JACK WEINBERG STILL FIGHTS THE GOOD FIGHT TO
KEEP ENVIRONMENTALISM FROM FADING AWAY
By Connie Lauerman, Tribune Staff Writer - April 21, 2000
As a student activist in the turbulent '60s, Jack Weinberg
was arrested several times.
He was nabbed during civil rights demonstrations in the
South and during a campaign by Berkeley students to
secure jobs for minorities in San Francisco hotels.
It happened again while he was passing out leaflets on
matters such as civil rights, nuclear testing, the Vietnam
War and apartheid, after the university had banned such
activities on campus. The ban gave birth to the Free
Speech Movement, a high point of dissent in the '60s at
Now an environmentalist, Weinberg was arrested last
month in Manila. He was one of 26 Greenpeace activists
detained after they delivered a container of poisonous
chemical waste to the U.S. Embassy. The toxins (PCBs)
came from a residential area near a former U.S. military
Talking about the experience 10 days later in Chicago,
where he lives, Weinberg, gray-haired and bespectacled, seemed a bit bemused.
"They hauled us off very gingerly," he said. "They ended
up not charging us. Greenpeace has a high profile, and I
had some concerns [the authorities] would get nasty
about it, and I'd be deported.
"I want to keep going back. I have work I want to keep
going. But you have to do something to make your
Unlike some of his radical compatriots from the 1960s, Weinberg has neither
burned out nor faded away. His fervor has crystallized in a global take on
Photo of Jack in the police car 1964
photo ©1964 Howard Harawitz
Pat Costner, of Eureka Springs, Ark., senior scientist for Greenpeace
International, has been working with
Weinberg on environmental issues for a decade. "He is one of my favorite
people," she said. "He has a
wonderful combination of vision and practicality from the policy perspective.
"And he understands the art of compromise and is very skillful in
being able to reframe controversial or
problematical issues with the outcome of getting broader agreement, if not
He recently turned 60 and found it "a bit of a gas." As well he
should. He was, after all, the young man who
was credited with saying: "Don't trust anyone over 30." His off-the-cuff remark to a San Francisco newspaper reporter covering the
Berkeley student protest movement was picked up by other journalists and seized by the leaders of the movement once they saw how
much it riled their elders.
"The fact that I've been able to stay engaged all this
time, I feel, is an accomplishment," said Weinberg, a native of Buffalo.
It would seem that for many others, interest in
environmental protection peaked years ago. What else
explains the popularity of polluting sport-utility
vehicles, rampant consumerism, sprawling development and other assaults to the planet?
"Part of the problem is that there is a perception out
there, with a lot of public relations money behind it, that
things are getting better," Weinberg said. "Some things
are getting better. There's more control of gross
discharges into lakes, rivers and streams, although
they're not pristine.
"You remember what air used to be like in America?
The air is not perfect, but the fact is you don't taste and
smell the air every second here."
What has gotten worse, Weinberg said, is "the
destruction of biodiversity. Neither here nor anywhere
else in the world do I see good, rational, long-term land
Weinberg's issue of choice has been the environment
since 1977, when the Northern Indiana power company
announced the construction of a nuclear power plant on
the shore of Lake Michigan about five miles from his
home in Gary, where he was working in a steel mill.
He had dropped out of graduate school, where he was studying math, to concentrate on civil rights work. By
1969, he decided societal change could not be realized
solely through activists "concentrated in elite universities"
without a component in blue-collar America. So he
moved to Detroit to work in an auto plant, where he
was an active union member and not involved in the first
Earth Day in 1970 (the 30th anniversary of the event will
be celebrated Saturday).
It took an economic downturn and a move to Gary to
work for U.S. Steel before his environmental activism
Weinberg said manual labor (he worked as a
metallurgical tester at U.S. Steel) was easy for him,
mostly because he didn't have to spend his free time
thinking about work. So it was perfect to support his
main activity--fighting nuclear power plants.
"In the late '70s, I had an epiphany that changed my way
of thinking," he said. "It became clear to me that we
could degrade the Earth to a point where it could no
longer support human populations."
He got to know people in the national environmental
movement, particularly Barry Commoner, who visited
Gary several times to aid in the fight against the
proposed Bailey Nuclear One power plant.
Commoner made an ill-fated bid for president in 1980
under the Citizen Party banner, and Weinberg organized
the Indiana Citizen Party to put him on the ballot.
After the successful, five-year battle against the Bailey
nuclear plant, Weinberg served on the boards of a
number of environmental groups, including the Indiana
Dunes Council, the Indiana Citizens Action Coalition
and the Lake Michigan Federation.
Although he said his youthful notion of effecting change
by involving conservative blue-collar workers "was
partly romantic," Weinberg said the experience was
"invaluable" and "grounding." Wanting to preserve the Earth, he said, "is something
that everybody has in common. Even if you're the
richest, most powerful man in the world, you still have
no interest in degrading the life possibilities of your
When another economic downturn cost Weinberg his
steel job in 1984, he moved to Chicago, working in a
string of jobs, including one in a printing plant. He
remained active in environmental activities in his spare
Yet he said he felt "fairly alienated" and dissatisfied
with local efforts to solve problems he viewed in a global
He was revitalized in 1989 when he took a full-time
professional job with Greenpeace International,
coordinating its Great Lakes project. Gross
pollution--uncontrolled discharges of grease, oil,
sewage, phosphates and such into lakes and rivers--was
stopping, but fish and birds were not coming back. The problem, Weinberg said, was manmade chemicals,
called "persistent toxic substances," that had worked all
the way up the wildlife food chain.
As a result, Great Lakes fish had abnormal thyroid
glands, and birds had deformed beaks and behavioral
"Some birds that could actually hatch eggs then didn't
know how to raise their young and the young would
die," Weinberg said. "You also had immune system
effects, which meant that diseases could spread through
populations. You had a certain amount of cancers and
tumors, reproductive organ failures, endocrine systems
Weinberg left Greenpeace in January, although he still
functions as an adviser, to take a job with the
Environmental Health Fund, a year-old organization
based in Boston that is working to build an international
movement addressing issues of health and chemicals. Weinberg is project director of its global health and
"Many things are needed environmentally, so I don't
want to say what I'm choosing to do right now is the
most important," Weinberg said.
"But I'm much more interested in working with
organizations at a national, regional level in many
countries that can cooperate to do this work" regarding
Weinberg also has a position with the School of Public
Health at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he is
helping to develop an environmental health policy
The goal is to provide assistance to public interest
groups working on the issue of chemicals around the
On a personal, local level, Weinberg and his wife, public
relations executive Valerie Denney, recycle and drive
their small car infrequently, though he noted that he often
travels and airplanes are not environmentally friendly.
He believes widespread recycling and use of mass
transit have not taken hold because it's generally
inconvenient and only a small number of people will
"wear a hair shirt all the time in order to do the right
While the focus on recycling was well meaning, he said,
the answers to the problem are more fundamental.
"Every Styrofoam cup says `recycle this,' but nobody
gives you any way to do so.
"I had to buy some batteries and the package said, `you
must recycle these,' so I took them back to the store
and asked how to do it and they didn't know. There's no
requirement that the manufacturer or sales group has to
take it back."
A take-back policy, he added, would lead to products
being designed in a manner that would allow parts of
them to be used again in manufacturing.
"You can't expect people who just love the Earth or
who want a cleaner world to know these things
instinctively. The policies have to be worked out." The earlier environmental movement focused on very
specific problems at a point when that wasn't a policy
concern, Weinberg said. Now corporations put a lot of
money into creating environmentally friendly images,
making things harder for activists, but Weinberg remains
"enthusiastic" about the possibility of change.
"I think everybody was taken by surprise by the reaction
in Seattle at the World Trade Organization last year," he
said. "Labor was a part of that, but the other main part
was driven mainly by environmental forces. The infrastructure is in place to link up policy to [grass roots] constituencies. It's slower and more difficult, but it's the next phase."