An Interview with Ed Begley, Jr.
What is your own relationship
to wealth and simplicity?
When I first bought my house back in the
1980s, during a string of particularly successful acting
roles, people used to say to me, "What are you doing
in this tiny little house? You're making all this money.
It looks wrong for a guy of your stature to be in such
a little house."
But buying that small house
was the smartest thing I've done in my career, because
I haven't had to take scripts of lesser quality. I don't
have to do a stupid commercial to pay the rent. Because
I take on fewer acting jobs, I have no business manager
-I do it all myself on Quicken. This one choice has enabled
a simplicity in all other aspects of my life. I grow food
in my back yard. I get 95 percent of my electricity from
my solar panels. Most of my hot water is heated from the
sun. I make my own compost. All these things that I did
primarily for environmental reasons also have a great
economic incentive; they make my life simpler and less
expensive. I can live very cheaply because, well over
a decade ago, I decided that rather than accumulate vast
amounts of money, I would eliminate the need for much
money. It's part of the voluntary simplicity movement
and not needing to make money to accumulate more stuff.
How and why did you begin
to live this way?
My journey started in 1970, around the
time of the first Earth Day. I got my first electric car,
I started recycling, buying biodegradable soaps and cleaners,
reading environmental writings, and conserving energy
in a big way. I started living more simply because of
ecological concerns, but there are so many bonuses I didn't
count on. The biggest has to do with my relationship to
time. I was a very rusharound guy in the '80s, constantly
on the go. When you're taking the bus in L.A. or driving a tiny electric
car, believe me, it's mandatory to slow down.
I can't say I'm a totally
changed person from what I was before I began slowing
down. It's a process. We slow down, then something very
important comes up and we backslide a little bit. But
the trend is constant, year-to-year improvement. One of
the biggest benefits of living this way is I get to spend
weeks on end with my one-and-a-halfyear- old daughter.
We've gotten busier than
ever as a society. Many of us have two jobs, commute long
hours to work, spend long hours away from our families-we're
just busy busy people. But do we really find it fulfilling?
What purpose does it serve? It seems that it's just for
more and more stuff. I'm not a Luddite. I have a fax machine
and I use the Internet. But I spend only around twenty
minutes a day online, and another ten to fifteen minutes
offline answering email.
You bottom out on stuff,
just as an alcoholic bottoms out on alcohol. If you find
more stuff fulfilling, then go for it. But if you don't,
you can seek out groups where you can connect with others
who are also exploring this route or you can choose to
live a different kind of life just on your own, to get
away from rampant consumerism.
Have you experienced any
drawbacks to living more sustainably?
The drawback I felt at first in 1989 when
I stopped driving was, "Oh my God, this is taking
so long." But then I thought, "What am I rushing
to? What is waiting at the other end that's so wonderful?
The journey is part of the experience." Or I would
think, "I'm riding my bike, my legs are killing me,
it's late at night." But now I'm a 51-year-old guy,
in very good shape. I don't need to go to the gym because
I bicycle so much.
People sometimes use your
name as the punchline in jokes, because of your reputation
as an environmentalist. Has this hampered you in any way?
People used to make jokes about me, but
not anymore. More than one person has said to me recently
with the energy crisis in California, "I used to
think you were nutty, but with this energy thing, I sure
don't think you're nutty now." It's prudent to save
energy for the energy crisis we currently face. More than
half the living Nobel laureates issued a warning to humanity
on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists-a warning
about the extreme stress we are causing to many of the
ecosystems that support us all.
Do people with wealth
have more responsibility in this area than others do?
The Mother Lode I want to keep coming back
to is voluntary simplicity, and the wealthy can take more
responsibility than others to live simply and speak out
about it. I speak out because I want to teach others what
I know. If things made you happy, there would be nothing
but happy people living in Bel Air and unhappy people
living in the bush, and that is certainly not the case.
Stuff does not make you happy. Whatever your financial
means, you can live more sustainably, but the wealthy
have more choices available for how to do that.
Is there anything else
you would say on this topic specifically to people with
I would say to invest in sustainable technologies,
like wind or solar renewable energy or fuel cells. If
you had invested in Ballard Fuel Cell in the 1990s, early
on, you would have just made a lot of money. There is
so much demand now in California for solar panels that
there is a wait to get them.
Living more sustainably
can save you money, too. In our area, a two-kilowatt solar
energy system for your roof would normally cost $16,000,
but with the assistance programs now to help promote it,
you pay only $6,000. And the quality of technology is
improving. When electric cars first came out, they did
not meet my needs. They didn't go far enough or fast enough.
But with the new hybrid gas/electric models, you can go
as far as you want; you can drive from California to New York for only $72 in gas. For
$20,000, you can get a car that gets 68 miles per gallon.
These are not some pie-in-the-sky ideas for the future.
You can buy these cars today. You can start making a difference
-Interviewed by Pamela
Actor Ed Begley, Jr. is
an environmentalist and advocate of sustainable living.
His acting career includes theater and movies, but he
is best known for his starring role as Dr. Victor Ehrlich
on the TV series St. Elsewhere. He currently plays Hiram,
the hairdresser on the hit HBO television show, Six Feet
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