Growing up in New Jersey shaped Michael Brune's appreciation for the natural environment.
Now, he hopes to apply some of his home state's lessons to environmental policies across the nation. The Chadwick Beach native is the incoming executive director of the Sierra Club, the nation's oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization.
"I feel very lucky to have grown up on the Jersey Shore," spending summer days surfing and bodysurfing, said Brune, now 38. But he also observed waste washing up on those same beaches, including hypodermic needles and frothy chemicals.When he developed a rash after swimming, and beaches were closed because of pollution, the teen also learned what activism could do as community groups formed to fight the contamination.
Such activism is still necessary, because "New Jersey is blessed with great beauty, but also cursed with some of the nation's most polluted sites," Brune said.
Communities around the state still face pressing problems, but New Jersey also is taking the lead in new technologies that can provide both economic growth and a healthier environment, according to Brune.
"New Jersey is at the forefront in creating a clean energy economy," he said.
Brune pointed to the state's surge in solar power installations. Although a small, northern state, New Jersey ranks second in the nation, behind only California. That status reflects smart government programs, increased efficiency by solar producers and an informed public ready for change, he said.
"There's no reason why other states that have more annual days of sunshine and larger land areas can't do the same things that New Jersey is doing," Brune said.
New Jersey also is moving to develop wind power, another clean power source that many places are talking about, but relatively few in the United States outside California have implemented. Along with energy conservation measures, other states, local communities and even individual businesses can follow this shift to a cleaner economy, Brune said.
"As a business, if you're operating more efficiently, you're essentially increasing productivity and so saving money at the same time," he said.
But when it comes to manufacturing and implementing green technologies, the United States is falling behind China, Germany, Spain, Denmark, France... a growing list of countries that used to look to America for leadership.
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama embraced a grab-bag of energy policies, running down a list of prospective "green" jobs that included almost everything short of Soylent Green.
As on other issues, it was unclear what options the President actually will push, but he seemed particularly enthusiastic about nuclear power. Nuclear plants already are New Jersey's leading source of electricity, and the industry touts them as superior to dirty fossil fuel plants.
Brune only agrees "if you're looking for a very expensive source of energy, a source of energy that's very slow to come on line and a source of energy that's unsafe." He is considerably more favorable about increasing the use of natural gas as a transition away from coal and oil.
It was another teenage experience, a family trip to the Grand Canyon, that confirmed Brune's commitment to the environment beyond his local beaches. After graduating from West Chester University with degrees in finance and economics, he held a series of jobs with environmental groups.
Brune is moving to the Sierra Club from the Rainforest Action Network, where he scored a signal success in preserving 5 million acres of rainforest in British Columbia by convincing companies such as Home Depot that clear-cutting woodlands is unwise and unnecessary.
Despite the confusion over national energy and environmental policies, the new Sierra Club executive is energized by the opportunity to nudge the country toward a healthier and more economically sustainable future. He noted a "growing affinity" between environmental groups and clean energy businesses.
The United States still needs comprehensive national policies on global warming and green technology, but "there's a lot to like" so far in the Obama Administration's policies and proposals, according to Brune.
To some extent, it is understandable that America is lagging on energy issues, because changes face "a rich and powerful and intransigent force," Brune said. "Our oil and coal industries are the richest industries in human history, and they are deeply invested in maintaining the status quo."
Still, he is optimistic about the outcome, because developing clean energy "is a national security issue, but it's also an economic competitiveness issue for our country."