Mr. Green Does the Shifter: Interview with the Sierra Club’s Mr. Green


1. What are the basic principles of sustainability at the SC?

I believe the principles of sustainability are best expressed in the Sierra Club’s own mission statement: “To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment.” Everything the Club does flows from these ideas: from lobbying for safer energy production to preventing the destruction of habitat by developers to helping monitor pollution in streams to pushing for cleaner farming practices.

2. Do you own a car? If so, is this in conflict with the values above?

No, I do not own a car and have not for many years. I’m fortunate enough to live in an area where mass transit is far better than in most parts of the country, and urban density is such that I can access all necessary services by bicycle. Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder to go carless in many other areas.

3. Do you see any metaphors or symbols in the green movement that span globally?

I suppose the metaphor of Spaceship Earth, first expressed by Adlai Stevenson when he was our UN ambassador in the 1960s, is fairly widespread—along with that famous photo of Earth from space. You see recycling symbols in many countries. The Slow Food Movement, which has a lot of environmental implications, is getting to be known in a number of the industrialized nations.

4. Who is the Sierra Club working with in Washington? What issues are key in the new political landscape?

The Sierra Club works on so many fronts in Washington that it would be impossible to list here. Right now, there’s a lot of attention to boosting renewable energy. The Sierra Club’s preferred bill is the Udall-Platts RES of 20% by 2020 (HR 969) Another energy bill is Energy Independence and Security Act, HR 6 sponsored by Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). But these are just two among dozens of examples.

5. How does living green help solve racism and crime in the inner city?

Living green can save a lot of money, whether by cutting down on energy waste or by growing your own food and eating less
over-processed, over-packaged stuff. Usually when people have a bit more cash, they are less likely to turn to crime. But there are many other green elements that come into play. As you know, in many cases people in the inner city are exposed to more pollution than others, from factories or old buildings. Lead in old plumbing and paint actually causes neurological damage and even mental handicaps, which can trigger violent behavior. We’ve already made great progress in reducing the amount of lead people are exposed to, but there is always more to be done, with lead and a host of other toxic substances.

On another front, just exposing city kids to the natural world can
give them new perspectives that will lead them to new interests and away from crime. The Sierra Club’s Inner City Outings Program has taken thousands of kids out to appreciate nature. Another good green thing that is happening is the spread of community gardens. It’s obvious that folks who garden together are going to have better relationships.

A serious commitment to development of green energy is bound to bring more jobs to families in the inner city, who have been so hard-hit by the loss of blue-collar jobs, thanks to outsourcing and offshoring. (By the way, the Sierra Club has long been a staunch opponent of trade agreements that fail to require adequate environmental and labor protections in the foreign country. Again, a connection between economy and ecology.) If green jobs are created, the improved economic situation is bound to help the situation in the inner city.

Finally, as for reducing racism, the more people of different races
work together on green projects and come to know each other, the better they will get along. I’ve witnessed this firsthand in my own community of Berkeley, California. We also need to discredit the accusation that environmentalism is an elitist white issue. It’s obviously not. In fact, polls have shown that a higher percentage
blacks and Latinos give priority to environmental issue than whites
do.

6. Who are your favorite artists? Why?

Well, now, that’s quite a question, since there are so many that I love. And which art? In painting, probably Fra Angelico or Giotto, for their blend of Catholicism’s amazing anagogical imagination with new ways of seeing nature. In sculpture, well, no surprise, Michelangelo. His Pieta, not that famous one in Rome, but the one in Florence that he got mad at and tried to smash, is inexhaustible. In classical music, probably Mendelsohn, though I can’t say exactly why, except that he could probably have played the accordion a helluva lot better than me. Sometimes I think I’m his reincarnation. I’m glad I’ve lived longer than he did. (There are certain advantages to being born in the 20th century.) In popular music, Bob Dylan is incomparable. He towers so far over all the others there can be no doubt in this case. In literature, the choice is impossible. Dante? Shakeseare? Rilke? Yeats? Eliot? Plus, all those mighty novelists too numerous to list. Twain? As his buddy, the now woefully underrated William Dean Howells, wrote in “My Mark Twain”: “Clemens was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln our literature.” He also noted Twain’s “Elizabethan breadth of parlance,” which puts Twain right up there with that notable
Elizabethan, Shakespeare.

7. Do we all need to be vegans now?

No. In fact, some studies have shown that in some areas, meat
production can be the most environmentally appropriate use of land. In others, animals are actually used in to help restore the land. And cattle, for example, can be a vital part of crop rotation program. They eat alfalfa, which fixes nitrogen but can’t be consumed by people, and convert it to edible protein. They add manure in the process, an effective, time-honored fertilizer, and they provide numerous other by-products that must be factored in to get a holistic picture of the role of animals in agriculture. It all depends on WHERE and HOW food is grown. I abhor the products of stinking hog factory or a polluting feedlot where they cram livestock with soybeans and corn that were sustainably grown. But that doesn’t mean I should give up all meat and dairy products—though I consume very little of either anyway. Americans get far, far more protein than they actually need.

My home state of Wisconsin provides an example of what I’m talking about. In the 19th century it became a major wheat-growing state. Cash-cropping wheat was depleting the soil. Some ag professors and innovative farmers concluded that the climate and land were better suited to dairying. The switch to dairy that took place in the late 19th century was known as “Plow to Cow.” There is a lot of basic misunderstanding of agriculture, not just among doctrinaire vegans, but all sorts of well-meaning folks who really need to know more about how farming actually works before they talk about diet and the environment. Sometimes it seems they’re thinking more in terms of dietary taboos than actual agronomy.

Finally, I doubt that abstaining from meat and dairy would do much for the environment anyhow. If domestic consumption drops, producers would simply export more, and we might end up with more unsustainable production than we already have. The rising middle classes in developing countries are demanding more and more meat. So it may even be possible that limited consumption of sustainably produced meat and dairy might in the long term be better for the environment, provided we are willing to pay enough for it so that farmers don’t have to overpoduce to survive. It does cost more to raise sustainable our organic food. At the root of unsustainable agriculture are the economic and political demands for cheap food, which has long forced
farmers to use dangerous methods to increase productivity. But that’s a whole other topic. Read the late A.V. Krebs’ “The Corporate Reapers” to get some understanding of this.

8. How did you create this character? Are you looking for another distribution channel (radio, tv)?

At “Sierra,” the national magazine of the Sierra Club, where I was managing editor, we decided to have an advice column about 5 years ago. We wanted something that was funny and had an attitude, and since my colleagues thought I was funniest and most attitudinal (one of them said I was like Andy Rooney on acid), they tabbed me to do the column. As we were sitting around trying to invent a name, “Hey Mr. Green” came up, I don’t even remember from who. But it seemed right, because of the informality and a bit of self-irony. Calling somebody “Mr. Green” is sort or like saying “Mr. Know-it-All,” which sets the stage
for some self-deprecating humor.

I’m not personally looking for another distribution channel, but
people at the Sierra Club might be.

9. What is growing in your Berkeley garden?

Fruits: apple, Asian pear, fig, guava, Lemon, loquat,
Vegetables: artichokes, arugula (domestic, wild), chard, chicory, chives, collard greens, dandelion (Note: I allow them to come up as weeds. The leaves are very nutritious), endive (curly), erba stella, escarole, kale, lettuce (romain, redleaf), mustard greens, nasturtiums (flowers, but blossoms and leaves are edible, with a watercress flavor) onions (green), parsley (Italian. Note: widely considered an herb, but as parsley pesto is used in sufficient quantity to qualify as a vegetable), rappini (raab broccoli, cima di rapa), sorrel, spinach, turnip greens

Herbs: epazote, hyssop, lavender, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme

Assorted seedlings not yet planted: basil, beans (runner), radicchio, squash (Kobocha) sweet corn, tomatoes, zucchini

Flowers: Too numerous to list. Flowers are very important because they attract beneficial predatory insects.

10. Can you share a recent poem of yours with us?

Compost

My finest accomplishment—not that I’m burdened with choices
in this department—is the creation of five-hundred cubic feet of topsoil,
with the aid of billions of unidentified micro-organisms,
and earthworms churning through the compost,
and several rabbits who worked with uncommon dedication
to contribute manure and maintain morale:
Myrtle, who passed away of old age—
Habermas, who was murdered by a pit bull
that ripped the bottom from his cage—
Sartre, who perished suddenly from unknown causes,
and Derrida, who is uncommonly fond of dandelions.
Five hundred cubic feet of topsoil from sheer waste,
to enrich a garden, transform to food and flower orange peels, tea leaves, clippings, weeds, a bonsai Mount Fuji of compost power.
The world needs all the compost it can get.
Topsoil made us what we are, without it we simply don’t exist,
which is an earnest modern way to say God did indeed make Adam out of clay.

Imagine a world transformed by compost:
fertile, abundant, fecundant reckless green.
Imagine cargo ships loaded with topsoil for every compost-craving corner of the world.
Imagine nuclear submarines distributing topsoil!
Military transport planes packed with topsoil!
Precision missiles delivering topsoil exactly where most needed.
Aircraft carriers piled high with topsoil!
Bombers dropping two-ton bombs of topsoil!
Preemptive strikes of topsoil, weapons of mass destruction buried
under thousands of feet of steaming compost!
Imagine composters in every land, tending peaceful heaps,
singing in a vast harmony of regeneration. Down slopes of compost comes the world’s salvation.

Hey Mr. Green!

The Sierra Club Thank You!

***

lavender, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme What they say about Mr. Green:

Woody Harrelson: His cranky humor makes environmental living fun.

Ed Begley, Jr.: We can all use a little help living a greener life, and thankfully Mr. Green is on the job. His sound advice and often hilarious, curmudgeonly comments will inspire you to do more for the planet as well as for your home and family.

Bill McKibben: Mr. Green knows whereof he speaks—a helpful guide to making sure you’re actually as environmentally sound as you want to be. But, as Mr. Green often reminds us, you can change all the lightbulbs you want, but if we’re going to win, we need to change policies and leaders too.”

Mr. Green, aka Bob Schildgen, is the colorful author of “Hey Mr. Green,” a collection of popular environmental advice columns he writes for Sierra, the national magazine of the Sierra Club (1.2 million readership). He brings a sense of humor to the sometimes oppressively earnest world of environmentalism.

“If you’ve got to bear this hefty burden of saving the earth, you might as well get a few laughs in the process,” he says. “And it can actually be enjoyable to find ways to live well without wasting resources. Also it’s nice just to pick up the quirky facts and figures that appear in my columns.” So, for example, he informs us, “Birth control devices don’t harm the environment. That’s why it’s better to have sex in your car than drive it, because 70% of all latex is used to make tires.”

Bob served as managing editor of Sierra from 1998 to 2005, and has written numerous articles and reviews for Sierra over the past 16 years. His work has also appeared in a wide variety of other publications, ranging from alternative weeklies to mainstream dailies, national and regional magazines, and the environmental Web site Green Home, http://www.sierraclubgreenhome.com/.

He is a founding board member of Bay Nature, a quarterly environmental magazine and Web site that celebrates the natural world of the Bay Area, http://www.baynature.com/. He is also a founding board member of the Green Chamber of Commerce http://greenchamberofcommerce.net/, and a cofounder of Pacific View Press, a Berkeley-based multicultural publisher, http://www.pacificviewpress.com/.

A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, he was raised a few miles from the Mississippi River on a farm in southwest Wisconsin. Here, he says, “I got my first important environmental lessons, watching birds, imitating their songs, and going fishing some days—but on others breathing clouds of pesticides and witnessing the soil erode.”

He now lives in Berkeley, California, where he raises more than 40 different types of vegetables and herbs.

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