Online! with David Kupfer
Protecting Rainforests in South America, Asia and the Pacific
Interview with John Seed
to appear in Annals of the Earth, Winter...
Leading environmental activist, as well as a theoretician and teacher of deep
ecology for 20 years . . .
November 22, 2003
John Seed is a pixie-like, elfish sort of man who has been a leading environmental activist, as well as a theoretician and teacher of deep ecology for 20 years. Since 1979 he has been involved in the direct actions which have resulted in the protection of the Australian rainforests, and he founded and directs the Rainforest Information Centre in Australia.
With Joanna Macy, Pat Fleming and Professor Arne Naess, he wrote "Thinking Like a Mountain - Towards a Council of All Beings" (New Society Publishers) which has now been translated into 10 languages. He founded World Rainforest Report in 1984 and currently remains one of the editors (www.rainforestinfo.org.au)
Part of the year he travels around the world doing what he calls community therapy for nourishing ecological self, leading groups called Council of All Beings, a workshop he developed with Joanna Macy based on her despair and empowerment work. The Council of All Beings uses ritual, visualization, movement and breath work to help people overcome their narrow anthropocentric views, and to actually experience interconnectedness with the earth and other life forms. Seed says this radical change in human consciousness is required if nature is to survive. In the US, his workshops have been hosted by places like Esalen, Omega, Naropa, California Institute of Integral Studies.
In 1984, he contributed to the founding of the US Rainforest Action Network which grew out of his many US roadshows. In 1987 he co-produced a television documentary for Australian national television about the struggle for the rainforests that has since been shown in many countries.
Seed has created numerous projects protecting rainforests in South America, Asia and the Pacific through providing benign and sustainable development projects for their indigenous inhabitants tied to the protection of their forests.
He is also an accomplished bard and songwriter and since 1981 has produced 5 albums of environmental songs.
In 1995 he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) by the Australian Government for services to conservation and the environment. He regularly lectures at universities in Australia, US, UK and in Asia.
"If we have the experience of being part of the larger body of Earth" , he says, then defending Nature is no longer altruism, it is transformed into self defense, he maintains.
This past October, as he passed through Berkeley, Annals spoke with him.
DK: Tell me about your most recent campaigning.
JS: We have been trying for three years to defeat this oil pipeline called the OCP(Oleoducto de Crudos Pesados) pipeline being built by oil consortium from 8 countries, funded by banks all over the world, a typical billion dollar multinational corporate globalist project and we've had an international campaign to try to stop it. We translated an educational video into 6 languages, but the oil started to flow last September.
What it is going to boil down to is, which watersheds are we going to protect? Because the Amazon headwaters has 130, 000 barrels of oil coming out of there everyday now, there is nothing we can do about that. We have been working in the Amazon headwaters for 15 years and there is a very very beautiful and biodiverse place called Panacocha Lagoon where these pink river dolphins breed, and nine species of primates live in the trees, along with hundreds of species of birds.
It is a pristine place, and we were able to get protected forest status for it about 10 years ago, for 65,000 hectares, which formed a corridor between the two big national parks down there, completing the corridor, but then oil wells started springing up in Cuyabeno and Yasuni national parks and in Ecuador, nothing is off limits. So we had to shift from doing more positive stuff down there to trying to stop the pipeline, and now limiting the damage it is having. It is not a success. But not a complete defeat. Fran Peavey has this great song which goes "The people, united, will sometimes win and sometimes lose." If you can't stand the heat...
Another of our current campaigns has to do with the terrible environmental effects of the gold mining industry, driven largely by demand for jewelry. There is enough gold sitting uselessly in vaults to supply every industrial usage for gold for a century, if we just stop buying gold jewelry. One ounce of gold creates a million ounces of poisonous tailings. A wedding ring produces a ton of poisonous tailings somewhere in the world, tainting someone's water supply. We think if people knew that, then they would find some other way of doing their class rings and wedding rings and so on, and if they did that, that would depress the price of gold, so that all those new gold mines wouldn't open up that otherwise will.
DK: How has the Eco folk music phenomenon served your your work and your spiritual life?
JS: I have just been at a three day conference in honor of Joanna Macy called "Wisdom and Action," and there was much music there. Ralph Meztner read poetry and made music. Thomas Berry has called on artists, musicians and poets to give a body to the kind of incredible inspiring muse coming out of the cosmology and nature of the place where we live. I sang Daryll Cherney's "You can't clear-cut your way to heaven," which is the most profound analysis of the historical roots of the environmental crisis in the Judea Christian, spiritual tradition. And I sang Drew Dellinger's the Universe Jam, wherein the universe story of 13.7 billion years is told in a bout 31/2 minutes in a real quick kind of pace, from beginning to end. In summing up I quoted what Confucius said before he died, that only music could bring the planet back into harmony.
Ever since the first Rainforest Road Show that Dave Foreman organized with Mike Roselle, the folk singer Cecilia Ostrow, and me in 1984, I've always noticed that music harmonizes the movement better than philosophy. In 1997, musician were a big part of the actions to save the rainforests in New South Wales. People sitting around the fire singing songs from previous actions and making up new songs that were true to the experience of everyone present. It is an incredible thing when someone does that, when you hear the events that you have participated in, put into that form. And to be able to communicate it in that way to the next campfire and the next campaign to save another rainforest. I've never done the tour without 3-4 new songs. And I am a hopeless musician myself, I know 3-4 chords. I have to play the guitar to stay in tune, but it doesn't matter because the songs are true. The one asset, which may not even be a musical asset, is that when I sing a true song, this truth communicates itself to my listeners.
I agree with Confucious when he said that if we can find the right song the world will come back into harmony, if we can find the right poem, if we can find the pen that is mightier than the sword again because it is a spiritual crisis that we are in the middle of. Of course we need all of the technological evidence that we could still make it. we are clever enough we have all the tools, we could do it with solar and wind and biodiesel. We are definitely clever enough, we have proved that to ourselves. But there is a spiritual piece that is missing, the intention or the goodwill, or just the imagination. I reckon that it is a poem or a song that could spark that much more than a lecture.
DK: What is your view on growth in Earth-based ceremonies and rituals at environmental movement gatherings.
JS: It grew in the early 80's because no one was doing it before. Deep ecology, getting back into nature with an activist kind of a bent, that took off in the early 80's and hasn't really grown a great deal since. Whenever I do it, which is frequently, I've never had to cancel a workshop because people don't show up, but I wouldn't consider it a phenomena. Starhawk is involved with front line mysticism and has brought together her past with ritual Wicca ceremony to the cutting edge of anti globalism efforts in Seattle, Genoa, Washington DC so on, up to Cancun. She is very much weaving together ceremony and people, casting spells to stop the stones from being thrown. In Cancun, she went to cast a spell to stop the stone throwing which had been mirrored from the activists to the police and they were tossing stones at each other, so she goes to work on it and other people are working on it and this juggler comes along and starts juggling in the middle of all the stone throwing and his magic is sufficient to stop all of that.
I believe that loss of ceremonies and rituals that acknowledge and nurture our interconnectedness with nature is a large part of our present problem. We modern humans are the only culture, as far as I've been able to find out, who have ever attempted to live without these ceremonies and rituals as an integral part of our societies.
The people who place great importance upon such rituals and ceremonies are people who live in very, very close connection with nature; hunter-gatherer societies for instance, where people are immersed, imbedded in nature all of the time. If we consider that they find it necessary to guarantee that connectedness by performing such ceremonies, how much more we, living such denatured lives, must need to do this. And so, since those things have been given up, perhaps not willingly, perhaps we're forced to give them up by inquisitions and other things, we have now pushed "the environment" somewhere "out there."
Even though we may know intellectually that this isn't the case, all we have to do is hold our breath for about a minute to prove that the environment isn't really "out there," but that there's a constant exchange not just of air, of course, but of moisture and of soil into our bodies. We don't feel it; we don't experience ourselves in this way. Our experience of ourselves is still mediated by thousands of years of Judeo-Christian brainwashing, which makes us feel that the real reality is somewhere else. It's in heaven. It's anywhere but here on this Earth.
DK: Talk about the transformation we are in the midst of. (some confusion herein...)
JS: It seems that things are heading toward the abyss at breakneck speed. All of the seeds of a transformation are there, but whether they are going to get their moment to reveal themselves, to flower, is anybody's guess. The transformation is taking place at the same time that destruction is accelerating. What an incredible universe.
Arne Naess said that ecological ideas aren't enough, we need an ecological identity, an ecological self. Our largest identity is as this universe itself, which after 13.7 billion years is now able to create through human beings the tools to be able to see the path that it has travelled, to recognize the phenomenon of how we come to be here and our collective jaw drops in awe and wonder. We ARE this universe and remembering our journey, I note that that I am much more noble than recent history would indicate and from this derive empowerment and vision. If you only identify with recent history it can be hard to find anything good in you to stand up against all of that stuff.
We have the technical ability to solve all of our problems I believe but lack the good will and the vision. I don't see the hundredth monkey coming around the corner. If I depended upon hope for my good spirits then I wouldn't be in very good spirits but luckily hope doesn't have anything to do with it. There is no doubt that we have got one short life and we might as well do whatever we can to make things work and that has nothing to do with how likely any particular outcome is going to be.
There was a great presentation at the Wisdom and Action conference about the extinction spasm presently underway and that is going to appear in the fossil record regardless whatever happens next. It gives you a sense of occasion What an awesome moment to be living. This hasn't happened for 65 million years. This whole epoch is crashing to a close. In the last such event, 50% of all species perished because of a meteor and the one before that, 95% vanished and it took 10 million years for the full spectrum of biodiversity to fill itself up again. That is bad news but also good news. If it all came back from 5% then it would seem that we threaten the Cenozoic era but not life itself.. But then we may ask, why should we go back to bacteria and have to start again from there? I actually like this form and I am not ready to call it a day, on the other hand, shit happens and life itself will endure the most incredible kind of simplification and then come bouncing back again.
DK: How has the movement changed you?
JS: I was a hippy living in the hills of Northern New Southwales in 1979, growing my own food, I'd delivered 6 babies, I built my own house and was going to be a meditator for the rest of my life. Now, I've been an environmental activist for nearly a quarter of a century, I hardly ever meditate, I still have a garden and grow all of my own vegetables. Its not like everybody is called to be an environmentalist. I am doing music and poetry.
DK: How did your mediation practice serve your activism?
JS: It prepared me, steeping myself in meditation for 7 years prepared me. I became more sensitive and felt the trees calling me.
DK: How have you changed the movement?
JS: The movement is a big place, it is like a big festival and I have had a little marquee in the corner selling snake oil and trinkets. The piece I have been doing is holding firm to both the need for changing consciousness and the fact that doing the direct actions to protect biodiversity especially direct actions standing up in the face of power is a really important tool in doing that. If we ever find the necessary revolution in consciousness, the first thing we will look for is genetic material with which to proceed into the future. Protecting the repositories of the gene pool is by itself not enough but necessary in case human consciousness wakes up and decides it wants a future here.Consciousness and the conservation of nature, I have been trying to do both.
When I was part of Earth First!, people knew me because I'd been written articles for the Earth First! Journal journal since 1981 about the nonviolent actions to protect the forests in Australia and we kept winning and they couldn't believe it. I made an Earth First! flag and when we got arrested down at the Franklin River, where 3,000 people came from around the country in 1983, when the press picture was taken with the future leader of the Green Party, I was there that day and when the photographers came I held up my picture of "Earth First!" with Australia dead center of this flag, so in the next issue of the Journal here was this picture about Earth First! in Australia which didn't exist except as a slogan or a banner, so it appeared that "oh our Australian sisters and brothers have accomplished all this."
That's Earth First! invited me to join them on a Road Show around the States in '84 and again in 1986-87. I went to all the Round River Rendezvous (Earth First! gatherings), and then in 1986, I met Joanna Macy and started to do all the the deep ecology workshops. To EF!, they at the time hated the New Age, the called it the newage (to rhyme it with sewage) They had this term "woo-woo". Had you heard it before?
DK: Yes, I believe I first heard that reference from Mike Roselle when we were working on the Burger King out of the Rainforest campaign in the mid 1980's.
JS: Well its woo-woo to try and heal the Earth with crystals and all of that stuff and here I was doing these woo-woo ceremonies, but there is a lot of different sorts of woo-woo. I went to an EF rendez vous at the Grand Canyon where we did an action and shut down a uranium mine on the North rim of the Grand Canyon and I was also holding workshops on true woo-woo, to explain the difference between woo-woo, which I agree is abhorrent, and true woo-woo, which you must not throw out with the bathwater because there is something very important there. So I was always the person trying to bring spirituality into EF! and to bring EF! into the meditation community, doing interviews with Buddhist journals and the like, to describe the phenomenon of engaged Buddhism ,which Gary Snyder and Joanna Macy and many others did before me, but I didn't know that at first.
DK: Your book "Thinking Like a Mountain" has now been translated dozen languages. At the time you co-wrote it, did you realize the impact it would have?
JS: Not at all. The thing about it for me was I never knew that anyone would be interested in it. Joanna Macy's publisher New Society Press asked her to do it and she invited me to be part of it and named me as a principle author on the cover, so that all of a sudden, I was like a star in some other universe, though my part in it was rather small. New Society says most books have a bell curve, but ours just keep steadily going up, steady interest even 15 years later. And it is being reprinted in Germany, after being out of print. The essay by Arne Naess in there is one of the best essays about deep ecology. Ecological ideas are not enough, he says in there, we have to have an ecological identity, or an ecological self, which is the whole basis of the workshop really. No one will go to a Council of all Beings unless they have some sort of ecological consciousness, but to go from there to being an ecological being, whose values and decisions about what kind of car do I drive, and how do I consume, and all of those things, you can't get there just from ideas. Indigenous people knew that, that is why they had ceremonies and rituals whereby the human family can acknowledge our interdependence with the whole earth family, and by acknowledging that in a ceremonial, respectful fashion, we nourish and maintain that connection. Our own pagan ancestors used to have that as well. Starhawk reckons that 9 million witches were burned at the stake not so many centuries ago, not so far from here. It sounds like a lot of people even after 15 centuries of Christianity were still doing the seasons and the moon and the things that they burned people for back then. It is no wonder that it all got pushed underground for awhile and is only now resurfacing in our culture, but all those other cultures, they all still do that kind of thing. It's as though if you didn't help the sun come up every day we'd be in bad trouble, so everybody has got to do their part.
DK: Isn't that that integration the inherent philosophy behind the 're-earthing' process you take people through?
JS: It is most definitely. In 1986, I went to a workshop with Joanna Macy called 'despair and empowerment.' Ecological ideas are not enough, we need an actual ecological identity. But how are we to develop this? Naess has the best ideas about anthropocentrism, human centeredness, as the root of the problem. I love that idea, but he didn't really say how we get from there to ecological identity, but said we need community therapy to develop it, but what does that mean? So one day I went to a workshop given by Joanna Macy in Australia and there were the most powerful psychological tools of just freeing the emotions. Especially the feelings that are usually taboo and repressed in this society of horror, rage, dread and terror about what is happening to our world. That any sane mammal that want to have children to go on having children would be having their feelings when faced with things coming down the pike that we are faced with.
We're supposed to suppress those feelings and just say to each other "fine, thanks". She showed us how to turn our circle into a container and invited these feelings to come out in a way that was healing for everyone present. Everyone trusted her enough to follow her there, including me, and what she said was true. At the end of it everyone came back and was fine, full of energy. We realized that it takes a lot of energy to repress an important part of our intelligence, the feeling wisdom that preceded out thinking intelligence by many hundreds of million years, and that hasn't been superseded in the least. Consider the intelligence of all of our primate ancestors who, without the benefit of frontal lobes that do what ours do, were able to generation after generation survive to the age of being able to reproduce themselves before being consumed without exception. They were that intelligent to do that in a tough world. It was all because their feelings that very accurately informed them about what was going on and when it was time to do what. So here we are thinking that we can first suppress our feelings and act in an intelligent way in the world. So all of that I learned from her. It was when we brought together her work on despair and empowerment, and the philosophy of deep ecology, that this new Council of All Beings and ReEarthing really took shape in 1986. Both she and I have been doing those workshops ever since.
DK: What's the impact on the group psyche of the collective repression to some of our innate values that you speak of?
JS: The environmental crisis for a start. The fact that we have the ridiculous belief that we can somehow profit by cutting down a tree on which we are one leaf. We are so disconnected from the thing that we don't realize that we are one leaf on this tree and we can't cut down this tree for whatever profit we think we might get from it. It's such a shrinking of identity when we think we're nothing but our civilized human story. The best bit is suppressed. If you are a creature that has survived for 4,000 million years then your attitude toward extinction is much more definite. You have avoided extinction when the dinosaurs went, you avoided extinction at the end of the Permian when 95% of everything went. You've passed through 5 extinction spasms and you are still here. That makes you sort of think "well, things are pretty dark at the moment, but that is good pedigree we have there. Perhaps there is still something we can do to avoid extinction again" Whereas the human story is just war and theft. If that's all you've got then it would be hard to see how you'd be intelligent enough to make a good move to be able to confront this terribly disastrous situation that we are in. That's why Brian Swimme, Thomas Berry, Miriam Theresa MacGillis, and Matthew Fox are so important, because they are bringing that huge universe story in all of it's glory to the activist community, and I hope the activists will understand how important it is for them, that it isn't just people trying to get away from the awful truth by retreating into celebration of the universe. this is a potential source of great energy to empower what it is that we have to do.
DK: Dispel the illusion between separation and alienation of humans with the earth.
JS: It is not something that gets dispelled for good. It gets dispelled by living in a culture, or creating a culture for yourself, which includes those practices that have to be repeated from time to time in order to hold that illusion at bay. The kind of ceremonies that indigenous people do, they don't just do them once and dispel the illusion, they do them every week and every month and every year. We need to do different things to remind themselves not to get lost on our own stories, but to remind themselves who we are and what the nature of this planet is and ask stories of where we come from.
All you need to dispel the illusion in one sense is to hold your breath while you thing about it. Is the atmosphere part of me or is it 'the environment?' We think if we call it the environment we can banish it to "over there" somewhere.
It is a matter of choice. If I am a noble human being, I would be concerned about "the atmosphere", but if I'm really only interested in #1, than who gives a shit? Hold your breath and think about it. That's a ritual. That's a ceremony that you can do to dispel the illusion for a little while beyond any shadow of a doubt. After you do that one, then you can go sit with anything that is green and share gases with it consciously. Carbon dioxide is a problem for global warming, but it's got a kind of honorable history.
It's been a part of the cycle between the breathing things and the things that catch the photons from the sun and use that energy to unlock the carbon out of the carbon dioxide in their bodies and release the oxygen that we breath as needed in exchange. We've had this cycle, and both parties have kept faith in that cycle for 1,000 million years or thereabouts.
When you breath out, remember that, and if you can, see if you can get in touch with some generosity with offering your exhalation to something green that is in front of you, and as you breath in, just think of what you'd be without this green thing. You wouldn't be here. It is producing the gas that you need to stay alive, and if you can, just experience gratitude. Stay conscious of that, do a breathing meditation with something green and stay conscious of it and you will dispel the illusion.
It's not like if you do it once it will dispel the illusion, you have to create a spiritual life where you are practicing these types of things that will help you to remember who you really are and where you live and the fact that within this world there is the world of human societies, but the human world only exists to the extent that it acknowledges and integrates itself with the primal biology that underpins it and without which, it will just disappear. Humanity won't remain unless we can harmonize it with the underpinnings of the cycle of air. That is a sacred ceremony. You have to overcome your embarrassment and skepticism to see how you can integrate this into your life. I find that you have to keep on doing it regularly. It fades quickly.
In Australia, the aborigines in the old ways, they wouldn't have to go out but a few hours a day to gather food, and the reason that they did it was so they could do their ceremonies, the point was the dance. It was about the ceremony. I feel like the Earth is waiting for us, she hasn't shut the door, and there is nothing except out own arrogance that is holding us out. It's not easy, but definitely possible.
DK: You have been doing sustainable development in recent years, how is your form of this not an oxymoron?
JS: We started from wanting to protect rainforests, and then once we saw that there were people living there, unless we could find a way that they could have a sense of fulfillment in their lives, some alternative, they were going to go along with the loggers or the miners or whoever offered something that seemed worthwhile for them. So we started to generate alternatives we could use in those areas. In the early 1990's we fortunately had a progressive government which created a funding window that would fund NGO's doing development assistance projects in the third world that created new standards of environmental excellence.
That government and funding no longer exists, but as a result of that and with the support of groups like the Australian Council of Churches, we introduced a small portable sawmill to different communities in Papua New Guinea who were about to sign over hundreds of thousands of hectares of virgin forests to logging companies, but would only have gotten $2 a cubic meter for the raw logs, which were to be shipped to Japan. Whereas when we introduced the use of these small sawmills along with ecological forest management, called the walkabout system, the villagers could make $300 a cubic meter for the sawn lumber.
In exchange for this technology and training they were delighted to sign a contract to made any kind of industrial uses off limit in exchange for this kind of assistance. So the very greed of the system made it possible for this kind of more sustainable system. This model is now used by the European Union in their aid work in Papua New Gunea. We are supporting various projects like this in different countries.
DK: How can we expand the notion of fair trade purchasing and green business to international monetary fund/world bank levels?
JS: The IMF and WTO and WB have burgeoned in terms of public awareness, the next step is around the justice of the debt to certain countries. The debt is what happens today in place of colonialism as a way of justifying the removal of natural resources from "under-developed" countries. Underdevelopment is a verb, not a noun, underdevelopment is what the World Bank does to extract and steal their resources from them and if this was well known, perhaps it would unmask these powers. If we could explain and popularize the illegitimacy of the debt and further the Jubilee idea of dropping the debt, it would make a huge difference to the conservation of nature in those countries.
DK: Best advice you ever received?
JS: It was from the Man of the Trees, Richard St. Baker, who I met in the last year of his life, when he was old and frail. He told me, "dig your roots deep and let your leaves dance in the winds of heaven."
Questions or Comments: contact David Kupfer - [ firstname.lastname@example.org ]