Our Man in Chicago

Henry Henderson knows that achieving energy independence and creating new jobs go hand-in-hand.

A version of this story was originally published by NRDC's onEarth magazine.

On September 22, 2008, as the Dow plummeted and Congress scrambled to approve an economic rescue plan, Henry Henderson, the director of NRDC's Midwest office, was in Chicago addressing some 250 business leaders at the Corporate Climate Response conference, a forum for executives looking to address the impact of climate change. After he finished, one attendee asked: How can businesses do anything to reduce carbon pollution in light of the collapse of financial markets?

The real problem, as Henderson sees it, is that this question is still being asked at all. Too many people see a false dichotomy between economic and environmental goals. Part of Henderson's mission is to help industry identify opportunities to create jobs—and increase profits—while helping the country mitigate climate change and achieve energy independence. Lofty goals indeed, but he is quick to point out that the United States has accomplished similar, if not greater, feats under equally grim circumstances.

The Chicago River in downtown Chicago

During the Great Depression, Henderson notes, government and corporate efforts to reinvent the energy industry through New Deal programs like rural electrification and federally funded hydropower were crucial first steps toward restoring the vitality of the economy. Today, he says, "improving energy efficiency is a critically important step in getting control of our economy, squeezing out a massive amount of waste, and creating new jobs."

Henderson is a broad thinker, inclined to solve problems by citing lessons from the past, drawing connections between ancient Rome, the Midwest's 19th-century industrial heyday, and our current economic and environmental predicament. This tendency to think big has helped him chart a somewhat unconventional career path.

After growing up where the Missouri River enters the Mississippi, in the small steel town of Granite City, Illinois, he studied philosophy and theology at Ohio's Kenyon College, earned a master's degree in philosophy from Oxford University, and moved to Chicago in 1976 to pursue a doctorate at the University of Chicago. It was there that he found himself drawn to politics and law. It was hard not to be—the take-no-prisoners world of Windy City politics was part of his everyday life. He soon changed course and enrolled in law school at Washington University in St. Louis, across the river from his hometown.

Rebecca Greenfield/NRDC

In the late 1970s, environmental law was in its infancy, and Henderson was intent on representing the public interest on matters of environmental policy. By the mid-'80s, he was back in Chicago, working as the assistant attorney general for Illinois. He founded the city's first department of the environment in 1992 and served as its commissioner for the next six years, launching the Chicago Brownfields Initiative to clean up and rehabilitate abandoned industrial sites. Henderson left city government in 1998 to teach and start an environmental consulting firm, and in 2007, he joined NRDC, opening the organization's Chicago office.

At NRDC, Henderson's purview has expanded from one major city to eight Midwestern states, yet his goal in many ways remains the same: to move the region toward green reinvestment, thereby creating a modern approximation of its former industrial glory. He has traveled from state to state to urge public utilities to adopt policies that encourage energy efficiency. His office has been successful in challenging the construction of new coal plants as well as the expansion of refineries to process tar sands oil—dirty fuel from Alberta, Canada, that is being extracted at the expense of a primeval forest the size of Florida.

Such changes might ultimately help preserve the Midwest's greatest natural treasure, the Great Lakes, which are increasingly threatened by climate change and skyrocketing water demand. A second prong of Henderson's work has been a campaign to protect the lakes, among the world's largest sources of freshwater, from a litany of insults, including untreated wastewater and invasive species from zebra mussels to cholera bacteria.

Considering the future of the Midwest, Henderson turns once again to history, evoking one of its golden sons and corporate giants. What would Henry Ford do in this position, he asks? He would acknowledge that our dependence on a single source of energy has reached an impasse. He would reinvent the car and, in the process, reshape the foundation of American industry.

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