If anyone’s interested, what follows is a kind of autobiography. It proves, if nothing else, my stubborn persistence. Hurrah for me! But, oh dear, here is also proof of my many setbacks, defeats, and rejections.
For me personally, writing this account is like a tour of ruins, engaging but cautionary. None of the projects I founded or co-founded down through the years are still alive. Under these conditions, who but a fool would continue? My only defense is a rueful one: I didn’t know what else to do, and I didn’t know how to stop what I was doing. Not too smart! I should have gone to a business school; that seems clear. Anyway, here’s the story.
After graduating from Ohio State University in 1959, my first job was with the Information Office of the Division of Water Supply and Pollution Control of the US Public Health Service (PHS). Public awareness of water pollution was scant in those days, so PHS launched the Clean Water Campaign, the first mass media “environmental” public service program undertaken by the Advertising Council. I helped design and run this campaign. My next assignment, 1966 to 1968, was with the President’s Council on Recreation and Natural Beauty, the predecessor agency to the present Council on Environmental Quality. There I was a principal author of From Sea to Shining Sea, A Report on the American Environment, the first government-wide survey and analysis of federal environmental goals and programs.
In 1966, I served as assistant manager of the White House Conference on Natural Beauty, an initiative spearheaded by First Lady Ladybird Johnson. This conference brought together an unprecedented collection of diverse interests — traditional conservationists mingled with inner city advocates and experts on energy, agriculture, transportation, and more. The broader, more comprehensive view that resulted was increasingly described as environmental, a word then gaining currency.
In 1968, Russell Train, then President of The Conservation Foundation, hired me to organize a grassroots citizen’s movement for clean air. During the next three years, I traveled the country, serving as a kind of environmental Johnny Appleseed, spreading the ecological gospel and organizing regional civic coalitions. For this work, I was later awarded the Leadership Medal of the United Nations Environment Program for “distinguished contribution to the cause of the environment.”
A man ought to practice what he preaches, so in the late 1960s I became a local activist in order to protect my own neighborhood in Washington, DC. I helped organize opposition to the proposed construction of the Three Sisters Bridge over the Potomac River north of Georgetown. (The bridge would have connected I-66 in Arlington, Virginia, with K Street in the District of Columbia and brought the super-highway through downtown Washington.) After a long struggle, the bridge was finally abandoned.
The fight over the Three Sisters Bridge was just one of many anti-freeway struggles. The Federal Highway Administration then had construction plans for hundreds of new freeways on its agenda, and most of these roads were slated to invade some neighborhood or some park or wilderness area. Not surprisingly, wherever a freeway was scheduled, local opposition sprang up. I “networked” this massive localized ferment, helping to forge it into a unified political force.
In 1969, I tried to expand the anti-freeway movement into a pro-public transportation movement by organizing the first national citizen’s conference on public transportation, a project co-sponsored by the Urban Coalition and The Conservation Foundation.
In 1970, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson called for a national environmental “teach-in,” a proposal that soon evolved into Earth Day, an event later to be described as “the largest single political demonstration in history.” For my part, I led the many civic activists I was networking into Earth Day, helping to ensure the event consisted of far more than student protests on campuses.
Earth Day put environmental protection on the world’s agenda and created a new and powerful worldwide social movement, but it also gave rise to an equally powerful opposition that accused environmentalists of harming the economy, especially by destroying jobs and small businesses. How were these accusations to be answered?
To find answers, I worked with various collaborators to launch several initiatives. The first of these was the Public Interest Economics Center (1971-1975), a project that worked to create a model for pro bono service by professional economists analogous to public interest law. A great idea but doomed to flop. Lawyers are hired guns who protect their client’s interests whatever they are. Economists, by contrast, view themselves as High Priests in service of the Truth.
The second of these initiatives was Environmentalists for Full Employment, an effort to build bridges between environmental groups and labor unions which I co-founded in 1971.
The third was the National Council for the Public Assessment of Technology (1973-1976), which I chaired. This project encouraged and facilitated participation by environmental and consumer groups in science and technology policy to mirror the then new Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a useful institution that was later to fall victim to the Reagan Revolution.
All these projects embodied great ideas; all were launched with high hopes; all were invested with plentiful supplies of blood, sweat and tears by their founders; all were to wither on the vine. Little or nothing remains of them today. What did I get out of this? I learned many bitter but valuable lessons, and I acquired a certain facility at drafting manifestos imploring others to hurl themselves into civic battles. (There’s not much call for manifesto drafting these days, at least not in the political backwaters I inhabit.)
The beat goes on. In 1978, I served as National Vice-Chair of Sun Day, a project intended to do for solar energy what Earth Day did for the environment.
In 1973, I had begun collaborating with the late E. F. Schumacher, author of Small Is Beautiful, then an international bestseller that made its author famous.
In his book, Schumacher described how large centralized organizations, despite their vaunted economies of scale, tend to become mired in complexity and, hence, slow, cumbersome, and wasteful. By contrast, decentralized small-scale enterprises — thrifty, versatile and agile — tend to conserve material and energy.
In league with Schumacher, I organized a grassroots network to promote the thesis that small-scale enterprise is environmentally benign. Although this effort flared briefly, it did not, alas, long survive Schumacher himself, who died in 1977. Then came the go-go 80s, a decade hooked on the notion “big is better.” By contrast, small-scale enterprise appeared dinky, prosaic, and unfashionable. And by then the counter-revolution to Earth Day was in full swing.
I was to experience this shift and be hit hard by it when I served as National Chair of Earth Day ’80, the 10th anniversary celebration. The press, no longer siding with us, had but one overriding inquiry: How many jobs have you environmentalists destroyed today?
In 1980 I published Nothing Can Be Done, Everything Is Possible, a book of essays on social and political change the Christian Science Monitor called “a primer for the modern-day activist.”
The 1980s was quite a decade for me. Looking back at it now, I must say I’m quite impressed with the fellow I was then. I tried my hand at producing theater, somehow finding within myself the massive gall and daring it took to write the books and the scores for two musical plays, Out of Style, presented at d.c. space, and Sweet Talk, produced at the Source Theatre Company’s Eleventh Annual Washington Theatre Festival in conjunction with Vest Pocket Theatre.
I was co-founder and Artistic Director of The Public Interest Follies, a community theater whose satirical revues poked fun at the Reagan administration but also at the mentality and psychology of the liberal/left. The Follies lasted almost a decade, with the revue running opposite the second Reagan inaugural drawing that night’s hottest ticket, per the Washington Post.
Alas, none of these literary and theatrical projects earned enough money to pay even for the costs of Xeroxing manuscripts so by the 1990s, I was compelled to go back to what I do best which is promoting constructive social change for little or no pay.
In 1990, I began a long collaboration with Elizabeth Lisboa-Farrow, President and CEO of LISBOA Inc, a communications firm in Washington, DC. I served as the firm’s Senior Environmental Advisor. Work with Lisboa-Farrow, then Chair of the U. S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, was a partnership aimed at integrating environmental concerns with economic development for women and minorities. The principal medium for this work was the promotion of energy efficiency for small businesses. The work has been performed under contract to EPA’s Energy Star Small Business program.
Also in the 1990s, I observed that the revolution in communications technology vastly strengthened and expanded the capacity of small-scale enterprises to achieve efficiencies and to produce environmentally benign innovations. In the Information Age, small is more beautiful than ever.
To exploit this new and huge potential for environmental good, I founded the Center for Small Business and the Environment (CSBE) in 1998. CSBE was a project of the Tides Center, a non-profit, non-partisan, 501c(3) organization.
When CSBE started in 2000, hardly anyone saw a powerful and constructive connection between small business and environmental protection. We worked hard to make the connection clear to all, often instigating first-time-ever events such as these: In October 2004, we took a delegation of Green Gazelle business owners to the White House to brief senior Bush Administration staff on the role of green entrepreneurs in protecting the environment while creating economic growth and new jobs. On April 22, 2004 – Earth Day – at our instigation the Republican-led House Committee on Small Business held its first hearing ever on green entrepreneurship. Various green small business owners testified.
The California Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) CSBE, in partnership with Small Business California, was instrumental in mobilizing small business support for the California Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) passed in 2006. AB 32 is the toughest legislation in the United States to tackle global warming and it also represented the first time environmentalists and small business had teamed up to find solutions to global warming. On November 1, 2006 – four weeks after Governor Schwarzenegger signed the California Global Warming Solutions Act into law – CSBE and the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) provided a Congressional briefing on AB 32’s passage. This, in turn, led to another first: the first Senate hearing ever on small business and climate change. The Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship held a hearing entitled “Small Business Solutions for Combating Climate Change” on March 8, 2007.
In 2009, CSBE released Small Wonders, a report that documents the role of green entrepreneurs in generating countless innovations in agriculture, energy, housing, and transportation and so on – and in the process fomenting a quiet technological and economic revolution. The report was the first effort ever made to assess the phenomenon of green entrepreneurship as a whole and it remains the only such assessment. Small Wonders argues that green entrepreneurs are especially credible advocates for the interests of the rising post-industrial economy. They’re not utopian visionaries but real business people running real risks to obtain real profits and create real jobs. This is political dynamite. Small Wonders was presented to the Obama Administration on June 10, 2009, in a meeting at the White House Conference Center. Later the same day, we presented the report to Congress in a briefing held under the auspices of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.
The report did not find an audience, which frustrated me immensely but set me on a new path: the hidden path of stealth, terrain that’s been described in my book How to Trick People into Doing the Right Thing (2020).
The writing bug was very strong in 2020, when I also published a book that attempted to capture the story of my many years of work as a pioneer environmentalist: You Can’t Fool Mother Nature: The Once and Future Triumph of Environmentalism.
I was a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, appearing in the Comedy section (“Occupy Nursing Homes: A Cause to Die For”) and in Gay Voices (“Name Your Poison: Gay Marriage or Global Warming?”).
I am also a presence on YouTube where I’ve posted a series of comedy videos on environmental topics (“Don’t Sweat Global Warming!”) (“Talk to the Animals”).
Byron Kennard was born on December 12, 1937, in Dayton, Ohio and was raised in the small town of Lebanon, Ohio, a few miles south of Dayton.
Kennard is a graduate of the Ohio State University (BA, 1959), where he was Sophomore Class President, Junior Class President, and President of the Student Senate. He was chosen Outstanding Senior Man in 1959.