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Interview of D.J. Presson

D.J. Presson is the author of The Outcasts of Eden, available at Amazon here.

N.B.: How does your over 20-year prior career in business, real estate, and insurance influence and impact your current work as an environmentally minded author?

DJP: The idea for The Outcasts of Eden came out of an experience I had in the mid-1990’s working for an environmental PR firm in Washington DC, and the history of Reed Public Relations as depicted in the book is based on real events there. The use of propaganda and disinformation is nothing new in business or politics, but the wedded bedfellows of business interests and their influence in the making and enforcement of environmental law is what makes this story so interesting. From its very beginning, environmental public relations was conceived as a backlash against the radicalism of the 1960’s, and what was seen as an attack on the American way of life. The generation that was coming of age in the 1960’s was at war with everything our country had previously held as sacrosanct. I have seen first hand in my career how the voices of the consumer and citizen influence the decisions of businesses in their practices, especially as it relates to environmentalism. Throughout modern history since the industrial age, the pendulum of our commitment to our planet has swung back and forth with the generations, alternately taking us backwards in a misguided nostalgia for the past when regulation did not exist, as seems to be the case now, and then swinging again towards the future with eagerness and a strong commitment to a healthy and unharmed environment.

In The Outcasts of Eden, Roberta, an environmentalist, takes over Reed Public Relations (RPR) from her late father, Robert Reed, who had provided PR services to companies by covering up the environmental damage they do. What role do environmental public relations firms play in the corporate world? How has their influence grown since the birth of the environmental movement?

Environmental PR has become so important in corporate strategy that much of the work has been moved internally, and has become part of the marketing strategies of large corporations. This is true in many industries, but it is most ironic in the energy industry especially, which now uses a commitment to environmental stewardship in their advertising and marketing materials, after having fought against it for so long! It is no secret that oil-rich foreign governments and billion dollar corporations funded very effective anti-environmental lobbying efforts and contributed millions of dollars in campaign donations to political action committees dedicated to eliminating or curtailing environmental regulations, which slowed progress in the enacting and enforcement of legislation to curtail and control pollution of air and water. The continual delay by the oil companies to switch to double-hulled tankers is but one example of the efforts to enact and enforce oil spill prevention measures. Energy companies now publicly advocate for and invest in alternative energy technology including clean natural gas, wind and solar.

The first major oil spill of modern history occurred in 1967 when the SS Torrey Canyon spilled an estimated 36,652,000 gallons of crude oil off the coast of Cornwall, England. Between the time of that spill and the March 1989 spill of 32,032,000 gallons from the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska, the strategy of PR firms was to minimize the impact of, and even quash, news of oil spills. The effect of the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound caused a sea change in attitude towards the oil industry as photos of the damage done to the pristine coastline and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of oil-soaked sea birds, sea otters, harbor seals, bald eagles and whales, galvanized the opinion of ordinary citizens across the country, and forced the EPA to take steps to create and enforce emergency response and preparedness plans with the oil companies and tanker transports that plied US waters. The Exxon Valdez oil spill was the largest spill in US history until the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and in both of these terrible environmental catastrophes, it was the outside PR firms hired by these companies in the weeks that followed that helped these organizations craft their messaging to the public, after they each made a debacle of the messaging on their own, especially as it related to how their CEO’s responded to concern and criticism by ordinary citizens and environmental groups. However, outside of the energy industry, a true change of heart took place in corporate boardrooms and C-suites, prodded by consumers, employees and shareholders who insisted that companies actively seek to implement environmentally sound practices for their businesses.

One of Robert Reed’s corporate clients says “‘These hippies and radicals are taking this country down. We need a voice; a megaphone of our own.’” Over the years since the story takes place, hasn’t environmentalism gone mainstream, so that it is no longer a concern of just the hippies, but rather a positive aspect of corporate management that Roberta indeed herself imagined?

As I stated earlier, the birth of the environmental movement began in the tumult of the 1960’s. The PR firm depicted in my book, Reed Public Relations, has its start when Robert Reed is hired by a chemical company to write a series of articles attacking Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, in which Ms. Carson presented evidence detailing the damage to the environment caused by a pesticide called DDT, then in wide use. The purpose of the articles was to disparage Ms. Carson and her findings, call into question the science in the book, her credentials, her reasoning, and the conclusions presented. The strategy was very effective, and DDT was not banned from use in the United States for another ten years. More than thirty years later, when Robert Reed’s daughter and dedicated environmentalist, Roberta Reed, takes over as CEO of Reed Public Relations, environmentalism has entered the very consciousness of the world, and companies are by then, clamoring for ways to truly be “green”.

RPR under Robert Reed works with a logging company, American Pride, making an ad that tells “about the patriotic legacy and rugged individualism of American Pride and its’ workers, and [warns] of dire economic consequences were Congress to limit the industry.” Has the environmental movement grown so that environmentalism does not always have to be framed against economic growth, but rather sustainable practices ultimately benefit companies economically?

You have hit on something very important with this question, and this is a hotly debated topic. We now hear our new president telling captains of industry that, “environmentalism has gone too far and we’re going to roll it back” and his first nominee for Labor Secretary, Andy Puzder, who recently withdrew from consideration, quoted as saying that he wants to “put America’s workers and businesses back on a path to sustainable prosperity”. I am certainly not convinced that sustainable environmental practices would continue to be a priority by the companies and industries themselves, and in fact, face constant pressure from a variety of American businesses that claim that they are too onerous. Capitalism demands and expects layoffs and outsourcing, corner cutting and cost cutting that puts consumers, employees and children at risk in order to maximize profits. The first place to look at the balance sheet for savings are the costs associated with good environmental practices. It is certainly less costly for the lumber industry to clear cut virgin forests and leave a denuded landscape behind, than it is for them to have to plant their own reusable forests, despite the fact that this practice of sustainable development in the lumber industry insures their own future prosperity, and helps preserve virgin forests that benefits the planet in preserving the delicate balance of gases in our atmosphere.

The Appalachian coal industry is another example where sustainable environmental practices were unenforced and vigorously fought. Many of Appalachia’s coal miners believe that it was the Obama administration’s war on dirty 19th century fuels and support of clean 21st century alternatives that caused the demise of their industry. The truth is that the decline in Appalachian coal employment started during the Reagan years when automation and mechanization began replacing miners with machines. It was during this time that new technology made the coal industry practice of mountaintop removal mining, a horrible destruction of the environment that, literally, takes the top off the mountain and dumps it into the valley below, became a feasible alternative. At the same time that mechanization was replacing miners in Appalachia, the Reagan administration deregulated the railroads, which caused freight prices to drop, giving cleaner and cheaper Western coal an advantage in global markets. Appalachian mines began to close up, leaving desolated towns, polluted lakes, streams, reservoirs and ground water, stinking slag heaps, rusted equipment and gaping environmental scars behind, to be cleaned up by taxpayers, after the coal producers took all the profits and then declared bankruptcy.

Despite the current administration’s campaign promises, in order to improve Appalachian coal’s fate, it would require enormous government intervention such as direct mandates to consume coal or significant tax breaks that favored coal over other energy sources. Both of these are very unlikely because for decades Republicans in Congress have been calling for less regulation and government interference in business, allowing for more competitive markets. Natural gas companies, including Exxon Mobil, are now defenders of clean air and low carbon regulations. This is not because Exxon Mobil necessarily cares about the environment or sustainable practices, but because the alternative energy fuels have now become economically feasible, and even profitable. Exxon Mobil operates in countries around the globe that do care about reducing carbon emissions, and it is very good public relations to be seen as a forward thinking, progressive and supportive of those goals. They have even publicly supported the Paris climate agreement.

Just as 19th century buggy whip makers went out of business as the automobile gained in popularity, shutting down 19th century energy sources such as coal, in favor of 21st century clean burning alternatives such as natural gas, is the way of the future for companies like Exxon Mobil, and in the case of clean 21st century energy alternatives, it is only because governments around the globe demanded that cleaner alternatives be used in their countries that they saw the light. New technologies in the area of solar and wind energy came about because forward-thinking governments provided tax incentives to universities and businesses to design, test, explore and improve on these technologies and bring them to market. Automobile fuel efficiency and improved safety by auto manufacturers came about because governments set standards for these. Competitive markets can and do work to further innovation, but only if elected governments incentivize by setting the goals they want to achieve, and that includes setting the environmental rules that must be complied with. This is the public-private partnership that we should be promoting, rather than favoring and coddling old industries with deep pockets, allowing them to continue their harmful ways.

The monk Tenzin in an Interlude says “‘The color of the mountains is the Buddha’s body; the sound of running water is his great speech.’” Should people more often turn to nature for religious experiences, and does nature best reflect the intentions of a deity or religious figure?

I love my character Tenzin Wangchuck, the Buddhist monk. He is a character that I have purposely placed outside of the central story. It was my intent to show readers that there are other cultures and religions that revere and value the Earth and who walk in harmony with our planet. The mindfulness in Tenzin’s conduct, and the whispered prayers for peace and love that he and his fellow monks repeat, and they believe are carried on the winds to the people of the world, are in stark contrast to the business-first, profit-dominated culture that we espouse as “freedom”. You don’t have to believe in God to feel a deep connection to nature, but I have to surmise that if there is a God, whether you call that god Jesus, Jehovah, Allah, Krishna, Buddha or YWHW, He must be very disappointed in those that claim to preach in His name, for they have totally missed the point. His gift to us, this beautiful planet, and by extension all the creatures that dwell on it with all their diversity and wonder, is exactly what should be worshipped, honored and loved, and by giving and manifesting that love, do we also honor Him.

Roberta’s photographer friend Michel says “‘Government regulation and vigilant oversight to insure compliance is the only thing that keeps them from turning our air, land and water into a smog-filled, chemical-saturated, oil-slicked mess!’” Is it true that without regulation, most companies will do the wrong thing for the environment? If so, how can we ensure environmental protection when our government refuses to regulate or act in the environment’s best interest?

Without vigorous regulation and enforcement, we would all be living in a global version of 19th century industrial London. You only have to look at smog-filled Beijing, where environmental laws are almost non-existent, and smoke-choked Indonesia, where slash and burn practices in the clearing of virgin forest land to plant cocoanut trees is wreaking havoc with the environment, and causing problems as far away as Japan. Europe and the US, especially California, are leaders in enacting environmental law and represent visible proof that we can have both a clean environment and a robust economy. We must all participate, in our daily lives and in our democracy, to insure that a clean environment continues to be of paramount importance in the US. Write or call your congressman, and know their voting records on environmental issues and hold them accountable. Demand compliance and vote for candidates who believe in strong environmental regulation. Join environmental organizations, and demonstrate love for Earth in your own life. Understand the issues, don’t take anything for granted or at face value. Read! Take an environmental science class at your local college. Support green initiatives, products and outcomes with your wallet. Be humble in the face of Earth’s power and beauty, and strive to protect it.

After speaking with Conway, the CEO of an oil company who refuses to get involved personally with cleaning up an oil spill, Roberta feels that “despite her best arguments, she had failed.” What is the best way to cope when even our best formulated and most noble arguments fail to win the day?

In the book, Roberta turns this particular defeat into a positive action by teaming up with environmental organizations and environmentally sensitive companies to create a PR campaign to promote awareness of the devastation that oil has had in both the air and ocean environment. It is easy to become disenchanted and feel defeated in this work, but it is important to remember that environmentalism is no longer a movement, but is now a way of life. Those that fight against the effects of unchecked greed and environmental degradation know that this is not a sprint, but a long, long marathon.

Despite our history of innovations and accomplishments, humans have not yet reached the pinnacle of enlightenment. For the majority of humans on the planet, just eking out an existence is all that they can manage. Corrupt governments abound, making no meaningful progress in the lives of their citizens, stealing resources that should rightfully go to their people. You cannot blame a poor man, who poaches a gorilla or a tiger or an elephant to feed his family, but you can blame the leaders of his country who keep the man living in slums and make off with the riches of the country’s resources, and you can blame the oil-rich oligarchs and sheiks who pollute the earth and sky, and fund the commerce in illegal animal trade. Those fantastically rich and powerful people who have the means to effect change in the lives of the desperately poor do not share in Roberta’s utopian vision of gentle and loving humans who revere nature and use their big brains and vast wealth to solve Mankind’s problems, but instead use their wealth and resources to keep themselves on top of the financial pyramid. We in the United States, the richest and most endowed people on the Earth, currently find that our fellow citizens identify more readily with the selfishness and me-first philosophy of Ayn Rand than the expansive love and giving heart of the philosophy of Mahatma Ghandi. My wish, and my reason for writing The Outcasts of Eden, is that America will, once and for all time, be the leader in promoting the reverse of those philosophies as our guiding principle. A light footprint and a reverent heart must be in every thought and every move we make. We must put all of our endeavors in industry and commerce to realizing the utopian vision, the giving heart and expansive love of the Earth and its inhabitants, and finally become the true “shining city on the hill” that we know America can be.

One of the participants in an environmental chat room says that people have “‘agreed on only one thing throughout history, that animals and nature exist on a lower order, and were put on Earth for man’s use and domination.’” Why has this attitude of entitlement to domination over nature always persisted?

The chat room conversation that I have depicted in the book is a much-needed, past-due examination of how science, religion and business have exploited the long-held idea that man is at the top of the scala naturae, the hierarchical pyramid of social order in the animal kingdom. I reject that thinking as innately flawed for the very reason that it has allowed humans throughout our history to look upon the Earth and its creatures as a lower order of life unworthy of our respect and protection. In that chat room discussion are scientists, theologians, philosophers, activists, dystopian futurists and progressive thinkers who debate the finer points of how to become reverent of nature in a western world plagued by excess and unattached to the land and the animals that feed us and share the planet.

Another participant says “‘When we talk about getting back to Eden, we’re talking about our own role as stewards of the planet, and reverence for the diversity of life.’” Is there hope that humans as a species can return to an Eden-like paradise and once again care for the planet rather than destroying it? Can we change from being outcasts of Eden to once again being stewards of Eden?

In fact I do believe that we are heading in that direction. I point as proof to a new generation of animal biologists and behavioral scientists who now advocate that animals think and feel just as humans do. Additionally, I can point to the new generation of industry titans who now advocate, donate, incent and invent based on the principle of a light footprint and a reverent heart. The vision of the future where the Earth’s human inhabitants care deeply for their little blue planet and devote their massive brains to devising ideas and technologies that effortlessly power thriving and beautiful cities, amid lush landscapes of green and blue, and where clean comfortable transports silently whisk us hither and yon, can be achieved! It is incumbent on parents to pass on a love of the Earth to their children, and to educate them in preserving and defending it. A light footprint and a reverent heart can be embraced by each individual human being, in which honesty, integrity and reverence for the Earth, rather than selfish gain, are our guiding principles.

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