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Jon Foley Beats the Heat

The contrarian ecologist on losing the climate debate to win
the planet

Jon Foley Beats the Heat
Photo by A. Brisson-Smith, Sidecar

Jon Foley pulls up to the coffee shop in a RAV4 SUV. His Prius, he says, is in the shop. No matter. Foley didn’t recently land in Wired and TIME for getting worked up over a few mpg’s. On the contrary, the head of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota is a self-described climate pragmatist. “Feel-good environmentalism drives me nuts,” he says. “Our population is skyrocketing, we’re fueling the world on dinosaur poop, and people want to argue over whether a banana is local or not.”

Foley had the distinction of being shouted down at the Aspen Environment Forum a couple of years ago after declaring the battle to persuade Americans of the science behind climate change “lost.” “It’s over,” he said. Now, when he walks into a room full of conservatives, he tells them, “Forget about climate change. Do you love America?” and talks about energy security, the fact that our factories are the oldest in the world, and the costs of inefficiency. “We need to fold more people into the discussion,” he says, “and at the end of the day, I just want less CO2.”

Foley moved with his family to St. Paul from Madison, Wisconsin, a few years ago, bought a Victorian in Crocus Hill, and cut his energy costs down to half of the neighborhood average with easy updates. He’s now hand-cultivating 40 kinds of fruit in the back yard, so he finds it ironic that he’s sometimes accused of being an agent of Monsanto. “I like organics,” he says. “I think farms should start out that way. But it only accounts for one-percent of our food, mostly for rich white people, and it’s become so divisive: you’re either all in or you’re the bad guy.”

Foley grew up in Maine on a hobby farm. There, he collected frogs and watched the night sky with a crude telescope, learning about the environment he’s now convinced is ours to save or destroy—and ourselves with it. “We’re living in easily the most important time in civilization,” he says. “We know what to do to solve our problems and we have everything we need to do it,” he says. “We just need to do it.”


1. Future Earth, a new exhibit he helped develop at the  Science Museum of Minnesota.
2. The U of M Landscape Arboretum. “A big breeder of cold-hardy fruit trees. And beautiful.”
3. Gardening. “Gardens are a gateway drug to thinking about the environment. It’s therapeutic.”

Watch Jon reveal the true environmental culprits at MNMO.com/Foley.


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