Going Green? Better Call Ed!

Published Jun 6, 2023

Jess visits actor and environmental champion Ed Begley, Jr. at his LEED Platinum-certified home to talk all things green.


I want to start today’s show with a riddle. What do LED lightbulbs, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and a fictional law firm in New Mexico have in common? Stumped? Well, the answer is all of those things are near and dear to actor and noted environmental champion Ed Begley, Jr. It’s not every day that I have the chance to sit down with someone who can literally be anyone at all he chooses to be, but whose chosen role of a lifetime is doing volunteer environmental advocacy at every possible opportunity. Ed was gracious enough to invite me to his home in Los Angeles, California to pull back the curtain on his work as a defender of our planet’s future. I’m Jess Phoenix, and this…is science.

Jess: Today I am joined by the wonderful Ed Begley Junior who is pretty well known for his career as an actor, but maybe even more well known for his environmental activism work. So, Ed, thank you so much for doing this. And thank you for having me in your home. It's lovely.

Ed: Thank you so much, Jess. I hope I'm known more for the latter. So, I like my work as an actor. I enjoy doing that still. I'm still pretty busy as an actor. My heart is in the environmental activism, I've done since 1970.

Jess: Oh, well, thank you, Ed. And it's a privilege to be able to talk with you because you are so well-known in the environmental community. And I say this as somebody who... I mean, I didn't grow up in LA. I grew up all over the rest of the U.S. But I already knew who you were before I moved here. And not just because I'd seen you on TV, it was because everyone said, "Oh, the actor who's the big green tech guy, the big environmentalist." And that's a pretty cool way to be known, I would say. Ed: I think so too. I'm happy with that.

Jess: So, the way we met, and just to give the viewers a little bit of a background, is that we were both at an event called Route Zero, which is about green technology, electrifying our transportation system, and basically putting more zero-emission vehicles on the road. How did you get involved in that? I actually didn't get to ask you how they roped you in.

Ed: I got an email, but they somehow knew or they got lucky in the fact that Route 66 is deep in my DNA. That's the way we used to go cross country when I was a young lad back in the '50s. Rich movie star actors flew, but my dad drove or we took the train. That's the way one got across country with a small family, and we did that repeatedly. So, I have all those wonderful stops of Route 66, you know, motels in Albuquerque and elsewhere, and going through Arizona. The whole route, I've taken it many times cross country. So, now, I started doing it again as an environmental statement, if you will, environmental practice, not just a statement. Rather than fly and burn kerosene up at 31,000 feet, I drive and take an electric car on Route 66.

Jess: Wow. And so you really did get your kicks on Route 66?

Ed: I did.

Jess: So, when was the last time you actually flew on a plane?

Ed: I know I flew just before the pandemic. No, I flew one time since the pandemic about a year and a half ago. I had to be in New Orleans, and I was also doing a show in Albuquerque, "Better Call Saul" and also doing "Young Sheldon." I had these three jobs and there was no time to drive cross country. So, it was either break my contract, which I didn't wanna do, and get sued, or get on a plane. So, I will fly if I must, if there's no other way, but I really prefer not to. And must isn’t “I must get to Hawaii and do some snorkeling,” though I'd like to, I really would like to. That's nothing I've done for quite a while, you know, because I don't wanna be frivolous with any sort of fuel.

Jess: Exactly. And if I had it my way, we'd all be riding horses, but that's just because I'm a horse nut. But it's definitely green. And considering we're not in horse and buggy days, I think making the effort to avoid the air travel whenever you can is definitely a good one.

Ed: Yeah, it doesn't have to be absolute, you know. It's not like I absolutely won't fly. You know, some people, Greta absolutely won't fly, and God bless her for that. I aspire to that. But I've avoided at all costs, and turns out I've only had a fly once every couple of years. And I don't see any flying in my future the way my schedule is now and my shows I'm contracted to do. I can easily make it everywhere, you know, in my fully electric car that has a good range. I can get 350 miles range outta my vehicle.

Jess: What more do you need?

Ed: With a quick charging, you know, you gotta stop anyway. Driving cross country, I gotta stop at Needles and have breakfast if I'm hungry. You gotta charge. Stop in Flagstaff and have lunch, get a charge. Stop in Gallup, New Mexico, you know, have dinner, get a charge. It's a lovely way to travel, really.

Jess: It is. I did the first leg of the Route Zero drive and I went...

Ed: That's right.

Jess: Yeah. I went from LA to Flagstaff, and I handed over the, you know, basically, the baton to the next driver. And it was super comfortable because I was in the electric Ford Mustang GT. And so, it was so fun. Because I drive a Chevy Volt now until I have to upgrade, but that's what I've got. And the electric range on that is not nearly as good as it is on the Mustang or a Tesla, or any of these other cars that they've come out with now. And it was a cool experience to be able to say, "You know, I'm just gonna have a leisurely lunch while my car charges, and then we'll get going."

So, that's sort of how we got together, to begin with. So, what I wanted to ask you was how did you actually get involved with the Union of Concerned Scientists? Because I know you've had a relationship for a while with our organization. Ed: I got familiar with Union of Concerned Scientists by my friendship with Henry Kendall. He won the Nobel Prize of course, shared it with someone for discovering the subatomic particle - the quark, I believe. But he was a great scientist, a great man. And I knew right away I needed to have some scientists that had good reputations to get the right information. I didn't wanna be repeating bad data out there. I'm just an actor, I don't have a degree in the sciences. So I needed somebody I could rely on. So I figured a group that had, you know, 1500 incredible world-renowned scientists, more than half the living Nobel laureates. This is back in the late '80s, early '90s when I got aligned with them. I was doing a play also in Boston. And so I was there right near Brattle Street where the headquarters were, I believe still are, there in Cambridge, Massachusetts, right near Harvard. And so I got to visit them a lot while there. You know, I feel like... I'm certainly not a scientist. People say, "What is your area of expertise?" I say, "I'm just an actor. I'm about to go on stage and sing a song." But if the fire marshal taps me on the shoulder, "Yes, what is it?" "There's a fire in the basement. We have to evacuate slowly and carefully, but we must tell people what's going on." I can't imagine doing a song and dance if the fire marshal just told me there's a fire in the basement. Could you?

Jess: Yep. That's a great analogy.

Ed: And that's where I'm at as an actor. I happen to know people like the dearly departed Henry Kendall, people that are still doing the wonderful work at UCS, and they're telling me about the problems we're having with species loss, with, you know, climate change, with ozone, you know, the problem we had years ago with ozone depletion, and on and on, the many problems that we have in a very scientific manner. And I have to tell that to the people when I'm given the microphone. I can't keep it to myself. It'd be irresponsible to do so. So, I get the good data from you guys at UCS and I try to repeat it verbatim and not editorialize on it.

Jess: And that's excellent because I mean, it seems like if I had to encapsulate what you just said, it would be, listen to the scientists.

Ed: Exactly.

Jess: It's not really that hard. But we've had such a backlash against expertise in our country over the last several years that it is shocking how few people listen to scientists.

Ed: Yeah, it's unfortunate. And then sometimes they'll go, "Well, I've got a degree and I think climate change isn't happening. What is your degree in?" They could be maybe even a meteorologist, but I'd wanna talk to someone who has a degree in climate science, you know, climate change, and, you know, climate itself. If somebody's a nuclear physicist, that's wonderful, and I would greatly, you know, respect their opinion. But you wanna get people who are expert in that particular field, who've been involved in peer-reviewed studies and "Science Magazine," "Nature" magazine, where a good idea can really be vetted and, you know made to stand or fail on its own merits.

And so that's what all these scientists at UCS do. They deal with people in a peer-reviewed manner, and that's what makes for healthy science. You know, you talk amongst your peers and see what ideas have merit and what do not. Jess: Yeah, 100%. It's part of the process. One person could potentially be wrong, but when you have one person's information looked at over and over and over and tested. And I always tell people that doing science is trying to break your assumptions. And when you find an assumption you can't break, that's probably correct. So, that's a real big part of why we do what we do. And I appreciate that you understand that you are best served as someone who can amplify everybody's message. You have a platform, you have a megaphone, and you use it effectively. So, that is invaluable.

Ed: Yeah, the majority opinion, what people thought was so back in the days of Copernicus and Galileo, you know, which the church promoted, for instance, the Catholic church, was that we were the center of the universe. But the science led us elsewhere. Turns out we weren't by, you know, the moons around Jupiter and other things that were discovered and scientifically calculated by Kepler and Copernicus and Galileo, it soon became clear that we were not the center of the universe, not even the solar system, that the sun was. And we were revolving around them and not the other way around. And so good science showed the way. And of course, they were persecuted for it and under house arrest, and worse, a lot of the people who talked about the heresy of, you know, planetary movement. But listen to the experts, follow good science and you get where you need to go.

Jess: Exactly. So, that was extremely well put. So, I did also wanna ask you, how do you see science and everyday people working together to fight climate change and to get us through this climate crisis?

Ed: I think we have a real challenge now because people talk about alternative facts and things like that, and deep fake videos and audio are starting to filter its way into the mainstream media. And it's very dangerous when you can't agree on the truth, things that are quantifiable, gone through the scientific method when you have one town crier that's saying stuff that he's seen with his own two eyes in the town square and knows to be true and the vast majority of townspeople know it's true, then another town crier comes in and decides, no, it's not. Go right through the fog, pedal to the metal, there's no cliff ahead. And the other one's saying, "There is a cliff. Slow down." You know, who would you listen to? I would listen to the person that has a reputation, been doing it for a long time, like the Union of Concerned Scientists, not some fly-by-night person that's telling us something otherwise that doesn't make sense, isn't logical, and is just part of some conspiracy theory. Stick with the science and you can't go wrong. Jess: Yeah, that's wonderful. I would love to have that plastered all over billboards or interjected into every show that you're on. Just be like, I have to say this one line. So, then, I wanted to ask, because you obviously have made environmentally friendly options a huge part of your life and your work. What is the most memorable or your favorite piece of green technology or green living? Like, what really stands out to you, either for good or for bad, as something you've tried?

Ed: It's interesting because I'm kind of a gearhead. I always had, you know, the RadioShack catalogs and bought stuff from them, and Edmund Scientific and Heathkit and all that stuff. I loved all that kind of stuff when I was a young lad. But again, I never got a degree in any of the sciences or engineering. I was briefly an engineering major at Valley College here in the San Fernando Valley, but I wasn't capable of putting in the work. So, at that point in my life, I had a lot to learn. So I didn't pursue it, but I've always had a keen interest in it. And what I wanted back in 1970 when I started with the first Earth Day, I got involved because I lived in smoggy LA, and I'd seen the Cuyahoga River catch fire near Cleveland, and saw the Santa Barbara oil spill.

So, I knew we needed to clean up the air and the water. And I wanted solar panels. I'd heard about solar electric panels and I wanted them, and I wanted a fancy electric car, but of course, those things were not available to me. What I did was practical stuff that I knew would make a difference. I started recycling, I started composting, started buying all biodegradable soaps and detergents. I became a vegetarian. And I did everything that I could, you know, to make a difference in LA, you know, as far as pollution. And here's a great fact owing very small part to me and my efforts, but lots of other people who did a great deal more than me, we have four times the cars in LA now, millions more people, but a fraction of the smog. The air’s gotten better, not worse because of all the stuff we did we hoped would work. You know, catalytic converters and cleaner power plants, all of it. But I myself finally, after 15 years of, you know, working as an environmentalist and doing all the cheap and easy stuff, first, I got solar in my house in Ojai, a solar hot water system. I couldn't afford photovoltaics yet. I bought a wind turbine that same year as part of a wind farm, an investment in a wind farm in 1985. So, I got to do that. That was a good investment for me because I had the bragging rights to say, not only am I not... You know, I have a low carbon footprint. I'm carbon minus, if you will, because I have that one investment in a wind turbine, a small one by today's standards, but it was 75 kilowatts and I owned half of one of those wind turbines since 1985. Owned it for decades and decades and made money off it, and had the bragging rights to putting out about three or four homes worth of power for all those years. So, that was my favorite bit of technology for years.

Jess: And that was probably before the vast majority of Americans had heard anybody saying we need green technology. It wasn't a phrase then.

Ed: Right. And then I wanted and finally got, after 20 years from the first Earth Day, 1990, I put in the solar photovoltaic solar electric system in my house about a mile west of here at an old 1936 house. Very small home, 1700 square feet. But I made it as energy efficient as I could. And that was my favorite technology, finally having solar electric to charge my car and run my house. I like that. And that was overshadowed by this house we now sit in because this house is what they call LEED Platinum, a term you're familiar with.

Jess: Yes.

Ed: To the listeners out there, it's like miles per gallon for a house. It's like, how energy efficient is your house? And there's silver, gold, and platinum. And to do platinum, you gotta do everything. And we did everything and it worked out great. So, now we have this wonderful home that looks quite stylish. My wife was in charge of aesthetics. I was in charge of what's hidden inside the walls and hidden up on the roof. We have nine kilowatts of solar. Two 4-by-10 solar hot water panels. We have 4 highly efficient HVAC units for 4 separate zones, 10,000 gallons rainwater buried underground, a rainwater tank, 10,000 gallons, a grey water system for the fruit trees, vegetable garden, compost bins, 12-inch thick walls, double pane windows. Anything you can do, we did it all. And now we are the beneficiaries of it. My kids and grandkids, I hope, will live in this home and have low power bills for the rest of their lives.

Jess: So, that's probably something that it just feels satisfying on an everyday basis. It's not like you did it once and you're done, you get the benefit of this all the time.

Ed: And besides all this stuff I mentioned, there's a couple things I had never heard about, Jess, and I'll talk about them now if we have time.

Jess: Oh, please. Yes.

Ed: Two things I didn't know about that I learned on this job site and now it's part of the home and I recommend everybody do it. One is called act on demand. In every room that has a sink, there's a motion detector. In that kitchen behind me and in every bathroom, there's a motion detector. Why? Because when you walk into the room, it turns on a circulating pump for the hot water side of things on the top, the bathtub, the shower, the sink, any of it going, they might want some hot water in there when they're in that room, which you usually do. You go in the kitchen, you're probably gonna wash your hands before you peel some vegetables or what have you.

Jess: We hope.

Ed: One would hope when you come or leave the bathroom, you're probably gonna wash your hands, so it turns it on. And it's such a wonderful technology because I've had friends that have had circulating pumps before and you save a lot of water with them. Instead of going 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 27 Mississippi, 28 to get hot water, by 3 Mississippi, you've got hot water with that circulating pump. But it's also running 24 hours a day using power. And then what else are you doing? You're having to reheat that water because it's circulating through that loop into cool area under your house or in your walls. So, you're constantly having to reheat the water. Saves water, good thing, but thus make it a great thing by having a motion detector. Now, it turns it on at night or when you're away it never runs and you're saving that power, and you're not having to reheat the water. Very energy efficient. And I got one more.

Jess: Okay.

Ed: This is only for people who have a luxury item in southern California called the pool. I didn't want a pool. There was a pool on site. My wife said, "There's a pool before, we gotta keep it." I said, "We can't keep that pool. It's a weird geometric shape that you can't cover." Wasn't a square or rectangle. It was this weird shape. So, I said, "And we gotta move it into the sun. If you can accept a rectangle that I can cover, you know, moved further into the sun to get, because I'm not gonna put any natural gas or electricity out there to heat it, it'll get it as it gets with the cover." And we did all that and it got fairly warm, but my wife wanted it warmer. So, I wanna keep everybody happy in the home.

Jess: Always.

Ed: Always. I said, "You gotta give me a little... There's no more real estate left on the roof for more solar panels to heat the pool. Can you give me an area in the backyard or put some solar panels as an arbor, we'll make it look nice, a solar arbor." "No, I don't wanna look at them," because you can't see the panels from anywhere on the property. The architect and my wife were adamant about that. They didn't wanna look at them. I like looking at them personally, but different strokes, right?

Jess: Yes. Yes.

Ed: So, she wanted not to see 'em. Okay, let me talk to somebody. There's a company that puts on the back, on the flip side of the solar panels... You've been near a solar panel in the heat, or a black car on a sunny day. You burn your hand, it gets so hot, really hot. Well, the back of the photovoltaics is nearly as hot as the front. You put some black tubing on the back, the flip side of the solar, you're not blocking any photons. It's still hitting there and you're getting hot water from that tubing down the pool. She now has a 91-degree pool, 91 degrees all from the sun.

Jess: That's almost hot tub temperature.

Ed: I know.

Jess: So, you can definitely swim in that.

Ed: Definitely. You're getting a twofer. Because solar panels, some people may not know this, solar panels in Phoenix, Arizona and parts of California, and parts of New Mexico, many places, these hot states that get very, very warm in the winter as well as the summer, solar panels lose, I'm sorry to say, they lose 15% of the efficiency when they get hot, but they still work great, but they lose some efficiency. If you're cooling those panels with water passing on the backside of them, they don't lose any efficiency. So, I make my photovoltaics more energy efficient in the bargain.

Jess: I just love how excited you are about all of this because people think it's boring. In fact, the attitude I've encountered a lot when I'm talking about green tech with people who aren't scientists or aren't environmentalists is, "Oh, but it's hard and I have to make so many sacrifices." And here you are demonstrating that you do make sacrifices, you don't fly to Hawaii just because you want to, but you also get to enjoy your home, you get to enjoy your pool, you get to enjoy the things you do have. So, then, turning it a little bit because obviously, luxury items are one thing, but what would you recommend for people who are on a budget? So, maybe don't own their home or, you know, have to commute a lot? Maybe a couple of small changes they could make to help green their footprint a little bit?

Ed: People regularly say, "Ed, I can't afford a, you know, LEED Platinum home like you, I can't afford a fancy electric car with 350-mile range like you." And I say, "I totally understand because neither could I when I started." You don't run up to the top of Mount Everest, you get the base camp and you get acclimated and you climb as high as you can. Not everybody's gonna make it to the top and get fancy pants items like that. But if you do what you can do, which is exactly what I did in 1970 when I started. I couldn't afford solar panels. I couldn't afford a fancy electric car. I bought a cheap electric car for $950 called a Taylor-Dunn. It was basically a golf cart with a windshield wiper and a horn. But I got her, I had a California license plate. I drove it for a while.

I certainly did the other cheap and easy stuff. You know, I became a vegetarian, took public transportation, rode my bike, you know, composting, home gardening, all that stuff. Very energy efficient, cost-effective. You do that stuff, and now there's even more stuff available to anybody. You can go to any hardware store, to Costco kind of places, you get energy-efficient light bulbs. Do what's available today. Get those energy-efficient bulbs, energy-saving thermostat, put it in. And then also don't forget to program it. Wake and sleep, leave and return modes so you get the most outta that energy-saving thermostat. Riding a bike if weather and fitness from it, taking public transportation if it's available near you. Home gardening, home composting is still winners. You know, dietary change. I might be mentioning twice, but I don't mind to say that again. Even if you don't wanna become a vegetarian, no pressure, meatless Mondays or try maybe Friday, just one day a week, you know, less meat or no meat and see how you do. All that stuff, very inexpensive. Each thing I mentioned, very cheap to do. And you will, I guarantee, not just do something good for the environment, but you will save money.

Jess: Yeah. And that's huge because it helps everybody. Everyone benefits. And so, then I did also wanna ask, so you work in the movie and TV industry, so it's entertainment. These are big productions. You know, I've done shows for Discovery and Science Channel, and so I kind of know what goes into this stuff behind the scenes, obviously not as big as a motion picture. But from your perspective, if you had to give Hollywood a grade for its environmental friendliness right now, what would it be? And then what would you advise people in charge of production to consider to make their productions more environmentally friendly?

Ed: Back around 20 years ago, the 20-year anniversary of Earth Day, this is 1990, they were having these benefits for the rainforest on the stage of 20th Century Fox. And you just looked to the right of the stage here and say, "I got another idea besides having a benefit." "What's that?" "Stop using luan, that stack over there of plywood that's made from rainforest wood, let's not do that. How about that?" Jess: Just a slight thing.

Ed: Just a thought. So, a lot of people got on board and didn't know about luan, they didn't know where it came from and people started to use other products. You know, we tried to get better and tried to get better. And now, many years later, we've come a long way. Most productions would get a B or a B plus. Some even get an A these days. A few of them get a C just because they got so many pyrotechnics and other things, you know, explosions going off throughout the movie and what have you. I wouldn't give them much of a good grade. So, I think we've come a long way. Back in 1990 when we started talking about this seriously, you know, we realized that not only was it not green on the set, it wasn't green in the production office. People were printing a lot of scripts they didn't need to print.

Now people, I rarely get a paper script anymore. You get a PDF file and if you need to print it at all, you just print your pages that you have to memorize the line for. So, it's come a long way. They have a lot of green vehicles to get people around. You know, they have energy-efficient production offices or energy efficient on the stage. A lot of the lighting these days is LED lighting. So, there's a green checklist they came up with at EMA, Environmental Media Association. They work with, you know, the entertainment community and the environmental community trying to act as liaison. So, we made up these lists of things people could do to get green certification on a show. And a lot of people did it. And people have gotten awards for doing it really well. And we have more work to do, but we've come a long way from 1970 and even a long way from 1990. Jess: That's really encouraging to hear because again, you have the inside edge on this and it's neat that you were involved in pushing them to do these kinds of green solutions to production issues. So, then there is something that I ask all of our guests at the very end of the show. It's the final question. And we are the Union of Concerned Scientists. We have lots of concerns. So, why are you concerned?

Ed: I'm concerned because of the stuff I've seen with my own two eyes. Back when I was a kid, I saw, you know, the effects of the Santa Barbara oil spill. I saw the smog every day from when I was a young lad in the '50s and growing up as a teen in the '60s. I've seen that stuff up close and personal. I'm very concerned about what I've heard from reputable sources, too. I don't have the resources to get up to the, you know, arctic circle to see what it's like there, but I trust the people that have gone there, like representatives of the Union of Concerned Scientists and other climatologists and experts in glaciers and what have you that have gone up there. So, I'm very concerned about climate change.

I'm concerned about the air pollution we still have near the fulfillment centers and near the ports of Long Beach in Los Angeles. I talk about it, and it's true, we have four times the cars in LA, millions more people, but a fraction of the smog. That's a true fact for me here in Studio City and many other people. But the people living near the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the people near the fulfillment centers have very dirty air, we gotta clean it up for them too. So, I'm concerned about that. The good news is, it's like some of these things I talked about, I did around the house, there are twofer or a threefer. By that I mean, if you clean up the air around some of these fulfillment centers, there's less effective climate change because you're using less fossil fuels. You know, you can do many things by doing things the right way.

And finally, a lot of companies are seeing that electrifying a lot of the different vehicles that the ports now...the process is gonna take a while. Some of the technology for longer-range or mid-range trucks is getting better. So, you can green up the trucks and have them be electric or hybrid electric, and you know, that stuff that's very possible and is happening right now. So, I'm concerned about many things. The big one is the ocean too. You know, climate change on land, of course, is something we have to deal with the way it's affecting us on land, but in the ocean phytoplankton can live without us, but we can't live without phytoplankton.

Jess: Excellent point.

Ed: We really need them, you know. We need phytoplankton big time. And a lot of the temperature rise has been going into the ocean and we're feeling it on land too, of course, but a lot of that temperature rise in the ocean, we have the loss of coral reefs. There's a long list, species lost. There's many things, but it's all tied together. We have to be more efficient, we have to be more careful with our resources, we have to be more respectful of the web of life that supports us all. Jess: Phenomenal answer. Thank you so much, Ed Begley Jr., for taking the time to sit down with me and to really sort of, I'd say peel back the covering on the mystique of green lifestyles, and making it seem just a little bit more attainable for everybody no matter what your situation is. I appreciate you and all the work you're doing, acting-wise and environmental-wise. And I think you will be remembered forever as the actor who put the environment first. And that's a great legacy.

Ed: Bless you, Jess. And thank you guys for being such great resources. You're my heroes in so many ways. And I couldn't talk about this stuff with good facts to back it up if I didn't have you guys to rely on. So, you've been doing it for me personally for decades, for many other people, and I'm grateful beyond words.

I’d like to thank Ed for his longtime support of UCS and the work we do. It’s always a morale boost when someone chooses to use their platform for causes that matter so deeply. Today’s episode was brought to you by some folks who regularly boost my morale: Brian Middleton, Omari Spears, and Rich Hayes on the audio production side, and Anthony Eyring did our graphics and YouTube video work. Thanks for tuning in, and I’ll catch you next time, Science Fans.

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