David Cash, Massachusetts air-policy director, answers questions
What work do you do? How does it relate to the environment?
I’m the director of air policy for the state of Massachusetts in the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. EOEA is an umbrella agency that oversees and coordinates the activities of numerous other environment-related agencies such as the Department of Environmental Protection (the state analog of federal EPA), Coastal Zone Management, Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, and the Department of Agricultural Resources.
My work ranges from figuring out how to regulate emissions from power plants to helping with statewide transportation planning to coordinating the development of state guidance on the siting of wind turbines, etc.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
After college I worked at a sheep ranch/tree farm in eastern Oregon. Organic, holistic management, and deer hunting to fill the freezer for the winter. Gorgeous sunsets. As much as I loved sheep, I am vegetarian …
I wanted to teach, so I went back to school and got a science teaching degree. I taught high-school and middle-school science for four years (in Oregon and Massachusetts), and the curriculum I developed always had a strong science-society-values component. I decided I wanted to “do” environmental policy (whatever that meant) and went back to school at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard to get a Ph.D. in public policy focusing on the role of science in policy making.
Listening to Mark Twain’s advice about never letting my schooling get in the way of my education, I did a lot of activities during the seven years it took me to finish my dissertation that were not directly related to my research (advising government agencies on science and policy, working on international assessments, etc.). I had two kids during those seven years also.
When I finished my thesis, I stayed at the Kennedy School and continued to do research, and I developed an undergraduate course in Environmental Science and Public Policy (unlike in middle school, I never had to send anyone to the principal’s office). After three years, the time was ripe to move on, and I explored a number of different opportunities. I never really envisioned that I would stay in academia, and I wanted to do something more applied. When the director of air policy position opened in September 2004, I jumped at it.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
144. I probably won’t be able to reduce this number to a manageable 20 until early next week.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with? Who’s nicer than you would expect?
I was very worried when I took a job for the state about the stereotypes of state workers (inefficient, slackers), but none were true. I’ve been very impressed with the dedication and high-quality work of my coworkers. Naturally there are those inside and outside of state government who have widely divergent views on what makes good environmental policy, but that’s part of what we’re doing — I see part of my role as trying to figure out good policy in the context of controversy and seemingly mutually exclusive interests.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in New York City, raised in the Westchester suburbs, and I am settled now in Newton, Mass. (outside of Boston).
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
One of my first jobs was to facilitate a public meeting on long-held transit plans that the state was thinking about changing. For four hours, speaker after speaker (100-plus) rose to the microphone to berate us for abandoning our commitments, for killing kids in an urban area because of the air-quality benefits we were forgoing, and for abusing the trust that had been given to us. The meeting went fine, but I was left with a feeling of failing the public I’ve promised to serve.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
I’m not sure this is an environmental offense, but I’m finding it very frustrating to deal with local environmental groups who are providing all kinds of roadblocks to the development of wind energy. There seems to be an inability to make a connection between desiring a halt to climate change and local air pollution and what that actually might entail in terms of giving up some other environmental things of value. One environmental group (national with local and regional chapters) recently came out with a strongly worded climate action plan but has only opposed proposed wind projects.
What’s your environmental vice?
I fly in airplanes to go to pretty places.
What are you reading these days?
I’m in a book club, and we rotate between fiction and nonfiction. A recent book we read that I highly recommend for insight into power, governance, and public trust is The Power Broker, about Robert Moses and how he completely reshaped the landscape of metropolitan New York from 1930 through the 1960s — a cautionary tale. For fiction, I just finished The Kite Runner, about Afghanistan, moral choices, and family/social ties — also highly recommended.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The desert Southwest — the place I had most of my early wilderness experiences. Though after being in the arid West for a long time, smelling rotting leaves in the Northeastern forests is very grounding.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
In some areas, beginning to make the connection between environmental protection and economic development — truly seeking sustainable development.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?
It’s too solipsistic — an awful word I learned in a literature class in college that I recall meaning “too self-absorbed” and I see in the dictionary as “the theory that the self can be aware of nothing but its own experiences and states.” It fits well with current environmentalism. Self-reflection is good, but enough already! Let’s put our energy into making real change happen!
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Reform electoral financing.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
The Beatles. The Beatles.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
I only watch one TV show: The West Wing. Favorite movie: The Gary Sinise 1992 remake of Of Mice and Men. My wife had to drive home while I wept uncontrollably after seeing it.
What are you happy about right now?
The balance in my life: I have a family, wife, and two daughters that are an utter and complete delight of spark and intensity; I have a great job that I look forward to going to (there have even been some Fridays when I left work thinking, “I’m psyched for Monday”), in which I can exercise creativity, play to my strengths, and develop new skills. I work hard at not letting one of these overpower the other.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
As I noted in my comments above, too much time is being spent introspectively analyzing the environmental movement and its supposed death. Stop reading the premature postmortems (including in places like Grist) and devote your energies to working in communities, with the public sector, with the private sector, with the firms that we have historically battled against. Build bridges, leverage relationships, find out what the real interests of your “adversaries” are, and see how they overlap with your interests.