INTERVIEWEE: Paul Robbins (PR)
INTERVIEWER: David Todd (DT)
DATE: November 9, 2018
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
SOURCE MEDIA: HD Video
DT: My name is David Todd. And I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. We’re in the western suburbs of Austin, Texas and it is November 9, 2018. And we’re at the home of T. Paul Robbins, who is a long time environmental researcher, writer, presenter, publisher, and general all-around advocate for ecological and energy and other kinds of generic environmental efforts.
PR: I am an environmental activist and consumer advocate.
DT: Well put. Much more concisely than I ever could have said it.
PR: Many people I deal with need conciseness.
DT: Well and I wanted to thank you, before we go any further, for taking time to talk to us.
PR: I’m honored.
DT: Thank you. I think that we might start by just asking you if there might be some early influences in your life. It might be people in your life. It might have been experiences. It might be a movie you saw, a book you read, anything that might suggest a starting point for your interest in this conservation and consumer protection work.
PR: Well when—depends on how far back you want to go. When I was a child, my family home was on the banks of the Willow Bend Bayou in Houston. I believe you’re from Houston, aren’t you, so I’m—you’re at least relatively familiar with the—that bayou. It’s in Southwest Houston. And it usually was at a pretty low level but about once a year, it would rain so badly that the water would just flow in a torrent to the very brim, to the very top of the embankment. And if I had ventured out just past my backyard, I would have likely been swept away and drowned.
And watching that flow—that violent flow—once a year did impress upon me the wrath of nature, if nature chose to be angry. Later on, I guess when I was a very early teenager; I watched a documentary about nuclear power and nuclear waste. And I don’t know how the document—how they—I don’t know how the photographer did it but—how the cameraman did it—but somehow they got a camera inside a canister of nuclear waste. And it looked really scary, really ugly. I mean, later when I read it, it looked like something out of Dante.
It looks like something out of Dante’s inferno. Just this steaming, boiling, highly toxic soup. I mean, I’m guessing they probably left the camera inside the containment because it was so hot. And the narrator said there’s enough radioactive waste inside this one container to, you know, kill everybody in this location. And, you know, as a young teenager, my mouth just sort of hung open. And that impressed me a lot.
Those were—those were some things that you could say planted seeds of—of—of concern, seeds of worry, but it really wasn’t—I guess if there’s any event that inspired me, it was that I got deathly ill as a young man and thought for a few weeks I was going to die. And when I came out of it, it left a—it left a motivation to try and keep that awful feeling from happening to others.
DT: I guess that sort of experience and near death experience gives you this motivation to take advantage of the time that you have. Is that fair to say?
PR: Well that’s one way to look at it. I mean, I—I—I can’t tell you honestly that I’m, you know, working at one hundred percent, eighteen hours a day but I can tell you that a lot of the background motivation comes from that.
DT: And—and where did you first put some of this interest and—and—and focus to—to work?
PR: Well through a chain of events, I got sucked into the anti-nuclear movement. I—I was—this—you may want to edit some of this because it’s kind of a long evolution or chain. But I left the radio on one night to listen to music and at three in the morning or so, this eerie commercial came on about the B1 bomber and it was the American Friends Service Committee—it was a public service announcement where the—they were imitating power hungry American General. And he said, you know, this expensive bomber will give us what we need.
So you give us the weapons and we’ll find you the wars. Now it was meant to be sarcastic, of course, but at three in the morning when you’re woken up out of a sound sleep, it sent a chill inside me. And when I finally recovered from that and thought about it for a few days, I actually went down to meet the people at the organization and ask their motivations and everything. And I got on their mailing list. And then a few months later, I got an invitation to be involved in a group that was fighting nuclear power.
DT: This is in 1970?
PR: 1977. At that time, I was pretty aimless. I really had nothing to keep me here in Austin. I really, I mean, I think, at that time, I was loosely training myself—self-educating myself to be a poet, of all things and a songwriter and a writer of fiction. I thought that was—that was going to help people. And then I got involved as an activist—I was invited to this group to discuss nuclear power and that would be September 23, 1977. That was my initiation into being an activist and advocate. My whole life changed. I was just swept away into this—I’ll call it an adventure.
And, you know, I have often questioned myself—no, I would—I would spend all week trying to write one good line for a song or one good line for a poem. And then I became an activist and I thought well I can spend all week writing one line for a poem that maybe someone will read or not or I can try to directly save the world. Now, did I make the right choice? I constantly beat myself up over it but that’s—I—I mean, I—I chose to get involved in directly being an activist and advocate.
DT: And—and it seems like the first chapter of this activism was in the act—anti-nuclear movement which I suppose was focused on the South Texas Nuclear Project and City of Austin’s partnership in that?
PR: The group that I joined was a multi issue group and it dealt with a lot of issues such as stopping nuclear weapons, as well as stopping nuclear power. It dealt with funding of human needs. But nuclear power was the—it was the thing that interested me at first. And I’ll—I’ll—I’ll humor myself by saying that my consciousness expanded to other issues as well. But Austin had become involved in a nuclear project in—at—on the coast of Texas in Matagorda County. And there had been some overruns. They were relatively minor cost overruns at the time.
But more were to come later. And I, you know, back from having seen that documentary on nuclear waste and having read some—something about nuclear power, I was really concerned. I mean, one meltdown could take out a whole state and, you know, kill lots of people and damage property for generations, if not millennia. And so I—that was my entry point. Quickly following that entry point, I had a conversation with a friend of mine one night when we were relaxing at a—an ice cream shop and I’m thinking ice cream shop—you know, most people would go out and relax at a bar but I never started to drink until I got into politics.
So I hadn’t quite—quite gone that far yet. We—I said what if we took all the money that was going to go into the nuke and put it into energy conservation? We could create jobs. We could create as much energy as the plant would generate or, excuse me, we could save as much electricity as the plant would generate. And I got really interested in that and, for the next couple years on and off, did a lot of research on that. I eventually, amongst many other things that I did with and for the anti-nuclear movement, I wrote a report really kind of a conservation policy for Austin.
I’m kind of proud and embarrassed by it at the same time because, I mean, now I’ve been doing it 41 years and when I look at it today, I think I would—I’d be embarrassed to put my name on it because I’ve learned so much. But, back then, it was the energy crisis and people couldn’t afford their electric and gas bills and there were, at various times, gas lines because there theoretically wasn’t enough gasoline available.
There were nuclear plants being built in everybody’s backyard and our supposed energy experts, the Austin Electric Department, which eventually morphed into Austin Energy—our experts had a budget of 200 million dollars a year in gross revenues and they really didn’t have anybody that was working on this issue. So, on one hand, I’d be embarrassed if I put my name on it today but, back then, you know, they had 200 million dollars in gross revenues and hundreds of employees and when I finished it—when I finished that document, I had eight dollars to my name.
That was 1980. So what? 1980 times inflation—that—what? It might have been 25 dollars today or maybe 50. I mean, that’s how—I—I mean, I did this all as a volunteer.
DT: And, at the time, Austin Electric and later Austin Energy sort of blind to these alternatives, other than amping up supply.
PR: They weren’t blind. They were—they were antithetical to it. They were against it, dead set against it.
DT: And what—what do you think was behind their opposition?
PR: Okay. Back in the day, it was like cowboys and Indians. It was two different world views and you had a group of conservative electrical engineers and electric department staff people who thought it’s not our job to conserve. If the customer wants to do it, they get to do it but it’s not our job. It’s our job to provide electricity on demand. And they viewed the focus very narrowly.
And there was also, to be fair, I mean, back in the last seventies, yo—you had just a few years before come out of Vietnam and the anti-Vietnam Movement and there was still a lot of rebellious youth that were protesting against the general consumption mentality of the American culture. And so when you go beyond the professional differences of well, it’s our job to—to generate not conserve or you could, you know, save as much energy as you could create energy, it—it’s a world view of consumption versus care and conversation. There—there was no recon—there was little reconciliation. It was—it was cats and dogs.
DT: Well, can you—I—I guess your—
PR: Or—or I—I—I bet perhaps a better way to—to view it is it was tribes. Forgive me for interrupting you.
DT: No, no, no, no, I’m—I’m glad. Please always proceed. I—I just was trying to understand more about when there’s this cultural clash between, you know, the—the management and the engineers at—at Austin Electric and—and those in the public who felt like there were—there were opportunities in conservation and efficiency. How—how did this sort of shake out? I mean, what—were you providing—you mentioned reports you did—other—what other kinds of public outreach were you trying to do to mass enough opposition to the—to the nuke, I guess as they used to call it?
PR: It’s a multifaceted question. And I want you to ask it again because I want to hit all points.
DT: Okay. I’m curious how you tried to marshal the public suspicion and re—resistance to the proposals at Austin Electric to be a partner in South Texas Nuclear Project and whether it was research, grassroots education, press conferences, demonstrations?
PR: All—all—all right. All right. I’m—I’m—I’m with—I’m with you now.
DT: Try again? The monster.
PR: The monster. Okay, well, there’s two parts of it. One is the nuke. It had a series of overruns and, as the cost got higher, the public got more skeptical. And, as the public got more skeptical, they were willing to listen to our side. I mean, think of it. The original cost for the entire project was one billion. By the time it was over—by the time the—by the time the plant had escalated to is peak price, it was 5.6 billion. And that can generate a lot of skepticism, even amongst people who aren’t environmentalists.
And then you’ve got the anti-nuclear group who’s trying to do—to use as many tactics and strategies as it can. But now, there were people—th—there were two main ways to do it and this isn’t foreign to any social movement, but there are two main strategies that we worked on. One was general education and general public relations. I mean, we got thousands of anti-nuclear bumper stickers on cars. It was the rage. We, you know, we put our emblems on t-shirts. We went door to door with literature. We spoke at public hearings endlessly and ceaselessly.
And then—well that was part of it. But then there were—there was also the other part that was what I’ll call “shock value”. And to—you had asked about the dragon, what about the monster? At one public hearing in 1978, somebody—I—I mean, I—I know who they were, and I don’t know if their names are relevant to the people listening to us, but there was a person—both of these people were my friends and they’re both now departed. But there was a fellow named Ric Sternberg, who was an actor in Esther’s Follies and somehow he had access to a dragon costume from a Chinese New Year.
And then there was another person, a woman named Susan Lee, and she was—
DT: Later Susan Lee Solar?
PR: Susan Lee Solar. That’s correct. And she actually lived in your neighborhood, David. And her sister lives there now. But Susan had this idea let’s get Ric’s dragon to be the personification of the—of the South Texas Nuclear Project. And so they brought the dragon to a public hearing. And my team, the Anti-Nuclear Movement, they pulled out all the stops and it was held in the old Palmer Auditorium and there were 700 people there and 2/3 of them were ours. W—we—we—we packed it.
And, you know, at some point during the speakers, the dragon pro—pranced—pranced in, danced in and he went down the long aisles while this person in front of them was shaking a rattle and he was roaring into a microphone and—and finally stopped. And, you know, the—the council was just—most of them we—were—were—were—were actually pretty tickled about it. I mean, they knew, you know, most of the council was pro nuclear but this was a welcome deviation to them, a comic relief of sorts.
So the dragon begins to speak and, you know, he roars and the interpreter says, he’s pleased to meet you. He roars again. The dragon says he’s hungry. He roars again. He says he’d like a snack. Roars. Something green and leafy. So they start feeding him money. More money, more money, until, at one point, he stops and begins to defecate nuclear waste and then he—he prances off again—dances off again. And the—most of the auditorium was just in stitches. And he made the front page of the Statesman the next day. Ri—right under the banner.
So that’s an example of shock value.
PR: Another anecdote of shock value is where several of our team held a press conference and demanded the resignation of the city manager and the electric director because of all the overruns. I can remember one of the press saying, you know, why are you doing this? And one of my friends and mentors, Rick Piltz, said, you know, if we were in charge and an overrun like that had happened, they’d have our heads. You know, there’s no excuse for this kind of incompetence.
And—and—and so things like this—I mean, they—they weren’t the warm and fuzzy things like caulk your house and—and, you know, put money into conservation where you save—and we’ll save you money. They were definitely done to get attention and outrage. But you asked and these were the genuine—the general two-prong strategies that were pursued.
DT: And the—maybe you can give us a little bit of an insight into what was going on at South Texas Nuclear Project. If I remember, it was a—it was being managed by Brown and Root but Brown and Root had had no experience constructing this kind of facility before and they had to bring in Bechtel and could you talk a little bit about that?
PR: Well, of course, I’m—I’m going from—I’ve written about this in great detail and I’m going back from memory here. But it was a partnership between Houston Lighting and Power which I—Houston Lighting and Power’s dissolved a long time ago. But between the utility in Houston, the utility in Corpus and the lower—lower Rio Grande Valley Central Power and Light, the City of San Antonio or City Public Service Municipal Utility and the Austin Electric Department now called Austin Energy and it was a partnership between the four of them.
And yes indeed, they gave the contract for architect engineer and construction to Brown and Root, who did not have any prior experience in being the architect and engineer. They were so unprofessional that they gave the bid before they had completed a lot of the engineering. So they really didn’t have full comprehension of the real material and labor cost. And then when you add to that inexperience, the back fits or retrofits that were required because of safety concerns that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was requiring, as well as the incompetence and having to rebuild some of it, you had overruns of 460 percent.
And similar overruns were happening around the country but this one had a special flavor because of the inexperience of Brown and Root. Brown and Root was so incompetent that they were eventually replaced by Bechtel.
DT: And—and so a lot of the argument against the plant was for mismanagement and for cost overruns but I guess there’s also an environmental aspect to it as well.
PR: Oh definitely. Again, I was motivated by concern that the—the damn thing might melt down but other people who weren’t as concerned about that were definitely concerned about their money. And so we tried to bridge those interests. I mean, you know, some people are motivated by one thing or another and you try and find common ground. When Austin finally voted to sell its share of the nuke in 1981, we ran the arguments mostly on economics. The—I think we subtitled our campaign “Sell the Lemon”.
And, you know, we realized the people that were motivated by environment were already with us so we were trying to find more voters that would go with us on economics.
DT: And did you have any buyers or offers for the bid to sell?
PR: No. No, it’s like ho—it’s kind of ironic because had we done—had we sold it a couple year—tried to sell it a couple years earlier when the economics of the plant, pardon me, hadn’t melted down, w—w—it’s very likely that the other partners would have bought most or all of our shares—excuse me, would have bought most or all of our share. But that didn’t happen. It—it—it—you know, the economics had spiraled so out of control and the rest of the partnership needed our money so much that they wouldn’t buy our share.
And we had signed what many in the legal and financial world literally call a “hell or high water contract.” That is, you are obligated to pay this share or this amount no matter what happens whenever. We had signed such a bad contract that we couldn’t get out of it and there were several lawsuits about this too. But ultimately, we never got very much out of—out of them. I believe there was some noticeable amount of money when we sued—when the partnership sued Brown and Root. But, even then, it was a small fraction of the total cost.
There was one point where I, and I’m going from memory here, where Austin was quite literally putting in a million dollars a week because unlike private utilities that—where you didn’t have to pay for the plant until it was used and useful until the plant was actually turned on, Austin had to pay for the plant out of cash flow. And it became a considerable share of Austin’s utility bill. For a while, it was actually about forty percent of Austin’s utility bill.
DT: But there’s no electricity coming out of it?
PR: I believe the—and that’s correct—and I believe the first electricity was generated in 1988.
DT: Well I guess this—this whole experience with the South Texas Nuclear Project led you to I guess sort of rethink a more holistic, integrated approach to energy use in—in Austin. And you authored this comprehensive plan for—for Austin, is that correct?
PR: Yes. And—and I—yes, I—I wrote that and then a couple years later, we got—a couple years later, we got a supportive City Council elected. One of those people I’m sure you know is Roger Duncan. And Roger, in many ways, led the in—Roger, in many ways, at least in electoral politics, led the environmental movement or the modern environmental movement here. And so about 1982, we were able to hire the first real staff for the conservation office.
And it honestly took us a while to figure out what we were doing but eventually, we created one of the most respected, energy efficiency departments and programs in the entire country. There’s people in Europe that have heard of Austin. It’s—it’s become that good and that renowned. I was lucky enough that I eventually got hired first as a consultant, and then as an employee to work in that office. And I was there on and off between 1982 and 1988. Last two years of it, I actually did my best work planning programs that, in a couple cases, had been done very few places in the country.
I—I—I consider myself very lucky to have been—I considered myself very lucky to have been one of those who was banging on the walls from the outside and then was allowed in to actually do some good.
DT: And this—this work that you were doing—
PR: If I could just continue briefly.
DT: Yeah, please. Go ahead.
PR: And then out of the—the department was originally first called the Energy Management Department and then we were able to get water conservation integrated into it. So it became the Resource Management Department. And then Air Quality and some parts of Water Quality got integrated into it and it became the Planning Environmental and Conservation Services Department. That’s what spring boarded the Green Building Program. So the—the Energy Management Department kind of became the spring board to a lot of other resource management programs.
DT: And—and so—and your role in this—I—I remember you worked on some of the apartment energy conservation. Is that correct?
PR: I helped started the Apartment Conservation Program. I helped start the Gas Conservation Program. I helped, at least in one case, get an appliance efficiency standard that I don’t think has since been duplicated in Texas and that was some thirty years ago. And then I—I—I worked on several minor programs as well. In a sense, I was like a kid in a candy store. I mean, I—I got inside this institution that was well-funded and I didn’t make a lot of money, in fact, I was a temporary employee, because I wouldn’t apply for permanent jobs that confined me.
I wanted to do program planning and all these permanent jobs that were being created that I had the opportunity to apply for were for very static positions that wouldn’t let me, if you’ll pardon me, get into trouble, wouldn’t let me use my talents. So I—I—I let them go by and instead chose to stay in that more vulnerable position. But I felt like a kid in a candy store because I was allowed to do things that I loved, to help plan programs that became national models and I—I wished I could have stayed there another twenty or thirty years, but my stubbornness got in the way.
I—I am an activist. That is what I do and I would not quit visiting City Council. And the city manager at the time, at least according to legend—yeah, I know he was in the military—and, according to legend, he was in a—in an elite unit in the military in Nam. And he took a very dim view of city employees that he supervised, going to council. I’m not sure that you’re—I want to get into the—the language that he used in saying this to my supervisors but he basically let it be known in indisputable terms that he frowned upon this kind of activity and I still wouldn’t quit.
So I was a temporary employee and he saw to it that I was fired because of that reason. I mean, I know my name was on that proverb—on—on that symbolic bullet because he as much as told council members so. Whatever.
DT: So you—there were things that you were doing within the department but then, as you said, you know, you had talents and interests in—in working as a citizen outside the department. And maybe you can talk about the Solar Speakers Bureau or, you know, other groups that I guess were trying to promote more responsible energy outside the department. Is that—?
PR: Well, you’re—the Solar Energy Speakers Bureau was one of many education tactics we—that we used back in the early days of—I—it proceeded the 1981 election to sell the nuke by about a year. And I just found best experts in Austin who were willing to go on TV, radio, and to community groups and tell the public—or sell the public on a new paradigm. It’s like, you know, here’s an expert from UT. Here’s one of the best architects in Austin.
Here’s, you know, the best conservation contractor in Austin and we’re going to tell you how to take the money from the nuke and put it into something that will create jobs in Austin and help you at the same time. And—and—and that was just one of the—the—the many education things that—that we tried. You know, and—and—and—and—and if you want to edit and go back to this and splice that into the chronology, great. But, you know, I was pretty shaken after I was fired. That must have been 1988, the end of 1988.
And I—I mean, I loved that job and I needed the money. So I was sort of trying to figure out what to do with myself. And I actually ended up doing a quite a few things during the period between 1988 and 1991. But the one that had the most impact and the one that few people remember was the Environmental Charter Amendment Campaign.
DT: Tell us about that.
PR: Well that would have been—you have to understand the—the ambience or the history of that era. In the mid-nineties, the bottom fell out of the Texas economy. And the two biggest reasons were the price of oil fell out fe—and it went way down and Texas was much more oil dependent then than it is now for its economy. And the other was the savings and loan debacle. There were so many—so many—what would you call them—Ponzi schemes based on real estate and then when there was no demand for the real estate, the banks couldn’t get what was owed to them and the banks failed and the federal government had to bail them out.
And so Austin basically went into a recession. For anybody who had lived in Austin at the time, it wasn’t a recession. It was a depression. I mean, it was the worst economic era since the—the Great Depression in the thirties. And so you had people being elected to City Council that were viciously fiscal conservative. And one of those people was a man named Robert Barnstone who, ironically, was a condo developer who had, as I recall, fallen on some hard times.
So he got elected to council and he hated—anyway, he hated city government, in general, but he particularly made a scapegoat—he ca—particularly made a scapegoat out of energy conservation. It was like something out of Joe McCarthy. He called it Socialized Air Conditioning and then after—after another year or two, he got two other fiscal do—two other fiscal conservatives to join the two or three—the—to join the one that was already there—it was a seven-member council—and we were really in a lot of trouble.
And so we had basically been made a scapegoat or a football for two or three years. And I was fed up with it. And so with the partnership of a very well-oiled canvas group called Texas Citizen Action, we put together and got the valid signatures for a series of five charter amendments that would, in essence, Barnstone-proof the funding for these environmental programs—energy conservation, water conservation, solar energy, recycling, and air and water quality—to protect those programs with minimal amounts of funding in the City Charter so that no fiscal conservative would attack them.
DT: So the idea was to install them within the charter so they wouldn’t be a municipal ordinance that could be overturned by council?
PR: Yeah, well that and the fact that you don’t need as many signatures to get a valid petition. So, you know, I—I remember getting about 700 signatures myself but most of the credit goes to Texas Citizen Action and Tim Curtis and Todd Main and Lisa Kaselak and the canvassers.
I mean, the canvassers were a—were a scene that, in all my years of being an activist, I had rarely glimpsed—I mean, you have these young 20-somethings and you put ten of them in a precinct and they can eat the turf up in a night and they can go to door to door and make lives very uncomfortable for Council Members that are trying to attack the environment. And that’s, in fact, what they did. And so we were able to get the valid signatures to put it on the ballot but then came the—the real hard work. I’d been working in campaigns since the late seventies.
But count—count my lucky stars I had never run one and that was a baptism in fire. I mean, I—I had to raise all the money while making none. I had to work twelve and sixteen hour days. You know, I don’t eat much anyway but I couldn’t, you know, I was so nervous I couldn’t eat. I—I had to eat even le—I had even less to eat then. I would, you know, didn’t have much sleep. My personal friendships were frayed. You know, it was interesting—pr—just prior to that election, somebody, a friend of mine, had offered me a job making more money than, at that time, I’d ever made in my life.
And I was in the very unfortunate position of having to turn it down. I said I made a commitment to these people and I can’t walk out on them now. And so I got thrown into this m—in—in—into this cauldron and it took a very heavy toll on me. You know, for the last two or three months, it was just nonstop mental agony and frustration. I never want to do something like that again. I—I hope the stars align so that I don’t have to. And when it was all done, see the strategy here was not only to ensure the environmental programs from fiscal conservatives, but it was also to run the election when Robert Barnstone was running for mayor because he would have to defend himself on this issue.
Okay, Robert, you don’t want to support us, you tell the voters why you don’t want to save them money on their utility bills. The way it shook out was that we didn’t have enough money for enough TV air time to convince the voters. All five of the charter amendments failed, although a couple of them came within a respectable distance of four or five votes—four or five percentages—four or five percentage points of winning. We came very close. I mean, one of them was about a 52 to 48 percent split.
So I—I guess we actually needed about two percent to win. We came very close but what we were able to do was cripple Robert’s campaign because so many people thought well, you know, we’re not quite ready to do what the environmentalists want us to do but we can’t support Robert because of his stand on the issue either. And when it all shook out, he lost by two points. One of his friends running for council also lost by about two points. And then we were kind of safe again. I mean, to give you an example, the next year the green vo—the—the next year the Green Building Program started.
And they were able to do that in large part because we made it safe for them.
DT: Can you talk a little bit about the Green Building Program and your role?
DW: Well I think I should pause—about to—I think Paul was about to say something. Where were you—?
PR: I was going to respond in that I can only comment on the Green Building Program indirectly. Unlike Gail Vittori or, I mean, there’s an old joke, which I’m sure you’ve heard, that history—[inaudible] what’s the joke—this is—I have to remember this—forgive me. Victory has a thousand parents. Defeat is an orphan. And there’s got to be a thousand people in Austin that they claim they started or they helped start the Green Building Program. I may be the only environmentalist in Austin who says—who will admit that they didn’t help start the Green Building Program.
I can proudly say that I helped clear the way for them but I really had a secondhand view of it for a very long time.
DT: That’s very modest.
DW: But before that and I—I only overheard you speaking before the interview began in an offhanded and metaphorical way or maybe with this interview, yeah, that you—and I’m not asking for any personal information—that you didn’t begin drinking until you got involved in politics.
PR: I did say that.
DW: And are—and is the story that you’ve just recounted sort of—was that the introduction or baptism of politics that might—was that the story—?
PR: I—well—well I don’t know that we want to get into a thing about inebriance.
DW: No, I don’t. It’s more about the context of what having idealism meeting the reality of politics does to those who wish to commit to it and where do you—where do you—obviously you’ve stated your no compromise mind quite clearly and there are others who say I don’t know, 68,000 a year with benefits—so I have to write a few memos that go the other way now and then. And if that’s the kind of situation that you—you found yourself in.
PR: Well I hardly made 68,000 dollars secure.
DT: I’m looking at today’s staff level salaries.
PR: Even—even by inflation standards, I came nowhere near that.
DW: No, that’s what they might have offered had you decided to stick around, play ball, and—
PR: Oh, I understand your point. Had I chosen to get a job in one of those stable positions, yes, and I—and, in fact, I’ve questioned myself a lot why didn’t I do that—because there were things like medical care that I needed back then. But the—the, you know, I—I suppose for a span of about oh, ten, eleven years, the view of electoral politics on the inside made me long for a drink now and then. I mean, it’s just—I believe the—the—the writer, Norman Mailer, once deemed scotch the drug of defeat.
I mean, it’s just you look at—you look at the world, you look at the hopelessness of electoral politics and you just give up and—and—and you—you—you want to, at least briefly, drown your sorrows. I was never an alcoholic and I say that sincerely. But—and—and actually there did come a point about 1994 when I just cut it off because I needed clarity. But yeah, for a—a span of ten or eleven years, I would occasionally have a social drink. I don’t know that your viewers would find that particularly interesting.
DW: No, and I’m not—I was only still speaking in a metaphorical way because there obviously—leaving the—out and all metaphors aside—there are people who go to work on the staffs of these things and some of them think they are making the difference. And inevitably, there must be a staff person who sees things the way of the environmental or the conservation way or—or maybe it’s not like California and I’m barking up a—a tree that doesn’t exist here in Austin or Texas.
PR: If I had taken that safe job—this is the—the rivel—the—this is the riddle that has bedeviled me to this day—if I had played it safe, I could have never done the Charter Amendment Campaign. There—and I don’t know that there was a right answer. I can tell you what I chose to do.
DW: Have you seen others in your time since then—has there arisen a new generation of what we’ll call ethically conscious staff people now that we’re decades down the line who you can go down to the city and to the council and to the downtown City Hall and say, finally, we have a—a—a generation, maybe a road subsequent to that enabled by that earlier advocacy?
PR: Well, of—of course, you know, I mean, I could—I could name people whose shoulders I stood on. I mean, they weren’t—I don’t know if you want to go that far back. I had mentors and I had people that gave me background history. So I’m—I’m—I’m—I’m just being obtuse but I’m not following you.
DW: Well in the—in the last ten years, fifteen years—now we’re removed from your experiences of multiple decades ago. Is there now a generation of young people coming—following all of this who because politics has changed in such a way, they don’t ever have to make that drastic decision or is Austin and the Austin government now in a more open place?
PR: It depends on where you are. In Austin—well first, I would say that there’s lots of people that didn’t know those dark times in the eighties and they can’t conceive of them. And that’s scary because I take the view that you can never be too comfortable, that well, okay, the fiscal conservatives aren’t around now but that doesn’t mean that they won’t come back. And so I’m afraid that there’s a—there’s a generation of—of people that don’t have th—with re—with exceptions—that don’t have that respect for caution, that don’t have that respect for history.
And if you were to go to a more conservative city like Dallas or Houston, there are much fewer places for an environmentalist to get a—a—a job as you are describing. I—I am—I mean, th—it’s just not as enlightened a city or—or—I’m speaking of—of Houston where I grew up or Dallas. They’re just not as enlightened in their cultures as we are here.
DT: Well, speaking of culture, I—I think that one of the things that—that you were suggesting in some of the materials that you wrote and sent to me was that—
PR: And—and—and yo—I want you to carry that thought but I want to finish talking about charter real quickly.
PR: And—and I want to hear your question. I just—
DT: It—it relates to charter actually.
PR: Okay. The other good thing that charter did is that it showed environmentalists we could win. We came real close and so the next year, really about a year and a half later, SOS was on the ballot, the Save Our Springs Alliance petitioned a limit density over the aquifer and they won by an overwhelming margin. I did not play a direct role in SOS. I was recovering from the Charter Campaign. It took me about a year to economically and physically and mentally recover. But they did a—an outstanding job with some of the same tactics, with some, though not all, of the same people.
Again, Texas Citizen Action played a substantial role in getting signatures and that. And—and it—the Charter proved to us that we could win. So, in that sense, it also did a lot of good. I’m afraid that history will remember the charter amendments as some obscure skirmish but to the people involved, it was pretty intense. I—I felt like we were fighting for our political lives.
DT: I think that one of the comments you’d said before was that—that you found it was easier for the general public, among Austinites, to identify with clean creeks, clean aquifers, than some of the arguments that y’all were making about energy and the charter and previous more sort of utility [inaudible].
PR: Barton—Barton Springs is etched into this city’s consciousness and subconscious. So yeah, when you put in, on an initiative called Save Our Springs, it’s going to have a resonance that we didn’t. I still maintain that if we had had the money, we could have won at least two of the charter amendments. But this—I—I mean, it—it captured the public’s imagination in a way we did not. I guess it—interestingly enough, and—and I—I’m sorry that I—I’m skipping chronology here but back in the 1970s, there were a series of elections on the nuclear plant.
Back in the day, and there—for that matter, it’s still on the books—there is a city charter requirement that is routinely ignored that says that all revenue bonds—and by revenue bonds, you—we mean utility bonds—for electricity, water, et cetera, must be approved by the majority of the voters in an election. And back then, this was routine. And so whenever there was an overrun, then the City Council would be obligated to put the ballot item, the amount of money on an election so that the voters would approve it.
DT: For the overrun.
PR: For the overrun. And so there were a number of elections held. And so finally it’s—it—so—so one of these elections took place in 1979. It was in early April. And about ten days before the election, Three Mile Island melted down. And well it had a chilling effect on the entire country but if you can imagine the effect it had on an election on nuclear power, it was profound. And so had something like that happened during charter, well yeah, it would have magnified what we were doing tenfold, just as it had the anti-nuclear election in—in 1979 but that didn’t happen.
So I would suggest again that Barton Springs had an appeal to voters that our election did not. And they also had an awful lot more money than we did too.
DT: So the context and the sequence matters, you know, and—and the money. That’s—there’s no question. I mean, the arguments may be equally sound but the environment for these things really counts.
PR: Yes, they—they—the—the historical context.
DT: Again, this may be m—m —turning our chronology on its head but—but there were a couple of things that I know you were involved with that have to do with energy and I’d like to just make sure that we touch on those before we go forward. I think from ’87 to ’88, you were involved in an energy issue that involved waste energy, an incinerator that—that had been proposed and I—I was curious if you could describe a little about that work.
PR: It’s the waste—we’re talking about a Waste-to-Energy plant. It was supposed to take care of most of Austin’s garbage while, at the same time, prea—creating energy. And it was—so—so—let me—let me rephrase. It was supposed to—it was supposed to create a—was supposed to solve Austin’s garbage problem while creating some added energy—some added electricity at the same time.
The technology, at the time, had problems, particularly with regard to impurities that got into the waste stream such as vinyl, which would turn into dioxin under high heat, such as flashlight batteries that had heavy metals in them. And my side maintained that the technology at the time did not remove most—as much of the impurities, as much of the pollutants, as would be necessary to run a safe plant. And we contested this. We also contested it because we thought that there were better ways to deal with our solid waste than burning it.
We should compost it. We should recycle it. And out of that gr—we created a—we created another petition campaign. We came together—a group of us called the Citizens for Responsible Waste Management. And our goal was to stop the incinerator and advocate, at the same time, for a zero waste policy which thirty years later, is the—the stated policy of the City Council. And I guess it’s been the stated policy since about, oh I don’t know, 2011 or so, so for maybe the past seven, eight years.
We were trying to educate the public on the dangers of this Waste-to-Energy plant while, at the same time, talking about the positive effects it would have on the environment and economy if we chose another direction. I can still remember a meeting that—that my group held. It was at my office at the—at the city when I was still working there in 1988, which might have been one of the reasons the city manager had such fondness for me because it was like we needed a place to meet and so I got the staff meeting room for—so that one department was holding a meeting to plot the demise of a project in another city department.
I just can’t stop being an activist when it comes down to it.
DT: And—and so the Citizens Responsible for Waste Management—Citizens for Responsible Waste Management—was, at the same moment, advocating against this incinerator, the Waste-to-Energy facility and the—simul—simultaneously trying to promote recycling and composting and other ways to reduce waste—solid waste—in the city? Is that fair?
DT: Another thing which I thought was—was—
PR: If I could just interject—not that it’s that big a deal—but the city really never began its pilot curbside recycling until 1984. And I believe due to budget cuts, it really hadn’t gone citywide until just about the time that we were starting the—the Citizens for Responsible Waste Management Campaign. It was certainly within a year or two. So the city’s recycling program really hadn’t done that much yet. It really hadn’t gotten its stride. And so one of our suppositions is that you need to pursue alternatives longer before you do something as drastic as a Waste-to-Energy Plant.
DT: So you were I guess advocating for something to be more incremental—incremental rather than something that would involve a big upfront cost like an incinerator?
PR: Well we definitely wanted to accelerate environmental solid waste management. And, in fact, after the plant was canceled, there was a task force set up and our friend, Gail Vittori, was the Chair of that task force. And—and they worked through a lot of issues trying to come up with an alternative plan that was more environmental and would accelerate the recovery of solid waste materials.
DT: I think the—
PR: You said you had another energy issue that you wanted to ask about?
DT: Well, one was that I think in ’97, you’re with the Green Building Working Group, which I think we touched on the Green Building Program that’s already underway but you helped support its funding, you know, understanding that these—these projects within the city all—you know, live or fail depending on how much money and staff they get. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that came about?
PR: Well, it was—I’m trying to remember some of the people involved. It was myself, Gail Vittori, Girard Kinney, Jim Walker, Duncan Echleson—those are the names that come to mind. And we studied their budget. We studied the Green Building Program’s budget and staffing. We came up with some recommendations. We lobbied Council for more funding. And it was got and they were able to go further. It—it was a supportive role. I’ve—I’ve never actually been a builder.
DT: Something else. While we’re sort of on this topic of—of energy and before we—we move onto some other ideas, I think that in 2008, you opposed the biomass plant which was, in a way, like the incinerator, you know, kind of high-minded and had lot of practical problems.
PR: No, in—in a way it’s like the nuke.
DT: Please explain.
PR: Well for the—for—for those watching this who are trying to distinguish between what a Waste-to-Energy incinerator is versus a biomass incinerator or a biomass power plant. An incinerator or Waste-to-Energy plant is burning garbage, burning municipal solid waste. And a biomass plant is burning tree trimmings from the lumber belt in East Texas. Well ,the thing about Texas and renewable energy is you’re going to find, at least in 2018, when this interview is being conducted, that almost everything that’s renewable is intermittent. It is wind or solar cells.
And while they’re cheaper than some sources of power, they’re not as reliable because they’re not dispatchable on demand. And, in fact, I—I’m trying to promote dispatchable, renewable power as one of my causes in 2018, one of my projects. But biomass is—is dispatchable. It is also incremental. There’s very little of it available in Texas. And, more importantly, it is very expensive. And so I looked at what the projected costs were, what little staff was telling—what little Austin Energy was making public was really outrageous.
And I then looked at the benchmarks that were kept by the Energy Information Administration. And I could not believe the difference between what they said a biomass plant would cost and what the biomass plant was going to charge Austin. And so I, after studying it and thinking about it, came out vociferously against it on—on the grounds that money, like fossil fuels, is a nonrenewable resource, that if environmentalists are not frugal with the taxpayer’s money, we’re not going to be very popular and they’re not going to let us do things that will actually benefit the public.
So I don’t want to say I organized it but I certainly allied myself with a—a group of people that would oppose the biomass plant. And, with the exception of one environmental group who didn’t come to the public hearing, pretty much every environmentalist there either was against it or questioned it and said that they didn’t have enough information to make a decision. And it made environmentalists look good. I mean, here’s a supposedly environmental plant that environmentalists didn’t want. Why is this?
You mean they actually care about ratepayers as well as saving bears or whatever? And it—and it—and it—I think it helped our image a lot. Now that we’re being billed for that plant and it’s apparent to everyone how much it costs, it—it—you know, our—our—our stridence—our strident position has become respected. Now, in fairness to the historical context, at that time, energy prices were very, very high. And there was a sense that they were never going to go low again among some people.
And so they, you know, some people at Austin Energy were making decisions based on that—that context. To me, it was kind of like just because you have a plant that’s more environmental, it doesn’t give you the right to be a pirate. And that mentality saved the environment—and it wasn’t just me—but that environmental mentality—that—that mentality saved environmentalists from a lot of embarrassment later on.
DT: It seems like there are a couple of other instances where you have I think worn the hat of—of both environmentalists but a—a frugal environmentalist, as sort of somebody trying to protect taxpayers and ratepayers and I was wondering if you could talk about two of them—the Customer Assistance Program where there were some auto enrollments that sluiced money to people that really weren’t low- or moderate-income. And then also the Natural Gas Conservation Program that you’re working on currently that I think is [overlapping conversation].
PR: Working against—against.
DT: Yes, exactly.
PR: Okay. I’m a consumer advocate as well as an environmentalist. And in 2014, I disco—discovered something appalling. Now Austin, to its credit, has the most aggressive utility assistance program for poor people in Texas. But Austin’s program is not precisely targeted. It will—it’s a—it—it auto enrolls people if they live in a household and anyone in that household is part of one of seven or eight social programs like food stamps or Medicaid. And so the computer doesn’t distinguish.
If, you know, you happen to have someone in your—in your household—a foster child, for instance, and they’re getting CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, they’re going to get that CHIP irregardless of whether they live in a hovel or a mansion. And, it turns out, some of those kids were living in mansions. And when the program was set up, no one had thought it through. And so I, on a whim, on a hint, decided to do an open records request and get who was enrolled and then I cross-tabulated that with, you know, the—the enrollees, the participants in the Customer Assistance Program, that were in high income zip codes.
And I found out that indeed some of them were literally living in mansions. I mean, in one case, the winner was an 8,100 square foot mansion on Lake Austin with its own indoor movie theatre and elevator. And it turned out the—the owner—did some background checking—and they owned part of a steel mill in South Texas, as well as some office buildings. And, you know, good for them, I’m—I’m—I’m not out to take their—their—their wealth. But what are they doing taking poor people’s money?
So I started raising the issue and it took about three and a half years for the city to find—the city bureaucracy—to finally get to the point where it eliminated all—almost all—of these wealthy homes. There’s still a few of them but almost of the real wealthy homes are—are now gone. Now the bad news is that they’re still enrolling sort of wealthy homes.
These homes are not 8,100 square foot mansions but, you know, there are 2,500 square foot homes with a swimming pool and two late model cars sitting in the driveway in—in, you know, a well-to-do neighborhood and you know they’re not poor and they haven’t gotten to the point where they’re taking those people off but at least the most egregious ones are now off. And that took three and a half years. I don’t want to single out any individual in the city administration, but it just really should not have taken that long to fix something so fundamentally blatant.
DT: So and this is with the city’s conservation program, energy—?
PR: No, this was with Austin Energy. This was not run by their conservation program. This was run by Austin Energy. And, by the way, the utility discount is not just for electricity. It’s also for gas—excuse me, excuse me, forgive me—it’s not just for electricity. It’s also for water and it’s also for the drainage utility.
DT: I see. Well, aside from the city program, I think you’ve also been working on the gas utility, which is a privately owned.
PR: Yes. Similar to the biomass plant, the Gas Conservation Programs in Austin are using some of their funds for self-promotion. They’re using some of the money, in my opinion, for marketing. The rebates that they’re giving are saving very little gas therefore getting new builders to go with gas homes and that’s an inappropriate use of ratepayer money, just like the biomass plant. If environmentalists are irresponsible, the voters are going to lose confidence in us and it’s going to be like the 1980—the late 1980s again with Robert Barnstone and the fiscal conservatives.
You know, many people don’t remember that dark era. It will never leave me. And so, you know, I’m going to stridently oppose wasteful programs like this.
DT: We’ve talked some about energy utilities here in—in Austin. I was wondering if you could talk next about water treatment and—and, for example, the Water Treatment Plant Number 4, which was a—a big controversy I guess back in 2010 through 2014 and you were one of the opponents to that proposed plant. Can you explain your objections to it?
PR: Well, simply put, it was built a generation before it was needed. You don’t spend half a billion dollars before you need to and that’s what they did. They were saying well we—we’ve got to build it now and we’ve got to build it now. We’re—we’re, you know, at—they were so shameless. They show this picture of a rusty water pump at one of their plants—see our plants are so old they’re rusting. Did it ever occur to them that they could just replace the pump? And I—I mean, they—they did man—they did many things like this during the course of trying to sell the Council.
And ultimately it came down to one vote and, you know, as a lobbyist friend of mine put it—they probably built it because they had the votes and not because they needed it. I mean, they—they may have thought they’d need it someday, but they had the votes now so let’s just do it. And they came up with a bunch of lame excuses. Meanwhile, the conservationists over here, and it was not just me—a lot of it was led by Bill Bunch and Colin Clark and the people at the SOS Alliance.
There were some other people—Mary Gay Maxwell, Roy Whaley of the Sierra Club, David Foster of Clean Water Action, and we were all saying no, you need to invest this in conservation. It’s going to save more money. It’s going to be cheaper and you just don’t need to build a half billion dollar plant, particularly in an environmentally sensitive area before you need one. But they—they got a—a 4-3 majority to approve a plant.
We did everything we could in the world to pester them and embarrass them but the plant did get built and it was kind of funny because the year that it went online, our peak demand was—and I’m going from memory here—but I believe the peak demand was 185 million gallons a day and with the Water Treatment Plant, I believe we now have 335 million gallons a day, something in that—
PR: Of capacity. So that gives you a flavor for how unneeded it was. I remember arguing with the journalists about this once and he said—you know, offline, of course—he said, well, you know, I kind of think that—that we got a good deal because it was built during the recession and we got, you know, low interest rates and we got lower bids than we might have at other times.
And I, rather than get emotional, I just took a deep breath and I said, yeah and because I was older than him, I’m—a—a—allegedly wiser and I’ve certainly been around the issues longer—and I said, to be fair to him—his point—I said, you know, if you want to build infrastructure a year or two ahead of when it’s needed, maybe that’s not such a bad thing but to build it fifteen or twenty years before it’s needed, no, you just don’t do that.
DT: One of the other water projects that you’ve had—I think this is in 2011—was—was research and—and reporting done for SOS Alliance and it’s called “Read it and Leak” about failings in water conservation in the—in the city. Can you talk some about that?
PR: I wrote two reports. And to be—I’m very grateful that SOS helped support these reports but both of them were largely done on my initiative and my savings. SOS did, thankfully, subsidize it but the—a lot of it did come from me. And I—the first report was about water conservation. A new water conservation manager had been appointed and she was wrecking the programs. And having been just down the hall from the water conservation division of the Resource Management Department, having been their friends and supporters, this alarmed me.
So I began to investigate what was going on over there and found that during—and remember this was during the—what was literally the drought of the century—this was 2011. This—this was the year it never rained or almost never rained. So this had a lot of—more resonance in the public than it might have had at other times. And it was also during the de—the debate and debacle of Water Treatment Plant 4. And it’s saying here’s the water utility that’s promoting a water treatment plant while ignoring or decimating conservation programs.
And I went into great detail into how and why conservation programs were being decimated, how they should run optimally and how they weren’t being run optimally or, in fact, in some cases, being run into the ground. And I’m grateful that a writer at the Chronicle, at the time, Nora Ankrum, was riveted by this topic. So she wrote some extensive articles on—on the coverage and it reached a wider audience than just the report might have done otherwise.
The second report actually kind of came out of the first report because I had made some statement in the first report in “Read it and Leak,” that Austin had the highest water rates of any major utility in Texas and one of the water cons—one of the water utility people said oh that’s just not true. And not to be outdone, I wrote a whole report documenting in more detail than anyone would ever want to read, how, in fact, it was true. And even the water utility, when confronted with it by the press, was forced to concede—reluctantly concede—that I was probably right.
So that was called “Hard to Swallow.” And so I spent about 80 percent of the report trying to go through how, you know, documenting okay, here’s all of Austin’s—here’s—here are the top ten Texas cities. Here are their water rates in this class. Here are their water rates in this class and this class and this. Here are the wastewater rates in this class and here are Austin’s suburbs and here are their water rates and wastewater rates in this class.
And if you can imagine the mind numbing detail that, you know, you see numbers before your eyes at two in the morning and you dream about it, you have nightmares about it. But it got done. And the last twenty percent of the article was trying to tease out what happened, why—how have we gotten so bad? Try and trace the history and then try and come up with remedies. And the sad fact is in the last part about remedies, there were very few that I could even come up with as—as a—a lame conjecture because we had painted ourselves in a corner so badly.
We had so much debt—some of it justifiable, some of it not—that we were going to be—we were going to have high water rates for many years. Now, interestingly, one of the things that I did propose and it wasn’t my original idea, but one of the things that was proposed in this report was full capital recovery fees where all new hookups got 100 percent of the necessary costs for the water treatment plant and the wastewater treatment plant and the water pipe and the wastewater pipe to connect them.
And the water utility did not want to go to 100 percent but the majority of Council forced them to. And, for the first time in many years, this year, we had a water rate reduction. It was symbolic. It was very little but it was the first time in many years we actually went the other way and did not raise rates. So, to this extent, you could say my—the report—and—and, again, it wasn’t originally my idea but you could say that report had some minimal impact.
But my guess is that if you went back and did the same research on how high Austin’s water costs are today compared to the other water utilities, Austin would probably still have the highest combined water/wastewater rates of the top ten cities in Texas and still higher than most of its suburbs.
DW: I’m sorry. Just so I understand. The plant in question—plant 5, is that it?
PR: Water treatment plant number 4.
DW: It was just to treat incoming drinking water, not to treat reclaimed water or process outgoing sewage?
PR: You—you ask very informed questions.
DT: Well le—if we can just back up a little bit—if you could help clarify something I don’t quite understand—with the “Read it and Leak” report, you said that there were some shortcomings in water conservation efforts in Austin. And I was wondering if you could give some examples of what those were, sort of to illustrate what you’re—what your concerns were? What were they—were they, for instance, leaks in the water distribution lines?
PR: Well, in—in 2007 or so, a ta—a city task force came up with a series of about twenty recommendations for various programs and policies that would save a lot of water. And I—I’m going from memory. I’m sorry this doesn’t stick exactly in my head but I’m wanting to say something on the order of 30 million gallons a day of peak water. And I can check on that but that’s what I’m remembering at the moment. I didn’t know I was going to get an impromptu quiz. And so you had these twenty programs and so I said okay, I wonder how reclaimed water is working.
I’m wondering how direct installation of toilets and showerheads is working. I’m wondering or—or—or manda—mandatory—actually I think it was a mandatory switch out of toilets and shower heads. I wonder if that’s being done. I wonder how well it’s working. I wonder how well our rebates are working. I—I found that some of them did okay and many were fails. And I—I found that some of the rebate programs were questionable at the very least. My favorite—actually I’m being facetious—the worst one was giving rebates for people who put in rock gardens.
I—I mean, yeah, you’re going to save water if you replace your grass with rocks, but you’re also going to retain heat around your building that’s going to drive up your air conditioner costs. So you’re really solving on—one problem and creating another at the same time.
DT: Well and it seems like that’s been one of your strengths for many years is to think holistically about how there are these tradeoffs between energy and water and other kinds of conservation. And I think this might be a good segue to talk about the Austin Environmental Directory, which you’ve been involved with since I think 1994 in researching it, writing it, editing it, laying it out, publishing it, distributing it, fundraising for it—every facet—and—and that it’s touched on energy and water and green building and recycling and I was curious if you could talk about how that got started and—and why you’ve been involved with it?
DT: So, when we left off, we were just beginning to talk about the Austin Environmental Directory, which you are really entirely responsible for. And I—I was curious if you could talk about how it started and—and what that whole effort has entailed?
PR: The Austin Environmental Directory started in 19—the—the Austin Environmental Directory’s origins started I guess about 1991 or ’92. I had written a small book about creating jobs from recycled materials and I was discovering all these new products and gadgets and environmental services. And I thought well I’m an environmentalist and I’ve never heard of this. So if I’ve never heard of these things, the average person certainly hasn’t heard of it, so why don’t I create a sort of a—a green pages.
I—I know there’s a whole generation now that has no idea what a phonebook is but back in the—back in the day [said with accent]—back in the day, there were whole books printed up with people’s phone numbers and the yellow pages or the business directory was where you found a book full of businesses. And it would be listed by category—autos, clothing, et cetera. And so I thought wouldn’t it be cool if there was an environmental alternative phone book.
And I wanted to call it the Green Pages but some slash had trademarked the name and I thought well I’m going to end up, you know, getting in a lawsuit with someone over two of the most used words in the English language. I don’t have the money or time for this. So I called it the Austin Environmental Directory, which turned out to be good because a lot more people would have understood it. A lot more people understood that than Green Pages. So I earned a little bit of extra money from some work I was doing in 1994 and I thought well, why don’t I give this a try.
And the—the effort itself didn’t make any great amount of money but it was well received. And so I decided to do it again. The first issue was released in January of 1995. I am now writing the tenth issue in 2018, scheduled for released in the middle of next year. Now it started out mostly as products and services and I couldn’t do everything so I would, you know, do things that interested me like energy conservation products or in the first ed—edition, it was alternatives to hazardous chemicals in your home so that it could help people with multiple chemical sensitivity or help people from getting multiple chemical sensitivity.
And the second version, it was about food and how to stay away from toxic or dangerous kinds of food like, you know, buying—staying away from food treated with pesticides or staying away from food that was genetically engineered. And I would have a theme for each issue. The—the theme in this coming edition is about green children, about how to raise children environmentally, at least that’s how I’m planning it now, although it’s perfectly relevant to people who don’t have children.
I mean, children are more sensitive because their body weight is lower and because their metabolism is higher. But any one—any person of any age—is susceptible to multiple chemical sensitivity and the—the illnesses that can arise from it. Any person, no matter how old, is vulnerable to cancer if they ingest the wrong chemicals. So this can really help anyone. But it’s kind of being written with the parents of young children in mind. These are the products you want to buy to keep your children safe from harm, although it can really keep anybody safe from harm or safer from harm.
These—th—here’s places that you can go for environmental education of children. I would also like to write, and I can’t swear I’ll do this, but I’d like to write a small essay on the future that we—the world that we leave our children. It would be entitled, “Someday This Will All Be Yours” and right now it is so depressing that I cannot bring myself to print it. I’m trying to come up with a way that this could be written with an optimistic ending. I don’t sugarcoat things. I don’t—I don’t like to mislead people.
I mean, anybody—any co—any sentient being who, as an adult, wants to bring children in the world and sees the environment as it really is cannot help but have second thoughts because we are in so much trouble. We are on a di—we live on a dying planet. But I am trying to figure out how to write this essay to bring hope rather than somberness to a reader.
DT: Is—is there a message that you are trying to convey to the next generation that you could maybe describe?
PR: Well have I talked enough about the directory?
DT: Yeah, we can come back to it but I was thinking while we’re talking about this idea of green children and educating children about environmental things, perhaps it was the time to talk about that.
PR: Well I can give you my philosophy which some people may not share that have not had my life experience nor I theirs. So I can—if I had it to do over again, I would have prepared better for my life’s work. The fact is many projects that I take on are done for free because I—they’re too—they’re too far ahead of their time for me to find funders or because I’m not that good at finding futher—I’m not that good at finding funders or several other obstacles that I’ve had to contend with in my life.
And although I’m—I—I guess what I’m trying to say and I should be more succinct is that if someone has a commitment to the environment, they need to find a way that they can financially support themselves so they can stay sane while they’re doing this. Young’uns don’t do what I did. Don’t go into this half funded. It will drive you crazy. And if you have the stamina to—to—to persevere despite that handicap, well good on you, but it’s better if you have some stable means of support. Now it’s not like there’s, you know, these things don’t grow under cabbage leaves.
You have to kind of create your own situation. Maybe it’s in a profession that’s environmental, that will sustain you or maybe you can create a nestl—egg and live on the interest or partially live on the interest. You know, there is no one size fits all but if there’s one thing that I could do over again, it would have been to better prepare because when—what—when I got into this, it was just—I just jumped into it with both feet without thinking through how long I was going to do this, how long it would be necessary to do this.
If you want to, there will be no end of work for the rest of your lives. We live on a dying planet. And although I’m a very hopeful person in some ways, it will get worse before it gets better. So plan to be around a while and find a financial mechanism that will best ensure that you are.
DT: Sounds very pragmatic. So like take care of your financial security, take care of your mental health to take on some of these challenges. That?
PR: Well financial security will certainly impact your mental health. I—I mean, I—I—I—I don’t know—I don’t know that I need to go back and say this all over again. It’s just—and—and, you know, I don’t mean to make it sound like everybody has to have their own trust fund. And there are definitely things you can do on the outside as a volunteer that you cannot do as a public servant. I mean, hence the city manager that fired—I mean, the—look at the city manager that fired me as a—as an example.
Public servants cannot always be outspoken. But, you know, there’s different roles for different times in your life. And just plan ahead.
DT: Okay. How to raise a green child into a green adult. Good advice. Well let’s return to the Austin Environmental Directory’s other topics that I think you had—I think it’s done pieces on water and energy—green building I think has been a focus for a number of years. I’ve seen pieces in there.
PR: The Directory is structured thus—thusly. First…
PR: So the directory has several formats or roles. First, I try to have updated and—I try to have updated sections each edition on standard areas of interest such as water, energy, green building, recycling, and environmental groups and food. I try to have those as standard sections. There—with the exception of the environmental group, each one of these usually has new material in it. Sometimes they are entirely rewritten. I mean, why would I want to write a new book with old material?
The environmental group section—it’s—it’s sort of a place where each group gets to list their contact information and their purpose and their meeting times and places, et cetera. And that usually doesn’t change very much but at least the contact information is updated but everything else usually gets rewritten. It’s just not exciting for me to—to return to old material. If there is a section on products and services, any product and service that I have space to fit in will be listed, whether or not they are sponsors because I don’t want to get into playing favorites.
You know, for instance, if you’re a rainwater harvester and you’re in the Austin area, I’ll list you whether or not you’re a sponsor. So—
DT: And you can describe what is a rainwater harvester? Is this a cistern and drain pipe [inaudible] system?
PR: Well it—people—it—it—it means that if you’re in a house or building, you configure your gutters and drainage so that when it rains, all the rainwater is funneled into a small or a large container or cistern that can reuse that water. Depending on the size of the cistern, some people can use it—some people choose to use it just for landscape. Other people use it for almost all of their household needs so it kind of depends on where you are and how much money you have to invest in the system. But that—that’s just one example.
I mean, if—there’s energy conservation contractors. I list all of them, whether or not they are a sponsor. There may be certain green building products and categories. I will list all of them if it’s appropriate because whe—whether or not they’re sponsors, et cetera. So th—th—those are some of the rules that guide the directory. And then I also try and have a theme for each directory. In, you know, the first edition, it was chemicals and the second edition it was food. In other editions, it was energy.
It—in the 2013 edition, which was at the tail end of the worst drought in recorded history of Texas—in the recorded history of Texas—it was water and it tried to view the state water situation. And these are very in depth articles that deal with facts and the policy needed to make sound environmental decisions.
DT: And—and can you tell us a little bit about the—the sort of logistics of producing and distributing the directory?
PR: Logistics—isn’t that kind of a euphemism? You’re being really kind. Producing the directory entails fundraising, writing, research, layout, editing, distribution, and given that, with the exception of my kind editors who correct my misspellings and grammatical errors and save me from a considerable amount of social embarrassment, with the exception of my editors, I—I do at least half and maybe I—I write at least half and maybe more of each directory. So a—a lot of this is on me, even the half or—or quarter that I don’t write, I edit it.
So it’s—it’s kind of chaotic. You have to balance all these things. And it’s also—I almost apologize for saying this but it’s my philosophy and some people will—will probably accuse me of bloviating but this is how I feel. I have, you know, it’s like I may not get the chance to do something like this again so I’m going to do the best job that I possibly can and I’m going to do almost whatever it takes to do that. And sometimes I’ve gone a year and longer without being paid because the directory was not through with me.
I mean, I may have wished it had ended a long time ago, but to paraphrase Ursula Le Guin, the great science fiction writer, “Creativity finds a vessel and crushes it and goes on to find another.” And she would know. Well it’s kind of like—like I will come out of a—a Directory sometimes without being paid for a year or more but it’s got my name on it and I do not want to produce something that’s less than I am capable of.
DT: It’s—it’s a labor of love and conscience.
PR: And a labor of hate when you’re up at 3 in the morning cr—cr—cursing at all the people editing you because they’re being too—too picky, too—too idiosyncratic.
DT: Well we’ve covered a lot of ground from, you know, some of your lobbying work to the Environmental Directory and, of course, all your research and writing over the years. As we [overlapping conversation].
PR: I—I—I ne—it—if any of my editors are seeing this, I—I am merely being sarcastic. You have helped me so much. I am a much better writer for all that you have done. Excuse me, I’ve interrupted you.
DT: The—those prayers go straight to heaven.
PR: No, they go straight to any editor that has their ears burning.
DT: Well I just see as the time is rolling on that—that we should probably ask you—I have one more question—you may have some more things to offer—
PR: I’m sure you have several.
DT: We often ask people if there is a special place that they enjoy visiting that gives them solace when they’re, you know, working on something which has become a labor of hate is—you know, at 3 AM in the morning. Is there a place like that that you enjoy visiting?
PR: Well I often hike on Austin’s Green Belts. And I—the places that you describe are largely visited in my mind. I’ve only been to Enchanted Rock a few times but I find it—I am awestruck when I think about it. And there’s also a spring that almost nobody knows about close to West Cave Preserve. I’m privileged to be one of the few that know where it is. And I can go back in my mind and—and think about it when—when I want to.
When I—I first moved to Central Texas because it was so quiet, one could hear themselves think, which is kind of a scary thing if you hadn’t done it much. I—I—I feel very connected to—to certain places in the Hill Country that have provided that solace, that have provided the ability to focus, that have a—allowed me to escape the high volume to reason and think things through to figure out what my true feelings are.
PR: Wrote when I was feeling patently ridiculous. It’s about a nuclear plant and one lonesome cowboy.
PR: This was written in the seventies back when I first started and was trying to straddle poetry and make sense of environmental activism at the same time.
[music 01:59:49 – 02:03:36]
Nuke on the Range
Copyright, Paul Robbins
Oh give me concrete about twenty feet deep
And steel reinforcements so strong
An air mask of course
And an asbestos horse
To drive the lead doggies along.
Nuke, Nuke on the range
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a disparaging word
And less fallout’s predicted today.
Well the power is cheap and the sources unique
For the energy needs it will solve
Since the plant melted down, we can light the whole town
Without one electric black ball
Nuke, Nuke on the range
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a disparaging word
And less fallout’s predicted today.
Well you might ask me this
Why would we take such risk
To meet our energy needs?
Why to wash our blue jeans and run pinball machines
And the power that it takes to feed
My electric range, where the egg and the cantaloupe play
Where the cow hands all boast of the best raisin toast
And the butter will melt right away/
Well it’s time I move on cause my air supply’s gone
And my horsie’s beginning to run
When the Geiger count chimes, we are in for hot times
So I’ll gallop off into the sun.
Nuke, Nuke on the range
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a disparaging word
And less fallout’s predicted today.
PR: I did caution you in advance that it was ridiculous. But I had fun.
DT: Thank you.
PR: Isn’t that what’s important?
PR: Understand, I was training myself to be a writer and getting into politics was so foreign so there was this transition period where I wrote about the environment. And this is—this is—I think you’ll like the words. I’m still trying to work up a good delivery for this song but this is—this is a song about—it’s a song about intrigue and violence. It’s a song about two hijackers who try and blow up the plant in Matagorda, the nuclear plant.
[music 02:04:47 – 02:11:30]
Copyright, Paul Robbins
I picked up a hitchhiker, He became my best friend.
You don’t judge too severely when it gets close to the end.
He recited the password as though giving me a line
I watched the mirror close for someone coming up from behind.
We passed the Gulf refineries, my nerves began to grate.
The factories and oil towns along the Interstate.
I asked him was he doing this for something he believed.
He turned away and laughed at me as though I were naïve.
“Could you look for hope in a world this dead?
Two-thirds are starving, the rest force-fed,
And not find one person, aforesaid
That hungry, sick,
Enough to kill them all?
* * * * *
We rolled though Matagorda, just another Texas town.
If it weren’t written on the map, it wouldn’t have been found.
We drove into the marsh awhile ‘till sure that we were clear,
I gave a backward glance and said “We go on foot from here.”
It seemed we walked all afternoon though not a word was said.
We saw a man in uniform confronting up ahead.
He said this was a game preserve to get off of the grounds.
I attached the silencer before he turned around.
He died with no pain on his face.
Show of force, or act of grace?
It’s just that radiation takes
So long to kill
Say what you will
We left him still
And covered in the blind.
* * * * *
A signal beaming infrared was flashing in the night.
We put on special glasses and then ambled for the light.
We met a third companion and he led us through the fence.
There was no turning back now, introductions were dispensed.
The two hijacked the SCRAM control and systems override,
They sealed off the corridors and killed the ones inside.
I rewrapped the cooling pipes with an explosive tape.
A geyser was created with the force that it did make!
The guards ran firing, as if on cue,
I sat and wondered if they knew
What they were getting paid to do.
Stand and defend?
Or seek revenge?
What matter when
There’s nothing they could change?
* * * * *
Hidden I lay watching at the fire my friends incurred
This meant that my escape was now effectively deterred.
The shooting left me cut off from the point of rendezvous
When the rescue copter landed there was nothing I could do.
The rescue copter circled to the point they prearranged.
Because I wasn’t with them didn’t mean the plans had changed.
They bolted for the copter as the bullets sprayed the ground.
The copter bounded upwards leaving me dead or unfound.
I cannot blame them, I’d done the same.
Hope they were humble, as self contained.
When the escape copter burst in flames.
The lead cohorts
Need not resort
First hand reports
To know how it would end.
* * * * *
Evacuation sirens rang, the guards and workers fled.
They did not know about me so they left me there for dead.
The way they left half Texas unafraid and unaware.
When the pressure vessel cracked and poison scattered in the air
I hot-wired a company car and barreled down the road,
Watching in the mirror when I heard the plant explode.
Had a blowout going 85, the car went through the curb!
This uncharged tape recorder’s probably tracking my last words!
Seems I’ve been running all my life,
I’ve practiced hard, but never quite
Had enough time to do it right.
Now cheat the test,
Outrun the rest,
Outrun your death,
And now, try and outrun the wind…
Try and outrun the wind…
PR: Don’t trust anyone.