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Q&A: Environmental activist and writer, Trish Riley

Jeff Holman

26th April, 2011

According to Trish Riley, it’s absurd to think that individuals can save the planet - only big business has the clout to make a real difference. Utter nonsense or perfectly sensible? Jeff Holman caught up with her to find out

Environmental activist, journalist and fixture on the lecture circuit, Trish Riley has done more than most to promote green issues in the USA. With a career spanning 19 years, the Florida native is a woman on a mission, using her unique brand of ‘environmental education’ to win over the 300 million inhabitants of the world's second largest polluter to the green cause. But despite increased awareness of environmental issues, there’s still plenty to be done and, says Trish, big business needs to start taking a leading role. Jeff Holman caught up with her to find out how she’s going to persuade the men in suits to become the men who saved the planet.

Jeff Holman: How long have you been writing about the environment?
Trish Riley:
‘I began writing in 1992 and because I was already interested in environmental issues I’ve always kept an eye out for that sort of thing. So when I would do a school story, say something on kids doing science projects, I always gravitated towards those [stories] that had a sort of environmental angle and always incorporated that into the story.’

JH: Where do you see yourself fitting into the environmental debate?
TR:
‘Because I’ve been covering this topic for my entire career, I feel that I’ve achieved a level of knowledge about it that the general public doesn’t benefit from. It’s my responsibility now to share that knowledge with the rest of the world and help the world utilise that information. That’s my role: environmental education.’

JH: So what made you begin your own environmental education?
TR:
‘Well I had the good fortune to grow up in the countryside of the Midwest, in Indiana. There was a wood down at the end of my street and that’s where I played everyday. I fell in love with nature and I felt like I had an innate understanding of their value that went beyond what the general public seemed to appreciate. As I was growing up I watched that neighbourhood be developed and the woods torn down. Neighbourhoods with concrete and brick developed where once there were forests and streams. I realised that the world didn’t really understand the damage that was occurring.’

JH: Do you still stand by your original beliefs or have your views changed as you become more familiar with green issues?
TR:
‘The more I’ve learned the more alarmed I’ve become. Over the course of my career I have felt that I am screaming into the wind about these issues. Trying to raise awareness is difficult and one reason is that the companies that create the problem for us, that threaten our health and safety, are making profits. They know what they’re doing, you know? They may not have known when they first started whatever their industry is but now they do know that and they’ve known it for a long time. This stuff has been quite well understood by science, and yet they don’t put an end to it. We cannot rely on these companies, and we can’t seem to rely on our governments to force those companies to stop polluting us.’     

JH: So you’d say it’s down to us to force through change?
TR:
‘Well certainly some large corporations are acting responsibly and that’s very heartening. That’s the only way, the only chance have to prevent complete destruction of the planet. I think its absurd to expect individual citizens to be responsible for making those companies behave with integrity towards us. We’ve been poisoned and economically ripped off by them. I think that it’s time for us to expect all of those corporate leaders to behave with integrity toward the rest of the world. The ‘Precautionary Principle’ is a wonderful model and it should be the rule of thumb worldwide for business as opposed to the business as usual approach that’s been the model forever. We’ve got to move toward sustainability or forget it.’

JH: What effect has motherhood had your mission?
TR:
‘I feel that there’s pretty much no excuse for the way that my generation and a few before us have just raped the earth with no regard whatsoever for future generations. I think we have responsibility to do whatever we can right now to protect the health and safety of our children and their children. You know, my kids have reached childbearing age and it’s a question in all or minds, ‘do I make more babies?’ What would they be exposing these kids to? We’ve got to get this fixed, or their lives will be miserable.’

JH: Is there any one aspect of the environmental debate that really fires you up?
TR:
‘It is one big topic; to me, it’s the circle of sustainability. That is water, energy, air, soil, food, business, quality of life; you know all of those things. So for example, when I developed the film program Cinema Verde, the environmental film festival I founded and direct, I made a point of bringing in films that hit on all those different topics because it’s all part of one picture. It’s not rocket science, it’s not terribly complex, but it’s all right there and these are all the things that we need to work on. Just fixing one or two of these problems won’t help us.’

JH: You’re a fixture on the speaking circuit in the US. How have American audiences responded to your message?
TR: ‘One thing that I forget is that, because I’m so saturated with this material myself and learning about it for so long, it isn’t common knowledge for everyone else. Sometimes, before I speak, I wonder if I can tell them anything they don’t already know. But, then I go and tell them what I think is important and I am very often surprised to hear that people don’t know all this stuff. That’s why what I’m doing is important - raising awareness about environmental issues and helping people become aware of how we can effect sustainable solutions.’

JH: You’ve achieved a huge amount already: do you have any goals left?
TR: ‘What I’d really love would be for the people who are responsible for the damage, the industries that cause problems, to get the message. I would like to see them to step up to the plate, take a stance with integrity and say, “Hold on a minute. We’ve been making money hand over fist producing this particular product but now we know it’s a problem and we need to correct that problem.” That would be my highest ideal, and that is what I think is really required for us to be able to turn around on the path that we’re on; the path towards destruction.’

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