A Conversation With Simran Sethi, Environmental Journalist

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.

Presented by

Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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