A Conversation With Simran Sethi, Environmental Journalist

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Sethi-Post.jpgNamed one of the top 10 eco-heroes of the planet by the Independent, Simran Sethi is a professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications and an award-winning journalist. She has written about the environment and sustainability for everyone from the Huffington Post to Mother Earth News, and has contributed to NBC Nightly News, CNBC, PBS, and the Oprah Winfrey Show. And if you haven't come across her work, you may have seen her talking about the planet -- and how to save it -- on the Ellen DeGeneres Show or the Martha Stewart Show.

Here, Sethi discusses why she's excited by a recent shift to redefine sustainability not as something trendy but as something enduring; why the underlying principles of sustainability are the same even if it means different things to different people; and how crowdfunding enterprises like Kiva and Loudsauce allow us to personally engage with commerce and make an investment in the things we believe in.

What do you say when people ask you, 'What do you do?'

I usually give a somewhat disjointed response about being an academic and journalist. It's an answer that's never felt integrated. Musician Joe Henry recently described his drummer Jay Bellerose as a "revealer." That's a fantastic term and I am borrowing it. So, what do I do? I am an educator and a storyteller. I hold as my highest purpose the goal of revealing what's hidden, invisible, or underreported and instilling that same goal in the journalism students I teach.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

What we're learning is that the best ideas are the ones that have been around for some time. People stay connected to what's meaningful to them. The "latest thing" is OK when you're talking about a hairstyle or fashion trend, but we need to use different framing around sustainability. The most exciting shifts I see are efforts to reconnect with our history, our communities, and with what we hold sacred, and to redefine sustainability not as something trendy but as something enduring.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

I feel humbled by the moniker "expert." Sustainability is broad and deep, and means different things to different people. Overall, it's about forging a new paradigm where we consider the social, environmental, and economic impacts of our actions. But there is no one way to get this right -- and that's been our biggest (and most creative) challenge. Sustainability should manifest differently for, say, a transportation company than it does for an architecture firm or a shoe factory. The underlying principles are the same, but the ways we arrive at what sustains us are dynamic, evolving, and -- in their best representations -- customized for the contexts in which they were created. A sustainable farm in Manhattan, Kansas, may look very different than a sustainable farm in Manhattan, New York, but they both hold the same principles for low-impact, highly-efficient, healthy crops.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

I'm excited about efforts to crowdfund social enterprises, ranging from Kiva to Loudsauce. The funding model reduces barriers to participation and limits the risk a single individual takes. On Kiva, I can make a $25 loan to a wheat farmer in Tajikistan to buy more wheat seeds and increase his yield. When that loan is repaid, I can re-loan the money to someone else. On Loudsauce, I can crowdfund PR campaigns I believe in. Donations are wonderful and needed, but this model personalizes our engagement with commerce and helps us make a personal and financial investment in what we believe in.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

Increased politicization around sustainability has eroded support for a movement that belongs to everyone. Everyone understands that we need natural resources, people, and money to sustain our livelihoods and keep our communities thriving. I am heartened that we are evolving the way we engage with sustainability to bring more people into the conversation.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

I'm obsessed with the use of mobile technology to connect people and gather data. Access to reproductive health care is a particular passion of mine but, unfortunately, doesn't directly connect to my primary work so I had to put that research aside.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

Water rights activist and author Maude Barlow exemplifies everything I want to be. She has been warning the world about water challenges for decades but does so in a way that is impassioned and compassionate. I interviewed her for an investors' conference and was incredibly inspired by the way she held her ground about water privatization concerns and informed the audience without alienating them.

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin is another person who speaks truth to power. This is particularly refreshing to see in politics, a field rife with people more committed to re-election than serving the electorate. He is working tirelessly to face climate challenges and make Vermont a leader in renewable energy.

The United States' Department of Defense is an incredible example of what I call "secondary sustainability." DOD is the single largest consumer of energy in the U.S., and ranks as one of the top 50 greenhouse gas emitters in the world. The military has taken active steps to limit greenhouse gas emissions and scale-up renewable energy as a means of reducing dependence on hostile nations and increasing military effectiveness capability -- a bipartisan model of sustainability in which resource conservation and emissions reductions are positive byproducts, not the end goal.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

I still believe one of the strongest levers of change is the law. I just turned 41 and hope to get a J.D. at some point in my fourth decade.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

Five years ago, the first thing I did in the morning was wake up and turn on NPR. Three years ago, I'd wake up and log on to the New York Times online. Now, the first place I go is Twitter. The Arab Spring transformed my perceptions about the platform's utility. An incredible feed of information from journalists, NGOs, governments, and citizens is right at my fingertips. When curated well, it offers an indispensable snapshot of contemporary events and public sentiment.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

Dom's "Living in America" is on perpetual repeat.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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