by Eleanor J. Bader
Ask Ruth Caplan what individuals can do to protect the environment and her eyes light up, her hands begin to move and she starts to speak very rapidly.
“People are less likely today to think there will be a technological savior,” says the 50-year-old executive director of Environmental Action (EA). “They understand that it’ll take a real commitment by people to change” the conditions that threaten to destroy the earth. From global warming to rising sea levels, from acid rain to tropical rainforest destruction, from polluted air to fouled water, the crisis, she says, must be tackled now.
Some of the tasks – like the closing of nuclear power plants, the cessation of chemical warfare and nuclear testing, and the regulation of automotive and industrial emissions – are the purview of government. Although we can prod lawmakers to be environmentally conscious, and can protest their intransigence, government cooperation will ultimately be required.
On the other hand, individuals can do a number of things to render our world cleaner, safer and healthier. “When you buy things, don’t buy disposable products,” says Caplan. “For instance, you are using a disposable pen instead of a fountain pen. Use non-disposable razors. Ask everyone to give you a month of diaper service as your baby present.
A lot of stores sell in bulk, so buy the largest size so you have fewer containers to throw away. Think about how you get from place to place. Can you walk, ride a bike, or organize a carpool with friends? Each small thing you do, when many, many people do them, adds up.”
Take the town of West Orange, NJ as an example. According to Caplan, students and teachers from two local schools organized to protest the use of disposable, styrofoam trays in their school cafeterias. Although the school board had voted to use plastic because it cost five cents apiece less than paper, the student-teacher coalitions pushed the board to let the students decide, for themselves, which they preferred. In a week-long test of the two types of trays, students had a choice: Use foam trays for free or pay an extra nickel for paper.
Eighty-six percent of the junior high and 72 percent of the high school students chose the latter. Not surprisingly, the board switched to paper supplies.
The following year, after more pressure from students and faculty, the board switched again, this time to washable dishes and trays. Their conclusion: Not only did the change cut down the amount of cafeteria-generated trash, it was, in the end, far cheaper than using throwaways.
Caplan is no stranger to grassroots’ victories. She has been active on environmental issues for nearly 20 years, first in Oswego, NY, and now as executive director of the Washington, DC-based Environmental Action.
Founded by the organizers of Earth Day, Environmental Action has for two decades advocated clean air legislation, from tighter tailpipe standards to reduce smog, to technology-based reductions in toxic emissions. They have also consistently fought for minimizing the transportation and handling of high-level radioactive waste, and have supported laws to protect consumers from abuse by utility monopolies. Environmental Action’s Solid Waste Alternative Project (SWAP) is nationally recognized for its expertise on waste reduction and recycling. SWAP was instrumental in helping activists in Minneapolis and St. Paul write the nation’s most ambitious controls on solid waste creation. As a result, groceries in the Twin Cities now ban non-recyclable packaging from their shelves. In addition, Environmental Action participates in the Energy Conservation Coalition (ECC) and, along with 18 other organizations, is pushing hard for increased auto efficiency. ECC, like Environmental Action, also advocates “a crash program” to study the use of renewable technologies, like wind and sun.
With a staff of 23, Environmental Action’s offices are bustling, noisy. They are a far cry from the cramped living rooms and kitchen tables where Caplan got her start as an organizer.
“We moved to Oswego, NY from Chicago in August, 1968,” Caplan recalls. “Pete, my husband, got a teaching job at the State University of New York, so after six years in Chicago, we were leaving. Oswego is on the shore of Lake Ontario and has about 25,000 people.
At one time it was the largest city in upstate New York, with a lot of commerce. But it never grew. It’s an area with very high rural poverty,” she continues. “Many of the houses had dirt floors, and there were frequent kerosene fires. Oswego has a river running through it, and three hills: Irish, Italian and Polish. Each has its own parish and its own bars. And then there’s the college. When we first came it was still the land of the panty raid.”
Although Caplan had been employed as an educational evaluator in Chicago, she did not meet New York state’s licensing requirements and was forced to look for other types of work. With a six_month-old baby in tow, she began volunteering with the League of Women Voters. “I could have been a faculty wife,” she laughs. “But those of us who didn’t identify as faculty wives got involved in the League.”
Around this time, in the fall of 1968, Caplan realized that there was no place in town to buy UNICEF or other progressive greeting cards or crafts. “The townspeople thought UNICEF was communist,” she says. “So a few of my friends and I rented a storefront and sold cards made by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and UNICEF, and crafts made by co-ops in Guatemala. There was literature and coffee. We were open for three months before Christmas. The next summer we went to North Carolina and brought back crafts to sell. We did this for a few years, until the store got to be too successful. People were coming in to buy nice Christmas presents and were not staying to look at any of the political stuff.” Within several years, the store was dissolved.
Then, when Earth Day activities were announced for April 22, 1970, she participated. “Jonathan was born in February, 1970. He was on my back, and Becky, who was two, was toddling after me as I picked up bottles and cans on the shore of Lake Ontario. It was an informal, one-day thing, locally organized.”
That event concluded, and the card and craft business closed, Caplan and her friends began looking for a new project to get involved in. “We talked about what we wanted to do next, and we were clear – it had to be something to do with the environment. As a group we quit using disposable diapers and paper napkins. We began to recycle cans and glass. We grew our own food, made bread. Pete and I were into the concept of communal living, sharing childcare and a house with another couple…First of all, working on environmental issues was something we could start doing. It was very consistent with raising our own food and self sufficiency. You had two movements going on in this period. The back-to_the-land movement, which we were playing at doing since we weren’t out in the wilderness, and the activists who were coming out of Earth Day. These two movements did not always intersect.
I had one foot in the back-to-the-land movement, and had room to place another foot down. At first we thought we’d work on public transportation, since Oswego had no public transit whatsoever.”
But something serendipitous happened, and Caplan’s life was forever changed by it. “We called this meeting, and a strawberry fanner from nearby came and said ‘I don’t know what you had planned for tonight, but I have this tape for you to hear.'” The speaker they heard was Dr. Arthur Tamplin, a nuclear chemist at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. The subject was plutonium, and the tape offered a detailed description of the dangers residents faced from the nearby Nine Mile Point nuclear power plant. “We listened very carefully,” says Caplan.
“And we were never the same again…Plutonium has a half life of 24,000 years. It is highly toxic. If it lodges in your lungs, it can cause cancer. And it is man-made; it does not occur naturally.”
After listening to Tamplin, Caplan and the other meeting attendees began to seriously study the issue of nuclear power. “We read everything, the 10 or 12 of us, from Scientific American, to Science Magazine, everything.” Then, after about a year of study, “we saw a notice in the newspaper that the New York Power Authority wanted a license from the Atomic Energy Commission to open a second nuclear power plant, Nine Mile II. We called a meeting to decide what to do, half of us saying ‘We can’t just let this happen,’ and the other half saying ‘No, we’re scared. We’re not ready to do this.'” The group split.
Calling themselves Ecology Action, those who chose to fight the plan began organizing from the ground up. Between applying for a “permit to intervene” in the plan, to attending every hearing on the matter and demanding both an environmental impact statement and a water quality monitoring board, Caplan and her colleagues got firsthand experience in challenging corporate power and dealing with complicated bureaucracies. Although they ultimately lost their bid to stop the plant from being constructed, they won their demand for a water quality monitoring board – with Dr. Arthur Tamplin as a member.
The group then turned its attention to stopping the Rochester Gas and Electric Company from building coal plants in the area. With help from the Sierra Club, the group was able to squelch the utility’s plan.
For Caplan herself, these were heady times. Between 1973 and 1975 she pursued coursework at Syracuse University, graduating with a Master’s Degree in public administration. When Pete got a sabbatical in 1975, he, Ruth and their two children packed up and moved to Boston. During the two years they lived there, Ruth worked for the Citizen’s Watershed Association, organizing local residents to get the Clean Water Act enforced.
“Meanwhile, in upstate New York, the Lake Shore Alliance had formed, bringing people from Ithaca, Rochester and Syracuse together. By the late 1970s, after Three Mile Island, we were able to do a lot of organizing. We organized Oswego to try and take the High Dam. The city owned the dam, but leased it to the Niagara Mohawk Power Company. There was tremendous feeling that the city should operate the dam itself. Local people were very interested…It was their dam.”Although they lost this battle, Ecology Action had begun to make headway in the community. Shortly after the dam issue peaked, the group was able to mobilize enough opposition to stop a prototype for the first incinerator in the U.S. from being created. “We got a lot of public support on this,” Caplan recalls. “We petitioned in shopping centers. Women would come up to us and say ‘I can’t sign. My husband works for Niagara Mohawk, but I’m with you.'”
By 1979, Caplan was the Energy Committee chair of the New York state chapter of the Sierra Club. She later became national Energy Committee chair. Feeling more and more connected to national work, Caplan decided to move to DC when her husband got his next sabbatical. That was 1982; they have never left.
“I knew Environmental Action very well,” she says. “In the mid 1970s, the People’s Power Coalition of New York State got a boost from Rick Morgan, an Environmental Action staffer, who helped us get organized.” Caplan stayed in touch with the group. “When I was job hunting in 1982, I checked out EA. They had a lobbying position opposing the Clinch River Breeder Reactor in Tennessee.” She got the job, and, in coalition with others, succeeded in stopping the reactor.
Since becoming Environmental Action executive director, Ruth Caplan has become well known as an articulate, passionate environmentalist. “The next 10 years are critical to ward off global devastation,” she says. “In the United States, we must recapture the vision of an energy-efficient, solar-powered economy. To reduce carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and to prevent a plunge back into nuclear power, homes and offices must eliminate energy waste.
Solar and hydrogen-powered vehicles using energy-efficient designs must be developed. Transportation planners must make public transportation and safe bike lanes a priority. Products must be manufactured that last and can be repaired or reused…Unless countries act now, they will be responding to one natural crisis after another.” Then, without missing a beat, she smiles. “The next decade needs Environmental Action.”
Ruth Caplan is the author of Our Earth, Ourselves: The Action-Oriented Guide to Help You Protect and Preserve the Environment (Bantam). ever sent to Washington.”