Earth’s Lobbyist: Interview with Brent Blackwelder

Brent Blackwelder has been fighting on behalf of planet earth since the early 1970s. As president of Friends of the Earth, Mr. Blackwelder led an ambitious effort to work on the world’s most daunting environmental problems ranging from climate change, deforestation, and sustainable farming, to economic issues such as inequality accelerated by our obsession with unbounded growth.

Unlike most environmentalists I’ve spoken to, his approach is 5% problem and 95% solution. What I really wanted to talk to Mr. Blackwelder about was what can be done within environmental policy, why we’ve been thinking about the economy all wrong, and his ideas on how we can use the tax code to fight the Trump administration’s assault on the environment.

His achievements are too great to list here. Although “retired” at age 75, Mr. Blackwelder sits on several boards that shape environmental policy and shares his extensive knowledge of the legislative process to help the next generation think through solutions to the world’s current challenges.

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Brent Blackwelder at MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investment) protest with Friends of the Earth, late 1990s. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Earth.

Michael Lee Nirenberg: Marc Yaggi (of Waterkeeper Alliance) told me about some of the stuff you’ve done before I researched it. When I looked into all the different facets of your career, I couldn’t believe how much of it there was. You’re very prolific.

Brent Blackwelder: I’ve done a lot of things, but I’m also 75 years old (laughs). I’ve been around a long time.

MN: Where did you grow up?

BB: I was born in Buffalo in 1943. My father was an Episcopal Minister and five years later we moved to Washington DC. I ended up spending the rest of my adult life living in Washington dealing with Congress, except when I was away at school. So basically I was familiar with the hectic fast-paced life of Washington DC, and the legislative process was nothing that was terribly surprising in one sense, because there’s so much going on. There are tons of lessons that get learned every decade from what you’ve been doing.

MN: How old were you when you became interested in the legislative process?

BB: It was 1970, so we are looking at close to 40 years ago. I was in my twenties, I began to see more and more air and water pollution in DC. Our nation’s capital had a Potomac River that was like an open sewer during the summer time. We had air getting so orange that you could cut it with a knife.

I wanted to see what could happen on the first Earth Day. I attended a meeting at the University of Maryland where there were tables of all the organizations that were doing certain environmental projects and activities. I was so impressed by Friends of the Earth’s table that I volunteered to work for them and ended up becoming president from 1994 to 2009 when I retired.

MN: Let’s back up a little bit into what the environmental movement looked like in its infancy. Prior to that, you had most American cities where smog was making people sick. What was the grassroots organization like at that time?

BB: I think the environmental movement largely started with the land protection ethic in setting aside national parks; coming up with the idea of the national park and protected Yellowstone as our first one, adding as our President Abraham Lincoln did. Yosemite National Park which had partially been protected earlier. Out of this came a lot of efforts to protect the great wildlife refuges and national monuments by President Teddy Roosevelt. So we were moving forward in protecting great landscapes and inspirational settings. John Muir had already formed the Sierra Club. A lot of that and that was really underway and it’s they still have been doing great things.

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John Muir founder of the Sierra Club 1906, public domain

What was new was the astonishing level of pollution emerging from an industrialized nation. The United States was industrializing at a hectic pace. The air and water pollution was so bad that people were dying of smog. It was reminiscent of the smog episodes that we would read about in London when these people would be dying. They had smog days. The water pollution got so bad that a Great Lake; Lake Erie, became a dead lake in popular vernacular. It was getting to be a batch of scum and losing its fish population.

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The view to the south from the Empire State Building on Nov. 24, 1966, one of New York’s worst smog days. Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

 It was becoming a dead lake as a result of the pollution that was going into it. That was from steel mills for example, all along the South Shore. It was runoff from farms and a lack of treatment of sewage in the cities, and so it got to be a situation where the Cuyahoga River started catching on fire and people said, ‘we’ve had just about enough of rivers catching fire’. Not once but a number of times and our Great Lake is no longer great. It’s a pathetic lake. It’s a dead lake, and so this motivated an entirely new movement to question modern technology and our failure to do any pollution control despite the obvious health effects.

MN: This was all happening at the time you were young man, what was your track going to be if it not for the first Earth Day?

BB: I was heading towards spending my whole life teaching math and philosophy. I had advanced degrees in both. Certain times things can just click and you can make an abrupt change of what your life’s work might be.

MN: I can relate to that. So at the first Earth Day you were impressed by the Friends of the Earth table. At that time what was Friends of the Earth? What is the quick backstory on what it was before you became involved as a volunteer?

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Friends of the Earth New York Office. Date unknown. courtesy of Friends of the Earth

BB: Friends of the Earth was created in 1969 by David Brower, the past president of the Sierra Club, after he was fired by the Sierra Club board. He founded Friends of the Earth and it was to be an organization in the United States to start with, but Brower’s idea was that these problems of air and water pollution don’t respect the political boundaries. They are global problems, so he went about setting up Friends of the Earth organizations in France, Estonia and Malaysia for example. Today Friends of the Earth has grown to over 70 countries worldwide because pollution does not respect a political boundary.

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David Brower founder of Friends of the Earth. courtesy of Friends of the Earth. Date unknown.

MN: That’s correct and it’s a large part of why I started this blog and this activism because I think the greatest problem, something of a tangent, the greatest existential threat is the politicization of the environment. I think that is tragic and something as a species we have to reconsider.

BB: Yes, what you could observe if you were working in the 1970s, would be talking about air and water pollution and other issues that were not on the table in 1900. So what you encountered fortunately in the converse, there was strong bipartisan interest in these issues. They were hearing from constituents about how polluted things were and they wanted to do something about it. So in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act was passed, that set up objectives that we wanted to achieve. For example one of the phrases in that law was that we should achieve maximum recycling. A lot of people forget about that. The law also provided that, for any governmental action being taken that would have significant environmental impacts, those impacts had to be disclosed and whether there were alternate options. Those options had to be explored and discussed so you had a document that would presumably guide environmental policy into a way that protected the environment instead of poisoning it.

MN: You began as a volunteer, when did you become staff and what was that path like? You’re still with them today on the board right?

BB: Yes, I am indeed. At the start we had very little money to go on and so you were a staffer but you were a volunteer. So unless you could live with your parents which I did, it would not have been possible for you, until we found few larger donors such as Arthur Godfrey; the entertainer. He was interested in some of the projects Friends of the Earth was working on.

MN: Is it still a volunteer-based enterprise?

BB: No, not at all. We started from having a few tens of thousands of dollars to a budget that’s grown up over 10 million dollars. We’re not one of the very biggest, although we have the largest global network of environmental advocates of any organization. We don’t have the biggest budget but we have a substantial budget that enables us to do a lot more.

MN: To segue into discussing environmental policy, I see that in my research Friends of the Earth does a lot of different ambitious things. The website lists: human rights, forests and biodiversity, food sovereignty, economic justice, resisting neoliberalism, climate justice and energy, school and sustainability. That’s a huge net! How do you manage that workload? How does the organization begin to deal with these massively intimidatingly big problems, especially this quantity of them?

BB: The initial thing we did in the 70s was using a Lone Ranger model on the issues we wanted to cover. We were covering every aspect of energy. Whether that was coal power plants, nuclear power plants, renewable energy such as wind and solar efficiency, offshore oil drilling was another one, so we put one person on each of those. I had the water under my purview and I was dealing with energy projects; gigantic hydro to be specific. People think dams are great. Well, we were able to show that; no, they were very expensive ways to achieve purposes, but if you really wanted a real solution that was cost effective and got a result you would do different things rather than trying to dam up the river, divert it, and so forth.

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In each category of energy we tried to be on the cutting edge and use strategies to prevail. We were successful on a lot because we had champions on the Republican side, not just on the Democratic side, to deal with these problems, and so on almost every piece of legislation, and there were close to three dozen major pieces of legislation that were passed in the 1970s, we had co-sponsors that were both Republicans and Democrats. This made it harder and harder for the leadership of our party to make it a partisan vote, but that’s what you see today, because every single decade since the 1970s we’ve lost some of that bipartisanship, and now it’s the worst it’s ever been five decades later.

MN: What do you attribute the partisanship to? I think it’s very clear that the special interests have just bought the Republican party because it was for sale. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that seems to be what has happened to the Republican party, and why they became the the anti-science/anti-climate party.

BB: I think that a lot of Republican donors including people like the Koch brothers started giving huge amounts, like hundreds of millions of dollars into groups that would actually run disinformation campaigns. They were not interested in the truth. They were interested in a propaganda effort and in doing this disinformation campaign stems from some of the efforts they saw the tobacco industry trying to do, because they were afraid that they would get regulated the way tobacco was about to be regulated. So you’ve got one route that led to this and because we were unable to pass campaign finance reform, and limit the contributions, we were not able to checkmate them in this effort and we didn’t recognize it quickly enough.

The insidious nature of the disinformation campaigns reframes an issue. If you don’t set an inappropriate theme for discussion then you could get badly off track. For example, Grover Norquist has been on the tax code and every time anybody wants to raise a question about taxes, he cries, “Oh, they want to raise your taxes.” For Grover Norquist, the only thing appropriate to do was to cut taxes, and somebody should have said we need to shift that frame. Taxes are our solemn responsibility and we are here to talk about responsibility. How our government gets its money. How much it should have to do. What it wants to do. What is the best way to get it? Should we follow something like sin taxes that have worked well on alcohol and tobacco, and perhaps these would apply to pollution?

A lot of us said the key thing we need is a carbon tax and we push that, but most of the environmental movement did not want to focus so much on the tax committees. I think one of the important things people should realize is that the key committees in any Congress are the Appropriations Committee that distributes the money and the tax committee that puts in place certain kinds of tariffs and levies to get the money, and that’s where the log rolling begins, with those two committees.

MN: You’ve written that the tax code is one of the most underused tools of the environmental movement. Why do you think that is?

BB: If you’re not in there sitting in on these committee meetings, getting to know the members, getting to know why they are on the committee, how do you know what they want to do? We didn’t do enough of that as a movement and so we we never were able to pack all that much influence. We did in the 1986 tax reform bill because we had some key champions like Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey. So we were able to change certain things in that code, but that’s the exception.

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Ozone or No Ozone brochure. Friends of the Earth. Date unknown

The only other time we used taxes effectively was on the ozone treaty passed in 1987. That was controlling ozone-depleting chemicals that were causing that hole above Antarctica that was letting in ultraviolet radiation. It was Republican John Chafee of Rhode Island that gave such great leadership on this that we were able to get a treaty. They would phase out these chemicals; chlorofluorocarbons, that had to be eliminated. That’s where the tax code comes in. A tax was in place that would ratchet up each year, so as the businesses that are producing these saw, “Whoa! we’re going to get hit with an even higher fee next year and a higher one the year after that! We better find some substitute chemicals that don’t have these problems”, and that’s what they did.

So those deadlines not only were met, they were met ahead of schedule, which is very different from a lot of regulatory processes which can take an inordinate amount of time. This is something logically that Republicans ought to be embracing. If you don’t like a lot of rules or regulations but want to ban things that are really truly bad; the sin taxes is one way of looking at it. Then you won’t have to worry about regulating how much is enough and so on.

MN: It sounds naive to say, but there’s something in the psychology that I find troubling, that people could be manipulated to vote against their own self-interest. All throughout the history of democracies this phenomena continues.

BB: There’s a book written called What’s The Matter With Kansas. For example, people voting directly for candidates that are against their economic well-being. There are certain moral concerns and moral issues that are more dominant in their thinking, and that has been one explanation that has been offered.

I think the environmental movement has got great values, but when I talked to a business professor heading up the School of Business at Wisconsin I asked him to give me a critique of the movement, and by that time we were in motion as a movement since 1970; for several decades. He said, “I think of things as products. Everything is products. You’ve got great products here. Clean air, clean water, who wouldn’t want them?” And he said, “If you were soap salesman you would say: Here you’re filthy, take our soap and clean up your act!” How would a salesman do that? Try our soap it’ll make you feel cleaner and fresher he said, “You don’t know how to market anything”.

MN: Wow! That’s a really good idea. So what did you do with that advice?

BB: We tried to emphasize more of the innumerable benefits of what we were doing, and formulate the frame of the discussion so that you don’t get trapped in something that makes you look like you’re opposed to motherhood and apple pie.

So what do you do? You point out how much money a lot of our solutions save us. We won a lot of battles to save rivers against pork barrel projects by showing our solutions save a lot of tax dollars that would have otherwise been wasted on a flood control project that would make floods worse. Believe it or not, that’s what they were doing in the 1970s, or trying to do. We started to checkmate them.

(laughs)

MN: That’s great. So how is it that you became the top environmental lobbyist during the latter half of the 20th century. Legend has it that you testified before Congress over a hundred times.

BB: Well over a hundred by now.

MN: That’s incredible. The first part of my question is how did you get there? What circumstances were there for you to become the top environmental lobbyist? I’m guessing that there wasn’t one at that time.

 

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Brent Blackwelder, Washington DC. Courtesy of Friends of the Earth

BB: Those accolades I appreciate. I think I was doing more lobbying up on the hill than almost anyone else because in 1970 the environmental movement was afraid to lobby, because of fear of loss of its tax deductible status. Friends of the Earth chose to give up tax-deductible status and that allows it to lobby full time.

 

MN: That’s very interesting approach.

BB: So that was an important thing because in much of the 70s it was only the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth that were what’s called a C4 organization – a nonprofit that was not deductible.

MN: Did your credibility take a hit or were there attacks where they were saying that the organization was “for profit”?

BB: There are several types of nonprofits. We were not in it to profit from it, but you could not give us money and take a tax deduction for it.

MN: Oh, ok…

BB: For doing that, you have to do be more of an educational group and less of a lobby group. In fact, at that point there was no specific amount down, so the many groups were afraid that if they did any lobbying they would be accounted substantially. So finally under the Conable Amendment, who was, by the way, a Republican of New York State. They set the limit of 25% lobbying that you could do without jeopardizing your tax-deductible status. In the end, you’re able to keep your tax-deductible status.

 

MN: In the end, you were able to keep the tax-deductible status because you shifted to 25% lobbying?

BB: That’s right. As long as you weren’t doing more than 25%. It’s a little more technical than that. It’s a four-year average and so on, but that allowed a lot more groups to lobby in some of those early campaigns, for example on water. The soil conservation service, which is in the agriculture department, in those days was bulldozing small streams into straight line ditches. Knocking down all the trees on both sides of the stream. Wiping out the fish habitat. Turning a fishing stream into a ditch, and it was doing the contrary thing on flood control. It was rushing all the water rapidly downstream. The original motto of soil conservation service was, “hold the raindrop before falls”. (laughs) So they were giving it an express ride downstream on somebody else’s land!

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Friends of the Earth toxic runoff ad.

So we saw the need to get in front of the agriculture committee appropriations because they were appropriating money for this and we said we want no more money appropriated for this until they stop this practice or add a provision in there that they are forbidden to do it. So I had to go before Jamie Whitten of Mississippi who was chairman of that subcommittee and they were not very friendly. Sort of just as the public works committee were pretty hostile to anybody suggesting that these projects were not supremely good.

Some of them said, “Young man, what right do you have to come before this august committee and tell us these projects are bad when they are building America!”.

“Well sir, I’m here to present some problems with these projects and that’s what I’m testifying to”, is what I tried to reply, but we didn’t get too much time. But that’s started us off, and we got people all around the country who had a problem with channelization, or dam building and diversion or other things. We’d appear at appropriations time and we knew how to arrange for them to get an appointment and on the witness list and in those days you could get on the witness list. There were hearings on some things, unlike the recent tax bill that passed. There were no hearings. That’s an outrage, and we would have raised hell about it in those days, about this not following appropriate procedures and openness and so forth.

MN: Absolutely. It’s maddening. When you would go, over a hundred times, it makes me think that you had some kind of hand in crafting some specific legislation.

BB: We were generally pushing fairly simple legislation in terms of appropriation; “None of the funds appropriated under this act or the section of the bill shall be used to channelize a stream”, so you prohibit the agency from carrying it out and if you fail that hearing, you came back the next year. Sometimes we have to go for a full decade. If you were in there for the short haul, and you were lost they would have crushed you in the opening years, but we hung in there.

By the time we got to the mid-70s, we were able to prevent the Corps of Engineers from passing any new gigantic rivers and harbors legislation or authorize for any new water projects, sometimes called the Omnibus Rivers and Harbors Bill. They brought that to the floor in 1978 and working with some skillful strategy on the parliamentary procedure we killed that appropriation, and for ten straight years, they could not get in new appropriations for the Corp. They were locked into a freeze mode because the Corp would not accept any reform, and we couldn’t get a reform but we got enough Republicans and Democrats that would block legislation.

So we shut them down for a decade and they agreed to accept reforms like cost sharing. The theory in there is that it shows you an interweaving of economic policy. If you’re not willing to do a little bit of cost sharing on a project, maybe you and the local people don’t really much believe in it, and suddenly they want the gold plated thing, and they’re not using the most cost-effective options. They forced all those judgments, so that was a huge quantum change in how projects were being approved.

One of the things that was said to us when a group of us started working on these projects was, “Don’t waste your time doing that because you’ll never win. It’s a pork barrel system, it’s how members do favors for one another and they will beat you down and they will threaten members that oppose them on the floor, and they will say, “if you oppose this one you will not get any projects from this bill.” So they threatened them and they got pretty much a blatant threat right out in the open even.

MN: That’s something that’s gotten worse. The old boy network has really systemically corrupted the system.

BB: Yes, they corrupted it, as we said a minute ago, with huge money coming in from all the people that are voting the way the conservative right does, who saw that it was losing on so many battles. After only passing over 30 major laws that decade they thought they better start funding the Congress and that the enviro groups would not be able to match anywhere near the volume of money that they’d be able to put in, and they were correct in those earlier years.

Now its changed somewhat because of the League of Conservation Voters, of whose board I’m an honorary member now. I had been chairman of the board in the 1980s. Every non-election year we almost had to fold the organization up into a dormant mode and then get active again when people would start to worry about what was going on in the next election year.

Today however, the league has been raising 30-50 million a year, but the Koch brothers are putting in 400 million or whatever, so you could see that this is not going to be a game that’s going to be easily winnable.

MN: Right. The Citizens United ruling has done a staggering amount of damage.

BB: Yes, absolutely. The League has grown. So there are state League of Conservation Voters in more than half the states and some of those are dealing with the thankless task of handling state legislators, but some of that can make a huge difference as we saw what’s been happening in Virginia this past year. Virginia has an off-year election much like New Jersey, and there was a swing of 15 votes in 15 seats in the assembly, in which the Republicans had pretty much of a lock. They didn’t anticipate that it would end up in a draw at the end of the election.

MN: These elections are scaring the shit out of them.

BB: I think so. There are three major ones happening in Washington state, in Alabama and at the state level in Virginia. This electoral work was one of the strategies used by a group concerned about a dam project; The Oakley Project in Illinois at the University Urbana-Champaign. The students and the faculty worked a massive critique of the project and found that it was economically unsound, environmentally very destructive and that there are all sorts of options that could be done instead, and still the Congressman wouldn’t change his mind, so they started running candidates against him. It took two tries and then he decided to throw in the towel the third time. So that was a strategy not often used in the 70s and 80s, but it did work. So that made a difference.

MN: Let’s move on to problems and solutions. I read about your critique of growth based economics. Walk me through what a steady state true cost economy is.

BB: All the time you read newspaper columns from the business section, they all say, “We need more economic growth.” Well, the gross national product measures a whole lot of things such as tragedies, accidents, natural disasters, because they increase expenditure. Even if you cut down all the trees as the IMF and the World Bank have been urging developing countries to do, you will be left with no forest for tomorrow and a water supply damaged with soil erosion. You’d have a hell of a break with a gross national product for the first year, but then you’ve got nothing to fall back on. Food production could be severely impacted. So why use as your basic measurement of economic well being as the gross national product? That was a starting point, and then how could you have infinite growth on a finite planet? Why don’t you see if you could have prosperity without growth. A book was written about that as a result of a lot of people’s urging by Tim Jackson of the United Kingdom and Sustainability report.

MN: What is that book?

BB: It was called Progress, Prosperity Without Growth.

MN: Okay.

 

BB: And so the advancement the steady-state economy was trying to envision was what does a steady-state economy look like? Because at some point or another we’re going to destroy all of the life support systems and the boundaries on the planet and you won’t have any kind of economy on a dead planet. We don’t want to get to that stage. We want to correct and make things flourish. We don’t want dead oceans and dead forest and dead zones in the mouths of the great rivers. We want forests that are flourishing, agricultural land that’s healthy and not compacted. We don’t want to get into flood/drought cycles and so forth, or repeat the Dust Bowl episodes. That sort of thing. So we’re saying we have to get better measurements and think of how a steady-state economy can produce prosperity for a better society.

So that’s an origin there. It would take a number of steps to get to but we ought to be going in that direction and we ought to be using the tax code as an ally. We should not be rewarding things that degrade the planet, which we have been doing.

For example when we looked at pesticide restrictions and so forth in the 50 states we found that half of the states exempted pesticides from the sales tax. Well, why get poisons to exempt of all the things that you might want to exempt? Didn’t make any sense and it goes on and on, but the tax code is full of provisions that actually harm long-term survival.

MN: This is a really old fashioned economic idea and I don’t know if it comes from Adam Smith or what. It certainly comes from biology, that if systems don’t grow then they atrophy. I think the economic philosophy has internalized that idea as an absolute truth. When I read your writing on steady state economies, I tended to think that the entire economic system has been brainwashed into believing it. This obsession with growth is like a sickness.

BB: Yes. You look at all types of factors that go into an economy and come up with plans so that you are moving more and more to dematerializing the economy. You’re building a recycling and reuse economy. Why have an economy where instead of repairing an appliance or a machine it is cheaper just to throw it away and buy a new one? Well , that’s a huge loss of raw materials and it may not have mattered so much in past centuries.

MN: Let me shift to the solution there. Toggling back and forth between the problems and the solutions, we would have to fundamentally change the way we view our economy, even the way we teach economics. How do we even begin approaching this problem?

BB: First of all I would urge speakers rather than spending 90% of time on the problem they’re addressing, how about spending 95% on the solution and only 5% on the problem? People get the picture of the seriousness of the problems, and we’ve got solutions if we take climate as the big driving factor today. I like to call it climate disruption or destabilization to frame it properly.

Then we see that there are amazing success stories that ought to be emphasized. Some of the films on climate spend 95% of time spent on the problem, and in the last couple of minutes on some solutions. Look at what Germany did for example with rooftop solar. They’re not the largest country for solar energy or solar electricity. Germany is about the size of Montana. Germany produces more solar power than all 50 states in the US put together. They are still number one in the world.

MN: Incredible.

BB: Yeah, and the price of solar has dropped maybe 75% for the solar panels. It could really back out the fossil fuels that’s been the big push on climate, to deal with the solution, but I would recommend that we also look at short-lived greenhouse gases like soot and methane and actually emphasize watershed restoration and regenerative agriculture.

Agriculture is a big emitter of greenhouse gas. We saw that techniques can be done in a year or two. You don’t have to wait a century for the carbon dioxide results if you start pulling it back out. It energizes the youth. They can see they can get a project, they can handle Washington’s hostility and make this watershed healthy and start growing the food. In the soil is a greater carbon content then it has more holding capacity.

These are solutions that a group like Biodiversity for a Livable Climate out of Boston has been promoting. Thousands of success stories. Beaver Dam: beavers introduced to Nevada cattlemen re-greened some of the driest state in the union. These are exciting stories for people to learn about and this is a way in which I would transfer at least some part of the effort. There are millions and millions of dollars being spent, but not enough variety of things that could be done.

MN: In your view what are the greatest environmental challenges right now? I know that there’s many, but if you were to narrow it down to the top one, two, or three? What would you say that those are?

BB: I would say the killing of the oceans. Admiral Jim Stavridis has written a book, Sea Power. He was the NATO admiral who knew all about what was happening. He says the next wars are going to be about fish protein. We are killing the ocean and this is one of the ones that we could get some solutions on, because one of every five fish is caught illegally for example, and we’re not spending enough on cleaning up and dealing with sources of pollution that are poisoning and turning the eutrophic mouths of great rivers into dead zones.

I would say that coming up with solutions to climate, such as making wind and solar and efficiency go viral, is the other big challenge because, if you do that, we’ve got a bunch more flexible energy. You don’t have to worry about oil spills if you’ve got solar. I don’t hear anyone complaining about solar or wind spills.

(laughs)

It makes sense and it can be added to incrementally, unlike these giant power plants which have been the focus of the twentieth century in US energy policy. A big coal plant, a big oil plant, a big natural gas plant or whatever then they get into situations just as we see now with nuclear. Some of the nuclear reactors in Georgia and South Carolina are costing 10 billion, and it bankrupted Westinghouse in the case of Georgia. This is not a way to spend money when you have all these solutions sitting there. So I’d say that’s a fundamental challenge that if we really hopped on it, could make the difference there.

One of the final ones would be to look at cycles like the nitrogen cycle and make an attack on that, because we are in worse shape on that as a planetary boundary. Then you would think that we’ve got to regenerate that situation, and you can do it through some of the agriculture that I suggested.

MN: So breaking it down to more policing of the oceans on illegal fishing would be one thing.

BB: Yes, stopping illegal fishing and doing what you can to protect the oceans, instead of what president Trump wants to do which is drill everywhere.

MN: So stupid.

BB: Oh my god, that’s going to poison the oceans rather than making them clean and healthy. The oceans. That’s the big thing. The illegal fishing is one thing but also the pollution of oceans from energy development.

MN: Then to isolate the second part of your answer, which was phasing out fossil fuels to make renewable energies more scalable and more present in our societies. I was thinking recently that it’s shameful that every single car doesn’t have solar panels on it. I saw these portable backup batteries for your cell phone and one side has a solar panel. They should be on everything, I don’t understand why they’re not.

BB: You just have to pick what you want to do. Putting solar collectors on outdoor parking lots and flat industrial roofs might be the best way to do it. You got a lot more space than you do over an individual house roof. You can have a couple of experts come up with those things, and really make sure the utilities are not trying to kill solar.

That’s what they were trying to do in Arizona. They’ve been trying to do that in many southeastern states, and they really do not like the idea of individual entrepreneurship running energy production. So they may put up a few solar farms that they own themselves, but they are not going into the rooftop solar that Germany has done so successfully. If they could change that, then we could transform these utilities into clean renewable energy operations instead of what they’re doing now. In many cases such as Virginia, you have Dominion Power, which is the state’s biggest utility, and one of the major polluters of the state.

MN: The only thing they will listen to is market forces. If the market for fossil fuels completely diminishes because the people don’t want it or don’t need it, then renewable energy will scale up.

BB: Yes.

MN: What do you think of this tariff on solar Trump implemented on Chinese solar panels?

BB: It’s a bunch of nonsense the way they did it, because as it appears the companies wanting it were not the ones grousing about it. But then it’s as if the beneficiaries didn’t have any complaint at all, and Trump is doing something that is going to end up going to resulting in drastically fewer solar jobs than they started with, and they’re going to go backwards in terms of total number of jobs because solar jobs are incredibly numerous. They’ve gone on to outdistance coal and natural gas and so on.

MN: My next question is a two-parter. There’s specifically two clear and present dangers to the planet by the US as I see it right now.

One of which is how to address the partisanship inside government that has turned the environment into a political weapon, and the other part of my question is how to fight back this corrupt Scott Pruitt EPA, and the Trump administration’s hostility towards the environment? They’re part and parcel of the same problem; the hyper-partisanship and the hyper corruption of this administration. What are the Blackwelder tips for people fighting back?

BB: I would say first of all look to levels other than the federal level for a lot of this, because the states are taking a different attitude, and the mayors of major cities are taking a different approach and they can put the squeeze on a lot of programs that we want to run. So they can potentially start to checkmate the major cuts being made at the EPA. So going at that level where we can have influence and we’re operating below Trump’s radar screen can be effective.

 

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“G8 is a carbon dinosaur”. Courtesy of Friends of the Earth

 

The other thing is don’t give up on always shining a light on corruption. That can really expose things, and more of it keeps coming out, and I think that steady drumbeat is going to make the public realize that they better not be putting into office a batch of these people that are so out of touch with what the real threats to planet earth happen to be, and the public health and health of their families. So that’s how I would do it, and look at election results in the state of Washington, the state of Alabama, and the state of Virginia this past year. You will see that maybe the tide is actually turning, and people are worried now that we have a dangerous situation at the highest level of our government.

MN: I couldn’t agree more. I think I’ve taken up enough of your time. Thanks Brent.

BB: We could have gone into any number of things. Thank you.

 

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Brent at the “50 Years is Enough” rally. Courtesy of friends of the Earth

 

*Special thank you to Julie Dyer at Friends of the Earth for sending over the trove of photos.

 

 

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