Engage in your community. Let your kids see how your work, your business, your volunteerism — whatever it is — is engaged with your community, through good times and hard times. My own research focuses on environmental equity and access. And I serve on several nonprofit boards engaged in environmental and social justice work. I share stories from this work with my daughters, who then share their own stories with me.
As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jon Christensen.
Jon Christensen teaches and conducts multidisciplinary research at UCLA focusing on equity and the environment, strategic environmental communication, and journalism, media, and storytelling. He is an adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, Luskin Center for Innovation, Department of History, and Center for Digital Humanities at UCLA. He is a journalist-in-residence at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, a founder of the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies in the IoES, and a senior fellow in UCLA’s cityLAB. He is editor of LENS Magazine, and a producer of ‘Earth Focus,’ a documentary series produced in collaboration with KCET/PBS SoCal/LinkTV and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. He is also a partner and strategic adviser at Stamen Design, a National Design Award-winning interactive design and technology firm specializing in mapping, data visualization, and strategic communications.
Jon was executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, an interdisciplinary center for research, teaching, new media, and journalism at Stanford University before coming to UCLA. He has been an environmental journalist and science writer for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Nature, High Country News, and many other newspapers, magazines, journals, and radio and television shows. Jon was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford in 2002–2003 and a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University in 2003–2004, before returning to Stanford to work on a Ph.D. in environmental history and the history of science.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up on the move. I was born in a small Minnesota college town when my parents were still in school. My dad graduated and got a job as a salesman for Procter & Gamble. We moved every few years, from Minneapolis to Seattle, back to Minneapolis, on to Cincinnati. I had to learn a new place and make a whole new set of new friends every few years. My parents got divorced and my mom married an engineer with General Electric, who took us to Paris, where they were building jet engines for Airbus, and then to Madrid, where they were building electromedical equipment. I became trilingual and came to enjoy immersing myself in cultures and languages that were not my own, where I had to make my own way and develop respect for differences. This upbringing made me feel that home is where I hang my hat. And it gave me the ability to know how to hang my hat in a lot of different, interesting places.
Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?
I spent 1989 traveling throughout Brazil as a journalist reporting on communities and the environment in a used “Bandeirante,” which is what they call old-school Toyota Land Cruisers, named after their “flag-carriers” or explorers. I learned a fourth language. And I took trips that Brazilians told me they dream of taking but rarely do, driving from Rio de Janeiro on the eastern coast out to the farthest western reaches of the Amazon. I went as far as the dirt roads went, and then got into canoes to go upriver to visit with Indigenous communities and rubber tappers. At the time, there was a lot of concern about roads, dams, and other modern development in the Amazon. I’ll never forget what an Indigenous leader told me when I asked what his community wanted most. “An all-weather road,” he answered without hesitating, to connect his community reliably to the rest of the world, so they wouldn’t be dependent on the river traders who bought their rubber cheap and sold them market goods they needed dear. They wanted to meet the rest of the world on their own terms. That reminds me to this day to never assume that I know what is best for other people.
Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?
I teach my students that communication starts with listening. And empathy is a crucial tool for understanding the different ways that people from different cultures, with different histories, in different languages think about their relationships with the environment. Empathy and listening are essential for leaders, to understand people and the world, the stories that people tell about the world, and how to shape narratives for the future.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
In the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA, faculty and students are engaged in a wide spectrum of research designed to further sustainability and get climate change under control, from engineering and the sciences to policy, law, the social sciences, humanities, and the arts and media. We opened up a Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies several years ago that works on media projects, including our collaboration with KCET, the Public Media Group of Southern California, and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, on the groundbreaking documentary series “Earth Focus.” This season, our documentaries focus on the inspiring global youth climate movement, impediments to the transition from coal to renewables in South Africa, the successful crackdown on illegal, poisonous gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon, and the emergence of a pragmatic environmental politics, what I call a “lowercase green new deal,” in a surprising state in the American West: Nevada.
Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?
Some of the tweaks that we’ve been forced to make during this global pandemic could serve us well in making our lifestyles more sustainable and addressing climate change.
First, travel less, especially by airplane. Take more meetings remotely. We miss the human interaction and visiting different places. And it is important — especially for someone as peripatetic and curious as I am. But we’ve learned how much we can get done, and also how surprisingly intimate, revealing, and productive meeting online can be as well.
Second, cook at home more, and more vegetarian. Cut down on meat, which has a much greater impact on the environment and climate, as well as the lives of animals, and your own health. I’m an omnivore, but my partner is a vegetarian, so I’m now at least 95% vegetarian. I don’t think you need to go all the way but go as far as you can.
Third, batch your online orders and don’t use next day or second day delivery unless you absolutely have to have something right away. Next day and second day delivery are much more carbon intensive.
Relax when you can. Take a walk and get some exercise. Take care of yourself. OK, that’s more than three now, but it’s a good start, and none of it too hard to do.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
- Get outdoors. Kids can learn a lot from books, media, and online. But there’s nothing like real nature. In their early years, my kids grew up at the foot of the Sierra Nevada among towering pines, bears, and coyotes. We moved to the city when they were in middle school, but it has stayed with them throughout their lives into adulthood.
- Talk about the challenges we face over dinner. Sharing meals is good. So is having deep conversations. Don’t avoid them. My daughters came home from school alarmed about the state of the world. They were learning that the world is messed up and worried about their future. They were hearing that things were increasingly hopeless. I told them, “Don’t let the bastards take your future away from you.” Yes, we face enormous challenges. But many things have also gotten better. We need to understand those paradoxical changes together, and how to use what has gotten better, such as education for women, to take on challenges, such as threats to our climate and environment.
- Support their interests and passions. Follow their lead. Don’t impose. Listen. Try to put yourself in their shoes and understand the world through their eyes. One of my daughters has ended up working in the United States Senate. The other is a social worker and climber in the American West. Both are doing essential work for sustainability in their own ways.
- Lead with your passion. Share what motivates and inspires you. Share your challenges, your failures, as well as your successes. Let them see that you continue to learn throughout your life, sometimes fail, pick yourself up, get back at it, and succeed with support from loved ones, friends, and colleagues. We don’t do any of this alone. I’ve learned this from my daughters as much as from anyone else. Learn from your kids, your students, young colleagues. They have as much to teach us as we have to offer them.
- Engage in your community. Let your kids see how your work, your business, your volunteerism — whatever it is — is engaged with your community, through good times and hard times. My own research focuses on environmental equity and access. And I serve on several nonprofit boards engaged in environmental and social justice work. I share stories from this work with my daughters, who then share their own stories with me.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
Unfortunately, short-term thinking still dominates the business world. In my view, we need more patient capital that is willing to take lower, stable economic returns over a longer period of time, in return for higher social and environmental returns. In some cases, economic opportunity zones are providing those kinds of investments. And there is mounting evidence that sustainable investment portfolios perform at least as well as, and in some cases better than, more traditional investment portfolios. I sure hope that’s true as my own portfolio is as socially and environmentally responsible as I can make it. It’s also clear that there are ways in which sustainability and care for the environment can reduce risks and costs and increase profit, by decreasing the use and emission of pollutants in production, for instance. Finally, being green also appeals to consumers, as some of my colleagues have shown in the wine industry, for example.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m grateful to Ed Marston, who was the publisher of a western regional newspaper called High Country News when I was first starting out as a young journalist. I sent Ed a story that I had written about an armed conflict between activists and authorities over a parcel of contested land in northern New Mexico. Ed wrote back saying that he wasn’t much interested in “dead-end standoffs” and he asked me a question that has stuck with me throughout my career: “What else is going on there?” In fact, there was another story unfolding there of efforts to revive a historical breed of sheep and a wool-gathering and weaving culture that tied economically beleaguered Hispanic communities closer to the surrounding public lands through a vibrant collective business, Ganados del Valle. I wrote about that story for High Country News. And it changed how I have approached stories about communities and the environment.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’m inspired by the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, DC. There an organization called Building Bridges Across the River is working to build a new park, which will span the Anacostia River. At the same time, they are very carefully and intentionally rolling out equitable community development strategies, so that people who live in the historic African American neighborhood of Anacostia are not displaced as the bridge park is built, potentially bringing gentrification to their neighborhood. In Los Angeles and across the country, a tremendous effort is underway to build parks in park-poor, low-income neighborhoods of color, in order to redress historical inequities. Access to nature and the outdoors is crucial for all of our health and well-being. We need to figure out how these investments benefit the people they are intended to benefit. That means thinking carefully and working hard to build coalitions that include builders of affordable housing, workforce development efforts, investments in childhood education, and care and respect for culture, history and art in which people recognize themselves. It’s complicated. It’s not just about building parks anymore. It’s about enabling equitable communities to develop. I’d like to see this movement succeed here in Los Angeles, where I live now, and around our country and world.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
In “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” Bob Dylan sings, “There’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all.” This a Zen-like koan that I often put to use in my own life. We all experience failures, big and small, throughout our lives. I try to recognize those failures, honor them, learn from them, and then move on, trying to find another way to turn failure into success, because failure is no success at all.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
On Twitter @the_wrangler.
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
You’re welcome. And thank you. It’s been fun. And you’ve inspired me to take some time to reflect, which is always rewarding in surprising ways.