The Rene Dubos Environmental Awards Dinner 1995

May 23, 1995
Samuel C. Johnson

Opening Remarks:

Thank you for the wonderful award. I love coming to New York, because it reminds me of my days at Cornell when I'd take some weekend trips here.

New York was so intriguing and different from my hometown of Racine, Wisconsin, where I grew up. Of course, at that time, almost any place seemed better to me than Racine, Wisconsin. And, New York became an irresistible destination for me.

Don't get me wrong; there are some irresistible things about Racine. Like the Kewpee hamburger stand that I first went to 60 years ago as a boy and remains today. (Even the smell of burnt grease is still there!) I go there once in awhile, when I get a Kewpee attack.

The other day I was there and ordered my usual: two hamburgers with just pickles, fries and a vanilla shake.

The man behind the counter looked at me and said, "You know, you look just like Sam Johnson, guess a lot of people must tell you that."

I said, "That's true."

"I bet you hate it, don't you?" he said.

Actually, it's nice to be recognized and especially nice to be recognized by this wonderful organization, the Dubos Center.

I was thinking about what I was going to talk about this evening and what new insights I could give to this very worldly audience.

I normally decide to talk about Racine, Wisconsin. I think Mr. Dubos would have understood what is going on there since he came from the village of St. Brice-sous-Foret.

Let me tell you a little about Racine.

Our downtown survives, though now dotted with rehabbed historic buildings, vacant stores, and abandoned saloons and, like New York, we have our social ills. But most everyone agrees that Racine is a great place to raise kids.

Now, for the first time in years, kids can catch salmon in Lake Michigan, right off our local pier. Steelhead trout run up our river that runs right through the middle of town, the Root River.

Our new marina harbors several hundred boats with names of places on the transoms that are far, far away from Racine. Our kids can look at those names and begin to dream about the romance and adventure that must be out there. We have a festival hall where we hold a vintage boat show, Armenian folk dances and Kiwanis pancake and porky day breakfasts.

The world always looks a little less intimidating with a stack of Kiwanis pancakes in your stomach. I almost forgot our traditional Fourth of July parade, which is huge.

It consists of 20 bands and 10 floats. Everybody in town comes out to watch it.

Racine is a good place and I'm proud to call it home. Most Racinians try to do the right thing.

Every family recycles. We all dutifully sort out our garbage on Sunday evening. I'd like to say that I did that last Sunday, but Gene does that. None of us do it because we have to. We do it because we believe in doing it. The mayor of Racine just announced that the city made a profit of $98,000 selling recyclables.

That was terrific profit for our city. Not bad for a town of 100,000.

But recently there has been some grumbling. There is a big flap about having to use reformulated gas, mandated by the EPA. People are coughing and complaining that their lawn mower engines are blowing up because of that. And because we are caught between Milwaukee and Chicago, the EPA also says we have to have a carpool plan. I can't believe it.

Almost all of us live within 15 minutes of work. So everybody knows that if we go around picking up our neighbors, we are going to burn more gas than if we drive directly to work. I have a special problem, nobody wants to carpool with the Chairman.

But Racine is not unlike most of our country. People are happy to do the right thing if it makes common sense, or if there are tangible incentives to do so. Being forced to do something that doesn't make a lot of sense just makes people mad and less willing to do the things that really can make a difference.

Our environmental cause is allowing itself to be seen by a great many as self-absorbed and less relevant to the fundamental needs of human beings.

Many fear that environmental regulation has gone beyond common sense - that it is out of balance. Many are determined to do something about it, even if it means throwing away 25 years of good environmental progress.

I believe it's time for us to get back to the environmental realities and get them back into balance with legitimate human needs. Let me tell you a story.

When I was a child, Frank Lloyd Wright designed our company headquarters. He also designed Wingspread, our family home. The great architect tolerated me about as much as W. C. Fields would have: "Get away, boy. Don't bother me."

Even as a child, though, I knew he was a legend.

Today, looking beyond his great works, I can see some of his mistakes.

At Wingspread, for example, Wright designed this long dinner table that receded into the wall. On the other side of the wall was the kitchen, where the kitchen staff would remove the plates, refill the glasses and set out the next course. So at various times during the dinner party, the table would disappear into the next room.

One night, my grandmother was there for dinner. She didn't quite understand the new concept that tables were no longer stationary. She wasn't quite finished with her salad when her plate started moving west, towards Madison.

I'll never forget her face as she watched the table disappear into the next room. She was left looking at other people's feet, with her fork in her hand. She said, looking at the woman that had her shoes off across the way, "This is ridiculous."

Wright's clever architectural idea totally ignored the human element. Many think that we, in the environmental movement, do the same.

You hear a lot about how people are fed up with spotted owls, wetlands and old forests, which I happen to want to protect. You hear a lot about how cattails are more important than people. I have to admit, I've known a number of people whom I find not nearly as agreeable as cattails.

What I am worried about is the growing number of good citizens in Racine, and elsewhere, that are looking at environmental initiatives and saying, "This is ridiculous."

If an environmental initiative ignores the needs of the people, it will inevitably fail, and probably a lot of good ideas will die with it. This indeed would be ridiculous.

Thank you again for this wonderful honor and for your kind hospitality.