Episode 49: Environmentalism for a New Age with Ocean Robbins
Shane Metcalf: My name is Shane Metcalf, and this is “A Taste of Sex”. Guest speaker interviews coming to you from the One Taste Urban Retreat Center in San Francisco. Every week here at One Taste, we hold a Tuesday night forum where you can come and hear educators from the bay area and beyond give their perspectives on topics that touch the most human parts of life: relationships, life purpose, and spirituality.
Ocean Robbins: So, when I was sixteen I started an organization called YES. At the time, Nancy Reagan was telling my generation “just say no,” and we felt that wasn’t enough. We needed something positive we could say “yes” to.
Shane Metcalf: We have a special edition today. Today is Earth Day, and we are hosting Ocean Robbins, the director of YES: Youth for Environmental Sanity, an organization he founded in 1990 at age 16. He is the author of “Choices for our Future: A Generation Rising to Life on Earth.” He was named by Autobahn, Time Magazine and Utne Reader* as one of the heroes of the new millennium. Ocean, welcome to the show.
Ocean Robbins: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Shane Metcalf: To start us off, I’d actually like to read a quote and get your reaction from it. It’s a quote from “The World’s Youth” by scholars Reed Larson and T.S. Sarawathi. They say, “In the end, the future is in the laps of young people. We are handing the next generation of youth a world rife with serious problems, global warming, looming environmental catastrophes, poverty, numerous international conflicts, just as similarly daunting problems were handed to us. Nothing less than a full mobilization of all young people to higher goals and ideas is required for humankind to make it through the new century.” What comes up when you hear that quote?
Ocean Robbins: I think there’s a lot of truth in it. We are facing an unprecedented systemic collapse of the environment, and we’re facing levels of social inequity. The reality is that the earth’s systems are not capable of supporting the levels of consumption that humanity is engaged in at this time. There looms on the horizon a shortfall of resources, from food to water to land. If we continue on this course, that cannot help but lead to massive suffering for large numbers of people. It doesn’t have to be that way. We absolutely have the capacity to support a healthy, sustainable, thriving life for everybody on Earth. But it would take a different way of living and a different way of walking on this planet, and there’s no question that young people are particularly impacted, because we’re going to live the longest, young folks are, and so we have the most to lose and the most to gain from humanity’s response to the environmental problems.
Shane Metcalf: So you’ve been involved in transformational activism since a very young age. When did that begin for you?
Ocean Robbins: Probably in the womb. I remember when I was eight, learning about the threat of nuclear war and organizing a peace rally in my elementary school. So from an early age, there was this feeling that whatever problems we face, the question is not one of despair and apathy, it’s one of what can we do – what can I do – to make a difference. And I’ve always felt that however great the challenges may be that we face, that’s how great we have to be in response. So, when I was 16 I started an organization called YES. At the time, Nancy Reagan was telling my generation “just say no,” and we felt that wasn’t enough. We needed something positive we could say “yes” to. So we organized young people nationwide to start saying yes, and we set up a national tour called the YES Tour that spoke to school assemblies about the environment and what youth could do to make a difference in the world. And we reached more than half a million students in schools across the United States. In school after school we would ask, “raise your hand if you believe the world will be a better place in a generation, with less violence and less pollution,” and we’d watch one percent of the hands go up in the room. And then we’d ask, “raise your hand if you want the world to be a better place in a generation, with less violence and less pollution,” and we’d see every hand go up. And so we said “why is there this gap between the dreams and intentions people carry and the sense of fear and cynicism about the future?” And what we came to realize was that when people have a level of cynicism, that becomes immobilizing. They shut down parts of themselves. And we were interested in what does it take to open up the hope and dreams of a generation – not the hope that things will naively get better out there in the world if we sit on the sidelines as spectators, but the hope that is a verb, that comes from the actions and commitments of our lives. So that was the intention of the tour, and over the years YES has continued. It’s now been 18 years of work mobilizing young people, and we now operate on five continents, not with the tour, but with transformational gatherings for young leaders.
Shane Metcalf: So what does it take to awaken a generation to hope?
Ocean Robbins: Well, it takes positive examples. It takes leadership It takes people who are willing to take a stand with their own lives. Anybody who is asking, “how do I help somebody else do X, Y or Z” had better be doing X, Y or Z. So, what does it mean as individuals to have hope, to live from hope? Again, not the hope that says, “everybody’s going to fix the problems,” but the hope that says, “I can do something. My life is about making a contribution in some way to the betterment of this world. And as a human being of conscience, I want my impact to be a positive one.” So we all have the opportunity to do that, and what that intention leads to is as diverse as the human race. There is not some formula, “OK, you just do the following seven things and you’re suddenly a good activist.” We all have to find our place and our niche in the transformation of our world. And I don’t think it’s all just taking place out there, it’s not just about rallies and organizing and boycotting companies, and some of the classical things we see in social change movements. I think it’s also internal, it’s also about how we live and how deeply we love. How are we working on our patterns and our assumptions and our modes of analysis and our ways of relating to the world, so we can actually be present to the world we’re in and not constantly ruled by reactions to past wounds and past hurts and past experiences.
Shane Metcalf: That’s really beautiful. Here at One Taste Urban Retreat Center in San Francisco, a lot of our work is focused on intimacy and relationships, and learning how to have more connection in our lives. How do you see, connection, intimacy and relationships playing a role in activism and changing the world, and having hope for a better future?
Ocean Robbins: Well, we all have a deep need for love, and most of us haven’t had enough of it in our lives. I think that, from a certain perspective, the crisis we face could be seen as a crisis of not just hope, not just environmental problems, but also a crisis of love. And at the same time, love is so powerful. It’s so healing, it’s so transformational, and so part of what we do in our work, actually, at YES jams is, we work with activists and change-makers whose lives are committed to making a difference in the world, and we create a space where they can do some of the healing work that it takes to show up more fully and authentically in what they do, and to be sustainable personally. Because if we’re constantly giving giving giving to the world out there, where do we source? What feeds us? What enables us to be fueled, to be able to really give our gifts in the world?
Shane Metcalf: So that actually really is perfect, since that leads into my next question, which is: What source, what do you use, what fuels you, what keeps you going and what nourishes your connection with your family to the work you do and to the world?
Ocean Robbins: First and foremost, I come from a pretty spiritual foundation in my life. And that’s not a particularly religious foundation, but I have a deep sense of a higher power, a deeper wisdom, a guiding force that is pretty miraculous, because I think that life is pretty miraculous. I think that life is beyond brilliant, and so I have a lot of faith in whatever created humanity and created this world and got us through five billion years of evolution. I think it’s absolutely beyond comprehension how brilliant the design of this world is. And I experience in my own life the presence of the miraculous. So, at times of my greatest despair and at times of my greatest love and gratitude and openness, there is always this sense that I’m in the hands of a higher power. And so I daily say in prayer, “I am in your service and your care.” And that’s part of the feeling for me, that I’m not doing what I do on my strength alone. I’m doing it rooted in and connected to and sourced in a wisdom, a power, that is far greater than me. And I’m also sourced in love and relationships, and I have the blessed opportunity to have been married for 14 years to a woman to whom I have such admiration and respect that it’s a source of incredible delight to share my life with her, and my work with her, and my dreams with her, and my learning journey with her. And also, we have seven year old twins that also bring me tremendous joy, and my parents, and I think that in general, authentic relationships. I have very little patience for, or interest in, the kind of superficial chit chat that doesn’t mean anything. I’m interested in talking about what matters to us, the matters of our hearts and our spirits, and our lives and our dreams, and our commitments and our struggles and our work. And I love using the pain and the struggles and the wounds that we experienced as doorways towards greater self awareness, towards greater compassion, towards greater love and capacity for love. Kahlil Gibran said in “The Prophet” that the deeper sorrow is carved into the canyon of your soul, the more love you can contain, and I feel that all the sorrows of our lives give us opportunities for more love, and that’s a sourcing place for me.
Shane Metcalf: So, as somebody who has been on the front lines of an environmental and social movement led by young people, you certainly have most likely received a lot of arrows in your back, being a pioneer, and you’ve encountered a lot of resistance from people who really are entrenched in their way of thinking and think that they are doing the right thing. How do you stay connected to them? How do you stay connected from a place of love when you encounter the fierce resistance of the world?
Ocean Robbins: Well, Doctor King talked also about hating the sin and loving the sinner, and I aspire to that. I don’t always live from that, but I certainly aspire to that. And as best I can, I believe in – quoting Abraham Lincoln – “the best way to destroy an enemy is to make him or her a friend.” I believe in the fundamental goodness in people, and that however bent or buried or broken it may be, there is a spark of love and possibility and goodwill in everyone. I think there is a propensity towards demonization in our world that is profoundly destructive to the work that needs to happen. If we’re going to create real lasting change in this world, we have to realize that everyone has gifts to bring to that change, and if we want a world that works for everybody, then that process is going to have to include everybody. It’s not something that can be imposed from the outside on large numbers of people. It has to be mobilized more from a grassroots kind of perspective. So, coming from that philosophy, I seek to engage the humanity and the truth of another rather than demonizing or fearing, which doesn’t mean that I don’t demonize and fear, but I’m always looking at myself. And I’m learning to read the signals when part of my guts says, “oh, I’m not seeing this human being. I’m seeing my own fear or reactivity.” And if that happens, I’ve got to take a look at where that comes from in me, and what work I need to do to be authentic in relationship to this person.
Shane Metcalf: Now, since the beginning of your engagement with your work, what have you seen change in the environmental movement?
Ocean: Well, in 1990 when we started YES, there was Earth Day in 1990, which was actually a huge event in the environmental movement. There was a poll that found that the environmental was the first or second highest priority of anybody in the country. It was in all the media, environmental issues were very popular, all these celebrities were talking about the environment, and “save the rainforests” and “save the ozone layer” and “stop global warming,” and it was kind of a fad. There were “save the Earth” t-shirts and “save the whale” buttons at schools, and there were all these cliques and groups. There were the surfers, and there were the jocks, and there were the hippies, and there were the environmentalists. It was another clique, another group, and we used to say as we were traveling in schools that that was very scary, because the environment wasn’t a fad and if we treated it like a fad, it was going to die like a fad, and we might all die with it. Sadly, that kind of came to pass, and by the mid 90’s, the environment wasn’t on the top of a lot of people’s minds, and if really dropped with our current presidency in the United States. It dropped way down in people’s consciousness, and then interestingly in the last few years, there’s been this resurgence of environmental awareness and environmental concern. We have the realities of global warming that are becoming quite conclusive in the scientific community, and now the media is acknowledging it, and even President Bush is acknowledging it, and so it’s become fact that we are in somewhat of a crisis when it comes to global warming that is acknowledged by larger and larger numbers of people. Combine that with the price of gasoline and the instability militarily that comes from dependency on Middle Eastern oil, and you have very unlikely allies and you’ve got to get off this stuff. We’ve got to conserve our fuel. We’ve got to shift to other forms of fueling our economy, and it’s none too soon to be making those shifts, because the Earth is going to depend on it if we’re going to have a livable world in a century. So, I feel that there is a resurgence of the environmental movement in this country, which gives me a lot of hope, but at the same time I’ve seen it come and go before, and I just hope we can take advantage of this wave to actually get something done.
Shane Metcalf: My name is Shane Metcalf, and we’re sitting with Ocean Robbins. You can visit Ocean’s website at yesworld.org. We’re going to take a quick break, and we’ll be back right after these messages.
Shane Metcalf: Welcome back to “A Taste of Sex.” My name is Shane Metcalf, and we’re sitting with Ocean Robbins. Ocean, earlier I’d mentioned that you’re a transformational activist. Can you say a few words about what’s different about being a transformational activist than just an activist?
Ocean Robbins: There’s a notion that activists are trying to create change, trying to get us from point A to point B, trying to save rainforests, trying to change lifestyles, trying to stop global warming, trying to create social justice, trying to create jobs with living wages – all kinds of things that different people work on or are committed to is activism. Transformational activists may be working for those same things, but they’re also saying, “how do we have a shift in consciousness that will facilitate sustaining the change?” As Einstein said, we can’t solve a problem on the level on which it was created, we have to rise to the next level. So what is that next level? Transformational activism says that we are connected to the world we wish to change and in fact the change has to start or has to be simultaneously taking place externally and internally. So how do we be that change we’re trying to create? And transformational activism is about integrity all the way through, so there’s a congruency. For example, we see a lot of sustainability activists who are working to create sustainability with the Earth, but they’re treating their bodies like crap, and they’re working themselves to death, and then they burn out. And then they’re not in the movement anymore. And that happens a lot with young folks. So how do we be sustainable ourselves? If we’re looking at how to create a thriving and sustainable way of life for all, then that starts with how we thrive. What does sustainability look like in our own lives, and what does justice look like in our own lives? Are we disowning parts of ourselves that need attention, and need love and care? Are we marginalizing parts of our own consciousness that are important for us to embrace into our greater wholeness if we’re to have all of our powers activated on behalf of what we love and are committed to? So there’s a sense of self awareness and integration and wholeness that must be present, and inner work that must be present if we’re to create the change we want in the world. What I love about that kind of congruency is that it’s a lot more fun, because we’re not just doing something for someone out there. And to be honest, I’m kind of sick of people who are just trying to change everything out there in the world, as if the world needs their paternalistic savior. We have to source in a way that helps us to be healthy and us to be conscious of how the work lies in us and why we’re motivated to do what we do. Are we motivated because we want to fix things, we want to save someone from their problems, or are we motivated because we love, because it’s in our spirit, because it’s in our dreams, because this is something that we do for us? I’m in a place in my life where I’m realizing that a lot of what I do for the world will only have the impact I intend. If it comes from my soul, and my dreams and my commitments, and if I’m trying to save somebody, they’re going to feel marginalized and disrespected in that process.
Shane Metcalf: So what’s your message to someone who is kind of on the fence about whether or not to go green, whether or not to buy organic, to build their home with sustainable materials? What’s your message about that this can actually be a pleasurable activity? Because I think that a lot of people, when they think of environmentalism, they think, “oh, we’re going to have to tighten the belt,” and it’s actually about scarcity and a lower standard of life. So how do you communicate to them, to actually have them understand that that’s not what it’s about?
Ocean Robbins: Sometimes it can be. Thoreau said, “I make myself rich by making my wants few,” so there is a sense of fulfillment and joy and richness and beauty that can come from living more simply than a lot of people do in the United States today. I mean, we work more hours and have less free time than at any time in the history of this country, and people have less savings that at any time in the history of this country. So, I’m a big advocate for frugality and for detaching ourselves from the commercialized wants – the sense of having to have all this stuff in order to be happy. At the same time, what will really fulfill us? What will really help us to be happy and well, what will help us to be thriving in our lives? I think we should have that as long as we can know the difference between wants and needs, and as long as we can know what will really serve what we’re about, and what will just temporarily fill some gap of feeling powerless or feeling helpless, or some internalized longing that didn’t really come from our own souls and our own natures, but came from medicine avenue. That said, there are tremendous breakthroughs is sustainable living, and recycling is getting easier and easier, and more and more things are being recycled. We can buy organic foods that are fresher and more delicious at farmer’s markets. It does cost more. Everyone has to make their own choices about what they can afford and what they can do, but the reality is that in the long run, a healthier lifestyle is going to save medical costs, it’s going to save time lost from work, it’s going to lead to a healthier, longer life. There’s real financial value to that too, not to mention more quality of life among the way. So if we can take care of our bodies and live in a healthy home with non-toxic surroundings, if we can eat more healthy food and eat more organic food, that’s going to translate into direct economic benefit.
Shane Metcalf: So what, in addition to smart home shopping and food choices, are some of the solutions that really turn you on, that you are really excited about and think have the ability to gain traction?
Ocean Robbins: I think that a plant based diet is an important thing to include in the conversation, and I distinguish that from veganism or vegetarianism. I’m not opposed to those, but I don’t think we need another “ism”. I do think that we need to take a look at how we eat, and the reality is that it takes way more resources to produce animal based foods. That’s even true with organic products. The price of organic grain is skyrocketing right now in the United States, since there is so much consumption of organic meat, and they have to feed organic grain to those animals to have it be called organic meat. So everyone’s having to pay more, because there are more and more people eating organic meat. It takes sixteen pounds of grain to make a pound of beef, so if you’re going to feed a cow a bunch of organic grain, that’s a lot of waste going on right there. So when we look at those realities, and we look at the fact that that’s driving the price up, we’ve got to say, “OK, maybe if more people ate more plant based, we could afford more food for everybody.” If the United States reduced its beef consumption by 10%, we’d free up enough grain to feed all the 16 million people dying of hunger this year. So that’s one that I’m passionate about, because I think it’s a strategic leverage point that can have a huge impact in a way that helps our health, because eating less animal products is generally healthier. The average vegetarian lives seven years longer in the United States. As well, I am passionate about social justice and how that links with environmental issues, and how we can take a stand for things that are these acupuncture points that send out ripples across the spectrum. There’s this notion that jobs are on one side, or that local poor communities are on one side, and the environment’s on the other on some issues. That’s a deeply divisive perspective, and the reality is that communities of color and communities of low income are the most impacted by environmental problems. And they have the most to gain. Most toxic waste sites are in communities of color. A lot of the cancers that come from environmental pollution are hitting communities of color. Global warning – witness Hurricane Katrina – is most impacting communities of color and lower income communities. So as we look to mobilize an environmental movement in this country, we need to make sure that we’re engaging the communities that are most impacted on their terms. That’s not to say a bunch of white folks should be going into New Orleans and say, “hey, come join our movement!” No, we need to listen and learn and engage and grow with people. As our movement becomes more diverse, it grows much more powerful.
Shane Metcalf: What do you see at the biggest challenge facing our generation, facing young people today – the biggest road block to us stepping up to the plate and understanding the role that we will play in the 21st century?
Ocean Robbins: Well, it’s sometimes a failure of imagination. I think that people can come to accept the status quo. There are experiments where they keep an animal in a cage for so long, and then they open the cage and the animal doesn’t leave because it’s accepted its fate and gotten so used to it. Sometimes I think our spirits are a bit like that. I think we get caged in by whatever wounds or experiences we’ve had that have shut us down, and then we stop trying. To know that it’s possible to live a life of love and beauty and contribution that’s joyous, that’s thriving, and that makes a difference is something that a lot of folks don’t really believe in their heart of hearts. So to awaken that sense of possibility - that we deserve to live in harmony with the earth and harmony with our own rhythms, that we deserve to be happy and well and nourished and thriving, and so does the earth – is one of those things that you have to have that reality awakened in them. And again, it’s by example. I think that if we can live that, then other folks will be inspired by it. So that’s why my challenge to each one of us is, where does our work lie in learning to live our purpose and our contribution in this world?
Shane Metcalf: Given that our generation is one of the first generations to grow up in a virtual world where we are subsumed by technology – most of us are on Facebook, on iPods, and it’s a very digital world, and often I hear people think, “oh, this generation is so disconnected from human interaction – what role do you see the virtual connection playing in helping people awaken their imaginations?
Ocean Robbins: It’s spectacular how we are connected to people on the other side of the world instantly, through email, even through videoconferencing today. It enables a level of connectivity that’s totally unprecedented. So more and more I think young people can identify as global citizens in a way that past generations could not. We can have friends all over the world. That opens a tremendous opportunity for awareness of what’s going on in the world, and the capacity to become friends with people on the other side of divides. I mean, there are email exchanges between Iranians and Americans. Their governments can’t stop that. As much as they might want us to fear each other, they can’t stop that. So there’s a lot of hope to me in that technology can be a bridger and a connector. And also we can learn at our fingertips unlimited information at any moment, with the world wide web and the ability to search for information. So young people can be a lot more informed about the issues that matter to them. There’s an old quote, I think that’s from Margaret Mead, that “nothing is more powerful than an informed and aroused public,” and I think we have the capacity to be tremendously informed today. If we can also be aroused in our powers and our commitments, then we can create some serious change in this world.
Shane Metcalf: So, if you had an audience of a hundred young people who came from a background without an environmental awareness, without a passion and drive to change the world, what would you tell them? What would you communicate to them? And might I say also, very cynical and growing up on irony, and this memory of the 60’s that’s been pushed upon us, and so we think, “oh well, we saw our parents try to change the world and that didn’t work, so what’s going to be different this time? I’m going to just go and play my video games and get a high paying job.”
Ocean Robbins: Sure. That’s basically the reality of high school students in America today. We’ve traveled the country speaking to a lot of people with that very task, and the reality is that it’s challenging to talk to folks who are not already lit and engaged. I’ve sometimes felt like we were sprinkling seeds from an airplane. I’m sure some of them sprouted, but they sprouted because the soil was there, and somebody tended and weeded that space afterwards too. You can’t just transform somebody with words. But you can speak your truth and live that example, and perhaps touch somebody’s heart in the process, if they’re ready to be touched. And that’s up to each individual. So I think the people we reached, that says more about them than us, to be honest, although I’m grateful that we reached a lot of people. That said, I would say that with such an audience, one of the key things is humor. We’ve got to be able to make fun of ourselves. If you don’t have a sense of humor it’s just not funny. We have to create that sense of play, so we would always use skits, and poetry, and spoken word and make it playful, make it interesting, make it engaging.
Shane Metcalf: And might I say, “sexy.”
Ocean Robbins: Yeah, absolutely. It’s got to be sexy if it’s going to engage folks. We don’t want to just be dour, dull, all “go help everybody else at your own expense.” Most people don’t feel privileged. Even people who are really reach don’t feel privileged. For the most part, most people feel like they’ve had to struggle a lot with life, and a lot of people resent that. So, how do we engage people’s desire for self interest? The reality is that making a difference is really cool, it’s really fun and sexy, and it enables us to have a sense of self esteem and self confidence and enthusiasm about life, because I think it’s actually a human need to feel a sense of contribution. If we can tap that need and help folks feel that, It’s really great. And there are social benefits to being around other folks who are lit with a sense of contribution and passion for making a difference. It’s nice to hang out with folks who are up to something in the world, rather than folks who are cynical and dour.
Shane Metcalf: Thank you very much, Ocean.
Ocean Robbins: Thank you.
Shane Metcalf: Thanks for joining us on “A Taste of Sex: Guest Speaker Interviews.” Go to personallifemedia.com for transcripts, or check out our other podcasts: a reality audio show that peeks into the lives of One Taste members, or the recordings from out Bi-monthly erotic open mike night. If you have comments or questions about the material in this show, post to our online chat board at onetaste.us. We welcome you to our conversations. Thanks for joining us. This is Shane Metcalf.