Art Cooley, an environmental pioneer

Art Cooley ranks among the pioneers of the environmental movement. He was a founding member of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in 1967, which successfully joined the forces of the scientific, political and legal arenas to ban DDT in Suffolk County, New York. In 1972, EDF achieved a nationwide ban of DDT.

Cooley attended Cornell University. He was a Fulbright Exchange Teacher at Harris Academy in Scotland and furthered his professional development through participation in several National Science Foundation Institutes including an academic year at Harvard University.

He was a faculty member at Bellport High School in the South Country School District from 1956 to 1989, where he taught biology, served as science department chair and founded the Students for Environmental Quality Club (SEQ). He also taught marine biology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. From 1987 to 2007, he was an expedition leader and naturalist with Lindblad Expeditions. The La Jolla resident has received numerous awards including the Hermit Thrush Award from the Nature Conservancy.

What brought you to La Jolla?

On a trip to Antarctica, I met Bev Grant who was a La Jolla resident and a retired teacher at Torrey Pines High School. We fell in love and I moved to La Jolla nearly six years ago. We often joke that we met on an iceberg, but truly we were married on the edge of an active volcano on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. Coming to La Jolla has been an adventure.

What makes La Jolla special to you?

We are in the process of moving to a new house and have been delightfully overwhelmed by the friendliness of our new neighbors. We’re “partners” at the La Jolla Playhouse, which means we experience wonderful theater and more wonderful people. And, since we are readers, bookstores are important to us. Where else could you, on one night, hear Diane Ackerman at Warwick’s and, the next, poet laureate Billy Collins at D.G. Wills? What fun and stimulation!

If you could snap your fingers and have it done, what might you add, subtract or improve in La Jolla?

I would end the argument over the seals and find a way to allow them to stay legally. La Jolla’s pupping beach for harbor seals is the only one in the world where an active population of seals is so close to a large metropolitan area. We should treasure them rather than chase them away. If we can legally change the terms of Ellen Browning Scripps’ other grant for the location of a hospital, we can surely include seal watching as having “legal” value for children…and adults.

Who or what inspires you?

The beauty of the natural world we live in is inspirational. As an example, one day at the Children’s Pool, I spotted a peregrine falcon flying low and fast from the sea right over the seals and grab a pigeon in its talons from above the gazebo and fly off. Other days, the flights of pelicans, once endangered, flying over the waves add to the grandeur of La Jolla. In sum, it is the awe inspired by our natural surroundings that gives me inspiration.

If you hosted a dinner party for eight, whom (living or deceased) would you invite?

We will need a larger table! Charles Darwin, Dian Fossey, Thomas Jefferson, Nelson Mandela, Golda Meir, Carrie Nation, John Wesley Powell, Sally Ride, Roger Revelle, Sandra Day O’Connor, Ernest Shackleton and Oprah Winfrey.

What are you currently reading?

“Three Cups of Tea,” “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” and “Hot, Flat, and Crowded.”

What is your most prized possession?

Memories of Antarctica.

What do you do for fun?

We love to travel and seek new adventures. Mark Twain said, “Travel reduces prejudices.” It also broadens your view of the world. Recently, we went to Rwanda and Uganda to see the Mountain Gorillas that Dian Fossey championed. To sit literally a few feet from these gentle giants is heart stopping. And, in South Georgia we hiked the last 3 miles of the route Shackleton took across the island in his epic journey. It is exciting to walk in the footsteps of others. We volunteer at two theaters: The Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse. We garden with a strong emphasis on cactus and succulents. And, we look for the green flash - and sometimes even a blue flash!

Please describe your greatest accomplishment.

As a founding trustee of the Environmental Defense Fund in 1967, I have helped develop an organization that has made remarkable progress in environmental reform starting with the banning of DDT in 1972. Indeed, the elimination of DDT paved the way for the return of the brown pelicans, peregrine falcons, bald eagles and ospreys to name a few. Along the way we helped to get lead out of gasoline and paints, to establish a cap-and-trade program for sulfur dioxide to control acid rain and through the Montreal Protocol to reduce gases that caused the ozone hole. Today, efforts to control greenhouse gases are of prime importance and I am honored to still serve on their board.

What is your motto or philosophy of life?

When I was in eighth grade, our class motto was: “Nothing is impossible but some things just take longer.” I also believe, as Margaret Mead did: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that has.” I also like Yogi Berra’s notion that “you can see a lot by looking.” My philosophy? I guess I’m an eclectic optimist.