With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I’m one of two national program directors at The Environmental Careers Organization (authors of the new book The ECO Guide to Careers That Make a Difference — see below). At least, that’s my current title. I’ve worked for ECO since 1984, and in that time I’ve been Pacific Northwest regional director, national general manager, director of programs, director of development, director of program development, and four to five other titles. I like to move around and do different things, and I’m fortunate that ECO has needed an executive to do exactly that over the years. If you’re going to stay at the same organization for over 20 years, it helps to shake things up every two or three years.
What does your organization do?
ECO operates paid internship and fellowship programs for future environmental professionals. We have more than 20 different programs that recruit and place college students and recent graduates on challenging, professional-level assignments at government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private companies. Every year, we hire over 530 new “associates,” and we put them to work on assignments that range from three months to two years in length. All associates work full-time, and all earn competitive stipends or salaries.
Most of our associates (sometimes also called interns or fellows) are placed at agencies in the federal government. We also have programs with nonprofit organizations, including a Boston Environmental Justice Leadership Program here, and a Sustainable Communities Leadership Program in California.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
Ha! If I even have an “official” job description, it’s almost certainly something we wrote just to have it in the file. What I really do on a day-to-day basis varies wildly.
Over the last two years, I had the incredible pleasure of working with a woman named Beth Ginsberg, who is now a corporate accountability program manager at CERES (Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies) here in Boston. We both believe that “environmental” work has become a subset of “sustainable economy” work, and that this change has widespread implications for how people prepare for environmental careers, and how they define success after graduation from undergraduate or graduate school.
We came up with the idea of a book that would essentially be a set of conversations with leading innovators, activists, businesspeople, and scholars like architect Bill McDonough, ecotourism leader Martha Honey, conservation biologist Stuart Pimm, and environmental justice scholar Robert Bullard, among others. From there, Beth did most of the work! But, like so many program directors, I end up sharing the credit for The ECO Guide to Careers That Make a Difference.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
I have 21 emails in my mailbox, several of which are from college students and job seekers looking for help. ECO gets something like 25,000 unique visitors to our website every month. People really want to do this work.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
OK, I’m supposed to be honest here, right? I think the biggest pain for me is people who talk a good game about how important ecological protection or sustainable economics is, but who seem to have only bumper-sticker understanding of what’s actually involved. Or, conversely, people who are convinced that environmental problems are way overblown, but obviously don’t know what they’re talking about once the conversation gets one level below the surface.
Our ecological, social-justice, and economic security crisis is so important, and so complex. The older I get, the more frustrated I get by sloppy thinking — including my own!
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
I’m glad you asked. It gives me a chance to offer applause to two groups of people that take so many unfair hits: federal government environmental employees and corporate environmental managers. So many of these people are struggling every day to make their huge and hidebound institutions more effective. Just as one example, I think the people who staff the refuges of the national Fish and Wildlife system are national heroes. And they are just so nice.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Born in Brainard, Minn. Grew up in Fairfield, Iowa. Live with my wife, Deb Mapes, in Watertown, Mass., a couple of miles from Harvard Square.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
I’m absolutely a bookworm, and environmentalism came to me from books. Thoreau’s Walden, E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, anything and everything by Wendell Berry, the Worldwatch “State of the World” reports, RAIN magazine, text books, science books, and so forth.
I’ve had a chance to talk to hundreds of people about their answer to this question, and I’ve been struck by how many people trace their moment to outdoor recreation. I was actually well along in years before wild nature really began to move me. It was really books, ideas, and politics that got me going. Now, it’s people.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
It is very much connected to the comment above about knowing your stuff. I gave a university talk all full of passion about the need to put a finger in the dike that holds back ecological destruction, and a scientist in the audience skewered me — demonstrated through his questions that I just really didn’t know what I was talking about. Very, very bad day.
What’s been the best?
Much harder to answer — impossible, actually. I have an awful lot of good days. Leading an ECO workshop or conversation that really connects is pretty high on the list. Connecting people who need to be connected is right up there. Sending off a final manuscript! That feels very good.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
The media response to Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist and similar books and articles just makes me want to scream. Not Lomborg himself, but the way the media tries to achieve “balance” on environmental concerns with simplistic “for and against” debate formats that shed lots of heat, but no light at all. We desperately need better political journalism, environmental journalism, and science journalism.
[Editor’s note: See non-faux-balanced Grist coverage of Lomborg here.]
Who is your environmental hero?
I have three kinds of heroes — thinkers, professionals/managers, and citizens. And they are far, far too many to mention, so I’ll just name a tiny handful.
Of thinkers, Wendell Berry is definitely a hero. Perhaps because I grew up in a small town in the rural Midwest (although not as a farm boy), his thoughts really resonate with me. I don’t agree with everything he has to say, but he cuts through so much B.S., and he writes like a dream. Jeremy Rifkin always gives me food for thought, too.
Among professionals/managers, I have a great respect for the career of Gus Speth, who is now the head of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, but who seems to have done just about everything.
Closer to home, I have a freelance environmental journalist friend just down the road named Dan Grossman, whom I admire greatly — and not only for his work. Even as a citizen and a parent, he’s a good model for environmentally sound living that isn’t all grim and self-sacrificing.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
Any smug person who doesn’t want to think about the consequences of their actions on other people, the natural world, or the future.
What’s your environmental vice?
Well, there’s certainly more than one! One that I’m not proud of is using more heat at home than I really need to. I mean, I could just put on a sweater.
How do you get around?
It is so easy to get around Boston by bus and subway — and by walking. I really do try to avoid using the car whenever I can.
What are you reading these days?
Environmentalism and the Technologies of Tomorrow by Robert Olson. Great stuff. I also enjoyed The Hype About Hydrogen.
What’s your favorite meal?
Breakfast! Granola, fruit, and soy milk with dark-roast black coffee. For dinner: striped bass, baby potatoes, asparagus, mixed greens, and wine.
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
Absolutely a news junkie. Boston Globe, New York Times, Economist magazine, E magazine, Environment, Nature (the summary parts anyway), Grist, SustainableBusiness.com, SolarAccess.com, ENN.com, government reports.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I would say that I’m a bit too reflexively left-wing in my politics, more skeptical of business than of government, and perhaps somewhat too harsh when judging fellow Americans. I’m an almost-vegetarian, too, if that’s still an eco-stereotype.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Easiest question yet — Point Reyes National Seashore and surrounding area of Marin and Sonoma County in Northern California. It’s bliss.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Make it government policy to reduce our fossil-fuel consumption by 50 percent in 20 years.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
I would absolutely call myself an environmentalist, and proudly. To me, an environmentalist is a person who actively considers the long-term needs of other living beings, and of the natural systems that support them, in all personal and political decisions.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Maintaining and expanding the national consensus that development sprawl isn’t a great thing, and that we can do something about it through policy, land purchases, and so forth. There was a great op-ed in The New York Times by Will Rogers, head of the Trust for Public Land, showing that even as President Bush was winning the presidency with a less-than-stellar environmental record, people everywhere were approving bond issues and other measures aimed at protecting land and water resources they care about.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
We’re failing to make the case that ecological health, economic security, and social justice are mutually reinforcing goals, not competing interests. To do better, we need to highlight examples that people can really relate to without using technical jargon or policyspeak. We really need to work on our language — telling the story of sustainability through stories and concepts that are part of our current everyday world.
What important environmental issue is frequently overlooked?
The plight of environmental refugees — people whose lives or livelihoods are adversely affected by senseless ecological destruction that leads to floods, drought, desertification, deforestation, coastal erosion, and so forth.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Definitely The Who when I was 18. Now, at 47, I tend more toward U2, but I also have a real soft spot for all singers — past (Ella Fitzgerald) and present (Diana Krall) — who can do a good job with the great American songbook of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Rogers and Hart, and all those guys.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
Currently, The West Wing is about the only show Deb and I watch, unless the Red Sox are playing. We just saw Sideways at the theater, and loved it. Past movies? Anyone who doesn’t appreciate All the King’s Men needs help.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Spend some serious time thinking about what would need to happen for your own community to be “sustainable.” Then start talking with other people about it.