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.