Betsy Rosenberg, green radio-show host, answers questions
What work do you do?
I’ve gone from 20 years of general news reporting and anchoring for the CBS Radio network to creating an environmental radio minute to hosting and producing a one-hour nationally syndicated eco-awareness program called EcoTalk. I transitioned from journalist to activist a few years ago when, in the wake of 9/11, I decided that “saving the planet one sound bite at a time” was not enough and founded a gasroots group called Don’t Be Fueled! Mothers for Clean and Safe Vehicles. The aim of the campaign is to tell the truth about unsafe SUVs and to promote hybrid vehicles. So I guess the combination of eco-activities makes me “radioactive”!
How does it relate to the environment?
In both my radio shows and activist campaign, I aim to demonstrate why people should take environmental problems more seriously, but I try to do it with a sense of humor. I try to show how these challenges relate to their own lives and families, and to help connect the dots between personal health and planetary health.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis? What are you working on at the moment?
In addition to my radio production, being a wife and mom, and attending environmental events and talks, I work on Don’t Be Fueled! by trying to convince “soccer moms” in my community that bigger is not necessarily better. At the moment, my primary work focus is on securing advertising sponsors for my one-hour show on Air America. If anyone knows any green-leaning companies, please send ’em my way!
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
Ah, that’s a key question in my case because it was a series of epiphanies or wake-up calls about what’s happening to our environment that has led me farther down the green path. As I mentioned above, the bulk of my 25-year career in broadcasting was spent covering daily breaking news: fires, floods, murder, mayhem, and mayors, until I realized that the biggest issue of our time — what we humans are doing to our natural systems and what’s at stake if we don’t soon make an eco U-turn — was largely being ignored by the mainstream media.
So in 1997, just as I was getting burned out on the news biz, I went to my news director at KCBS Radio in San Francisco and pitched doing tips on how to reduce/reuse/recycle for a feature called TrashTalk. It debuted on Earth Day, the same day the city’s first garbage strike in 60 years began, and the subject of trash was suddenly recognized as relevant — for that first week anyway! I took that as a sign the garbage gods were with me, and nearly eight years and some 2,000 enviro tips later, I’m still not able to get to all the great green stories out there!
Three years ago, after interviewing Ted Danson about his new hybrid car and great new “personal CAFE standard,” I traded in my mom-mobile (yes, an SUV!) for a Toyota Prius. That car-ma conversion changed my life as I got so excited about hybrid technology and the opportunity it created to reduce our oil habit that I launched Mothers for Clean and Safe Vehicles. Our mission is to increase demand and supply for cleaner vehicles, primarily hybrids, since that’s the state of the current technology. We have a petition (please sign it!) to demand that Detroit build and sell more fuel-efficient, family-friendly options.
A year ago, when I learned that the new progressive radio network Air America had hired Al Franken, I called the program director and asked what type of environmental show they were planning. He said Bobby Kennedy would be mentioning green issues occasionally in his show “Ring of Fire” but that is primarily devoted to legal and corporate matters. I asked whether he thought the environment might warrant a program of its own on the nation’s first progressive, commercial network, and he agreed. I launched EcoTalk in an interview format when the network debuted last April. There was a lot of early turbulence, but the network has stabilized and is adding new markets each month, and I hope to grow with it!
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Hundreds because I’m really bad at deleting and filing since I’m so darn busy (working-mother syndrome) and interested in just about anything green.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Print and broadcast executives and others in a position of power who don’t get the importance of environmental news, trends, and solutions.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Fort Benning, Ga. — a long way from Mill Valley, Calif., my home for the past 12 years.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
I was anchoring the CBS hourly newscast from New York on the overnight shift and nearly fell asleep mid-cast. I had the kind of nod and then snap-to you have when you’re falling asleep at the wheel … neither one a pleasant experience. Fortunately that was CBS Radio and not TV!
What’s been the best?
The night of the San Francisco earthquake in October 1989, I was working the graveyard shift at CBS Radio in New York, so I went on duty just after the quake hit. I was concerned for my family and friends back home in the Bay Area, but professionally it was a kick to be ad-libbing live coverage with another radio anchor about features of the area hit that only a longtime San Francisco resident would know. I also ran down the hall to CBS TV to correct Dan Rather’s live coverage when he mispronounced and misidentified a few places.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
That would be the Senate debate on strengthening CAFE (fuel-economy) standards on March 13, 2002. It was six months after 9/11, and The New York Times was still running daily obituaries. Republicans were calling for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Sens. John Kerry and John McCain introduced a modest plan to improve CAFE standards. The amendment was defeated thanks in part to distortions and lobbying by the auto industry. Trent Lies-a-Lott held up a picture of a Smart car (the cute little ones you see in Europe) and said if CAFE legislation passed “we’d all be driving purple people-eaters,” and it would be “the death of car choice.” Barbara Mikulski stood up and argued against CAFE in the name of soccer moms who “like their SUVs the way they are.”
As a hybrid-driving soccer mom still reeling from the terrorist attack, I was shocked when this common-sense approach to reducing our reliance on foreign oil went down in defeat. So I became an activist to challenge the lies about bigger, “safer” vehicles, and what I perceived to be congressional cowardice and shortsightedness challenging my kid, country, and planet. I took the hypocrisy as an attack on our well-being. I took it personally, which I guess is how many individuals become activists.
Who is your environmental hero?
Sadly, I’ve not met either of my eco-heroines — both Rachel Carson and Donella (Dana) Meadows are in a “greener” place but continue to inspire from above.
While there are many noteworthy environmental NGOs, the one that always impresses me with its consistent scientific findings in the eco-health arena is the Environmental Working Group.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
Someone whose last name evokes something green but whose policies do the opposite.
What’s your environmental vice?
I still like buying clothes even though I don’t need any.
What are you reading these days?
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I’m a passionate Democrat.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
When I was 18, it was Spirit because I loved their song “Nature’s Way” — an early sign of my green leanings. These days I’m out of it musically since I only listen to news and Air America Radio.
What are you happy about right now?
(Finally) having a nationally syndicated environmental program.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Look for an Air America affiliate near you, and listen to EcoTalk at 7 on Sunday mornings. Then email Air America or the network affiliate and ask them to put such an important program on in a better time slot!
How can you, and others in the media, break down the myths perpetuated about climate change and inform the general public, our decision makers, and other journalists about the threat of global warming? — Nadia Malley, Arlington, Va.
Great question and of course one of our most pressing challenges at the moment from both a human and a media perspective. Also a timely question because we just wrestled with this a bit last month when we did a three-part series on climate change.
For the first two programs, we had on the show highly credible scientists making the (overwhelming) case that global warming is real and the enemy is us. We also chose to have one segment (out of four) in each show with a naysayer, or at least someone who does not think the fluctuations are a problem or human-caused. One of them was Patrick Michaels of the conservative Cato Institute, and I chose to expose him to grilling (instead of “ignoring the doubters”) because of something I learned, and never forgot, from journalism school: “Let the enemy sink himself.”
My reasoning in presenting “both sides” was to ask questions I’ve always wondered about, such as “What are they so afraid of?” and “Wouldn’t it be better to err on the side of caution?”, and to reveal where the doubters’ funding is coming from (Exxon, Western Oil, etc.).
I give our listeners credit for being able to make their own conclusions after hearing “both sides.” That said, the third program in the series was entirely devoted to Ross Gelbspan who wrote a chilling book called Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis — And What We Can Do to Avert Disaster. Because he is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with no ax to grind (and a self-proclaimed non-treehugger), he is highly credible and his message extremely impactful. You can hear any of these shows by going to the Air America archives and downloading EcoTalk programs free of charge. You tell me, but I believe the truth came shining through and the naysayers lost credibility even though we got some flak from one of the scientists who felt we were contributing to “the impression that there are still two sides to this story.”
What Gelbspan (and others) do to make climate change more of a real and present danger — which I now recite — is to point to the unprecedented 35,000 deaths in Europe last summer due to trapped heat, melting polar icecaps moving villages, and the ocean’s “conveyer belt” effect being altered by Arctic warming with impacts felt elsewhere. This is what we need to do with all our environmental problems — bring them home for folks, make it real, and then provide an alternative. In his book, Gelbspan lays out a solution that is as large as the scope of the problem, which is one of our primary challenges as environmentalists.
I’m from England where environmental issues are a concern to the majority of the population and are discussed in the papers and on television quite regularly. Since being here [in America], I’ve found it hard to keep up with what’s happening in the rest of the world, and America in particular. Why do you think Americans are kept in the dark about many environmental issues? And how can the American media change that? — Paul Charman, Scottsdale, Ariz.
Ah, this is one of the key questions and challenges, especially for the few of us trying to provide environmental content in the mainstream media. I think there are several fundamental factors at work.
In terms of why Americans are in the dark I’d say there are several reasons. First, our cultural roots and history — America was built on the notion of plenty. In the first half of the 20th century, we were a less populous nation. We had an abundance of land, open spaces, natural resources (seemingly limitless), and a lot fewer citizens, so growth — both in terms of population and development — was viewed as progress. In the second half of the century, we saw that equation become inverted so we’re now just beginning to realize that resources are limited, becoming scarcer, and that endlessly dumping our collective waste into the atmosphere, oceans, and landfills is not sustainable.
In addition to being a real superpower when it comes to wasting, we are also a nation of world-class deniers. We avoid the reality of illness, death, and limitations of all kinds, especially environmental limits in terms of the earth’s carrying capacity. While we ignore the perils of climate change, ecosystem and species depletion, average Americans seem to be more concerned with celebrity scandals, quarterly profits, diets, and conforming to the status quo than they are in waking up to what’s really at stake. Ironic, isn’t it, given the current popularity of so-called reality TV and “Survivor” shows?
To the extent we’re kept in the dark about environmental issues, I would say that’s partly a result of our culture, both from a government and an institutional perspective. This is not something we generally learn or hear much about growing up, in school (other than recycling), or in business. It just has not been a national priority to concern ourselves with the natural world, and consequently we have disconnected. There are so many disconnections, too many to mention here. That’s more of a default mechanism — the other factor at work is more a design mechanism, and that’s the less benign influence. I’m talking about the special interests that are so heavily invested in maintaining the status quo, heads-in-the-sands level of awareness about what’s really going on. That’s a much darker part of our country’s legacy.
As far as the American media changing that, as a mainstream news insider for the past 25 years, I am deeply convinced the conventional media gatekeepers will not come around soon enough for some of the same reasons just mentioned above; general ignorance about the relevance of these issues to their audiences/our lives and an unwillingness to risk alienating commercial advertisers. That is why we must all strongly support progressive outlets like Grist, Air America Radio and the many fabulous magazines and books out there that are telling the truth and focusing on solutions. Only through these channels can we grow the congregation to a critical-enough mass where we can finally tip the balance and the rest of the lemmings will then have to follow or we all go off the cliff together.
Who are the most inspiring guests you’ve had on your show? — Name not provided
I love that question, and the short answer is they all inspire me. They are on the show because of their exemplary work and dedication to the cause of our lifetime.
If I had to pick a few favorites, they would be Robert Kennedy Jr. and Anita Roddick for their boldness and candor, the green CEOs (Paul Dolan of Fetzer Wines, Jeffrey Hollender of Seventh Generation, Gary Erickson of Clif Bar, and last but not least, one of my heroes, Ray Anderson of Interface) for their vision and dedication to changing the business model to a more sustainable one. Carl Pope of the Sierra Club was pretty inspiring as was Bill McKibben, author and lecturer extraordinaire.
But I’ve only begun — we have a long list of leaders and celebrities from the sustainability movement planned for this year. We’re just getting warmed up, so stay tuned, and tune in Sunday mornings on an Air America station near you.
Why do you think that the average consumer blames big industry — or any other scapegoat — for the environmental ills of the world instead of being proactive and making a difference themselves? — Phyllis Fitzgerald, Louisville, Ky.
Sadly most Americans have the mentality that they don’t make a difference, and if they don’t do anything, they won’t make a difference, so that mind-set gets reinforced. And when it comes to affecting “the environment” they feel overwhelmed and insignificant in the global context. Even talking about “the environment” is usually too abstract for most people to wrap their arms around, so the challenge is to connect the dots for people so they begin to see the connections between the status of the planetary environment and their personal health; in essence, get them to take their planet more personally and to act as if it really does matter, because it does — more than anything else!
When I do public speaking, I demonstrate this to audiences by asking how many of them consider themselves to be “environmentalists.” Usually around half raise their hands, depending on the nature of the group. I then challenge those who did not raise their hands to consider going one day without their environment — that means no food, water, or air (oh that’s what you mean by environmentalist!) and report back to me on their newly defined relationship with the environment we all rely on daily for life. To quote Dennis Weaver, the actor and activist, “We are all environmentalists; the only question is: are we good environmentalists or bad?” Those are the type of conversations we all need to have with as many earthlings as possible, every day, because we’re all stakeholders and there’s a helluva lot at stake.
To me, buying a hybrid SUV is a bit like drinking a diet coke with a meal from McDonald’s. What do you think about hybrid SUVs? — Michelle Mohney, Flossmoor, Ill.
I know what you mean and tend to agree, but I do think it’s a step in the right direction. The problem is the few that are coming out this year are hybrid “lights,” averaging only in the low 30s [mpg], and automakers are not making enough, nor planning much in the way of hybrid mini-vans, station wagons, or sedans. So far it’s been a token offering, but that’s what Don’t Be Fueled! and others are making an effort to change. An average of 40 mpg should be the goal — and they do need to come down in size — in the meantime, we’re calling for a momcott of monster SUVs.
What are your thoughts on the recent publication of “The Death of Environmentalism” by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus? — Name not provided
I had some very strong emotions while reading that essay, too numerous to mention here other than to say I think there is some merit to the point of burying what’s not been as effective as it needs to be for the purpose of resurrecting something new/better/more impactful. We are planning an EcoTalk show with the principals of this publication for the next few weeks so try to listen.
Any plans in the works to get an active blog (like many of the programs on Air America)? — Philippe Boucher, Bainbridge Island, Wash.
We’d love to join the blogging set, but unlike the other Air America shows we are not supported by a salary or staff. It’s me and a part-time producer. So if you, or anyone out there, would like to volunteer to be our blogmeister, please get in touch.
How can we nurture a fundamental shift in mind-set and way of life rather than a few short-term corrective actions? — Jane Blewett, Laurel, Md.
Beyond what I’ve mentioned above, we all need to start in our own home, backyard, office, and community to “Walk the EcoTalk” (make positive eco-changes as a model for others) and “Talk the EcoTalk” (engage in conversations about conservation in ways that are relevant and resonate, rather than being judgmental, and recommend great green books, etc.). Last, but not least, pray for a miracle … what we do have going for us is that the worse things get, environmentally, the more pronounced the problems will become. And with four more years of Bushit ahead, that’s one thing we can count on.
To what would you attribute most Americans’ lack of concern for the environment? Though they may express a general appreciation for clean air and water, it seems that there is general apathy about what is happening to the planet because of our excessive consumption of resources and energy. — Don Watson, Houghton, Mich.
If I could figure that one out, I’d be a genius. That’s the perplexing part, the most confounding piece of this: Why so many Americans say they care about our environment, and believe things are going in the wrong direction, and then fail to reflect that stated concern in their voting and actions.
One is they don’t know any better, but it also seems many don’t want to know since there is so much information out there. I can recommend two great books on the subject: One is Red, White, Blue and Green by Jim Lyons and the other is Don’t Think of an Elephant by the current darling of progressives, George Lakoff. The most interesting (and disturbing) thing he says, in my opinion, is that Americans do not vote their self-interest but instead vote for their self-image — by that he means they vote for who they can most relate to, which I guess explains the George Bush phenomenon — as my dear, departed dad used to say, “The masses are asses!”
Aside from consuming less and recycling more, how do you propose we deal with the huge problem of disposing of municipal solid waste? Can we safely and economically convert it into energy? — Lee Basnar, Sierra Vista, Ariz.
Yes, if we get creative and proactive about it. San Francisco is an excellent example. The Department of Environment (yes, that’s the first step, create such an entity) has instituted curbside recycling of wet waste, meaning they pick up food scraps and yard trimmings for composting, which comes back to the city in the form of mulch. Our local landfill also burns methane gas and turns it into energy they sell to a regional utility. The city’s aggressive aim is to move toward zero waste with a noble goal of 75 percent recycling by 2010.
What can we do to raise more awareness about and to prevent the accumulative consequences of humanity’s toxic creations that have resulted in worldwide chemical injury and environmental illnesses like Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, Gulf War Syndrome, allergies, and cancer? — Julianna Martin, Syracuse, N.Y.
Connect the dots for people and communicate those links — present it as an unfolding puzzle that we can do something about if we act together in a timely manner. Talk about kids having to eat mercury-contaminated tuna fish, dioxin traces showing up in breastmilk (which can only be removed from the mother by feeding it to her baby!), and a common flame retardant, PBDE, a known carcinogen, in our computer casings. If that doesn’t wake up Americans then we’re doomed, and we probably deserve that fate.
Do you see a need for philosophers to contribute to the environmental movement? — Lauren Hartzell, Palo Alto, Calif.
Yes, and in anyway they can — teach and preach the green gospel everywhere — it will take a village to save the planet.
Considering that hydrocarbon energy needs to be replaced, what are the most viable alternatives? — Rady Ananda, Columbus, Ohio
My current issue of E Magazine says wind power is the world’s fastest-growing source of renewable energy. I have solar panels on my roof and have lower electricity bills (almost nothing) as well as the good feeling that comes with knowing the meter is spinning backward and we’re selling clean electricity back to the utility while we’re at work all day. One thing that is clear — continued reliance on fossil fuels and fossil thinking will take us the way of the dinosaur.
How can we respond to arguments claiming environmentalists are trying to destroy constitutional rights and opportunity for self determination by wanting to move people off of the land and into sustainable communities? There never seems to be any mention of the intrinsic value of nature as the very life-support system of our planet. — Jim Witherington, Silver City, N.M.
Say “hogwash” or some other such word and recommend they run, not walk, to the nearest library or bookstore and get and read a copy of Gretchen Daily’s book on the value of nature or Paul Hawken’s and Hunter Lovins’ book Natural Capitalism. There’s also The End of Nature by Bill McKibben and of course The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken.
If that doesn’t wake ’em up, just tell them to go back to sleep and await The Rapture. And one last bit of advice when people discount environmentalists as “just as bad as corporations because they exaggerate/distort the truth,” I like to point out at least one key difference: corporations and other commercial or governmental entities are focused on quarterly profits, motivated by the bottom line, stuck in the status quo mire, and coming from a place of “special interest.” In sharp contrast, environmentalists are concerned about the public interest, animals, and resources that cannot defend themselves, and by definition are fighting for a cause much greater than their own self-interest — so there!