Telling the Environments Story

Simran Sethi is an award-winning journalist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, where she teaches courses on sustainability and environmental communications. She is currently writing a book on contemporary environmentalism to be published by Harper Collins in Summer 2010. She is the contributing author of Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy, winner of the bronze 2008 Axiom Award for Best Business Ethics book. Simran is the founding host/writer of Sundance Channel’s environmental programming, The Green, and the creator of the Sundance web series The Good Fight, highlighting global environmental justice efforts and grassroots activism.


Named one of the top ten eco-heroes of the planet by the UK’s Independent and lauded as the “environmental messenger” by Vanity Fair, Simran has contributed numerous segments to Nightly News with Brian Williams, CNBC, the Oprah Winfrey Show, Today Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Martha Stewart Show and History Channel. She is committed to a redefinition of environmentalism that includes voices from the prairie, the inner city and the global community.

Simran blogs about sustainability and life cycle analysis for The Huffington Post and Alternet. She has been a featured guest on NPR and is the host of the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary, “A School in the Woods.” She has lectured at institutions ranging from the Commonwealth Club to Cornell University; keynoted conferences including Bioneers by the Bay, the Green Business Conference and the North American Association For Environmental Education; and moderated panels for the Clinton Global Initiative University, Demos and the Climate Group.

Simran is an associate fellow at the Asia Society and serves on the Sustainability Advisory Board for the city of Lawrence, Kansas. She holds an M.B.A. in sustainable business from the Presidio School of Management and graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Sociology and Women’s Studies from Smith College. She is the 2009 recipient of the Smith College Medal, awarded to alumnae demonstrating extraordinary professional achievements and outstanding service to their communities.

What first led you to engage so fully in learning about the environment and sharing what you learned with other people?

I took a course in college called “The Environment,” which was a real galvanizing moment for me. I studied sociology and women’s studies. What I have always cared about are communities. For me, how we use and abuse our natural resources is a really clear indication of where we need to go as a global community. When I worked for MTV News in Asia, and specifically saw what was going on in India, it was that the communities that were the most vulnerable, that had the softest political voice and the least amount of expendable money, were the communities where our most toxic industries ended up. I can remember seeing bodies of water that were a completely unnatural color because of the dye that had been dumped into them. Or the displacement of communities because of a large-scale dam that had been proposed, the Narmada Dam. I recognized that, for me, getting a better understanding of our ecosystem would be way to better understand social justice.

Which environmental issues are most urgent at this time and to what extent does the public, in the United States and elsewhere, understand the urgency?

If you had asked me that question a couple of years ago, I would have said climate change and I would have paraphrased one of my bosses, Robert Redford [founder of the Sundance Channel], who has said that climate change is the umbrella under which all environmental issues fall. But since I moved from New York City to Lawrence, Kansas, three years ago, I’ve had a real education in understanding how people feel connected or disconnected from the issue of climate change.

What I talk about now is understanding our water usage and the fact that our drinkable water is currently finite, that we really need to think about ways to conserve water. Over the next couple of years, 38 out of the 50 states in the United States will be suffering from water shortages of some degree. I think that we need to really consider, for the U.S. population and global population, our consumption. What’s often talked about is population, but what’s more significant is that the United States comprises about four percent of the global population but we use upwards of 20 percent of the world’s resources. Whether we’re talking about petroleum or paper, or generating greenhouse gas emissions, these are all things that the U.S. (now with China and India not too far behind) plays a huge role in. For me, being of Indian origin and recognizing the challenges around population growth, I think the biggest challenge we face right now is people trying to emulate a Western lifestyle. So what we need to do, as Americans, is take a leadership position in redefining how we consume and what we consume. I think that’s the real opportunity to reach people.

Climate change is an urgent problem but it’s hard for a lot of people to get their heads around. The information seems abstract. Carbon dioxide emissions are invisible. The time trajectory for sea level rise seems so far away. The melting of the icecaps is still not something that people hold in their consciousness as they face the challenges in their everyday lives. So I think focusing on the resources we use is perhaps a better conversation to have right now.

Returning to your emphasis on water, this is not just about rainfall, is it? It’s also about using up the water contained in the underground aquifers.

Absolutely.

And here in Kansas, that hits very close to home because the massive Ogalala Aquifer is being drained at unsustainable rates. What have you learned, living in Kansas, that you didn’t know previously about water?

I have learned that we are using too much of it. I came from New York City, where the carbon and ecological footprints are pretty small [per person]. But here, the conventional farming techniques that are employed are very water intensive. The crops we grow, ranging from corn to soybeans to wheat, are water-intensive crops. The push for corn ethanol has been really misguided. So yes, water is not just about rainfall; drought depends on how we use water. And there are certain things that we believe we need to have – like green lawns – that don’t make a lot of sense in certain climates.

We are starting to get a better sense of that fact that water is finite. Planning policies need to reflect that. But for the most part, local governments don’t seem to have taken too strong a stance on this. This is one of things that we addressed in the climate plan for the city of Lawrence, that we really need to look at how we’re using our resources and how we’re planning our cities. The Climate and Energy Project, the nonprofit that’s an offshoot of The Land Institute, has also started to talk about water in relation to climate change, which relates to conventional agricultural measures as well. I’m learning that this hits a lot closer to home here, and we’re not just talking about drinking water. It’s industry, it’s public health, it’s a host of issues that have not been considered as fully as they need to be. Especially in an ag state! We need to be concerned with how available these resources are.

In the United States, and perhaps elsewhere as well, we currently face converging crises in the health, environmental and economic spheres. Do you see these as being interconnected?

Absolutely. Environmental issues are issues of public health, economic prosperity, patriotism and more, because we rely on our natural resources to sustain us. When we abuse our resources, we suffer the health consequences of doing so. So, for me, these issues are not separate; everything falls within our planetary ecosystem.

The biggest challenge I have as a journalist is trying to help people make these interconnections. Media is notorious for trying to squeeze a little bit of information into a little bit of space and not providing a lot of context. It’s a real hardship to try to explain climate change in a 250-word blog post or a two-and-a-half minute news story. I have tried to do both and I can tell you it is not easy. I think these stories warrant a much deeper conversation. When it comes to talking about the environment, we see the schism in the January 2009 Pew Poll saying people feel the Obama Administration should focus on jobs, the economy and terrorism, while interest in issues like environmentalism and climate change have fallen precipitously. Those things are completely interconnected. If we don’t make those connections clear, then it’s understandable that most people won’t be able to.

You teach courses at the University of Kansas on the intersections between media and the environment. You’ve partially answered this already but I’d appreciate your going a little deeper, if you would. What do you think is currently lacking in media coverage of the environment? You’ve talked about the limitations of sound bites or 250-word blog posts., For someone seeking to get the message out, someone who is a journalist or aspires to be one, how can they accomplish what needs to be done?

I think that for starters, they need to do a lot more homework. Science is not an easy thing to understand and I’ve seen many reporters ask questions that indicate that they haven’t done much homework. I emphasize to my students, many of whom are budding journalists, that it really comes down to asking good questions and knowing what to do with that information. We are further challenged by the fact that scientists are not trained to work with media. Science is a journey whereas media asserts destinations, for lack of a better analogy here. Media wants you to know this is right and this is wrong, this is black and this is white, this is the truth and this is a falsehood. Science is based on hypothesis; based on past history, this is what we think will happen in the future.

I think a lot of communicators don’t know what to do with that uncertainty. We need to do a better job of making our own concerns clear, while also being clear that some of this has not yet been figured out. It is dynamic and changing information. I worked for media outlets that would say to me, “We already did that story. Green transportation, green jobs, done.” You would never say that you’ve “already done” the Obama Administration, or healthcare. But for some reason this issue, the environment, has been siloed in such a way that people feel that it’s not well integrated into the fabric of their lives. So my goal would be that we stop having courses on media and the environment because the information will become so much a part of the public discourse that the information will no longer be decontextualized and isolated.

To what extent should journalists, environmental or otherwise, seek to maintain an objective viewpoint? Also, to what extent must there always be two sides presented, or given equal time, even if one side has essentially all of the science behind it? How do you address this with your students?

I tell students on day one that I don’t believe in objectivity. Other courses that they take may assert that objectivity is very much available and necessary. But for me, particularly in any level of advocacy journalism, it is my belief that people make assumptions about what your orientation is, if you are simply reporting on the environment and that the truth of the matter is that we all have a vested interest in the environment continuing and sustaining. So we have an agenda – we want clean air, we want clean water and we want clean soil. To me, it was a great misstep to give equal time to climate skeptics and do this 50-50 split on what the skeptics believe versus what the scientists believe. And this is really reflected to this day in the skewed kind of support that we have, or lack thereof, for responses to climate change. According to the recent Yale study, roughly half the population believes that human activity is behind climate change. The other half does not or is somewhat skeptical along the continuum.

I think most people get their information from media. That’s how they formulate their opinions about the world. I believe it is possible to assert, to make clear, your agenda and move forward. Because to me, you are showing your bias from the moment you select an interview subject, the moment you ask a question, the moment you edit a news story and determine what sound bite you’ll leave in and what you will take out. That reveals some level of subjectivity. So to assume a detached voice is an objective one, is, I think, an illusion.

Speaking of having an opinion, are you optimistic about our avoiding environmental catastrophe?

Sometimes I am not but most of the time, I am optimistic. On one of the television shows I worked for, I interviewed a woman named Sylvia Earle. She’s a marine biologist in her seventies who was the first woman to walk untethered on the ocean floor. She was named one of Time’s heroes of the planet. I leaned in to her during one of the breaks and said, “Dr. Earle, 90 percent of our fish stocks are depleted. What do we do? I mean, how do you keep going?” She’s this spry woman with bright blue eyes, and she said, “Simran, it’s the 10 percent.”

Keeping our eye on the possibility and the hope of what we can do is not always easy but I think it’s always essential. That’s where I try to come back to and it’s what I try to inspire my students to do. There’s always that moment in the semester where they realize, “Well, gee, everything I eat, the car I drive, the clothes I wear, everything has this terrible impact.” For most people, it is not a viable solution to pull yourself off the grid and go live in a yurt. But it is possible to be conscious about the decisions you make and recognize that everything does have an impact, and to look at ways that your impact can perhaps be diminished.

To what extent is food production and distribution, and the choice of which foods we eat, an environmental issue? And I would ask you to specifically address that in the context of animal agriculture, since Kansas is one of the world’s centers for animal agriculture.

Exactly. Don Stull, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Kansas describes the area of Garden City, Holcomb and Dodge City as the Golden Triangle of Meat Packing. This year in my class on media and the environment, we used food as the lens. We focused completely on food and agriculture, which I don’t think are separate. But in some people’s minds, ag is different from food.

Food is a universal. We have to eat, we can’t get away from it. And the choices we make have varying impacts. For a lot of students, it was an awakening to realize the amount of land, water and greenhouse gas emissions (particularly methane) that are generated through the raising of livestock. You can think about a meat packing plant in the abstract and think that it isn’t very pretty, but we talked to farmers. We started to get a better sense of what it means to make that choice. A couple of people in the class are vegetarians and they were able to share their insights as to why that was important for them, in terms of a personal ethic as well as an environmental responsibility.

In terms of the research that you were encouraging students to do more of, did you look into the 2006 United Nations report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow”?

Yes, we read the summary of that report. This is information that we weren’t talking about just a few years ago. Everyone was talking about carbon dioxide emissions without really looking at methane and the concentrated nature of that greenhouse gas emission. For students, it has been a real awakening to understand this. But they tend to be on budgets so they face a struggle in which they say, “I want to eat better, but my pocketbook only allows this much, so what am I going to do?” There was one student who came in saying that he ate burgers every single day. By the end of the semester, he was eating fewer burgers, but more importantly, he was really clear on what the supply chain was that brought that burger to his plate. He was recognizing not only the animal that had given up his life but the resources that had been depleted, what the farmers had been paid, and how the workers had been treated in the factory. Hopefully that information will stay in his mind and he will make better choices.

The Leopold study that was done at the University of Iowa, indicating that our food travels over 1500 miles from farm to fork, was surprising to students. We live in an ag state, yet our food is still traveling these huge distances to reach us. Why is there this disconnect? Why is our food system so out of whack? Where can we look and what can we do as citizens to start to make a difference?

You’ve often appeared on various media outlets speaking about sustainable business approaches. Corporations seeking quick profits are often seen as the enemy of sustainability. Can corporations be part of the solution?

It goes back to the idea of doing the best we can and thinking critically about our choices. Corporations are corporate citizens and I think we really need to treat them as such. And as such, some will do better than others. But for me, it’s necessary to continue to encourage companies to go further and not allow them to rest on their laurels.

I’ll give you an example. I moderated a conversation between the heads of corporate social responsibility for Whole Foods and Wal-Mart last year in Boulder, Colorado. The conversation was about sustainability and how these corporations define it. There’s a definition from the Bruntland Commission, the UN commission on sustainable development, which defines sustainability as engaging in a way that doesn’t harm future generations. Whole Foods has this American pastoral vision, that Michael Pollan talks about, in which they paint a picture that lots of the food is local and the price premium is certainly worth it. I asked, “What does this mean?” Furthermore, there is a lawsuit in California about toxins in some of the products carried in Whole Foods, so I questioned them about that, as well.

On the Wal-Mart side, I asked what they were doing in terms of labor rights. We cannot underestimate the power of the world’s largest retailer shrinking packaging, demanding that their supply chain shrink packaging by 30 percent. Trust me, when Wal-Mart says you have to do it to stay in our club [laughter], that’s it! It is unequivocal. So I can’t in good conscience say that Wal-Mart is the devil. Personally, I don’t really shop there, but I recognize the power of that institution and I recognize that there are huge numbers of people who do. So for me to dismiss them out of hand means that I am losing an opportunity to galvanize a lot of support throughout the supply chain, through a number of other companies and throughout a consumer base.

So you’re more concerned about expanding our reach than about being accused of compromising too much.

As a journalist, my goal philosophically is to bring more people into the conversation. We can’t get there if it’s just the folks on the coasts, the people who are already engaged in permaculture, the folks who are riding bikes and buying Priuses. It has to be everybody. This is too important and it involves all of us. So we need to seek out ways to get more people involved in the conversation and not make people feel alienated or shamed or stupid. All of these things have happened and have caused some people to say, “That’s not for me. That movement doesn’t belong to me.”

This one belongs to all of us. It’s about striving every day to figure out how to do that. This has to involve getting corporations on board. At one point, I was vehemently against a number of corporations, which I won’t list now. But I had a friend talk to me, and he said, “Do you go through your day and not interface with companies? You use products, right? Your coffee comes from someplace. You didn’t make your own clothes.” That helped me to realize that whether I like it or not, I engage with companies from the moment I wake up in the morning and brush my teeth, until the moment I go to sleep and put my beeswax earplugs in my ears. Somebody made those things; I bought them from somewhere. So I need to figure out how to work within that model and encourage those companies, and other companies, to do more.

Coming back to health issues, the British medical journal, The Lancet, recently ran a major article which concluded that global climate change is the greatest health threat of the 21st century. Is that your sense and, if so, why is this not more widely recognized yet?

You know, climate change has needed a much better public relations company. I’m making a joke here, but someone needs to do a lot better PR for the planet than we’ve had. Climate change has been an extraordinarily divisive issue. Media didn’t do a good job, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] didn’t do a good job. Some people have felt like if they are to believe in climate change, the next thing you’ll want is for them to support abortions and vote for Al Gore. It’s this strange polarity that has occurred. I can’t quite understand how this happened.

While I have not read that particular issue of The Lancet, I completely believe that climate change is an extraordinary health concern. It doesn’t get talked about enough because climate change, in general, has not been spoken about in ways that resonate with enough people. We talk about the number of degrees of the planet heating up, and we talk about sea level rise, but we have not made this tangible for people. If you say the temperature will rise here in Kansas and we will see increased rates of malaria because the mosquito population will proliferate, then that’s something that people can get their heads around.

But abstractions have not worked for people. We thought that maybe – when I say we, I mean environmental storytellers – that facts would really engage people. But I don’t think that people can tell the temperature difference between [global climate change of] one degree Celsius and two degrees Celsius. I’m not convinced that telling people that swapping out light bulbs will be the equivalent of taking a million cars off the road, or two million cars off the road, actually means anything to them. It sounds like a lot, don’t get me wrong. But speaking for myself, it doesn’t stay with me. I can’t discern the difference in those orders of magnitude. I think the more we can talk about public health, the better chance we have of actually engaging people.

From your perspective, what are some of the palpable public health issues that we can hang our hats on as communicators, to connect in a visceral way with people who may just be engaged in other activities and not thinking about this? What is there with people’s health that they might connect to? Not having enough water to drink, that’s one. Not having enough water to grow food with, that’s another…

See, you’re on a great roll. Not being able to breathe the air, that’s another one. The pollution. In the 1970s, when we galvanized around the Clean Air Act, seeing smog is what galvanized people. We have to make the invisible visible for people. Also, we can’t keep talking about everything over these long time horizons. There are some great reports that have come out for the state of Kansas, and for other states, about what will happen in response to climate change by the year 2100.

When we’ll all be dead.

Exactly. I want to know, what’s going to happen in 2010? Will I still have a job, will I have food to eat? It’s important to break some of this stuff down and say listen, this puts us on a certain trajectory. Here’s what happens to our soil, here’s what happens to our food, here’s what happens to the air that we all need to breathe, here’s what happens when we site another coal plant in our community. Here are the impacts that coal plant will have on drinking water. We don’t need to actually use climate change as the conversation starter because that’s where a lot of people have been turned off.

I can argue against a coal plant on a number of grounds that have absolutely nothing to do with the planet warming. I think that’s what we need to start do more, to build bridges to constituencies that are simply turned off rather than trying to convince them that climate change is real, which I think is a very challenging thing to do because it has become so politically and culturally loaded. I would start to talk about some of those common cares. And I think that what you just cited and what I just cited are the best ways to do it. Public health is so unifying. None of us want to be sick. None of us want our kids to be sick. A lot of us don’t want the animals to be sick or the plants to be sick either. That’s something that people can really feel.

Is concern about the Midwest turning into a Dust Bowl again a useful angle?

I still consider myself a bit of a transplant. I don’t know what the historical memory is around that. I mentioned it in class but I don’t really think that a lot of my students got it; they don’t seem to have any recollection of what that meant.

Aside from food, what did they identify with most?

For the whole course we used food as a lens, so the conversation was about food. But I would say water, jobs, the economy. We have to tie it into what people assert they do care about. That, to me, is just the clearest way to do this. If Pew tells you that the top three concerns for people are jobs, the economy and terrorism, well, I can figure out ways to talk about the environment in ways that address those concerns, rather than talking about them in ways that fall to the bottom of their list of concerns.

So if we say the conversation is about climate change and sea level rise, well, that just dropped to 20 in the list of 20 concerns. But if I can tie these to all the workers that have been laid off from Boeing in Wichita, and that the skill sets they have translate really well into creating wind turbines, and that Kansas has the third highest wind capacity in the country but we’re tenth in production, there’s really a tremendous business opportunity here. That’s going to get some people listening. That’s going to bring dollars into our state. I mean, those are the kinds of connections we need to make.

If we are concerned about terrorism and this whole idea of energy independence, what are the sources of energy we can use that would be good for us? Okay, we have a lot of coal here. What can we do to clean it up, because at this point clean coal is really a fallacy. What can we do to make that real if we’re not going to get rid of it? What other sources can we move toward? How can we educate our consumers? How can we get the government on board? We have a real opportunity right now because for so many years under George Bush, it was really hard to have these conversations.

So that space has opened up now?

Absolutely, from the inside out. We are no longer fighting to get these conversations held and policy changed. These things are happening in real time, since January. We have an extraordinary opportunity. There’s momentum. So where else can we direct our efforts? In my opinion, and I’m working on a book about this very thing, we need to address the people who have felt maligned or unaddressed by this movement. I would that say that’s a lot of folks who politically have identified as Republicans and who culturally have engaged in some of the same activities that the most ardent environmentalists do, but who would absolutely refuse that label because it doesn’t feel like a good fit for them. We’re trying to find out what would make it a good fit.

I read that your forthcoming book focuses on eco-elitism, which seems to be what you were just talking about. I was going to ask you to speak about how reasonably well-off people can recognize and avoid it. But I realize that eco-elitism may not be so much about whether one is well-off, but perhaps more about a kind of cultural elitism.

It’s more of an attitude that separates us. I received an email from a woman and I was describing the book, talking about how the contemporary American environmental movement was founded by hunters and anglers and so I’m interested in talking to them. She said she was vegan and that she wouldn’t have anything to do with this book. Now, absolutely the most environmentally friendly individual change you can make around food is become vegan. There’s no question. But, if we’re only going to get vegans on board with this movement, then we’re not going to get a lot of traction.

I’m curious to understand a community that values natural resources and has been instrumental in preserving large tracts of land. And as someone who eats meat, the people who hunt and then clean those animals and put those animals in their freezers and eat them all year round, they’re far more noble than I am when I go to the grocery store and look for some free-range chicken. I have a tremendous amount of respect for people who do that. I’m not a big fan of hunting as a sport but I think that there’s something we completely miss when we say that we don’t want to engage in dialogue with them. That’s philosophically where I come from.

So we need to find the places where the circles intersect?

Absolutely. And there are a number of them when it comes to natural resources that we share and depend on for our sustenance. I think there are a lot more ways that we are connected and we need to be a lot more creative about figuring them out. That’s what I mean by eco-elitism.

Is there any other area or issue that you feel passionately about that we haven’t touched upon?

Environmental justice. I really feel that people have been left out of this conversation for a number of reasons – because they’re disenfranchised, because they’re poor, because they have no political clout, maybe because they’re people of color, or because they’re Republicans.

There are just a host of reasons that we determine that someone is not like us. What I am trying to do is to help to make it clear that we are the same, that we have shared concerns and we need to figure out shared solutions. When it comes to environmental justice, Robert Bullard, the sociologist, did a study 23 years ago, looking at where toxic industries are sited. They’re sited in low-income communities of color, disempowered communities. That hasn’t changed in 23 years, despite EPA having an environmental justice arm, despite many of the big environmental organizations having an environmental justice arm. We have not reached those constituents.

I created a series for The Sundance Channel, for their website, called “The Good Fight,” that looks at how these issues – water usage, access to food, housing – how these effect disparate communities and what we can do. I think the first step is becoming informed. In order to do that, we need to seek out really good journalists, we need to encourage them and we need to become our own storytellers. And to recognize that this is the one movement that we cannot say belongs to someone else. It belongs to all of us.


Daniel Redwood, DC, the interviewer, is an Associate Professor at Cleveland Chiropractic College – Kansas City and Editor-in-Chief of Health Insights Today (www.healthinsightstoday.com). He can be reached at dan.redwood@cleveland.edu.

Daniel Redwood DC Written by Daniel Redwood DC

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