Green’s Best Messenger

Simran Sethi ’92 is fast becoming an eco-celebrity as she fights to save our planet

by Christina Barber-Just

Environmental journalist Simran Sethi ’92Environmental journalist Simran Sethi ’92 is everywhere these days. Maybe you’ve seen her on the Sundance Channel’s The Green, which she co-hosts, or on news programs and talk shows, dispensing eco-advice. A professional-in-residence at the University of Kansas School of Journalism, Sethi also created The Good Fight series on the Sundance Channel’s Web site and blogs for the Huffington Post. In 2007, Vanity Fair profiled her in its “green” issue, British newspaper The Independent put her at number six on its Green List, and Variety included her in its Women’s Impact Report. To top it all off, she was awarded a Smith Medal last month. Here, a conversation with everyone’s go-to expert for all things green.

Vanity Fair dubbed you “the messenger.” What’s the essence of your message?
That people hold, within their own lives, the tools for their own transformation. After a few appearances on Oprah, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and The Martha Stewart Show, I was bombarded with people asking me for tips on ways to go green. I firmly believe there is no one-size-fits-all answer. We have to consider our values, our communities, our budgets, and our ultimate goals. Quick tips and easy steps are great ways to bring people into the conversation, but we can’t stop there. We can’t solve our environmental problems by simply shopping differently. We have to engage in new ways of thinking and make deeper changes, as well. I believe that, as a journalist, I can offer information, but ultimately people have their own best answers.

Is it possible to go green when we’re in the middle of a deep recession?
Absolutely. Corporate America has demonstrated it. Companies aren’t going green to be altruistic; they are engaged in efficiencies that save money. Companies recognize that the business imperative for being more socially and environmentally sustainable is strong. In some cases, it will literally ensure the saliency of certain industries. Engaging in efficiency efforts, creative problem solving, and conservation are exactly what we need to do when finances get tighter—whether we are corporate citizens or everyday ones. We also need to redefine prosperity and connect to our values and communities. That is the only way we will pull ourselves out of this recession.

Many people have embraced things like compact fluorescent light bulbs and reusable grocery bags. What’s the next step?
I like to say once you’ve changed the light bulbs you have to think about transforming your community. In challenging economic times there is a temptation to go for the cheapest solutions and not concern oneself with environmental impacts. It is imperative that we recognize these concerns actually go hand-in-hand. We cannot escape our ecosystem. Climate change is happening, and if we don’t actively work to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, limit our consumption, and preserve our natural resources, we are going to face much steeper costs to our health and our economy.

Of all the projects you’ve undertaken, which makes you most proud?
The Good Fight, which is the online series I created a little over a year ago because I was troubled by the fact that, at the time, green stories seemed limited to reports about changing light bulbs and corn ethanol. It’s a series of videos, audio podcasts, and blog posts that addresses the issue of environmental justice, recognizing that race, class, and power all shape our relationship to our environment and that environmental rights are civil rights.

What’s next for you?
The economic downturn has impacted my work, as well. I am currently trying to garner funding to shoot segments of The Good Fight in all fifty states. I am also working on a book for HarperCollins that focuses on unsung environmental heroes and the need to bring more people into the environmental movement. I will continue to lecture throughout the country and complete my appointment at the University of Kansas. We’ll see what grows after those seeds are planted.

Spring ’09 SAQ