Heroes of Sustainability: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo EmersonFamous in life and death, Ralph Waldo Emerson is considered one of American history’s most noted writers, influencing countless people, including Heroes of Sustainability like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir.

The Harvard-educated lecturer, essayist, and poet — who also worked as a pastor in his younger years — had a way of inspiring his readers that was widely admired. As American poet and critic James Russell Lowell wrote in 1871’s My Study Windows: “We look upon him as one of the few men of genius whom our age has produced, and there needs no better proof of it than his masculine faculty of fecundating other minds. Search for eloquence in his books and you will perchance miss it, but meanwhile you will find that it has kindled your thoughts.”

Man and Nature
One of Emerson’s greatest works was Nature, an 1836 essay that delved into his thoughts on transcendentalism, the literary, political, and philosophical movement he was at the center of in New England in the 1830s and ’40s. One of the core ideas was that both people and nature are inherently good, and Emerson was keen on exploring this connection between the two.

To Emerson, nature was as important as it got, as it was tied to God in a way that couldn’t be separated from the deity. “In the woods, we return to reason and faith,” he wrote. “There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, —no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, —my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, —all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

A Far-Reaching Legacy
Many credit Emerson’s writing with influencing the foundation of today’s environmentalist movement and the creation of national parks. By writing so eloquently about the world around us — and showing through vivid description that it’s worthy of being preserved (a sample sentence: “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration”) — Emerson set the stage for others, like Muir, to take steps to protect the environment.

It’s tough to deny the insight in his words. As Emerson astutely wrote: “He who knows what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens, and how to come at these enchantments, is the rich and royal man.”


Heroes of Sustainability: Ed Begley Jr.

Ed Begley Jr.Ed Begley Jr. is famous for acting in shows such as St. Elsewhere, Arrested Development, 7th Heaven, The West Wing, Maude, and Veronica Mars, but he might be even better known for his environmental beliefs.

He cites growing up in smog-infested LA, having a frugal father, being broke in 1970 (when he became an environmentalist), and being a Boy Scout as factors that shaped him into the green machine he is today.

The six-time Emmy nominee started relatively small — with recycling, a move to vegetarianism, composting, and buying an electric car — and over the ensuing 40-plus years has expanded into being eco-friendly wherever he can. This includes 10 to 15 minutes of pedaling a stationary bike every morning that’s hooked up to batteries that run the house so he can “earn” the energy the toaster uses to toast his bread. Instead of a lawn, Begley has a yard of native California plants, many of which produce food. And solar panels on the roof help keep his electricity bill to something in the hundreds per year — much lower than the average house.

“I’ve owned a windmill since 1985, and it’s still profitable today,” Begley told Tonic. “I own a share of a wind farm putting out many homes worth of power. That’s 25 years of more than mitigating my use. And then you’ve got the solar panels on the roof. And when I must fly — I try to not fly — but when I must I buy a TerraPass carbon offset…”

Agreeing to Disagree
Not only is Begley’s house much smaller than most of his colleagues’, but he’s also been known to show up at Hollywood events via bike instead of the typical limo. The bike is his second favorite mode of transportation, just behind walking, which he does whenever possible. If neither foot nor pedal power are possible, he favors public transportation. Lastly, he turns to driving his electric car.

Begley is often transporting himself to events where he speaks about his convictions. And regardless of whether the audience is sympathetic or skeptic, he always enjoys chatting about his favorite topic.

In response to a question from LowDensityLifestyle.com about what he says to people who say climate change isn’t real, Begley says: “I say let’s agree to disagree on it — and instead focus on what we can agree on. Do we agree that $3-plus a gallon gas is a problem? Do we agree that we have a dependency problem on Mideast oil, and that we are sending billions of dollars to countries that don’t like us very much and impact our national security? Do we agree that we want to clean up the air and water in our cities? Do we agree that we want to save money? If we can agree on those things, then a sustainable lifestyle can make a difference.”

From 2007 to 2009, Begley and his wife, Rachelle Carson, did a reality show called Living with Ed that documented Begley’s devotion (and Carson’s resistance to some of the more radical parts of it). Episodes highlighted Begley’s green house rivalry with Bill Nye the Science Guy; his environmentally safe cleaning products, Begley’s Earth Responsible Products; his public speaking commitments; his efforts to convince friends to get a green audit; and all the improvements he makes to his house.
Living Like Ed
“I have a computer, a fax machine, a printer, and all that stuff, but I try to keep things as long as they can possibly last and use as little stuff as possible. The less emphasis you have on stuff, I think the happier you’re going to be,” he told Mother Nature Network. “I simplify as much as I can.”

To begin living a greener lifestyle, he offers this tip: “Start with the cheap and easy stuff — energy-efficient lighting, weather stripping, recycling, composting, home gardening, bike riding, public transportation, etc.,” he told LowDensityLifestyle.com. For more ideas, read his book Living Like Ed: A Guide to the Eco-Friendly Life.