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.
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.