Ed Begley Jr. is Optimistic About the Environment (And He Thinks You Should Be Too)

By Matt Baker

“There were no energy saving thermostats then, there were no compact fluorescent bulbs, there wasn’t a fraction of the things that we have today. We’ve come a long way.”

“You don’t run up Mt. Everest,” Ed Begley Jr. likes to say when encouraging people to live as sustainably as they are able, not as they feel that they must. “You get to base camp and you get acclimated. Then you climb only has high as you can.”

You may know the veteran actor from his breakout role on St. Elsewhere or one of the hundreds of movies and TV shows he has appeared in since. You might also know him as an environmental activist; Begley, along with his wife, Rachelle Carson, starred in Living With Ed, which followed the couple as they bantered about just how sustainable of a lifestyle one can lead, whether that’s installing solar panels or pedaling a stationary bike to generate the energy needed to make toast. “We have the only Hollywood marriage I know of with a pre-nup that includes carbon credits,” he said.

Begley acknowledges his father—the actor Ed Begley Sr., “a conservative who liked to conserve”—with instilling in him a reverence for nature. Starting with the first Earth Day in 1970, he has tried to lead an environmentally responsible life, such as making energy upgrades on his 1936-built home and investing in a commercial wind turbine.

Begley was in Schaumburg recently to deliver the keynote address at the Better Buildings: Better Business conference. He agreed to sit and discuss the environmental challenges and successes he’s experienced over the years, the politics of sustainability and the new, LEED Platinum house he and his wife will soon construct and document for On Begley Street.

Could you give me a brief description of the house featured on your show?
I bought it in 1988 and it’s a 1,600 square foot house. When I moved into it, I quickly realized turning on the heating or air that it was highly inefficient. It was leaking like a sieve. So I did all the cheap and easy stuff right away: weather stripping, energy saving thermostat, energy efficient lighting, attic insulation. Right away the bills dropped. I had some very old windows that were damaged and needed to be replaced anyway. T. M. Cobb, the original manufacturer from 1936 is still in business, so I put in T. M. Cobb double pane windows. Then I blew cellulose insulation in the walls, you know, recycled newspaper. I put in recycled denim in the attic.

This is in ’88?
No, in ’88 I put cellulose in the attic and then later did the denim. That cellulose from ‘88 had settled. So I put in the recycled denim in 2007. But at each one of those stages, I could see the bills drop. And because I live in noisy L.A., the other comfort benefit, besides the house not being drafty, was noise. It got quiet as a church in there.

In talking about your very humble beginnings trying to live more sustainably, you mentioned grabbing the low hanging fruit and gradually adding more ambitious projects onto the house. Were there financial or availability challenges back in those days?
There were some challenges. As a perfect example, the light bulbs back in 1988 and 1989 were very expensive. There’s good news and bad news with that. They’re very expensive, but some of these old Panasonic lights are still working. It’s not like they just got occasional use and that’s why they lasted 22 years. They’re in my office, I had them on every night.

Energy saving thermostat, that was not a problem back in ’88 and ’89. They started having those at Home Depot then. They got more sophisticated and easier to use, but the basic idea is the same: wake and sleep, leave and return modes; you program it to your lifestyle.

Being kind of a gearhead, I’m one of those people that didn’t have to be coerced to really make it an efficient device. Most people don’t do the important thing of programming it, they just leave it on the default settings. It’s going to do you a little bit of good I suppose, but if you program it for your leave at nine a.m. return at five kind of stuff and if you well insulate, it’s not like your house is going to get freezing cold in the winter for the pets or what have you. You’re not going to have ice on your countertop, it’s just going to be a little bit cooler. But it’s going to be nice and comfortable when you return to your home.

It was certainly a challenge. Let me really back up to 1970. There were no energy saving thermostats then, there were no compact fluorescent bulbs, there wasn’t a fraction of the things that we have today. Weather stripping you had to put up with carpet tacks—there was no adhesive-backed weather stripping back then. So we’ve come a long way.

What did you do after the weather stripping and insulation?
Light bulbs, weather stripping, insulation and thermostats. Those were the first steps in ‘88 when I moved in. And the insulation was a good deal. They were starting to be energy conscious at some utilities, certainly the company now known as Semper Energy, which was known as Southern California Gas back then. They had a zero interest loan to put in attic insulation. How do I lose at this game? Interest rates were 11% or something back then. So yeah, come in and put some insulation in my attic. I paid it off over time. What I paid for that loan was less than the savings I was getting on my natural gas bill. So I made use of those things. There were some things that were available, some that were not, but that’s how I started. Then two years later, 1990, that’s when I put in the solar electric on my roof.

Have any new challenges cropped up in the last few years?
I’m always talking about the things that work. It’s important I suppose to talk about the things that didn’t. I was a big fan and spokesperson for vertical axis wind turbines. Traditional ones like the one I bought in 1985 in the California desert as an investment, those are horizontal axis, like a pinwheel.

In municipalities like L.A., you can’t have a wind turbine. Why? Because of the hazard of a big Cuisinart on your roof. And the noise; if you want to tolerate it, will your neighbor be happy with it? So you can’t have them. I think that’s probably a good rule.

So with these vertical axis wind turbines, now there’s no bird death, no bat death, it’s not harming any wildlife. And the quiet, it’s wonderful. The only problem is, I know they don’t put out a lot of noise, they also don’t put out a lot of power. I kept searching for the holy grail of vertical axis wind turbines. I decided to stand down for a while until someone is highly successful over a period of time. The units that I would go and test worked well, but they were prototypes. When they made them in production they didn’t work as well. So that was a misstep.

There was a gray water system … Again very well intentioned people at every turn, nobody was doing anything that was improper. But the gray water system I had had some problems, so I’m not going to put a gray water system on the new house. But I will have rainwater catchment. I’ll have a big rainwater tank of about 10,000 gallons, much bigger than what I have now which is a 550 gallon rainwater catchment.

It sounds like the driving force for the new house might be Rachelle. What drove you to build the new house as opposed to staying where you were and comfortable and had put so much effort in?
First of all, I’ve been married now twelve years and going with Rachelle nineteen years, so I like the idea of being a good partner and not always saying no. Then there was the idea of actually having lower energy bills than I have today, which are pretty darn low. Bigger vegetable garden, more rainwater catchment, all those ideas appealed to me so I said yes to it.

She just wants more closet space, let’s be honest. She wants a bathroom that she’s not sharing with her soon-to-be thirteen year old daughter. So she has some good points too. That could get dicey as Hayden approaches teen years, to be sharing a bathroom with a thirteen year old. There’s some validity to that. The house we live in now is very small. It’s a mansion by world standards. By Hollywood standards it’s a shack.

The rainwater that you’re going to capture, how will you be using that?
Just the garden.

No toilets?
We’ll see about that. It’s possible it will flush some toilets. But it will all be purple pipe so that any plumber in the future will know right away that this isn’t something you can hook up to an ice maker or drinking fountain. It’s purple pipe water and can be used to flush toilets, but I think we’re just going to use it in the garden because I’m going to have a lot of vegetables and a lot of fruit trees, as I have now. But even more of both, so I’ll need some water and most of the year it will come from rainwater. If you’re saving 10,000 gallons and you last had rain let’s say in April or May, you can make it to July or August with that amount if you’re careful with your water.

I take it you travel quite a bit and when you do, you stay in hotels. What frustrates you the most when you’re on the road and you’re in unsustainable environments like hotels.
There are some frustrations, but I’m the guy who always sees the glass as more than half full. I’m just so pleased nowadays that hotels have compact fluorescent bulbs in every fixture. Normally when I come to Chicago, if I have to fly and I’m not able to drive in a hybrid, I take my CTA pass which I keep in the briefcase. But here [in Schaumburg] this was a challenge. I pressed the little transit icon on my iPhone and there was no public transportation here so I had to get in a cab.

And then I met this guy Tim who came out here who said, “No, you can take the Metra rail out to here,” and then he walked like three miles. Buddy, you’ve out-Begleyed Ed Begley. He lives here, so he knew. But that’s what it’s all about. It’s doing the best you can. I try to avoid flying but sometimes you have to. Monday in L.A. and then Tuesday in Illinois, so I get in a plane like anybody else and then buy a Terra Pass, a carbon offset.

For years I didn’t travel for that very reason. People would say, “We want you to come to our energy saving conference in Indiana.” I said, “Good, here’s my contribution to your energy saving conference: I’m not coming. I’m going to save the jet fuel, I’m not going to come, but I’ll make a videotape and mail it to you or something.” That was what I did for years. And then David Suzuki, a noted Canadian geneticist and environmentalist, said, “Ed, I love that you’re driving around L.A. on your bike or your electric car telling people about this stuff, but it’s also important to get out in the world and to share your knowledge about energy efficiency.”

So those are some of the frustrations. But people are really trying and I think the biggest hurdle we have to overcome is making sure that everybody has the information, a list of things they can do. People have decided to stand down on the environment because they think they have to run out and buy solar panels or an expensive electric car. There are other things you can do. Light bulbs, thermostats, weather stripping; stuff that’s going to save them money right away. That’s green stuff too.

The ozone hole was largely healed because of the Montreal Protocol and you mentioned the smog in L.A. which, if not gone, is largely cleared up. Those are success stories. But we still seem to be fighting about whether or not climate change is an actual threat. Is the political will not quite there right now?
I don’t think the political will is there now. The front door is locked on climate change in many peoples’ minds. They will not go to the NASA website and see the information there. And if they do, they think they’re part of the conspiracy too. So if you’re not going to get in the front door, you have to go in the side door and say, let’s do it for these other reasons.

Boone Pickens, an oil man, is on the same page as me. $350 million a year is leaving the country to imported oil. He’s in favor of wind power too. Lets agree with Boone Pickens on this. How is Boone Pickens part of the conspiracy? What’s wrong as a conservative, with conserving? I learned all these wonderful environmental things from my dad. Forget about what we don’t agree on. You don’t believe in climate change? Fine, let’s do this. That’s what I do, not beat my head against the front door, just go in the side door.

A conservative who liked to conserve: U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (left) in Yosemite National Park with Sierra Club founder John Muir. Photor courtesy Library of Congress.

You mentioned that your father was a conservative who liked to conserve, but the overlap currently between conservatives and conservationists is so small. Why do you think that is?
I’m a Democrat, but I don’t know how the Democrats have taken this from the conservatives to conserve. It’s my dad’s ethic, it’s Teddy Roosevelt kind of stuff. I don’t know how we’ve grabbed it but we have. But believe me there are plenty of Democrats that are in with the oil companies too.

But it seems to be much more of a progressive thing than a conservative thing, and that’s unfortunate, I think. It’s not the way it’s been historically. Hopefully that will change. As quickly as I say that, there are many, many Republicans that I’ve run into all around the country who say, “I don’t agree with you on this, but I’ll tell you, I like what you’re doing because your actually doing it, not just talking about it.” And these are good things that are going to save us money. It will be good for the country to get off foreign oil.

Are you optimistic on that front? Do you see some of those minds actually changing?
Yeah, I see peoples’ minds changing. But I think it’s human nature. I think there’s going to have to be some very clear signs of large amounts of ice sliding off of Greenland or Antarctica or something. The ice that’s already in the water is one thing, that’s like ice in a glass that melts. It doesn’t go over the top, but the ice on the edge of the glass that melts, that’s going to make it overflow. The stuff that’s on land in Greenland and Antarctica, that’s the real challenge. That could have some unfortunate consequences for conservatives and progressives alike in south Florida and lower Manhattan and the poor people in the Marshall Islands and elsewhere.

It’s so interesting to me that the people are looking with a jewelers eye at every email from some scientist about a hockey stick. They’re looking with incredible detail at every little thing, but the one basic statement is just a statement: you go broke with all the green stuff. That they don’t inspect. They don’t scrutinize that statement for a moment. Why are jobs on oil derricks and coal mines better jobs than making wind turbines and double pane windows? What’s different? Do they pay them in a different currency? They’re jobs and jobs of dignity.

And nobody is suggesting that you stop burning coal tomorrow and stop drilling for oil. These lights will go off and the groceries won’t get to the store. But you start to move in another direction. That direction is enabled by energy efficiency and then you move towards renewables with a steady, serious pace. And you retrain people; as there are less jobs in coal mines, we’ll have more jobs making solar panels and wind turbines.

For a while, there was a guy, John Brown, at BP and he was the first [in the industry] to say that climate change was real. The head of an oil company said that climate change is real and we’re going to begin to do something about it.

They had that unfortunate spill in the Gulf of course, but he made this statement repeatedly that we are an energy company and we’re going to make the best solar panels and what have you. Now, sadly, they’ve discontinued the solar panel production and they had the problem in the Gulf.

If I was the head of that company, I would have said, “This is terrible and for now, we’ve put a hold on some of this deep water drilling. But in the meantime, we want to get these people to work. We happen to make solar panels, so we’re going to be out there with shovels tomorrow breaking ground on a new solar panel plant and were going to make panels in Louisiana.”

Would have been brilliant PR. It also would have been something of substance, it wouldn’t just be PR. And they are an energy company. You make money selling crude and the refined products, I understand that, but you also can make money selling solar panels. So I’ll be happy when they all realize that they are energy companies and that energy comes in many forms.

BP is an interesting specific company. For a while they were rebranding themselves…
Beyond Petroleum.

Right, Beyond Petroleum. But even before the spill, they were diverging away from that. Is it just a path of least resistance? Oil is here and its cheap and its easy for us? Why did they seemingly abandon that avenue?
I think people don’t take it seriously and they haven’t seen enough evidence that it really is going to be taken seriously by the public. It’s like Who Killed the Electric Car. The head of GM, from early on, said these are a bunch of golf carts, we really were forced by California law to do it. We don’t like it, we’re going to do it and prove that this is a joke.

The fix was in—not by everybody at GM, there are many engineers and middle management that really believed in the electric car—but a lot of people at the top thought it was a bad idea. They hated being forced to do it by California law and they had their minds made up that it was going to fail and of course it did.

Well, when they asked [former CEO Rick] Wagoner when he left GM what’s the biggest mistake he made, he said “Killing the electric car.” And now you have the Chevy Volt, plug-in electrics, Nissan Leaf and others.

What’s wrong with the plug-in hybrid? It’s the best of both worlds. You can drive to new York in it if you need to and you can plug it in for those crucial, key first forty miles, which is 90% of our driving. They’re all in the game now. It was a little early for [GM]. Maybe it was a little early for BP. But I’ll tell you this: when you have [29] people dying at Massey Coal in 2010 and then later that same year with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, 11 people dying there—when people are dying so we can have cheap energy, the least we can do is what they did in World War II.

People got together and saved tires for the rubber and pots and pans for the metal to put in battleships and do their part. The least we can do is put up some light bulbs and some weather stripping and do something for the people who are out there in coal mines and on oil rigs dying so we can have cheap energy. My God, if we can’t do that, what’s wrong with us?

Well, during the ‘40’s, there was a direct threat. There was a war on. Today, I think, it’s a little bit more ephemeral, the threat. People think, “It’s not going to affect us, its decades from now.” What path do you think will be most efficient in terms of living more environmentally-friendly: education of both the public and policy makers or advancements in technology in terms of energy conservation?
I think education. I’m all for advancements in technology. I’d hate to shut anybody out, but education is key. People must not get it still that they can save money doing this stuff because people are still not buying the energy efficiency light bulbs in the numbers that I think are appropriate. This is the cheap stuff, the stuff you can get nearly free. They’re having light bulb giveaway programs at utilities and not enough people are showing up to get a free light bulb. What do you have to do? So I think its education. People think its baloney, they think it’s some sort of granola notion and they don’t want to be part of it when it’s as American as apple pie and as conservative as my dad and Teddy Roosevelt.

You were very engaging and funny during your delivery earlier. Is that the way to do it? How do we engage the more hard-headed on this topic?
I think humor is very helpful. Jon Stewart uses humor in his show to great effect. I use it on the show Living with Ed. I’ve had environmental shows in the past. I had one on in the mid-‘90’s; it was on at 4 a.m. on the Discovery Channel. Nobody, including myself, really every saw it. I never saw my own show. It was on at 4 a.m., I’m not going to get up at 4 a.m. and watch a show, because there was no humor in it. It was very factual stuff about saving energy and protecting the environment. Good companies doing good green things. It was “just the facts, ma’am.”

Rachelle is the one that was promoting the idea of doing this reality show with she and I and our very unusual way of dealing with each other. “What do you mean? What are you doing? You’re riding a bike to make toast? You’re an idiot.” That kind of reality show fodder. And people ate it up with a spoon. I got my message out finally because of my wife. I wasn’t getting my message out effectively at all. The humor of it, and that engagement, made it palatable to people.

People turn to you as a voice on environmentalism. Where do you go when you want to get more information? Who are your sources?
I go to PhDs, Nobel Prize-winning scientists. That would be the Union of Concerned Scientists; I’m on their advisory board. I direct people to the NASA website, because I really don’t think they’re part of a conspiracy. They’ve got one of those readouts like the national debt going up and up. CO2: up. Global temperature: up. Sea level ice: down. Sea level: up. They’re just numbers. You can be mad at the numbers, you can do whatever you want. You can be happy, sad or ambivalent about it but they are numbers and they’re real.

I don’t think anyone is suggesting that Al Gore is up there in the Nimbus 7 oceanographic satellite with a 7/16 wrench skewing the data. It’s just data. You take that data and form your own opinion. If you have trouble with that, just talk to somebody, anybody, with PhD after their name. There are people on college campuses that don’t believe in climate change, people in the science department. But there are precious few, so I’ll roll the dice on that. Just go to any college campus, talk to somebody in the science department and see what they say. Or go to NASA, go to National Geographic. I don’t know how wide people think this conspiracy is to deceive. But at some point, you have to go, “Maybe there is something happening.” There are conspiracies, but maybe this isn’t one of them.

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