Turning Points: Life-Altering Choices in a 50-Year Career
Remarks by William K. Reilly
Harvard Law School 50th Reunion - Class of 1965
October 24th, 2015
It is a privilege to speak today to my fellow Harvard Law School classmates and to celebrate your success, most notably in living long enough to be here now! As I look over the bios of classmates I am struck by the productive professional lives, the serious contributions to the professions and thus to the society class members have made. The preparation we experienced here has clearly served us well whether in the practice of law or in other lines of work. It has assuredly been important to me in each of my three careers in the public sector, in an environmental ngo, and private equity finance.
In 2004 I delivered the annual lecture on sustainability to the Harvard Business School. My daughter Megan, MBA 2004, invited me to sit in on one of her classes. At the beginning of the class the teacher, a young Costa Rican woman, asked if any of the students had brought a guest. My daughter raised her hand and said she was accompanied by her father.
At this point the entire class of 100 or so rose; many stood on their chairs, shouted my name and cheered loudly. Later as the class discussion proceeded my daughter again raised her hand and offered her views on the assigned subject. Her teacher seemed stunned and exclaimed, “That is the most astute and insightful comment made in the class this year and it’s typical that it would be you Megan who would make it.” Whereupon the class again rose and cheered and clapped enthusiastically shouting “Megan,” “Megan.”
After exiting the class my daughter asked me how I had liked it. I said, that was terrific, they really like you! And she said I’m so glad Dad, we do it for all the parents. At that moment I imagined the law professors I had studied with and thought, this is definitely not Harvard as I remember it. Or that they would recognize!
During the past 5 years I have twice had occasion to help organized and keynote Harvard Law School symposia, one on land use and a second on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. I worked closely with two of the Law School’s stars, Jody Freeman and Richard Lazarus. I have come to know them well, Jody testified before the President’s Commission on the BP Gulf Oil Spill, which I served as co-chair, and Richard served as our executive director. To those of you with grandchildren wishing to study environmental law it is my opinion that they could not do any better than to come to Harvard Law School!
A 50th reunion seems to call forth reflections on the choices we’ve made, the successes and the failures, and how we shaped the trajectory of our careers, and how events and circumstances explain who we have become.
My early education, through 8th grade was directed by nuns, in Illinois, southern Texas and Massachusetts. The principal and oft repeated theme of Catholic education is to put your gifts to the service of others. It is also an explicit objective of a Yale education, of the university charter’s explicit purpose “to educate leaders of church and civil estate.” My early formation then created in me a preoccupation that I suspect all of us share in one form or another, “What does the Lord require?” or “Have I done enough?”
Today I’ve decided to offer some personal reflections, thoughts about times when I made a life-altering decision. I don’t think I was necessarily aware of the consequences of the choices I made at the time, but in retrospect they appear to have mattered a lot. I will also say something about the culture and how it evolved in my time to become much more attuned to the values I was committed to. As a consequence of the changing cultural environment, my choices became easier and the role of a professional conservationist less prophetic.
I spent my junior year in Paris, at Sciences Po and the Sorbonne and the Catholic Institute. And upon returning to Yale for senior year elected to complete the course of ROTC I had begun in freshman and sophomore years. Not many seniors were in Army ROTC.
I recall a lively discussion with Hans Frei, a hugely effective teacher of religious history, about the Vietnam War; he believed in it and in Kennedy’s decision to prosecute and escalate U.S. involvement. I did not. I considered that the Vietnamese had successfully fought the Japanese and the French and that they would outlast the United States in a place where American interests were not deep. I had also read Bernard Fall’s Streets Without Joy and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.
Greene has his narrator, the cynical British reporter Fowler, say of the overconfident American Government agent, Alden Pyle, “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” More personally, I felt certain that as a new young lieutenant I would end up getting orders to go there, which I later did. So why sign up for ROTC when draft policies in the 60’s made avoidance a matter of just staying a little longer in graduate school?
To me it was simple, it’s what you did, you served even in a war you opposed and expected the United States to exit without resolving. The Midwestern thing, I suppose. I considered it was the patriotic choice. I was clearly not a rebel.
The war in Vietnam and the draft had an outsized influence on the decisions of a whole generation of young male professionals, and even more on non-college high school graduates whose cohort actually served and often fought in Vietnam. Much has been written about the corrosive effect of the wartime decisions made by “the best and the brightest” on trust in government and authority more generally. As an officer in McNamara’s army, I was affected by some disillusion.
The obligation to spend two years in the Army, and to take no more than three years beyond graduation from Yale before donning the uniform, ruled out a choice I was seriously attracted to, of committing to earn a Ph.D. in history. There wouldn’t have been time. But there was time for law school, and with little more than the sense that it would provide a useful professional foundation, I came to Harvard.
The Army was very good for me. After many years at elite institutions, I found myself overseeing 18- to 20-year-olds from working class families or urban ghettos who made up the U.S. Army in the ‘60’s. I drew on my legal skills to help some of them get out of commitments to suspect female camp followers. Although the Army trained me as an infantry officer and then an Intelligence officer, I was once pressed into service to defend an enlisted man charged with felony aggravated assault.
The Intelligence Group Commander advised me upon my being assigned the case, “We don’t want any of these fancy Harvard legal shenanigans, Captain Reilly.” (A flagrant exercise of inappropriate command influence.) But I pulled out all the stops! I made fun of the victim, a skinny young sergeant in his early 20’s. I asked him to lift up his shirt to show the scars of the severe beating the prosecution alleged he had endured, fully knowing there were none since the injuries were then many months old.
I questioned the sergeant’s, the victim’s fitness for his rank and pointed out that only a severe Vietnam era shortage of soldiers would see such a young man promoted to sergeant. Every motion I made to exclude evidence was granted by the officers who constituted the jury. Only later did I understand that the court had probably intentionally left me with no grounds for appeal.
When I stood next to the defendant and heard the judgment of the court, 18 months at hard labor, I was stunned. I considered the court had committed a grave injustice. When I reminded the court that my client had only 9 months remaining to serve out his Army tour, and asked if they intended the term to be extended to permit him to serve his full 18-month sentence, they promptly adjourned and just as promptly reappeared to alter the sentence to conform to his remaining months of service. They wanted that boy out of there!
It was several weeks later before I came to appreciate what that jury had done. The fellow I had defended had misbehaved everywhere he had served. He had been a military policeman at one base and I had asked MP’s there whether they knew him, thinking I would enlist them as character references. Two of them in a guard gate burst out laughing when I mentioned his name, and asked, “What has he done now?”
I never did locate anyone who would testify for him. An unprovoked beating of a sergeant, with a belt buckle as a weapon, all because a girl they both fancied in a bar had chosen to leave the bar with the sergeant. My client was a big, violent bully who had been inexcusably cruel. There were no mitigating circumstances. I had totally lost perspective by identifying so completely with my client.
Upon reflection I thought about the career as a trial lawyer which at that point in my life I considered suited to my interests and skills. And I made a decision: I had the wrong temperament, I got too far into the role. I recall a phrase in a Norman Mailer novel, about something as implausible as getting the truth out of a trial lawyer. The adversary system for all its virtues required more dispassion and emotional distancing than I seemed to have. The realization was a turning point. I would not be a trial lawyer.
What I began to focus on was international development. My year in France and Army tour in Germany, my contribution to a book about land reform in France, as well as my third-year thesis on land reform in Chile with Charlie Haar, had opened up an avenue of interest and also a potential for contribution that I have always had.
President Obama’s appointment last year to his nine-member Global Development Council has returned me to where I once expected to spend my full-time career.
During the summer between semesters at planning school at Columbia, which I attended after the Army, essentially to strengthen my credentials as a planning lawyer, I was a member of a team of graduate students who assessed the impact of a proposed bridge over the Bosporus linking Europe to Asia.
The project had high symbolic value and visibility and was a priority of the Turkish Government and the McNamara World Bank. The Turkish left hated it, however, and considered it the latest manifestation of the Eurocentric preferences of the Turkish and international elite to the neglect of Turkey’s undeveloped and impoverished East. We unwary American researchers found ourselves suspected of being instruments of U.S. policy, of the CIA, for asking questions about enterprises’ intentions after the new bridge was built, and about how to reconcile new industry with protection of the environment of the Sea of Marmara for tourism. Our documents were seized by the police and all but my wife and I boarded the next plane home. The deep distrust of the United States during the height of the Vietnam War left me with the sense that it was the wrong time to be going about the developing world trying to advise their governments. Another failure, another turning point.
I returned to America and soon thereafter was invited to join the staff of the new White House Council on Environmental Quality. My assignments were to help write the regulations (guidelines they were then called) for implementation of the new requirement for environmental impact statements, and also to prepare a new national land use policy law.
As the 3rd or 4th hire of the new Council, I was given a large portfolio. One was receiving and reviewing projects proposed by government agencies. My second week on the job I was asked to review the major planned water projects of the Corps of Engineers for possible modification or cancellation on the first Earth Day. I asked for a briefing. The Corps sent to my office a brigadier general, a couple of full colonels, and a lieutenant colonel to wield the pointer. As a recent alumnus of the army who in 2 years of service had never laid eyes on a general, I was star-struck, literally, by the stars on his shoulders.
It emerged that he and his fellow Corps officers were even more intimidated by a White House official inquiring into the environmental impact of their projects. I recall writing furiously as they briefed me and used phrases I had never heard like cfs’s and acre feet. I didn’t feel I could ask them what they were talking about—I had just turned 30—so I stored the mysterious shorthand to look up later. As a result of our inquiry, several projects, including one big one—the proposed Cross Florida Barge Canal—were cancelled on environmental grounds. So when the announcements were made on the first Earth Day, the new Council demonstrated its clout and made quite a splash. Later we learned that President Nixon had been looking for $500 million to make available for buses to integrate Southern schools and we had effectively found it for him.
Part of my job involved explaining a new requirement of federal law to the government agencies which would have to implement it.
I recall accompanying my boss, Tim Atkeson, as we explained the new environmental impact assessment requirements: describe the expected impact, explain the steps taken to mitigate undesirable effects, and set out the alternatives, including the option of no project. Agencies we had briefed typically sent a low-level official with perfunctory interest. Then one afternoon I was handed by messenger a one-page order signed by U.S. District Court Judge Burns enjoining the grant of a permit by the Interior Department for the proposed Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The judge listed two grounds as the basis for his order: the first was a typewritten statement referencing failure to respect the right-of-way requirements of the Mineral Leasing Act. In his own hand he had added a second ground: failure to comply with the environmental impact statement requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act. This was history-making. Federal project planning was never to be the same again.
When my boss and I went the next day to the Agriculture Department, we were met by the General Counsel and several assistant secretaries. They hung on our every word. One asked, would this provision apply to the PL 480 program? My boss, who had never heard of PL 480, paused to reflect judiciously and replied honestly, “I can’t think of any reason why it wouldn’t.”
I dare say many graduates of this school have found much gainful employment developing the data and compiling and defending the environmental impact statements required by NEPA.
I have a theory that judges were as appalled as anyone about the environmental consequences of sprawling development, intrusive power lines, ubiquitous road construction in the 1960’s and ‘70’s and took the soaring aspirational language of the National Environmental Policy Act seriously as a means to slow things down and compel careful reconsideration. The law indisputably put the environment in the room and at the table for federal projects where it had never been before. And states have now added their own equivalent reviews for non-federal projects.
During my 27 months in the Nixon White House, I was asked to write speeches, for my boss Russell Train on the environment for Budget Director George Shultz on civil rights and race, for Leonard Garment on land use, for Vice President Agnew on international urban and environmental policies, and for President Nixon on the environment and economics.
Nixon had decided to tell the Detroit Economic Club that one had to be careful not to take the environmental cause too far and to stress the primacy of economic goals. I was told by the White House to write the speech but not to tell my boss I was doing so. I did tell him and said I intended to beg off. My boss, far shrewder than I said no, you must write it. That they are asking you to write it means somebody in the White House is looking out for us, knowing you will craft something we all can live with. One day in June 1972 I received a call asking me to meet with someone in the White House political operation. I was to meet with someone unfamiliar to me, who worked for Bob Haldeman. Haldeman was once asked what he did for the President. He said, “Every president needs a son of a bitch. I’m Nixon’s.” We at CEQ worked with John Ehrlichman who oversaw policy. Haldeman oversaw political operations.
Haldeman’s lieutenants included tough operatives like Chuck Colson, the ex-Marine who oversaw the Watergate break-in.
I remember that my interviewer had a clean desk and so I immediately distrusted him. No inbox or outbox or clutter of books and papers. He had two photos on the wall, the President’s and the FBI Director’s, J. Edgar Hoover’s. He began by explaining that the President had been complaining to Haldeman that sampling of television viewers was indicating that people were turning off the President after 7 to 9 minutes. The President concluded he needed a new speechwriter who would be assigned the major issue addresses, maybe one every couple of weeks, for the campaign. I was told that I had been recommended by several White House officials. Several times in that interview I deflected the invitation that I do the job, saying I was primarily a lawyer, the speeches I had written were on specialized subjects of environment, civil rights, and the arts.
I remember his response was to the effect that “I don’t know what you are. I’ve been told to sign you up.” And he added, “We’re 18 percentage points ahead in the polls, we’re going to win this thing. You can pretty much name what you want when the election’s over.” And he concluded our conversation ominously, saying, “Remember one thing, when the President blows the trumpet, the loyal troops get behind and they march.” I returned to CEQ and announced to Chairman Train that I would leave to accept a position I had intended to decline, running a task force on land use chaired by Lawrence S. Rockefeller.
Looking back, I now see this decision as consequential. Had I accepted the speechwriting job, I would likely have become a political or journalistic operative, as Bill Safire and David Gergen did. I had no clear idea where I saw my future. My time at CEQ had equipped me as an environmental lawyer with rare insider perspective and experience.
Drafting the National Land Use Policy act, which passed the Senate and failed by one vote in the House, then morphed into the Coastal Zone Management Act, that equipped me well to practice planning or land use law. So I then ran a task force on land use. We produced a widely influential report that sold 50,000 copies, and among the positions I was offered was president of The Conservation Foundation. In the report of the Task Force, which in addition to Rockefeller included civil rights leader Vernon Jordan, developer James Rouse, San Diego mayor and future Governor and Senator Pete Wilson, and prominent banker Walter Hoadley, we recommended a reinterpretation of the 5th Amendment to the Constitution to permit a more expansive authority to restrict development in order to guide growth and to protect critical environmental resources such as wetlands. The report was entitled The Use of Land: A Citizen’s Policy Guide to Urban Growth.
The only person who declined our invitation to join the task force was Vernon Jordan, then president of the Urban League. When I reported to the president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund Bill Dietel that Jordan had turned us down, Dietel replied with surprise, “Vernon Jordan said no to the Rockefellers? He must have misunderstood.” I called Jordan back and quoted Dietel’s response. Vernon said “O shit, how many meetings are we going to have?”
Some of you in this audience are old enough to know that there was a time when someone working in the non-profit field did so pro bono where money was a no-no. The founder of The Conservation Foundation, Fairfield Osborn, customarily inquired of prospective hires in the 1950’s and early ‘60’s, “You have means, I trust.” Which translated as, “I have no intention of paying you. At least not seriously paying you.”
I dare say mine was the first generation when it became possible to craft a professional career in environmental research and policy and be respectably compensated. That I, someone not “of means”—and a whole cohort of like-minded environmental activists, idealists, researchers, lawyers, and others—could set out into the uncertain sea of the non-profit community and make a paying career out of it without having the financial security of university tenure, was novel. Funding in those early days came from a small number of philanthropists and their foundations: the Rockefellers, the Mellons, the Packards, the Hewletts, and the Phippses. Some, such as the Rockefellers, were also benefactors of the civil rights movement. And the Ford Foundation injected an activist jolt of funding support by helping create the new profession of environmental law and providing steady funding for the Natural Resources Defense Council and others.
My own organization, The Conservation Foundation, was a relatively mainstream research and policy think tank, once described by New York Times environment reporter Gladwin Hill as “the Vatican of the U.S. environmental movement.” I recall spending a long plane ride with John Le Carré, who characterized us as adept at “eeling around the corridors of power.”
Our imprint was lasting on policies guiding national parks and forests and coastal zone management and land use, including the more successful land use policies of other developed countries.
When I was 33 years old and newly installed as president of The Conservation Foundation, the great conservationist Sir Frank Fraser Darling guided me on a tour of selected landscapes in his native Scotland. He described how the Benedictines had altered and improved, reshaped and cultivated the land.
In much the same way, René Dubos also inspired my appreciation of place. Dubos wrote about the monotonous flat grey land that once characterized the Ile de France, an area I came to know as a student in Paris. Try to imagine Paris and its environs as “a flat grey land.” Dubos pointed out that thoughtful people had reorganized it, planted it, drained it, placed cities and towns in it, civilized it, and made it the premier landscape model for generations of great painters. It has remained productive and accommodating of human settlements for centuries. Dubos also said there were two human enterprises that inspired great hope in him for the future. One was the Netherlands, and the other was New York State’s Taconic River Parkway. Both create an experience of beauty, variety, and bucolic serenity in the midst of large, densely populated urban conurbations. His key insight? Dubos famously wrote that one can improve upon nature. I believe that deeply.
I had the good fortune to be present at the creation of America’s environmental rally. The ambition and the creativity that characterized environmental laws and policy in the early 1970’s are notable. President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act on New Year’s Day 1970 and proclaimed the 1970’s the “decade of the environment.” Later in 1970 he signed into law the Clean Air Act and also created the Environmental Protection Agency and just as important appointed and backed a serious and aggressive regulator, William Ruckelshaus, to lead it. In 1972 he signed the Clean Water Act and provided important international leadership in organizing the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm. The writer Gregg Easterbrook has rated the environment on of the two greatest successes of post war social policy, the other being Social Security.
You may imagine that as I have watched Republicans retreat from environmental leadership I have been moved to look more closely at Nixon’s motives. As he geared up for the 1968 election, Nixon consulted public polls and was astonished to see that the environment was the 3rd most important concern to the American people after the economy and the war in Vietnam. He directed his campaign staff to “get out front” on the environment. Upon taking office, he wrote down a dozen issues on a legal yellow pad. These, he instructed top staff, were the issues on which he wanted his administration to be forward-leaning, to establish a record of strong achievement. He drew a line under four, saying that he wished to be personally consulted and involved in everything that affected these special concerns. I don’t know what they were, but it’s not difficult to imagine.
As for the remaining eight issues, on those Nixon expected the administration to lead, but proposed to involve himself only when his personal intervention mattered. The environment was among those eight.
Nixon assigned the Council on Environmental Quality to produce his legislative program for the environment. CEQ proposed far-reaching reforms of environmental policy: a ban on ocean dumping, new protections for endangered species, a ten-cent-per-pound tax on sulfur dioxide, a withdrawal of tax advantages to developers of wetlands or destroyers of historic buildings, a national land use policy.
Now it no doubt figured in Nixon’s mind that his expected opponent in 1972 was a renowned environmentalist, Senator Edmund Muskie. And I wouldn’t make the case for Nixon’s deep personal attachment to environmental initiatives.
When my boss at CEQ showed Nixon the language explaining Nixon’s national land use policy act, which I had written, Nixon looked at Train and asked, “Who’s the SOB who wrote this?” But he still proposed it. (I only learned that 10 years ago, it would have been dispiriting to me at the time.)
Before I decided to join The Conservation Foundation, I had a conversation with Leonard Garment, a congenial White House advisor on civil rights and the arts, and later White House Counsel succeeding the disgraced John Dean. Garment stood out among the Nixon team—he was a Jewish Democrat and he had played sax with Woody Herman. Garment had taken an interest in me, had looked out for me. Having learned of my choice to go to The Conservation Foundation, he looked concerned and disapproving. He said, “You know, you have a lot of choices, a lot of options. You really going to do this environment thing?”
Looking back on that era I realize what a turning point it was, and, I suppose, a risky one. Laurence S. Rockefeller, who had supported The Conservation Foundation, also questioned my choice. He had wanted me to join the Rockefeller Brothers Fund staff and be prepared to join his brother Nelson’s campaign for president in 1976. He warned me not to assume there would be adequate funds to support CF. And for my first 3 years he provided none.
I look at the field of non-governmental organizations in the environment today and marvel at their sophistication and effectiveness. The Nature Conservancy bought back fishing licenses on the West Coast and significantly reduced overfishing. The Environmental Defense Fund advocated and lobbied the George H. W. Bush Administration to make pollution rights trading—“cap and trade”—the operational strategy of acid rain reduction, which has proved hugely effective.
They stood alone among environmental groups in support of this market-based law. And World Wildlife Fund bought up the discounted dollar-denominated debt of developing countries—in South and Central America when I ran WWF and in Madagascar and Asia under my successor, Kathryn Fuller. We exchanged the dollar debt for government commitments in local currency to strengthen parks and forest protection. In all of these ventures, environmental NGO’s have proved they belong at the big table.
After President Bush nominated me to be EPA Administrator in furtherance as he said of his promise to be “the environmental president,” I made the rounds of senators who would vote on my confirmation. My most memorable encounter was with Senator Moynihan of New York. I asked for his advice.
He looked over his reading glasses and said, “Above all, do not allow your agency to become transported by middle-class enthusiasms.” I consulted a body of respected scientists and asked them to rank the threats and risks to the American people and to the ecology, and also to tell me how the budget priorities of my agency lined up with the priority problems they saw. They reported that the principal threats to health were air pollutants. And they said essentially that hazardous waste was a middle-class enthusiasm, albeit one that was the object of two thirds of the EPA budget.
I have always believed that in the life of complex organizations there are periods of discovery, innovation, and creation when capability, leadership, and the moment coalesce to present opportunity to chart a new course and drive change. And there are times when the challenge is to consolidate, conserve resources, and shore up the foundations.
After a quiescent 8 years of the Reagan Administration on matters environmental, the time of George H. W. Bush was one of momentous opportunity to create. And we did. EPA drove in new and unfamiliar territory. We helped guide the environmental cleanup of Eastern Europe with its legacy of contaminated lakes and rivers and military bases. I recommended and the President provided funds to create a new center for the environment of Central and Eastern Europe, in Budapest. The opening was attended by the leaders of several Eastern European Governments including Vaclas Havel. I commented that like so many of them American politicians also spent time in jail, though the American custom was to do so after, not before public service.
We oversaw major chapters in the new North American Free Trade Agreement. I proposed, and the President made available, $500 million in debt-for-nature commitments to Latin America, modeled on the experience of World Wildlife Fund. We banned asbestos and achieved the most vigorous enforcement record ever seen, assessing more fines and penalties in our 4 years than the agency had racked up in all of its 18-year history. We initiated Energy Star, greenlights, and several other successful voluntary pollution reduction energy-conserving programs. And we designed and won passage of an ambitious new Clean Air Act, the last comprehensive environmental statute passed by Congress. The vote for passage of that statute was 89 to 11 in the Senate and 401 to 21 in the House. It marked the modern high-water mark for bipartisan collaboration. The current EPA Administrator, Gina McCarthy, received just 7 Republican votes for her confirmation. My confirmation was unanimous.
The principal threat to the environment today is climate change. The first Bush Administration negotiated and signed the Convention on Climate Change in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and promptly got the Senate to ratify it. The convention committed the signatories to return their emissions of greenhouse gases to the level of 1990. At the moment, the United States is halfway toward returning our total of greenhouse gas emissions to where they were in 2005, a more modest but still positive achievement.
One cannot claim that the United States has seriously engaged the climate issue. Yet the Obama Administration is using the tools of the very fine Clean Air Act to regulate CO2 from new and also existing power plants which together currently account for 41% of U.S. emissions.
The most encouraging responses to climate change are occurring in cities. Consider Chicago. Former Mayor Daley became alarmed by news reports current at the time of the Kyoto negotiations and so he convened scientists from several of Chicago’s universities to advise on likely climate scenarios. And he convened leaders to prepare the Chicago Climate Action Plan.
The scientists indicated that rainfall patterns were likely to change, with very heavy rainfall in the November-to-April timeframe, followed by little or no precipitation the remainder of the year.
And so Chicagoans designed new permeable pavement for streets and alleys, a surface that allows 80% of water to penetrate and accumulate in the soils and groundwater. The high end of the temperature range the scientists predicted is of 45 days annually with temperatures above 95°F. The 20th-century average was 15 days. Emergency rooms are being prepared for many more victims of heat stroke. More trees are being planted to increase shading and cooling. And Chicago’s green roofs are famous. Of the 2200 trees planted in city parks, none will be ash, maple, or Norway spruce—all popular and familiar now, but species not expected to flourish in a plant zone more conducive to Alabama sweet gum.
All of this was started by a mayor not known as particularly green, but highly respected as a prudent steward of the city’s interests.
These are highly commendable initiatives of adaptation, and New York and other cities are taking similar measures. Significant national mitigation will eventually have to come at the national level. And in fact, in spite of the Congressional stalemate on climate, the country is moving on climate. EPA and the Clean Air Act regulations on CO2. New 54.5 mpg automobile efficiency requirements that will reduce U.S. oil imports by 2.5 million barrels a day! Consumers, builders, householders are achieving record levels of energy efficiency. A major Los Angeles builder told me that the most successful policy he had ever experienced is that major buildings be LEED-certified for energy efficiency. California banks won’t lend on non-LEED buildings. And it’s not even a law but a voluntary commitment that has acquired public acceptance and the support of banks.
There are many other promising measures of a culture undergoing a significant conversion to a new and greener future of greater efficiency and sustainability. Something is happening. Bob Teeter, President George H. W. Bush’s pollster, used to amass data which he said indicated that the environment as a deep and lasting concern had entered the core values of the American people. And the green shoots are plentiful enough that even though the law may lag behind, the culture is changing.
Senator Moynihan, whose advice to me as I embarked on my EPA career was so astute, had something important to say about culture and law. He said, “In some 40 years of government work, I have learned one thing for certain . . . the central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself. Thanks to this interaction, we’re a better society in nearly all respects than we were.”
In my own career I have seen culture drive politics as in the environment in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and politics drive culture as in the history of civil rights. At the present time the culture is racing ahead of politics on many measures of what we now call “sustainability.” Major corporations have vice presidents for sustainability, monitor their energy efficiency and carbon footprint, and publish annual sustainability reports. Companies accounting for $3 trillion in revenues have committed to eliminate deforestation in procurement of agricultural commodities. In developing climate policy and forest protections, particularly as food needs occasioned by malnutrition and population growth press against all manner of productive lands, we will need wide participation of the economic sector, the redesign of trade law, close adherence to mainstream science, and a respectful regard for diverse interests and opinions. A few years ago I was asked to help China develop a new EPA.
After I had gone through a careful statement about the way our Clean Air Act worked with delegation and state implementation plans and the rest, I was asked a question by one of the people who were actually going to write the new environmental laws. The question was, “How did you get the states to pay attention to what you did and said when you were at EPA? They pay no attention at all to us in Beijing.” And I said, “Well, we could cut off highway funds.” They said, “What else?” “We had the courts.” “Hmm, no.” “We had a very vigorous and focused press.” “What else have you got?” We had non-governmental organizations that were very active and energetic. After I had run out the string, a young woman from WWF China rose, a Chinese woman, and said, “Mr. Reilly, you might remind the audience of your voluntary programs—Energy Star, Green Lights, 33/50, and so forth.”
When I did that, the Chinese officials became very excited and the Chinese did, in fact, prescribe goals in a voluntary program, first with the 1,000 biggest companies, now the top 10,000, which is having a significant impact. In designing the program they asked me, “What did you give those companies that responded to you when they were successful in accommodating your objectives under your voluntary program?”
And I said, “Well, we gave them a flag to fly over their plant and a very nice letter from me.” They thought that could work. And apparently it does. Countries will find different culturally appropriate paths to progress. And we can help them.
That experience in China reminds me how very much it took to move our country on the environment. Those of us in government had a lot of help. One has to hope that other countries will eventually get the kind of help we had.
As I look back over the many positions I’ve held—and I haven’t recounted them all in this talk—I have to conclude that a continuing theme for me has been the need to unify our culture and our politics in constructive ways, not always successfully perhaps but not for want of trying. The turning points in my career reflect this lifelong interest. What I have most valued in hiring, in mentors, in colleagues, is Enthusiasm. What we must aspire to and continue to work for is to bring together culture and politics. Only thus will our work last.
In the words of Robert Frost,
“But yield who will to their separation
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight
Only where love and need are one
And the work is play for mortal stakes
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.”