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Marc Merson: The Light Bulb Clicked

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was literally a light bulb that inspired Marc Merson to produce Eco Expo, a national marketplace for the environment.

“I’ve been a big activist for a lot of causes over the years, but not the environment,” he says.

But in May, 1989, he was pressed into duty by his wife, actress Nina Wilcox, who was involved in the first “Healing the Planet” symposium at the Bonaventure Hotel.

Merson’s job was simple: He sat in the front row and held up a sign telling speakers when their time was up. (The lectern warning light had broken.) It forced him to listen to the entire program, a hefty line-up of global experts who sounded alarms and rattled off statistics about rain forest destruction, population explosion, toxic waste, ozone depletion, global warming and other disastrous trends.

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“For me, it was like a conversion,” says Merson. “I had been involved in the anti-nuclear movement because of its catastrophic threat to the world, but as the day wore on, I became convinced that the environment was a bigger threat.”

Then Amory Lovins came on stage. The energy-efficiency wizard who runs Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Institute--renowned for its development of alternative energy sources--produced a small, compact fluorescent light bulb and explained how it uses a quarter of the energy and lasts 10 to 15 times longer than the everyday incandescent bulb.

“That was the other thing that blew my mind,” recalls Merson. “Amory is very persuasive about our technological ability to save energy. So I came away with a combination of being appalled at where we were heading and the realization that there were solutions being developed.

“I asked myself, ‘What else is out there like those light bulbs?’ ”

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A little research proved that there was a lot, enough to point Merson to Eco Expo, a comprehensive marketplace for environmental products and services. His goal, he says unabashedly, is to help save the planet, and his sense of urgency intensified with the crisis in the Persian Gulf. Like legions of other environmentalists who have been sounding the alarm about the nation’s addiction to fossil fuels, Merson thinks time is running out.

“In a sense,” he says, “we are paying for our flawed and terrible energy policy--it’s a huge environmental mistake which we should never ever make again.”

In fact, Merson is convinced that if former President Jimmy Carter’s energy policy, with its tax credits for energy conservation and efficiency standards for cars and appliances, had remained in effect, the United States would be energy independent today:

“I really am convinced that unless we change our (consumption) habits, we are heading for serious trouble, if not catastrophe.”

Producer Merson, who grew up in New York City, graduated in 1953 from Swarthmore College with a degree in English. He spent several years as a program executive for CBS before forming his own Brownstone Productions in 1966.

As an independent producer, his commutes to the West Coast for film and television work increased--he has producer credits for 18 TV pilots and series. So 13 years ago, his family moved to Los Angeles.

The art on his office walls includes posters from two of his films, “Leadbelly” and “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” His newest film project, for which he is executive producer, is the upcoming film “Doc Hollywood” with Michael J. Fox.

That may seem an unlikely background for running Eco Expo, but Merson points out that production skills--organizing backers, packaging talent, getting people to say yes, and defining a vision--are transferable.

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“The fact that I come from the show business field is not accidental,” he says. “Part of the vision is saying, ‘We’re going to put on a show.’ My whole sense is to bring together things that will interest, will excite people and then will get them into action.”

Putting together his organization, he recruited both financial investors and an advisory board of environmental experts whose advice he uses frequently. And his executive vice president, Art Benson, is an experienced trade show organizer. In that framework, Merson gets good marks for his direction and energy.

“He’s an interesting man--he’s enormously enthusiastic and it’s real,” says Mary Proteau, an environmental activist and TV producer who worked with Merson in the early stages of Eco Expo. “He’s kind of like a big kid with an idealism a lot of us are lacking these days. You have to go forward, despite the setbacks.”

That’s how Merson says he feels: “I’m still a producer, but Eco Expo is the most important thing I’ve ever produced. It’s a life’s commitment.”


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