Talking eco-anxiety and environmental storytelling with the author and green leader.
Heather White spent the better part of two decades helming environmental groups in Washington DC and Montana. Last year she wrote One Green Thing: Discover Your Hidden Power to Help Save the Planet. Heather also is the founder & CEO of OneGreenThing, a nonprofit that “tackles eco-anxiety through joyful daily action, leading to culture change for policy solutions.”
Below we talk about environmental heroes portrayed onscreen and the anger younger generations have with inaction on climate change.
Don Carr: I appreciate the GEN X vibes you open the book with, talk to me about our generation and how we view the environment and climate change.
Heather White: We were the first ones that became aware of those issues as children. I remember when Earth in the Balance came out in 1992 (by former Vice-president Al Gore). I was in college and that was a seminal book in terms of emissions and the impact we have. We are also a generation that remembers fax machines but didn’t have cell phones until well into our 20’s.
We didn’t grow up in the digital age. So many of us that grew up in rural areas and just drove around spending time outdoors hanging out with friends at parks or lakes. We had a lot more downtime in nature and there was no such thing as helicopter parenting. We were free to roam and have a lot more experiences in nature. We also had this information about the planet that our parents didn’t have. Information about how truly vulnerable we are.
DC: Speaking of generations — I talked with the people behind the new movie How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a film borne out of anger at a lack of progress on climate change. Considering the recent trend in activism of throwing soup on famous paintings, it’s clear to me that younger generations are fed up and rightly pissed off about a lack of environmental improvement. Do you agree?
HW: That’s why I wrote the book. I had a dinner table conversation with my daughter about her going to a climate rally. Her generation is sick and tired of all the praise. They’re asking where is GEN X? Where are the boomers? They’re saying we can’t do this on our own.
It shouldn’t all be doom and gloom. The EPA happened. There was a time when there was no EPA. The Clean Air and Water Acts didn’t exist at one time. It’s on our shoulders to share with young people about the changes we’ve seen. The most important thing you can do is ask the young people you love what they feel about the future they’re inheriting from us. To a person when adults have that conversation and really listen, it’s a game changer. Also, the IRA (The Inflation Reduction Act) is the biggest climate investment that has ever happened. You can’t say that’s not progress.
DC: Pro soup or anti soup?
HW: I’m all about visibility and getting people to think differently. But the problem is that not everyone is part of the environmental community or thinks about the issues the way we do. Sometimes people are afraid to call themselves an environmentalist or are wary about joining in climate action. We need members of an older generation that have political power as allies. When they see someone throw soup on sunflowers – and it gets good press – it doesn’t encourage someone with influence to call their members of congress for climate change action.
That’s another reason why I wrote the book. The people who want to get involved and are as worried as younger generations don’t know where to start. Young people are saying do something seismic, something huge, and not everyone can. It’s progress not perfection. I understand the anger. But one of the things we forget to do because as enviros we’ve taken a lot of losses, is to talk about what is possible. Talk about the positive future we can build. Extrapolations showed what happens if we don’t act. We can do more to help people visualize what the future could look like if we get it right.
A lot of us are Wonks or Beacons (green character sketches of personality types in White’s book, which she calls “Service Superpower Profiles”) And a lot of the time we blab on about microgrids and mushroom leather and we lose people. We need to ask kids what they want our future to be and what we’re doing in our community to make the future for them.
DC: Speaking of the character profiles in your book, they’re fleshed out much like characters you’d map out playing Dungeons and Dragons. Was that an inspiration?
HW: No, sorry. My kids play D and D but not me. My assessment was more based on Myers-Briggs, StrengthsFinders, and other leadership tools. I thought it was important for people to understand their unique gifts in service to others. As greens we’re always preaching about getting involved but what does that mean? Skip the straw? Walk to work? Ok that’s important, but what does that mean? We talk about systemic market change needed for solutions, but how does that involve the average person? I wanted to help people find a way to get involved that has a real impact but also is viable.
DC: I’ve been writing about how Hollywood tells environmental stories and one of the things experts point to in interviews is how good fossil fuel companies are at storytelling. Greens are far behind. How do we change that?
HW: Culture change. The reason companies spend so much on storytelling and advertising is to change the way people think. We have to change the culture that perpetuates the ongoing climate crisis. We saw that with Covid. We had strong policies, but strong policy is meaningless if people don’t follow it.
During the 1980’s, the school nurse brought into class an actual human lung removed from a lifelong cigarette smoker and compared it to a healthy lung. That’s effective storytelling! I immediately went to my grandparents and hounded them until they quit smoking. I was empowered to talk to these big figures in my life because I was concerned with their lives.
DC: We both like to talk pop culture and reference music and movies in our work. In the section titled Industrial Pollution: Slow Your Roll, Erin Brockovich you talk about Erin and her huge impact. Who are your favorite environmentalists in film or TV?
HW: Obviously Erin is at the top of the list. It was a seminal film that changed the way people viewed environmental protection and health but also empowerment. The fact that you do have agency. Eco-anxiety makes people feel hopeless like they don’t have agency. And Erin is still giving agency and hope to people today.
I am also a huge fan of Maya Penn who I profile as one of the 21 “eco-heroes” in the book. She’s an artist and sustainable entrepreneur. She’s a creative mind and we’ve got to have artists and creative people in this movement to have people see what’s possible and connect on a culture space.
My song is “Nothing but Flowers” by Talking Heads. It’s a post-apocalyptic vignette about our indifference & disconnect to nature. We forget to talk about what we CAN create, how we could build regenerative, beautiful cities & spaces. We need to give people a vision, which is where the song starts for me.
But I also love how the song makes fun of human’s indifference and how disconnected we are to the environment. The conclusion – “Don’t leave me stranded here/I can’t get used to this lifestyle.”