The TH Interview: Laurie David

TreeHugger correspondent Simran Sethi recently caught up with Laurie David to talk about climate change, comedy, and everyday climate activism for TH and the upcoming issue of Heeb magazine. Ms. David is an outspoken voice on issues of the environment and founder of the Virtual March at stopglobalwarming.org. Excerpts can be heard on the new TreeHugger Radio on EcoTalk, which will be airing today nationwide on Air America, also available at EcoTalk.net.

TreeHugger: In 2003 Robert Kennedy Jr. heralded you as an environmental hero. And I'm curious to know what that description means to you in light of your role as a mother.

Laurie David: Well when Bobby Kennedy said that about me all it did was make me feel bad because it made me feel like I'm not doing enough. Honestly, it makes me feel like I'm not doing enough. Understanding what's happening to the planet right now is a giant burden. And it's a burden that I feel and it compels me to use everything I have to try to get the word out. My goal is that everyone becomes a global warming activist. That everyone fit that into their lives in some way. It's not about everyone doing everything, but it is about everyone doing something. There is a lot of responsibility with that. Bobby inspired me and I hope to inspire other people.TH: Can you tell me a bit about how you went from doing the work you've done in television to what you are doing now—and why this issue of global warming is the one that's so important to you?

Laurie David: First of all, if you care about anything as human being, you have to care about the issue of global warming because it is the mother of all issues. We are literally changing life on this planet as we know it. And we're not talking about just melting glaciers, we're also talking about affecting seasons, and we're talking about the leaves changing, when the birds get their food, how polar bears exist and survive, and we're affecting, we're causing extinction. Human beings are causing the climate to change. That is a giant statement; that is a huge thing to sort of wrap your mind around. This is as big as it gets, and we're doing it. In particular, the United States is the world's biggest cause of global warming position and we're doing the least about it. It all has to do with our consciousness; it has to do with how we're living, and how we're going to live in the future. My whole thing is the solution is you; we have to change the way we think, we have to change the way we act, we have to change the way we behave. And then we're going to demand if we change ourselves as individuals, we're going to demand that our families change, then we're going to demand that our businesses change, and then hopefully country changes. That's sort of the path that I'm on, and that's what I'm hoping will happen.

TH: When you talk about the behavior of the United States you're really saying that once the U.S. changes its behavior, it does affect the global stage.

Laurie David: We have to show some leadership here. We're the biggest cause of the problem. I think the rest of the world is so much more engaged on this issue than we are and that's horrifying. That's embarrassing! And that's why I started the virtual march on the Internet at stopglobalwarming.org because I wanted to count every American who says, "I care about this issue and I want meaningful positions." I want the rest of the world to know that we do care, that the reason why maybe we haven't been engaged in it is because we've either been misinformed or uneducated about it because I'm quite certain if anybody understood the implications of what we're doing and what's going to happen because of it, they would say, "Ok! I'll change." We're not talking about a great sacrifice here; we're talking about change. We're talking about a change in life style that's going to create the biggest job boom this country has seen since the industrial revolution. We need nothing short of a complete industrial revolution and that's going to take every one of us. It's going to make us a safer country, it's going to make us a better country, it's going to make us a richer country.

TH: And I think for those people who don't really feel connected to natural resources, when you frame environmentalism as a civil rights issue—as you once said Bobby Kennedy did—that really gets to the heart of what we're trying to do.

Laurie David: This is the ultimate civil rights issue. The right to clean air, clean water, to summer days and normal summer nights that aren't hotter than the days are. This is as basic a civil right as you can get. So the expectation that winter will bring snow; that heat waves will not kill hundreds of people and thousands of cattle? I mean that drought will not destroy our agriculture? This is as basic a civil right as you get.

Take something basic like water. The majority of people get water from snow pack, and if snow pack disappears, then what? These are basic environmental justice issues. The thing is, I don't even look at this anymore as just an environmental issue. For me, this is the national security issue; this is a public health issue and an economic issue. This can't just sit on the shoulders of the environmental movement alone because that is just one piece of it. This is about everything; this is about life as we know it.

TH: So what can people do right now, today? The top three things we should be doing as individuals to ensure that we can change.

Laurie David: Ok, well, the first thing people have to do is be counted. So they need to join the virtual march at stopglobalwarming.org. It only takes an e-mail address. Number two; they have to start looking at their day-to-day carbon footprint and see ways where they can make some changes that will make their lives better. I mean it's a simple thing, but there's a better light bulb now, and it's a compact fluorescent bulb. And I'm not saying that changing your light bulb is going to stop global warming, but it is going to be a step in the right direction. And if every American changed just five light bulbs in their houses to these new, more energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs, it would be equivalent to taking 8 million cars off the road for a year. It's no sacrifice here, okay, and you'll pay less on your energy bill. And hopefully you start doing it you'll influence three other people to do it. I mean the other thing is, we have elections coming up. People, unfortunately, you have to get involved in the political process. You have to demand that your representatives and your politicians make global warming and energy independence a top priority. It has to become a priority of the voters because without giant federal changes here, we're not gonna get to where we're going. We all have cell phones, and iPods, and hair dryers, and Blackberries, and we have to start pulling chargers out of the wall. You have to have a consciousness that if you leave that charger in the wall and you take that cell phone to work the charger is pulling energy and wasting energy. And if we all started noticing that and pulling it out of the wall, that would be a big step towards changing our consciousness about what we're wasting and what we're using and what we're putting into the atmosphere. That was four things, and I can give you about twenty more. I have a book coming out called The Solution Is You to stop global warming, and there's tons and hundreds of ideas in there how if you wanted to do a little bit great, if you wanted to do a lot more, great, and it has tons of suggestions for it. It's a paperback, it's $9.95, and it's easy to pick up at a bookstore.

TH: And that's something that I love about the virtual marches. You bring in from all groups, whether its religious leaders, politicians, business people, so on. Who do you think has the most potential for affecting change in regards to global warming?

Laurie David: Well, listen this has to be about all of us. Okay, no one group is going to be able to solve this; we're gonna solve this together. We can solve it together, and we have to solve it together. So, everyone right now needs to become part of this movement and I hope everyone will.

TH: One of the things that has impressed me most is the route that you've taken has been so multi-faceted. You hit people at home, you hit them at work, you get them at every level. And that includes, really, the way people consume popular culture from you being on a soap opera, to editing the green issue of Elle magazine, to creating a comedy special. I wonder, when you were putting "Earth to America" together or as you sort of framed the question and placed the issue in everybody's head, how do you go about doing that? And what do you think are the most salient points to get people to act?

Laurie David: Well, let's see, first of all my whole thing, and this is what I want other people to do too, is to use everything you have available to you. Your resources, your friendships, everything that you have. And one of the resources I have, I'm married to a comedian and I know lots of comedians, so it was natural for me to access that to try to get the message out. And I think comedy obviously a great way to get a message out because you know the reason why things are funny is because they're true. And we had every major comedy star in the country on Earth to America. (Its coming out on DVD soon and also pieces of it are at stopglobalwarming.org) But I think that's one of many ways to engage people. So that's something that I encourage everyone to do: whatever you're sphere of influence is, use it. If you can influence five people, fantastic. If you can influence five hundred people, fantastic. It's all important. The key talking point really is this: the globe is warming, humans are causing it, and we need solutions now. And that's it. It needs to permeate our everyday life and it has to permeate our political life as well.

TH: As an activist how important it is for you that your partner be aligned with what you do?

Laurie David: It's critical. Seriously, it's critical. I couldn't they have to have the same political views as I have; they have to have same emotional views and same values, obviously. It's really important. It would be very difficult for me to stay in a marriage with a Republican at this point. Not that there's anything wrong with Republicans, but I happen to be a Democrat. These issues are so important to me. It feels like life and death. So it's important that my mate have the same passion.

TH: And what about in terms of your faith? One of the things that comes up in Judaism is this idea of Tikkun Olam, and I wonder does that play into how you view the world or what you do for work at all?

Laurie David: Well, you know, I think the religious thing is a basic, and I think it's across all religions that this is God's creation and we are altering it, we are messing it up. And, you know, there is a giant, giant responsibility there. I don't think there's a religion on the planet that doesn't espouse that, that doesn't say that we are stewards and we need to protect it, and we need to leave it better than we found it, and that we have an obligation to future generations. I'm becoming more of a religious person actually as I get older, which I think is not an unusually phenomenon. It's really not one religion, it's all religions: we are stewards of the Earth and we better take it seriously.

TH: And do you think your commitment to environmentalism and to the work that you do has also deepened because you're a mom?

Laurie David: Well, I think that for me my "light bulb moment" came after I became a mom. And I think that women are uniquely qualified to tackle this issue, to take it this on, because we do give life, and we have children that look up to us and trust us, and have expectations of us. That we're nurturers, we're natural nurturers. So, if we care about the health of our child, then we have to care about the health of the planet because they are completely and totally connected. The fact that all these childhood diseases are on the rise, and asthma's on the rise, and autism's on the rise. It's all environmental. I think women are uniquely connected to that.

TH: You're just putting it out there like: "I'm just doing the best I can. I'm not perfect." Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Laurie David: Well I think one of the problems with the environmental movement in general has been this holding environmentalists up to some gold standard. And I think that the gold standard is impossible for anyone to reach. And all that has done is push people out of this movement. I've had people say to me, "Do you wear hemp clothes? Are you a vegetarian? Do you eat meat? What are your shoes made of, Laurie?" And I reject that, I really do. I think that we're all environmentalists, we all care about these things, we all want clean air and clean water for our kids, and we all have to be part of this movement. And the gold standard will be met by no one.

TH: Is there anything you've given up somewhat reluctantly?

Laurie David: Yeah, a million things.

TH: But you did it for the betterment of the planet?

Laurie David: There are things I give up all the time. And there are things that I do that I know that are wrong. I just am doing the best I can. I try to give back 100% more than I take. Ariana Huffington said this very smart thing to me once. She said, "You know, Laurie, it's not all on your shoulders. You do your 10%, 100% and God will do the rest." And I think that's good advice for everybody. If everybody just does their 10% we will get where we need to go.

TH: You've been called an environmental hero. Who are your environmental heroes?

Laurie David: I have a lot of environmental heroes, and I'll tell you a couple of them. Jerome Ringo, the Chair of the National Wildlife Federation—a black man from Louisiana who is out there talking about global warming and I think he's incredible. And James Hanson for his courage in speaking out against an administration that he worked for; and John Adams, the president of the NRDC who has been working on this issue for 30 years; and Al Gore, who I consider our very own Paul Revere; and Bobby Kennedy, obviously. And the list does go on. There are a lot of people out there who are committed and passionate and I'm grateful to all of them.

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