PVC-free products by Kaiser Permanente, or Shaw Carpet’s last production run of PVC carpeting. Then we all put our heads together (not an easy thing via conference call) to figure out how to leverage it into further market transformation.
Of course, I’ll also get word of the latest greenwash scam, like when Armstrong Corporation and a bunch of other flooring companies (all members of the U.S. Green Building Council) invoke green-building standards in a lawsuit to block a green building tax credit in New York.
Basically we try to support the good guys and fight the bad guys.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I went to law school with a vision of being a trial lawyer who drove a Porsche Targa to courts where I would win cases for deserving people suing unscrupulous defendants. I left in a rented truck on my way to Washington, D.C., with a graduate fellowship and a stipend from the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center. There I represented a sick woman who had asked ChemLawn to notify her before they sprayed pesticides next door so that she could close the windows. ChemLawn refused, citing the federal pesticide laws that are supposed to protect public health from pesticide misuse. That was my introduction to the grassroots toxics movement. It grabbed my gut and never let go.
Instead of doing the smart thing and holding on to her case for two years until I could open a private practice and buy a Porsche courtesy of ChemLawn, I let a bunch of idealistic law students con me into a quixotic campaign to challenge the preemption clause of the federal pesticide law. OK, sure, ultimately our theory prevailed in federal court, but you won’t see a policy wonk driving a Porsche with a FIFRA vanity plate — that would be the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.
But I was hooked on working with the communities on the front lines of the environmental struggles of the day. It was invigorating to be part of a movement that produced such iconic public figures as Lois Gibbs and the late John O’Connor. All over the country you could meet fabulous and courageous activists fighting for democracy itself as much as the environment. This was the movement that in 1986 reauthorized the Superfund law and passed the federal right-to-know laws by a single vote on the floor of the U.S. House. I loved it. I spent two years working on the Superfund law with U.S. Public Interest Research Group and then moved on to Greenpeace, thrilled by the prospect of incorporating nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action in service of the movement.
Over time, the focus of our work at Greenpeace shifted from combating toxic waste to advocating for cleaner products and production. Because of the huge environmental impact of buildings and building materials, I thought the green-building movement deserved more attention than it was getting from the environmental community, so I started HBN as a way to meet that need.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
None. It didn’t used to be this way. I used to be overwhelmed just like everyone else. Then our IT whiz kid fixed it so that everything goes right to the spam folder. It’s like losing weight without exercise.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Without a doubt, hands down, no contest, without exception, that would be corporate trade associations. To appreciate the impact of trade associations on civil society and reasoned discourse, think of the nanotechnology run amok in Michael Crichton’s Prey.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
No one. I have high expectations.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
While at Greenpeace we laid it on the line in support of the community in East Liverpool, Ohio. They were trying to stop construction of a hazardous waste incinerator on the banks of the Ohio River. The smokestack was flush with the school and homes on the bluff above. It was a monument to official indifference and corruption. Greenpeace worked behind a coalition that included farmers, nurses, postal workers, steel workers, black people, white people, wealthy people, and working poor.
The campaign was skillfully led. One of the community leaders won a Goldman Prize and one of our Greenpeace activists went on to be voted a Time magazine Hero of the Planet for her later work. The cause made the front page of The New York Times and Nightline, and when the famous Clinton/Gore campaign bus swung through the valley, Al Gore said to a cheering throng, “This incinerator would not have been permitted in a Clinton/Gore administration. We are on your side.” There’s a tape of that speech around somewhere.
This cause became the first issue on the plate for Clinton’s EPA administrator, Al Gore’s former chief of staff, Carol Browner. They granted the permits. It was absolutely craven. Not that I’m a Pollyanna about campaign promises, but you only have to compare Gore to Cheney in terms of delivering for their constituency to see what a disgrace it was, and remains, for him to cave to toxic-waste brokers so that they could burn hazardous waste next to a school yard. That tells you something. It foreshadowed Gore’s later capitulation on the Kyoto Protocol, and ultimately, I believe, the reasons why rank-and-file Democrats never warmed to him.
What has been the best moment?
In terms of professional achievement, HBN’s successful campaign to phase out most uses of arsenic-soaked, pressure-treated wood has had one of the largest, most tangible impacts of any work with which I’ve been associated. It embodies our goal, which is to make it so that healthy building products are not a specialty item. Today when you go to buy pressure-treated wood at your local lumberyard, it won’t have arsenic or chromium in it.
But on an emotional level, one of my best moments also occurred in East Liverpool, Ohio. I was sitting on the floor of a crowded living room while the local folk sat down to watch a video of the movie Gandhi. Most people basically knew little about Gandhi. All of a sudden, one of the women — the future Goldman Prize winner — shouts, “Pause it. Pause it.” Someone says: “Why?” She says: “We have to take notes. This is incredible.” Ultimately 33 people from the Ohio River Valley and Martin Sheen stood trial for civil disobedience at the incinerator.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
Greenwashing really pisses me off because it only works when there is a sliver of truth to a claim that is really a fig leaf for antisocial behavior, essentially conning people, taking advantage of their better nature and best instincts.
For the pragmatic environmentalist, what should be the focus — political action designed to change policy, or individual action designed to change lifestyles?
One person’s pragmatism is another’s idealism, and yet another’s idea of a complete waste of time. People doing what they feel called to do, with persistence, creativity, vigor, and joy — that’s where I see the greatest potential.
What’s your environmental vice?
Eating meat. It makes me feel like I have the integrity of Homer Simpson. Once I even preyed upon my local Sierra Club representative — vegetarian, pregnant, anemic, and vulnerable. I fed her various meat and meat byproducts from our grill all summer. She remembers it with affection, but I remember it as hitting bottom and admitting that I need a 12-step program or something.
What are you reading these days?
With my daughter I’m reading C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and with my son, The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban. On my own I’ve been transfixed by a recent book called The Philosophy of Sustainable Design, by an architect named Jason McLennan. It’s one of the best primers on the green-building movement, but I’m most intrigued by his lucid analysis of how change gets made in institutions, in society, and possibly even recalcitrant meat eaters. Also I recently finished a book called The People’s Business by Lee Drutman and Charlie Cray, which lays out an interesting case for controlling corporate excess — whether financial like Enron or environmental like Dow in Bhopal, India, or Midland, Mich. — by reasserting civic control over their license to do business, the corporate charter. It makes a lot of sense.
What’s your favorite meal?
Anything my kids make when they decide to bring mom and dad breakfast in bed on a Sunday morning. Microwaved, twice-brewed coffee; bagels, toasted, buttered, then cooled; a salad from last night’s dinner … whatever it is, it’s sure to be a delight, and always elegantly presented.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
Wearing socks with sandals, an amazing experience in footwear comfort, if not fashion.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Getting it right. When has the environmental movement been wrong on a major issue?
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
I don’t fault the environmental movement for any bad practice, nor do I think it is accurate to generalize about a field so varied and diverse. But to some extent, the environmental establishment, if you will, is organized in a way that is anachronistic, rendering otherwise good work less effective. Many environmental groups have a structure that reflects the regimen of environmental laws. That is to say, programs are segmented in defense of specific threats to species, air, land, water, public health. This tends to isolate the various scientific disciplines and public-policy experts, and focus energy on narrow problems rather than comprehensive solutions. It confronts the public with multiple, competing, shopworn, and negative messages that leave people weary and cynical. Worse, perhaps, it leaves us ill equipped to keep pace with interdisciplinary approaches that characterize private sector innovations.
I have been humbled and challenged by the breadth and depth of thinking in the green-building movement. The leaders in the green-building movement are presently much more holistic, creative, and optimistic in their approach than much of the environmental movement. The green-building movement is still predominantly a private-sector initiative, defined by voluntary programs and guidelines. As this evolves into public policy — and this is beginning to happen — it will challenge the existing structure of environmental law and environmental groups. Some sort of reformation seems inevitable, perhaps imminent.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
The adoption of the precautionary principle would pretty much change everything for the better in very short order.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Since I was 15 actually, Bruce Springsteen has had top rotation of my 8-tracks, cassettes, vinyl (yes, vinyl), CDs, and now MP3s. I will admit to a midlife crisis during which I latched on to an ephemeral indie band called the Peasants. They did not age well. Two albums and they were gone. But in their day they did win a critics poll in Spin for their debut album, which was actually called “The Best of Bill Walsh.” Now available on CD I hear.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
C-SPAN, in the wee hours. There’s nothing better than Russell Mokhiber of the Corporate Crime Reporter asking a question at a White House press briefing. Drama, tragedy, comedy, farce, and parody all tightly wound into less than 60 seconds of colloquy with the press secretary to the president of the United States.
What are you happy about right now?
What makes me happy right now is that green building professionals are starting to take a strong stand in public to defend the integrity of their profession, and to keep the nation’s leading authority on green building standards from devolving into a greenwashing tool under pressure from industry trade associations. So many efforts to develop professional standards of environmental conduct have been derailed or co-opted by self-styled “stakeholders” whose only real “stake” is the one they intend to drive through the heart of the organization.
Groups like the Vinyl Institute and the American Forest & Paper Association are threatening to tie the U.S. Green Building Council in a stranglehold of litigation. They are forming their own fake green building association. They are corrupting the internal deliberations of the group by abusing the consensus decision-making process. But it looks like the green building community is going to stand and fight. Nothing makes me happier than to tell them: HBN’s got your back.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
When the moment comes, and you will know it when you see it, do the right thing.
*[Correction, 25 Mar 2005: Originally, Walsh mistakenly listed the American Chemical Society when in fact he meant the American Chemistry Council. The ACS is a science-based nonprofit independent of the chemical industry. Walsh explains his mistake and responds to a letter from the ACS in Letters to the Editor.]