mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


Green Grows Grassroots

The most interesting environmental leader in the United States right
now is a former petrochemical worker from Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley”
named Jerome Ringo. As chairman of the board of the National Wildlife
Federation, Ringo heads what is by far the nation’s largest
environmental organization, with 4 million members, not to mention one
of its richest, with an $80 million budget. It’s unusual enough that a
former union and community organizer would rise to the top of the NWF;
traditionally, the group has belonged to the polite, apolitical wing
of the movement—more inclined to publish nature magazines for kids
than to challenge corporate power à la Greenpeace or Rainforest Action
Network. But what really sets Ringo apart, both at NWF and throughout
the mainstream movement’s leadership, is that he is black.


“I am the first African-American in history to head a major
conservation group,” he says. Environmentalism in the United States
has been dominated by well-to-do white men since the late nineteenth
century, when John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt first put
the notion of preserving natural resources on the national agenda with
their campaigns to establish publicly owned parks and wilderness
areas. Alluding to this history, Ringo says the whiteness of today’s
movement isn’t because of racism. It’s simply that most environmental
groups “were founded by people who fished to put fish on the wall, not
by people who fished to put fish on the table. And for poor people,
issues like ozone depletion have not been a priority, compared with
next month’s rent. But I tell people in Cancer Alley, What good is
next month’s rent if you’re dying from cancer?”

Now Ringo wants to bring these varying constituencies together across
class and racial lines to build a broader and more powerful green
movement. His chosen vehicle, besides the NWF, is the Apollo Alliance,
a coalition of labor unions, environmental groups, business leaders
and elected officials that advocates a massive green jobs and
development program for the United States. Apollo proposes investing
$300 billion of public funds in green energy technologies over the
next ten years. This investment would create 3 million new jobs and
countless business opportunities, Apollo claims, while also fighting
climate change and cutting US dependence on foreign oil. The benefits
to poor and working-class Americans of such an economic stimulus
program are clear, but the idea is also business-friendly enough to
have attracted support from prominent Democratic moderates and other
centrists, including the group Republicans for Environmental
Protection. “I had a phone call with the chief of staff of [New
Mexico] Governor Bill Richardson just this morning,” says Ringo, who
assumed Apollo’s presidency last September. “Several months ago I
joined Hillary Clinton and [Pennsylvania] Governor Ed Rendell when the
Democrats released their Energy Independence 2020 Plan, and one of the
first items was an Apollo project. Apollo began five years ago as a
vision. My goal is to turn it into action.”

It’s still too early to say, but if Jerome Ringo and the Apollo
Alliance are representative of larger trends, green politics may at
last be finding its voice again in the United States. In the past,
most environmentalists did not bother to articulate much of an
economic message. Perhaps because they tended to be economically
comfortable themselves, they overlooked the fact that many Americans
live paycheck to paycheck and thus need to hear that green policies
can mean not only cleaner air but also more and better jobs. Indeed,
environmentalists often failed to reach out to other constituencies at
all; they stayed inside their own issue silo and assumed that having
facts on their side was enough.

“Our movement has been apolitical,” says Brent Blackwelder, president
of Friends of the Earth. “The idea was that politics is dirty and you
don’t want to get your hands dirty.” Except for the Sierra Club and
the League of Conservation Voters, environmentalists shunned electoral
politics in particular. Green groups did not even turn out their own
members to vote, much less boost turnout among ordinary citizens. When
the outrages of the Bush Administration finally led some groups to
consider taking a more active role in the 2004 elections, internal
polling found that the 10 million members of national environmental
groups voted at the same low turnout rates as the general population.
“Some groups’ members didn’t even know there was much difference
between Bush and Kerry on the environment,” adds Blackwelder.

“No one feels the pain when they vote against the environment. They
should,” says Wendy Wendlandt, political director of the National
Association of State Public Interest Research Groups. Noting that no
politician, including Bush, wants to be seen as anti-environment,
Wendlandt adds that the movement must “regain control over what it
means to be environmentalist. We need to pick bright-line issues that
define who is for you and who is against you and then hold elected
officials accountable.”

Bush’s November 2004 victory jolted environmentalists, as did the
nearly simultaneous release of Michael Shellenberger and Ted
Nordhaus’s essay “The Death of Environmentalism.” First reported in
The Nation [see
“A Challenge to Enviros”, January 3, 2005
the essay argued that the movement was failing because it
remained wedded to timid, technical-fix solutions that ignored
potential allies and left ordinary people uninspired and confused. In
the ensuing storm of argument, many greens responded that they had
been saying as much for years. Others pointed out that Shellenberger
and Nordhaus defined the movement very narrowly, ignoring thousands of
state and local, environmental justice, anti-corporate and other
grassroots organizations. The essay “reads more accurately and less
offensively” if one realizes that when “the authors use the words
‘environmental movement’ they are actually talking about large budget”
national organizations based in Washington, DC, wrote John Sellers of
the Ruckus Society and Steve Kretzmann of Oil Change. Those groups
were indeed “locked into a costly and near futile legislatively
dominated strategy,” they added, but small and medium-sized groups
were still driving change through local organizing and protest. To
support their case that change in Washington tends to come “only after
a lot of noise has been made, and attitudes have changed in the
field,” Sellers and Kretzmann cited a study by Jon Agnone of the
University of Washington, who analyzed Congressional passage of
environmental laws in the United States from 1960 to 1998. Agnone
concluded that shifts in public opinion did help get legislation
passed, but only when accompanied by visible acts of grassroots

What no one disputes is that the movement’s glory days of the 1960s
and ’70s seem long ago and far away. Back then, mass awareness and
targeted activism propelled Washington politicians of both parties to
enact a series of landmark laws—including the National Environmental
Policy Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act—that
transformed America’s ecosystems and were copied by nations around the
world. Ronald Reagan began the environmental rollback in the 1980s,
and the Clinton Administration regained little ground in the ’90s. But
it is George W. Bush’s Administration, with its overt hostility to
environmentalism, that best highlights an embarrassing paradox for the
movement. Opinion polls indicate that more than 70 percent of the
American people think we as a society should do “whatever it takes” to
protect the environment. And no one can say the environmental movement
lacks financial resources; the budgets of local and national groups
amount to an estimated $1.7 billion a year. Nevertheless, Bush and his
Congressional allies have pursued the most anti-environmental policies
in the nation’s history—and escaped without paying much of a
political price. As popular and wealthy as the environmental movement
appears, the Bush era has exposed it as something of a paper tiger.

Yet the Bush years may turn out to be the movement’s salvation, for
they have led even the national groups based in Washington to
recognize that a new approach is needed. And political space has now
opened around climate change in particular. Hurricane Katrina,
combined with a relentless accumulation of scientific findings, has at
last awakened both the public and elites in the United States to the
gravity of the threat. How else to explain how Al Gore, a man the
media mercilessly mocked as dull, pretentious and untrustworthy during
his 2000 presidential campaign, is now being treated as one of the
hottest politicians in America, thanks largely to his starring role in
the climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

There are successes to learn from. The federal government is a dead
end at the moment, but state and local environmental organizations are
scoring solid victories in red and blue states alike. Meanwhile, years
of pressure have led a surprising number of big-name corporations,
including such longstanding villains as General Electric and Wal-Mart,
to make and sometimes honor promises to change their operating
practices—thanks to a good cop, bad cop routine that offers them a
choice between the in-your-face denunciations issued by groups like
Global Exchange and Forest Ethics and the genteel green tutelage
offered by the World Resources Institute and World Wildlife Fund.
Environmental justice groups like West Harlem Environmental Action are
developing real political clout while proving that affluent white
people aren’t the only ones who care about clean air and water. And
there has been an explosion of student activism, particularly around
global warming, which Billy Parish, coordinator of the Climate Action
Coalition, calls “far and away the biggest issue on campuses now, and
not only for environmental groups. There are now 200 campuses
purchasing substantial amounts of clean energy.”

The successes have a number of themes in common, beginning with a
focus on economically attractive solutions rather than downbeat
warnings of disaster. “As scary as things look nowadays, we have
decided to spend half of our time building the new—showing how to
solve these problems and have a better life in the bargain—rather
than always playing defense,” says Betsy Taylor, founder of the Center
for a New American Dream. Another key has been reaching out to new and
sometimes ideologically or culturally distant constituencies, and
doing so in plain language that ordinary people can grasp (rather than
the policy-wonk gibberish that environmentalists often utter). A third
element has been an emphasis on sustained local organizing that grows
the movement’s base of support and seeks to build real political
power—a departure from many groups’ reliance on activist insiders
skilled in lobbying, litigation and other tactics aimed at the status

One hesitates to dust off the cliché, but together the strategies
recall the 1960s slogan “Think globally, act locally.” The stress on
organizing begins to correct a mistake that progressive movements made
in the wake of the high-profile victories of the 1960s, argues Van
Jones, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
As grants from mainstream foundations began boosting budgets
dramatically, says Jones, the civil rights movement became a civil
rights bureaucracy, staffed with lobbyists and lawyers who
increasingly tried to stand in for a demobilized black community. The
same happened with other progressive movements, with the result, Jones
adds, that over time “most of us spent more time writing grant
applications and doing work that had nothing to do with building
political power.”

“The huge successes of the 1970s were built on decades of work, a lot
of it done at the local level, around issues and concerns that then
were taken national. We’ve been drawing down on these capital reserves
ever since then without rebuilding them at the local level,” says Buck
Parker, executive director of Earthjustice and current chair of the
Green Group, made up of leaders from thirty national environmental
groups who convene regularly to discuss strategy and tactics.

It was self-deceptive for environmentalists to think they enjoyed
support from 70 percent of the American public, argues Carl Pope,
executive director of the Sierra Club. A keener analysis of polling
data, says Pope, reveals that about 40 percent of the public are
pro-environment but not pro-environmentalist. These 40 percent take
green positions on policy questions (e.g., Do you support action on
global warming?), but culturally “they see us as too extreme. They
tend to be more rural and conservative but also include significant
numbers of urban, nonwhite and less educated people. The right
effectively split them off from us in the 1980s and ’90s, and we did
nothing to prevent this. We didn’t build good relationships with
churches, labor unions and African-American and Latino
constituencies.” Concludes Pope, “Our challenge is to reknit the
environmental majority, because it’s still there, it’s just been
artificially divided.” The place to start is at the state level, where
activists are passing “amazing legislation that we couldn’t even talk
about with the Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill. Idaho just enacted a
two-year ban on coal-fired power plants. The Idaho governor, who is
now Bush’s new Interior Secretary, didn’t want to do it, but the
legislature rolled him. Maryland, with a Republican governor, has
signed on to the Kyoto Protocol.”

“In 2004 Kerry lost Colorado, but we won everything else here,” says
Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental
Coalition. Jones’s group was a key member of a broader progressive
coalition that, in a state with a majority of Republican voters,
passed three progressive ballot initiatives, took back the state
legislature and won the US Senate seat. “Seeing how the conservatives
who orchestrated the Gingrich revolution [in 1994] went back to the
grassroots made me realize that we needed to do the same thing,” says

The key in Colorado was to “appeal to people across the political
spectrum” by addressing their concerns as much as environmentalists’
own. To pass the renewable energy initiative, progressives won over
economically strapped farmers in the east of Colorado, who have
traditionally voted Republican, by stressing how wind farms could help
them pay their bills. Even the Farm Bureau, usually environmentalists’
enemy, ended up backing the initiative, as did the Republican Speaker
of the House.

A similar green upsurge has taken place in Michigan. “For fifteen
years we counted it as a success if we could just protect the status
quo,” says Lana Pollack, president of the Michigan Environmental
Council. “Now we actually move the ball down the field. And we have a
Republican House and Senate and a Democratic governor, so we have to
move things through both parties.” Much of the change comes from
implementing what Pollack concedes are Politics 101 tactics. “You have
to work at the ground level. We turn out thousands of letters to get
constituents informed and revved up. We don’t put out dense reports
but shorter, more newsworthy releases. We stopped looking at everyone
outside the environmental world as the hostile, unwashed masses and
saw them as distinct interests that on occasion might align with ours,
including nurses groups, business groups and the Michigan Association
of Realtors.”

Leaders of national groups say they too are returning to the
grassroots, mainly by collaborating more with state and local
organizations. “It was critical to be in Washington the last few years
to resist the [Bush] rollback, which we’ve done,” says Frances
Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. But when
the Administration proposed allowing inadequately treated sewage to
drain into coastal runoff systems, Beinecke adds, NRDC “took the issue
out of Washington to a state that would be severely affected by that
proposal, Florida, and worked it there. We put local groups like the
Florida Federation of Garden Clubs out front to raise awareness of the
issue, and we got eighteen out of twenty-five members of the Florida
Congressional delegation to come out against it, including very
conservative members like Katherine Harris.”

The successes in Michigan and Colorado might not have happened without
deep-pocket local donors who supported such grassroots organizing,
local activists say. But national activists complain that national
funders, especially foundations, have resisted this approach in favor
of quick-fix solutions. “Funders have very short time spans and want
to see measurable results, and you can’t build the kind of [movement
we envision] in a short period of time,” says Rebecca Wodder,
president of American Rivers. Carl Pope says the Sierra Club is now
“in partnership with the United Steelworkers, the biggest industrial
union in America, to go into a number of states and try to create a
class-blind environmental movement.” But foundations have declined to
fund the initiative because it cannot promise specific policy outcomes
within the next two years, says Pope, who adds, “I assure you, not a
single important right-wing funder in this country thinks that way.”

Some $2.8 billion is donated every year to progressive service and
advocacy groups in the United States, according to Democracy Alliance,
a group of nonfoundation donors and activists who are working to
fortify the progressive infrastructure. Only $500 million of that
money, about 18 percent, goes to groups that work locally. Within the
environmental field, activist groups receive a total of $1.7 billion a
year, of which only $187 million—barely 10 percent—goes to groups
that work at the local level. (By far the largest portion of
environmental funding goes to land trusts, which buy and protect land
that is environmentally or aesthetically valuable.) “Those numbers
show what is readily apparent when you look around Washington, DC,”
says John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA. “This
is a top-heavy movement. You need lobbyists and experts, sure, but not
as many as we have. Look at the National Rifle Association. They know
that power is built in the field, so they focus on individual
Congressional districts…. The difficulty is, organizing is not sexy.
It doesn’t get you headlines in the New York Times. It is scruffy,
dirt-under-the-fingernails power building.”

“In-depth organizing is a hard sell to national foundations,” says
Bill Roberts, president of the Beldon Fund, which underwrote the
organizing in Michigan. Roberts does not bring up the following
example but does confirm it when asked: After some environmental
groups finally began to collaborate with other progressive
organizations during the 2004 election campaign, Roberts tried to
convince other funders to help him keep the best parts of the
infrastructure in place for future work. His appeal was rejected.
“Some funders were persuaded,” he recalls. “But many others wanted to
know what specific activities would be developed and implemented in
2005 before committing funds.”

Joshua Reichert, managing director of the policy initiatives and
environment program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, counters that it is
unreasonable to ask foundations to underwrite long-term organizing.
Arguing that the current state of the movement is “reasonably strong,”
Reichert charges that green groups are themselves responsible for any
lack of grassroots organizing: “Most of these groups get more of their
money from memberships [in dues] than they do from foundations. Groups
can pour that money back into organizing, if they choose to.
Foundations put money in when they’re interested in a specific program
a group is doing.”

If working outside the Beltway is crucial to making environmental
progress, environmental groups have to learn to talk in a way people
outside the Beltway can understand. “What ordinary person knows what
carbon sequestration means?” asks Peggy Shepherd, the founder of West
Harlem Environmental Action. Sitting in her modestly furnished office
above the fast-food and discount stores of 125th Street, Shepherd
points out the window and continues, “We spend a lot of our time
translating this stuff into language that makes sense to people living
in that housing project over there. We’ve got to let people know that
the environment is their home, it’s their kids’ school, so they can
understand their connection to these global problems that seem so

Reaching out more will also require environmentalists to face issues
of race and class—issues they have long skirted, despite the
well-known fact that poor and nonwhite communities are
disproportionately victimized by environmental degradation. Fifteen
years after the National People of Color Environmental Leadership
Summit put environmental justice on the green agenda, the top ranks of
mainstream organizations remain dominated by white men. Of the thirty
leaders in the Green Group, all but two are white; all but three are
men. “Whenever I go to middle- or high-level environmental meetings,
I’m always the only person of color in the room and, what’s even more
shocking, one of only two or three women,” says Shepherd. “It’s very
surprising, because I know those women and people of color are out

“It is a bit tragic that people who are presumably progressive are so
far behind on this,” says Carl Anthony, deputy director of the Ford
Foundation’s community and resource development unit. “Take your
average corporation, say Pepsi Cola; they’re way ahead of the
environmental movement in terms of doing at least lip service on this.
Even George Bush’s Administration has an African-American Secretary of
State.” Diversifying the movement is not a matter of political
correctness, Anthony emphasizes, but of effectiveness. “Look at what
the environmental justice movement has taught everybody about toxics.
In the 1970s environmentalists were saying if we don’t cut back on
toxics, such and such bad things would happen. But environmental
justice folks were saying, ‘It’s already happening in our
communities.’ Unless we build this edge to our movements, we can’t

More and more mainstream environmentalists agree, if only because they
realize that middle-class white people are increasingly
unrepresentative of twenty-first-century America. “The changing
demographics of the United States mean that environmental groups, to
succeed, have got to speak to Latinos, African-Americans and other new
constituencies,” says Bill Davis, director of the State Environmental
Leadership Program.

Jerome Ringo knows from his years of organizing in Louisiana that
bridging the divide won’t be easy. “You can’t just tell people in
Cancer Alley that they should join conservation groups because they’ll
ask, What have you done for me lately?” he says. “And conservation
groups don’t have much of an answer for that. They have to step up to
the plate and address the issues that impact minority communities.”

Mainstream environmental leaders concede the problem and are working
on it, says Bill Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society and
coordinator of the Green Group’s efforts on diversity. “I remember
sitting at a table at one of the conferences we’ve begun holding to
support this kind of work,” he says. “Seated to my right was a woman
from Florida who was very involved in environmental justice issues;
she was opposing a coal-fired power plant. To my left was a CEO of an
organization that worked on climate change. He was bemoaning that he
didn’t have the constituency at a local level that could push the
McCain-Lieberman climate bill in Congress. She was complaining she
didn’t have the national visibility needed to stop that plant.
Investing in building that kind of infrastructure, to make sure those
linkages occur, is the most important work we can do in the next five

Robert Gottlieb, the author of Forcing the Spring, a history of the US
environmental movement, says outreach by mainstream green groups to
environmental justice activists is “sufficiently widespread that you
can’t say it’s just window dressing.” But, he warns, “without a
rootedness in local organizing, the full potential of this movement
will not be realized.”

Part of what makes Jerome Ringo interesting is that he personifies
this potential to create an environmental movement that is broader and
deeper than before—to “reknit the environmental majority,” in Carl
Pope’s phrase. As a former union organizer and community activist,
Ringo is clearly sympathetic to the disadvantaged. But his years as a
successful business owner enable him to reach out to the private
sector, and as chair of the National Wildlife Federation he can also
relate to the 20 percent of voters who describe themselves as hunters
and anglers. Those people are usually assumed to be conservative. But
a recent poll commissioned by the NWF found that 78 percent of them
support renewable energy, perhaps because they recognize that fossil
fuels are ruining their recreation areas.

“The glue that connects the dots” is the fight against climate change,
says Ringo. In the past, green groups diffused their impact by working
on too many different issues, he continues, but now every major green
group “has recognized that global warming is the issue.” Donning his
Apollo Alliance hat, Ringo argues that environmentalists can best
pursue this battle, and gain new allies in the process, by championing
green energy and jobs.

It’s a good time to be making this argument. Not only has global
warming finally been widely acknowledged as an urgent problem, it is
now undeniable that fighting it can be extraordinarily profitable. The
more that conventional energy prices go up, the more profitable it
will be to invest in green energy—above all, in energy efficiency.
It’s not exciting, but energy efficiency—doing more work with less
fuel—is and will remain for years to come the most potent and
lucrative source of green energy. To paraphrase Amory Lovins,
co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, the greenest energy is the
energy that is never produced in the first place.

Many corporations are already capitalizing on this opportunity. Over a
three-year period beginning in 1999, energy giant BP invested $20
million to increase energy efficiency throughout its production
facilities and offices. It ended up saving $650 million in fuel
costs—a stunning thirty-two-fold return on its original investment.
But why let the private sector have all the fun? There is no reason
state and local governments, schools and other public entities,
community groups and individuals cannot cash in as well. At the
moment, most of civil society is leaving this energy efficiency
windfall on the table. But clever activists could change that. Bring
together the key players—public officials, energy planners,
efficiency companies, unions, financiers and community
leaders—outline the opportunities at hand, and the economics are so
compelling that the rest of the job should almost take care of itself.

Illustrating that Republicans need not be blind to this logic,
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has pushed some of the
greenest energy policies in the nation. “The Governor’s Green Building
Initiative is designed to reduce the state’s energy use in state
buildings 20 percent by 2015,” says Terry Tamminen, Schwarzenegger’s
top environmental aide. “We’re doing audits right now on all the state
government buildings and finding that if you put in energy-efficient
lighting, you can earn your investment back in eighteen months.” At
Schwarzenegger’s direction, the Public Utilities Commission has also
approved a Million Solar Roofs program, which will spend $3.2 billion
in the next eleven years to subsidize installing solar energy for new
buildings. “That $3.2 billion will generate four times that value in
jobs, according to the California Energy Commission,” adds Tamminen.
“And those jobs will be here in California, where much of the research
and development for the next generation of solar energy is happening.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson is an unapologetic Democrat in
what may be the reddest state in the nation. But he has implemented
serious green policies during his five years as mayor—and won not
only re-election but plaudits from the local business community. “When
I can get up in front of the Salt Lake City Rotary Club, which is by
and large conservative businesspeople, and get a standing ovation
after talking about the kinds of changes we’re making here, that says
a lot,” Anderson says. His city government committed to reducing its
greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent from 1990 levels (i.e., more
than Kyoto requires). By the end of 2005 it had already exceeded that
target while boosting city revenues, thanks to dramatic increases in
energy efficiency and methane recovery from its wastewater and
landfill facilities. The city then shared its lessons with local
businesses and citizens via so-called E2 programs—energy and
environment. “We show them how they can do the same and generally save
money as well,” says Anderson, who adds, “It’s important to have a
positive message. People respond so well to the sense that, yes, we
have these [environmental] challenges, but we have a can-do spirit and
we can do the right thing and come out ahead.”

At Anderson’s invitation, Ringo spoke about the Apollo program at the
National Conference of Mayors in June and got a standing ovation, too.
The Apollo message is ready-made for municipal governments; 235 mayors
have committed their cities to meeting or exceeding the greenhouse-gas
emissions reductions mandated by the Kyoto Protocol. And many cities
are already sold on green development plans, says Keith Schneider, a
former New York Times reporter who is deputy director of an
environmental group, the Michigan Land Use Institute. “Cities have
become the great incubators of sustainable ideas and policy in the
United States, and are generally much farther ahead than any state
government and certainly farther ahead than the federal government,”
Schneider notes, adding that local leaders think such efforts are “as
vital to their community’s well-being as fighting crime and improving
public schools.”

Environmentalism teaches that everything is connected. Yet when it
came to politics, environmentalists ignored this truth for many
years—until now. By going local, talking plainly, promoting solutions
and working with a broad range of stakeholders, environmentalists
could drive the next great wave of economic growth in this country
while also addressing the single gravest threat to our collective
future. Making such an end run around the federal government will not
make George W. Bush irrelevant. But it will leave him behind, as the
rest of the world has already done on climate change, and return
environmentalism to the American mainstream, where it belongs.



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Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.