Ed Begley Jr. ...on Living Green
By Donna Strong



Ed Begley, Jr. has earned his stature as an American icon of environmental awareness in action. From an early Earth Day gestalt, he has been honing his commitment to live with environmental integrity for nearly four decades now. As a young man living in smog-choked Los Angeles in the 1970's, he was not able to breathe very well. Rather than bow to the overwhelming nature of the issue, Ed became a part of the environmental community whose tenacity and foresight is leaving a lasting legacy; vastly improved air for millions of Angelenos to breathe.

This pithy and practical actor and activist has been forging ahead with steadfast determination for many decades now, making responsible lifestyle choices that were beyond the reach of most. In auto-addicted America, not many would bike an hour-and-a-half to make a meeting because of their own high eco-lifestyle standards.

Since the 1980's Ed has been a familiar face on many well-known television shows, including his Emmy-nominated role as Dr. Victor Ehrlich on the long running hit series, St. Elsewhere.

More recently, his tried-and-true environmental calling led to his own HGTV reality show. Finished with its second season, the show is aptly named, Living With Ed. He and his co-star and life partner Rachelle Carson bring cutting-edge concerns to the fore that many households face - how to match environmental action with modern American quality-of-life issues. 2008 brought another green offshoot, an eco-lifestyle guide called Living Like Ed.

Not content to rest on his laurels, this award-winning Renaissance man is forging ahead to give time to six environmental organizations, while continuing his flourishing acting career mixing prime time television work with film. Of note, Ed will appear in Woody Allen's upcoming comedy film, Whatever Works, coming out later this year. For this year's issue of Awareness Magazine dedicated to the Environment, the busy Mr. Begley paused long enough to share some thoughts. We couldn't think of anything better as the promise of spring's new green begins to arrive.

Awareness: Having made a long commitment to green and sustainable lifestyle choices, I wanted to start by asking what has been most rewarding to you now that you are able to share your passion with others?

Ed: It's been very rewarding to know, everywhere I go, people are very anxious to do something, to take some action in regards to sustainability.

Awareness: I wanted to ask about this, because I recently read a magazine article about there being a gap between environmental concerns and social behavior. Are you suggesting more people are seeing that if there is a problem in the collective, they have to do their part?

Ed: Yes, I believe most people do. Not everyone is on board, but most people are motivated to want to do something, and many many people are doing something, they're taking some small action.

People see a connection between their actions and our problems with air pollution, let's say. They see the connection between their actions and our dependence on foreign oil. They see a connection between their actions and global climate change. People want to do something, they know that if they take action in their life, it will make a difference and they want to chip in.

Awareness: I think there's a lot of exuberance and momentum in people seeing what I call the win/win, which is what you're talking about. It's brilliant to show people how to take action in an accessible manner, and that all they have to do is take a step.

Ed: There are many people already doing something that has worked, and I'm asking them to do one more thing and then another thing, and to keep building and doing the things they can afford. If they do what I call the 'low hanging fruit' - the cheap and easy stuff first, then perhaps they'll want to do more.

I've never suggested that anyone do anything that is not fiscally sound, like going into debt to get solar panels or a wind turbine or some expensive technology. I want people to start with energy-efficient lighting, energy-saving thermostats, bike riding if weather permits, public transportation where its available, home gardening and composting.

All that stuff I just mentioned is dirt cheap. If you start there, you will save money, I guarantee it, and then you may want to buy a solar oven or a rain barrel to collect rainwater and you keep on going. It took me twenty years from the simple cheap and easy stuff in 1970, to be able to afford solar panels. That's what I'm hoping people will do, everything they can within their budget.

Awareness: I think this is a gap you're meeting in the public arena, to make environmental action accessible. Since you've done it in your life, who could be a better teacher than someone who knows what it's like to practice an eco-conscious lifestyle for a few decades?

Ed: You're kind, I have been doing it a while. You know, people understandably want to do the stuff that is the sexiest, if you will. "Wow, solar panels, they're great, I'm gonna put panels on my roof and make lots of solar." I want you to do that if you have a good site for it - a south facing or flat roof, then do it.

But before you put up solar panels, reduce your demand. See how much solar you are actually going to need. You may not need as many panels as you think if you weatherize your house in every way, like with weather stripping, and putting good insulation in the attic.

All this stuff will get you a lot more 'bang for your buck.' You'll find that you need a much smaller solar array than you thought you needed if you really really do all the stuff that is available today.

I did a show about my energy-efficient house built in 1936. Since I moved here in the late 80's, I made it energy efficient with things like double-pane windows, good insulation in the attic and walls, an energy-saving thermostat and lighting - boy, I've done it all.

In February of last year the crew wanted to do a home-energy audit and I said "Why?  I've done it all." They said "Yea, okay, it will be fun to show, it's like a body-building ad, before and after and you're the after."

They found huge gaps, because when I did this stuff in the late 80's they did not have an infrared camera in the insulator's bag of tools. They didn't do lower door testing or duct blasting on your air ducts. Now, with today's tools, I've further reduced my already low-energy bills. I went to half of the electricity I was using before this, and half of the natural gas use!

Awareness: That's very compelling!

Ed: That's what we need to do. Can you imagine if the 120 million homes in this country had the money to reduce energy use because of a visionary on the environment like Barack Obama and the people he is surrounding himself with? 

Imagine if the Federal government just paid for a home audit with an infrared camera, the lower door test, the duct blast testing, then people have a checklist of the cheap, and easy stuff they can do, with nobody stepping outside their budget.

Today can you afford the energy-saving lighting, tomorrow the energy-saving thermostat, then weather stripping... Imagine what would happen in this country if our demand for energy would plummet?

Awareness: We'd be much more secure in our energy independence. It seems like we're seeing that people are aware they are participating in something greater, and that's really good.

Ed: I think people are starting to see that now. I think it's a very very good time. We have to talk about how there's so much energy wasted. In my house, if the energy demand for electricity and natural gas can be reduced by 50%, imagine what can be done to other homes in America. It's extraordinary!

Awareness: I think one of the things people are starting to get is that it is actually patriotic to be energy efficient and are taking action for green momentum.

Ed: Yes, a lot of people have gotten the patriotism angle, and they want to do something. I'm encouraged that more and more people watching the show are not just the VW bus, tie-dye and solar festival crowds.

There is another demographic we found among the viewers that was Republican. Red-State Republicans began writing to me and saying "I don't always agree with you politically Mr., but where can I get one of those rain barrels? " It's a good day, when you're not always preaching to the converted. We have lots of people out there who are conservative and want to conserve... how wonderful is that?

Awareness: I think that's what we want, to find the positive common ground in our democracy, isn't it?

Ed: Yes.

Awareness: What do you see with Obama's administration, it seems as though we are about to build some green infrastructure and put some new policies into practice...

Ed: I think we're looking at a very good time for the environment with this new administration. He has surrounded himself with smart people who understand the nexus between energy efficiency and fiscal responsibility and will use that to great advantage.

Awareness: How do you see us shifting from a consumptive culture, not just having to be about things...

Ed: Now you are into the mother lode, it's the big issue. At the end of the day, you can get excessive with solar panels, or someone might say, "I've got ten electric cars or a dozen hybrids." There's a limit to anything. I think we need to recognize that at the root of all of this is the way we need to rush around and consume... to find some measure of happiness in our lives. I really think we have to look at that.

I am not a Luddite, and I don't live in a yurt in Topanga, although I have some friends who do and I love them. I'm not prepared at this point in my life to do that. I have a fax machine and a computer and a cell phone, and these are the tools I need to spread the word as I travel around the country and do the other things I do for now.

I live a fairly modern existence but I keep it pretty simple. I have a small house by Hollywood standards, but it's a palace by world standards at 1700 square feet. Living simply is at the root of all of this for me, and we also need to slow down! Rushing is what got us into this.

Awareness: What do you think we've been rushing to?

Ed: People are rushing because so many are not capable of living in the moment. They think it's going to be better tomorrow because they're going to get a bigger house or car or salary. Again, I'm not sitting on the side of a hill and just spinning a prayer wheel and meditating. I have a very modern life, working in the mainstream.

Having said that, I try to keep a balance, and very little of my happiness is based on the material world. I want to keep my family warm in the winter and cool in the summer and shaded from the sun and clothed and fed. Beyond that, I try to keep away from a lot of the excess.

Awareness: I think people feel caught in a loop something like, 'I have to do it because others are doing it.'

Ed: And the rushing is at the root of all of it, we all have to slow down, even in the environmental movement. "Okay, okay," I say to them, "I want to save the environment too, but you need to calm down. Take a breath." We need to have some quiet time if we are going to save the wetlands and the redwoods.

Awareness: I agree, it is as though everyone is hyper vigilant. What do you see happening now; what qualities do you think we need to meet the challenges of our times? I'm thinking of imagination, the ability to think and act 'outside the box' of the status quo...

Ed: I think we need to step outside the box and rethink a lot of what we consider the norm - that you have to live in the suburbs and commute downtown for instance, that you have to have a lawn in Southern California, or that you need to have a car at all. Many people could live without a car but they're just not aware of it.

We need to rethink a lot of things instead of, 'well you've gotta have this.' Is that really true? We need to think outside the box about what we want and what we need, and finally determine if happiness is really based on getting a third DVD player.

The Gross National Product (GNP) is how we determine our financial wealth, yet this 'thermometer' offers no really useful information at the end of the day. Because the economy is based on this kind of consumption, scaling down is going to cause an upheaval for now. We have to rethink what we count as wealth.

Awareness: Why don't we rename the GNP to be 'Green National Product.' It would be amazing how the economy could grow, since there is tremendous potential to keep regenerating by going in this direction.

Ed: I think we have to redefine what we view as progress if we're really going to move forward. We have to reassess where we're headed. As I see it, we need to live simply so that others can simply live.

Awareness: I think that is a very inclusive message. Are there any cautionary notes about the current buzz about going green?

Ed: Yes, I'd be aware of green washing and use of terms such as 'green' and 'environmentally-friendly.' They don't really have any meaning. I'd stick with Green Seal certification and things like that.

Awareness: That is a great thing for people to be aware of. I understand you are the spokesperson for Earth Cinema Circle and I know this form of media and your show have great value to inform people, but what impact have you seen?

Ed: I've seen people around the country have a great thirst for credible information. They are looking for someone who is knowledgeable on ground-water contamination, ocean pollution or bio-fuels. They are looking for someone who has some amount of knowledge.

Awareness: I've noticed in the past year, all of a sudden wherever I was grocery shopping, there were people carrying their reusable bags. What kind of markers have you seen about how we are taking positive action in favor of our environment?

Ed: Yes, I'm struck by the way people are buying things that save them money and protect the environment, such as how well the Prius is selling. When the price of gas was so high, a lot of people were riding their bikes and taking public transportation. Whatever way we can get people's attention, it is very helpful.

Awareness: I think one of the keys is to build a sense that making positive environmental choices is 'cool' socially in order to reach a critical mass for making eco-lifestyle choices. That's where you are making a very significant contribution from your own passion and commitment.

Ed: Leonardo di Caprio has also been really helpful in doing this so people pay attention.

Awareness: You and Rachelle have a great back and forth in your household about environmental issues vs. design and creature comforts. Since we all have issues where we need to find beneficial common ground, would you share with us about how you two have been able to find that place?

Ed: This is what's so successful about the show because there are many couples out there like us, and often the gender switches, a woman will come up and say "I'm more like you and my husband is more like my wife!" It's great because at the end of the day our little reality program shows you can do that, you can have environmental stewardship and it can look good. As an example, I made a garden that looked really good when I planted it around 1989, but then I got busy and let it go and it didn't look good. So Rachelle noticed and said "This garden looks like hell." I went "oh, yea, maybe it doesn't look so good - I didn't notice over the years." Now we have a wonderful drought-tolerant garden that uses exactly the same amount of water and it looks great. We like to demonstrate that you don't need to sacrifice either.

Awareness: I think it gets us back again to a sense of democracy, even in our own households, that although we may have different perspectives, out of our interactions to find a common ground, something really good can come about.

Ed: Yes, there is certainly common ground. I find that both on the show and off. For example, with the auto industry and power industry, there have been some great relationships forged. Many years ago the environmental community worked with Toyota, and look how well they have done with the Prius and with all their hybrids - they're not hurting the way the big three automakers are.

Awareness: Very true. Any last words?

Ed: Just to simplify your life in everyway you can... it's better for the environment and for your own serenity. If stuff really made us happy, there would be nothing but happy people in Bel Air and unhappy people living in the bush. You know, I've never seen a hearse with a luggage rack on top so I don't know why everybody is trying to accumulate so much stuff.

For more information on Ed's green life, visit www.edbegley.com  or www.livingwithed.net 

Donna Strong is a writer who loves all things green. For more information see www.donnastrong.com  or www.growingupgreen.la 

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