Senator John Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, really need no introduction. The 2004 Democratic Presidential nominee has spoken out over the years about many different subjects: from his eloquent testimony as a returning veteran against the war in Vietnam to his work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his fight for health care and Social Security while on the campaign trail, Kerry has lent his intelligent voice and political strength to his vision for a better America. Now, by co-writing This Moment on Earth with Teresa Heinz Kerry, he has thrown his considerable weight behind the environmental crisis, one of the most urgent and important urgent challenges facing our country, and our world, today.
The Kerrys are certainly not new to the environmental movement. Through her work and leadership with the Heinz foundations, Teresa has been actively promoting environmental issues for decades, and John has worked on, amongst other things, combating acid rain as Lieutenant Govenor and strengthening environmental legislation during his Senate career. (In fact, the couple first met at an Earth Day rally in 1990.)
This Moment on Earth is both the culmination of those years of environmental work and a wake-up call as we begin the twenty-first century. Detailed and thorough, yet always readable and engaging, the Kerrys focus on individuals across America who have taken it upon themselves to improve their communities and lives, often against very powerful government and corporate interests. These aren't radicals — they include, for example, a Republican rancher in New Mexico, a group of women concerned about rising rates of breast cancer in Cape Cod, and a fisherman in rural North Carolina. Along with these illustrative cases, the Kerrys include cutting-edge science which presents surprising and disturbing evidence of environmental effects on our bodies, our communities, and the larger world. Even if you're well informed about environmental issues, this book will teach you something new and give you both hope and positive suggestions for change.
Jill Owens: What sparked the idea for this project?
John Kerry: A sense of urgency about the environmental challenges we face, and the experience of the 2004 presidential race, where we fought to break through on these issues and found it very difficult. We also found a somewhat dispirited movement across the country that needed to refocus, I think, on how a lot of Americans are dealing with these environmental issues and are actually out there fighting and winning on a day to day basis.
Jill: You wanted to give more attention to the success stories, then?
John Kerry: Yes. We wanted to point out that, yes, there are challenges, and it's tough, but on the other hand, we as a country have a great past record to point to. When we focus on these things, we succeed. Individual Americans are out there right now, fighting these environmental battles, and succeeding at exactly that. They're breaking through in new technologies, enforcing the law themselves, cleaning up rivers or lakes or their own backyards, and showing that even individual initiatives in a local community like Portland, which we cite at the end of the book, can actually have a profound impact on global climate change and set an example for a lot of other people.
Jill: I was pleased that you chose Portland as a city that other cities could take as a model.
John Kerry: Portland earned it. Portland put itself on the map doing that, and it would have been negligence not to acknowledge that kind of effort. Teresa's been involved for a long time with the greening of Pittsburgh, too, and we were aware from our own visits here as well as just by word of mouth what Portland was doing.
Jill: How was co-writing the book? How did you decide who would write which sections?
Teresa Heinz Kerry: Basically, I tried to write about the things that I've been working on, with which I'm most familiar, and John wrote about the issues that he's been involved with in his work, in terms of legislation, et cetera. And then we read, and co-read, and over-read, and criticized, and inspired one another.
Jill: The arc of the book is interesting. You start out with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and then move from a smaller to larger scale: environmental effects on our own bodies to our communities to rivers and oceans to more global concerns. How did you decide to structure the book that way?
John Kerry: It fell in somewhat naturally; to some degree, you've articulated it. It was a logical progression. Rachel Carson was the modern inspiration of the environmental movement as we've known it, in the 1970s and late 60s. I was part of that; Teresa was part of that. So it began, to some extent, out of that experience.
Teresa Heinz Kerry: The progression is a natural one in terms of inviting people to identify and feel comfortable with an issue, and then moving on to the next step and the next step, outward. In as much as we write about individual actions making such a huge difference, it's another parallel. Not to say that we don't need — and deserve — huge federal leadership, but to affect sustainable change it is also necessary to lead at the grassroots level, among the stakeholders that really understand and want to make those changes.
Portland has shown that. With Earl Blumenauer and City Council member Mike Lindberg, you began to make the commitment to global warming changes in the city in the 1990s, and look at what you've done. What's interesting about Portland to me is that the efforts are so broad spectrum; it's not just focusing on cars, but also on investing in wind energy from eastern Oregon, for example. It's very exciting to watch.
Jill: There were some initiatives that you mentioned in the book that I didn't even know Portland was doing — making sure that all gasoline sold in the city was 10% ethanol by the end of this year, for example.
Teresa Heinz Kerry: And the percentage of biodiesel used by the city buses. I just saw this past week that the U. S. Air Force has now committed itself by 2010 to have all of its fleet use biofuels. They didn't specify what the proportion will be — if it's 10%, or how much it is -- but whatever it is an airplane today can take, they're doing it.
The Air Force, by the way, has a huge history of environmental commitment, and I actually spoke to one of their conferences a year or two ago, which was in Pittsburgh at our new green convention center (which is why they held it there). Two thousand of them meet every year, at bases around the world, to look at greening. They have a whole week's worth of seminars. They're amazing.
Jill: In the book, Teresa, you describe growing up in Africa and seeing firsthand the interplay of nature: plants, animals, humans, the earth. It's a particularly evocative way of getting across the point that nothing is done in isolation, that everything affects everything else. Do you think that part of the problem in America these days is that people are often at a disconnect from nature and natural cycles?
Teresa Heinz Kerry: I do. I think that it creates a lot of unhappiness, whether people are aware of it or not. People who live closer to the earth, whether they're growers or hunters or fishermen, quickly understand if something is awry. They might not know why, but they know something's wrong. You have to understand cause and effect and balance if you want to survive with nature.
I was very fortunate as a child to pick a lot of that up from watching my mother in the garden and my father treating sick people. And in the bush, particularly on weekends, being able to see why so-and-so got malaria, or so-and-so got typhoid, or so-and-so got dysentery. You pick up what they did, where they lived. Even at five or six years old, you begin to understand this. Not that my father was teaching me explicitly; it's not didactic, it's observation.
Jill: An organic education.
Teresa Heinz Kerry: Yes. It's wisdom; it's how you acquire wisdom, I guess, in an old-fashioned context. I wish all children in America could have a summer experience of working on a farm, or of helping at a pound or a zoo, something like that, so that they'd begin to understand that kind of life.
Jill: How did you both research the book?
John Kerry: We did several things. First, because of time constraints, we hired Amy Molloy to help us research. She did a spectacular job of filling in where we couldn't. In addition, we read a lot. We pored over things. Obviously, Google and the internet are some of most valuable tools out there. [Laughs] We wound up googling a lot of things and examining studies, but Teresa had done a lot of work already — for ten years, she's put on a conference in Massachusetts on women's health and the environment, and so she was already deeply familiar with a lot of the work of Dr. Soto and Devra Davis, for example, and the work at Tufts and Carnegie Mellon.
We spent a lot of time talking to people. We personally talked to the folks who are written about in the book, and if we couldn't see them, we talked to them on the telephone. Though not every single person we mention — for instance, I didn't talk to Mike Lindberg, and Earl [Blumenauer] I know, and have bounced around with in Congress. But all the central figures, the Tweeti Blancetts and Janine Fitzgeralds and Rick Doves and those folks, Bobby Kennedy and so forth, we personally talked to them, and wrote out of all of that.
Teresa Heinz Kerry: The book flows not just out of our interest and concern, but also our exposure to people and their works. What I found difficult — not so much in the greening part, but in the toxins part, and in that body of supporting evidence — was that medical research and evidence is constantly being updated. Every week there's a new story. If they don't have absolute, absolute scientific conclusive evidence, you just don't dare go there. So that was a very hard chapter to write. I left out some pertinent information that is very interesting and, to me, conclusive, but it was not absolutely conclusive for the scientists yet.
What people don't understand in this whole global climate change discussion is that scientists are incredibly conservative. Not politically, I mean, but they're conservative about what they put out into the world. Scientific control and evidence has got to be one hundred percent for them to put their names to it. When they say what they say, it's very serious.
A lot of the things I wrote about are new science, new finding, like estrogenicity, for instance. There will be people who say, "What do you mean? This is crazy." And it's not crazy. Go look in the tubes, go look at the studies. It's there. But it's new, and so you have to be very careful about the constant updates, which actually strengthen the case, not weaken it. You're always a little bit behind the eight ball, even though you're learning as much as you can. It was a very difficult chapter to write.
Jill: That was one of the most surprising chapters to me, because I hadn't read much of that research yet. A lot of attention has been paid to what we eat, for example, in terms of organics or locally grown food, but in terms of cleaning products, or plastics, or baby toys — I don't know if that's as much on people's radar yet.
John Kerry: It's not.
Teresa Heinz Kerry: If a baby toy is a soft, malleable plastic, it has a plasticizer, and that plasticizer probably will be a phthalate. Stop using it. Second, if it's painted and it comes from China, it probably has lead in its paint. Check that.
Those are a couple of rules to go by. I would just be a very curious mom and dad.
Jill: I was struck by Cheryl Osimo's comment about thinking about the consequences of pesticides, "To this day, I am dismayed by my own ignorance." A common thread through the people you focus on in the book seems to be questioning, going beyond what they've been told is safe or economically necessary by the government or corporations. Is that curiosity also part of the American character, do you think?
Teresa Heinz Kerry: I think Americans are very curious, actually, or have been. Now, we're in a more complacent world because we are fed so much information all the time. It's a combination of turning off and a feeling that, Oh, we have a Clean Air Act, so the air must be clean. Oh, we have a Clean Water Act, so the water must be clean. I've heard people say that. Well, we did have a cleaning of waters, and we did have a process that was cleaning the air, but the process in some places has been reversed, and in others it's been stopped. We do have some good laws on the books, but they're not enforced. That's the truth. And we do have some other attempts, as you know, to reverse those rulings. We need good rulings, and we need local efforts, as you in Portland have shown. People have to build the old American faith in risk-taking. If you're smart and you do things well, the payoff is there in spades: health, economics, et cetera.
Jill: How much would compliance with the laws that are already in place help?
John Kerry: It would make a gigantic difference, beyond description. During the 1970s, when we had a partnership with the federal government and the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, we made enormous progress. We write about the progress in the book. That partnership ended during the Reagan era in a significant way. Now, we're going backwards on water quality and on enforcement, on land use issues.
An example of that is the nitrate overload and the extraordinary spillover of confined animal farm operations — the Mississippi River and the Missouri River get loaded up and out it goes into the Gulf, and you wind up with your dead zone. Or, you've got salmon problems up here. It's everywhere — every major fishery on the planet is overfished. I write about that in the book, about too much money chasing too few fish.
There was an article in the New York Times just last week about the shark population being way down, which has unleashed a group of predator fish that previously were kept in check by the sharks. They're overfeeding on other fish, and the result is scallop populations, other populations, can be way below normal.
We're threatening the cycle of the ecosystem. Nobody quite knows or can predict the outcome of those changes. You ought to have a basic precautionary principle about how you approach these things. We should be very careful about toying with the balance of nature.
The purpose of the book is to show people those connections, to connect the dots. From our bodies to the water to the fish to what you eat and so forth, to the bigger picture, as you pointed out, but also to show — and this is really important — that there are all kinds of things that we can do, that this is manageable.
We write about the bass population coming back. We write about the greening of Pittsburgh and Portland. Rick Dove protects the Neuse River down in North Carolina, which, incidentally, is what the government is supposed to be doing. Not to mention Helen Reddout and the clean water efforts up in Washington, in Yakima. It took her seven years petitioning her own Department of Ecology to get them to do something.
But all of this is manageable, and as we point out — I think not a lot of people have written about this — there's an enormous amount of money to be made. Companies are proving this is profitable. People are saving huge amounts of money in energy efficiency. If we create new jobs for new technologies, and we export those technologies to China, to India, to the rest of the developing world, we could help them avoid the mistakes that we've made, and make a lot of money and create jobs while we're doing it.
Jill: Do you think the economic argument can convince people who don't believe in global warming to change their practices?
John Kerry: Yes, absolutely. Nicholas Stern did a seminal study proving this, which is why we wanted to quote it in the book. He's a major economist, respected by all, a former head of the Bank of England, the main economic advisor to the Blair government. He says that it will be five to twenty times more expensive to respond later, when the catastrophes start to hit, than it is to deal with global climate change now.
Jill: Why do you think our tendency, and our government's, has been so shortsighted?
John Kerry: Human nature is one thing. You have a lot of citizens who hear about this and they say, Oh my God, I just can't cope with that. That's too big for me; I'm just going to get to work today, and look forward to having a good weekend. It's hard for people to grab on to what they can do — and one of the things we wanted to try to show people is what they can do.
But the government shortsightedness is a different issue. The government's bottom line is money and cronyism, unfortunately. Look at the front page of the Wall Street Journal today. It talks about how the oil industry is preventing alternative fuels from getting to the gas pumps. So you've got basic economic interests being fought for by some of these reluctant companies, and that's been a huge part of the delay factor and the disinformation factor, which complicates the argument. They've all seen it very myopically; they think they're going to lose jobs.
Texas Instruments is a classic example. They were going to move to China, and then when challenged by their folks, who said, "Hey, we don't want to lose our jobs," they went back to the drawing board and got Amory Lovins from the Rocky Mountain Institute to come down and advise them about how they might mitigate the costs of staying in America. They redesigned the building, they redesigned the pipes, the lighting, the heating, everything, and they came up with sufficient savings that they didn't move, saved 88,000 jobs, and produced fourteen billion dollars for the economy. And they're making money every year in the savings on their energy bill. When shareholders and chief executives and directors start seeing this, I believe there's going to be a mass movement in the country towards this kind of behavior.
Jill: I was struck by a passage in which you wrote, "Even if, contrary to all science, the proponents of action on global climate change were proven wrong, what harm would the actions to combat global warming cause? We would have produced healthier people with cleaner air, sustainable farming and fishing practices, more healthful food, and more effective sources of cleaner energy, all of which adds up to greater security." When you put it that way, it seems ridiculous that there's such resistance in the government to change.
John Kerry: There still is. We still hear it in the Senate, in the hearings that were held recently. I've met with colleagues and talked to them; some of them are just not believers yet. We need to push the facts out. That's why we wrote the book, because we think the tipping point of so many of these issues is staring at us, and there's an urgency here, and we need to get people motivated to take this to the ballot box.
Jill: That was going to be my next question. Do you think we've reached the tipping point yet, with all the businesses that are starting to catch on?
John Kerry: We're getting close. We're not there yet, but we are certainly moving in the right direction, and I think what's happening with a lot of corporate leadership is very exciting.
Jill: We're doing some of that here at Powell's, as well. All our trucks use a biodiesel fuel mix, we're a patron of our local Clean Wind Energy program, and we're looking into a carbon offset program for our shipping.
John Kerry: That's great. You have to be imaginative about it. Frankly, I didn't know about carbon offsets until about a year or so ago, and we're just learning more about getting on to our own grid, doing things like that. But I think the demand is going to grow, by a lot of individuals who've become aware of it. When people see what they can do, which we try to help show them, I think they'll embrace it.
Jill: You're very successful at getting across the idea that it's part of the American character to find innovative solutions to technological problems. Do you think that solving the environmental crisis will be the major American project of the first half of the 21st century?
John Kerry: That, coupled with an appropriate definition of the real war on terror, and a more effective foreign policy. Those two issues, which will combine.
Jill: You mention Elizabeth Kolbert's wonderful series of articles in the New Yorker. I remember reading those and feeling like that was a wake-up call, that species are changing, adapting, now, as we speak. Forest fires are getting worse and worse. Global warming is affecting us now.
John Kerry: I was very impressed by her article, and read all four sections of it. She wrote brilliantly about it and in great detail, greater detail than I went into in the chapter, but I did summarize some of her conclusions about the permafrost. And she wrote eloquently about the Eskimos whose environment has changed so rapidly; the ice has turned mushy, so they're moving a whole village in Alaska. These kinds of things are just stunning. She really wrote wonderfully about it. That, to me, is one of the best pieces I've read in recent memory.
Jill: I would agree. And it's amazing that you don't hear about that, about any of these things, on the nightly news.
John Kerry: No. You don't. Although I think you do a little more so, now. One of the things I intend to do is go see all the producers, editors, and the news anchors, and meet with them over the course of the next month, and go through the latest data so that they begin to really understand the implications and treat the news more effectively. I think that's a worthwhile expenditure of time.
Jill: What are some important things one person can do to help contain and reverse the environmental crisis?
Teresa Heinz Kerry: I think it depends on where you live and how you live. The answers are particular to one's own environment and habits. For instance, buying good bulbs costs more. If your means are not very large, and you have to watch your pennies, which a lot of people do, you might not be able to change your whole house at one time. But you can change bulbs in the lamps that you use the most. Each lamp will then save an awful lot of carbon, and they last ten times longer.
If you live in a place where you're not close to a farmer's market, buy inorganic fruits that are hard-skinned, such as bananas, oranges, avocados, but don't buy anything except organic lettuce or spinach unless you know the person who's raised it and know they don't use pesticides. Likewise, don't buy peaches or other thin-skinned fruits or vegetables that are not organic, because they absorb so much more pesticide.
We put a section in the back of the book for people to find more information, whether it's about environmental groups or national health charts. But if you commit to giving your child one organic fruit and one organic vegetable a day, you've done a great thing, if you can afford to do that.
John Kerry: There are a bunch of other choices, as well. Take a look at your house and see what efficiencies you could get in terms of heating systems. Look at your windows and see whether you could do a more effective job; you could save over the long term on your energy bill, your heating bill, by investing up front in more effective glass. And pay attention to your driving habits. Try to find a car that gets good mileage, like a hybrid. Plug-in hybrids are going to be coming out soon.
People need to realize that every gallon of gas that you burn releases about twenty-two pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Over a period of time, reducing by five miles the distance you drive each day, or even less, would prevent tons of carbon dioxide from going into the air.
There are all kinds of different ways of coming at it. You can buy energy efficient products. There's the Energy Star label, which is a government-sponsored program that shows what the efficiency is of a particular product. It identifies products that use twenty to forty percent less energy than a standard new product, so if you look for the Energy Star label when you go out to buy a product, you're making your contribution. There are all kinds of ways to make a difference.
Jill: What surprised you most in doing the research for this book?
John Kerry: I think that the evidence is mounting in a bunch of these areas that not only confirms what the scientists have been saying, but which rings alarm bells as to the rate at which it's happening and the extent to which it's happening. In all cases, it is exceeding their predictions. And that's a big warning bell.
Jill: And what are you reading these days?
John Kerry: I read a lot of things. Book-wise, I was just handed a book about the plot of stealing the '04 election. Have you read it? [Laughs] I can't remember the title.
Teresa Heinz Kerry: You were also reading those Iraq books the other day...
John Kerry: Oh yes, The Shia Revival by Vali Nasr, which is a spectacular book. And Fouad Ajami's book, The Foreigner's Gift. Both have been really great eye-openers into the Middle East and what's happening there. I spoke with John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry on the phone before their reading at the Bagdad Theater in Portland on April 2, 2007.
Books mentioned in this post