As a teenager growing up in the seventies, I lost count of the number of times I heard my parents say “ Go back into your room and turn out the lights.” Or “set the thermostat back to 68 degrees and put on a sweater if you’re cold.” When I would ask why, I’d get that age-old parental answer, “Because I said so.” I always thought they were just trying to cut cost but as I look back I realize it wasn’t about cost it was about waste. They were essentially living sustainable lives incorporating green, eco-friendly habits before we knew what it was.
I grew up in the city and everything we could ever want was just minutes away. Yet, we still had a small vegetable garden in our backyard. When my parents did purchase fresh produce we rarely had any waste. They always seemed to buy only what would be eaten prior to spoiling. Most stores accepted soda bottles used for recycling and paid the deposit when returned. I collected the bottles and recycled them for a little spending cash. We reused or repurposed things as often as we could and anytime something broke we repaired it.
My grandparents, who lived in the Midwest, were the same. They had gardens and their friends and relatives had gardens. They would exchange fresh produce amongst each other. My grandmother, despite being a full-time professional, often canned fruits and vegetables, made her own dresses and prepared meals for the sick and needy.
Amazingly, at that time many of the people I knew had similar experiences. Our parents and grandparents’ lifestyles were environmentally friendly. But we heard little about the benefits to the environment. What we heard during that time was that excess is better. Products began to be produced at a cheaper cost so it became easy to throw things away and get new ones. He who dies with the most toys wins became the mantra. As a young hip teenager I too began to buy into that frame of mind. I could have fallen real deep into that lifestyle. I’m not saying that I didn’t, but it could have been much worse had it not been for a radio interview I heard all those years ago.
Although much time has passed I’ll never forget that interview. It was sometime in the early eighties and I was driving and listening to a popular radio station in southern California. They were going interview an actor in studio. I had seen several things this actor had been in and wanted to hear this interview. The actor was running late and I assumed that the usual busy afternoon LA traffic was the problem. Nope, it had taken longer for him to ride his bike to the studio than he had anticipated. When he arrived he talked about why he rides a bike and doing so is better for the environment than driving a car.
That actor was Ed Begley Jr. and that interview was the first time I ever heard anyone passionately speak on the environment. Oh yes, I had heard people speak on the environment before. But they were the crazy burnouts living somewhere near campus but always hanging around our dorm. You know the type ten years older than everyone else in the dorm, a little crazy, and always pontificating on and on about nonsense. This was the first, shall I say, normal person I ever heard speaking of the environment with a passion, and presenting his case in such a way that made me feel anyone can make a difference.
No, I didn’t run out and buy a new bike and start biking to work nor did I change much about my life at that point. But he stayed in the back of my mind and occasionally something would remind me of that interview. I admired him because he was not just talking the talk but walking the walk.
Many years later I was assured that what I had sensed about him was true. While working at a fancy function on the biggest night in Hollywood, I saw limo after limo, SUV after SUV arrive at the function. Then I saw this dirty little beat up electric car arrive and out came Ed Begley Jr. the man was truly walking the walk.
We never know what, if any, impact our words will have. But sometimes the things we say or do reinforce what someone has known all along. That’s what happened with me. My parents laid a foundation not necessarily for the same reasons but for the right reasons. Ed Begley Jr’s. interview ultimately raised my consciousness and his presentation enlightened me. Over the years through exposure to information, conversations with friends, reflecting on my youth and Ed Begley Jr. in my head, I returned to what I knew was right. Unfortunately sometimes transitions take a long time because often we need to know why something is right before we move forward. Because just being right to a teenager and young adult could just be codeword for old fashioned.
Today I find myself often sounding like my parents telling my children “go back and turn off the lights” or “no need to throw it away I think we can fix that”. Of course I’ve added “That doesn’t go in the trash it goes in the recycle” They are much more aware of environmental issues than I was so they don’t ask why but if they ever do I won’t say because I said so, I’ll say WWEBD or What would Ed Begley Do?