April Thanhauser interviews Ken Wentworth and Liz Witham about their experience at the Paris Climate Summit and their film projects for Greening Eden, in which they explore "humanity's relationship with the ecosystem." AT—I gathered from your films from the Climate Summit, that you thought the real hope for addressing climate change was coming from the Peoples' Movements, rather than from the UN delegates.
Ken: The changes that the delegates are looking to make are ones within the current system, and that’s a profit-based system. They’re looking for technological solutions and not addressing humanity’s disconnect from nature.
AT: Were the people’s movements doing that—addressing humanity’s disconnect from nature?
Ken: Yeah, the Indigenous movements represent what is connected to nature, Mother Earth and her natural cycles. They were bringing some of that quality to Paris. They’’re talking about being on the front lines—their way of life is very much impacted by industrial society, extraction, the harm we’re doing to the planet. They’re talking about this relationship to earth but it’s hard for the language of reverence for Earth to be incorporated into the language of Climate Agreements. Within the UN framework there are not Rights for Nature, and this is where the tribunals for the Rights of Nature come in.
AT: What are you seeing in the Climate talks that is hopeful?
Liz: The rise of grass roots movements and their organization, over time, since Copenhagen (the 2009 climate talks--which were largely viewed as a failure) Our first Climate conference we went to was the following year in Cancun and we saw the beginnings there of the organization of these parallel people’s conferences, and then by the time Paris came, their groups had become very organized and that feels very empowering. And also, just on a more personal note, I feel that when we were trying to have these conversations back when we started this project, people weren’t really interested, but I’ve seen the level of conversation, the level of interest, the level of ability to understand a lot of different aspects grow. And that’s the foundation for making change.
Ken: The new movements that are coming out, I’m very hopeful that groups are talking about localization, not globalization. Like the Organic farming movements. They’re talking about the Life of the Soil. Vendana Shiva is fighting for that and she’s helping lead the farmers down a more spiritual path.
Another great thing was the “Place to Be.” A woman had this idea to make a place for journalists and people from the People’s Movements to get together and talk. Everybody was getting together there and what they were trying to do was share stories and to develop new stories. What are the new stories about humanity’s relationship with nature and the environment? People there were asking the question “well, if it’s not this?(the old paradigm) what is it, then?” One of the answers to that is “Maybe we don’t know what the story is yet. Maybe we’re just understanding that we need to figure it out in a new way and that the answers are not coming from the current framework.”
One of the speakers was Charles Eisenstein, a person we’ve been following for some time. He said people are often looking externally to find out what the story is, what the answer is. He’s suggesting that we look internally to our relationship with nature, that we don’t believe we’re part of it, that we need to understand that we’re all connected—not just humans, but all beings on the planet.
Liz: Part of what He (Eisenstein) was saying was just that part of our problem right now is thinking that we know everything—that we know this and we know that. He was talking about meeting with tribal leaders who are saying the gold inside a mountain is the spirit of the mountain, and if you’re removing the gold you’re removing the mountain’s essence. And some people might laugh at that and say it’s not scientifically true. They might not understand where that bit of knowledge is coming from. This is because we have this idea that what we know is penultimate and other ways of seeing are discounted, because WE KNOW. So, maybe we don’t know. We don’t even know what we don’t know. The idea of knowing is a dangerous thing, because when you think you know, you close your mind to the possibility of things, and then also you act from a place of actual ignorance where you do more harm than good.
So we can begin by acknowledging that we don’t know. And just sit with that.
Ken: Eisenstein was talking about when he was growing up there was a narrative that we are learning more and more about the world and about nature and that we’re figuring out every single aspect of it and at some point in time we’re going to know every single thing. And then we’ll be able to control the planet. This leads to ideas of geo-engineering, and genetic modification and we might think we can seed the clouds with some kind of chemical to change the weather. These kinds of things are very dangerous and may actually damage the planet beyond its ability to heal itself. And what he’s pointing toward is to learn to live with the planet and not try to control it.
(This brings the conversation to the origin story of the Garden of Eden and Eve eating the apple.)
Liz: I always thought of the Garden of Eden story as “Oh, so Eve really messed up. She wasn’t supposed to do this thing and then she did this thing.” But, in my understanding, when it was told to me I thought “why was that such a bad thing-- to eat knowledge. Now we have knowledge! And knowledge is this great thing.” But I think there’s a deeper way to interpret it, which is that once we existed in such a different way, before having this separation from nature. Once we got outside of this being in relationship with nature and took up this knowledge, then that’s when we knew we were naked and felt shame and this disconnect happened—the feeling that you’re somehow different from the rest of the world.
Ken: Now we’re trying to tell a story that hasn’t been told before. A lot of this is brand new.
Liz: we talk about the “technotheisitic concept” --through our technology we have become more separated from nature.
Ken: The assumption is that there is an answer, a technological answer to everything. Americans in general are Technotheists. We believe our ability to solve problems through technology is divine.. We don’t believe that there are problems we can’t solve with some kind of device.
Liz: This idea that we are going to find all our solutions through technology can stop us from the feeling we’d have if we remove that safety net and say: “No, there’s no technological solution.” Then all of a sudden your awareness shifts. You’re flying without a net, and you have to go back and figure out how the planet works without the overlay of technology.
Ken: One of my problems with the term “Climate Change” is that it becomes something you can control. You might be able to come up with a technological solution for it. As opposed to “environment destruction”, which might lead to a thought process of “maybe we should stop destroying the environment.” But if you call it climate change then it’s something that’s up for grabs for finding some kind of technological solution to deal with it (and maybe make a profit in the process). But climate change is just a symptom of our ancient patterns of destroying environments.
Liz: When the conversation about the environment focuses on climate change, it’s very confusing to people. “Climate Change” is so all encompassing it makes people feel overwhelmed, it’s so big they can’t do anything about it. It’s like the whole climate of the entire earth and people have a hard time wrapping their heads around it—what does it mean if the temperature goes up 2 degrees or down one degree? Will the water go up or down? But if you tackle the smaller pieces of this which have to do with things like “stop polluting the ocean” or “stop cutting down forests”, these smaller building blocks are issues that actually often happen on a local level. If you understand them and combat them, the result is you will end up helping with the climate issue. But if you look at it as “climate change”: it seems so huge that only governments can do anything about it.
Ken: When you say “Climate Change,” the immediate conversation goes to “carbon” It also goes to Energy and Fuel. So the next conversation is “We need renewable energy now..or nuclear power."
Liz : When you say carbon is the problem then anything that doesn’t emit carbon can be a solution, even if it’s a nuclear plant or a massive dam that wipes out whole communities and ecosystems.
Ken: Those energy solutions can be so external, so far away, not something you can directly connect with in daily life in a meaningful way. That’s what spurred our project “Sustainable Vineyard”, our films focusing on local solutions—like how do we feed ourselves on a local level, or maybe we shouldn’t allow developmemt that means clearcutting, or allow the golf course to use so much fertilizer or use herbicides under our power lines.
Ken and Liz have developed a film series “Sustainable Vineyard” that features efforts by individuals and groups on Martha’s Vineyard including: seed exchange libraries, “goat-scaping,” studying the life cycle of the conch to guide fishery decisions, school gardens, organic orchards, studies of local bat survival, and involving children in habitat renewal.
Ken: Instead of talking about fear, doom, the world is burning, we’re talking about … “Well, we’re now saving seeds that are going to develop to our ecosystem and to our weather patterns that we can give, without money, to each other, and share.”
Liz: When we started the Greening Eden project we were going all around the world going to all these conferences. After thinking about it a long time and looking into what’s happening in other places, we’re slowly coming to the realization that your real ability to impact things is local. You live in a place and part of understanding the environment issues is to be aware—it’s about awareness of where you are and what’s happening in that place and that’s step one, and if you’re unaware of that, then where does the awareness come from to solve someone else’s problem in a different place? You’ve got to start with what you live with, what you observe, what you’re most familiar with. That’s where you have the most power.