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Hollywood Hybrid

How the stars are reducing their carbon footprint.

May 19, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 34 • By JOE QUEENAN
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Living Like Ed

A Guide to the Eco-Friendly Life

by Ed Begley Jr.

Clarkson Potter, 240 pp., $18

The 2005 bestseller Freakonomics introduced a troubling narrative technique. The book was a collaboration between the economist Steven D. Levitt, who supplied the ideas, and New York Times writer Stephen J. Dubner, who supplied the prose, with the men listed as coauthors. But in the body of the work Dubner would sometimes refer to his collaborator in the third person, using phrases like "the most brilliant young economist in America" and "a demigod" and "a noetic butterfly," which he lifted from the New York Times Magazine.

In other words: Don't take my word for it that I am a brilliant demigod and a noetic butterfly. Take my ghostwriter's word for it, and my word.

Admittedly, this sort of thing takes a bit of brass. Ed Begley Jr., adopts a similar approach in this self-eulogizing guide to leading an "environmentally friendly life." Though Begley himself, a third-echelon movie star, is identified as the author, Living Like Ed also contains guest essays (in tinted boxes) by various eco-professionals, who discuss such topics as "silent" gardening or the joys of ecoFoam or mounting a rooftop wind-turbine that will kill fewer birds than other, less ornithophilic turbines. (These appear under the rubric "Ed's Green Friend.")

There is also a series of inserts called "Rachelle's Turn," in which Begley's wife weighs in on what a quirky but wonderful person she has married. Mostly, Rachelle reports that while she, too, is a deeply caring human being, who devotes a great deal of time and energy to conserving energy and defending the environment, she is nowhere near as eco-sensitive as her husband Ed, as no one could be.

Thus, much like -Steven D. Levitt, Ed Begley Jr. has enlisted his wife's aid in a self-applauding book that incorporates an additional tier of adulation from convivial eco-entrepreneurs, and then acts as if this supplementary praise were not, in some way, contrived and fulsome.

Knowing how fragile show biz marriages are, this makes you wonder what would happen if the couple ever got divorced, and Rachelle forced Ed to excise all her contributions from the book, complaining that they were extorted from her as part of a systematic pattern of domestic abuse: "I was lying when I said that I admired Ed for climbing up on the roof and broom-cleaning our solar wind panels," she might explain afterwards at a palimony hearing. "The truth is, I thought he was a jerk. I mean, get real."

None of the foregoing should be construed as criticism of Begley himself, much less as criticism of his book. Tenaciously clinging to a patch of the moral high ground occupied by Al Gore, Ben and Jerry, Bono, and the woman who started The Body Shop, Begley addresses his readers from the very pinnacle of the energy-efficient Everest, which is now based in Los Angeles. There is literally nothing in his book that can be denied, gainsayed, or even challenged--whether it is installing that avian-friendly wind turbine on the roof, or properly recycling worn-out vegan tennis shoes, or having friends bring styrofoam over to your house so you can all recycle en famille. There is literally no environmental issue on which Begley discourses with less than ex cathedra finality. That includes the part where he guzzles the nontoxic house cleaner, seemingly to demonstrate that it is safe to consume, but perhaps because he had run out of vegan wine cooler.

To his credit, Begley does not hesitate to discuss such hot-button issues as whether bag people should be prosecuted for filching recyclable cans and bottles out of recycling bins. The problem here is that the money that comes from can and bottle deposits goes a long way toward defraying the cost of recycling glass and paper. By heisting aluminum cans, bag people are sabotaging the entire municipal recycling operation.

Yet despite his horror at such eco-rapine, Begley adopts a temperate tone toward the malefactors, noting: "I would not condone fines or jail terms for homeless folks trying to make a buck." This is where the fault line between right-wing recyclers and left-wing recyclers really lies: Even the most compassionate conservatives believe that bag people and winos should be subjected to the three-eco-strikes-and-you're-out rule, with recidivist scavengers doing hard time in the Big House. Otherwise, they just won't learn.

The basic thrust of Living Like Ed is that if more people resembled Ed Begley Jr., the world would be a better place. Clad in his shorts, white calf-length socks, plaid shirt, and vegan tennis shoes, an ensemble seen again and again in a 240-page book padded out with numerous photographs, Begley has gotten it into his head that a lot of people not only want to be like Ed, but to look like Ed. This is not necessarily the case. When daydreaming about Hollywood stars we would like to resemble, most of us think more along the lines of Brad Pitt, George Clooney, perhaps even Ryan Phillippe. I personally have little interest in living like Ed, but would love to live like Johnny Depp. And even if I did learn to live like Ed, I'd still rather look like Colin Farrell. I think this sentiment is fairly widespread; I also think that the energy-saving movement will never gain real traction with Middle America until someone writes a book called -Living Like Keanu.

Although the subject is quite serious, and Begley's energy-saving tips radiate a creative zest Leonardo (DaVinci, that is) himself would envy--why fly from Los Angeles to New York when you can drive?--Living Like Ed is dry, repetitive, and claustrophobic. It is also unnerving, for in the course of the narrative we learn things about the author we would rather not know. Most of this information is supplied by his long-suffering wife Rachelle.

For starters, she reports that Begley stands outside the bathroom and times her showers to check how much water she is using. (His two children, who do not appear in the book, presumably fled the house years ago.) Second, he drives across the country when he has business on the East Coast because flying is toxic. Third, the day his wife went into labor with their daughter Hayden, he insisted on driving her to the hospital in his electric car, the same car that had once caught fire on Laurel Canyon Boulevard.

Fourth--and this is the really alarming part--after he finally agreed not to drive his pregnant wife to the hospital in his unreliable electric car, he insisted on driving her in his natural gas flex-fuel car--which just happened to be out of natural gas. So the pair had to take a 10-mile detour all the way out to Glendale to fuel up, even though Ed was worried that his wife was going to "deliver right then and there."

As she recalls:

So he pulled off and went to a gas station, but even then he would not get out of the car and pump the gasoline. So I had to get out of the car--in labor--and pump gasoline.

Rachelle admits that her marriage would probably not have survived "all this craziness" unless Toyota had come out with the Prius, a more obstetrically friendly vehicle. Maybe it would have been better if Toyota had held off a bit longer. Maybe she should have left him at the gas station.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.