Q&A - Ed Begley, Jr. | EcoCenter: Greener Living | Smithsonian
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Q&A - Ed Begley, Jr.

Actor and environmental activist Ed Begley, Jr. talks about living green

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The first Earth Day, 1970, inspired then-struggling actor Ed Begley, Jr. to dedicate his life to lessening his impact on Earth. Even as he earned six Emmy nominations for his portrayal of Dr. Victor Ehrlich on St. Elsewhere and appeared in such movies as A Mighty Wind and Batman Forever, he became known for his environmentalism as much as his acting. People laughed when he rode his bicycle to the Oscars. But as gas prices approach $4 a gallon, they're not laughing any more.

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Begley and his wife Rachelle Carson (pictured above) matched wits in their domestic reality show Living with Ed, which ran for two seasons on HGTV.

"He has a genuine concern for the planet, then on top of that he wants to see [how little] energy we can consume," says Carson, an actress named after Rachel Carson, the late biologist whose landmark book Silent Spring (1962) warned about the indiscriminate use of pesticides. "He re-insulated the house and got our energy down even more. He blames me because I use a blow drier, God forbid."

With his book, Living Like Ed (Clarkson Potter, $18, printed on recycled paper) Begley, 58, has been sharing a secret he learned long ago: you can save money by going green.

How did you become an environmentalist?
After 20 years of living in smoggy LA in the ‘50s and ‘60s, on the first Earth Day, I decided to do something. I bought an electric car, I started recycling. I started composting. I started buying biodegradable soaps and detergents. I changed my diet. Not only did it feel good, but much to my surprise I was saving money. I did it to save the environment but when I realized I was saving money, I went, wow, I've got to stick with this.

What keeps you going?
Since I started this in 1970, we have four times the amount of cars in LA and yet we have half the smog. That's a big deal. We had another success with ozone depletion. In the ‘70s, we banned CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) from spray cans. Then we got really serious about it after the Montreal accord in 1987. Now the ozone hole is smaller. The Hudson River was so polluted for years you couldn't fish there. Now it's a productive fishery because of the Hudson River Keeper and the Clean Water Act. I believe we can do it on every front. We just have to get cracking.

How do you minimize your impact on the environment?
I urge people to pick the low hanging fruit. Do the stuff that's cheapest and easiest first. I couldn't afford solar panels in 1970. I was a struggling actor. I started recycling and composting. I bought an electric car for $950. But I found quickly it was cheaper to charge it than it was to buy gasoline. There was no tune up, oil change, or smog check. I made my house very energy efficient with good insulation. Compact florescent bulbs, an energy saving thermostat, good insulation, double pane windows. I did that first. That was much cheaper than solar panels. So you do that and then you move up the ladder. I get by on solar power and I buy renewable energy out in the marketplace.

My favorite form of transportation is walking. I live in a neighborhood where you can walk to restaurants, banks, and shops. Number two is my bicycle. Number three is public transportation. My electric car [a Toyota Rav-4 with an 80-mile range] is a distant fourth. My wife's hybrid is fifth. Then sixth, if I have to be in LA on Monday and DC on Tuesday, I get in a plane like anybody else but I avoid it at all costs.

Are you off the grid?
No, it was an elusive goal I've never quite achieved. When I was single, I was down to $100 of power a year. Now there are three of us [wife Rachelle and daughter Hayden, 8] so there's $300 a year worth of green power I buy from the LA Department of Water & Power Green Power Program. I owned a wind turbine in the California desert as an investment, part of a wind farm. So I've put out many homes' worth of power since 1985. I buy a Terra Pass [carbon offsets] for my air travel or for my wife's tailpipe emissions on her Toyota Prius and for my home energy use.

I do as much as possible with solar on my roof, buying alternative energy as an investment and carbon offsets. I live in a little house, which is part of the good news. But there's just not enough roof space to produce enough electricity. One day, if I can build a second story and get my panels up in the clear I'll be off the grid.

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