July Issue: Through the Eyes of an Environmentalist

A Breath of Fresh Air

Eight out of the 10 smoggiest cities in the nation are in California, with Los Angeles topping that list. Environmental activist Joe Lyou is fighting to clear the air.

by Namju Cho
photographs by Eric Sueyoshi

THE 1970S. Vietnam. Watergate. Joe Lyou was a high school student during one of the most tumultuous times in American history. By the time President Richard Nixon resigned from office in 1974, Lyou’s political consciousness had been awakened.

“Watching a leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world [step down] … and seeing a government be so fundamentally corrupt” served as glaring evidence of the need for the American people to hold the government accountable, he said.

Lyou took up the call to arms, and he has spent the last 20 years playing the role of watchdog over the government’s environmental policy. Now, as president and CEO of the Coalition for Clean Air (CCA), he fights to keep California’s atmosphere breathable. The organization, founded in 1971, has helped push the state to the vanguard of the country’s global warming policy. Lyou has only headed the organization since last year, but he’s been at the center of several high-profile battles himself—and won many of them.

“We often take for granted the opportunities we have to engage our government,” said Lyou. “But we see people … who are willing to die for those rights,” he added, referring to recent democracy uprisings in the Middle East.

Lyou didn’t always aspire to be an environmental champion. His intellectual curiosity drew him initially to a career in academia, and he entered a Ph.D. program in social psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. As he dug deeper into the field, however, he learned about the disturbing power of authority over obedience. The infamous Milgram experiment showed how people were capable of inflicting severe pain on others if merely instructed to do so by someone perceived to be an authority figure. Similarly, the Stanford University prison experiment showed the abusive lengths students would go when given power over their peers. The two seminal experiments were “very powerful demonstrations of the influence of social factors on behavior,” Lyou said.

At the same time, you might say social activism runs in Lyou’s blood. His grandfather fled his native Korea in 1905, five years before the annexation by Japan, and participated in demonstrations against Japanese occupation. He was among the first immigrants to arrive in Los Angeles.

Lyou, often mistaken for Filipino or “nearly every race on the planet,” notes that his Korean American father and English-Irish-Scottish mother faced discrimination in Los Angeles as a biracial couple, even having difficulty finding someone willing to officiate their wedding. But that did not keep Lyou’s mother from being politically active. She joined the League of Women Voters and served two terms on the Culver City Unified School District Board of Education.

After graduate school, Lyou began his own career in activism at the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nuclear watchdog group that focuses on issues of nuclear safety, waste disposal, proliferation and disarmament. It proved to be a good fit, as the work appealed to his scientific training and passion for social justice. He stayed with the group for 10 years, starting in the 1990s, and took part in the campaign to keep a radioactive waste dump site out of Ward Valley, California.

The plans would have put the dump site on sacred Native American grounds along the lower Colorado River. Proponents of the dump site had pointed to a similar site in Beatty, Nevada, as a model, claiming that the Beatty site was safe. Lyou didn’t take that at face value. “I remember Joe poring over voluminous U.S. Geological Survey reports on the Beatty site,” said Jonathan Parfrey, who worked with Lyou on the Ward Valley case, and now heads the environmental group GREEN LA Coalition. “Buried in some appendices, Joe found the smoking gun.”

“The issue was whether these unlined trenches in the desert filled with radioactive waste could leak,” Lyou said. “[The government representative] said they couldn’t, but [the] data said they did.” Lyou had found proof of a leakage of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, at the Beatty site.

“That fact, buried on page 2,000, was one of the key pieces of evidence that stopped the state of California from building a dump but a few miles from the Colorado River, the lifeblood for 20 million people.” Parfrey said. In 2002, years of advocacy by a coalition of crosssectoral organizations and supporters—including Native American tribes and Sen. Barbara Boxer—paid off, and the state of California passed a law preventing the use of the Ward Valley site for nuclear waste.

To be an effective advocate, Lyou believes, one should be able to attack the issue from moral, political and technical perspectives. With the Ward Valley radioactive waste dump, for example, the moral approach focused on the impropriety of burdening future generations with this toxic legacy. Politically, it involved getting support from local, state and federal officials, as well as pushing for lawsuits and legislative initiatives. And technically, the science behind the push needed to be sound.

Now as head of CCA, which has offices in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Fresno, Lyou oversees an organization that works at the grassroots and governmental levels to address the state’s air quality needs. Even though overall air pollution has improved from the 1970s, Lyou said we’re far from where we need to be. “The health effects are underestimated and people lose sight of the sense of urgency,” he lamented. He cited a 2010 California Environmental Protection Agency study that estimated an average of 9,200 people died every year of a respiratory illness in the state.

A 2011 report from the American Lung Association found that eight out of the 10 smoggiest cities in the country are in California, with Los Angeles topping the list. In a recent letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, CCA listed 25 specific actions the governor could take to reaffirm his commitment to green policy in the state, including financial disincentives and incentives to motivate businesses and individuals to reduce emissions and invest in and deploy renewable energy and cleaner technologies.

The nature of his job has Lyou talking to people of all stripes—wealthy, low-income and ethnically diverse. Thanks to his background in social psychology, Lyou said he is as comfortable addressing policymakers as he is talking to working-class parents about why energy-saving habits can also help reduce their monthly electricity bill. “There’s a misconception that low-income people of color don’t care about the environment, but I’ve found that it’s not true,” he said.

At home, he tries to model sustainable behavior with his family by recycling, biking and using reusable bags when shopping. But you won’t see him pushing his views on others. He broaches the topic of air quality by asking his relatives to think carefully about which car to buy and how that will make a difference in pollution. “It’s not about being holier than thou, but more about educating to be helpful,” he said.

Although environmental activists are often perceived as people who say “no” to everything, in reality, they are reasonable people, Lyou insists. They are for a clean environment and good jobs, he said. It doesn’t have to be either-or. He said activists support the use of science and the development of new technologies as much as the next person. “They are willing to look for common ground on issues,” he said, adding, “but they will not compromise their principles.”

Spoken like a true activist.