Vermont is cold. That message will be repeated several times Wednesday night but it’s bleeding obvious from the minute I step out of the Burlington airport and thank my lucky stars for my long black coat.
Another reporter who will attend the sixteenth annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference with me tries to find out exactly how nippy it is. She reports: 36 degrees, plus (or, rather, minus) wind chill. And the weather is just getting started
The cool climate almost convinced our keynote speaker not to settle here. Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, had decided with Jerry Greenfield to start an ice cream parlor… somewhere.
This was in the days before the Internet, he tells us. They had two criteria for what city to set up shop in. It had to be (a) a college town and (b) warm. Ben thumbed through a guide to American colleges and Jerry brought an almanac to the kitchen table. Every time they found a decent sized non-chilly college town, they looked into it.
The problem was, every time they found a warm college town they also found an established ice cream parlor. “So we threw out the criteria of warm and ended up here in Burlington,” he tells us.
In fact, it may have been the weather that turned Ben & Jerry’s into the massive success that it’s become. They did great business in the Summer but nobody here wanted to buy ice cream in the Winter, so they had to find a way to make money in the cold months.
In order to survive, Ben and Jerry decided to sell pints to supermarkets. The pint sales took off and the parlor was eventually abandoned and torn down.
If we get a chance to tour more of Burlington, Ben recommends that we take in two sights. The first is Al’s Frys, an old school fast food joint. The second is the lot where the original Ben & Jerry’s stood. There’s still a sign there behind some brush, he says.
His talk is fascinating but frustrating. Fascinating because he tells the story of how two friends who’d failed at everything else finally managed to do something that we can all sink our teeth into. Frustrating because when the subject isn’t ice cream, he basically thinks in cliches.
The success of Ben & Jerry’s was in the fact that a couple of hippies decided to try their hands at brass knuckled capitalism and somehow managed to get in the best licks. When they didn’t have enough for 30-second spots on late night television, they decided to buy up all the 10-second slots. And when Pillsbury strong armed a Ben & Jerry’s distributor with an ultimatum — they could sell Haagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s, but not both — the young upstarts refused to let that be the end of it.
They looked into their legal options but found that the relevant regulators had been “Reaganized,” and decided to deal with this themselves. Ben & Jerry’s launched the “What’s the doughboy afraid of?” campaign. They took out advertisements on buses and rented banner planes that fly around sporting events. Jerry became a one-man picket at Pillsbury headquarters. They slapped a 1-800 number on every pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
“We started getting like a hundred calls a night, most of them between the hours of midnight and 3 a.m.,” he tells us. The bad press forced Pillsbury to stop trying to hobble a competitor.
Then he starts in with the cliches. Ben tells us that religion used to be the most powerful force in society, then government, and now business. Businesses control the media, elections, and everyday life. It’s a power that can be used either for good or for ill, he tells us, and he’s trying to use business to do good.
He throws out a few ideas about how to change business but then he works into his government reform routine. Rather than using business to do things that government is bad at we should lobby government to change its spending priorities. Less money for the Pentagon, more for world hunger, that sort of thing.
Great ice cream, though.
Just call me butterfingers.
When you sign into the conference, you get a nametag with stickers that allow you to go on the tours.
I lose my nametag just before a scheduled activity and search for it so monomaniacally that I miss the bus.
According to the program, the tour has two scheduled stops, “The Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge on Lake Champlain, where hunters and birders often inhabit the same space; and a shooting range where journalists can try their hand at a round of skeet and talk with folks who hunt, fish and trap.”
The tour will explore “one of the burning issues of our time: How can consumptive users and non-consumptive users harmoniously share our increasingly limited natural resources?”
I’d always wondered, and now I’ll never know.
Later in the evening come the sponsored receptions. Various concerns rent out reception rooms and try to get environmental journalists good and liquored up. The British government has the Ye Olde Climate Change Pub.
For my non-money, the best reception is the one put on by the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani, where the former New York mayor hangs his shingle. The suite is spacious and it’s the one party where nobody tries to sell us on some cause. Plus, it’s the only place where a server slices up prime rib for the conferees.
“If you want red meat,” I tell a colleague, “you can always count on Rudy Giuliani.”