An Interview with Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the author of ten books, and the co-founder and editor of The Huffington Post. Simran Sethi had a chance to ask her about environmental action, the political battlefield, and the art of fearless living.

TreeHugger: In your book Fanatics and Fools, and in your campaign for governor of California, you first stressed the need for energy independence. Do you think we are any closer to achieving that goal now than when you penned those words?

Arianna Huffington: Unfortunately not. The reality is that our dependence on foreign oil has increased. Despite a lot of lofty rhetoric from the White House, and despite lots of private commitment to responsible energy use, we are more dependent on foreign oil than we were before and no serious steps are being taken to reduce that dependence. One of the easiest things to do would be to improve CAFE standards so that we wouldn't have the major problems we have now with SUVs being able to bypass the mileage regulations that apply to other cars.

(image credit: TIME)TH: Does the major opportunity for change lie with government inflicting stronger standards, or is it more a question of consumers demanding more efficient vehicles and higher standards?

AH: Right now it's clear that it has to be the consumer. I live in Los Angeles and I bought my first Toyota hybrid car in 2001, and my children were making fun of me because they looked like golf carts with a hood, now they have improved and you see them everywhere. When I first started driving mine it was considered pioneering, and now they are all over the place. That is something that was driven by consumers, especially after the rise in gas prices. Peer pressure was also important, and it helped that you had celebrities using their arrivals at the Oscars, and other such events, to promote these cars and to help others make the right consumer choices.

TH: You co-founded the Detroit Project, an initiative to teach citizens about the disadvantages of driving SUVs and to lobby automakers into producing more fuel efficient cars as a means of reducing our dependence on foreign oil. How successful was that project, and where does it stand today?

AH: It was amazingly successful. We spent under $100,000 to produce ads and we got them played on major networks because they were edgy, and because they showed the links between dependence on foreign oil and terrorism. It showed how much can be done by citizen activists taking matters into their own hands. What is interesting is that at the time we were attacked in a major way by rightwing radio, and many others, and yet now this issue cuts across party lines. There are now a lot of people on the right who are supporting our position.

TH: So the ads which were at the time deemed to be problematic, actually proved to be prophetic?

AH: Well they were definitely ahead of their time, and as a result they were lightning rods, but it was great to see it work.

TH: You are definitely known as being a 'lightning rod,' and for speaking truth to power. Did you have any sense when you were envisioning the Huffington Post that it would have the kind of impact that it has had?

AH: No, I didn't. I think it was really the perfect storm. It was a combination of us coming out with the first collective blog of multiple voices, and of news being constantly updated. We now have over 700 contributors. I think the timing was also important — there is something big about being the first to do something, and we did this at a time when there was growing interest in getting news online.

TH: What do you think about the state of independent online media today, in particular in relation to what it has done for politics?

AH: I think it is incredibly significant. We are expanding right now, and have just hired a political editor from Newsweek Magazine, Melinda Henneberger who used to be with the New York Times for ten years, and she is building a team that will take on political coverage, including the 2008 elections. It will stage online debates between presidential candidates, both in the primaries and in the general, and make sure that we are a major player, as the online community increasingly will be, in the coverage of the 2008 presidential race.

TH: How do you think we can bring environmental issues back into the debate in US politics?

AH: First of all, I think a lot of oxygen will be freed up once something is done about the catastrophe in Iraq. I think that this has been one of the problems. We are basically facing such a lack of leadership in Iraq. A lot of people who actually normally care passionately about the environment, have been using as much of their energy as possible fighting that battle, so not enough attention has been paid to environmental issues. Although, of course, there has been an enormous amount of good being done by Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth.

TH: Al Gore has been particularly effective at reframing the debate around environmentalism, helping people to understand our relationship with our environment. He has also been good at making the connections between environmentalism and our "addiction to oil," as George Bush has called it. How can we continue this process?

AH: First of all, it's important to acknowledge that the "addiction to oil" phrase was coined long before Mr. Bush's use of the term. It is also a shame when you acknowledge an addiction but do nothing to treat it, which is unfortunately what we are finding with this administration. I think the thing that forced them to admit this addiction was the increase in oil and gas prices, which created a demand from consumers. And it was not just those consumers who cared about the environment, but also those who were more concerned about their pocketbooks.

TH: So should we be emphasizing this fact that this is not only a question of national security, but that it also impacts us financially every day?

AH: I think we should approach it from every possible angle. We should approach it in terms of what it is doing to the planet, we should look at what it is doing to our national security, what it is doing to our pocketbooks, and also what it is doing to our health — we are seeing an enormous increase in asthma and other problems, and it is so sad because it is within our control to do something about it.

TH: Robert Kennedy Junior defined environmentalism as a civil rights issue, and that relates strongly to these issues of social justice that you are talking about. Select communities in the US are disproportionately affected by our usage of everything — from our use of petrochemicals through to our abuse of natural resources. How do we create an environmental agenda that would support people on a low income?

AH: I think that is very important for the political agenda, because it moves away from this idea that environmentalism is supposedly an elitist issue, and shows that these issues are in our neighbourhoods. We need to show, for example, how pollution affects the incredible cost of healthcare. I think this is a great way to frame environmentalism, and it is of huge importance to political leaders.

TH: With evangelical Christians acknowledging climate change and the key figures on the Right recognising our addiction to oil, do you agree that not only are we moving away from the idea as environmentalism being an issue of the elite, but also that we are moving away from it being an issue of the left?

AH: I would say that we are in terms of rhetoric, but I am not sure that this is matched by action. As you know, rhetoric is cheap. We have definitely reached a point where it has become like smoking — you can't now be openly pro-smoking in your language. But the question is how are you going to impact real decisions? If companies like Wal-Mart, for example, take certain environmental measures to improve their image, they should not be let off the hook by the environmental community if they are not doing right by their employees.

TH: Fear-based tactics have been predominant in the environmental movement for a long time. Your latest book, On Becoming Fearless in Love, Work, and Life, challenges this approach. Can you tell us a little about this?

AH: I really don't think that fear is the way to bring about fundamental cultural change, and I think we have had so much fear-mongering leadership during the whole Bush-administration years. I think the victory of the Democrats in 2006 was, partly at least, due to the public not buying in to the fear mongering.

TH: How can we become fearless about the climate change challenges that lie ahead?

AH: If you remember FDR, he said, "the only thing to fear is fear itself." At the time, our country was going through terrible times. And later on, as president, he had to deal with the Depression; he had to deal with the Second World War. The presence of really big challenges does not need to provoke fear, it needs to provoke a determination to act. If you look at 9/11, you could see the best aspects of this country coming forward. It was a day filled with fear, but at the same time it was a day filled with fearlessness. People rose to the occasion, and it brought the best out in people.

TH: In the vein of fearlessness, what kind of environmental agenda should congress set between now and 2008?

AH: I think 2008 may still be dominated by Iraq, which is unfortunate. I think the public spoke on Iraq, and you would hope that politicians would listen and move on with the withdrawal of our troops. I would hope they would put bringing them back home on the front burner. But so far we don't see that happening.

TH: Even if it is not happening at the federal level, we are seeing a much stronger stance on environmental issues at the state and municipal level. When you ran for governor of California you described your candidacy against Arnold Schwarzenegger as "the hybrid versus the Hummer." What are your thoughts on his energy policy today?

AH: There are a few things that he is doing, but it is important that we demand more from our leaders. We mustn't settle for crumbs. I remember a lot of my friends were happy, for example, when Schwarzenegger signed an agreement to allow hybrids in the car-pool lanes. My point is that the time for celebrating small steps is past. It is true that every little helps, but we need to demand a major shift in policy to prevent the catastrophe that has been scientifically predicted.

TH: What about his announcements of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2010, and 1990 levels by 2020, and then 80% below 1990 levels by 2050? Is that the kind of major shift you are looking for?

AH: That depends. He has announced a lot of things, but he has yet to announce how we are going to get there. I think environmentalists need to be a lot more sceptical about big announcements that are not backed by commensurate actions that will get us there. We have had so many examples of that from Schwarzenegger, from George Bush, and from many other leaders. It is incredibly important to ask whether the measures that are being taken are enough to get us to the stated goal, or is it another way to get credit for something that will never happen. And by then, of course, the governor will no longer be in office and there is no accountability.

TH: Can you give an example of someone who is, in your opinion, being accountable and walking his or her talk?

AH: There are many great environmental leaders, but unfortunately most of them are out of office. Al Gore and Bobby Kennedy for example are both passionate and clear, and they are up to date on the facts and the latest science. But the question is who among those running in 2008 is going to be at the forefront of this issue? Maybe Al Gore himself will run.

TH: How about in the non-profits and civil society — who stands out as a leader?

AH: There are many. I think what TreeHugger is doing is fantastic, I think what the Apollo Alliance is doing is great. NRDC has also always been a champion of these causes and it continues to be at the forefront. There really are an incredible amount of fantastic groups working in this area. The question is translating those issues, both into public policy and into personal behavior—whether it's switching to a hybrid car, or changing your light bulbs or whatever else.

[This interview was conducted by Simran Sethi and transcribed by Sami Grover]

Tags: TreeHugger Radio

WHAT'S HOT ON FACEBOOK