Conversations: Simran Sethi
Interviewed by Eliza Thomas (unabridged)
The following was transcribed from an interview with Simran Sethi, conducted on 1/14/07. This is a rush transcript, which may include errors. This copy might not be in its final form, and may be updated.
E: Tell me a little bit about your background. I’ve heard you’re a yoga instructor.
SS: I did hatha training first… At some point in my hatha training, I started to… stratify. I started to practice vinyasa yoga, as well as kundalini and that really resonated with me. I wanted to go deeper into that discipline and I also started the doula training. Then 9/11 happened. I was on my way to a voice over session for a music special we were doing [at the Oxygen network], and in that moment I realized that while I was moving closer toward what I wanted to do, all the components weren’t coming together. I really wanted to start teaching yoga, so I did that and left TV again. I realized after teaching for a year that it was kind of… I wanted to keep teaching but I didn’t want to make a living doing it. I needed to do something else. This is a constant pattern of me trying to get where I am today. I wanted to be able to tell different kinds of stories, basically. [And] in order to do that I had to have different kinds of information. So when people would see my CV, and see that I’ve been with MTV for so many years, I was pretty straitjacketed in terms of…”you can host the entertainment segment…” That’s one part of what MTV does, and I was doing documentaries — but when the documentaries are wedged between spring break, it’s hard for people to remember that. At that point, MTV didn’t have [a pro-social division]… Now they have a whole documentary campaign and a department and all this stuff which didn’t exist before. My sister was graduating from law school and I came back from India and I was in San Francisco and reading through the paper. I saw this informational ad for the Presidio MBA program. It was an MBA in sustainable management, which is looking at the integrated, or what we call the triple bottom line of business: not just the financial impacts of the business but the environmental impacts, as well. That really resonated with me because when I was in India working with my own [television] production company, I saw firsthand the impacts of multinational companies on people who didn’t have a lot of resources to fight back. Whether it was the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, or just seeing the accumulation of waste and child labor… I just thought “I want to get to the point where I can tell these kinds of stories, and I’m not there yet. What do I need to do to get there?” For me, that meant going back to school to get an MBA. I went back to school in 2003. A week after I started school, one of my classmates had been doing consulting with a woman named Hazel Henderson. Hazel is a futurist, she’s in her mid 70s, she was on Ronald Reagan’s renewable energy task force, and she’s worked with various governments. She’s an amazing woman who wanted to get this kind of information on television. She’s been writing books for years and years. So my colleague Bret said I want you to meet Hazel, she’s trying to put together this TV show, I think you’d be perfect. We met, we shot a pilot, and that became the show Ethical Markets, a twelve-part PBS series covering everything from renewable energy to sustainable agriculture to socially responsible investing. We drilled down into these topics to help people make everyday decisions that would affect the kind of changes they wanted to see. The first time I spoke to your magazine, I was working on the Ethical Markets program as I was completing my MBA. And I thought, well, I’m going to finish school, and get to have one job instead of working and going to school full time. This is going to be great. Then with the war, Congress cut funding for PBS. So the show wasn’t renewed. I found myself needing to find a new job, and I knew I was so much closer to what I wanted to do. That’s it. These are the kinds of stories I want to tell, and I now have the information I need to tell these stories. What am I going to do? I had been reading the website Treehugger.com for quite a while and it definitely appealed to my sensibility. It’s a great site because it’s not preachy. We’re all just trying to figure it out as we go along. We applaud all our efforts towards environmentalism. At that point Treehugger (TH) was expanding into video, understanding broadcasters were trying to move to broadband. I was brought in about a year ago to oversee their video division, which we have now expanded to video and audio [– what we call TreeHuggerTV and TreeHugger Radio]. It was a way for me to leverage all the skills I’ve garnered over the years and to tell the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. On TreeHugger we have news capsules and an audio podcast that airs as a weekly segment on Air America Radio’s environmental show Eco-Talk. We do that every week, which I host and write. Then there is The Green for Sundance… a block of environmental programming on the Sundance Channel which I co-host and write.
April 17th is when the block launches. I’m really excited about this additional opportunity because TreeHugger and Sundance are working closely together and it’s another way to fortify our alliance. And I’m getting to work with an amazing group of people: The co-host of the block is a woman named Majora Carter who’s tremendous. She’s a leader in the environmental justice movement and the executive director of an organization called Sustainable South Bronx. She’s working within her community to increase the amount of green space, to work on alleviating air pollution, and to build that community and build that infrastructure so that it supports the people who live in it, rather than compromising their health and so on. A few months ago, I relocated from West Harlem, NY to the Midwest, to Lawrence, KS.
SS: My partner is getting his MSW. And because I’m fortunate enough to work for a website, I can be anywhere so I decided to join him. An issue that’s important to me is working toward building sustainable food systems. It’s tremendous to see farmers and know, really know, where my food comes from. I could go to the farmers’ market in NY, in Union Square, and you knew the farmers were from upstate NY, but I didn’t have the access to see those farms. Now I do. It’s incredible. I feel like our relationship with food is so intimate and so important. Knowing just within my former community in West Harlem the [limited]kinds of food that were available… I mean there are more liquor stores than grocery stores, kids aren’t being fed healthy meals, and then you wonder why they can’t learn. There isn’t organic produce and the produce that is availableis much more expensive than it should be. Those kinds of things are important to me. Sundance Channel is really taking a proactive approach, as TreeHugger does, to bring these issues to light and to help people see that their everyday choices make a huge difference in terms of how people live, not just in your own community but in the greater community at large.
E: I’m delighted to hear that TH is hooking up with a wider audience.
SS: I’ve had great opportunities… even Martha Stewart reaching out to TH, I was on the Oprah Winfrey show too. People want to know this information and when you hit middle America, [laughs] your message is getting across to a tremendous audience. The OW segment was about recycling Christmas trees, like really small, but just putting into someone’s consciousness the idea that polyvinyl chloride [PVC] exists and it’s not good for us, even that [is important]. Or having one of my mom’s neighbors tell me he watched one of the Ethical Markets programs on fair trade and now when he goes to the grocery store he looks for fair trade coffee. I mean, that’s it, that’s all I’m trying to do is tell stories to help people make the kinds of transformations theywant to make, so it’s been really inspiring to see the kind of interest that TH is garnering. Sundance is making a commitment to this program, the fact that we’re seeing movies about everything from climate change to conflict diamonds. I think that’s really a strong indication…
E: Questions: What are some of the most exciting green ideas/businesses/people that you’ve come across most recently?
SS: I’m obsessed with pre-fab. Homes today are turning into monstrosities and the amount of resources required to build and to sustain them is just… [shakes head]. Our ecological footprint is increasing, and increasing, and increasing. The building and construction industry is one of the most polluting industries we’ve got in the US. Looking at really minimalist design and the way people are trying to reclaim what pre-fabrication is and turn it into something sustainable is really exciting to me. That’s sort of my aspirationwhen I think about where I want to live and how I want to live. It’s a great example for me. Of course doing green retrofitting on your home is ideal, so you’re not breaking anything down or using too much space, but pre-fab is still a great trend. I’m also really excited about eco-fashion because that’s a strong indication of the way environmentalism is changing and evolving. Meaning, before, people felt like they really had to make a compromise; if you want to be green, you’re going to have to suffer. I think there’s a really beautiful meeting place in between where you can educate people and you can really help them understand, you know, same thing with architecture. Things can still be stylish and have a modern aesthetic and be sustainable. Things that designers are doing are completely inspiring to me, likeTierra Del Forte and her Del Forte jeans. They’re all organic cotton which is important since 25 percent of the pesticides used in the world go towards cotton, it’s extraordinary how much pesticides end up in the water supply, on people, in our clothing. It’s just ridiculous. The fact that the price point [on eco-fashion] is dropping because demand is increasing and the design is really strong and there. It makes me really happy. And the kinds of fabrics people are using!… Bamboo clothing, you know, soy, corn. Seaweed, actually Linda Loudermilk was telling me about clothes made from seaweed.
E: I have a seaweed top from Lulumon.
SS: You do? Okay. So you know better than I do. Linda was saying there are properties in the seaweed that are actually healing properties for the skin. You could probably tell me a lot more about it — that is something really exciting to me. And finally, I think the growth in or the greater concern around our food supply is key. For me it’s really an issue of equal food access. It’s like what Robert Kennedy Junior says: a clean environment is a civil right. We should all have access to clean air and clean food, and that disparity is of great concern to me. One of the trends that we are seeing is that big business is capitalizing on this--and understanding that there is a demand for it. So when you see a company like Wal-Mart, becoming the largest supplier of organic milk... Of course I’m extremely concerned about organics fitting into an industrialized agriculture model, but I think there is a good community that is being vigilant, and we can just be very mindful as we do this, and view this as an opportunity to provide healthier food to a larger group of people.
E: What keeps you up at night?
SS: Wondering if I’m doing enough--if I’m working deeply enough. I think about being really conscious of what I eat and how I live and what I buy. But I also want to have a macro focus, and I sometimes don’t know how to do both, looking beyond me and my world and how I consume. I’ll use coffee as an example. So I go and buy a cup of coffee, and I make sure it’s organic and triple certified — you know, fair trade, shade grown, and then great, I have my cappuccino or whatever, but there’s the bigger question — and that’s the part I haven’t been able to access as fully as I want to yet — which is what about that community, what about those farmers that are still growing a coffee crop, which is a cash crop, in lieu of a sustenance crop? So how can I, how can we work toward shifting the paradigm so there is greater equity across communities, across countries? That’s the part I don’t feel I’ve really fully connected to yet. Because so far we’ve mostly focused on how to consume differently — which I think is a great entry point for people — but I’m also impatient to go further. How do we re-envision our world? That’s what I want to get to. I think the environmental justice movement is a really strong part of that, and that is my goal in terms of self-education and the kind of organizations I want to promote are really moving towards those that look at environmentalism as a human rights issue. I try to live in this way that is as socially and environmentally responsible as I can be, and I recognize I’ve made a lot mistakes a long the way, and I’m just trying to figure it out. But ultimately, I hope to be the person who shares those stories of all these amazing thought leaders and heads of non-profits and businesses that are doing these things. I just want to keep doing more of that, and so what keeps me up at night is — did I do enough of it today? And where am I going to find time to do more, because I want to talk about all these stories.
E: Great answer. I know that’s a really heavy question. I really appreciate that answer.
SS: What keeps you up at night? “Uh… caffeine?”
E: I had a little too much sugar before bed…
SS: I still came around to caffeine in some weird way.
E: That was perfect. Ok. On the heels of that I’ll just skip ahead. I’ve been following the brouhaha with The Economists story recently, the “Voting with your trolley” story, which directly challenged the sustainable foods movement. Do you know what I’m talking about?
SS: I haven’t read it yet.
E: Ok. Don’t even. Read the Grist response. You can kind of get the gist. The argument is that we aren’t going to save the world by what we buy — that we aren’t going to be able to shop our way out of this. I have heard this same type of rallying cry, almost like a backlash against the whole “voting with your forks” idea. What’s your take on that?
SS: The thing that I love about TreeHugger, and the thing that I love about this evolution in the environmental movement, is that it is more accessible to people. A great point of entry is what we buy, because we’re not going to stop shopping and eating tomorrow… we’re just not. So, the first step is thinking about how you can do those things in a different way. And then, maybe the second step is thinking about how you can do less of them, if there’s a way you can do them yourself, or whatever the model is. I think it is naive to assume that people will stop shopping, and I think that is why for so long the whole reaction to the green movement was like “I’m not going to live off the grid, and wear, like, a hemp muumuu.” And now that there are alternatives to that, I think the movement is just a lot more accessible to people. I think the critics do an injustice to the movement, because I feel we have to start somewhere, and for me, that somewhere is celebrating what people are doing. That said, I feel like there definitely should be a healthy dose of skepticism, and there should be people on the edge of the continuum that say “that is not enough,” and that’s part of what keeps me up at nightBut at the same time, everyone has to start somewhere. And then we move forward. If someone buys a Prius, and they just buy it because it is a cool car, or Brad Pitt has one or Camera Diaz has one — great! Because that still means you reduced your carbon footprint. And I’m going to celebrate that, and I’m going to tell you that, and [then] encourage you to do more — whether it is you as a person or you as a corporate citizen. I just think we have to start somewhere, and that’s a really good start.
E: Ok. Dream presidential ticket for 2008. Really dream.
SS: Oh my gosh. I don’t know. I don’t know who I’d have his running mate, but I have a lot of respect for Dennis Kucinich. I would like to say Barack Obama and Dennis Kucinich. But I’m a little unresolved because I haven’t investigated enough, and I think that’s a huge mistake that people make. When I interviewed Arianna Huffington, she talked about Arnold Schwarzenegger, and how she ran for governor against him on the platform of “The Hybrid Versus The Hummer.” So I asked her how well she thought Gov. Schwarzenegger is doing now. And she said, ‘Well, you know, saying he wants to reduce CO2 levels for the state of CA to 1999 levels is well and good, but he is going to be out of office by then.’ Meaning, how do we hold our officials accountable over a longer trajectory? Or as Arianna puts it, ‘Rhetoric is cheap.’ So I say to you very loosely, ‘Yah, Kucinich/Obama,” but I feel like I have to do far more research to know who I would vote for. I think right now Barack Obama seems very inspiring to a lot of people.I take the opportunity to vote very seriously, and try to look at the issues that are important to me, both in the short term and the long — and so to that end, that’sa very caveat-ed response.
E: What issues are most woefully ignored in public discourse?
SS: Racism and poverty — and the intersection of the two. It was briefly addressed after Hurricane Katrina, but I’m still… going back to your last question about your ideal ticket, when you asked me that, in my head, I was still going through the filters of “Who is electable?” This is an ongoing debate for me and my friends and colleagues: are we ready to embrace an African American male president, or, you know, Hilary, a first female president? I think that racism is still a huge issue in this country, obviously, when you have comments like the Sen. Allen “macaca” reference. We are just woefully behind, and, even worse, we assume that we are really progressive and really far ahead. I don’t think we’re doing enough to address these very common, fundamental issues and to ensure our move toward a more equitable society. And it’s because the foundation of that is still very unstable. So for me, it’s really winding it back to its roots and addressing those fundamental issues.
E: OK. I was digging the green salon series and particularly when you all were talking about “is the green thing just a fad.” Let’s discuss.
SS: Graham Hill [founder of TreeHugger] is very concerned that people are going to don a little green ribbon, buy a Prius, and check it off their list, saying, ‘I did environmentalism, and now I’m moving on.’ But I strongly believe that — with the way this issue is manifesting and cutting across sectors — it’s not going to go away. [Economically,] It doesn’t behoove the powers that be to sustain the status quo. You can’t just check it off your list, because our relationship with the natural environment and our legacy, what kind of environment we are leaving for generations to come is just, we can’t silo ourselves from it. I don’t know anybody suffering from breast cancer or HIV, so I can write a check to the American Red Cross, or do the AIDS run — but it doesn’t touch me every day. Whereas no one can escape what’s going on with climate change. You can’t escape what’s going on with the war in Iraq, you can’t escape what’s happening with our food supply. There is a compelling business case for it, there is a compelling case for it just on a community level, and for that reason I feel like — I hope — it’s here to stay.
One of the things that Alex [Steffen, editor of World Changing] said or maybe it was Sarah [Rich, of World Changing]said during the salon and it didn’t make it into the TreeHugger video clip, was that our ideal situation would be we work ourselves out of a job. But I don’t believe we are going to because the landscape keeps changing. The reason TreeHugger is so useful to people is because there is so much information out there. You need a trusted voice to help you sift through it. Like organic. If people want to say, organic, I did that; I checked it off of my list, then it’s like, ‘Well really?’ Then where did your organics come from? Is it growing on a small farm or is it growing in an industrialized lot? Oh, small farm. Great. Is that farm close to you? You know, the average food item on a plate traveled 1,500 miles from the farm to your dinner. Where does yours come from? Oh local, ok. It’s just continuing to drill down, because this cuts across sectors. Is transportation your thing, your bliss? Is it clothing? Is it new technologies or design? All of these things can be viewed through a sustainable lens. So I think that because this movement is continually evolving, we’re still going to have — hopefully -- we are still going to have jobs.
E: Well the technology is changing so quickly. Someone has to be able to explain it to us.
SS: Exactly. And the debate keeps on shifting and the bar keeps on getting raised. That’s really exciting.
E: Ok. What is your personal practice that keeps you focused and motivated and sane and hopeful?
SS: Meditation. Meditation and eating well — really being conscious of how I nourish myself. So the kind of TV I watch, the kind of books I read, the kind of food I eat, the people I hang out with. I work really hard, and I care deeply about the work I do, so it’s not ‘oh I just do that job and am disconnected from it.’ It is a flow through to my life so my work never ends because it is always here. So I need very healthy nourishment. You know, good, sustaining, soulful nourishment to keep myself centered.
E: Are you still practicing yoga?
SS: Yah, you know. As a certified hatha, kundalini and a prenatal teacher who taught in New York City for a while — for many years actually — I would like to think that I would be very disciplined and just do it by myself, but I’m not. And I haven’t found good yoga in Lawrence, Kansas. So for the last few months, no.
E: There has got to be good yoga in Lawrence, Kansas.
SS: There has to be. I just haven’t had the chance to find it yet.
E: So you’ve been there for six months.
SS: Prior to that, my practice was extraordinarily important to me, and very much a part of that grounding. Right now, it’s a little bit of running and a whole lot of walking.
E: What is one question you wish our readers would ask themselves?
SS: Is what you do everyday moving you closer to the goal of how you want your world to be? And when I say your world, I mean your smaller world and the bigger world because I feel like it’s really easy to get disconnected from that. So, if you want a healthier environment, and your water is served with plastic cups… you know what I mean? All of those disconnects — I’m trying to bridge them in my own life. I work on that really hard, but because we live in such a disposable society, it took two seconds to put this water in this cup and this will outlive us, this cup. Those are the kind of connections that I’m really trying to build in my own life and trying not to chastise others for. And that’s another good example. Now we have cups made out of corn and stuff like that. It’s really cool what you can do with a vegetable. But are they ending up being composted? Are they mostly genetically modified? We can’t rest on our laurels. I hope people won’t grow complacent. And I’m really optimistic that people aren’t checking green off of their list. But in case they are, we’re here.
E: Are you cool with Wal-Mart?
SS: It’s not a yes or no question. And I hope people will continue to ask those questions. I’m a contributing author to a book that’s soon coming out called Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy, it’s a companion book to the PBS series. I did my first book reading in New York a couple of months ago. And this woman really, really, really needed me to say that Starbucks is okay. You know. They have fair trade coffee. They have organic milk. Absolutely. Their cups are only 10 percent post consumer recycled. Yes, they pay a price premium for their coffee but they command the market. They can drive prices even higher. Do you know what I mean? Absolutely, Wal-Mart is to be lauded. I mean, the kinds of eco-efficiency they’re doing, which will save them billions of dollars, earn their shareholders millions of dollars, cut prices and change the business paradigm like reducing like their gold sourcing… They are working toward being sustainable, with cotton… I think diamonds as well but that’s the main thing right now. That’s their main thing to turn around. Whether it’s in their jewelry, whether it’s in their food, whether it’s in their clothing, whether it’s in their shipping, whether it’s in their transportation, their commitment is to be lauded because when Wal-Mart does that, Target has to do it.
E: And they’ve proven it’s a viable business model.
SS: Absolutely. The fact that Wal-Mart knows they need to do this in order to improve their place; you know, their image in the marketplace — I think it is very significant. Their changes aren’t superficial — the people that they are working with and the kind of work that they are doing. Trust me, I’m not saying I love Wal-Mart. But what I am saying is that it is a really good start, and I think it should be viewed with healthy criticism, but I think if you really look at what they are doing, whether it’s trying to ensure that everybody in America is buying compact fluorescent light bulbs — these changes are going to make a huge difference across sectors and communities and that, on some levels, it’s really to be lauded.
E: My only concern is what they are going to do to organic standards.
SS: I completely agree with you, and you know it’s a supply and demand issue. At some point, they won’t be able to meet the demand for organic on that level. So I mean you have organic food, but it was grown and packaged in China, and then shipped all the way over here… And that’s why when people keep on asking questions about it, and keep on talking about it, and keep holding people accountable, whether its elected officials, whether its their partner, whether it’s their company, their business. That’s the only way things are going to change. If we just rest around the world, “yah, ahh they are doing ok” or “I’m doing ok,” that’s great, but if what we hope for is an improved future, the only way to get there is start making the changes ourselves and start demanding it of others.