Green Is King!
On the second day of New York’s Go Green Expo, the first day in which it was open to the general public, the place was packed! On an almost freakishly beautiful March Saturday, with the temperatures climbing at least twenty degrees above normal, hundreds of people chose to spend their day off right here, at Pier 92, to check out the cutting edge in sustainable living for every aspect of their lives.
However, I couldn’t allow myself to be distracted because I didn’t want to miss the “star” speakers today. Now, I should clarify my position here vis-a-vis the Celebrity Thing. Some years ago, I worked — and believe me, it was work — as an extra in movies, on TV and in commercials, so I was rubbing elbows with famous people on a daily basis. And the big names generally didn’t impress me very much. I mean, it’s really hard to have much reverence for a person, no matter how well-known, while observing him or her pouncing on the food from craft service with the same shameless gluttony as oneself. But activists do impress me, and I’m fascinated by the combination of show-biz success and sincere ideals. And today’s program offered not one but two such stars: Matthew Modine and Ed Begley, Jr. Indeed, the latter has become as famous for his environmentalism, if not more so, than his (non-reality show) film and TV credits.
Mr. Modine, who was sporting an impressive beard (he’s currently appearing in the Broadway production of The Miracle Worker), spoke to us about two topics: the fortieth anniversary of the first Earth Day, with a current campaign to drive the movement forward called the “E Campaign,” and an organization he founded called “Bicycle for a Day” to encourage city dwellers to use bicycles rather than motor vehicles as their main source of transportation.
To that end, he showed a brief video of himself (sans beard) happily bike-riding around New York City — without a helmet. Afterwards, poor Matthew was taken to task by an audience member for his lack of headgear, and she refused to let the issue go, taking up Modine’s, and the audience’s, valuable time. Hey, lady, I wanted to say (but didn’t), you’re way off-topic: this is an environmental expo, not a personal safety expo!
When Modine was finally allowed to talk about what he came to discuss, he had interesting things to say. He observed that the 200-plus-year-long Industrial Revolution, which has been responsible for transforming the earth and which now threatens our very lives, is but a split-second in the geological history of the earth, which is itself but a moment in the history of the universe. He seemed to be saying that the things we think are so important are actually insignificant in the great scheme of things, and we can begin to turn things around when we realize that.
He gave an effective answer when someone asked him about Obama’s nuclear policy: “It’s a temporary solution to a permanent problem.” He pointed out that, even if the proposed plants actually get built, aside from the problems involved in the dangers of uranium mining and of nuclear waste, there exists only enough uranium to supply our energy needs for 20 years. “Should we spend billions of dollars for 20 years of energy?”
Modine also had another intriguing idea: instead of bailing out the auto industry, subsidize it to switch from the manufacture of autos and trucks to light-rail transport. In the 19th Century, not only America but relatively non-industrialized nations like Russia sacrificed to create viable rail networks in their countries. Those networks were themselves sacrificed to the almighty auto. It’s time for America, said Modine, to revive this cleaner mode of transport.
After his talk, when I asked him my standard question (“The future of solar is…?”), Modine answered, “The future of solar is almost eternal energy.” He clarified by pointing out that the sun, like all other heavenly bodies, must one day become extinct. Hey, I’m not like little Alvy Singer in Annie Hall: I’m more than happy to concentrate on life on earth in the next eon or two, and let what comes afterwards take care of itself!
I was expecting no less than an outstanding presentation from Ed Begley, Jr. — and he did not disappoint, in either the informational or comedy departments. He began by pointing out that his marriage to his beloved wife Rachelle boasted the only pre-nup agreement to include carbon credits. He also complained because his wife accused him of being insensitive to her needs, just because he bought her a hemp thong for her birthday. Talk about petty!
He soon turned serious, but not solemn. Surprisingly, he did not attempt to refute the climate change deniers (of which there were most probably precisely none in that audience). Instead, he focused on assertions that were totally non-controversial. He began with the adverse health effects of air pollution around the world, as well as the contamination of ground water with such substances as benzine, pesticides and herbicides. He reminded the audience of how the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire from pollution in 1969 and how fisherman on the Hudson came back from the Vietnam War only to find themselves unemployed because of river pollution.
Yet, unlike most environmental prophets of doom, he took care to point out the good things that have already happened. Thanks to the Clean Air Act, the smog in L.A. has been cut in half. Due to the Clean Water Act, rivers no longer catch fire and the Hudson (though far from ideal) is much cleaner. Even the hole in the ozone layer has shrunk.
“If we do this [environmental reform] smart, we won’t go broke!” What is good for the ecology may also be good for the pocketbook, Begley insisted. He recalled the first Earth Day forty years ago, and said that part of the reason he chose to participate in that event was to honor his (Republican) father, the wonderful actor Ed Begley, Sr. , whose conservatism ironically taught his more liberal son how to conserve.
As a poor struggling actor in the 1970s, he entered the green lifestyle modestly. His electric car was more like a glorified golf cart. Yet it was cheaper to plug it in than to buy gas for a “real” car, and it required practically zero maintenance. He bought a solar oven, then bought solar-powered water heating in 1985 (when there were no subsidies). Finally, he went all the way and got solar electric in 1990. But his ultimate innovation was to build a fence for his house out of recycled (white) plastic water jugs. (Actually, I had seen this infamous fence in the charming film Pittsburgh with Begley and Jeff Goldblum, and wondered at the time if it was for real.)
Begley summed up his message as “don’t ever be discouraged.” He pointed out the two lies about the environment currently being promulgated in the culture and emphasized that both of them must be fought:
- There really is no environmental problem;
- There is an environmental problem, but it’s too late to solve it.
Alluding to the Climategate so-called scandal, he compared it to the O.J. Simpson trial, in which Mark Furman’s behavior was enough to get all his evidence against the former athlete thrown out. Thus, some “wacky emails from East Anglia” were enough for some people to conclude (falsely) that the whole climate change evidence was fraudulent.
Referring to the theory that the melting of the polar icecaps are due merely to natural causes, Begley pointed out that, even if one accepts that idea, everybody knows that human-made CO2 would make such “natural” warming even warmer. “Why put a feverish patient in a sauna?” he asked.
He strongly disagreed with Obama’s stance on nuclear power, because:
- “I don’t want more fissile material for people to get their mitts on;”
- Nobody wants either a reactor or nuclear waste near where they live; and
- Both people and computers make mistakes.
Asked whether the cost will come down on solar panels, he said he thought the price would become much cheaper than before. But he said that this would probably happen with solar panels covered with amorphous coatings, which are indeed less expensive, but also less efficient.
Begley said several things with which I disagreed, such as his comments in favor of cap-and-trade, but at the end I gladly joined the audience in the enthusiastic applause. Yet when I headed for the booth where he was signing copies of his book, Living Like Ed, I felt some trepidation. Would he be annoyed that I did not buy a copy for him to sign, since I am, as they say, “in transition,” and thus could not really afford to purchase it?
I greeted him and he warmly shook my impoverished book-free hand. I asked him my standard question.
“The future of solar,” he said, “is government subsidies to move things along quickly.” Then I took his picture (twice) and moved on to make room for the next person in line.
I should point out that because of a problem either with my camera itself or (more likely) the lab to which I brought the film for development, my pictures of Matthew and Ed unfortunately do not exist for me to grace this blog. You have only my report of the event to go on. But I think I have conveyed how interesting and inspiring it was.