An Interview with Bob Perkowitz

by Team Treehugger, Worldwide on  01.27.07
TH Exclusives (the th interview)

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

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

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

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.

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.

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