Telling the Environment’s Story Interview with Simran Sethi

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 an “environmental messenger” by Vanity Fair, Sethi 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 blogs about sustainability and life cycle analysis for The Huffington Post and Alternet and serves on the Sustainability Advisory Board for the city of Lawrence, Kansas.

Sethi 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.

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.

Regarding 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 [per person] are pretty small.  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 crises in the health, environmental and economic spheres.  Do you see these as 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.

You teach courses at the University of Kansas on the intersections between media and the environment.  What do you think is currently lacking in media coverage of the environment?  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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ClevelandChiropracticCollege – Kansas City and Editor-in-Chief of Health Insights Today (www.healthinsightstoday.com)He can be reached at dan.redwood@cleveland.edu.

 By Daniel Redwood, D.C.

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