Green Machine: Q&A with Amanda Griscom Little

News about the environment and global warming has never been, well, hotter—so Outside enlisted Amanda Griscom Little, one of environmental reporting's leading young voices, to sort through it all. In her debut Code Green column, "Always Low Prices—and Now Eco-Accountability?" Little takes an honest look at Wal-Mart and the retail giant's leadership in the corporate eco-movement. Tom Tiberio spoke to Little about Wal-Mart, the future of the environmental movement, and how she'd eco-pimp her ride.

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Amanda Griscom Little

Amanda Griscom Little

What's the biggest challenge facing environmentalists today?
The biggest issue on the horizon is how to diversify the constituency of the environmental movement, which is now so overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly older. What we need now in the face of these growing problems are people who feel they can solve them.

It's an interesting backdrop for Code Green.
There's a new generation of products, concepts and clearly a new generation of problems. The way that industry and environmentalists are responding to those problems is very different today than the kind of responses we've seen in the past. The energy problems that we're facing represent the single biggest industrial opportunity that the United States—and the world—has ever faced.

You're dealing with issues that are so pressing and give rise to such drastic consequences. How do you distinguish reporting from activism?
I don't consider myself an environmental activist in the traditional sense—I consider myself an observer. I don't feel so much a part of the movement as an observer of the movement. I think that simply telling the story and observing is my contribution.

What's the craziest thing you've ever done to get a story?
I took a boat-ride out to the biggest commercial windmill installation in the world, off the coast of Ireland. While the boat was being rocked by 100-mile-hour winds and massive 14-foot waves, I reached out and touched the base of this 400-foot windmill. I just wanted to get that experience of being among them, seeing these science-fiction monoliths at work.

How did you get started in this beat?
I came into my writing career as a technology reporter. As a kid, I never was a member of the girl scouts or nature clubs. I never really had any environmental leanings. I came into the issues of sustainability and the environment through my fascination with technology. The more work I did, the more I realized that the single most fascinating development on the technological horizon was finding a way to reconcile nature and commerce.

So how are we doing as a country to reconcile the two?
I think in recent decades we've seen some of our competitors, in Europe and Japan, innovating faster than we are. The United States has grown so lazy resting on its fossil-fuel laurels that it hasn't really been innovating.

Let's talk about global warming for a second. It can be pretty frightening.
The scariest thing is either defeatism or ignorance. 'It's too late'—that's defeatism. If we're going down, we better go down fighting. The ignorance concern—this idea that we're going to spend our time researching whether more resources exist—is just absolutely missing the point. The point is that it doesn't matter if we have a thousand more years left of oil. Our luck with oil has run out.

Some have said that we've passed the point of no return when it comes to protecting the environment.
Certainly we're slow to respond, and we're going to feel the consequences of that—of our sort of lead-footed myopia, our inability to see what lies ahead. That said, no, I don't think it's too late. And I think it's a moot question. One that we don't have the privilege of asking. There's a lot of despondency and apocalyptic chatter going on in the world, but there is also a tremendous array of solutions. There isn't a whole lot of time to waste on the doom and gloom and the kind of woe is me stuff that we've heard in the past. Any moment spent wondering whether it's too late is a moment lost.

What do you do to counteract the pessimism?
I'm just a tireless optimist. I really am astounded by the spectrum of solutions and innovations that are emerging alongside the problems. The optimism that I feel about these concerns is what I'm gleaning from a lot of the rising generation of environmental innovators. I have been struck by the tenor and the cadence of the environmental message that I hear from younger activists, who are so much more optimistic than that of older environmentalists.

In Outside's January issue, you write about Wal-Mart's new eco-plan for your first installment of Code Green. How did they fare under your scrutiny?
As someone who's been reporting in the world of environmental policy and energy policy for a long time, I've been trained to be skeptical. I've been trained to doubt the motivations of heavy-industry representatives. But I was surprisingly encouraged. Already, CEO H. Lee Scott has said publicly, very impressively, that he is encouraging all of their suppliers to comply with strong environmental standards and will eventually require them to do so.

So are you sold?
I'm cautiously optimistic. We have to hold these guys accountable. We have to keep the pressure on and really make sure they don't cut corners and that they live up to their commitments. It's not just going to take private-sector innovators. It's going to take strict standards and laws that force all of industry to rise up to the standards of environmental sustainability. However, what does make me sort of unequivocally sold and truly optimistic, is the fact that we are seeing a clear allegiance between environmental concerns and economic concerns.

What does that mean for other mega-corporations, the retail industry in general and the average consumer?
One of the phrases I learned while reporting this story was 'when Wal-Mart coughs, the entire economy sneezes.' There are 60,000 companies that sell their products at Wal-Mart—the biggest brands you can imagine. It's GE; it's Nabisco; it's Kimberly Clarke. Coca Cola, IBM and John Deere. In other words, when Wal-Mart does one thing, almost by definition, there's a response from a huge sector of the economy that then ripples out.

There's a whole broad range of companies beginning to jump on the same bandwagon, which is, 'if we make our operations more efficient, if we use less energy to make better, more efficient products, everybody wins.'

The problem is we can't get too rah rah and idealistic about believing we can grow the economy and save the planet at the same time. I don't want to simplify the whole picture. There are certain things that just will not bring returns to companies.

Your next column is about "trybrid" vehicles, which merge flex-fuel and hybrid technologies. If you could "eco-pimp" your car, how would you do it?
Rig my Prius with a plug-in feature for extra battery power, basically one step toward the trybrid. I love machinery, I can't deny it. I like what it feels like to drive in a Jeep, but you can have the same feeling with a hybrid-engine car. Still, I wouldn't mind tricking it out with the low-rider, fat tires, and the hubcaps …but I'd much rather have 100-mile-per-gallon gas mileage.

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