The Making of an Activist
Finding your passion and devoting your life to it is a gift. Of course, it's a process, it takes time, and it doesn't necessarily show itself from day one. My path is the perfect example of this. I had so many jobs along the way, jobs that at the time seemed completely unconnected to any great master plan, but now, looking back, make total sense.
When I graduated college, I only had a vague notion of what I wanted to do, but I knew it had to be something in the entertainment field. My career began in a strange place for someone to accomplish that: Cincinnati, Ohio, as a copywriter for a car dealership. (And how crazy that, years later, I would start my advocacy on global warming by attacking the low-mileage of SUVs and promoting the hybrid car.) Strange also because I knew next to nothing about cars and I didn't even have a driver's license at the time. That was my first lesson- never let knowing next to nothing stop you! And something else I've learned along the way is just because someone says no doesn't mean they are right. I'll give you a perfect example of this: the marketing report NBC did to test Seinfeld for the first time. The conclusion of the "polling" was that the characters were completely unlikable and the show had no real appeal. We've proudly framed and hung that report in our guest bathroom.
So there I am in Cincinnati, writing pithy lines about the Dodge Dart. Unbeknownst to me, the master plan begins to unfold. I stayed just long enough to actually produce a television spot. All of a sudden, I am in showbiz at a Dodge Dart dealership! Well, that one script gave me enough experience to get me a little closer to a better job with a magazine. That was my second lesson: every job doesn't have to be perfect-it just needs to move you a few inches forward. It will all make sense years later.
As an associate editor at Tee-Shirt Weekly (okay, it wasn't exactly Rolling Stone, but it was a magazine), most of my reporting was about cotton versus polyester, but there was also an opportunity to write articles about how rock-band merchandise was being ripped off by bootleggers. Pretty soon, I found myself interviewing music-industry veterans about rock-and-roll shirts and hats-finally, I was on the fringes of the entertainment industry! The little bit of music background helped me land my next job as a reporter for Record World magazine. The very next year, word was out that Late Night with David Letterman was looking for a researcher/ music person — and jackpot!
Hanging around comedians was not bad for a day job, and when I left the show four years later, it was like I'd graduated from Comedy U. I started my own management company, representing comedians and developing sitcoms for television. My first client was comedian Chris Elliott, affectionately known then as "The Guy under the Stairs." I began producing my clients' stand-up specials. In fact, eventually, I married a comedian myself.
My concerns about global warming began soon after we had our first child. I was a new mom, feeling very overwhelmed with the realization that I was now irreversibly responsible for this tiny creature. There was no turning back. I remember crying every day at five in the afternoon, the witching hour, my stress level at a breaking point. My husband and I would look at each other as if to say, "What have we done?"
I hated those first few months of motherhood. The baby had colic, Larry was on a soundstage seven days a week, my career was on hold-all of my friends worked-I had no one to talk to. I was isolated and scared. I spent a lot of time walking around the neighborhood, pushing a stroller. I started noticing an enormous amount of SUVs on the street. Everyone was driving them. I frequented a local bookstore and picked up a book called High and Mighty by Keith Bradsher of The New York Times. It was about the proliferation of SUVs and how they were really harming America. It explained that our fuel-economy standards were plunging because of a loophole in the law that classified SUVs as trucks, thereby allowing them to have lower mileage standards than regular cars-fewer miles per gallon and double the carbon-dioxide emissions. So, every time you drove somewhere, to the store, the school, the freeway, you were now all of a sudden doubling your personal CO2 pollution. I panicked, because everyone I knew was driving them. I had had other lightbulb moments in my life-like the first time I tasted good wine and then couldn't drink the cheap stuff any more; or the moment that I learned that bald men make better lovers, and never dated a man with hair again. But this was different. This awareness landed with a thud on my shoulders. And with awareness comes responsibility.
Wangari Maathai is a woman who, with limited resources and living in Africa, spent thirty years inspiring the planting of 30 million trees across Kenya and spreading the message that protecting the environment protects democracy. For this, she became the first environmentalist ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She explained her lightbulb moment this way: "Passion begins with a burden and a split-second moment when you understand something like never before. That burden is on those who know. Those who don't know are at peace. Those of us who do know get disturbed and are forced to take action."
I often wonder what she was thinking when she planted those first few seeds in her backyard. Digging that first hole, was she wearing gloves or did she use her bare hands? Did she imagine that, ten years later, she would inspire a national movement? Did she know she was an activist?
Activism comes in all shapes, sizes, and at all ages. Looking back, I trace my very first action not on behalf of a cause but on behalf of a band. At the tender age of twelve, I was a huge Beatles fan, and when the film Let It Be was released, I was afraid that people might not go see it, as their popularity at that time was waning. So, I wanted to help. I remember cutting the movie ads out of the local newspaper, taking thumbtacks off of my bulletin board, and heading to the street, where I proceeded to tack the ad upon every telephone pole within a mile radius of my house. Surely, that would help get people into the theater!
The Civil Rights Movement of Our Time
After connecting the dots when I became a mom, I made it my job to educate myself about the environment and global warming. I read everything on the subject I could get my hands on: books and articles by reporter Mark Hertsgaard (Earth Odyssey); environmentalist Bill McKibben (The End of Nature); Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ross Gelbspan (Boiling Point); Todd Wilkinson (Science under Siege); and Al Gore (Earth in the Balance). I joined the board of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the most effective environmental group in the country. And through them, I met Robert F. Kennedy Jr., NRDC's senior attorney. Hearing him describe environmental problems as the civil rights issue of our time resonated so deeply with me that it was at that very moment that I decided to devote everything I had to the cause — to become a serious full-timer. Suddenly, developing sitcoms for television no longer felt so important. Seinfeld was a huge hit, and I certainly wasn't going to develop anything better than that. So, I began to hold regular salons in my house with policy makers, scientists, and experts on a wide range of environmental issues. I learned how to ask my friends for money to support the NRDC's work, and I quickly understood that if you educate yourself and care about these things, you can convince others to care. I produced fund-raising events and raised millions of dollars. Ultimately, if you want to effect change, you have to get politically active too. So, I began supporting politicians who had good voting records on the environment, and before I handed a check over, I grilled them on the issues. And then the 2004 presidential election came.
I woke up the morning after the election, November 3, and cried for three straight days. I couldn't stop. Not because my candidate lost, which he had, but because of what it meant for the solutions to global warming. We had just reelected a president who surrounds himself with advisors and staff culled from the oil and auto industries, two giants fighting change at all costs. In fact, the president's first act in office in 2001 was to renege on his promise to regulate CO2 as a pollutant. Two months later, he shocked the world by removing the United States from the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement that was the result of thousands of hours of work, endless meetings, difficult negotiations-basically blood, sweat, and tears-on the part of 160 countries, including the United States.
On day four of my crying jag, I finally pulled myself together and called three people: John Adams, NRDC's founder; Frances Bienecke, the group's president; and Bobby Kennedy — my three guides and mentors. I pitched to them an idea of how I thought we could — had to — build a huge grassroots movement demanding solutions to global warming. A giant march on Washington to stop global warming, but on the Internet instead of on the streets. A virtual march that would continue every day until we were millions strong, combining all of our voices into one loud, clear cry for action. Frances said, "Fantastic." John said, "Great, we are in." Bobby said, "I don't get it. What do you mean virtual?" And, believe me, that was the hardest thing I did that year, explaining to a guy who has never touched a computer what the heck virtual meant. Eventually, he was in too, along with dozens of other organizations and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, Care2, The Conservation Fund, National Wildlife Federation, National Council of Churches, the Indy Racing League, Tides Network, Roots, myspace.com, and dozens more.
The next step was to find a prominent Republican to help launch the Virtual March, because, as we all know, this issue is not political, it is moral. If global warming became associated with just one political party, we would never get to where we need to go. The obvious first stop was John McCain, who has been a long-time outspoken leader on global warming. And I have to say that it was my stature as an NRDC trustee that got me into his Senate office. (Okay, maybe he was a Curb Your Enthusiasm fan, too, and Seinfeld, well, that certainly didn't hurt — I am the first to use the proverbial "wife of" when needed. Another life lesson: use what you've got.) But still, he knew I had the support of the most powerful and respected environmental group in the world, and that goes a long way when you are knocking on doors in Washington. In his office, on the spot, he said to me, "Let's get marching."
Large numbers of people can change the world. Look at what we have accomplished before. In 1963, the March on Washington changed the debate on civil rights when people poured into the streets to demand action. In 1970, millions turned out for the first Earth Day, which led directly to the establishment of the Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act, not to mention the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. (We have to give Nixon credit for that. It is truly ironic that the early days of the environmental movement were actually spurred on by the Republican Party, Teddy Roosevelt being an obvious example.Unfortunately, the Republican Party has truly been absent on these issues in recent years. We need all Republicans back in this movement, now.) Large numbers of people did that. And we can do it again. We have to do it again. And now we have even better tools; now we have the Internet. New tactics for a new day.
The Stop Global Warming Virtual March has three basic goals: to get Americans to admit that the globe is warming; to acknowledge that we are causing it; and to demand from our government and business community meaningful solutions. So that's one important yet easy thing you can all do today, and it only requires an e-mail address. Join the Virtual March and think of ways to get others to join, too. Spreading the word is building the movement. Who knows better than you what it takes to engage your personal sphere of friends, associates, teachers, and family? If everyone signs on and sends it to five friends, we can become so big and so strong that Congress and the Administration will no longer be able to ignore this problem. Go to www.stopglobalwarming.org and add your voice to the two NFL teams, religious leaders, politicians, Jon Bon Jovi, James Taylor, Incubus, surfer Laird Hamilton, Senator Hillary Clinton, skateboarder Tony Hawk, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Leonardo DiCaprio, Senator Barack Obama, Kiehl's, MTV, myspace.com, the National Council of Churches, The Weather Channel, and almost half a million Americans who are already virtually marching. One voice can turn into a million, and a million voices will be heard!
Once the Virtual March was launched, I started to focus my efforts on other projects to get the issue into popular culture. First were two television projects: Earth to America!, featuring today's top comedians, including Will Ferrell, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Jack Black, Larry David, Martin Short, Robin Williams, and Ray Romano, using comedy as a way to get the word out about global warming; and a one-hour documentary film I produced for HBO called Too Hot NOT To Handle, which focused on the effects of global warming in the United States. (It premiered on April 22, 2006).
And the third part of the plan was a feature film. The story behind An Inconvenient Truth is a Hollywood tale in and of itself. I was asked to moderate a town-hall meeting on global warming in New York City on Thursday, May 27, 2004, to coincide with the opening of the Hollywood blockbuster The Day after Tomorrow. Al Gore was one of several panelists and he showed a ten-minute version of his now-famous hour-long slide show. I had never seen it before, and I was floored. As soon as the evening's program concluded, I asked him to let me present his full briefing to leaders and friends in New York and Los Angeles. I would do all the organizing if he would commit to the dates. Gore's presentation was the most powerful and clear explanation of global warming I had ever seen. And it became my mission to get everyone I knew to see it too. I firmly believed that if George Bush himself saw it, he would be moved to start solving the problem immediately. In Los Angeles, I rented a hotel ballroom, printed invitations, and hit the phones. In New York, the Society for Ethical Culture donated their venue, Ken Sunshine Consultants donated their public-relations help, and prominent New Yorkers cohosted the evening. Bobby Kennedy convinced Roger Ailes, president of Fox News, to attend. We met with Roger the following week, and in the room he committed to a one-hour primetime news special on global warming. This was a huge accomplishment, for obvious reasons. Fox News would be a new messenger, and although everyone urged us not to work with Fox, telling us the network would never do a "fair and balanced" show, Fox surprised everyone with The Heat Is On. (Unfortunately, six months later, in an apparent caving to advertisers — perhaps car companies? ExxonMobil? — Fox News ran a second piece, ostensibly to give "opposing views" a chance to rebut. This was a sad step backward and a major disservice to its viewers.) On both coasts the packed houses, although some were initially cynical, all gave Gore a standing ovation.
At this point, Gore was logging thousands of air miles crisscrossing the world, literally our modern-day Paul Revere. But a filmed version could reach millions — and quickly. And that is what we did.
Helping to bring Al Gore's keynote on global warming to a "theater near you" has been the highlight of my career.
Excerpted from Stop Global Warming: The Solution is You! An Activist's Guide by Laurie David. Copyright © 2006 by Laurie David. Republished by permission of Speaker's Corner Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.