Michael Kieschnick, president of Working Assets, answers questions
What work do you do?
I am the president of Working Assets, a social-change company that uses the business of wireless and credit cards to achieve environmental and social progress. Over the years, we have also generated over $50 million in donations to progressive groups, many of them working for wonderful environmental causes. Our customers have also written, called, and emailed at least 4 million times over the years in support of environmental action. I think I have the best job in the world.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am very excited about a couple of major environmental projects. To help those who drive lower their CO2 emissions, we have built a simple tool that lets consumers compare the CO2 emissions of essentially all used and new cars. We are also spending lots of time battling new coal-fired power plants — in fact, we would like to see no new coal plants. We have been part of coalitions that have blocked a dozen plants so far — only a hundred or more to go. Right now we are working in the great states of Michigan, Iowa, and Kansas. You can check out our Iowa campaign here.
How do you get to work?
I drive a Prius — my family has two. I usually leave home by 6:30 a.m. to beat the horrible traffic.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
My environmental activism started in second grade, when I pulled up the wooden stakes marking the outlines of roads that would eventually destroy my favorite wild meadow near our house in Dallas, Texas. Later, I was inspired by the first Earth Day and the classic book Limits to Growth to earn undergraduate degrees in biology and economics. I convinced the National Science Foundation to fund my Ph.D. work with a proposal entitled “A Return to the Biophysical Foundations of Economics” in which I proposed to integrate the second law of thermodynamics and general equilibrium economics. That turned out to be too hard! I then moved on to working at the U.S. EPA, then as economic adviser to then-California Governor Jerry Brown, and eventually became a social entrepreneur. I started a small social venture fund called the Sand County Venture Fund, along with co-founding Working Assets.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1953 into what would now be called a liberal middle-class family in a right-wing town. My parents helped to start one of the liberal antiwar, pro-integration churches in town (the public schools were racially segregated until I got to sixth grade). Dallas was a great place to grow up if you were white, middle class, went to church, and played football, and not so good for everyone else. Now I live in Palo Alto, Calif., which could not be more different.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Easily the worst was when George W. Bush was allowed by Florida state officials and the Supreme Court to steal the 2000 presidential election. We worked very hard to stop this theft and failed. The cost has been almost unbearably catastrophic.
What’s been the best?
There have been many! Among the ones that come to mind is our two-decades-long effort to prevent despoiling of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and our successful effort to get Mercedes-Benz to agree to pay reparations to the workers it used as slave labor during World War II.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
I am aggravated every day by Rep. John Dingell‘s short-sighted protection of the American auto industry from being forced to modernize and make more fuel-efficient cars. Though he claims to care about the good middle-class jobs of autoworkers, the real result of his obstruction has been the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, with more coming every year that Detroit avoids facing the reality of global warming. While everyone should be free to marry whomever they love, his marriage to a senior executive of General Motors seems to have gotten in the way of protecting the environment.
Who is your environmental hero?
Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac. His writings on a “land ethic” have influenced everything I do. He asserted, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
What’s your environmental vice?
It has to be drinking Dr. Pepper out of cans (even though I recycle). I had two aunts who worked at the Dr. Pepper bottling plant in Dallas where I grew up, and I’ve been addicted ever since. And while it is not my vice, my son has a truck (yes, he did carbon offsets, but still!).
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Read any good books lately?
My family thinks I work all the time, but I do have free time and would love more. I am spending a lot of time riding a bicycle, getting ready for a cycling vacation in September. I also spent quite a bit of time with The Beatitudes Society, which is preparing seminarians to be social-change agents, and with the Secretary of State Project, which helps to elect chief elections officers who are committed to clean elections in battleground states.
Working Assets selects and sells five progressive books each month in our phone bills, so I see literally hundreds of great books every year. I really enjoyed reading Plug-in Hybrids by Sherry Boschert, who spoke to several hundred people at a luncheon at Working Assets.
What’s your favorite meal?
My birthday dinner, which almost always ends either with German chocolate cake or Boston cream pie.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
What kind of question is this? Surely every Eagle Scout who played high-school football in Texas grows up to be an environmentalist.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe is the place I have spent the most magical moments backpacking with friends and family over the last four decades.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
This one is easy. I would like to see car and truck fuel-efficiency standards raised quite a bit — say to a fleet average of at least 40 miles per gallon over 10 years. It is somewhat horrifying to recall that this action was the first Working Assets citizen action in 1991. It is maddening that decades have passed since there has been any real progress, even though the technology exists.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
When I was 18, it was probably a three-way tie between Tom Rush, Jefferson Airplane, and Holly Near. Now it would be Sting — for Father’s Day, my 17-year-old daughter took me to The Police reunion concert, which was heaven.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
How can it be anything other than The Daily Show? During these bizarre times, I need a lot of good laughs delivered smartly. Easily my favorite movie has to be The Mission, the great story of ambition and betrayal of native peoples, starring Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons. It is haunting and the music will never leave you.
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Surely they should become a Working Assets Wireless customer, which would connect them to hundreds of thousands of others who care deeply about the environment and are working hard to reverse the damage.