Stories / Interviews

Q & A with Environmentalist Simran Sethi

Anna Mowry

Anna Mowry

October 10, 2012


Simran Sethi wants to get personal about climate change. Dubbed the “the environmental messenger” by Vanity Fair, the journalist and educator believes that storytelling plays a crucial role in raising awareness and inspiring action. (She recently gave a TED talk called, How and Why Do We Engage?) In anticipation of her appearance at our annual food conference next week, we got in touch to learn more about her work.

JBF: You Twitter bio says that you tell stories and support storytellers. How does this fit into your work as an environmentalist?

SS: The core of my work was always journalism, so I’m in the habit engaging people and learning their stories. I’ve found that when someone shares their story, that’s what gets other people—even people who think they have very little common ground with that person—to care about issues and to get inspired to work toward change. A PowerPoint presentation or academic study can’t do that. The power of story is within all of us; I think of myself as the doula. [Laughs]

JBF: You used to teach courses on sustainability and environmental communications. Do you think that most environmental activists and journalists communicate issues in an effective way, or does environmentalism need better publicists?

SS: I would say that the environment needs better storytellers. There are so many journalists and activists who are doing amazing jobs, but we need to figure out how to make stories enduring. Right now you see lots of greening “tips” and top ten lists, which promote single-action bias: you may check off one thing from those lists, and then you move on. We interact with the environment every single day: we can’t dress ourselves or eat without it. It deserves to be more than a channel or a vertical.

JBF: You recently left your post as an associate professor at the University of Kansas. What’s next for you?

SS: It wasn’t an easy decision, but I left academia because I really missed being out in the world, meeting people and telling their stories. I’m also going to be doing some consulting for NGOs, doing a lot of traveling, and researching my book about seeds.

JBF: Tell us more about the book on seeds.

SS: It may sound odd, but I think many people don’t realize that seeds are the foundation of our food system. We throw them out, we spit them out, our kids choke on them. But seeds are at the core of everything, and no one talks about them.

Over the last 30 years, our diets have shrunk and, consequently, so has the availability of seeds. Companies actually own the majority of seeds. Farmers are legally prohibited from saving seeds. The supply has become extremely consolidated. Sometimes you hear things in the media about seed banks, like the Svalbard vault in Norway. But those seeds are frozen: will they be able to grow in the future? We need seeds that can thrive in the face of climate change. It’s also important to consider changing cultures and palates. My book will explore these kinds of issues.

JBF: Have you met any individuals who have compelling stories to share about seeds?

SS: I’ve met some really interesting people who are working on seed policy with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Some of the workers are assigned to developing and war-torn countries. I’ve heard fascinating stories from people who are crafting seed policy in Iraq, working on the ground with farmers and creating markets for food that have never existed in those communities. It’s amazing to hear how that comes together. And it makes me wonder, “Do we even have anything like a seed policy in America? Who would even write that?”

JBF: We read on your blog on Oprah’s website that after having lived in rentals for years, you finally purchased a home and were free to practice the environmentally minded habits that you preach. Did you encounter any unexpected challenges while greening your home and your everyday life?

SS: I would answer that question with a resounding, “Hell, yes!” All that stuff is way easier to talk about than do. For example, I have a really big yard and I thought I was going to be Farmer Jane and grow all this food. But that responsibility limits your ability to travel. I hadn’t thought about those sorts of trade-offs. And it’s funny that you’re asking about it—I’m actually moving out of my house! When you live in a house that you own, there’s so much more to worry about. I want to be less focused on possessions, to trim back and be leaner, more nimble. I’ve decided that I want to live in rentals forever.

JBF: You are going to be doing a short talk during our annual conference. Can you give us a preview of the topic and how it relates to trust, which is this year’s theme?

SS: I’ll be exploring the story of trust. It’s a very abstract concept—I’m not even sure I understand what it means! But I’ll be trying to figure out the embodied experience of trust and how we can use our hearts instead of our brains to find trust. That’s what makes it real.

You can learn more about Simran and her work on her website.