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Illustration of doors opening up onto a grassy field

“How difficult is it going to be to switch from a fossil fuel economy to a renewable energy economy?” asked a gentleman from the audience. I paused and took a deep breath.

I was giving a lecture about climate change at a retirement community, and I’d been thinking about my own parents ever since I’d stepped through the front door earlier. Situated a couple hours north of Los Angeles, the “retirement village,” as they called it, was immaculate. It resembled a glamorous apartment hotel with Spanish architecture, wide foyers and grounds that were landscaped with drought-tolerant plants for the California climate. As I was escorted to the lecture hall, I noticed a few residents peacefully walking dogs.

I took a second breath and began my answer. “My parents would love it here.” A hundred puzzled faces looked up at me, wondering what this comment about my parents had to do with the global energy economy. “When I talk with them about moving out of their burdensome three-bedroom home, they tell me that if they could just snap their fingers and be here right now,” I said, waving my arm high while making a grand snapping gesture, “they’d simply do it immediately. But, they find the idea of the transition utterly unbearable. So they’re stuck. Heels dug in, entrenched, immobile, paralyzed.”

While I was talking, an image popped, unwelcome, into my mind’s eye. I saw my parents’ fine china, stacked in a dusty credenza, untouched for 47-plus years. “They don’t want to go through their belongings and make choices,” I said. “They’re afraid of the amount of hard work.”

At this point I needed to pull away from my own emotions and check in with the people sitting in front of me. “Does any of this make sense to you? Does it seem familiar?” I saw a hundred white-haired heads nod simultaneously. I heard a hundred mumbled “Uh huhs.” In all my years of public speaking, this was the first time I’d experienced an entire room of people in agreement.

One gentleman near the front said, “That was me before I came here.” Another said, “I have some friends exactly like that right now.”

It’s easy for me to imagine a time off into the future, eventually, someday, where people will look back on all the credenzas and all the coal-fired power plants and regard them with the same quaint fondness that we have for Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep character from “Mary Poppins”: charming relics of a bygone era.

What I worry about, on both personal and global levels, is that it might take a catastrophic upheaval before the transition to better, cleaner, more comfortable conditions occurs. And those kinds of catastrophic events could be painful, personally and globally. I said as much to the group of seniors at the retirement village, and this time I didn’t need to ask them if they understood me. I could see it in their eyes. And the same guy in the front said quietly, “Yeah, that was me before I came here.”

Thank you for reading, and thank you for your comments.

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Ed Begley Jr. inspects his oak hardwood flooring

Ed chats with John Ezqueda from All Valley Solar

Ed standing outside the construction site of his new home.

Ed Begley Jr. was one of the first people I met when I moved from Hong Kong to Los Angeles in the mid ‘90s, so when we sat down this week to talk about environmentalism and the new ultra-green home he’s building, I knew exactly what direction I wanted to take our conversation. I wanted to find out what made Begley different from almost every other person I’ve met. I wanted to find out what made him so completely dedicated to a green lifestyle.

A lot of people pay lip service to going green, or take a handful of actions to reduce their impact on the environment, or complain about others who should do more or go as far as a low-carbon lifestyle, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s made more of a concerted commitment to being green as Ed has. I wanted know: What was that thing that made him do it, that impetus that really got him to push through where so many others just don’t?

Begley started by explaining how he learned to be frugal from his father, Ed Begley Sr., who “was not a star, he was a working actor like I am,” even though he won an Academy Award. He told me his father was the son of Irish immigrants, lived through the Great Depression and was a factory worker who found career success as an actor later in life. “We turned off the lights, we turned off the water.” But I brushed off that explanation. Loads of people get stuck with (oops, I meant are fortunate enough to have) a thrifty father. If thriftiness were all it took, everyone would have gone green, like, forever ago.

Then he described growing up in the 1950s in Los Angeles. “When I was five or six, it hurt to breathe in the Valley. That’s the way it was in the '50s. We kids were running around playing tag and some days you’d just be sitting and you’d have trouble breathing. Burbank was crazy smoggy,” he continued, “because of the big electric power plant that burned dirty fuel. We’re in the middle of San Fernando Valley, yet you can’t see the mountains.” Instead of complaining, Ed said, “My dad would ask me: ‘What are you for? What would you do to fix it?’ He was a can-do guy.” Seeing the air quality improve taught Begley that he could do something, it taught him to have hope for a cleaner environment.

This point of view is very different from my own and from that of the current generations who can barely remember anything but news of political gridlock and constant bickering over climate science, climate change denial, and whether or not humans are to blame. It’s hard for most of us under 60 to remember a time when we felt like each of us, as individuals within our greater society, could make a difference, but Begley grew up with a deep inner belief that his actions could have impact. “Corporations, government, individuals: you need all three legs for the stool to stay steady,” he said. “We’re not waiting on government or corporations to do something on climate, we’re going to do it.”

Lifestyles of the Rich and Anxious

Another factor that helped shape his choices was his experience with rich and famous celebrities. “We would visit some of these people with fat houses and they didn’t seem one bit happier to me; in fact, they had all this stress and all these problems.” Ed saw what happened to people who were wealthy enough to buy lots and lots of material things. “I met all these movie stars and saw the anxiety that came with more stuff.”

Everything we buy, everything we own has a carbon footprint. More than just the purchase price, our things have a cost to the environment. The more possessions we have, the greater the environmental impact. The problem is, though, it’s really hard to tell people they should buy fewer possessions, especially when we’re constantly told we would be happier with more. Well, Ed spent his time with some super famous and super rich actors who actually had all that more. He observed extreme wealth, saw that more stuff didn’t make his friends happier and learned that, beyond meeting your basic needs, more and more material possessions only made his friends unhappier, and that deeply affected him. It influenced the way he decided to live and what he was willing to spend monetarily or expend environmentally.

Actions Are Louder Than Words

But perhaps the most interesting thing I found out about Ed during our chat was that he’s a natural science wonk. Who knew? I’d asked him to tell me about his transition from kid/teen/young man who thought he could make a difference to knowing that he’d become a real leader in the environmental movement. He told me a story about going on a bus caravan that went around California in 1986 with Jane Fonda and a bunch of other Hollywood people to rally students about a consumer right-to-know bill. “I had a keen interest in science,” he told me, “so it turns out I knew about PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls] and hexavalent chromium and trichloroethylene. I had read up on these things and the knowledge gave me the ease to speak well about it. So all of a sudden all the microphones were pointed at me.” He hadn’t planned it; he had merely been interested enough in the topic to be knowledgeable about the details. “I like nuts and bolts. I’m definitely a gear-head. That’s why I love my electric car. I want to know: How many amps does this draw, how many watts is this charger?”

As he spoke, Ed paused to check his phone. “It’s Harry Dean Stanton, he just called. I help him with a crossword puzzle every day. I have the answers right here printed on post consumer recycled paper.” He pulled a piece of folded paper out of his pocket, showed it to me, then put it back and continued talking. “I didn’t like my chemistry set, I loved it. I loved my Erector Set for years.” I noticed he was focused on specifics. Details fascinate him. He could prattle on endlessly about high storage capacity batteries, or solar array voltage, or bathroom and kitchen tiles fabricated with recycled material. It occurred to me that his house is just one giant, green Erector Set.

Still, I pressed him to try to find out what made him the greenest guy around. “I just did it cause I knew it was right,” he said. “I rode my bike to the Vanity Fair big Oscars party in the ‘90s, and I was just trying to quietly and surreptitiously lock the bike up when suddenly all these paparazzi descended on me. They took all these pictures and I was a superstar. If you do something silently and deliberately people notice.”

Clearly people have noticed. So the purpose of doing this green house is to demonstrate that both electrical and water conservation efforts can be done. “If I could do it, anybody could do it,” Ed said.

You can follow Ed on Twitter @edbegleyjr.

As always, I look forward to your comments.

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