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Can Hollywood Save the World?

by Gretel Schueller

Tinseltown is going green. The characters in Home Improvement discuss emissions trading. A West Wing episode centers around energy efficiency and garbage disposal. The cast of Friends pours milk out of reusable glass bottles. Daughter Cassie on Family Law conducts an energy audit of her family for Earth Day, prompting mom to trade her sport-utility vehicle for a hybrid. From props to plots, Hollywood is getting greener, thanks to the Environmental Media Association, a four-person nonprofit in Los Angeles.

“You have to realize that people sit in their chairs, and every week these television shows come into their lives,” says Patie Maloney, director of special projects at EMA. These programs can be incredibly powerful. As an example, she points to Jennifer Aniston of Friends. “Every time she cuts her hair, within twenty-four hours everyone is in the beauty shops trying to copy it. If a haircut can do that, you can also have recycling bins in kitchens or electric vehicles in driveways.”

EMA is the brainchild of two Hollywood power couples: Lyn and Norman Lear, and Cindy and Alan Horn. Norman Lear broke television ground in the 1970s producing the series All in the Family, one of the earliest shows to address racism, sexism, and other hot-button issues. Alan Horn is chief operating officer of Warner Brothers. In the late 1980s, when both couples were expecting their first children, they started thinking about the world they’d be bringing their sons and daughters into--and decided to put the power of the entertainment media to work for the environment.

Since its creation in 1989, the Environmental Media Association has become a major Hollywood player. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that its board members--like Michael Eisner, John Travolta, Jane Fonda, Wendie Malick, and Ed Begley Jr.--have clout, and that Hollywood is famously predisposed to support traditionally liberal causes.

When a writer needs statistics or help with fact-checking, or a set designer needs assistance tracking down props, such as Earth Day posters or curbside recycling bins from the actual town in which a shoot takes place, they call EMA. In addition, the group holds several well-attended workshops each year on key environmental issues.

The group’s most important work, however, comes out of one-on-one meetings with writers and producers. Like door-to-door salesmen, the staff pitches tailored story ideas, characters, and stage sets with environmental themes that can be subtly woven into existing story lines. Because television episodes and films devoted entirely to environmental issues (like Erin Brockovich) are rare, the group focuses on subplots, such as a conversation in a coffee room. One example of EMA’s outreach is the Nash Bridges character Harvey Leek, who drove an electric roadster part of one season and refers to conventional cars as “gas guzzlers.”

Sometimes, however, the prop just speaks for itself. That’s because producers take pains to make sure every set is realistic, explains EMA’s Jennifer DePeralta. So putting recycled paper next to the copy machine and using mugs instead of disposable cups at the coffeemaker, she says, “are all ways to get viewers to think about these things and see that something like recycling can be routine behavior.”

DePeralta’s group also offers the perfect Hollywood-style incentive: a gala awards ceremony complete with a gourmet dinner of organic food and wine. At the tenth annual EMA awards last December, the 700-plus guest list included actors Sharon Stone and Chevy Chase and talk-show host Bill Maher.

EMA also looks at the way shows and films are actually produced. Called “the Greening of Hollywood,” this effort is aimed at the people behind the scenes--camera operators, set constructors, production assistants--to reduce backstage waste by reusing sets, printing daily script revisions on both sides of the sheet, using recycled paper, and so on.

The green crusade is paying off. “The number of shows and movies with environmental themes has increased over the years, and part of it is because of advocacy groups like EMA,” says Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. According to Kaplan, using fictional vehicles like serial dramas is far more effective than simply airing public-service ads. “When people are caught up in a story, they tend to pay more attention to those kinds of messages.”

Those plugs don’t have to compromise plot or character. “The actors, the directors, the writers--they’re all stepping up to the plate and realizing this is a very easy thing to do,” says Maloney. It’s a good thing too, she adds. “We realize that thirty years of hard work could really be set back with the Bush administration.” It’s an irony of the times that people could do better for the earth by following the lead of fictional characters instead of their president.

For more information about the EMA, go to


Unnatural Edibles

Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers by Ronnie Cummins and Ben Lilliston (Marlowe, $12.95; online at

Like it or not, “you and your family are now part of a vast culinary and biological experiment--dining on an expanded menu of genetically engineered foods,” warn authors Cummins and Lilliston, of the Organic Consumers Association and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, respectively. If you’re uncomfortable with being a guinea pig but frustrated with the difficulty of making informed choices about genetically engineered foods because none of them are labeled, you’ll find this book to be a useful guide.

Exploring the current debates on the health and environmental risks of biotech foods, the authors present research on U.S. food companies’ use of genetically engineered ingredients. They list the foods and brands that do not contain genetically engineered material and expose those that do. “The debate over genetically engineered foods and crops may last decades,” the authors note. “However, as Europe has shown, the ultimate arbiter of power . . . is the consumer.” By providing the tools to find out exactly who is engineering what foods, they are equipping consumers to engage in a policy debate that has been dominated by corporate PR echoed by a gullible press (see “Spinning Science Into Gold,” page 40). If the government ever gets the nerve to properly monitor and regulate the biotech industry, it could start by demanding that food labels contain the sort of information presented in this book.
--Debbie Ortman

First Fruit: The Creation of the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Food by Brenda Martineau (McGraw-Hill, $24.95)

This tell-all biography of a tomato differs from much popular criticism of genetic engineering--it’s by an industry insider. Geneticist Brenda Martineau, who joined Calgene Incorporated in 1988 to build a better tomato through biotech, was clearly enthralled by her research. Her enthusiasm for genetic science contrasts sharply with her less than savory tale of genetic business. An attempt to corner the $4-billion-a-year fresh-tomato business was the main motive of the company’s founders. Executives kept the scientists working overtime, Martineau says, because “it was important to impress Campbell Soup in order to keep those contract revenues rolling in.” (Campbell was scouting for produce to enhance its expansion into fresh foods.) The promise of Flavr Savr was not higher yield or pest resistance, but better flavor than tomatoes picked green to withstand 2,000-mile shipping. Equipped with a gene to inhibit a fruit-softening protein, the new tomato’s longer shelf life permitted harvest at a riper, redder stage. It took almost a decade of work by a team of scientists, intensive safety testing by government agencies, and millions in investment and research-contract money before this “miracle” could be marketed.

The tomato may have tasted better, Martineau says, according to “anecdotal evidence” from taste tests. But Calgene’s losses were so heavy it couldn’t supply enough tomatoes, and it was sold to Monsanto--which dropped the tomato business, keeping only its canola and cotton engineering.

Critics who claim that the biotech food industry benefits corporate agribusiness and misallocates scientific resources will find plenty of support for their arguments here. The tomato’s main purpose was to serve huge transnational markets. And the costly effort to craft it arguably resulted in a smaller contribution to tomato culture than publications like Organic Gardening manage to assemble in one issue.

Despite its problems, at least this biotech tomato passed rigorous safety tests, and brochures in stores explained its genetic engineering. Martineau is troubled that other engineered foods don’t face equally tough scrutiny, and she calls for detailed labeling of biotech foods: “Since I am opposed to neither technological innovations generally nor agricultural biotechnology particularly, I need more information.” This would include labeling for Bt toxin and other biological additives, such as proteins from inserted genes. Martineau may get her wish if stories like hers can counter the self-praise from the industry flacks that she candidly portrays.
--Bob Schildgen


DNA Denial

Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food produced by Britt Bailey, written by Marc Lappé, The Video Project, (831) 336-0160

Building on their book of the same title, Lappé and Bailey show planes laying down clouds of pesticide on green fields marked with Keep Out signs. The message is that almost half of the genetic engineering of food crops is dedicated to making them tolerant to herbicides, not to improved yield. If a greater volume of the poisons can be sprayed, companies that make the herbicides will prosper.

This, they say, explains why chemical giants such as Monsanto have bought up many of the nation’s biggest seed companies. Contrasting the European resistance to biotech food with Americans’ general indifference, they show angry British activists digging up altered plants and placing them in bags marked with hazardous-waste warnings. While most Americans probably aren’t inclined to take such aggressive steps, stories like this might jolt them out of passive acceptance of biotech “wonders.”
--Bob Schildgen


Beat the Heat

by Sierra Club Webmaster, Mike Papciak

The dog days of summer are here. So how do you keep cool without contributing to greenhouse gases and the depletion of fossil fuels or facing skyrocketing utility prices and even blackouts?

Start with the comprehensive site run by the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network (EREN), where you can read about renewable-energy options like hydrogen fuel cells and harnessing tidal movement for power. Take note of the site's resources for consumers, where you'll learn how to keep homes, businesses, schools, and transportation as green as possible. A section on financing helps you calculate the costs of your efficiency efforts, or click on "Ask an Energy Expert" to submit questions to EREN specialists.

California's power woes focused the nation's attention on energy earlier this year, so check out Pacific Gas & Electric's site for dozens of good tips on conservation. The utility's "1-2-3" program neatly divides efficiencies into no-cost, low-cost, and no-holds-barred categories. Still more useful information on quick and inexpensive energy solutions can be found at the California Energy Commission's site, and from the Sierra Club.

To find emissions data on every possible appliance, calculate your energy consumption and personal contribution to pollution, or commune with fellow eco-geeks, click on the entertaining site of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, The EPA presents information on the best and brightest appliances, office products, and even homes on its Energy Star site. And to keep abreast of the latest energy news or to give your house a "Home Energy Checkup," go to the helpful site run by the Alliance to Save Energy.

What about changing how we as a society use energy? The Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy at www.dcs. lets you access a wealth of information on the laws, policies, and financial incentives of green-energy programs in your home state.

Finally, if all the grim energy news leaves you hot and bothered, click on for the ultimate quick-cooling techniques.

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