COMMENTARY: Is Begley Changing Colors?

The green star finds some love in the red states

What’s this? Liberal, tree-hugging, famously blond Ed Begley, Jr. praising a conservative Republican, acknowledging that pollution can’t always be avoided, and sporting dark brown hair? Has the star—along with his wife Rachelle Carson—of HGTV’s Living With Ed changed his colors from the green of the environmental movement? Don’t count on it.

Ed Begley, Jr. is enthusiastic about the green milestones we"ve reached.© www.edbegley.com

True, Begley, whose most prominent acting role was as Dr. Victor Ehrlich on St. Elsewhere, did say these things recently, and in public. And no, he was not performing in a fictional play or film when he made the remarks attributed to him. He delivered them as keynote speaker at the Healthy Harvest trade show, held October 27 to 28 at the Long Beach (CA) Convention Center, and he meant them. But there is an explanation.

First, the hair. He’d had it dyed for a role in an upcoming HBO program. Second, the conservative Republican was his father, also a distinguished actor, who, Begley said, really appreciated the idea that conservatives should conserve, particularly when natural resources were at stake. Finally, the notion that pollution cannot be eliminated altogether: Begley noted that even the manufacture of a solar panel generates some pollution, but added that it is "so much less over the 50-year life of that panel," that it is a clear choice over burning fossil fuels.

Even though his audience was made up mostly of natural products manufacturers and retailers—in other words, people who could be counted as sympathetic to environmental sustainability—Begley tempered his message. Instead of coming on like the wild-eyed extremist his foes sometimes make him out to be, the speaker chose a "kinder, gentler" approach, to borrow a Republican catchphrase. In fact, he was sincere in his praise of how far we have come, giving it almost equal weight to how far we still must go.

Begley explained that two factors were responsible for sparking his interest in environmental concerns. The first was his involvement in the Boy Scouts, which helped him develop a love and respect for the outdoors. The second—an influence from the "dark side"—was his concern about smog levels, which, bad as they are now, were far worse in the 1950s and 1960s, when he was growing up in southern California. "I could stand in my yard and look in one direction and see the mountains," he recalled. "And then I would turn around, and all I saw was a thick wall of orange smoke. In those days, almost every house had a trash-burning incinerator in the backyard."

For anyone today who becomes discouraged while crusading for environmental causes, the 58-year-old Begley ticks off the accomplishments that have been gained over the past 30 to 40 years: Clean Air and Clean Water laws, a massive cleanup of pollution in New York State’s Hudson River, hybrid automobiles, solar energy projects, and more.

When some of these proposals were first introduced, they were greeted with fear and derision by a business establishment that threatened they would bring on economic collapse. Instead, says Begley, as California led the way with sterner environmental requirements, a few businesses pulled up stakes and "went on to pollute elsewhere." As for those who remained, and/or started new businesses, they adapted to the new rules and prospered.

Emphasizing that a combination of events have come together at this point in history to focus on green products and green solutions—not least of which is the recognition gained by Al Gore’s book and film, An Inconvenient Truth—Begley urged his listeners to take action personally, socially and through their business interests. He himself recently launched a line of "nontoxic, non-caustic, biodegradable, vegan and child-safe" household cleaning products under the name Begley’s Best.

Begley described his home as a 1,700-square-foot structure that is energy-efficient, relying on solar energy panels that were installed years ago. But, he adds, no one has to go that far, particularly if money is scarce. Instead, he urged, "Pick the low-hanging fruit. Get an energy-efficient thermostat. Take public transportation when possible. Switch to compact fluorescent bulbs, and don’t be afraid of their mercury content; just be careful, and dispose of the old ones at a hazardous waste site."

Working toward a clean environment is not an all-or-nothing proposition, he explains. "It’s a numbers game. And if we cut down the amount of energy we use and the amount of waste we generate, then we are making progress."

CONTACT: Ed Begley, Jr; Begley’s Best

ALAN RICHMAN is a freelance writer from New Jersey.