Celebrating International Mother Earth Day at the 11th HourSociety Sustainability
April 22, 2013
Mother Earth is a common expression for the planet Earth in a number of countries and regions, which reflects the interdependence that exists among human beings, other living species and the planet. For instance, Bolivians call Mother Earth Pachamama and Nicaraguans refer to her as Tonantzin.
The proclamation of 22 April as International Mother Earth Day is an acknowledgement that the Earth and its ecosystems provide its inhabitants with life and sustenance. It also recognizes a collective responsibility, as called for in the 1992 Rio Declaration, to promote harmony with nature and the Earth to achieve a just balance among the economic, social and environmental needs of present and future generations of humanity.
Recognizing that Mother Earth reflects the interdependence that exists among human beings, other living species and the planet we all inhabit, the General Assembly declared 22 April as International Mother Earth Day (A/RES/63/278) to highlight the need to help improve the lives of children and adults who suffer from the disorder so they can lead full and meaningful lives.
To celebrate International Mother Earth Day, we would like to share an article and video lecture by Leila Conners, co-founder and president of Tree Media Group. Conners is an influencial leader raising global awareness of the collective responsibility we share with Mother Earth. She produces innovative multimedia tools to support and sustain the activities of global civil society. In 2007, The 11th Hour, a film she co-produced with Leonardo DiCaprio was released. The 11th Hour describes the last moment when change is possible. The film explores how humanity has arrived at this moment—how we live, how we impact the earth’s ecosystems, and what we can do to change our course.
Theatrical trailer for The 11th Hour
The film features dialogues with experts from all over the world, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Stephen Hawking, former head of the CIA R. James Woolsey and sustainable design experts William McDonough and Bruce Mau in addition to more than fifty leading scientists, thinkers and leaders who present the facts and discuss the most important issues that face our planet.
This article is an edited transcript of a lecture titled, Solutions at the 11th Hour that Ms. Conners delivered in Santa Monica, CA as part of the SGI-USA Culture of Peace Distinguished Speaker Series. It will be published by Culture of Peace Press as part of a compendium of lectures in the soon to be released Voices for a Culture of Peace Vol.2. Her lecture touches on many of the eight action areas in the 1999 United National Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace, most notably the second, promoting sustainable economic and social development. As she says: “The power to heal comes from understanding that the world we see is how we feel about ourselves, and how we respect all life is how we respect ourselves. To respect ourselves is to understand that we are a holistic system on a planet that is connected—we are all one.”
Solutions at The 11th Hour delivered by Leila Conners as part of the SGI-USA Culture of Peace Distinguished Speaker Series
Solutions at the 11th Hour
by Leila Conners
I’d like to take the time we have together to ponder the only place humans can live, which is Planet Earth. Yes, maybe two people can live on Mars, but that doesn’t really matter, so let’s talk about Planet Earth.
When we look around the world today, we see a lot of beautiful things and we also see a lot of terrifying things. In an earlier discussion today with youth, which I really enjoyed, what we came to as a group was understanding that, on this planet, the only place where we can live, we’ve created both heaven and hell.
The truth of the matter is that we are living in a time when every single life support system on this planet is in decline, and those systems give us life.
Sometimes when you look at the news, you’re seeing the imbalances, the war, the strife, famine, the degradation. It seems like it might be overtaking us. When you look at sustainability, at the environment, the state of the ecosystems, that is true. The truth of the matter is that we are living in a time when every single life support system on this planet is in decline, and those systems give us life. So you wonder, If the earth is our only home, why do we treat it the way we do? It’s a fundamental question, and that question is what drove me, my sister Nadia and Leonardo DiCaprio to make a movie about this. We thought, yes, there’s climate change; yes, there’s soil degradation; and there’s all these things that are occurring, but why?
We asked about seventy thinkers, scientists, humanists and philosophers the same set of questions—Where do we come from? Who are we? What are people like? What do we want? What is the state of the world? What’s your opinion of the state of the world? What do you think is going to happen? Where are we headed? What’s the chance of our survival? One thing we found, to my shock, was that we are on a path to extinction. I didn’t come in with, “I’m going to make an extinction movie.” I thought I was going to make a film about the state of the world, and the little things we can do here and here, and fix it, and we’re all going to be fine.
In connecting to ourselves, we create a world that is at peace, that is in balance, that does have fairness, that does have healthy ecosystems. In that connection lies a beautiful future.
What came through these seventy people who were deeply committed to their work, to their lives, was that they were deeply in love with what they were doing, with the planet. They were saddened by what they knew, which was that we’re going extinct. The earth has been around for four billion-ish years, and life has been evolving for billions of years. The human species as we know it today has been around for 200,000 to 150,000 years. In that time, we have basically taken all of creation and sent it toward the trash can. The question becomes, What in us is doing this? And what we’re finding is, it’s really the human brain and how it functions and how it disconnects us from the feedback loops of life.
The feedback loops of life include our souls and our higher selves and our connection to the divine. In fact, what we found was that the only way out of our dilemma—and this message today will be one of hope and of bravery and of courage—is that we have to connect to our higher selves, to a deeper place in order to get through the dilemma we’ve created for ourselves.
I want to diagnose the problem a little better, because the problem isn’t about carbon dioxide, the problem isn’t about chemicals, it’s about the way we think.
The exciting thing is that we know how to do this. We’ve done it before. In connecting to ourselves, we create a world that is at peace, that is in balance, that does have fairness, that does have healthy ecosystems. In that connection lies a beautiful future.
The work starts within ourselves and then our awareness moves outside ourselves and creates this connection in our community.
Summary of a 20-minute segment from the film The 11th Hour
The excerpt begins with Stephen Hawking talking about global changes created by the human race and explaining that we are at a critical point: There is no room for more poison and pollution and no more land to use up. Leonardo DiCaprio, Stuart Pimm, Joseph Tainter, David Orr, Mikhail Gorbachev, Thom Hartmann and several others discuss whether they believe we are headed for extinction and that, because of us, at least fifty thousand species become extinct every year, leading to speculation we will take the whole planet down with us. They discuss possible solutions, including saving “the caring capacity” and bringing science
Conners: There’s a lot before what you just saw, which really proves why we’re in such deep trouble. I just want to touch on that. I believe the debate in this country about climate change is doing a deep disservice to the survival of humanity, and I think that most of the rest of the world understands that we are changing our climate. Rather than debate that, let’s debate how to solve the problem, because we need a lot of work just doing that. Let’s get about the business, as David Orr says, I love that statement. Everyone is needed. All hands on deck time.
I want to diagnose the problem a little better, because the problem isn’t about carbon dioxide, the problem isn’t about chemicals, it’s about the way we think. And the way we think is based on our evolution in that we are short-term-thinking species. We don’t see the distant future, and a person who doesn’t see the big picture can’t understand it.
Our connection to our soul has been severed in a modern culture that rejects things we cannot see.
We tend to focus on our day-to-day survival. How much does it cost to fill up my car with gas? What’s my salary? How do I feed my children and myself? I am not downplaying these very real concerns, but in getting these needs met, we are unable to see the bigger picture.
This has always occurred in human development, but in the last hundred years, the tools that we use for survival have become much more powerful, and that’s a problem. In our early history, we had fire, we had wood, brass, iron, things like that. Now we have rockets, nuclear power, nanotechnology. The speed of development has increased to such a degree that we don’t know how to integrate them into a balance with the world. In effect, we are creating an accelerated destruction of the planet. As the change in our thinking accelerated the number of tools that we had, the more nature became a resource rather than an integrated element in our lives.
In The Industrial Revolution, Bruce Mau says we started to cut things up into pieces, so, for example, trees became tables. They were no longer recognized as being imbued with the spirit, they were no longer the patron saints that protected and provided food, shelter, shade, habitat, water cachement. Suddenly, trees became tables and chairs. I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t become tables and chairs, but we need to understand that they have other purposes as well, and that we need to integrate back into our thinking this idea of the long term and that the world is more holistic than little isolated pieces.
Part of the problem really is the short-term thinking, which has led to all these other problems, excess pollution, excess carbon dioxide, and all those other issues. And part of what has happened in the over-intellectualizing of our world is this disconnection to our environment, but mostly from ourselves, from our higher selves.
Our connection to our soul has been severed in a modern culture that rejects things we cannot see. It rejects things that we cannot prove. Because we can’t see it and we can’t prove it, it doesn’t exist. Because it doesn’t exist, it has no value, and because it has no value, then what fills the void are things we can make ourselves, things that we can see ourselves. Consequently, we’ve created a world that has material things and a materialist view of the world. That materialist view on fossil fuels, on oil, on all of these wonderful energy sources, has been at the service of very good things—for example, the medical community has done an incredible job with oil resources.
Many of you have heard American indigenous people referring to “the seventh unborn generation.” When you create something, it must contribute not only to the current generation but to seven generations down the line.
We have created a spectrum of new objects in our lives that don’t consider the invisible world, that don’t consider the soul, the higher self, the life force that lives in all of nature. They don’t consider nature’s rights or how it all fits together, because we’re short-term thinking, and everything is disconnected in pieces. That vision is killing us.
Part of the problem also is that, in this material world, which we acknowledge we need to exist, material items are important. The question is, how much more happy are you with five blankets, ten blankets, three houses? Where does that end? What we have come home to in a time where every ecosystem is in decline is that nothing has improved. There isn’t single paper in the past twenty years issued by the scientific community that has said that an ecosystem has improved. Our soil, our air, our water, the amount of fish in the ocean, the amount of pollution in the ocean, the amount of toxins in our air, water, food, everything has gotten worse. Even knowing that it’s getting worse, we can’t stop ourselves, we can’t prevent it from getting worse.
How do we heal this? How do we solve this? One of the quotes in The 11th Hour that you didn’t get to see is from Wes Jackson. He’s a farmer in Kansas who is president of The Land Institute. And he basically says, “Now to me the value that comes from the healing power that comes from getting, that it’s not just global warming, it’s not just fossil fuel dependency, it’s not just soil erosion, it’s not just chemical contamination of our land and water, it’s not just the population problem, and it’s not just all of those, the deterioration of the environment, of our planet, is an outward mirror of an inner condition. Like inside, like outside, and that is part of the great work.”
The power to heal comes from understanding that the world we see is how we feel about ourselves, and how we respect all life is how we respect ourselves. To respect ourselves is to understand that we are a holistic system on a planet that is connected—we are all one. I was told by a friend that there is a Buddhist concept, the oneness of self and environment, that defines this connection.
Many of you have heard American indigenous people referring to “the seventh unborn generation.” When you create something, it must contribute not only to the current generation but to seven generations down the line.
Plastic bottles, 25 million of them, are thrown away every hour in this country.
If you’re going to cure this disconnected mind, this short-term-thinking person or species, how would you address that? Reconnection and a healing process of understanding. This is what Leonardo DiCaprio describes at the end of the film as “a conscious evolution of our species.” In other words, we connect to ourselves and others, we connect to all of life, and we start designing our world to take that into account.
Many of you have heard American indigenous people referring to “the seventh unborn generation.” When you create something, it must contribute not only to the current generation but to seven generations down the line. We need to incorporate that into our thinking again.
If you respect yourself and respect life, you understand that when you throw something away it’s not going anywhere. Plastic bottles, 25 million of them, are thrown away every hour in this country. Where are they all going? Eventually to the ocean. What happens to them? They dissolve. Seventy percent of all oxygen on this planet is generated by phytoplankton, small little planktons floating in the ocean. The ratio of dissolved plastic to phytoplankton is 6:1. What do you think will happen if we crowd out the space for that life form to live? So, plastic bottles—eliminate them. If you understand that “waste” does not mean “away,” then you start looking at nature the way described by Janine Benyus, American natural sciences writer.
Janine Benyus TedTalk at the Ted Global 2009 in Oxford
What does nature do with things it doesn’t need? Well, someone else eats it, essentially. John Todd developed an incredible thing called the living machine. He started by looking at nature and then at a factory giving off waste, in this case a chocolate factory. And he asked what eats the first thing that comes out of this factory? He found it was fish that like to eat the waste, plus some bacteria. He built a big tank, put the fish and the bacteria in the tank, and they ate what was coming out of the factory. The tank started filling up with the waste from those animals, so he created another tank with plant life that ate the waste from these fish and bacteria. And so it goes. Todd ended up in this case creating a living machine system with twelve tanks, and by the end of the last tank, what came out? Fresh drinking water. No chemicals, no energy to clean it up.
John Todd lecture on "Living Machines"
If you’ve ever lived in New York, all the waste goes to the Bronx. It gets inundated with chemicals and put in little pellets, and then they try to find who will take all of these pellets. But instead you can create a living machine in a house where none of your sewage goes anywhere. It gets turned into water that can go back into the water supply perfectly safe. It’s about understanding and respecting all life and how to position ourselves within life.
I think, honestly, what gave me hope in all of this was biomimicry. It’s what you call a game changer.
I think, honestly, what gave me hope in all of this was biomimicry. It’s what you call a game changer. It’s stuff I’d never heard about. For example, the lotus leaf is constructed in such a way that water never adheres, nor does dirt. The question is, why? Well, if you look at the nanostructure of the lotus leaf, it’s positioned so that nothing can adhere because it has a certain shape. A paint company wondered what would it be like if they mimicked the lotus leaf technology and made a paint that behaved like the lotus leaf? And now we have paint that, when you put it on a building or a car, you have a self-cleaning car or a building that never gets dirty. In addition, you never have to use water to clean your car or your building.
Just look to nature, see what it does, copy it. That’s what we’re starting to do. It’s really advanced chemistry. Like Janine Benyus said, and I want to reiterate what she was saying—in our industrial process, because everything was cut into pieces and isolated, we came up with very smart solutions, but they didn’t take into consideration all of life. When you start to consider all of life, suddenly the use of sulfuric acid makes no sense, or heating something up to 1500 degrees makes no sense, because you have to burn gallons of oil just to get there. It’s highly wasteful. Basically you’re going to start hearing things like “gecko technology.” For example, adhesives are hard to make and chemically destructive. Researchers looked at a gecko’s “fingers” and it’s fascinating—their sticky effectiveness is not due to the shape, it’s really at the quantum level that the gecko is playing with energies of electrons and photons and can actually stick upside down because of the weak forces in the quantum level of reality. Shocking, right? They’ve actually made a Spiderman suit where a person can crawl all over the place using the weak force at the quantum level because of the structure of the materials of this suit.
There are a lot of reasons why renewable energy is debated. Remember that fossil fuel energy is subsidized in the billions of dollars. If we apply those subsidies to renewable energy, it will be very competitive very fast. We know that we’re not going back to a dollar or less for a gallon of gasoline. Never again. So, let’s get to renewables. Let’s get there quickly. Imagine if we took all our attention and all our resources and started to pay real attention to this problem, there would be a lot more that we could do.
I want to talk a little bit more about intention and attention. People often ask me how long we have, and I say, “It all depends on whom you ask.” You know, Lovelock, who created the Gaia theory, says it’s too late, it’s over.
James Lovelock on the Gaia Theory
There are other people who say that we have five to fifteen years to change. Other people say we’re going be just fine. I don’t know the correct answer. I love this quote from Paul Hawken (in The 11th Hour): “If you look at the data, you get depressed, but if you look at the human heart, you know everything’s going to be OK.” My purpose in making the film and the reason I’m here is to call on all of us to recognize that we came to this planet at this time for a specific reason. That reason is twofold: One is to have the bravery to witness the hell we’ve created on this planet, without running away, without shutting down, without pretending it’s not there, without sitting in denial. We have to sit there, look it straight in the eye, and have the courage to say, “We’ve really made a mess of this place, and this is the reason why. But we’re going to try to make a change.” I don’t care what age we are, we have to make the change, and that means starting to look, first of all, within.
The second point is to start looking at your life and really looking at the local place and loving your home, loving yourself enough to say: “I’m not going to have chemicals in my life anymore because they’re killing me. I’m not going to have chemicals for my friends. I’m not going to hire a gardener who uses a leaf blower because it’s polluting my neighbor.”
...while presidents and prime ministers are acting or not acting, we can make major changes at home.
Love where your water comes from, love the source of your food. If you love where your water comes from, you quickly get the chemicals out; you quickly try to find sustainable ways to catch the rainwater that comes into the city. Love how you eat. Love the farmer who is growing your food, buy organic. These are the things that you have to look at. These are the small acts of bravery that are important to get us from the destructive place we are now to the restorative place we need to be. And a lot of it is scary. A lot of people look at me and say: “You know you’re really bumming me out. I wish you wouldn’t talk like that.” But it’s not my fault. When you open your eyes, this is what you will see.
How do you stay positive in a world that’s falling apart? You have to stick together, stick with your community, create a world that is beautiful around you. That’s a great start. We also talk a lot about networking the local, meaning looking around your own local place and finding out what’s happening.
We’re doing that with the 11th Hour Action (http://11thhouraction.com/). It’s a movement to help people take local action. Yes, we need to work on the federal level; yes, we need to take action on the Kyoto Protocol and climate change and all of those things, but while presidents and prime ministers are acting or not acting, we can make major changes at home. There is much power in that. Let’s recycle, but we need to do more than that. I’m realizing that I myself am not doing enough. How do we take it up a notch? We need to get over our laziness, get over our own inertia, and keep it going, keep it persistent, keep it truthful. Without this action, we are not going to leave the world a better place. Without this feeling of urgency coupled with hope and love, we’re not going to make it. That’s what I’m calling on with myself and others—to be aware of what’s happening, don’t let it take you down, and work together, love yourself, love your community, and start making real changes. That’s the message of our film.
Questions and Answers
Audience Member 1: How do we make the organizations with the most power make channels for people to connect and change lifestyles?
Conners: Inner work is first. We keep coming back to the understanding that small groups of people are very important to mutually reinforce change. For example, the Soka Gakkai International is a global organization, and through this organization this group of people is sitting here today. When people sit together and start drawing up plans and things to do and actionable items, this is not just thinking anymore, it’s real action on the ground, a physical manifestation of change. Then you can network that idea throughout your organization. So let’s say you figure out how to cheaply install solar energy or cheaply do composting, you network that knowledge throughout your organization. It’s about execution, and that’s the daunting thing. That’s why I keep saying, after the film, how can we help people make change? It’s really about joining in small local groups, because that’s how changes happen. As the groups start networking, they become more powerful and they can enforce change at a bigger level.
Audience Member 2: I was very impressed that you focus on solutions. Can you tell us what the website is?
Conners: I really want everyone to understand that talking about bad news isn’t adversarial, it’s just truth. You talk about the bad news and you say okay, well the environmentalists are always bumming everyone out because they are talking about all this bad stuff that’s going on, but you know, it’s kind of what’s going on. So, can we be okay with that and realize that it’s not about the environment, it’s a human issue. We should do away with the word environmentalism and just say it’s a human issue, because the planet is where we live, it’s a human home. Forget about the word environmentalism, it’s really about humans and how to behave correctly and in a healthy manner. We have two websites: the action website (www.11thhouraction.com) where we are networking the local and the website on The 11th Hour film (www.11thhourfilm.com).
Audience Member 3: You appear to have an amazing amount of tolerance and also an amazing amount of insight into how to pace yourself. I would like to know how you do that. How do you maintain that mind set?
Conners: It is so hard, even with all the awareness in the world, to stick to your guns and make your commitments real. Ironically, before today’s talk, I was drinking out of a plastic bottle because I didn’t fill up my personal container.
The word I would use is forgiveness. It’s about forgiving yourself and about understanding that you can’t do it alone. You must create a support group, knowing that mistakes will be made.
It’s the same thing with bigger companies. Big Fortune 500 companies now are making zero carbon goals and zero waste goals—they call it climbing the mount of sustainability. It is one step at a time. You are climbing a very steep mountain, and you are going to make mistakes, but that’s part of it. If you can come from that place, then I think it’s more tolerable.
Audience Member 4: Is cutting our consumption really the best thing for us to do for the environment?
Conners: It’s about how it’s done. The problem with food in general is that we have more than 6 billion people on the planet, and the only reason we have that many people is because we have taken fossil fuel and turned it into human biomass. I am paraphrasing that from Wes Jackson in the film. He is saying that the only reason we can feed all these people is because we have turbines and tractors and we can plow gigantic fields and transport food to far away. That has enabled us to grow our numbers. Industrialized food production is destructive whether it is beef or corn or soy. Can we change the process of food production to more organic, local-based food production, which definitely includes less meat. It doesn’t mean no meat, because if you look at perma-culture, it includes meat—it’s just a more sustainable, holistic system upon which people eat and nurture their food supply.
I will say a plug for the oceans: Don’t eat Orange Roughy, it is a species of fish that has existed for 150 years. Fish in general are old. Big fish like tunas are twenty years old, other fish are fifty to eighty years old.
People are asking, what’s a sustainable fish? The answer is catfish and tilapia. They grow in a year. By the way, there was no salmon run this year. We have to back off on fish, even though I really love, love, love fish.
Paul Stamets in Washington State is doing incredible research on the strains of mushrooms that can decontaminate chemical weapons. Mushrooms have evolved for millions of years. Their root system uses all these chemicals to defend against protozoa, bacteria, animals, worms, whatever. Over millions of years, mushrooms have collected all these chemical defenses.
There is a mushroom that can actually eat VX gas, a nerve agent and weapon of war, and turn it into a nonlethal substance in which you can grow tomatoes and eat them. In other words, you can decontaminate chemical weapons with mushrooms. Think about the power of that. Meanwhile, people are building incinerators in Russia to burn this stuff. Surrounding communities are starting to voice concern, because no one knows what will happen with all this VX gas exhaust.
The other thing mushrooms can do is, in your body, it starts chelating and disassembling toxic molecules—that means mercury poisoning, bird flu, perhaps even AIDS. Mushrooms disassemble viruses and detoxify our body of illnesses. One of my favorite things is that Paul Stamets says he found a mushroom that is active against pox viruses. These strains of mushroom are being challenged by the National Institutes of Health and the Pentagon.
One particular mushroom only grows in 2 percent of the old growth forests left in northern Washington State. It grows nowhere else on the planet. Paul Stamets says we should protect national old growth forests as a matter of national defense because there is no other place this mushroom grows, much less everything else you can find in the forest. You will hear more about mushrooms as the years go on. There are suggestions to put mushroom centers in communities.
Paul Stamets speaks about the antimicrobial properties of mushrooms at TedMed 2011
Audience Member 5: I am wondering if you had anybody on the panel who was a spiritual leader, like Native American shamans and people who are connected with the land.
Conners: We did talk to some of those people. We talked to an Oua Shaman, we talked to Oren Lyons, we talked to Rabbi Nemmom. The next film is specifically dedicated to this question of the spiritual response to this crisis.
About Leila Conners
Leila Conners is co-founder and president of Tree Media Group, which creates media to support and sustain civil society. With a background in international politics, Leila set out to build a production company that tells stories about the pressing issues of our time. Tree Media works with groups and individuals, including the Council on Foreign Relations, NASA, RAND, Gorbachev’s Green Cross International, Leonardo DiCaprio, PBS and Norman Lear.
Prior to Tree Media, Leila was associate editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, an international journal of social and political thought, and associate editor of Global Viewpoint of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, an internationally distributed op-ed column that reaches two hundred papers. At NPQ, she interviewed thinkers and policy makers, including Kofi Annan, Nafis Sadik, Betty Friedan, Hans Bethe, Rigoberta Menchu Tum and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, among others. She is now editor-at-large for NPQ.
Leila is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Pacific Council on International Policy. She is a member of the Writers Guild of America. She was also a speaker at the Bioneers conference in October 2005.