The Fight Is Never Over

At the Manhattan headquarters of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the nation's largest environmental organizations, Frances Beinecke sits in a corner office with not much space to spare; frugally, the lights are switched off on a sunny afternoon, and the coffee served to visitors is barely lukewarm. Beinecke, 56, a Prius-driving graduate of Yale and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has been with NRDC since 1973, the last seven years as executive director. In January she will take over the presidency of the organization from John Adams, who cofounded it in 1970 and helped build it into what is often cited as the most influential and effective environmental group in the nation, with about 650,000 members and 300 employees working on energy, pollution, land-use and resource-conservation issues. She spoke last week with NEWSWEEK's Jerry Adler:

BEINECKE: Well, better late than never. It's good to have the president recognize that we have an energy crisis, but the reality hasn't sunk in yet that we can't drill ourselves out of this challenge. It's not going to be oil and gas forever in this country.

We're putting a lot of our effort into promoting renewables. It's very encouraging that 19 states, I think, have adopted renewable portfolio standards, which require that a certain percentage of the state's power be generated by renewable sources, ranging from a few percent to 20 percent.

Solar, wind and hydropower, to some degree. Europe, especially Northern Europe, has made a major commitment to wind power, and they're generating a significant percentage of their power that way. Overall in the United States, the amount of power we generate from renewables is still less than 1 percent, so we think that there's a tremendous potential for growth in these areas.

We've looked at nuclear, but we continue to think it has serious problems. One is economic. If nuclear power could compete in the marketplace without major subsidies from Congress, it would be an interesting thing to look at. But that's not what the industry is proposing. And the waste problem is not solved. We haven't figured out what to do with the waste. Until they do that and can compete economically, we don't think it's a major part of the equation.

Solar power is a new source. We think subsidies or assistance from the federal government should go to the new technologies that need to come to the market. Nuclear has been around for a long time. When you and I were in college, it was going to be the key to the future, but it hasn't turned out that way.

Biofuels are definitely part of the renewables portfolio. There's growing interest in the agricultural sector, because that way we could have home-grown fuels. And it's not just corn: there's a lot of exploration going on as to what is the right crop mix. Right now we're looking at biofuels that use the entire plant, as opposed to just taking corn off the stalk.

You know, it's interesting. California has the most efficient per capita use of electricity in the country, because after their energy crisis three years ago they made very large investments in efficiency and conservation. It's really paid off, and we think that's a good model to take to other states.

We're looking at green buildings--30 percent of energy use in the country is embedded in buildings, so how they're built is a major factor in what our energy demand and use is. We're also looking for more efficient cars, more efficient appliances. The quickest savings and benefits come from using more efficiently the power you're already generating.

Well, another one is clearly our oceans, which basically are completely in crisis. The fish stocks are considerably depleted: 90 percent of the large fish of the oceans are gone. And, you know, the oceans are being harvested at an alarming rate and the technology that's being used is exceedingly destructive. For example, bottom-trawling essentially clear-cuts the ocean floor. It ruins the substrate, so you can't assume new fish stocks are going to develop there.

It requires major changes in ocean policy at the federal level, setting aside parts of the ocean as protected areas where fish stocks can resume. You've got to remember that the majority of the world's people get major protein from fish, and so the depletion of fish is an ecological problem but also a serious human problem. We need to feed 6-plus billion people around the earth, so it's really important to take this issue very seriously.

This is a long-term challenge for us. Look at global warming--people are just now beginning to understand that global warming is a threat, and polls are coming out showing that the majority of Americans think global warming is a threat we have to address. Oceans policy hasn't reached that level of public awareness. Maybe people who fish or surf or sail know, but the general public doesn't. And you can't get policies adopted until you have a constituency of people who care about them.

If you look at the history of the environmental movement over the last 35 years, much of what we've done in the United States is focus on the issues--clean air, clean water, land protection--that we can see and feel are immediately around us. But in the last five to 10 years we've realized that the whole global system is at risk. The atmosphere is at risk from global warming; the oceans are at risk from depletion and heavy overuse. And we have a responsibility to manage the whole system.

No. There's a complete disconnect between the way Congress and the president treat these issues and the way they're looked at by people on the ground. Everybody cares about the environment in his or her own way. There isn't a person who doesn't want clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. I think we have a nation of people who think they're entitled to this. And that to me is a great success.

One thing about the environmental movement: our aim is to safeguard the earth, and that's a continuing mission. You never succeed. The fight is never over.