Interview: Ed Begley Jr.

As an actor, Ed Begley, Jr., has appeared in countless films including Woody Allen’s Whatever Works and Pineapple Express with Seth Rogen—but it’s in depicting his own life as an activist and green living expert on the HGTV and Planet Green series Living with Ed that he may be best known. In recent years, Begley’s environmental commitment has become his central life’s work: from the entertaining series where he tries to “outgreen” neighbor Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) with garage-topped tracking solar panels, to his easy-to-follow books on how to achieve near energy independence at home, most recently in Ed Begley, Jr.’s Guide to Sustainable Living: Learning to Conserve Resources and Manage an Eco-Conscious Life

E Magazine: You’ve been involved in the environmental movement since the ’70s. How did it start?

Ed Begley Jr.Ed Begley, Jr.: It was several things. It was the first Earth Day in April 1970, and I wanted to get involved. I had grown up in Los Angeles and had really had it with the horrible, choking smog. My father, Ed Begley, Sr., had just passed away and I wanted to do something to honor him. Even though we didn’t call him one, he was an environmentalist.

He had lived through the Great Depression and had saved string and tin foil and turned out the lights. He had always told me: “Eddie, don’t tell people what you are going to do, show them by doing it.” So I started taking public transportation, riding my bike, walking, recycling, composting, using biodegradable soaps and detergents, eating a vegetarian diet and so on. I even bought an electric car.

E: What do you think is the most effective role for celebrities in environmental issues?

E.B.: Everyone has to take their own path and do what they think is most important for them. For me, it’s leading by example. The TV show has been a good vehicle for that. People get to see how I live and how my wife and I compromise on things. It’s real, and I think it’s helping people find what works for them.

Others are better at standing up and being a mouthpiece for change. That’s fine, too. There are celebrities that are much greener than I am—Jackson Brown, Daryl Hannah and others. They are my role models.

E: Many people can’t afford things like solar panels. What energy-saving devices or lifestyle changes do you recommend for them?

E.B.: People who watch the show regularly or read my books know that none of this came easy to me, either. I was a struggling actor in the early 1970s making very little money. I did what I could afford to do on the cheap, and as I saved money, I did more. I didn’t get solar hot water until 1985 and solar PV [photovoltaic panels] until 1990—20 years after I started on this path.

I encourage everyone to pick the low-hanging fruit. Energy-saving light bulbs, a programmable thermostat, weather stripping, home gardening, home composting, recycling, public transportation, bike riding—all cheap and easy things.

E: Advocates of solar energy always talk of a tipping point when solar energy will become cheaper than fossil fuels. Your thoughts?

E.B.: Well, it’s certainly become much cheaper than when I installed it on my home in 1990. Back then, we had no net metering and no incentives. I spent $75,000 installing my system as a stand-alone battery-based system. Nowadays, a system the size of mine would be far cheaper to install and net meter. I think we’ll continue to see prices drop over time and government and utility incentives expand. There are also solar-lease programs now where people can get into solar right away with no money up front. That’s encouraging.

E: Do you think the U.S. government has done enough to push renewable energy?

E.B.: I think we have done some really good things, but we need to do more. The Cash for Caulkers program [providing rebates for energy-saving home renovations] is a good one. Solar is great, but conservation is even cheaper and easier. By getting all the homes in America to have home energy audits and make them more energy efficient, we can generate huge energy savings. Some estimates are 20% of our national energy use. I hope our elected officials continue to push programs like this. We need all the tools in the toolbox right now.

GARFIELD HODGSON owns the UK-based website