Interview conducted by Wendy Gordon for OnEarth Magazine
Actress Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance in The Iron Lady “nails the former prime minister’s look, sound, and spirit,” according to a former co-worker of Margaret Thatcher’s. Streep is renowned for her ability to transform herself into a character. But few know about her real-life roles as a transformative environmental health activist, geothermal energy pioneer, and veggie-pushing mother.
This queen of Hollywood, nominated for 17 Academy Awards (winner of two), went green well before it was in vogue and speaks fondly of her grandmother’s recycling habits and her parents’ resourcefulness. When I first met Meryl in 1988, she had recently returned from filming A Cry in the Dark in Australia. She had been there when the ozone hole had been found over the continent. The discovery, along with maternal concerns for the health of her then three children, pushed Meryl toward activism. She soon began helping the Natural Resource Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth) to raise awareness for environmental issues.
In the late eighties, Alar — a growth regulator used on apples — became a household name, invoking worries about toxins found on fruits and vegetables. After NRDC published the Alar report, Meryl and I worked together to create Mothers & Others, a campaign to rally citizens in the fight for tougher pesticide standards. Such standards now help protect infants and young children, who are particularly vulnerable to pesticide residues. The campaign had been transformational, using the power of the consumer to change the marketplace. And Meryl, of course, was a scene-stealer in the movement. She connected the dots for people, brought it home, and made it personal.
I caught up with Meryl last year in a quiet tea room in New York City.
What first drew you to environmental health issues?
Humans are very self-interested. I became interested in all these things when I was consciously feeding a baby and had a sense that everything you do is going to have an outcome further down the road. So I was very conscious to try to do the right thing and do well by our kids. Being naturally sort of slovenly, I had to sit up and pay attention, because I really think about my work most of the time. When kids came into the picture, everything I read made me think “Yes, you are right, You are right.” Everything we now know about the developing brain and young children reminds us that the first things, even in utero, that you introduce into their little fragile developing systems bear an outcome later on.
And now after 22 years, moms are still on the front lines in these fights for healthier products and lifestyles.
Absolutely. In a way it’s like going to mass. They may say the same thing every week, but you have to go back and hear it over and over again. Knowledge must be passed to each successive generation.
Are you still a label reader? I remember you once saying that consumers need to be like chemists or toxicologists when they go shopping.
I was being facetious to make a point. There are so many thousands of chemicals used to make our everyday products. Most of these have not been adequately tested for their effects on health. If I were a new mother now and trying to figure out what nipple to put on a bottle, I would be reading all these things. I’d find out what BPA is, and I’d read about endocrine mimickers. I do lament that I didn’t know anything about the problems with plastics when my oldest was born.
I have such a wide range of kids. My oldest is 12 years older than the youngest. When Henry was little I was throwing these bottles in the microwaves, the way we all were. I don’t think you ever stop being worried. So I did all those things, and then stopped by the time the last one came along. I think I weaned her from the breast to the cup pretty much, and she didn’t really have a lot of bottles. But she had those plastic suckies, the pacifiers, with the phthalates
I try not to buy plastic bottles anymore. When I do, I look at the bottom to see if it’s recyclable. But I think a faster way and the way the market really responds to is to name the brand that is good. If you draw people to a brand, the other brands get the picture. Don’t tell people to turn the product over where there’s all that small print. The short cut is to say “You know what, this brand is good” and draw traffic to it.
Informing and engaging concerned consumers is why we created Mothers & Others.
Yes, and that’s why we called it Mothers & Others. Frankly, it is the mother with her child. That’s the most invested relationship. It makes us pause a moment and look deeply into these things. The other side of life rushes head long into the new technology and then they go, “oh whoops,” ten years later. Mothers are the brakes on the car, a good thing to have, not just the accelerator. And that’s why it has to be non-profit media bringing this information to people, because with for-profits this is never going to be the sexy story. They will always go after Brangelina. This is what we care about.
Speaking of the media, profit motives, and non-profits needing to sound alarms on health and environmental threats, I want to ask you about the campaign that sought to de-legitimize the science behind NRDC’s Alar report. It was complicated to be sure, but why do you think the media seemed to fix on the propaganda story of the “Alar Scare” but largely ignored how the report’s benefits of better pesticide regulations and more informed consumers?
The press got it totally wrong, thanks to the Elizabeth Whelan and ACSH’s (American Council for Science and Health) propaganda machine, about “the Alar scare.” But the truth did get through to consumers. It was an incredible turning point. The actions [of that year] did change how pesticides are regulated, how tolerances are set. And we still have delicious apples, right? They just are grown without Alar. It is only used on flowers now.
It’s interesting. Elizabeth Whelan resurfaced when I did a lot of the press for Julie & Julia. You may recall in the film, Julie (played by Amy Adams) approached Julia Child and Julia was so cranky and didn’t like her. It reminded me of the time when we approached Julia Child to join our campaign back in 1989. I never met her in person, but I tried to enlist her in our effort. She was extremely dismissive. She actually was a mouthpiece for Elizabeth Whelan’s group. I said that ACSH was a front for industry, agrichemical industries, and that everybody’s not necessarily looking out for America’s health and welfare. Julia went nuts. She was mad. She said “well buh buh buh, this is not a front for industry, we have many reputable scientists on our board, and blah, blah, blah. You know saying the same old thing that isn’t true.
I’d forgotten about that. Is there a takeaway from Julie & Julia that relates to our concerns about food, environment, and health?
The idea of real food. If it makes your mouth water, generally you know it’s probably ok. I guess a Big Mac makes your mouth water … Her [Julia's] message was you can eat butter and all these things we’ve been taught to fear, but as long as it’s a little bit. Moderation and portion size, portion size, portion size — that’s the difference. That’s the whole thing. It’s all about moderation, and real food, you know food that is recognizable.
What should people be most mindful of today?
The shopping. Before you take your food home, you need to consider where it comes from. It’s about being a careful consumer, with thoughtfulness applied to every decision. The idea that your food budget is a really important thing may be as important as your cable budget. Maybe you don’t need 20 channels of ESPN. Maybe you spend less over here, so you can spend more on healthier, safer foods. Some foods may be more expensive, but they’re cheaper in the long run. It’s all about the long run, in my view.
You can also save money by cooking more at home. Do you buy mostly organic? Local?
Yes. I buy organic, though not everything. I buy local mostly. I live in the city. I go to the farmers’ market. I do shop at Whole Foods, but I shop at my local Food Emporium, which carries a lot of things they didn’t used to, which is sort of wonderful. I remember back in the olden days when I had to drive 45 minutes just for apples that were not sprayed.
Do you eat meat? Do you pay attention to what kinds of meat?
I pay attention to everything, Wendy. Yes, I eat meat. I really like meat. I eat much less of it, though. I try to get grass-fed, organic beef, the bison burgers I like. Some of those are good. All the sourcing questions that Mothers & Others trained me to ask back in the nineties; I pay attention to all of it.
Didn’t you help set up a CSA when you were living in Connecticut?
We set up a CSA, and a food co-op and all those things. We still have a food co-op up there, but the food that we want is pretty much available. The farmers are growing it. They’ve been encouraged by the market. There’s been more attention paid.
A few of NRDC’s Facebook fans had some questions for you, too. Donna Edwards wrote: “I loved her in the movie Julie & Julia. She would be great to help those fighting GMOs and the impact they have on children’s health and the soil.” Do you avoid GMOs?
I try to, but I’m unresolved about the science. I am still reading about it. But while they fight it — the scientists — I do try to not buy stuff that is genetically modified as much as I can. You kind of can avoid GMO products, by buying labeled products, but as we know there is drift, from field to field. We have relatives in Indiana. There’s an organic farm and right next to it a farm that is not organic … it’s hard to imagine how they can keep it pristine. But we all do as best as we can.
Another Facebook friend, Aimee Lynn Fahey, asks: “I would like to know how she lives eco in her own life. Does she have a giant mansion like most Hollywood folks who drive Priuses yet live in huge energy suckers, or…? How does she live green and what has she taught her children about respecting the earth?”
I think I live in a big house. I live in a much smaller house than most movie stars. I now live in an apartment in the city. But we still have a house in Connecticut, which we’ve had for 23 years and lived in full time while raising our kids. We just put in a geothermal heating system up there, which is fantastic. In a nutshell, we have a pond, and the [geothermal piping] goes into the part of the pond that is deep enough that it doesn’t freeze. It takes water from that deep part and brings it up to where it is freezing, and the differential is what creates energy and pumps it into the house. It’s an amazing thing. We have supplemental propane to get it going because we keep the temperature very, very low when we are not there. And then when we come up there, the propane will kick it into a temperature that people are not complaining about.
The house was not thoughtfully designed. It’s up in the North, and it was designed by a Southern architect, who really didn’t understand how cold it gets. And so, one whole side is glass and the other whole side, which is the eastern and southern side, is closed off. It’s sort of reversed to what it should be. But now we have the geothermal, it’s really great. We don’t pay for heat.
And as for what you taught your children?
Mothering is full of boring things, full of things that you say that they remember only 20 years later. You see it now with my own kids. All they wanted was Fruit Loops and crap, but they don’t want that now. Information went in somehow, even though on their face in the moment they were going “I hate you.” It comes back later. You just have to have faith that it will.
You know for me, it’s about the simple stuff, the basics: teaching them to use their imagination rather than play a video game, teaching them to go outside, showing them where the door is.
Speaking of the basics, we’ve invited our readers to join a discussion about our throwaway society, American habits and values, the ways of our parents and grandparents, and the wisdom we can learn from them. Are you ever reminded of what your parents or grandparents used to do or say?
My parents were children of the depression. My grandparents really suffered during the Depression and had a hard, hard time. My grandmother saved every single piece of aluminum foil, and she’d make a ball that would grow and grow and grow. Each time she needed some she’d pull off the outer skin and use it again, as if it were an onion. I don’t do this, but it is a mindset and it went into my little brain. I sort of think like that. I think what the problem might be for people now is that they … we grew up in a time of plenty, throwaway, and built in obsolescence. How do we get rid of all these electronics devices, computers, and TV screens that are just proliferating? That’s our main thing that we consume, and they are piling up and being picked apart by children in Africa, who are getting cadmium poisoning and everything from it. We have to be more responsible, and we have to hold all these so-called good guys who make all these things — the evolved Californians from Silicon Valley — responsible for the things they make.
In your view, what truly motivates individuals to action?
I think it is always personal. It’s a combination of what you have been taught. In my own case, my parents carefulness with their resources translates to me. Even though I have the ability to buy a vast amount of stuff that I want, I don’t really want a vast amount of stuff. And the stuff that I do want, I want it to be really good and good for my kids. I think altruism is lovely, but I think self-interest is what motivates people.
This interview was originally published in OnEarth Magazine.
Wendy Gordon has been a leader in the green consumer movement for two decades. She founded Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet, a pioneering consumer outreach organization, and Green Guide, the go-to resource for the eco-conscious consumer.