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Creating hope – in conversation with Simran Sethi

Simran Sethi

Ken Goodman/TEDx Manhattan under a Creative Commons Licence

Indian American journalist and educator Simran Sethi was listed in The Independent’s 2007 Top-10 Green List, along with the likes of Al Gore and Nicholas Stern, and has been named ‘the environmental messenger’ by Vanity Fair. In March she will be appearing at the WOMADelaide festival in Australia, taking part in a Planet Talks session with Sylvia Earle.

New Internationalist: You started your journalism career as a documentary maker and reporter. But you’re clearly more interested in transforming the agenda instead of just reporting. Who or what first inspired you to become a sustainability activist?

Simran: I am not interested in forcing or changing an agenda. I believe my role as an educator and storyteller is to provide information that empowers people to enact change in their own lives. I’m just the messenger. The power isn’t in my hands; it’s in yours.

You’ve argued that design can save the planet. But most of the world’s design effort goes into creating the latest trend in disposable consumer goods. How can we hope to turn that around?

That is correct, and I mention that in the talks I give. Design can save the planet if we start to design with sustainability in mind. Efforts to design for 99 per cent of the population still struggling to have access to clean water, a steady supply of energy, nutritious food and safe shelter are humble and revolutionary. I want designers of all types – from industrial design to web design – to consider their power and the opportunities they have to help respond to – and solve – our biggest global challenges.

Analysts are beginning to suggest that social media is making it too easy for activists, that creating a viral campaign is now seen as an end in itself, whereas creating real change involves action and street-level organizing. What’s your recipe for converting slacktivism into grassroots community movements?

Do the work. There is no other way. Talk the talk, share the share, but ultimately live in a way that reflects your values and cares. We must all work together to manifest what we want.

Industrial agriculture and sustainability are seen by many as polar opposites. But you have long argued that we can’t hope to save our food systems if we don’t engage with corporate food producers. How do you see that happening when activists and corporates seem to live in such separate silos?

I am not aware of explicitly having said we need to engage with corporate food producers; however, I do feel we need to celebrate where people are and engage with everyone, including those who shop exclusively at [Australian supermarkets] Coles or Woolies. I have a graduate degree in business, and I believe in the transformative power of industry. We have seen from the climate-change struggle that engaging with a select group of people will not ultimately achieve the change we so desperately need. We need to understand what it is that people care about, respond to those needs, and work together to achieve our common goals.

Contemporary marketing theory stresses the importance of storytelling, and you’ve argued that the stories we tell need to link readily to people’s real-life experiences. But when we’re dealing with issues such as climate change, biodiversity breakdown, social inequality and the like, it’s hard to find stories that truthfully represent the long-term threats, without resorting to the doom and gloom of statistics and facts. Any tips?

Ask any farmer in [Australia’s] Yarra Valley how their vineyards are doing right now; ask Sydneysiders about the bushfires; ask Aboriginal communities about the state of bush tucker. These changes are no longer decades off or relegated to far-flung islands. They are here. Now. I believe we start by understanding what it is that people value and, from there – from a place of responding to what we hear – we explain what is at stake, what it is we are losing. I’ll use myself as an example: I care deeply about biodiversity, but when you tell me about species loss in the Amazon, I glaze over a bit. It isn’t that I don’t care; I just have a lot of other cares crowding out that one. Now tell me about that same loss in the context of foods I love, and you’ve hooked me. In fact, you’ve hooked me so much, I am writing a book about it.

Will Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love be aimed mainly at consumers, or will it also be a toolbox for policymakers and corporate leaders?

My book is for eaters – every single one of us. Mainly it’s for people whom I think the so-called foodie movement has overlooked. I believe change happens in humble ways in humble places. This book is about saving foods by eating them, by understanding the kinds of losses we are facing in agricultural biodiversity, and by understanding how we can come back from this loss. In all my work in environmentalism, this is the work that has brought me the greatest amount of hope and joy. We save foods – we save the essence of who we are – through a celebration of diversity by honouring the people and places that bring it to us. This engagement, this reverence, is world-changing and delicious.

Video is clearly one of the keys to generating community activism, and it’s something very close to your heart. But video channels are dominated by corporates who have huge amounts of money available to spend on production values. How can small, poorly resourced activist networks hope to compete?

All you have to do is look to YouTube and see that you don’t need huge amounts of money to make a viral video. The hook is the story. Not just any story, but one that resonates, one that touches a deep part of someone and makes them want to engage or laugh or share. The work isn’t in high production value; it’s in compelling narrative.

Interview by Brian Loffler.

Simran Sethi is visiting Australia in March 2015 and will be speaking at:
* Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne – Wheeler Centre Event – 1.45pm Sunday 1 March
* Sydney Opera House – All About Women – How to save the planet – 11am Sunday 8 March
* WOMADelaide – The Planet Talks – 5pm Monday 9 March
* Hawke Centre, Adelaide – In Conversation – 6.30pm Wednesday 11 March

Brian Loffler is a member of the New Internationalist Co-op in Adelaide, where he has been involved since 1981. He works mostly on expanding the supporter network in Australia for the New Internationalist’s independent journalism and fair trade campaigns.

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