Maybe you remember him from the 80’s TV show St. Elsewhere, but chances are, Ed Begley Jr.’s floppy California charm has infiltrated your consciousness as “that environmentalist actor guy.” He’s no greeny-come-lately. Begley started driving an electric car in the 1970s and was using solar power long before it was vaguely chic, much less tax deductible.
Now he’s espousing the green way through a reality show on HGTV, “Living with Ed.” In its second season,it follows his struggles with his less stringently eco wife Rachelle over things like a gigantic red rain barrel. He puts up solar Christmas lights, “audits” his celebrity friends’ homes for their green factor, and rides a bike to power his toaster. And now he’s spreading the message further with a book out in February 2008, “Living Like Ed: A Guide to the Eco-Friendly Life.”
Begley recently chatted with Beliefnet from his Los Angeles home about the importance of silence, not rushing into tranquility, and how we can all be gentler on the earth without roughing up our wallets.
What was the first moment you recall wanting to do something for the environment?
It was 1970. It was the first Earth Day and I wanted to get involved. Everything about it seemed right immediately.
Was there some particular moment that you remember on that day?
Well, there were things that led up to it. I was in Cub Scouts and then Boy Scouts—scouting was the good influence. The bad influence was living in smoggy L.A. And finally by 1970, I’d had a bellyful of growing up in the ’50s and ’60s in smoggy L.A. I bought my first electric car. I started recycling. I started composting, buying all biodegradable soaps and detergents and changed my diet. I became a vegetarian.
How has this show shifted your ability to reach people?
The show came at a good time, with all this interest in environmental matters. I notice now that people write and they really want to do something. Half of the mail that I get at EdBegley.com is from Red State Republicans and that’s great. I’m very happy with that. They say, “Oh, I may not always agree with you politically, mister. I’m a Republican, but I want to get a rain barrel like you got. I want to get a recycled glass counter top or solar panel." So, that’s good news.
I saw you speak at a conference recently, and you said it was important to have silence and be still to be a good activist.
Yeah, I think that’s really important. We run around so much—with the best intentions: I want to save the rain forest. I’ve gotta clean up the oceans. I’ve gotta save the dolphins. All worthy efforts, but if you’re not centered and you don’t have the serenity in your life you need to accomplish that task, you’re not going to do a very good job.
Why is that?
You’ll be so scattered. If you rush too much, you can’t accomplish your goal.A friend of mine, Dick Stahl, in the late ’60s, early ’70s, he decided to investigate Eastern religions and arranged to go to the Temple of Tranquility, very far away, near Bali. It was a complicated trip. But he’s very Type A personality. He had everything organized. He had a flight from L.A. to Hawaii, from Hawaii to the Philippines, from there he had a merchant marine vessel. He’d gotten a good price on getting from there to Indonesia. And from there to Bali.
Well, the first flight from L.A. was late. And he got there just as they were closing the jetway to the connecting flight to the Philippines. When he finally landed from the next flight, he just missed the merchant marine vessel. He couldn’t get another one for a week. And then he was stuck in Indonesia and it was monsoon season. He had to take a sand pan to this little dock. He ran from this little boat to get in a rickshaw and he actually said to the driver, "The Temple of Tranquility and step on it!" And that’s what we do sometimes.We can kind of lose our mind, with the best of intentions, trying to do something very worthy—try to get to the Temple of Tranquility and step on it.
How do you stay centered?
I just try to find some quiet time. One of the regular intervals of meditation in my life, believe it or not, is in my car. I had to be in Florida in June for an environmental conference, and Washington, D.C., for another environmental event, and then home. I drove there in my wife’s Prius. I have a lot of drives like that. It’s a real elixir. I watch the countryside pass me by—it’s just beautiful. It’s another form of meditation.
Do you have other spiritual practices?
I try to find some serenity in my life in every way. I’m much better the older I get at letting things go—realizing what’s important and what is not. I’ve gotten better at that.
For someone as committed as you are, you seem big on compromise. Is that important to you?
There are many win/win solutions as regards to the environment. You can save money, save energy, have less independence on Mideast oil, and combat global climate change. How can any of that be bad? It’s all good stuff.
It also seems important to you to not create conflict while finding a solution.
Right. Exactly.There’s certainly a time to take a stand and do something that can seem very contrary.There’s a place for that, but I’ve had some of my greatest success taking a soft path.
Well, speaking of that, it’s interesting to see how your marriage plays out on the show.
Oh, yeah. Well, we have very different philosophy about a lot of things, but at the end of the day my wife cares about the environment a lot–she just wants things to look better. And I’m happy to have that. I just want them to function.
Do you think people need to deprive themselves of aesthetic niceties to be environmentally sound?
I don’t think we can have quite as much as we’ve had or gotten used to. We can simply get by with a lot less.
What are some of the main obstacles between us and reversing climate change?
Our way of thinking is the main thing. I think that we can do a lot, we just have it in our minds that we can’t. Someone’s told us that you have to choose between jobs and the environment. And it’s a false choice.
What else about our ways of thinking might be getting in the way?
We have it somewhere in our head, again, that we need a lot of stuff and that that’s going to make us happy. I don’t think that’s the case. There was a bumper sticker in the ’80s: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” And I thought that was kind of funny. But it turns out it wasn’t a joke for a lot of people.
On the show you do “green audits,” going into people’s houses and evaluating their eco-quotient. How can we apply that to our own homes?
Pick the low hanging fruit first. Do what’s cheapest and easiest.And then you’ll be buoyed by that: Wow, this actually works and I still have a comfortable life and, wait a minute, I saved a few dollars. Let me go to the next level and the next level and the next level.
What happens when you go into someone’s house?
You look around. You say, well, right away, we can get some energy-efficient light bulbs. We can get you an energy-saving thermostat. We can maybe plant a little vegetable garden out back. Get rid of the lawn and put in a drought-tolerant garden. If weather and fitness permit, can you ride a bike to do some of your errands? Can you walk to some of your errands? Can you take public transportation? You start to do some things. You save some money. You realize your life is still quite satisfactory and perhaps you want to go on to the next level.Get a solar oven and a rain barrel to collect rain water, whatever. You go up the ladder to the medium- and then one day, if budget permits, some big-ticket items.
What are some of the things that keep you hopeful?
I get a lot of hope from what we’ve done in L.A. We have four times the amount of cars since 1970, but half the ozone. So, we’re headed in the right direction. We can do it. The other ozone problem, in the upper atmosphere, has been greatly mitigated. The trend toward the ever-increasing hole over Antarctica has been greatly altered in a positive sense.It got smaller. I’m very encouraged by that.
Do you have any favorite quotes that you live by?
Live simply so that others may simply live.
One thing you talk about is “closing the loop”—if we recycle, but buy paper towels at Costco, we’re not doing as much as if we recycle and buy Seventh Generation paper towels.
Right. You need to do everything that you can within your budget to make a difference in every area. If you’re not buying recycled products, you’re not really recycling.
You’re a vegetarian for environmental reasons. Can you explain that?
It takes less land to grow a pound of broccoli than it does a pound of beef. Less land to grow a pound of grain than a pound of beef. Less water, less energy. There’s six billion of us on the planet. It’s a more environmentally sound way to live. And it’s also the conditions in slaughterhouses–it’s not the old days where a cow would roam in the pasture and then at the end of its very happy life, it’s life would be taken so you could live. It isn’t like that anymore. It’s a very, very bad condition those animals live in. Horrible. So, I don’t want to be part of that.
How can we rethink our relationship to the earth?
If people get centered and slow down, ideas will come to them–we’re rushing around so much we can’t see it. When you’re spinning around so much, you’re caught in this whirlpool. You can’t see that there’s dry land just off to your right. You can stand and stop spinning. Slowing down–that’s step one.