On April 22, 1970, 20 million people across the United States gathered to take part in demonstrations, marches, and cleanups for the first Earth Day. It was the single largest public demonstration in U.S. history. The enthusiasm for change from that collective community moved the U.S. Congress to pass the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, in addition to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
50 years later, the world is battling a global crisis of public health and climate change. The collective power of people to create change, even as a virtual community, has never felt more meaningful and necessary. While some may be wistfully reminiscent of days past or yearning for a future together again, the pandemic has shown the ways that ‘normal’ just doesn’t work.
Take the cleaner air in Los Angeles as an example. Driving accounts for 72% of global carbon emissions from transportation, and most car trips are less than five miles. When people use alternative transportation for some of those trips—just some—it has a noticeable impact. These micro steps not only have a cumulative effect, but they also build momentum. More people on mass transit, bikes, and scooters means more resources devoted to them, which makes them more attractive to a greater number of people, which takes cars off the road, which means cleaner air and clearer skies.
The issues of climate change and local pollution which vexes communities won’t just go away. Cities and communities need to come back healthier. To rethink what cities look like and imagine a future that is different from our past.
Tiny acts taken together can create the change needed for a cleaner and greener future.
To celebrate Earth Day 2020, Lime’s President Joe Kraus sat down with Carol Browner, former U.S. EPA administrator and Director of Climate Policy in the Obama White House.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.
Joe: Looking back you have this extraordinary career in environmental stewardship. How did this feeling of stewardship and responsibility become a driving force in your life?
Carol: For a lot of us who have committed our lives to environmental activism, protection and climate change, there is a special place that really drives us in our work - a place that we go back to and remember for its beauty. For me that is the Everglades in South Florida.
When I started doing this work back in the 70s, the work we were doing and what we were committing ourselves to as a nation was really a moral and ethical commitment. If you go back and look at the environmental laws they don’t say, if it costs too much or the benefits aren’t great enough, we simply won’t do it. The Clean Water Act’s stated goal of this law is swimmable and fishable water. It is not a numeric standard or how much pollution we can tolerate. That is a pretty outstanding commitment.
It is now time, as we think about climate change, to really come back to that moral and ethical commitment, and yes it is going to take every single one of us doing our part and companies doing their part. Our work should be framed by this moral and ethical commitment. You don’t leave to a next generation a problem that they simply can’t solve.
Joe: With the administration gutting the environmental laws, where do you see the best advocacy role for businesses like Lime? Is it in business coalitions like 1% for the Planet, or do you think that advocacy is inherent to our operations or something bigger?
Carol: Businesses have to engage. They have to be part of the conversation. The best decisions I made when I was running the EPA and when I was with Obama in the White House, I made because the business community and the environmental community were sitting at the table with me. What I would frequently say to folks, is that the environmentalists and the public health community are going to come in and tell me what they need to protect the environment and I’m going to listen. The business community -- I need them to come in and tell me how to get there. And I can then help chart a course forward, which provides the protections and allows for the flexibility so that we get the most common sense, cost effective solution. Lime is a perfect example. You are providing a solution that has a very, very low footprint. You’re also looking at how in your own operations, you are functioning in a sustainable manner, and not every company makes something that contributes directly to the solution you do.
Joe: As you look at what’s happening around the world, how do we not from an environmental perspective let this crisis ‘go to waste’? What can we be focusing on right now to drive some important changes quickly and how might we at a local, state, national and even global level spur action that can move quickly at this time of the crisis?
Carol: I like the saying that ‘sometimes the stars align’ and you can suddenly get something done that you couldn’t quite see your way forward before. I’ll also say, I am an optimist. I just cannot believe that we are going to wreck the world so that large parts of it will become basically uninhabitable.
Let’s use an example and one that I thought about with Lime. There will be some sort of large scale infrastructure investment to try and bring the economy back up. If you think about transportation, it will probably be a part of this. Let’s help the policy makers think about transportation in a very different way than they are probably inclined to. Now, they may have a little bit of an inclination because one of the things that is happening is that the Highway Trust Fund dollars are down because people aren’t driving. We’re going to have to rethink how we fund transportation, what we are funding and I think it is a tremendous opportunity to think about bike lanes and alternative forms of transportation. I also think that in some places you will see people more inclined to be on a scooter or on a bike than use public transportation. And so how do we work with that community of bikers, scooter riders, and public transportation to try and sort through a way that everybody can get what they need.
Joe: Let me go from the large scale to the small scale for a second -- the dinner table. When I have my extended family over for dinner in normal times, more and more topics end up becoming difficult to talk about because they’ve been politicized. As you talk to people who might not agree with you, how have you found a way to connect with people who have different mindsets? What have you found effective in engaging people non-defensively to open hearts and minds?
Carol: I always try to remember whether I’m talking to my adult children, my grandchildren, or people I run into, that somebody’s current thinking is “here” and I want them to be over there. That’s a journey. What I find is that frequently talking to people about how this (environmental policy) intersects with where and how they live their lives, combined with helping them understand the role they and others can play, can sometimes move them. People’s lives are so busy and they have so much incoming right now, that if you can’t help them see it within their own context, it’s very hard for them to become open to other ideas.
Joe: What advice do you have for women navigating male-dominated spaces and doing work to change the status quo?
Carol: It’s a question we all, men and women, need to think about every day. I feel very fortunate because when you get to my age and have silver hair, you get to call people out pretty easily and I do that, and that’s part of my obligation to younger women. If I see something happening in my office, I call it out, real time, and then work with that individual to try to address the problem. The world is changing for women but unfortunately it’s changing slowly and I know it can be incredibly frustrating. For all the women on the call today, please keep at it. Keep going. Personally, one thing I’ve focused on in my life is raising a son and now I have three grandsons who will be good men in the world.
Joe: Do you have a set of books or something that you recommend to someone who disagrees on climate change?
Carol: A couple of people who I’ve enjoyed reading over the years: Wendell Berry, who I think is very clear in his writings about the environment, and three New Yorker writers - Bill McKibben, Elizabeth Colbert and John McPhee who have some beautiful essays, including one about the dredging of the Mississippi River. There are some great, big books on the environment, but sometimes the essays are a little bit easier as an entry point. All of these writers write with a moral and ethical clarity about the issues.
Joe: Who are personal heroes for you? Who have you met or been moved by who have served as a source of personal inspiration for you, so that maybe we can learn from them too?
Carol: I've been very fortunate in my life to meet amazing people, that comes with being in public office. But there was one moment where I met a man and I thought there was an aura about him: it was Nelson Mandela. He walked over to say hello, largely because of the child I was next to and not because of me, but I just thought ‘I am in the presence of a remarkable, remarkable man.’
Joe: What or who are you inspired by today?
Carol: I’m inspired by the doctors who are working in emergency rooms right now, and the nurses and healthcare staff. It must be incredibly frightening to get up every day and go to a place where you know you may get sick or make your children sick. I’m also inspired by the people who are speaking out about the current administration. It’s not easy to do right now, particularly when we’re in a crisis, but raising your voice is absolutely essential.
What inspires me are my grandchildren. I have four; they’re lovely. One is going to interview me this afternoon about Earth Day. The idea that I can help them think about how to make the world a better place is very inspiring.
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