Al Weinrub isn’t your typical Harvard physics Ph.D. Sure, he’s applied his education to earn a living, in jobs ranging from bus driver to technical writer, but his passion for science is focused on the role of science and technology in society.
For the last several years he has worked indefatigably to move the Bay Area and the world to a renewable-energy system that will stave off the dangers of global climate change, and to a perspective that recognizes that such a system must be based on democracy and social justice, not simply on technological innovation.
Al is active in numerous organizations–wherever he sees potential for creating the needed change–and so it shouldn’t be surprising that some years ago he got involved in the Sierra Club’s Northern Alameda County Group.
But Al’s commitment to social justice goes back much further.
One early influence was his father. “My dad was a very smart guy, a civil engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers, who headed up the St. Lawrence Seaway project in the 1950s and then devoted many years to cleaning up the pollution of the Great Lakes,” Al recounts. “He was actually a strong environmentalist, and clashed with state authorities often, though I didn’t realize it at the time.”
Al also was strongly influenced by the Vietnam War. He explains how the automated air war and other technologies that were used to murder innocent people, as well as the more general misuse of science for imperialist ends, incensed him to the point where he helped found a national organization, Science for the People (SftP), in 1969. That organization, which lasted until about 1990, believed that science should be created and used in the service of the people rather than for the benefit of military or corporate interests.
Charles Schwartz, professor emeritus of physics at UC Berkeley, knew Al through their mutual involvement in SftP. According to Schwartz, Al “was an important leader of that organization/movement in Boston.” Al continued his involvement with SftP when he moved to San Jose in 1974 and hosted with Schwartz a weekly SftP radio show on KPFA. “I just did this weekly show for a couple of years, while I taught at Bay Area universities,” he says.
During his 10-year stint as a bus driver, from about 1976 to 1986, Al became active in organizing unions against the Central American war, which began around 1980. This led to his forming the Labor Network on Central America, a national organization of unionists opposed to the U.S. war in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and other parts of Central America. “Many people in the movement against the Vietnam War subsequently went into union workplaces around the country to organize within the unions around the issues of the time,” Al reflects. “I was one of them.”
Al joined the National Writers Union in 1985, when he was the editor of the Labor Report on Central America, the publication of the Labor Network on Central America. In 1986 he moved to Oakland and began working in the computer industry, to pay the bills while he continued his union and social-justice activism. “I was a technical-support person and then a technical writer for about 23 years, working at two different companies that were bought up by Sun Microsystems. I eventually got laid off about four and a half years ago, just before Sun Microsystems got bought by Oracle.”
Al started getting involved with climate-justice issues and renewable energy soon after being laid off by Sun. He saw a blurb in the Yodeler seeking help with the Local Clean Energy Alliance initiative. A collaborative effort with Bay Localize, the Alliance works to promote local clean energy in the Bay Area. Al showed up, looking for an opportunity to get involved, at a meeting convened by Kent Lewandowski of the Northern Alameda County Group Executive Committee. “The time was right, and he had great energy and enthusiasm,” recalls Kent. “I think I only hosted one or two more meetings after that first one, and Al took it from there.”
Kent was impressed with how quickly Al learned about the organizational complexities of working in the Club on an issue that cuts across so many of the Club’s concerns and all geographic scales. Al also joined the Club’s California/Nevada Energy-Climate Committee in 2009. He quickly got to know a wide range of the relevant Club leaders and activists. “I think that’s one of the reasons he’s been so effective. He gets things done by making a connection with people,” Kent says.
Al Weinrub has been a major force in Sierra Club California’s Energy-Climate Committee, according to co-chair Ed Mainland, who cites Al’s authoring of a definitive 60-page Local Clean Energy Alliance booklet Community Power: Decentralized Renewable Energy in California, pushing the Club toward more-effective espousal of distributed, localized clean-energy solutions through Community Choice energy and what has become Sierra Club’s “My Generation” campaign in California. ”Al’s matchless volunteer writing and organizing have been formidably effective and unrelentingly positive,” Mainland said.
Al certainly has gotten things done when it comes to the Local Clean Energy Alliance. He became its coordinator after just two years of volunteering, and has helped organize its annual Clean Power, Healthy Communities Conference. The fourth such gathering took place in October. While space limits the event to about 150 attendees, Al confirms that the level of interest has intensified over the years.
Al says that “people concerned about local energy and community power know where to come if they’re passionate about finding ways to build resilient communities.” They come to the Bay Area. They come to the Local Clean Energy Alliance, to the Oakland Climate Action Coalition, to the Sierra Club. They come to Al. He reflects that throughout his life, “there has always been a consistent thread of fighting for justice on many different fronts.” And this wonderfully atypical physicist doesn’t plan on ripping that thread any time soon.