It's In The Air (Or Not?)
An Interview With Ed Begley Jr.
By Marina Anderson
Funny as all get-out, a very tall, lanky, towheaded blonde guy didn’t seem to be all that different from the rest of us kids, even when he served up raw nuts as party snacks and other organic foods at his place in the ‘70s. I was 16 when we met and used to being around innovators and people who were ahead of their time. My uncle was a health food enthusiast and my dad was an aerospace design engineer and inventor. Ed was just my friend, Ed from Valley College, a regular guy with uh…not so “regular” lifestyle. He was (and is) always someone, who no matter how successful he got climbing up that ladder of success, kept in touch with his friends. He’s referred to affectionately by some as “Mr. Green of Hollywood.” Down-to-earth (literally grows a lot of his own food), and loyal, he is also an inspirational, leading environmental activist and established actor. Always walking (or bicycling or public transportation-ing) his talk, he is ED BEGLEY, JR.
You and I growing up as kids in the San Fernando Valley, I remember my eyes used to burn, but you couldn’t see the smog. Then time went by and you could definitely see the brown hanging over the valley from the top of Mulholland Dr. Is our air quality getting better or not?
It’s better. Much, much better. Extraordinarily better. Especially when you consider some important factors like we have 4 times the cars since 1970, millions more people…if we had just kept it the same…if it didn’t grow, we’d go “Damn we’re good!” But that’s not what happened. It went the other way!
We have a fraction of the smog because of all the stuff we did that worked like smog control devices on cars, catalytic converters on cars, combine cycle gas turbines, instead of the dirtier power plants and a million other little things like spray paint booths. They used to do spray paint operations out in the open like a parking lot or in factories or a building and open the doors and all that stuff called VOCs [volatile organic compounds], they go up and make more smog. Clean air is one of the things we did best in LA. It’s not 100 percent clean now, but it’s much, much better.
What about other cities across the US? Are they just as good as LA? Better?
They got better because of us. Again, places with really bad air like San Joaquin Valley have pretty bad air for a number of reasons. There’s a lot of agriculture there that makes dust. The pollution moves through San Francisco and moves to Merced and places like that because the wind blows it in that direction. There’s refinery operations and other drilling operations… Houston has a lot of refineries. …Bakersfield …We’ve recently cleaned up the ports of LA and Long Beach where all this shipping comes in. We’re the shipping entry point for much of the United States.
I had no idea!
Sixty percent of goods that come in to the United States [come] through LA or Long Beach. Some come through Seattle, Tacoma; some come through the East Coast, but the most direct route is here: our entry through rail systems to the US…trucking and rail, so they bring it in through here.
This is a total eye-opener for me.
That makes a lot of smog.
They used to just idle [he does a funny character voice to demonstrate an example of dialogue that may have taken place] “OK…download this stuff; we gotta get back out to sea…” [He imitates an idling fuel guzzling boat engine that makes me laugh]. Dirty diesel generators. NO! You can’t do that anymore! You want to come to our country and sit in our port of LA or Long Beach; you’ve got to plug in. We’ll have a big ol’ cable for you…you’re going to plug in. You’re going to use electricity that we’re going to hook you up to and turn off your damn dirty diesel generator! [Another character voice] “OK.” They kicked and screamed, but went for it and guess what? It worked. All the trucking operations, the equipment that unloads, sitting there idling the way they used to, they don’t do that anymore. They have hybrid trucks; they have cleaner trucks so all that stuff works. Because of that, we have cleaner air.
Is that largely because of the Coalition for Clean Air or was it the reason why the Coalition was formed?
It was formed back in I think 1970 or 71 because of the horrible smog we knew as kids and what we knew at Valley College. It was like “what are you doing?” Some mothers, some scientists, business people said, “This is not right, you gotta do something.” There was a smog control board back then, but they didn’t have a lot of power. So the Coalition for Clean Air and American Lung Association and other people fought for cleaner air. It was a many year, several decade long battle, but it finally started to work in a meaningful way in the ‘90s “We’re really doin’ it!” They started to make some big meaningful changes in transportation. We used to have a lot of diesel buses. Remember all those buses with the exhaust?
I sure do. Big clouds of thick black exhaust. You didn’t want to sit in your car behind one of those!
They were all diesel buses. Antonio Villaraigosa, before he was mayor he was on the board of the MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority], he opened his ears and he opened his mind to what we were telling him. [Another voice again] “No. They’re going to replace these buses with what, more diesel? No. We’re going to convert to natural gas buses.” That was a big one too. That helped clean up the air. “Then we’re going to work on the port of Los Angeles.” As Mayor, he helped initiate that.
Somewhere in the mid ‘90s, we really started to see the effects and by the late ‘90s, even more so. “Oh my God! It’s much cleaner! Look at the numbers.” Look at the ozone, it’s way down. Look at the PM 2.5, way down [particulate matter – little tiny particles of dust that get in your lungs and hurt them]. Nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide – all this down! [He switches to a character voice again] “Oh my God, it worked!”
They did a lot of things there too. They converted over to... I think all new taxi cabs had to be hybrids. They did a lot of things there with clean fuel…buses, trash trucks and other forms of emissions… Let me [be] crystal clear, the rest of the country benefited the California clean air rules. Detroit fought us. [He uses yet a different voice to act out the character] “No you can’t do that. We won’t be able to make a car.” Same thing they said about seat belts and air bags. [Back in character] “[You] can’t possibly…we can’t possibly afford seat belts in cars! It’ll make the car out of range for the average citizen. Stop it. Don’t do that! We can’t put in smog control devices. It’s not technically possible and will cost too much!”
They were wrong, of course. The first smog control devices were problematic, I admit that, the ones in the mid ‘70s, but in the late ‘70s they came up with something called catalytic converter that really worked and was not that expensive. Something like $75 their cost, but they didn’t absorb the cost, they charged the customer. It was worth it to help clean up the air.
This is most informative, Ed. Thank you. To switch to another problem, our water drought… what’s the best advice to give people?
Start with the simple stuff. Take shorter showers. Don’t leave the sink running when you’re brushing your teeth or washing dishes or shaving or anything like that. Find every way you can to save water.
It’s the little things, but multiply that times all the millions of people, it adds up to a huge amount that can be saved. Now you have your own rainwater catch, but what other things that can help others to further save on the water?
Low flow shower water heads will save you a lot of water. They used to be kind of … not enjoyable, but now they’ve got ones that make it feel fairly luxurious.
OK… back tracking to growing up again…knowing you from high school. I remember when you’d have get togethers at your apartment, you were really into the health food and conservation…you were so far ahead of the curve…We all thought you were just great. You were unique. Did you ever feel like you were out of place and tempted to just “join the masses” and ignore saving energy and the healthy organic diet? Organic in those days was for the most part, considered “out there.” Were you tempted to give in and “go to the darker side?” LOL.
No I was stubborn. I would never quit recycling; never quit riding my bike and doing all that stuff. I really stayed with it from 1970 to date. And one of the main reasons I stayed with it [is] cause so much of it saved me money. In 1970, I couldn’t afford solar panels so I did the cheap and easy stuff -- recycling, composting, riding the bike, taking public transportation, eating low in the food chain, turning the lights off, turn the water off when I wasn’t using it and I went, “Wait a minute. Look at all this. My bills went down. I’ve got extra money in my pocket! What am I going to do with that money? I’m going to save some of it, but with the rest I’ll buy a little solar oven so I could cook some meals.” When I had a yard that was available, I bought a little rainwater tank. I put some extra insulation in the attic when I had a place that allowed me to do so, and on and on. I just kept doing everything I could with the money I was saving starting with the cheapest stuff and kept moving up the ladder.
Were you ever bullied for doing what you were doing at that time?
I don’t remember being bullied. I remember being ridiculed.
To me, that’s a form of bullying. That’s harsh.
I guess so. Yeah.
Did that bother you at all?
It might bother somebody, but I would not be deterred. I had my resolve. I was not going to change.
Who was a big inspiration in your life? Was there someone who helped point the way to what you’re doing?
There was a couple that wrote a book, Living The Good Life. Helen and Scott Nearing. It was about going back to nature, growing food and I thought, “I want to do that.” I thought I was going to do that in the country for a while, so I moved to Colorado. Boulder, Colorado. I thought I’d buy some land and live off the land and saw how hard it was to live in a remote area. It was a hard life…”Oh my God, I didn’t realize it was so hard.” So I thought maybe I’ll live in the city and be sustainable in the city.
Chopping your own wood to have the fuel so you can cook an egg…geezz. I give kudos to the pioneers of this country! If you could have a second home anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I remember you lived there for a long time and then when you moved to Studio City, rode your bicycle to and from all the time. That’s like 60 miles!
I love Ojai.
You have so much going on. You’re an actor, a director, author, your various web series -- Living with Ed, On Begley Street…your fabulous soda, Begley’s & Bills cleaning products…What’s next on your agenda you want to tackle?
I’ve got to finish this house [he refers to the one being built and documented in their web series On Begley Street launched now on Evox]. My big project for the next year or close to it is finishing this Leed Platinum home that I’m building a mile east of me. That’s my number 1 project.
It is quite a project. I think history making actually. You’ve been asked to speak around the world including recently in Japan, right?
I’ve always wanted to go to Japan. I went there to see their solar operations, energy efficiency…I went there with Panasonic. I work with them on their energy efficiency. They are doing incredible things in Japan. They are very careful with electricity, natural gas and whatever they use. [Especially in view of what happened regarding Fukushima].
Wish we had more time. Thanks so much, Ed. We can all breathe better now thanks to people like you!
To know more about Marina visit her website: www.MarinaAnderson.net