An Interview With Bob Perkowitz

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Bob Perkowitz is an entrepreneur, environmentalist, writer, investor, and distance cyclist. He is president and founder of ecoAmerica, an environmental consumer research and marketing firm and has been a trustee of the Sierra Club Foundation since 2001 where he has served as secretary, treasurer, and chairman of the investment and finance committees. Over the past 25 years, Bob has also been president of direct marketing and manufacturing organizations including Cornerstone Brands, Smith+Noble, and Joanna Western Mills. He currently is managing partner of VivaTerra LLC, president of Paradigm Management, Inc., a director of SRAM, Inc., sits on the board, and is a partner in Firebrand Partners, LLC, and Arqua Equity Partners, LLC.

Bob joined the Board of Trustees of Environmental Defense of North Carolina in 2002 where he has served as a member of the North Carolina Climate Stewardship Task Force. Bob has ridden his bike across North and South America, Australia, and Europe and is currently trying to figure out how to ride across Africa and Asia.

TreeHugger: The ecoAmerica mandate is to re-engage "environmentally agnostic Americans." Can you explain how you created the organization, and why that is your specific mandate?

Bob Perkowitz: I've been heavily involved in the environmental movement for over a decade. I'm on the board of trustees for the Sierra Club Foundation, and for Environmental Defense, as well as a couple of smaller organizations and in that experience I noted that the environmental organizations generally only market to people that are like them. The Sierra Club, for example, only sends out mailings to people who are likely to become actual donors, yet the people who are active environmentalists in America are only a very small percentage of the population.

So when you look at a statistic like 20 million people turning out for Earth Day 25 years ago, and last year less than a million people came out, you wander why there is such a decline in participation in environmental activities. When you take a look at the way the environmental organizations are marketing it makes sense.

TH: The American Environmental Values survey that you put together has indicated that environmentalism has faded as a concern for many people here in the US. Why do you think that is?

BP: There are a variety of reasons. One of the most important is that the environmental movement of the 1970s was very effective. They passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Protection Act which requires environmental impact statements, and lots of laws that we live with today. And it took 10 or 15 years, but the air and water all across America has become cleaner as a result of that foresightful legislation which happened in the seventies. So, wherever you are, the air and the water is cleaner than it was before, so you are less concerned about it because it is less obvious.

Also, many of the major problems today you don't see, like depletion of edible fish stocks — you don't see that we have fished out 90% of edible species in our oceans, or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is far away, or global warming is hard to understand. So the current environmental issues are big, vague and far away.

And the third point is that the people who profit from polluting the environment have got much more sophisticated at couching their actions. It used to be, back in the time of James Watt and Ronald Reagan, they'd tell you they were going to cut down the forests and turn them into jobs. Now they call it things like "healthy forests," and they mislead you on it.

And the last reason is that the environmental organizations of America haven't really responded to these changes — the cleaner environment, and the forces that are doing a more effective job of attacking that environment. These environmental organizations are still operating in the way that they did 25 or 30 years ago.

TH: What are the best ways for us now to market the message of environmentalism?

BP: I'd say two things. The first is that we still market the environment as a package of technical issues and problems, and we scare people about it. We leave people with the impression that it is going to cost money to fix the environment. In reality, every time you do something to protect the environment it ends up with a positive cost benefit to Americans: it improves our health, it improves our national security. So you can market the environment by moving away from issues, and start talking about values and benefits.

The second thing is that Americans are not one big homogeneous mass. You can probably convince a farmer in Iowa, an investment banker in New York, a Baptist minister in Orange County, California, that global warming is real, but what you'd say to those people would be very different. It's just as if you were a consumer products company you wouldn't produce one kind of shampoo and assume that everyone in America will want that exact brand. People relate to things in different ways.

So if we can go positive and benefit-oriented and relate to people better, we will be able to get the environmental messages across more effectively.

TH: Businesses operate in quarters, and people operate in really short time-frames, yet many of the environmental problems we face require foresight, they require a long view. Is this part of the challenge we must meet?

BP: Absolutely. Most Americans don't think very theoretically. They live in a very practical world. They don't look at something they do today as having big benefits for their family in ten years, and even if they do it is still something too far away to relate to. A lot of people, even if they are not living paycheck-to-paycheck, their daily concerns for their family come first — getting their kids into the right schools, figuring out where they're going to get their money for the next vacation — they just have a lot more immediate concerns. The lack of long-term perspective is limited by a number of factors.

TH: You choose your words very carefully. Going back to the ecoAmerica mandate, and the idea of "environmentally agnostic Americans," this framing of the environment as a faith-based initiative is intriguing. Is this an area where we may have more success in the future?

BP: A lot of sectors of the American public are getting more freaked out about what is happening with the environment. Global warming is pretty much real to everyone right now. If you grew up in Chicago you're wandering why you are getting to Christmas without any snow. I was talking to an attorney recently from Chicago, someone who was not an environmentalist at all, and he told me he was getting worried that his kids might never see snow in Chicago. It is becoming real to people.

The Christian groups are getting on this, there's Paul Gorman, Jim Ball, Richard Cizik, there's a whole bunch of them, and recently Pat Roberts joined the chorus of Evangelical leaders in America. There is still a small core that don't seem to care about God's creation, but the vast majority are jumping on the bandwagon and trying to save it.

The same goes for corporate America: General Electric, Du Pont, Whole Foods. With the exception of Whole Foods, these are not necessarily environmentally sensitive companies, yet they are going out and saying that their future is tied up with this issue.

Equally, the same thing is happening in colleges. The college environmental movement is being reinvigorated. There's a new thing called the Campus Climate Challenge, which is a group of 33 college environmental organizations. These kids don't call themselves environmentalists anymore, they call themselves climate activists and they are passionate about trying to save the world for themselves and for their kids.

All over the place you are seeing an upsurge of concern. People doing what they can to save the environment.

TH: So it's everything from a biblical imperative to a business imperative?

BP: That's a good way of putting it.

TH: So with all these things going on around climate change, do you feel this is the most important single-issue we have to be grappling with right now?

BP: It is by far the most pressing issue. I was just at an Environmental Grantmakers Association recently and there were all these people who are protecting watersheds, or trying to work on public health, or trying to protect a forest — every single one of those issues will be severely impacted upon by global warming. So any environmental group that is working on any environmental issue has to devote at least part of their effort to global warming if they really want to have an impact on whatever their particular local or issue-oriented focus is.

TH: When we interviewed Laurie David she spoke about the framing of environmentalism as not just an ecological, but also a civil rights, or human rights oriented issue. What are your views on that?

BP: I think Laurie is absolutely right on that. And there is nobody who cares more about the environment, or is more passionate about this issue, than Laurie David. By getting celebrities involved I think she is adding a lot of value. However, when you look at Stop Global Warming, much of her message is very much "Stop global warming now, methane is escaping from the tundra, we are all going to hell in a handbasket." I think she would be a little bit more effective if she would segment her message, target it better, and communicate benefits a little bit better.

TH: If we take, for example, the attorney from Chicago you mentioned earlier. He may be concerned that his kids may not see snow, but what about someone who says "Great. I don't want to see any more snow in Chicago?" How do we target those people that still don't see why this is relevant to them?

BP: If you take a look at the websites of any of the national environmental organizations, let's say Natural Resources Defense Council for example, if someone wanted to learn about this issue they would have to try to figure it out and click on all these things and be all worried about it. Contrast that approach with the Coal Association's website which is called which has an eleven-year-old kid explaining everything to you. The comparison might not be completely appropriate, but what we don't have as Americans is approachable sources of information that explain easily what we can do and what the benefits are.

Also, oftentimes we don't have the messengers. As powerful as Al Gore has been in all that he has done to try to save the world, which is probably more than anyone else on this planet, he's still a Democrat and a liberal, so there is a huge section of the American public that distrust him. If Arnold Schwarzenegger had been the one on An Inconvenient Truth giving out that message, the audience would have been triple and it would have gotten to a lot of people that it didn't get to. So it isn't Al's message — you have to have the right message, you have to have the right messenger, and you have to have the right medium to get to these people. If you want to go after sports fans, go after Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon and Kyle Petty. If Kyle Petty gets out of a racecar and they do environmentally sensitive racing, they require the cars to get 40 mpg, and they ask him, "why are you driving a car that gets 40mpg?" and he says "Because I care about America, I care about my family." All of a sudden you have the right messenger, with the right message, to the right audience. You can be much more effective than, for instance, Al Gore showing ice caps melting.

TH: Who do you think are some of those most powerful messengers right now?

BP: In NASCAR it would have to be Dale Earnhardt, he really does have the heart and soul of NASCAR. In the religious sector, for me, if there is any one individual that could change the world it would have to be Billy Graham, if he came out and said global warming is real and we have to do something about it. In the business sector, I think what Jeff Immelt and a lot of these guys have done is great, but if Steve Jobs were to come out and say, "this is where the world is going." If you look at what he just did with the Red iPod, and what that is going to do for AIDS, if he could do a green iPod

So there are a lot of highly respected people in every sector, and if you could get those people to switch over, a lot of other people would pay attention.

TH: In one of your op-ed pieces for the Charlotte Observer, you spoke of global warming as North Carolina's best prospect for economic growth. Presumably that can be applied across the country. Can you tell us why you still see these incredible business opportunities in what some people categorize simply as a challenge?

BP: In North Carolina there are 14 companies developing fuel cells right now. If you look at the academic sector, this is where the future is. We've got a whole different world coming up, and the energy future and the sustainability future is going to create lots of different kinds of jobs. It's a huge business opportunity, not just for education, but for forestry and for agriculture to grow biofuels, or for them to grow trees and crops that sequester carbon. They can then trade that on the Chicago Climate Exchange. If they were in Europe that would be very easy. In every sector, even in a small town in North Carolina, there are opportunities, such as the home insulation business — helping people save money.

If you take one big thing, North Carolina alone takes $10 billion of hard-earned money and sends it overseas to Venezuela, Russia, the Middle East to buy oil. You wander why these guys are building huge ski slopes in the middle of the dessert? It's because we are taking all that money, and we are making these people, who do not necessarily share our values, we are making them rich. That $10 billion, if it had been kept in North Carolina, or kept in America, would have become jobs and would have been invested in things that created on-going benefits to North Carolinians. The economic impact of a $10 billion investment in North Carolina would be absolutely huge. The jobs could be measured in the hundreds of thousands.

TH: You have spent a decade involved with the environmental movement. You have also been a highly successful businessman in your own right. What was your epiphenic moment? What really inspired you towards these sets of issues?

BP: I think everybody in America has piece of their heart that is altruistic towards some sort of cause. For me, when I was growing up, I thought it was education. I thought if we could just do a better job of educating the kids under 8 to 10 years old, then that would change the world over the course of twenty years, and I still believe that. I actually got engaged in some things, and I tried to influence that about 15 years ago, and I found the educational system so huge, and so complex, and there are so many organizations focusing on it. I didn't have a clear handle like I do with global warming or with environmental issues. I didn't have a clear impact where I could be effective on this. So I wanted my life to make a difference and to be more effective.

Perhaps the even bigger influence is my wife, who has just become passionate about it. So watching her, over the years, and learning from her allowed me to apply my business skills with the environment. So the need to have a bigger impact, and the influence of my wife, Lisa, are probably what converted me.

TH: That's Lisa Renstrum, president of the Sierra Club. Someone who inspires many of us. Aside from Lisa, who are your other environmental heroes?

BP: It's very interesting because there are a lot of people who are very effective in various sectors. The first guy I would probably mention is Fred Krupp, the head of Environmental Defense. That guy runs an organization that is on message, on target, and focused on getting results. He does an incredible job producing these results for Environmental Defense. They were negotiating AB 32 in Sacramento, California, and they were back in that smoke-filled tent that Schwarzenegger has and there was only one environmental representative there — it was the guy from Environmental Defense. George Bush has just taken his biggest environmental action, the marine reserve North of Hawaii, we have been working on that for 10 years. I don't want to say that that was totally a go-it-alone project for Environmental Defense, but they were clearly one of the major driving forces. So Fred Krupp has built an environmental protection machine that is the model to follow.

I could say similarly complementary things about Bill Meadows, over at the Wilderness Society, or Carl Pope at the Sierra Club, or Larry Schweiger at the National Wildlife Federation. These guys have picked certain areas, whether it's building grassroots, building networks with other communities like hunters and anglers, whether it's engaging the media in giving out a mass message like the Environmental Media Association — those guys are all running the organizations as successfully as they are because they are being very effective at it. But the guy that stands out, as doing the most to protect the environment in America today has got to be Al Gore. This guy could be doing anything he wants to do. For decades he was talking to the clouds, Al was there before any of us and he has given his life to trying to save the world. He might be the one guy on the planet throughout history, for all time, that has done more good for humanity than any other individual.

TH: What do you think would have happened had the election turned out differently, had his attention been diverted elsewhere and had this opportunity not have presented itself?

BP: I think the world would have been a very different place. But then if George W. Bush would just have kept his election commitments I think the world would be a very different place. The United States used to be the moral leader of the world. We can reclaim that moral authority and we can go out and show people, for example from China, the way forward. If we are not going to do it, then why should a third-world nation contribute strongly to stopping global warming?

TH: Environmentalism has often been polarized. Many people see it as the territory of the Democratic left. What are your thoughts on how environmental issues are seen as part of people's political agendas? Isn't the environment really a bipartisan issue, rather than the domain of a single party?

BP: This spring, in the primaries, I went to a Democratic rally. I'm a lifelong Republican, my byline says so in the Charlotte Observer, but I am interested in good ideas wherever they come from. I'm interested in the right thing to do, no matter who is doing it. I went to a church where a Democratic candidate was talking to a group of people, so he talked for 20 minutes, and then did 20 minutes of Q&A;, and in the end I was the last person to raise my hand and said, "hey, you've talked about all this stuff, yet you didn't mention the environment once. What's with that?" And he said, "here in North Carolina, if I mention the environment, people think I'm not in touch with the real issues. We have these terrorism and national security questions and those are the really important issues. But I've been a member of the Sierra Club since the 1960s, I've visited every national park, and I've named my daughters after lakes in the national parks. If you elect me I will vote the right way on all environmental issues." And that was probably the right answer.

There was not the space, 6 or 9 months ago to talk about the environment, whereas now if you take a look at the coverage of Scientific American, the Economist, Business Week, Vanity Fair, there have been more than a dozen major national publications that have all featured global warming as a big issue, and then of course Al Gore's movie, guys like Pat Robertson, there's this space opening up. If you looked at Thomas Friedman's column earlier this week he was talking about James Carville who came up with "It's the Economy, Stupid" that won Clinton's campaign. He's now saying "It's energy, stupid" that will be the issue that wins this next campaign. He goes into all this polling, and how energy rates much higher in people's concerns right now, even than terrorism. People are beginning to make the connections that energy is the environment, it's national security, it's the economy, it's health. So there is a big space that is opening up, and it's a bipartisan space. I think you are going to see Republicans and Democrats and everybody trying to figure out energy solutions. I think the little stopper that is keeping things from falling through is what is going on in the White House. So long as we just have guys that stay the course in everything that they do, we are not going to be able to change the situation that we are in. But I am excited about the elections coming up and we will see what happens.

TH: On a personal note, you are a long-distance biker. You have traversed so much of the world on a bicycle, how has that affected your relationship with nature, and with environmentalism?

BP: Having ridden my bicycle across four continents in the past five or so years, you are not in the tourist areas 99% of the time, you are just out there where people are. So the two things that have impacted me most are awe and fear. When you ride across the Andes mountains which is 4-500 miles across at the top, or you ride through the rainforests of Brazil, or you ride through Nullarbor in Australia, you just see the magnificence of nature. But then, if you ride through Eastern Europe, or even on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, you see whole hills of dead trees and you see a Forest Service plaque there that tells you the acid in the water is 100 times greater than it has historically been and that is what has killed the trees. And with the North Carolina story, to segue off a little here, Roy Cooper, the attorney general in North Carolina just sued the Tennessee Valley Authority under nuisance laws because it is the coal-fired plants that are dumping all the chemicals and toxins and poisons on the forests and the peoples of North Carolina and it's just obvious the destruction you can see. The worst pollution I have seen has been in Eastern Europe and Russia. We're not used to seeing smoke stacks in America anymore belching out bluish-grey smoke and seeing a filmy, dusty substance as you ride downwind of that plant. That kind of stuff is still going on in parts all over the world, so awe and fear is what I've learned, bike riding all over the place.