Talking With Ed

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The night before my interview with prolific actor and environmental activist Ed Begley Jr. at the 2014 MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania, I finished reading his book, Living Like Ed: A Guide to the Eco-Friendly Life (Crown Publishing, March 25, 2008). In my hotel room, like an actress preparing for an audition, I ran through my lines, “Mr. Begley, do you think … ?” and “Mr. Begley, is there …?”

Nervous isn’t the word I’m looking for, but I was excited to meet him. After all he’s been in hundreds of movies and TV shows, and I enjoyed watching him and his wife Rachelle Carson banter on “Living With Ed” – originally shown on HGTV then moved to Planet Green. You can read episode recaps and watch clips at the website.

We were to meet at 3 p.m. at the Envirolet booth for which he is the spokesperson. Envirolet by Sancor™ is a line of waterless, low-water and vacuum-flush environmentally responsible composting toilets. They were initially used in cabins, cottages, outbuildings and other out-of-the-way places but are finding their way into mainstream commercial and residential applications.

Earlier that next morning, I walked around the main floor of the Fair when an opportunity presented itself to take a few candid shots of Mr. Begley speaking with fans and talking with them about Envirolet. After a few loops around the show floor, I noticed that he was alone. This was my chance to slip in, geek out for a few moments, and see if he would autograph a book for me. Again I prepared a professional sounding dialog in my head, “Mr. Begley, your book is wonderful. Would you please sign it for me?”

As I approached, he looked at the name on my press pass, came toward me with a smile on his face, warmly shook my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Ed.” He went on, “We’re supposed to get together later, right?” Gone was the formal Mr. Begley and in walked my new friend Ed. He immediately put me at ease – he’s just that warm and inviting.

“Yes,” I said, “I snapped a few photos earlier and was hoping you would autograph your book Living Like Ed for me while you have a free moment.” I just had to let my giddy little girl fan out for a minute.

“Well, if you’ve got some time, how about doing the interview now?” He walked back into the booth and sat down. I looked around and took the only other available seat in the booth … on top of the composting toilet!

Interviewing my new friend Ed Begley Jr.

“Live Simply So That Others May Simply Live” was the title of his speech. It has been attributed to Mother Teresa and Gandhi, but it is my understanding that Gandhi was actually quoting St. Elizabeth Seaton, the first American saint. Regardless of where it originated, the sentiment is the same. Knowing that this has been Ed Begley’s style of life since an early age, I wondered if there was a single point or event where he received this epiphany or when he decided to “heed the call” and make it his mission in life.

“My epiphany? I’d have to say it was the first Earth Day in 1970.” He went on to explain that he was living in Los Angeles and because of the smog there was a high rate of lung disease and pulmonary clinics were a common sight. “Things were pretty bleak, but let’s focus on the good news for a second. Nowadays there are four times the cars but less pollution, so we’re definitely making progress. The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act have created jobs cleaning the air and brought about things like spray paint booths, catalytic converters and solar panels, which have all helped.

He gives a lot of credit for his environmental consciousness to his father, and one of the elder Begley’s quotes really resonates with me, “Don’t tell people what you’re going to do, tell them what you’ve done.” I asked Ed about that admonishment from his father. “I used to complain a lot about the smog and he would say, ‘Well then what’s your solution? I know what you’re against, but what are you for?’”

In his book Living Like Ed, I see a lot of that philosophy. He tells people what his family does personally and then presents several options encouraging them to try just one thing and slowly add other steps as they are ready or as resources become available to them. There is absolutely no harsh judgment, only positive encouragement. I asked him how we can make sure that we’re drawing people into the fold rather than beating them into submission and pushing them away.

“Find the most compelling way to get their attention with your actions – be an example for them. In 1970, I wasn’t famous and riding my bike everywhere didn’t make a huge impact. But almost 20 years later (after appearing in St. Elsewhere), people started coming up to me because I was riding a bicycle to Hollywood events instead of riding in a limo. Judgment doesn’t help the cause, but example and action do.”

One of the concepts in the book is “Choosing a Shade of Green,” and I asked him to explain. “There are choices we can make that are ‘dark green choices,’ which can be expensive and not everyone is able to choose them. Light green things are steps in the right direction such as lighting, weather stripping, insulation, etc. To be clear, no one is 100-percent green – there are environmental costs to building solar, wind, etc. I would encourage everyone not to be put off by the magnitude of the mountain. Everyone can ascend to a certain level, take a while to acclimate, then begin to climb again. Just climb as high as you can.”

As much as he does to protect the environment, I was curious if there is at least one thing that he still does that gives him twinges of guilt? Something he considers his own work in progress?

“Yes. Using fossil fuels.” He explained his use of the TerraPass. On their website, you calculate your individual or business carbon footprint, choose technologies or adjust your activities to reduce your impact, and support projects that balance your unavoidable greenhouse emissions. There are mixed reviews of this program’s effectiveness so please do your research before signing up.

“There are just times that I have to fly. When I can, I drive my hybrid vehicle to events. For 320 days a year I don’t use much fuel, but 45 days a year I must do it. It has to be an event where I feel that my presence will do good.”

As part of this sense of responsibility and balance he declines about 50 events a year. He’s very choosy about where he flies. Personally I’m glad that he felt it was worth it for him to come across the country and participate in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR since it gave me the opportunity to meet my new friend, Ed.