Tilting at Mills: Green Dreams, Dirty Dealings, and the Corporate Squeeze

Tilting at Mills: Green Dreams, Dirty Dealings, and the Corporate Squeeze

by Lis Harris

View All Available Formats & Editions

It is New York City in 1992. Unaware of the heartbreak he will encounter, the veteran environmentalist Allen Hershkowitz proposes developing a major recycled-paper mill in the city. He's tired of being outgunned too often by industry lobbyists in legislative battles and wants to develop an environmentally friendly and profitable business that will bring jobs to one of


It is New York City in 1992. Unaware of the heartbreak he will encounter, the veteran environmentalist Allen Hershkowitz proposes developing a major recycled-paper mill in the city. He's tired of being outgunned too often by industry lobbyists in legislative battles and wants to develop an environmentally friendly and profitable business that will bring jobs to one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. What's more, the project could become a national model.
But Hershkowitz quickly finds himself pitted against surprising forces. To the idealist's surprise, neighborhood activists fiercely resist outsiders, and he must confront byzantine politics and powerful industry hostility. The project may be outstanding environmentally and socially, but often that's not what matters. From beginning to end, Tilting at Mills reveals what can occur in attempted alliances between big business and environmentalists and is filled with shocking stories of what really happens behind the scenes in major deal-making.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this insightful though slim volume, Harris (Holy Days) documents the rise and fall of a major New York City recycling plant. After suffering a defeat in Washington in 1992, environmental lobbyist Allen Hershkowitz began to think that working to develop green-friendly business might be a more successful means of achieving his idealistic ends. With the support of his nonprofit employer, he embarked on an eight-year odyssey to build a technologically advanced paper mill in the South Bronx that would be responsive to the surrounding community. The reasons for the plant's ultimate demise are too numerous to list-they touch on technology, market forces, politics and personality. Harris, to her credit, doesn't try to scapegoat one culprit. Based on interviews with many but not all of the important players, the book hews to the point of view of Hershkowitz, who takes only a light drubbing for being too smart, na ve and enthusiastic. Harris essentially fleshes out and follows up on the story she first reported in the New Yorker in 1995, and the book retains the flow and skilled writing associated with the magazine. However, due to the number of players and the complexity of the issues involved, Harris raises many more questions than she is able to address in a book of this length and style. Still, this deservedly will be popular among environmentalists and should be required reading for politicians and businesspeople who claim to support innovation. (Mar. 11) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Create a clean, green paper mill in the heart of New York, adding jobs and dollars to a failing economy? Rare is the good idea that is realized without being made somehow less good. Or good and dead. So former New Yorker staffer Harris (Rules of Engagement, 1995, etc.) proves in this thoroughgoing account of good intentions, white papers, backroom dealing, and, in the end, sabotage. The hero of the tale is 30-ish Allen Hershkowitz, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council who by dint of hard study and work had made himself one of the world's leading authorities on recycling technologies. Inspired in part by the saga of the Mobro, a New York City garbage scow that in 1987 sailed the high seas seeking a place to deposit its noxious cargo, Hershkowitz concocted a plan by which an essentially abandoned plot of land in the Bronx could be remade into an environmentally progressive factory for de-inking and recycling used paper, which accounted for nearly half of the contents of America's overflowing landfills and was New York's biggest export. Hershkowitz recruited a stellar host of allies and even persuaded Maya Lin to design the new factory. But enter an opposing army of special interests, from NIMBY (and sometimes crooked) neighborhood associations to trade unions, from the mayor's office (Rudy Giuliani comes in for a good shellacking here) to competing paper companies, all bent on either seizing a piece of the action or making sure that the Bronx Community Paper Company is stillborn. As the narrative unfolds, Hershkowitz's idea is bled dry by a thousand paper cuts, an excruciating torture. Overly laden with detail, Harris's account has its torturous moments as well, but in theend it adds up to a pointed case study in the conflicting priorities and unforeseen foes that any do-gooder is likely to face in advancing a just cause. Of much interest to environmentalists, community planners, and policy wonks.
From the Publisher
"Tilting at Mills is a gripping narrative." -New York Magazine New York Magazine

"...fast-paced and dramatic.." -Booklist Booklist, ALA

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Sold by:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
File size:
229 KB

Read an Excerpt

Rules of the Game

On a chilly late December day in 1992, Allen Hershkowitz, a senior
for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the country's preeminent
environmental advocacy and legal action groups, left his office in lower
Manhattan at around six-thirty in the evening, drove up to the Mott Haven
section of the South Bronx, and inched his green Subaru uncertainly along
Prospect Avenue near 161st Street. He had an eight o'clock appointment
with a community development group named Banana Kelly and, though he
arrived early, it was already dark, the street badly lit, and he was having a
hard time locating its storefront headquarters. Hershkowitz had grown up in
New York, but in Brooklyn, and didn't know the Bronx that well. He had
invited to speak to Banana Kelly's board of directors by the organization's
chair and executive director, Yolanda Rivera, about his idea of their joining
forces with NRDC and a paper company to build a paper mill in the South
Bronx, an ambitious, innovative project that he had been thinking about for
nearly a year. It was an idea that some called visionary, others crazy.

An intense, tousle-haired man in his late thirties with thick, black,
upward-tending eyebrows that gave him a permanently quizzical look,
Hershkowitz drove past the address he had been given several times, but
shutters were down, so he thought he was at the wrong place. Looking for
help, he drew alongside a parked car, where he saw someone sitting in the
front seat, but, as he would tell one of his colleagues the next day, "when I
pulled up to the car to ask where Banana Kelly was, so help me god, the
in the driver's seat was shooting up. Now I'm not a naive guy," he went
on, "and growing up in East Flatbush you're not exactly sheltered, but that
was the first time in my life I ever saw anyone shooting up. He was certainly
the wrong guy to ask for directions. So I parked the car and walked up to a
door that I thought was the right one, but there was no bell. I knocked but
nobody answered, so I stood there for maybe an hour in my suit and tie
my briefcase and, quite frankly, I'm the only white guy around." For a while
he watched some young children playing in the street, vainly looking for the
adult he wished were looking after them. "Finally," as he told it, "Yolanda
comes out and sees the scene, and she's being very solicitous, but she's
also laughing — because, of course, the board has been sitting there all
time waiting for me."
A long and complicated path had brought him to Banana Kelly's
doorstep. Over the past fifteen years, Hershkowitz, who has a Ph.D. in
political economics from the City University of New York, where he had
specialized in electric utilities technology and the environment, had become
one of the country's leading experts on recycling — especially on waste
management, municipal waste, medical waste, and sludge. He had trodden
the well-established path of environmental advocacy and, in courtrooms and
legislative committee rooms in Washington and across the country, his was
a familiar face. He had served as an adviser for the Organization of
States, the World Bank, and numerous municipalities, legislative bodies,
environmental organizations, and businesses. His publications included
technical books with titles only an enviro wonk could love (Garbage:
Practices, Problems and Remedies, Garbage Management in Japan, and
Garbage Burning: Lessons from Europe ), and articles he'd written had
appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, Newsday, City
Limits, and the Nation, among other publications.
Hershkowitz was overjoyed when NRDC, an organization founded
in 1970 by progressive young Yale lawyers and well-connected New
and that had a hand in shaping nearly every major environmental law,
him in 1989 for a full-time job and made him director of their National Solid
Waste Project. He believed when he took the job that he would be satisfied
spending the rest of his life lobbying for good environmental laws in
and helping to prevent bad ones from doing further damage. Over the years,
however, his experience as an advocate caused him to question what he
perceived as some inherent limitations in the work he was doing.
In 1982, he married Margaret Carey, a tall, spirited, fellow
graduate student (she worked in energy conservation), and between 1987
1990 they had three children, two boys and a girl. When he watched his
children playing or asleep in their beds, questions about the healthfulness
the world they were growing up in — questions to which he had all too
discouraging answers — surfaced often in his mind. And the more he
about it, the more frustrated he felt about how tough it was for him and for
colleagues to get crucial environmental protections past their
industrial opponents.
Throughout the late 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, NRDC,
in a coalition with cities, counties, states, and other environmental groups,
tried to get a National Recycling Act passed that would push industries
to take more environmental responsibility for their products and stimulate
market for recycled material. Hershkowitz had joined NRDC, in fact, to lead
the effort to draft that statute. The struggle to get the bill passed occupied
four years of his life, and he often had to spend long patches of time in
Washington, D.C., marooning Meg and the kids in the rather isolated
New York house where they then lived.
The federally mandated closing of open landfills and dumps
throughout the country during the 1980s raised waste disposal costs so
alarmingly that some municipalities suddenly found themselves budgeting
more for garbage disposal than they were for schools or police or fire
departments. Not knowing what else to do, many of them began building
incinerators as an alternative to the dumps, but once it became known that
hazardous air emissions were being spewed from the incinerators, huge,
politically divisive community battles erupted about where to site them. In
1987, the well-publicized plight of New York City's garbage-laden barge,
Mobro, which floated around the southern coast of the United States and
Central America for months (its load finally ended up being incinerated in
Brooklyn, then buried in the Islip, Long Island, municipal landfill), briefly
brought the larger issue of the country's garbage problems to the forefront of
public environmental consciousness.
For an equally fleeting moment, so did a growing awareness of
medical waste washing up on beaches, along with dioxin-releasing hospital
incinerators, and there was a flurry of public debate about toxic materials in
consumer products and battles about interstate garbage and toxic waste
transport. The need to get a grip on these issues had become important
enough for the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 1990, to be
dedicated largely to promoting recycling, by then the most widely supported
environmental activity in the country. More and more, members of Congress
were hearing from their constituents about these problems and were
increasingly troubled by the political battles they engendered. (At one
meeting he attended that year, when everyone in the room was asked what
they did, a representative of the plastics industry pointed to Hershkowitz
said, "My job is to follow him around and respond to him.") The times
not only right but propitious for the passage of a progressive National
Recycling Act, or so a great many people outside Congress thought.
On June 6, 1992, the culminating moment of NRDC's four-year
campaign on behalf of the statute, Hershkowitz, who by then was
the chief researcher for people seeking recycling information, mounted the
granite steps of the Rayburn office building at seven-thirty a.m. and headed
toward a House Commerce Committee room for the Recycling Act mark-up
(a meeting to which all the members of a congressional committee are
to deliberate on a bill and have an opportunity to amend it before it is voted
and, if approved, sent on to the full House for a vote). The vote was
to begin at ten o'clock. Outside the committee room a House security
handed him a slip stamped with the number 189, and told him to get in line.
Industry lobbyists routinely pay a per-hour fee to placeholders to
arrive at six a.m. and secure a good spot in line for them when they want to
be sure to get in to congressional meetings. About ten minutes before the
committee room doors are thrown open, the lobbyists show up and claim
their spots. Other lobbyists circumvent the process entirely by being
escorted into the room by congressmen they have good relationships with

relationships frequently cemented with handsome financial contributions.
nine-thirty that morning there were already about 450 people in the Rayburn
Building corridor, waiting in line to get in to the committee room. Only six of
those in line represented environmental groups (according to one legislative
aide, Coca-Cola alone had forty lobbyists focusing on the bill to make sure
contained no provision mandating bottle deposits or recycled container
Knowing that there were only about 150 seats in the House
Commerce Committee room, Hershkowitz walked quickly over to the office
Representative Al Swift, a Democrat from Washington State, the chairman
the committee. Swift had worked closely with Hershkowitz on the bill and
also gone along on one of two fact-finding trips — to Europe and to Japan

that NRDC had sponsored. The purpose of the trips had been to observe
sophisticated recycling technologies in countries more advanced in waste
management than the United States. Swift had gone on the European tour.
Hershkowitz found Swift, cigar in hand, just as he was about to leave for the
committee room, and asked him if he would walk him in through a back
so he could secure a seat. Swift was happy to accommodate him.
When they got to the room a few minutes before the doors
opened, it was already half filled with industry lobbyists, who, like
Hershkowitz, had been walked in by their own congressional allies. Only
other enviros managed to squeeze into the room after the doors were
opened. As the day went on, the reason for the heavy industry presence
became clear: many retrograde industry-sponsored amendments were to be
jimmied into the bill. The plastics industry managed to get their waste
incineration defined as recycling; there was a provision couched in language
that made it seem as if the well-being of the nation depended on allowing
federal government to override local zoning ordinances forbidding the siting
incinerators; and the paper industry had succeeded in getting amendments
into the bill that allowed virgin timber byproducts to be labeled as waste
recycling. At day's end, but before the legislation was voted on, the enviros
felt compelled to kill the bill they'd worked fl at out on for so long.
to release them to the national media, they issued to committee members
and their staff press releases that attacked the legislators for drafting what
had now essentially become an antirecycling bill, one that would, if passed,
set the progress already made in recycling back twenty years.
In response to the press releases and the fear of committee
members that they would be pilloried by their constituents for being
antirecycling, the bill was never even reported out of mark-up and never
on. By two o'clock in the afternoon, it was dead. The industry lobbyists
ecstatic. No directives about recycling municipal waste would become
law. And none has been issued since then with the exception of
Order 12873, signed by President Clinton in 1993 — despite a pitched
mounted in Congress by the paper industry trying to prevent it — requiring
federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, to buy recycled

It was in January 1992, six months before the National Recycling Act was
killed and when hope for its passage was still high, that Hershkowitz had
the fact-finding mission for members of the House and Senate to Europe
spoken with environmental regulators and people who ran profitable,
environmentally sound, large-scale industries.
In Belgium, the group discussed with European Union ministers
tentative plans to adopt Germany's broad-ranging recycling ordinances
(Germany was recycling three times as much as the United States)
throughout the EU — plans that were subsequently adopted. With the EU's
population of roughly 320 million collaboratively attempting to change long
entrenched habits, the standard U.S. industry argument against adopting
more progressive standards — that what worked in tiny European countries
could never work in a country with as large a population as the United
States — fell to shambles. But for Hershkowitz, the most revelatory
of the trip came when the group visited a paper mill located in a small town
near Stuttgart. The mill drew on recycled office paper to make pulp and
neither chlorine bleach nor any other pollutant that would have made its
presence a burden on the town, and it employed local people to run it.
Wherever they went, the CEOs, government officials, and
regulators they met were unanimous in their view — anathema to most U.S.
industries — that those who made a product had a direct responsibility for
disposal in such a way that it could be reused or recycled.
During the German leg of the trip, after looking at the mill near
Stuttgart, Hershkowitz began to think seriously about the possibility of
initiating a large-scale project in New York — perhaps even a paper mill —
based on the European model. He had seen with his own eyes efficient
recycling programs that were meeting the ever-growing demand for recycled
pulp, and new technologies were also supposedly coming along that used
low-grade wastepaper to produce a higher grade of finished product. This
an exciting discovery for him, because the pulp and paper industry, which
had relied on wood since the 1850s, was the third biggest industrial
greenhouse gas emitter (after the chemical and steel industries) in the
and probably contributed more to global and local environmental problems
than any other industry. In the United States, it was also one of the most
heavily subsidized industries; there were more than 369,000 miles of
subsidized roads in the nation's forests, two times the mileage of the
interstate highway system. And even though the world is fast running out of
fresh water and the demand for it is expected to be greater than the supply
by the end of the first quarter of this century, the paper industry's need for it
keeps growing. Paper companies are the largest industrial users of water in
the world.
NRDC had sued a number of paper companies and at that time
had a lawsuit pending against the EPA in an effort to make it enforce the
Clean Water Act's directives regarding the permissible level of dioxin, a
byproduct of the chlorine bleach most of the companies used in their pulp
plants, directives which the paper companies routinely disregarded.
(Eventually NRDC won the suit, but got only a watered-down version of what
they and other environmental groups were asking for. As of this writing, the
paper companies have mounted a countersuit and the matter is still before
the courts.)
Hershkowitz knew that there had been a wood-based mill in the
city at the beginning of the century, and several aborted attempts had been
made to start other mills. But why hadn't anyone successfully found a way
drawing on New York City's vast supply of paper waste, sometimes referred
to as "the urban forest," Hershkowitz wondered as he flew back from
to supply a de-inking paper mill in New York? Wastepaper — discarded
paper from offices, and newspapers, magazines, and junk mail placed at
curbside by residents — was then the city's biggest export, and there was
least half as much cellulose fiber per acre potentially available as there was
in the Brazilian rain forest. The city was, as he often said at panel
discussions, the Saudi Arabia of wastepaper, and most of it was being sent
to China, India, and Canada, where it was made into recycled paper, and
waste that wasn't separated was being dumped in poor communities in the
South. Why couldn't you build a mill using the latest technology he'd
about in Europe, one which did not use chlorine bleach, and which could be
in the city and close to the source of the pulp instead of having to truck or
ship it thousands of miles away to pulp mills? It seemed like a great idea,
though how to do it and where you might put it, he had no idea. Of one
he was sure, however. The heady experience that he and other veteran
environmentalists had had over the past years of being in demand for panels
and international commissions that reflected a growing concern about
environmental issues was not being translated into action. Of course,
important gains had been made, but basically enviros, time and again,
themselves in the role of petitioners hoping for scraps from the industrial
table. Recalling that moment years later, he would tell me: "We were
called all over the world. Congress wanted us; the Europeans wanted us;
European agencies wanted us. I was being interviewed by Fortune
and Forbes. I was on Larry King Live and I was doing Crossfire. I was in the
New York Times and Business Week and the Wall Street Journal.
it felt like we were important. It was all talk."
As soon as he got back to his office he asked one of the staff
lawyers who worked on forestry programs if she knew of any paper
companies with a good environmental record. She mentioned MoDo, a well-
established, Swedish-based company with a sales representative named
Austin in New York. That afternoon he phoned Austin, whose job it was to
market MoDo Pulp and Paper Company's products in North America, and a
few days later they met for lunch. Since NRDC and paper company
representatives encountered each other mainly in courtrooms or
congressional hearing rooms as hostile adversaries, Hershkowitz
was "thrilled," as he later told me, "even to be talking to a paper industry
on a different basis." Moreover, Austin, a blond, athletic-looking former ski
instructor, clearly liked what he was hearing from Hershkowitz. They
continued to meet over the summer as MoDo's interest in expanding its de-
inking operations and in developing a North American mill became more
By early fall, having conferred with his superiors in Sweden,
Austin was saying that he thought that if NRDC were to get the permits for
mill and help generate community support for it and help MoDo navigate
some of the local politics, there was a good possibility that they would
in the project, operate the mill, and market the pulp. Toward the end of
September it had become clear that MoDo wanted to move to a higher level
of discussion, and Austin told Hershkowitz a few weeks later that he
it would be a good idea for him to meet Per Batelson, who at the time was
director of MoDo's corporate development; MoDo had just bought into a
making plant in Alberta, Canada, and in early December Batelson was
planning to visit some paper recycling plants in Wisconsin, to look at their
inking processes and possibly buy some pulp. Austin suggested that
Hershkowitz join them.
By then, Hershkowitz's work was becoming entirely oriented
toward market development and studying economic analyses of the
for recycling investments in urban areas. Nationally, he was serving on the
market development subcommittee of the EPA's Recycling Advisory
Committee. Even before his discussions with Austin began, he met with a
number of New York City officials and businessmen who helped him get a
better sense of the world he was considering jumping into and he continued
doing that all through the spring and summer of 1992. In June he met with
Emily Lloyd, the Department of Sanitation's commissioner, who was eager
find markets for the recyclables her department was collecting, and talked
her about the different types and grades of paper the city found and how the
availability of city paper might affect a mill, which she was keenly interested
in despite the fact that her relationship with NRDC was less than warm.
the paper companies, she, too, had mainly dealt with the organization as
adversary, and even while these friendly, exploratory discussions were
place, NRDC had a lawsuit pending against the city for its failure to
adequately enforce the local recycling law.
He also met with an official at the New York State Department of
Economic Development's Office of Recycling Market Development
(DED/ORMD), an agency that seeks to attract recycling businesses to the
state, who told him that DED had lending capabilities and could provide
funding for investments in recycling. The official said that they could also
loan guarantees and help reduce the cost of capital acquisitions for a large
investment project like a mill — news that gladdened Hershkowitz's heart.
was desperately looking for any information he could use to entice a paper
company to a city infamous for its impediments to industrial development.
At about the same time, he had a long conversation with Lenny
Formato, the owner of the last iron and metal scrap yard in Manhattan,
he had known for years. (They'd served on a number of recycling panels
together, and as they left every panel discussion, Formato's parting salvo to
Hershkowitz was always, "Well, so when are you actually going to do
something about all this?") Formato's family business, Central Iron and
Co., Inc., had been around since 1927, and he had run his own business,
Boulder Resources, Limited, since 1979, and he probably knew the ins and
outs of the city's recycling market as well as, if not better than, anyone.
Formato, too, liked the idea of the mill and offered to help Hershkowitz
out how to get the paper.
At NRDC's annual retreat in Split Rock, Pennsylvania, in
November, at which, as usual, there was a review of the organization's
strategic approach to big issues, the staff had a general discussion about
need to promote economic tools for advancing environmental goals. In that
discussion, Hershkowitz said that he thought they could do this in a direct
way by stimulating the development of a mill in the city.
Although they listened politely, from the expressions on many of
his colleagues' faces Hershkowitz felt as if he had just told them they were
all soon going to be assuming the roles of lead dancers in the Bolshoi
A month later, however, at a meeting with John Adams, one of NRDC's
founders and its executive director, and other key people at the
there were further discussions about how to go about promoting the
environment in relation to economic issues. Right after the November
Adams had met with Vice President Gore, with whom he had worked
when Gore was in the Senate. Gore indicated a particular interest in
environmental projects that would help promote jobs. At the time, the
economy was in recession, and job protection and moving the economy out
of the tank was at the top of the president's agenda. He had vowed to
produce a million new jobs by the end of his first term — a promise he kept.
Gore told Adams that the administration's commitment to the environment
was strong but that environmental policies linked to producing jobs had to
a guiding principle. When Adams reported that message to his staff, it only
confirmed Hershkowitz's sense that the time was propitious for his plan, the
outlines of which were beginning to have more focus.
A month before, in mid-October, just after one of his discussions
with MoDo's Jim Austin, Hershkowitz flew to Boston to attend a meeting on
recycling and economic development sponsored by the Boston Globe
Foundation. In the aftermath of the National Recycling Act debacle,
community groups, too, had been talking more about recycling economic
development that would sidestep reliance on legislation, and there was
discussion about the dearth of small-scale development of
manufacturing using secondary materials. The ur-environmentalist Barry
Commoner, then in his early seventies, told the conferees that one of the
major undealt-with problems in the environmental cosmos was production
systems at the manufacturing plant. Hershkowitz sat transfixed as he
listened to one of the sanctified elders of his movement give voice to
that had been obsessing him for months. It was the hostile-to-change
economic logic of polluting industries that had to be affected by
environmental reform, Commoner declared, as Hershkowitz recorded a
At that same meeting, there had again been a lot of talk, but only
talk, about "environmental justice." Like all environmental groups, NRDC
dismayed by the country's continued overreliance on incinerators and
landfills. It had also become increasingly aware that in urban areas many of
those polluting landfills and incinerators too often ended up in black or
communities. In the early 1990s, small grassroots environmental groups
become vocal about the need to cease using the inner cities, especially the
vast brownfields (abandoned industrial sites) that dotted poor
as garbage dumps. And though the subject came up often in conferences,
the larger environmental organizations mostly focused on other issues:
NRDC (before it established its own environmental justice program) on
pressing for the enactment of good environmental laws and working to block
bad ones and bringing suits against major polluters; the Environmental
Defense Fund on corporate product policies (it was the EDF that
in getting McDonald's to stop using Styrofoam cups and Starbucks to
redesign its packaging); the Sierra Club on legislative lobbying and electoral
politics; the World Wildlife Fund on saving species; the Nature Conservancy
on land-preserve acquisition; the Audubon Society on habitat preservation;
and Greenpeace on corporate boycotts and public consciousness raising.
Because of their big-picture, long-range goal orientation and their tendency
have chiefly members of the middle class as supporters and the heads of
corporations as board members, and because in order to win some major
battles, they sometimes horse-traded on others, many of the big national
environmental groups, including NRDC, were regarded with suspicion by
many grassroots activists. NRDC actually worked all the time with
organizations and served as their technical advisers and lawyers in scores
battles nationwide. Nonetheless, it was frequently chastised for its links
with "powerful" interests — though, in truth, it was often those detested
lawyers and CEOs who helped make the organization such a formidable
In the early 1990s NRDC had joined several Harlem grassroots
groups, including the West Harlem Environmental Action Group (WE ACT),
suing New York City to force it to correct design and odor problems that
originated from its North River Water Pollution Control Plant, at 137th to
145th Street along the Hudson — a suit that ended with the city committing
$55 million in capital funds to fix the problems plus an award of $1.1 million
to address a wide range of community and public health problems.
Working in the courts was what NRDC did. What it didn't do was
independently initiate large industrial projects. But the more Hershkowitz
thought about it after he returned from the Boston trip, the more excited he
became about the idea of changing the rules of the game. As far as he was
concerned, Commoner had all but suggested as much even decades
in his 1971 book, The Closing Circle, he had called for enviros to climb off
hiking trails and join the boards of big industrial corporations. The mill
as Hershkowitz had begun to describe it, merely took Commoner's
to its next logical step and attempted to make tangible some of the
especially about urban problems, that environmentalists had been uttering
years. "How much more obvious does it have to get," Hershkowitz was
saying to anyone who would listen at the time, "before we realize that
on government won't get environmentalists where they want to go. If the
sustainable economy doesn't exist — and it doesn't — it will have to be
built." Traditionally, Hershkowitz and his fellow advocates expected
government to mediate their relationship with business through laws, court
decisions, rulings, statutes, and so forth. But the antagonism between
business — especially big industrial business — and environmentalists
appeared to be a war that would never end, since the goals of development
and the goals of conservation seemed so cosmically irreconcilable. His
experience in Washington had convinced him that in the twenty-first century
business, environmental, and community interests that had for more than a
decade been engaged in pitched battles would somehow have to stop
with each other and start working together.
At the conference in Boston, Hershkowitz had met Tim Martin, a
young, red-haired, Greenpeace representative. When he was a foot soldier
Greenpeace, Martin had dressed up as a gorilla and a whale; more
he had served as campaign director for a toxic waste protest against the
Great Lakes Paper Mill and was his organization's second highest ranking
paper industry expert. Hershkowitz hired him on the spot as a consultant
asked him to write a preliminary report on MoDo. The way things worked at
NRDC, senior staff people were given nearly total freedom to develop
programs that they thought would ultimately serve the organization's goals,
but there was always a lot of back-and-forth discussion and consultation
about the viability of those programs. Any allocation of funds, of course, had
to be approved by NRDC's board. Hershkowitz knew that his current plan
the idea of corporate collaboration in general was going to be a hard sell,
especially to the more ideologically oriented staff members — he was, after
all, proposing getting into bed with the enemy — but Hershkowitz also
that if the paper company had the blessing, as it were, of Greenpeace,
everyone would be a lot happier.
The preliminary report that Martin sent back gave MoDo high
marks. Most important, after checking with his Swedish colleagues, he
that the Swedish company was years ahead of the U.S. paper companies
terms of environmentally clean de-inking.
It was then, according to Eric Goldstein, an energetic NRDC
lawyer with close-cropped, curly, salt-and-pepper hair, that Hershkowitz
decided that he would become the coordinator of a largescale industrial
development project. The plan Hershkowitz described to Goldstein sounded
ambitious but plausible. NRDC would oversee all aspects of the proposed
project that businessmen insist are too much of a hassle in New York:
obtaining permits, finding a site, raising money, and seeking community
support. A paper company would make a lot of money, and he wanted
to work with a community group as a full equity partner in order to set a
standard for how paper mills should be built and to demonstrate that
environmentally sound technologies could create long-term jobs. Goldstein,
who would eventually coordinate NRDC's urban program, had been one of
leaders of the 1980s campaign to reduce levels of toxic lead in gasoline and
was also in the forefront of suing the city on its recycling failures. "He came
into my office," Goldstein recalled, "and said, 'We're going to build a paper
mill in this city.' I said, 'What? We don't build mills. And where would you
it anyway? Forget it.' But by the end of the conversation, I was convinced
that it was a brilliant idea." Goldstein also thought that if anyone could pull
off, it would be Hershkowitz. He had originally met Hershkowitz in the mid-
1980s at a congressional hearing on incinerators, and it was clear to him
Hershkowitz knew more about the subject than anyone there. "Allen can
match anyone inch per inch on knowledge of environmental technology and
still has strong advocacy skills, so I'm always going to listen to anything he
proposes. Could he accomplish this? I didn't know, but it was well worth a

Hershkowitz was a child of two Holocaust survivors. His father had lived as
long as anyone on record in Auschwitz — four years. He stayed alive
the end by eating dog food, which he found a way to steal while working on
an outdoor detail. He lost his parents, his wife, his two children, a sister,
four brothers and their families at the camp; Hershkowitz's mother, who
survived Dachau, lost her parents, too, as well as her husband and
a sister, and two brothers. She had also been subjected to medical
experiments. Most of this Hershkowitz learned when he was older, but both
parents wept a lot when he was young. Some survivors' children are
overwhelmed by the dead weight of sorrow they absorb through their
pores. Hershkowitz's reaction to the abiding grief that permeated daily life
when he and his older sister were growing up was to embrace engagement
with the world; for him, the very fact that he had been granted a future
a responsibility for shaping it.
Professionally, he tended to be an optimist and was known for his
command of technical detail and ferocious energy. "Allen has the highest
ratio of facts per sentence of anyone I've ever met," a senior NRDC attorney
told me. Hershkowitz was uncomfortable with the Luddite "let's all go back
candles" wing of his movement, and his frustration with the
the-only-proven-path point of view probably stemmed from a deep sense
the world as constituted had to change. His discomfort with what he
of as sentimental environmentalism had more than once irritated some
members of his tribe when he challenged certain sacred cows: in 1990 he
infuriated many groups when he refused to recommend that NRDC support
ban on Pampers and other disposable diapers. He'd found in researching
environmental effects of cloth and disposable diapers that both had their
and cons. Disposables obviously created a serious solid waste problem,
many countries that supplied the cotton for cloth diapers still used DDT,
which left toxic residues, pediatric dermatologists pointed out. Moreover,
disposables pulled moisture away better and, therefore, caused fewer
while more energy was used both for cleaning diapers and in trucking them
people's houses. Hershkowitz concluded that the choice should therefore
left to parents.
In college, at the City University of New York, he deliberately
tested himself by choosing the hardest courses and, at town meetings in
still countrified Westchester town of Lewisboro, New York, where he could
counted on to come out charging at any perceived threat to the local
environment, he was considered a huge annoyance and thorn in the side of
more development-minded gentry. Perhaps it was because of his personal
history that his reaction to many of the world's problems was more visceral
than most people's. A 1999 study by the nonprofit group Public Agenda
found that despite their acknowledgment of the growth of environmental
problems, most Americans had begun to lose interest chiefly because they
felt discouraged about the difficulty of finding actual environmental solutions.
In 1989, 51 percent of Americans said they worried a great deal about
warming; in 1997, the number had dropped to 40 percent and though more
people worried about water pollution than about any other environmental
issue, that number, too, had declined from 72 to 61 percent. It was not
apathy, the study found, that accounted for these dropping numbers, but
frustration and a kind of fatalism about trends people had begun to consider
irreversible because of the selfishness of polluters and the imperviousness
consumers. It was hard, people said, to sustain concern in the face of the
enormity of the problems. Not for Hershkowitz, who often quoted Emerson,
the Dalai Lama, and even Machiavelli as backup for his own idiosyncratic
brand of practical idealism. But he was convinced that the environmental
movement had to shift away from its anti-industrial focus or become
irrelevant. He would not infrequently cap a passionate riff on the need for his
fellow enviros to be open to change with a quote from Lao Tzu: "Those who
serve life adapt to changes as they act. Changes arise from the times.
who know the times do not behave in fixed ways." Issues that for many of
are often muted by the ongoing hum of global bad news — annihilation of
species or the felling of trees by loggers in national forests — pressed on
him. If most of us allow a brief, dim news clip of a forest scene into our
mental archives when we are told that taxpayers subsidized industrial
on public land to the tune of $1.2 billion per year, one could sense that in
Hershkowitz's imagination there arose a mighty Dolby sound track of the
of diesel engines in the forest, along with a wide-screen version of huge
machines that clamp onto trees, saw them at the base, and stack them in
towering piles, then feed them into the blades of a giant chipper.

Copyright © 2003 by Lis Harris. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin

Meet the Author

Lis Harris originally researched the project for an article she wrote while a staff writer at The New Yorker. The author of the much-admired Holy Days and Rules of Engagement and a professor of writing at Columbia University, Harris has won numerous grants and fellowships.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >