INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS ROTH, "TALKING LEAVES" 7-2005
CR: What are you doing right now?
JS: For about twenty years now, I’ve been doing road shows around different parts of the world, but mainly North America, giving presentations about deep ecology and the preservation of nature, which are the things I’m most interested in. These presentations include music and poetry as well as experiential processes and the spoken word. I do these partly as an educational thing, and partly as a fundraiser for different projects that the Rainforest Information Centre is supporting in India, Africa, and South America. Most weekends, I do an experiential deep ecology workshop which likewise benefits those causes. I started in British Columbia this year, and I’ve got nine weeks, a pretty packed schedule, supporting in particular the reforestation of the sacred Mount Arunachala in the south of India.
CR: What do you learn from these workshops; what do you get out of them?
JS: It’s not so much that I learn anything new. But these workshops are based in part on Joanna Macy’s work with despair and empowerment. These experiential processes give all the participants, including me, a sense of rootedness, interconnection with and participation in nature. This is actually my own spiritual practice, and my own psychological practice, to make sure that I remain fresh and don’t get burnt out, so that I’m available to vision and being called by the earth to act on her behalf.
CR: You mentioned that most people who come to workshops like this already belong to a certain group that’s sympathetic to this perspective. Do you try to do things that reach out to other kinds of people?
JS: I do a lot of interviews for magazines and radio as a way of sharing the intellectual content of deep ecology and mother nature and things like that. Often when people read these things, even though they haven’t been part of any movement, they’re interested; it strikes a chord within them, and they move in that direction.
But the workshops I do are usually attractive only to people who are already on that path, and who are looking for help in grounding their lives and their love of the earth. They don’t usually attract people who are CEOs of oil companies or anything like that, and I’m not sure how to go about that.
CR: I know you’ve been involved in a lot of political activism as well. In relation to those people, it seems that that’s the kind of work that you do.
JS: Yes, that’s right. Joanna Macy says that there are basically three different classes of activity that are required for what she calls the Great Turning—the great turning away from the industrial growth society and the military-industrial complex rule of the world into a sustainable future. One of those is resistance, and one of those is creating the models of the future in the present: permaculture and intentional community and things like that—and the third one is working directly on changing consciousness. I tend to find myself drawn to each of these things. The experiential deep ecology processes, rituals, and ceremonies are working on change of consciousness, but resistance is needed at the same time.
CR: Do you believe that modern society has brought more conflict among people, more devastating kinds of wars? Or do you think there’s something inherent in human nature, that humans are just always going to be having wars and conflicts?
JS: I can’t make up my mind about that. There’s lots and lots of conflict in the primate world, but human beings appear to have brought it to new levels of scale and in the technologies with which we wage it. Then there’s the work of the women anthropologists and archaeologists who claim that there was a time when there was no conflict, and so I’m a little bemused, I’m not sure what to make of that.
CR: They talk about a time when the power was more equally distributed among the genders, and when women were more in charge.
JS: That’s exactly so, and I’d love to believe that that was the case. But that research is contested, and I don’t know what to believe.
CR: The ideal that Rianne Eisler has written about is the “partnership way,” a more egalitarian kind of society.
JS: Well, obviously, I’m for that.
CR: Human beings are certainly part of nature, but sometimes they also seem different. Is there something that makes humans different in a moral sense? Is there a scale of right and wrong that other animals don’t need to conform to, because they just are the way they are, but that makes humans bad or good? Is there any kind of division you see between humans and the rest of the world?
JS: I haven’t really thought about that, Chris. I guess I would have to say that human beings grew out of nature, out of the biological fabric, the same as everything else. I agree with Aldo Leopold that human beings are a plain member of the biota. As a plain member, I think that of course we are particularly observant about human things and we don’t notice other species in the same way. We think that the things that set humans apart, the things that are different about human beings from other species, are very important and special things. But of course any other species would do the same thing. Ants would probably think that antennae are the really important and special things; they would just see us as examples of poor lost souls that don’t have antennae. I know that we prize this kind of consciousness that we’ve got as being something that really sets us apart. But the thing about a species is, a species is exactly something that has characteristics that nothing else has—that’s what makes it a species. I’m sure the decomposing bacteria might feel that, whereas humans could disappear and the world would go on forever, if they, the decomposing bacteria, disappeared, things would very quickly grind to a halt. They would think that their specific qualities were far more important than ours. So there’s a tremendous arrogance in humanism and in the whole anthropocentric world view. When we correct for that, then human beings are miraculously special because everything is miraculously special.
CR: It seems that the idea of right and wrong gets associated with environmental issues, but if you just look at in terms of survival and sustainability, different species will do different things that aren’t sustainable for them, and they will have a population crash, or they’ll spoil their habitat. So it seems as if maybe that is more of the issue for human beings, that it’s a question of survival, which means coming back into balance somehow. I guess that’s part of what you’re work is about: helping people become aware that they’re part of a larger system.
CR: At least five or six major extinction episodes have happened on earth, and we seem to be in the midst of a new one right now. What role should we take in trying to stop this, or mitigate it, if it is part of what naturally happens as part of earth’s cycles? Should we be playing some role now to make it less?
JS: I guess it depends on whether we think that human beings are worth persevering with or not. There’s a group in Oregon that’s started the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement because they believe that we’re a failed experiment and our extinction is the best thing that could happen to the planet. I personally don’t agree with that. I feel that perfecting human beings is a more worthwhile thing to shoot for than expecting them to disappear quietly. A study of the previous extinction events that have occurred on earth gives us a context where we see that what’s taking place now is not unnatural in any sense. It’s something that happens for one reason or another from time to time in the history of this world.
But the question is, if we fully grasp what we have initiated, whether we may be in a position to change our minds about it and to steer it in another direction. I’m not convinced that we are in a position to do that, but I personally don’t have anything more important to do than to try for that. I actually like human beings and I certainly like all of the other primates and mammals and all the other fellow travelers on this great titanic of a Cenozoic era. So I’m all in favor of steering away from the iceberg that’s looming dead ahead, and will argue for that. It’s not that I think that the world’s going to come to an end when the Cenozoic eventually does disappear into oblivion and the next epoch emerges out of the ashes; I’m sure that that will be just as miraculous and beautiful and awe-inspiring as the present. But I just feel that, if I get a vote, I vote for another million years or another hundred million years.
CR: I’ve heard that previous extinction episodes generally took place over much longer periods of time; the rate of extinction was less than what’s happening right now. It seems as if we have facilitated this extinction episode, sped it up quite a bit.
JS: I compare us to the photosynthesizing bacteria that in their clever sort of solution to their own hunger problems developed mechanisms for catching photons of light from the sun. This gave them the energy to split complex molecules into what they needed. They could split CO2 and utilize the carbon and they could split H20 and utilize the hydrogen, and thus they could make the hydrocarbons that they needed for their bodies, for their food. But in doing so they inadvertently produced oxygen, which eventually, after hundreds of millions of years, began to pile up and caused the world’s first extinction crisis that we know about. We are very like those bacteria. It’s not that we are doing this in order to extinguish ourselves and all of the other species, but it’s just a kind of a byproduct of our other activities. At the time, no doubt, the anaerobic bacteria were all carrying placards and were up in arms about it, because they didn’t think that it was a great idea at all to pollute the world with oxygen. But of course we know how the story proceeded, and so the anaerobic age was over, and a new age began of the breathers, including our own ancestors. So the sense of tragedy depends upon one’s perspective. I feel that human beings are just as natural as photosynthesizers and that whatever we do is just a very natural thing, but I sometimes think that we may have a choice. And if we have a choice, then I suggest that we choose more life, and that we choose not to bring the Cenozoic period to a close so early in the game.
CR: Your answers have been pointing out that when we’re talking about extinctions, we’re not just talking about obscure species on a checklist that keep going extinct, with no effect on human beings. When we’re talking about an era of extinction, we’re talking about our own extinction as well. It’s all tied together.
JS: That’s right.
CR: How do we each deal with the inherent internal conflicts in being a modern human being? We all are making compromises with the modern age, and with technologies that have downsides that are destructive. How do you personally come to peace with some of the choices that you have to make in order to just do your work?
JS: Well, I don’t feel like I am particularly at peace with them. I’m just as much in conflict as anyone. What I try to do is minimize the impact that I have, while at the same time recognizing that there’s a chance that vigorous activity by people like myself, who are speaking up about what’s happening to the world and resisting the destruction of the world, may help improve things. Although that vigorous activity itself consumes resources, I judge that the potential benefit of my actions outweighs those costs. Of course, I may be wrong about that, but that’s how I do it.
CR: When we were talking about the universe story, the 13.7 billion year story that science has allowed us to figure out recently, we were talking about that in contrast to the 6000 year old story that some people interpret literally from the Bible. That 6000 year old story often seems to go along with a lack of environmental consciousness, or with a lot of anthropocentrism. But I know there are many other stories about the creation and evolution of the universe from indigenous cultures that seem to be more ecologically conscious. Many of then lead to the same conclusions that this 13.7 billion year story would lead to about the best ways for human beings to relate to the rest of the world. In one point in the workshop you said that if there is “The” story, this 13. 7 year story would be “The” story with a capital T. I’m wondering whether you think that this does have more validity than, say, the Hopi story, or other indigenous stories, or are they all just different ways of looking at the same thing?
JS: I’ve got no desire to convert Hopis to another story. Their story is obviously serving them. I don’t see people from that culture behaving destructively towards the earth or engaging in aggressive conflict with other cultures with a different story. I feel that the universe story is really important for the people who are actively engaged in the modern project. We need to have a creation myth that realigns us with the earth and with the biological fabric out of which we’ve emerged. We need a story that will help us to recognize that our social identity has no independent existence, that we can’t survive without an intact biology. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an indigenous people’s story; I don’t think they need to change their story necessarily. But I do think that most human beings need a new story.
CR: Do you have thoughts about raising children in modern age? How does one instill ecological and community values in children without creating an equal and opposite reaction or rebellion against whatever those values are? Is there a way to gently lead children? What was your approach?
JS: I just lived in a community with people, lived lightly on the land, grew organically, and tried to live in loving harmony.
CR: It sounds as if you were creating an environment that reinforced your values for them.
JS: Yeah, that was 25 years ago, but that’s what I did.
CR: Were your parents and other family members supportive of your values and life choices as you were going in an ecological and community direction?
JS: It took them a while to catch on really, as to what I was on about. It wasn’t straightforward, and it wasn’t immediate, but eventually they did come to appreciate the work that I was doing.
CR: You weren’t carrying forward things that you had learned from them?
JS: No, not at all.
CR: But your son has apparently very much embraced that way of life.
JS: Well, you know, yeah, he’s living in a community, and growing organic food, and he’s a musician, and he’s environmentally aware.
CR: You are living in a land-based community, and also traveling around the world doing activist work. Do you find it is challenging to keep a balance between being “local” and “global”? What challenges have you had in balancing personal or community relationships with those larger issues?
JS: I find that that particular combination works really well for me. I spend eight or nine months of the year at home, living in this community and putting down my roots, doing Permaculture, organic gardening, tree planting, all kinds of community activities, as well as continuing with my activism, especially campaigns and fundraising and all kinds of things. Then three or four months of the year I find myself on the road, either monitoring projects in countries like India, or else doing workshops and fundraising and raising awareness and giving lectures and going to conferences and just spreading the gospel of deep ecology all over the world.
What I find more challenging is justifying all the fossil fuels, the big ecological footprint that I have from traveling every year like that. I guess everybody thinks that their reasons for traveling are important enough to justify squandering the earth’s resources, and I certainly feel that a lot of important changes take place, and consciousness is raised, and so on, but nonetheless I feel in a lot of conflict about it, and hope that I’m doing the right thing.
CR: When you do travel, is it during the slower season there?
JS: That’s right, I tend to travel during the Australian winter, which happens to be the summer in America and Europe.
CR: Is there a single most important thing that you’d like to help instill in those who see your roadshow or take part in your workshops?
JS: Well, I guess for me it’s the balance and synergy between engaging in a positive and active and empowered way in protecting the life support systems, the biosphere, the environment, the plants and the animals of this age—and doing the necessary spiritual and psychological work to make sure that we don’t become burnt out and depressed and despondent. Most people try to avoid looking at the issues that matter, and are in denial, because they’re afraid of the psychological impact that taking in the news is going to have. I think that if we’re going to engage, and if we’re going to stare over the abyss at what’s going on and what’s coming toward us, then it behooves us to find psychological and spiritual practices such as the experiential deep ecology work and the work that used to be called despair and empowerment but that Joanna Macy now calls honoring our pain for the world.
So it’s finding the balance between working in the world and working on ourselves that I feel is the key to being effective and being useful in times such as these.
CR: You use music and poetry in your presentations and workshops. Have you always done this? What led you to start doing it? What effects have you seen from it?
JS: I just think that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a song’s worth a thousand pictures. I’ve always used music and poetry. I’m especially encouraged by Thomas Berry, who calls on the poets and the musicians and the artists to come to join the move to spread a new story about our role in the earth. Merely having a dry scientific version of things isn’t going to be sufficient.
CR: You’ve talked elsewhere about “cellular memories” of our evolutionary past, which show us being related to everything else in the web of life. Can you give some examples?
JS: What I can say is that there are many stories about our origins. Some people believe that we were created by an old man with a white beard 6000 years ago, and that we are here to subdue and dominate nature and nature is here to be in fear and trembling of us. There are other stories that we’ve evolved here, that we’re part of this planet, that we’ve been evolving here since the first cell 4,500,000,000 years ago. There’s a lot of evidence for the latter story. We can look at the composition of our blood, the way its saltiness relates to the salt of sea water; we can look at the vestigial tail and gills when we’re in the womb. And so I feel that every cell in our bodies is descended in an unbroken chain through all the different forms of life.
Through certain kinds of experiential exercises, through meditation, through certain drugs perhaps, we can actually begin to tune in on that larger identity. Yes, we are just this biographical person that was born fifty-nine years ago or whatever it was, but also this much larger being that is the same DNA that’s passed from generation to generation. We can contact that and be informed by that. We’re not restricted to this very narrow, shallow, one-dimensional sense of self.
CR: To change focus: what is your impression of how Americans are seen around the world? Do people understand that much of the American population does not support the current US government and its policies?
JS: Yeah, I’m sure people do see that. But at the same time, I saw somewhere that in the rest of the world the US is slightly less popular than China at the moment. Of course people understand that it’s not all Americans, but nonetheless I think America’s reputation is at a particularly low ebb at this time.
CR: What do you think we as Americans can do to redeem ourselves in the eyes of the world?
JS: Take back your democracy.
CR: Take back our democracy…
JS: It’s been stolen. Get it back.
CR: Do you have suggestions specifically how to do that?
JS: Yeah, I was afraid you’d ask me that. No, not really. I guess just don’t mope about your losses…what’s the saying? Don’t mourn, organize.
CR: Do you think some changes can happen through electoral politics, if people take charge?
JS: Well, yes, as long as you don’t have electric voting machines that are being manipulated by Republicans, and as long as you don’t have a government that can create crisis and emergency before an election to scare people into voting conservative. I mean there are many ways of manipulating people, and somehow we have to take it back and make the system work.
CR: Let’s just say that we have these voting machines that aren’t registering our votes correctly, and that we have a government that’s in control of the media and that’s manufacturing crises to distract everyone right before the elections…what’s the next step? Not that you have to know…
JS: No, well, I don’t know. But I guess, take courage, move in a positive direction, get together with your neighbors and your friends and like-minded people to discuss these issues. Ask deeper questions—that’s Arne Naess’s definition of deep ecology: asking deeper questions. And spend time in nature, remember who we really are underneath the façade of our human personality, remember our interconnectedness with earth and air and fire and water, and root ourselves deeply in the biology of this planet out of which our lives are woven.
CR: What would you say to young people who feel overwhelmed by the problems they discover when they start educating themselves about the state of the world?
JS: I’d suggest that they need to do some of the work that reconnects. They can find out about that on our website, www.rainforestinfo.org.au, under Deep Ecology, and especially on Joanna Macy’s website, www.joannamacy.net. That’s what I do; that’s my best answer to the question. It’s not necessarily going to be easy for a young person to figure out how to do that. I’d say get together with other young people who are like-minded, who care about these things, and work together to support each other psychologically and in studying the situation so that we can find some way to address the difficulties.
CR: Realistically, do you feel that we have any chance to avert disaster in the coming century? Do you see us making the transition to a more ecologically sensitive, humane, sustainable world without major hardship and mass suffering?
JS: To me, it’s impossible to know whether there’s a chance of that or not. Obviously, the chance gets less and less the more time that goes on. There does seem to be this moment that we’re in before Peak Oil really kicks in, where either the remaining oil can be used to pave our way to a relatively smooth transition to a new sustainable world, or else it’s going to be used on Cheney’s war. But in any case, whatever the answer to that question, it’s still the only game in town. There’s nothing that we can do except do our best and try. I feel that both hope and hopelessness get in the way, you know? We don’t need hope or hopelessness, we don’t need to know what’s going to happen, we just need to know that in any case we should do things that are true and right and beautiful. You can never know beforehand—like there was no way to know that the Berlin wall was going to come down; all of the intelligence agents in the world were caught by surprise. Events have a way of happening…hundredth monkey, all of that kind of stuff…so I think we’ve just got to work as if there was a chance.
CR: Well, if we do, then maybe there will be.