Living Simply with Ed Begley, Jr.
“We all need to live simply so that others can simply live,” says actor and
eco-activist Ed Begley, Jr. “It’s something we have to do now more than ever.”
On his new HGTV show Living With Ed, Begley hopes to show us the way.
Actress Rachelle Carson wants to take a long, hot shower. But her husband, the quirky, eco-obsessed actor Ed Begley, Jr., isn’t about to let that happen. Armed with a stopwatch outside the bathroom door, Begley is timing Rachelle’s shower, tracking her hot water usage, and calling out good-natured taunts about how many gallons of water she’s wasting. Despite the steps Rachelle’s taken to meet a higher environmental standard, living with Ed isn’t easy.
“I like my creature comforts, but I’m very aware of water consumption,” Rachelle tells Energy Times, given the opportunity to defend her long-shower transgression. “I do turn the water off when I’m not using it. But there are things that you have to accomplish in the shower, and a woman takes longer than a man sometimes. I don’t have a hot tub. I don’t have a pool. I’m not a water glutton.” Rachelle’s water awareness, laudable in an industry known for self-indulgence, nonetheless falls short of Ed’s lofty conservation goals—and so goes the life of the wife of Hollywood’s most committed environmentalist.
Perhaps best known for his role on the 1980s hit hospital drama St. Elsewhere, Begley, a six-time Emmy Award nominee, has since moved easily among a diverse array of feature film and television projects. But the affable actor’s true passion is environmentalism. An adamant eco- warrior, Begley has been working to save the planet since 1970: He drives an electric car, charges his cellphone with a solar-powered backpack, owns modern windmill farms to offset his carbon footprint and even rides his bicycle to the Academy Awards.
Nowhere is Begley’s dedication to the environment more evident than in his ultra-efficient solar-powered home, which he calls “the root of my existence and the core of my essence.” With such a label, any complaints Rachelle may have about the eco-home lifestyle are bound to offend Ed—and in that contentious-yet-loving matrimonial convergence of normal American consumption vs. fanatical conservation, Home & Garden Television Network (HGTV) has found the raw materials for entertaining reality television. Living With Ed, HGTV’s new family docu-soap set in this modest, unique Hollywood home, explores sustainable living from both perspectives, documenting the friction between Ed’s perpetual quest for simplification and Rachelle’s desire for a more luxurious lifestyle.
Begley’s lush backyard garden, for example, is a portrait of the best eco-practices; it is here that he grows organic vegetables, cooks in a solar-powered oven and collects rainwater in barrels for irrigation. But where Begley sees environmental masterpieces, Rachelle sees inconvenient eyesores. She calls Begley’s movable solar oven the “bane of her existence,” closely followed by “Those god-awful rain barrels…I’m not kidding,” Rachelle laments, “They’re really ugly. And I don’t want them! But the aesthetics issue...I’ve fought Ed, he’s fought me and we’ve both compromised in that area.”
Beneath Living With Ed’s humorous, fast-paced peek into sustainable living’s impact on family dynamics runs a solar-powered current of practical advice on how to achieve a green, clean-energy way of life. HGTV.com complements the show with video clips from Begley that provide money-saving tips on how to make homes more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient. And, further exemplifying Begley’s environmental mission, even the show’s production is a green operation that uses hybrid vehicles and recycled materials, and taps solar power to charge cellphones and cameras.
But will saving the environment end up destroying Ed and Rachelle’s marriage? “I don’t know that you have enough time for me to list the sacrifices I’ve made to make this marriage work,” Rachelle laughs. “I’m certainly not your ‘Eco-Woman,’ you know...I’m an average person. If I can do these things, then anyone can.” Despite downplaying her environmental activism, Rachelle must end her conversation with Energy Times because she’s attending a green Golden Globe party thrown by the Environmental Media Association. On her way out the door, Rachelle hands the phone over to the love of her life, well worth her sacrifices: Ed Begley, Jr.
Energy Times: What’s your take on Living With Ed?
Ed Begley, Jr.: The thing I like best about this show is that we’re not just preaching to the converted. That’s the problem with a lot of environmental shows...nobody watches. They say “Oh, the environment, I don’t want to know about that...that’s for people with Birkenstocks—that’s not for me.” If we can make the show entertaining and feature somebody like Rachelle, who’s “normal,” people respond to that. They sympathize with Rachelle living with a guy who rides his bicycle to generate power to make toast. Home & Garden TV is a perfect fit for us, because people try what they see on it. Hopefully, they’ll watch a solar oven work and then go get one.
ET: The chemistry between you and Rachelle on Living With Ed is fascinating...she’s made compromises for you, why don’t you talk about the compromises you’ve made for her.
EB: You know, when I was single I could live here in my house powered by the sun on $100 worth of solar energy a year. Now I’ve got my wife and our child sharing the house...she has things I’ve never heard of, a blow dryer, a curling iron...what are these things? Extra energy is consumed, lights left on when I’m not here, televisions left on...it’s a whole different life. I’ve had to compromise; now I buy $600 a year worth of green power from the Los Angeles green power program because my solar panels are no longer enough.
ET: Is a fully solar-powered house attainable for everyone, or is it a huge initial investment that might discourage people?
EB: It’s a huge initial investment...that’s why I encourage people to pick the low-hanging fruit first. The first thing you should do is buy compact fluorescent bulbs, buy an energy-saving thermostat, ride your bicycle if you can, take public transportation, grow some vegetables in your backyard or join a community garden. Composting, recycling...all these things are quite inexpensive. You save money; maybe then you can afford a solar oven. You save money from that, now maybe you can afford solar hot water. You save money from that, maybe you can afford a hybrid car, an electric car or solar electricity. You start small and build. I’m no millionaire, but I’ve got something as good as having a lot of money...I don’t need a lot of money. Every month, my bills get lower and lower.
ET: Why are so many people close-minded to environmental pursuits?
EB: I think there’s a misconception that to be an environmentalist, you have to live in a teepee and be shivering on a rock somewhere. There are people that live a much simpler lifestyle than me and I applaud them...they’re doing great things, saving a lot more energy than me. I have a cell phone and a computer and a fax machine...I need those things for now. But I’ve tried to keep this consumerism very much in check. I try to buy something good, make it last as long as possible. I hope to spread the word that all I’ve done is not just good for the environment, it’s money in my pocket—it’s good for my bottom line.
ET: Is it good for your soul?
EB: It is. The life that I live is quite grand by world standards. A 1,700-square-foot house on a very small parcel in Los Angeles—I find that to be a palace. Most Hollywood people come here and they look at this place like it’s a shack. So yes, it is good for my soul. I always try to do more. I’ve come as far as I can in 2007 to simplify as much as I can...but I know I’m going to learn something new this year, hopefully several things that will further simplify my life.
ET: Do you think people will ever realize that they’re being wasteful by consuming so much?
EB: I think like an alcoholic bottoms out on alcohol, consumers have started to bottom out on consumerism. We had a free conference at USC recently for Seeds of Simplicity, a voluntary simplicity movement group...people were lined up outside to get in. There’s a great hunger for this. People find themselves working two jobs, trying to make more money; chasing what they feel is their dream. Then they finally sit down one day and say, “What is this dream? Wait a minute! What I’m working harder for is a second home, a third DVD player, a third car...But that isn’t what I really want.” What people really want is to spend more time with their family, to spend more time painting or playing the flute or whatever it is that brings them joy. People are getting fed up with the orgy of consumerism, and they try to do less. That’s the great thing about the voluntary simplicity movement: All are welcome.
ET: The pursuit of human cleanliness is making the world dirty through toxic cleaners, long showers, washing clothes wantonly. Can you talk about Begley’s Best cleaning products and this ironic paradox of human cleanliness?
EB: I think people have a notion of cleanliness that’s unreasonable. No matter how you clean things, there’s a lot of germs in the world that you’re not going to get rid of...nor should you. A lot of bacteria are essential to your well-being. I’m not suggesting not washing your hands, but there’s got to be a limit. And though I made these wonderful non-toxic Begley’s Best cleaning products to help raise money for some good causes (including Coalition for Clean Air, Midnight Mission, Rainforest Action Network, Project GreenHouse and the Humane Society) I urge people to first and foremost not use them—use baking soda, use vinegar and water, use the simplest thing that you can make at home.
ET: What do you do to minimize the environmental impact of food consumption?
EB: I’m a vegetarian; I eat very low in the food chain. It simply takes a lot more land and energy and water to raise a pound of beef than it does a pound of grain. I haven’t had red meat since 1970; I became a vegetarian years ago. I feel very good, I feel healthy. Whatever you eat, it should feel good...I think if we ate a more plant-based diet it would be very good environmentally as well, unquestionably—it just takes less water, less land and less energy to grow broccoli than beef.
ET: But even agriculture has its own pollution ramifications, right?
EB: Yes, big time. I think we need to, wherever possible, grow food ourselves. If you can’t, be part of a community garden. Farmer’s markets are also a good bet. People that have them should patronize them; people that don’t should try to organize one. This wonderful farmer’s market organic produce that’s locally grown is cheaper than stuff you buy at a regular market with pesticides on it. Locally grown produce, of course, also reduces the pollution from transportation of foods across long distances. The average distance food takes to get to our tables now is 1,000 miles. Buy locally grown, buy organic, and you’ll help a lot.
ET: The film Who Killed the Electric Car shed light on the controversy surrounding mass production of electric vehicles...but you had an electric car as early as 1970.
EB: Yes...it was a good car, tailor-done, and I drove it for about a year...I sold it when I moved to Colorado, where I instead rode a Peugeot bicycle. Then in 1990 I started driving electric cars again; they had come a long way and I had a little Subaru that someone had converted to electric...I bought it for $1,750. Then I converted it into a freeway machine by putting another $2,500 into it. So for $4,200, I had a car that was good for getting around L.A. I also had a VW Rabbit converted to electric...I drove it for four years for literally no cost. No oil change, no lube, no valve job, no tune-up, no gasoline, no fuel costs ‘cause I was charging it on my solar. After four years, I sold it for exactly what I paid for it.
ET: What kind of car do you drive these days?
EB: I have a Toyota RAV4—it’s a pure electric vehicle. Rachelle has a Toyota Prius hybrid, which I’ll borrow for long-distance driving. Driving to Pittsburgh in the hybrid is cheaper than flying, with less pollution...and I enjoy taking my time and slowing down. All these environmental problems are coming from consumption, but consumption is a function of what? Of rushing! “Give it to me quick, I want more stuff and I want it right away!” We need to slow down and enjoy the moments, rather than these highly caffeinated people that are rushing around...where are they going? They’re running around like they’re insane; they’re honking and impatient...leave earlier for God’s sake! What is this madness of honking at somebody? You’d need some sort of extremely accurate atomic clock to measure the shortest amount of time recorded, which is from when a light turns green to when somebody honks at you in Los Angeles. It’s insane!
ET: What does energy mean to you?
EB: All energy is solar energy. I’m powered by solar energy. Coal is solar energy; it’s just stored in coal. Oil is solar energy; it’s stored in the oil. But why would we ever want to use all that up in a quick 200-year bender...and have nothing left for the millions of years it took to make it? That’s the nuttiest thing I’ve ever heard. All energy is solar energy. That’s where it all came from, it just manifested in different forms. And it needs to be revered and conserved.
ET: If the Earth is one giant, living organism, then humankind is like a harmful virus. Do you think we’re dangerously close to triggering some kind of immune response from the Earth as a living being?
EB: Yeah, I think the Earth will always find balance and though I would very much like for us to have a longer presence on this planet...that may not be in the cards. If we continue to act irresponsibly, it’s not just our species that will suffer; many, many species will go down with us. The earth isn’t just a big piece of rock. It is, as you suggest, much more...a living entity that has a great deal of life that sprung from it, all fueled by the sun. It will go through many different changes; it has already. But I’d like this wonderful experience to last as long as possible, not just for us, but for all other species.
ET: Do you take any supplements?
EB: My wife has a sea of supplements that she takes...me, if I start to feel a tickle in my throat, I go right for the wellness formula and boom, it knocks it out right away, every time. It’s amazing. I’ve had a doctor say “That’s psychosomatic; that can’t do anything or have any effect.” First of all, I don’t think that’s true, but even if it is psychosomatic what do I care how it works...it works!
ET: Can you talk about how physical health and well-being correlates with environmentally sound practices?
EB: If I’m doing things right, I’m getting on my bike in the morning, I’m riding up from where I live in Studio City to Mulholland, around to Franklin Canyon lake, and back home. I’m in tune; I’m of sound mind and body, I’m eating right, I’m feeling right and I’m centered. If I’m not, I just feel out of whack and I can’t do as good a job creatively in any way. My health is very important to me, and that means diet and exercise. We can get so wrapped up in our quest to save the environment that we’re on the computer too long, sending and receiving emails, faxes and letters...but at some point you need to put the mouse back on the little pad, get on your bike, put on your hiking shoes and get out there to the outdoors.
For more information on Living With Ed, including show schedules, energy conservation ideas and video clips of Ed’s Top Ten Tips for Going Green, visit the Home and Garden Television Network website at www.HGTV.com.