Marc Ross, rocker and activist, answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I am president and executive director of Rock the Earth.
What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Rock the Earth is a relatively new environmental advocacy nonprofit organization based in Denver, Colo. It was created to work with the music community on environmental issues of concern to bands and fans. Modeled after advocacy groups such as Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Rock the Earth consists of an all-volunteer staff of 20 environmental professionals and activists, all with two things in common: a love for music and a love for the spectacular planet on which we all live. Utilizing the music industry and community as a source of projects and a medium for promotion, education, and fundraising, we believe that we can assist communities affected by environmental issues and smaller, regional (usually less well-funded) environmental groups in fighting corporate environmental transgressions and governmental malfeasance. It is our goal that within the next seven years, Rock the Earth will be the pre-eminent environmental group working with the music industry.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
Right now, my job varies day to day, night to night. As a new organization which aims to be a full-service environmental advocacy group within the next seven years, there is so much to do. It is as if we are building our own Sierra Club from the ground up, with few resources. So my daily duties include everything from working on substantive issues (comment letters on projects which our board has approved) to recruiting additional staff and volunteers, reviewing draft grant proposals and letters of interest, drafting budget reviews, corresponding with folks in the environmental community (other regional environmental groups) with which we are collaborating or hope to collaborate, and networking with those in the music industry (artists, management, agents). My nights are often filled with these same types of tasks along with tabling shows for membership outreach, training volunteers, and environmental and music-industry networking. It sounds like a lot of fun, but as anyone who has worked for a volunteer organization can tell you, it is really hard to find help (especially from lawyers and technical staff) when you don’t have any compensation to offer them.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
While in my second and third years at Dickinson School of Law (1991-1993), I worked as an intern at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, eventually rising to the Southcentral Regional Counsel’s Litigation Office, where my first cases were taking on large coal-mining companies that had received and then appealed orders alleging violations of their mining permits. This spread to similar work opposing non-coal aggregate mineral operations and defending permits that had been appealed either by companies or third-party citizen groups. It was a fantastic look into how the system worked, and I was able to get into court at a very early stage in my career.
While the experience was invaluable and the people simply wonderful to work with, as the marriage to my wife approached, I knew that we needed to pay down some school debt. So after six years with DEP, I sought a position with a large Pittsburgh law firm. I was next hired by Alcoa to be their primary water counsel, a role I served in for six years, traveling all over the world counseling plants on compliance and permitting issues, appealing and negotiating permits and orders with state and federal authorities, as well as becoming the corporation’s primary remediation attorney.
During 1998-2001, I would often think about how I could best combine my passions for music and the environment. Then, during the summer of 2001 at a concert by the Boulder-based band The String Cheese Incident, at the base of Mt. Shasta, Calif., it came to me: Create an environmental advocacy group that could work on issues for and with the music community. That was the start of Rock the Earth. The idea was to provide a service to the community (legal and technical assistance to underserved communities impacted by companies’ environmental practices) with a vehicle to fund that work (i.e., through the music community). The one common theme that I had seen while at government and with industry was that too often citizens had a case or a valid claim for relief, compensation, or curtailing industry activity, but seldom had the resources to take the fight to the only impartial arbiter in existence: the courtroom. They were often out-litigated by well-heeled lawyers and consultants funded by corporate dollars. What if there was a way to harness a multi-billion dollar industry like the music industry, full of passionate, intelligent, concerned artists who often felt strongly about environmental issues? The artists could promote the issues, donate songs for CDs, hold benefit concerts, and, if the issue was right and it made financial sense, the artist could donate funds (at a tax benefit) to the cause.
That’s really the purpose of Rock the Earth: to assist communities which need assistance in fighting these battles and to allow artists in the music industry to elevate their level of participation and impact that they can have on such matters.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
1. Artists’ agents who block our attempts to reach artists in the music industry when we’re just trying to tell them that we’re available to work on their issues.
2. Other environmental groups that see our niche as a threat to their potential donor rolls, so they don’t keep us in the loop on possible avenues for collaboration.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
Musicians. They are usually kind and courteous — even the semi-famous ones (I haven’t really met any A-list players — yet). Most have a story to tell once you get past the “Save the Whales” and “Save the Trees” stuff and try to find out what they really care about. Many have relatives or friends directly impacted by a landfill, by a logging company, by a factory or big-box development. That’s where we come in. Tell us your issue and let us see whether the issue is viable for us to take up.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Born in Philadelphia, Penn. I currently live in Denver, Colo.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
Watching people throw cigarette butts out of their car windows or onto the ground. Nothing ticks me off more. When I see someone do that and I’m behind them, I lean on my horn, but sadly, they probably don’t even know why I’m blowing it.
Who is your environmental hero?
Eric Schaeffer and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. With Eric, you had a guy who was an institution at the EPA, under administrations of both political parties and respected by a ton of people of all different stripes, who got fed up with the way the current administration was doing business. On his way out the door, he told it like it was without fear of consequences, all in the interest of shedding light on the practices of the Bush administration’s environmental enforcement methods. Then he went and obtained a grant from the Rockefeller Family Foundation to start his own environmental advocacy organization to insure that if the administration wouldn’t uphold the law anymore, his organization would.
With Kennedy, you have a guy who obviously doesn’t need to work the life of a public-interest attorney, but instead of not working at all or working for the corporate interests, he’s lecturing at law schools, running the Pace Law School’s Environmental Litigation Clinic, sitting on the boards of environmental groups (NRDC and Riverkeeper), and speaking around the country about the need for us to live more sustainable lives. His dedication to bettering ourselves and our society is an ethic that we can all learn from.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
George Bush, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Gale Norton, and Mike Leavitt in power for another four years.
What’s your environmental vice?
Paper. I know that I should use my printer less and read, review, and edit documents online, but as a lawyer, I just find it hard to do. I’ll print out a draft, mark it up, make the edits on the computer, and print out another draft. At least I try to use post-consumer recycled paper as much as possible.
How do you get around?
2000 Subaru Forester. When we were getting ready to take RtE on tour this summer to more than 50 concert events, we knew we needed a larger vehicle to haul the booth and materials around and allow for sleeping when needed on the road. With this in mind, we traded in our 2002 Subaru Impreza for a 2000 GMC Savanna conversion van. Horrible on mileage and makes me feel guilty every time I take it on the road, but it served us well this summer. In retrospect, I wish we had bought a VW van with a diesel engine and then at least we could have used biodiesel in the tank.
What are you reading these days?
Now that I’m living in the West (and only have one job instead of two), I finally have taken the time to start reading some Edward Abbey. Right now, I’m reading The Monkey Wrench Gang. Just to balance things out, I’m also reading Dennis McNalley’s extensive biography on the Grateful Dead, A Long Strange Trip. Most recently, I finished Lauren St. John’s biography on Steve Earle, appropriately titled Hardcore Troubadour: The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle.
What’s your favorite meal?
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
Yes. Mostly online publications. Mainstream — New York Times, Denver Post, Philly Daily News/Inquirer; alternative — CommonDreams.org, Mother Jones, Grist, ENN.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
Bearded, sandal-wearing guy who likes to listen to music like the Grateful Dead and commune with nature regularly.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The redwoods of Northern California. I have never felt closer to a supreme being than walking along the trails that spur from the Avenue of the Giants.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I would raise the CAFE standards and make alternative-fuel vehicles a requirement for all state and federal agencies.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
Yes, I would definitely consider myself an environmentalist. In my mind, anyone who thinks regularly about how their normal, everyday life could impact the environment should be considered an environmentalist. This isn’t an exclusive club. You don’t need to live on a platform in a tree or hike a mountain every weekend or even take up camping to be one. The term should apply as broadly as possible, because the more people start thinking of themselves as environmentalists, the more they will be open to taking additional actions along those lines. For example, if one thinks of themselves as an environmentalist because they recycle, they might take additional steps suggested to them to help protect the planet simply because they now consider themselves an environmentalist. The problem, though, then becomes that if someone thinks simply recycling makes them an environmentalist, they might not feel as if they need to take any additional steps beyond that.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Using the internet to get form comment letters into government.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
Sounding extremist, alarmist, and full of “Chicken Little” syndrome when it isn’t necessary. Calls to action are one thing, and while the average American doesn’t understand the science of some environmental issues, the key is to present the science in a way that the common person can understand. America operates in a mode of “show me the money” and “where’s the beef.” Show them the facts in a way that they can understand through media that the common person trusts (network news, musicians, athletes), and we’ll move further toward a healthier and more sustainable environment.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Obviously, my organization is very much tied to the music industry, so my roots as far as a love for music run deep. The first group that I really developed a passion for was the Beatles. When Lennon died, I was 12 and devastated. I wore a British flag around middle school that day. Then came the prog rock of bands like early Genesis and Rush. At 18, my favorite band had to be Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Until Bruce, no other band had moved me spiritually or spoke directly to me. In college it was all about Bruce and other American rockers like Mellencamp and REM, while I also had a group of friends who were Deadheads.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), I was working my way through college and couldn’t go out on tour with them — and they went everywhere to see the Dead. To the west coast, to Hampton, Va., to New York City, to D.C. I got to experience my first Dead show in the summer of 1990. After that, I was hooked. Throughout law school I traveled to see the Dead, and between 1990 and 1995, I managed to see roughly 35 Dead shows. After Garcia died, it was Phish (50 shows) and several other so-called “jam bands,” such as Leftover Salmon, Widespread Panic, moe., The Other Ones, Ratdog, The Dead, etc.
But until I saw a little band out of Boulder, Colo., called The String Cheese Incident, no other band had moved my soul like the Dead with Jerry. Finding SCI in early 1998 began to stir emotions and thoughts that I had long buried with Jerry, and I began once again to think progressively and selflessly about where I wanted my career to go. How could I combine music and the environment into a career? Then the Incident at Mt. Shasta happened, the idea for RtE was born, and the rest is history.
As for music now, my favorite band today still has to be SCI, as I’ve seen them well over 100 times all across North America. I’m also listening to newer bands such as Keller Williams, Hot Buttered Rum String Band, and New Monsoon.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
I really don’t watch TV anymore, but when I did, HBO had me with The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Bill Maher. I also like The Daily Show and The Simpsons. My guilty pleasures are Southpark and 24. Movies — Citizen Kane, a classic but a goodie. I also like Wall Street and all of the Tarantino movies.
Mac or PC?
I was raised on PC and feel I’m too far along to learn the Mac (now if Mac donates a bunch of computers to RtE, I suppose I’ll be forced to learn it).
What are you happy about right now?
I’m happy to finally be in a position to work on RtE full-time. To be able to visualize a dream, create the means to see it fulfilled, and still see that dream in one’s sights as it progresses along is really what life should be about. I’m also pretty damn happy to finally be living in a place as beautiful as Colorado!
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Take an afternoon in the woods along the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt County, Calif. Your life will be changed forever.
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