In 1997, a young woman impulsively climbed a tree in protest of excessive logging of old-growth timber. By the time she climbed back down over two years later, she had become an international face of the Environmental movement.
In this week's podcast, Chris speaks with Julia Butterfly Hill about her journey: what led her to climb that tree and how she dealt with the flood of fame and notoriety that followed. More than anything else, Julia views the experience as an example of the ability to make a difference that lies within each of us.
In a society in which many feel increasingly dis-empowered by increasing wealth inequality, multiplying regulations, eroding civil liberty and growing corporatization, financialization and centralization — Julia's message is that each of us has more agency, and more ability to shape our destiny, than we often realize. And it's her strong hope that as the escalating costs of society's misdirections mount, ordinary people will become increasingly courageous in exerting their extraordinary power. For in the end, that's what's going to ultimately effect change at the top — as well as happiness within each of us:
I have to acknowledge that there was a movement of tree-sitting before me. So I did not just come into a zone of nothing. I do believe that the garden had been prepared for my action to flourish. If I had done it 20 years earlier or 20 years later, I do not really know what the results would be. I'm clear, though, that because a moment had been working and building and working and building: that was a part of my success. I believe part of the success, too, is that most people remember a childhood moment where they had a tree fort or wanted one, so it taps into that part of us. And also, I think there is something about the hero’s journey too.
I really do see so much in people. The desire to have something worthy of giving our lives to; because we give our lives to so much that really is not worthy of it. And I think even if people are not completely conscious of that, their spirits, their hearts, their souls feel it. And that is why we turn to self-medicating and numbing ourselves with shopping, over-consumption, movies, television, drugs, alcohol, and all these things we do. Because there is something deep within us, even if we do not recognize it and cannot name it, that wants to have something worth giving our lives to. So something powerful about that arc of what takes the ordinary and makes it become extraordinary.
I tell people the only thing extraordinary means is "extra ordinary". Extraordinary people are ordinary people who come up against something that calls out their greatness. And they choose to say yes to that calling, even if they do not know where it is going to lead them or how it is going to end. But they cannot choose to walk away. I call it the 'choiceless' choice. We could choose to not say anything. We could choose to walk away. But to do that would kill off a piece of ourselves. So even though we could say 'no', we have to say 'yes'. And there is something about having something deeply meaningful to say 'yes' to give our lives to.
The final thing that I think also resonated for people is there are so many people who care deeply about this planet, its beauty. I mean, that's part of the discussion. Let's set aside even science, the environment, jobs or anything. Pretty much, we live on this absolutely jaw-droppingly beautiful planet. And everything that is unsustainable is also really ugly. Even from an artist’s view, you cannot argue that the Tar Sands extraction in Canada is pretty. I don't know a single person who would go Oh, that's nice! When you see a beautiful ancient forest and then it looks like a bomb has been dropped off in it — there's no one that can say That's pretty!.
So there's a movement of people — regardless of exactly our view and our bend on economics, science, policy, whatever — that appreciates beauty and wants to see that beauty protected, and recognizes the value of living on a healthy and beautiful planet. And our voices are not heard in the mainstream. And I feel like my action, in many ways, became the voice for the voiceless all over the world because it did make it into the mainstream conversation.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Julia (53m:44s):
Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson. One narrative that is repeated in ways both large and small on a daily basis in our culture, especially the United States, is that an individual has no power. Corporations and the state have all the power. And that is reflected in everything from Supreme Court decisions or to the overt militarization of local police forces, you name it. So what is any one person to do if they feel deep within their gut or their heart that something really ought to be done about all of this?
Well today I bring you a story of direct activism and resistance by an individual that not only made a difference, but continues to make a difference. On December 10, 1997, a 23-year-old woman named Julia Butterfly Hill ascended to the top of a 180 foot, 15 hundred year old redwood tree in California that was slated to be cut down by the Pacific Lumber Company. Just over two years later, she climbed down from that tree. And that tree and three surrounding acres have been saved from clear cutting. But the larger victory was in the message of hope and empowerment that sprang from her resistance. Quite luckily, she has come to my town for an event. And even more fortunately, she has been staying in our guest room. So I have had the chance to meet her. Welcome Julia, it is a real pleasure to meet you.
Julia Butterfly Hill: Thank you so much, great to be with you.
Chris Martenson: So how in the world did you end up in a tree?
Julie Butterfly Hill: It is so interesting because I can look back and every step in my life led me to the tree. And it is so great for me now to see that because I realize that everything in our life can serve us in whatever commitments that we have. Even things that we think might be wrong or bad can actually serve us.
I was raised with a traveling preacher for a father. We lived in a 31-foot camping trailer with five people, extremely poor, two brothers, no sisters, played outside a lot, and that was my playground. So I was raised to appreciate nature. But with a very strict religious father, I was more taught that we are here to worship the creator, not the creation. And yet every time I was out in nature is when I would feel the most sensitive, sacred—much, much deeper than when I was in church. So that was my upbringing, raised really poor. I went into college and majored in business because I did not want to deal with the shame that I had dealt with being raised poor in America. And I was very successful in business.
And then in 1996, I had a car wreck. I was hit by a drunk driver. And the steering wheel of the car went into my skull. And I lost my short term memory and a huge amount of motor skills. It took almost a year of very intensive physical and cognitive therapy to recover from that wreck. And during that wreck, I started looking at what is the difference between real value and perceived value because I had been made to feel ashamed as a poor child growing up. And then I was an all American success story. Hard work, raised myself up by my boot straps, and made something of myself. We love that story, especially in the United States of America. But then after the wreck, I actually stuttered when I talked because my short term memory was so damaged. I would forget what I was saying while I was saying it.
So all of a sudden, I went from being a drain upon society, to a success story, to being a drain upon society again. And yet, who I was as a person had not changed. I mean, of course I changed some as I grew up. At my core, I was still Julia. Yet in society’s eyes, I was changing according to how much I could produce, really. And that made me go, "Well there is a difference between real value and perceived value." And we have a society that is based on perceived value. And after going to through a very intense experience like that, I realized I wanted to go find something of real value. What is a deeper purpose for me to be here? And that is what started me on a journey that eventually led me to the redwoods.
Chris Martenson: So this search for real value, you found something that called you. So take us to the moment. How did you end up—there must have been a moment when you were harnessing up and there was equipment involved and it was probably dark out and there was a little edginess to the whole thing, somehow—take us to that moment. How did you experience—when you started going up that tree, what were you feeling? Did you have any idea you would be up there for more than two years?
Julia Butterfly Hill: Thank goodness I did not know what was coming. I tell you if I had seen what was coming I would have laughed. Then I would have screamed. And then I would have ran back down the mountain. And luckily, life does not do that to us. Even when we feel like we are being completely overwhelmed with something, which I have now experienced many times in my life. What my life has taught me is that even if something is overwhelming, it can actually serve our capacity to grow and to do even greater things, even if at first it feels like it is insurmountable. And often times, our largest obstacle is what is in our mind, not the external obstacles. And yes, external obstacles are very real and we do have to deal with them in the current structures and paradigms that we live in that are highly destructive. They are very real obstacles that we have to face. And at the same time, the greatest difference comes with how we then think about and respond to whatever obstacle shows up.
So luckily, I did not see what was coming because I only planned on between there for two to three weeks to a month max and then it turned into two years and eight days. So my mind was prepared for two weeks to a month.
I ended up climbing up in the worst winter in recorded history of California. I ended up going through the company trying to kill me. I ended up going through sleep deprivation because the company actually surrounded me with security guards, flood lights, and cut off my supplies for ten days to try to starve me down. And then two days into it started blowing very, very loud air horns about every 15 minutes so I could not sleep all through the night and the day. So for eight days I did not sleep. And had to bear witness to beautiful forest being destroyed. And that was breaking my heart. And in our normal life, when something happens that we do not like or we are not comfortable with, we go shopping, we go out to eat, go drink with friends, go to the movies, or we turn on the television. We have all of these ways of shutting down and numbing to things that hurt us. But I could not do that. So even that was something that nearly took me down.
That moment where I was hooking up to the tree for the first time, it was actually my very first time I had ever climbed that way.
Chris Martenson: With ascenders, I assume?
Julia Butterfly Hill: Yeah, well we did not even have ascenders. We did not have the money for that. We used Prusik knots.
Chris Martenson: Okay, old school.
Julia Butterfly Hill: Old school! I tell people I now have a deeper affinity with an inch worm because that is really what you do. You just inch your way up. But I had no formal training. It was at the base of the tree, they said, "This is a Prusik knot. This is how you tie it. This is how you move it. That is how you climb." It took ten minutes. That was my training. So about 75 feet off the ground I made the mistake. They said, "Do not look down." [Laughs] And I made the mistake and looked down. "Ohhhh!" So actually I just closed my eyes and put my forehead right up against the tree and just allowed myself to become one with the tree. And I felt my energy like going down the trunk, all the way down into the roots. And it helped ground me. And then I just stayed focused on that trunk all the way up.
People all the time say, "Were you afraid of heights?" I am like, "Yeah, in the beginning. I did not know I was." Seventy-five feet off the ground dangling from a rope the size of my thumb by ropes the width of a pencil, I had a moment of, "Oh my god, what am I doing?" And then I had more than one moment like that afterwards.
But I have found in my life that if we choose to care enough about something, our care will access our courage. And our courage will give us access to do things that our mind would otherwise say is not possible.
Chris Martenson: Or that we will not do. Now let us talk about direct action. This is fairly direct. Why take that route? Were other avenues closed off at that point in time? By the time we are seeing direction action, it feels desperate in some way?
Julia Butterfly Hill: Well it is a valid point. I mean people do not risk their freedom or their life as the first option. So direct action is never the first option. Whenever we see direct action happening, what we are actually seeing is that all other systems are failing. We see that governments are failing in their responsibility to uphold and protect the public trust. Corporations are failing in their responsibility to make sure that they are producing goods and services that do actually benefit society in a very real way, not benefit some at the expense of others. And consumers are failing in their responsibility to pay attention to their choices, what they are buying, and who and what is being impacted by what they buy and what they do with it afterwards.
So yes, direct action, whenever we see it anywhere, no matter if we say, "Oh, that person is a radical." What they are actually showing us is how radically out of balance our world is that someone would feel forced to risk their freedom and potentially their life because something is so deeply out of balance.
Chris Martenson: As an aside, a framing, I have held for a long time that my country is trying to convince me that terrorism is this very real thing that exists on a daily basis. And my experience in understanding the world is by the time you see terrorism, it means that the so called terrorist has no other recourse.
Julia Butterfly Hill: Right.
Chris Martenson: That is the last act of somebody who has no other hope, no other avenues. It is corned animal stage. And so much of what I see going on in our larger world is requiring us to get into cornered animal stage. There are many things that when they get wiped out they are gone. By any humanly useful timeframe. If we take an aquifer that takes ten thousand years to recharge, and suck it dry, it is gone.
Julia Butterfly Hill: Right.
Chris Martenson: And so in your case, you were looking at a grove of trees that Pacific Lumber Company owned. And they were just clear cutting? What were they doing?
Julia Butterfly Hill: Well the deeper issue was that 97 percent of our original redwoods are gone. And that 97 percent mostly has been logged in the last 100 years. So the logging began 150 years ago. But 100 years ago, the technology advanced in such a way that the capacity to cut them down became at light speed. So we are talking about trees that are two to three thousand years old, 97 percent of them gone in 100 years. We cannot get that back. And the fact that they are still logging only three percent left, the fact that they are cutting on very steep hillsides that cause mudslides that destroy habitat for critical and endangered species and also destroy people’s very homes, lives, and livelihood. The fact that they go in after they clear cut and they light the clear cuts on fire with diesel fuel or with napalm. And forests are more than just trees. They are plants, animals, and microorganisms in the soil. When you dump that much toxicity onto a piece of land, there are no microorganisms in the soil left. The entire ecosystem is destroyed. And that is what really spurred me into wanting to do something.
It was so interesting. When I was in the tree and debating the public relations people for Maxam Corporation owned Pacific Lumber, they loved to say, "For those radical activists, enough is never enough." And I was like, "You guys got 97 percent. When is enough enough for you?" Right? "We are asking for three percent. We are not even asking for 33 percent. We are asking for three percent. When is enough enough for you?" That is why we are forced to take to the trees. Not only to try and protect little scraps of them, but more to try and get it out into the mainstream consciousness that an issue that is quite dire is actually happening.
When 97 percent of something is gone, it is on the verge of being gone forever. And we do not have the capacity even with all of our scientific knowledge, we do not even have the capacity to scratch the surface of the consequences of our actions that are causing this mass extinction. We are starting to see the consequences. But we are causing such a major imbalance that we are just getting a tiny, tiny view into the real impact, the domino effect of wiping out species, destroying ecosystems, and pretending as if that does not have any impact on us.
Chris Martenson: Indeed. Now, there was something about your actions. There have been a lot of actions. I mean people put themselves in harm’s way. People have died. Green Peace takes very aggressive action a lot. But something about your efforts captured the imagination. We see that reflected all over the place, right? So, you have a song written about you by Phish. You are the lyrics of some Red Hot Chili Peppers tunes. You were on Penn and Teller. There is a Simpson’s episode, which I believe is Lisa the Tree Hugger, right?
Julia Butterfly Hill: Right. I really do love that Simpson’s episode. My friends videotaped it and showed it to me. And I do not know how long it has been since I laughed that hard. It was so funny. It really did, the story made it into popular culture, not only in the United States, but all over the world.
Chris Martenson: All over the world, why was that?
Julia Butterfly Hill: It is hard to tell. First of all, I have to acknowledge that there was a movement of tree sitting before me. So I did not just come into a zone of nothing. I do believe that the garden had been prepared for my action to flourish. If I had done it 20 years earlier or 20 years later, I do not really know the results. I am clear though that because a movement had been working and building and working and building, that was a part of the success. I believe part of the success is most people remember a childhood moment where they had a tree fort or wanted one. So it taps into that part of us. And also, I think there is something about the hero’s journey too.
I really do see so much in people this desire to have something worthy of giving our lives to, because we give our lives to so much that really is not worthy of it. And I think even if people are not completely conscious of that, their spirits, their hearts, their souls feel it. And that is why we turn to self-medicating and numbing ourselves with shopping, overconsumption, movies, television, drugs, alcohol, and all these things we do. Because there is something deep within us, even if we do not recognize it and cannot name it, that wants to have something worth giving our lives to. So there's something powerful about that arc of what takes ordinary and makes it become extraordinary.
I tell people the only thing "extraordinary" means is "extra ordinary." Extraordinary people are ordinary people who come up against something that calls out their greatness. And they choose to say "yes" to that calling even if they do not know where it is going to lead them or how it is going to end, but they cannot choose to walk away. I call it the choiceless choice—that we could choose to not say anything. We could choose to walk away. But to do that would kill off a piece of ourselves. So even though we could say no, we have to say yes. And there is something about having something deeply meaningful to say yes to to give our lives to.
The final thing that I think also resonated for people is there are so many people who care deeply about this planet, its beauty. I mean that is part of the discussion. Let us set aside even science, environmental jobs or anything. Pretty much, we live on this absolutely jaw dropping beautiful planet. And everything that is unsustainable is also really ugly. So even from an artist’s view, you cannot argue that the tar sands extraction in Canada is pretty. I do not know a single person who would go, "oh that is nice."
When you see a beautiful ancient forest and then it looks like a bomb has been dropped off in it. There is no one that can say that is pretty. So there is just movement of people regardless of exactly our view and our bend on economics, science, policy, whatever that appreciates beauty and wants to see that beauty protected and recognizes the value of living on a healthy and beautiful planet. And our voices are not heard in the mainstream. And I feel like my action, in many ways, became the voice for the voiceless all over the world because it did make it into the mainstream conversation.
Chris Martenson: This concept of living with beauty is important to me because I have a judgment that it is something we have lost, right? So when I look at old architecture, which I am defining as at least 200 years old. But when I go to Paris say, people built extraordinary things with an eye for the beauty of it in a time that they did not have good solid steel to work with, necessarily, and oil to help the thing along. Just with muscle labor and fairly crude implements fashioning these extraordinarily beautiful things.
And so some of my most spiritual moments have been in places like Yosemite. And it is easy for me to appreciate Yosemite because it is on a scale that on a human grabs me. Awe inspiring, but not so overwhelming like the Grand Canyon. But if I shrink down a little bit the complexity and the beauty that exists in an old mycorrhizal formation in a subsoil of an old growth forest is extraordinary, what little bit I know about it. And being in the presence of old growth trees is really powerful for me. And I think it is for almost everybody. And the idea that we are turning that into fence boards would be like taking Yosemite and turning it into gravel for driveways in the next subdivision in Las Vegas.
Julia Butterfly Hill: Right.
Chris Martenson: I think we would consider that some sort of a crime. But a crime, you are suggesting, against something that is really deep within us, which is that we are here to live around beauty and we are destroying that beauty. And we are not actually even having a conversation about that.
Julia Butterfly Hill: Right.
Chris Martenson: It gets chunked into "radical" versus "progress." Is that the argument? And it is not even the debate we should be having, is it?
Julia Butterfly Hill: For me it is not. I mean it is a crisis for me. It is a spiritual crisis. It is a lack of depth of understanding. It is a crisis. It is this loss of beauty. I mean it is just like—I think sometimes we make it too complicated. When you break it down to its most core elements, it is actually not that complicated. I think part of our challenge in making a difference in the world today is how to get through all of the noise of complication and return back to the beauty of simplicity.
Chris Martenson: I think that is part of what you inspired in people in seeing that. It was worldwide. And so the tree you were sitting in, named Luna, is still sitting there the last I checked online, right?
Julia Butterfly Hill: Yeah.
Chris Martenson: It is still there and a few acres around it, right?
Julia Butterfly Hill: Yeah.
Chris Martenson: But the real victory was the fact that since then (it has been 14 years since) people still want to know about this story. And they are still talking. And you are still able to reach people and communicate with them about these topics.
Julia Butterfly Hill: It has been phenomenal, including in ways I never would have imagined. And it also reminds me (and I share the message constantly) that we cannot know the ripples of our actions, positive or negative. Because I have had people come up to me, like, a woman—shortly after I came down from Luna actually—who had been diagnosed with cancer and told she had six months max to live and she needed to get her life in order. And I do not remember the exact form of cancer. But she was given six months. You better get your life in order. And so when the doctors told her she was going to die, she began dying. She happened to live in one of the areas where I was on the radio all the time and going through what turned out to be the worst winter in recorded history of California, a company trying to kill me, and all these different things.
And I was just sharing authentically—which is just how I do everything—about my journey, my experience, what I was learning, what was horrifying, what was beautiful, everything. And she came to me at this event, I guess about six months to a year after I came down, and she said, "The doctors told me I was going to do and so I started dying. Then I heard your voice on the radio. And I listened to you and what you were going through and how you transformed your reaction to your experience. And one day I realized that if you could do that then I had the potential to change the death sentence the doctor had given me." And this was over two years after she had been told "you have six months to live" and she was in remission.
And you do not think going to live in a tree for two years is going to cause that impact. If it is true there, how much is it true in our lives that maybe even something as simple as smiling at a stranger on the corner could change their life. We do not know. And somehow this story continues to live on because it speaks to something deep within us that, whether we like it or not, (I think sometimes we do not) we are all connected. And that connection is profound. That connection is vital. And us remembering that connection is deeply interwoven with whether we get to continue on this planet as a species or not.
Chris Martenson: I started this podcast with this idea that I think is marketed well in this country that a person has no power, cannot really make a difference. Is that true?
Julie Butterfly Hill: It is so funny that you ask that question. Because so many times people come up to me and say two things. "Thank you Julia for doing that action. I never could have done it." And I remind people, well neither could have I. On December 10, 1997, I was not the girl who is the woman I am today. In my mind, that was not doable. So when people tell me "I never could have done that," I am like "yes, and neither could have I. And so therefore, how often do you hold yourself back because you think you cannot do something versus trying it out anyway?"
Then number two, people always come up to me and "say thank you Julia for showing us that one person can make the difference." And I started thinking about it and I realized, because no choice happens in a vacuum, it is not only spiritually impossible, it is scientifically impossible to make no difference. And we need to deeply get that.
It is actually impossible as a person on the planet today to make no difference, to have no impact. And so the question: "Can I make a difference?" It is a myth, it is a lie, it perpetuates a disease of disconnect. It makes sure that we are good consumers. It makes sure that we feel disempowered. When we get that every single choice makes a difference, because it is impossible to make no difference, we actually realize that seven billion of us and growing are activists. We are all actively changing the world, even if we do not see the impact of that choice.
And so the question stops being, "Can one person make a difference?" And the question then becomes, "Okay, I do make a difference. What kind of a difference do I want to make with the gift of my life? What am I committed to seeing in the world? And how can I have my life be a contribution to that?" So it is not "can I make a difference?" It is "I do make a difference." And we need to deeply, deeply, deeply get that.
Unfortunately, in privileged societies, we are so disconnected from the impact of our choices. And one of the examples that I started using years ago that thankfully is now finally making it into the cultural conversation is: When you say you are going to throw something away, where is away? And the fact that we have that word proves how disconnected we have become because away is a place. And it is here. It might not be right in our backyard, but we all might have different houses; we share one home. There is no such thing as away. Away has people attached to it. It has places attached to it. It has animals attached to it. The fact that we think there is an "away" is a magnifying glass into how little we realize how much of a difference we truly make.
Chris Martenson: I had an experience with that when I was driving a gentleman a while back. He was from Switzerland. And he was laughing at the houses that were going up in the subdivision. And he did not have perfect English. He said, "Why do you build out of cardboard?" Because they were being made out of this press board stuff. But his deeper thought, he was just shocked by it because he could see that they were going to have to be torn down at some point. In Switzerland, there is no "away" because they do not allow it. If you have construction debris from a project in your house, you have to keep it in your yard. There is no place to put it. They do not have a dump it can go to. So people think very differently about purchases. When they buy something they are like, "I am going to have to get rid of this at some point." So A.) is it fully recyclable and if not, I do not want it. But B.) is it going to last a long time. But C.) they are not just going to willy-nilly throw some cardboard houses up because what would they do with the resulting mess afterwards, right? So it has this whole different mindset. We do have this disposable mindset.
But all you have to do is take your little fingers, go to Google, and look at the plastic in the Pacific Ocean and the destructive effects it is having on the mega fauna, but we are now discovering, on the micro fauna too. We are ingesting that plastic. And so there is no more "away." And so that means that everybody listening to this, myself, yourself, everybody has an impact with every act of consumption, every act of disposal. Those are all actions.
Julia Butterfly Hill: Yes.
Chris Martenson: So every person does make a difference.
Julia Butterfly Hill: Not only that, but my experience has also told me we need to be mindful of how our words make a difference and so do our thoughts. I want to get to the core of everything. When you talk about getting to the heart of the matter. I want to get to the heart of the matter. And actions are led by thought. So not only are actions powerful, what we say can kill off something or bring life to something or someone. The thoughts that we choose to think either give life to what we are for or give energy to what we are against. Even the subtle thoughts make a difference.
Chris Martenson: It is interesting. I consider that in the United States one of the things we are sold on a daily basis most persistently is fear.
Julia Butterfly Hill: Yes.
Chris Martenson: That is our number one internal consumption product.
Julia Butterfly Hill: Right.
Chris Martenson: And since we center around fear, we get a lot of fear. And I run into people all the time who carry a lot of fear and anxiety when statistically they are worrying about stuff that has absolutely no impact on their lives, no meaning, none whatsoever. And so what you are saying is because we choose to sell that fear and people willingly eat that fear that what we end up with is fear. We get to stew in it. It is a choice.
Julia Butterfly Hill: Yes. I mean because honestly, even if we are afraid or anxious over something that is going to impact our life, what difference is the fear and anxiousness going to make? It just makes us more fearful and more anxious. It actually contributes to the problem. It does not actually make anything any better.
I talked to you about how every so often, the way life works, sooner or later, life might pick up a shovel and knock you upside the head with it. When we get resentful, fearful, and anxious, it is like picking up the shovel and hitting ourselves back in the head with it. It does not actually pick up the shovel and use it for something constructive. It just knocks us back in the head with it. Whereas if we can shift our thoughts, we can maybe take that shovel and do something constructive with it.
Yes, fear, anxiety, apathy, cynicism, grief, rage, overwhelm, sadness, this is all just part of the human journey. But our awareness of what we are thinking and why, and how long we are thinking any particular thing actually makes a very real difference.
To be awake in the world today means you are going to have some intense feelings. The only way you are not having intense feelings is if you are shut down, or you are frozen up through whatever way—
Chris Martenson: Or a psychopath?
Julia Butterfly Hill: Yes, yes. Which you know is just—even a psychopath is the natural product of the dripping of toxins into our environment. It is like, we say we have a legal amount of toxins, X parts per million. Where do we get to the point where we accept that something that has a skull with crossbones on the container is okay? I am still wrestling with that one. There is nothing about that that seems like it is okay. But if it is true, like we are now seeing after years, and years, and years of study that polar bears are showing up with both genitalia, which never occurred before. And they are realizing that it is because of things like pesticides and chemicals moving up the food chain and becoming more and more condensed because toxins store in fatty tissue. So the toxins go into the water, go into the fish, the seal eat the fish, a little bit of toxin goes in the seal, eats another fish with a little bit of toxin, it goes in, it goes in, the polar bear gets the seal, it builds up, it builds up until after generations of this toxic buildup—even though we say it will distill, if you distill alcohol it gets stronger. You distill a tincture, it gets stronger. It does not get weaker.
So if it is true for the physical world, it is also true for the mental, emotional, and spiritual world. So I feel that if you look at it, even a psychopath as we might call it is the natural automatic responder to a huge amount of toxins in our physical, mental, and emotional environment passed down from generation to generation. It is not just some little blip. It is an indicator.
So to be awake, you are going to have these feelings unless you are shut down or you are a product of the toxins in our environment in some way. And then we have to feel those feelings. And now what? What I know, from my life anyway, is that choosing to shut down caused me a deeper sense of grief than choosing to be awake and experience the grief that goes along with it. There was something about selling out on my soul and having my life have so little meaning that I would rather have a deeper purpose to my life, to give my life to. And to deal with the grief, the rage, and all of the things that come with it than to be a part of the walking dead, which is what I was doing for a long time. My body was here, but I was not.
Chris Martenson: This is a really important topic that comes up a lot in my listener base, which is: You wake up. There is a little belief shaking going on there. A typical range of emotions tends to follow that, right? You come out of denial, a little anger, a little bargaining, a little depression, maybe some form of surrender/acceptance depending on what we want to call it. And you can repeat that cycle over and over again. But there comes a point where it is almost like riding point on the Humvee in Iraq for too many days in a row. It becomes heavy. And it is hard to remain alert to all of these insults, in part because they are exponentially increasing. There is not "fight the battle and take two years off" kind of a moment anymore, right? There is a shock doctrine out there, which is just—you've got to pick which battle you want to fight, and then good luck because there are a thousand more raging all around you.
First, do you see that in your travels and all the people you talk to and in yourself? And how do we manage the weight of the grief that comes with attending to the world?
Julia Butterfly Hill: I see it all the time in myself and in others. And the first thing we have to realize is that our technology and our access to information has grown exponentially. And our nervous system, our energy bodies, our biology actually has not evolved at the same rate. And we need to really get that because what that means is there is such a thing as "TMI."
Chris Martenson: Too much information.
Julia Butterfly Hill: There actually is such a thing. The image I use is: If you take a sponge and you soak it in dirty soapy water and then you try to clean your counters with it, you should not be shocked when you shove dirty soapy water and get smudged up countertops. They are not going to become sparkling clean. Any reasonable person would get that. But we are sponges too. And so if we fill up with too much of what is wrong, there is less capacity to hold what is right. Then we try and create clarity in our lives and in the world. It is not going to work. It is just not.
So we do have to be careful, even with important podcasts like yours, we have to be careful of how much we are taking in, how much we are taking in of the problem, and then how much we take in of the potential of solutions as well and to try and find that balance.
I am not advocating that we stick our head in the sand and be Pollyanna, "oh everything is fine." That is not what I am advocating for. But I am clear that not only with information but also with just energy and the same technology that allows your and my voice to reach all around the world is also the same technology that causes our nervous system to vibrate at a much, much higher pace.
So what we then have to do is—how do we balance living in this time in this world, getting the information we need while not getting too much information? One of the things that I advocate is it is very, very important to go out and take time to slow down and be in the other-than-human-constructed world. And I do understand it is a privilege not everyone has to go walking in the forest. But even if all you have is a city park, going and sitting with a tree and being with that tree on a regular basis, slowing down, and noticing over time that even the chaos of sirens, alarms, and cars honking, if we be with one spot over, and over, and over again, our rhythm tends to slow down with its rhythm. And it helps us, our very real biology, find a little bit of center in the chaos. It is very, very important.
Another thing that is important is to recognize the bodies that we have been given is our tool. It is our vessel. And just like a car, it is not going to run as well if we put junk in it and do not clean its lines, change the hoses and belts when necessary. The same thing with the machine of our body. What we put into it actually has a direct impact on everything including our emotions and our capacity to handle intensity. And sadly, when we are in intense moments, we tend to go towards addictive behaviors. So we will tend to eat more sugary things, more fatty things, more junk food, the very same thing that actually feeds—it feels good in the short term. It helps us feel better in the moment. But then it makes us feel worse later on. So for long-term dealing with grief, overwhelm, anxiety, fear, recognizing that what we put in the machine of our bodies does have direct (even if we are not aware of it) direct impact to how we can process the intensity of our world.
Another thing that is important for me is getting outside all the stuff that is inside. So I have friends that I actually call. And the code is: "Do you have a moment?" And what that means is I actually need to just vent and not be fixed. I need to be safe and free to be completely unedited, completely incorrect on every path or possible level. And if they are busy or they do not have the emotional bandwidth to hold that space, they tell me and I just go find another friend. But it is so helpful for me. Again, going back to our biology and our physiology that our nervous system—animals in the wild, after they are threatened in some way, if you watch them, they shake. Dogs will shake their whole body. A bird will flap its feathers. When you watch animals—and we are animals—when you watch animals in nature, when their nervous system is upset, they find a way to release the energy. And that is part of how they can handle the intensity. Well, when we do not do that in healthy ways, then we do it in unhealthy ways. Because the energy has to go somewhere.
So for me, it helps to—I do not want to be fixed. I do not want to be told it is all going to be okay. "Just think loving thoughts," just makes me want to punch you [laughs]. I just need to get that charge out of my system. And I find sometimes that when I do that in an intensity of a moment, I am less likely to be taken down as hard because I have wrung the sponge out a little bit.
Chris Martenson: Now this is really a central issue to my listeners, this idea of being very alone with this information. Let us be honest, it is not at all remotely polite to talk about real stuff that is going on, right? And there are plenty of things that if you are just mildly curious and a little bit alert of what is going on in your awareness, you can say, "What I am being told by my culture and what is actually happening are not even remotely lining up here," right?
There is all kinds of craziness out there. So for people who get that the world is—literally, I think our culture is just like a veneer for the most part. You either believe in the veneer whole heartedly or you are over here in this marginalized zone. People feel alone with this stuff. So I think there is something really important to having a network of people you can just say what is actually truly on your mind. This is what we do when we hold seminars. Honestly, when Becca, Adam, and I hold a seminar, I honestly think we could just bring the assembled 50-60 people together and just do nothing all weekend and it would still be magic because they would have this opportunity to actually talk freely. Not necessarily to vent even, but just to freely let flow what they are actually thinking, which is very heavily edited, stifled, and censored otherwise.
Julia Butterfly Hill: I tell people—since this whole conversation about global climate change started really coming super to the forefront in a lot of people’s conversation, I started to say the silver lining in the storm cloud is that the kind of crisis we are facing, peak oil, global climate change, and all these things, actually the solution mandates localization. It does not mandate bigger. We have been trying the "bigger, better, faster, now." We see the results of that process.
So we are not going to solve the crisis created by "bigger, faster, now" with "bigger, faster, now," which is what people keep trying to do. The gift hidden in the collapse in the crisis is that it actually is going to mandate localization. Now with the technologies we have today, we can build friendships and alliances with likeminded individuals all over the world if we are someone who feels alone in our community. And at the same time, I tell people we need to turn off our televisions, go out into our communities and tell a vision. And that is not "this is what is wrong with the world, that is what is wrong with the world, and this is what is wrong." There is no vision in what is wrong.
Martin Luther King wrote so many phenomenal speeches. And the most famous one is I Have a Dream. And he spoke a dream whose time had come. He spoke a dream that spoke to the hearts, souls, and minds of so many people that it compelled a shift in our world and made a huge difference because the dream was big enough and ripe enough to demand that change.
It is also important that, if we do not feel that we have that community, that we actually prioritize creating that. It is not only healthy for ourselves, it is actually what our world is going to need as all this unsustainable structure begins to crumble, because it is unsustainable. That means it has to end at some point. That is what unsustainable means. That we want to start creating the solutions before the collapse, not just wait until afterwards because it is easier to do it before the collapse, number one. Number two, if we start building what it is we want now, as the collapse comes, it can create compost instead of it just being a big mess.
I do encourage people, if they do feel alone, to find those networks of support. Actually, prioritize that as part of the work. And it seems so nuanced. "Yes, but our world is on fire." Yes, and there is only so much you can do to put out a fire as one person. Whereas if you are one person who has good gear that you have maintained, taken care of, take the time to put the mask on and the outfit on, and you go in with your buddies, you are more likely to stop the fire.
Chris Martenson: Indeed. I have had to take a number of journeys to understand how to be more effective at communicating. And the way I measure success is if somebody is taking action or if something is shifted. That is how I measure success in personal work, right? My own assessment is that I have seen a lot of people spend a lot of time in talk therapy—decades—with no shift. So I judge it unsuccessful. I have seen people spend five minutes in other modalities and have profound transformation. So I say "that works."
We know something from behavioral economics that one of the key things that is important (marketers know this) is that if you want people to take action, they have to have a sense of agency in the story. They have to have control. And if they do not have that control, they do not want to take action. They will not buy your product. They will not shift their belief structure. They will not something.
Ultimately that is what I see is marketed heavily in the American narrative right now is that you (I am pointing at you—I could point at myself) have no agency. Meaning this is all completely out of your control. "There is nothing that you can do about this," is really what the message is. But the truth is that we are making every dollar we spend as a vote for or against something. Every action we take, every time we throw something away, or every decision we make is really important. And the thing I fight the most (and I do not really allow it to spread on my website at all) is when people will raise the victim story. Because I have found that the victim mode is heavily depolarizing, de-energizing, and leads to no action. Because if there is a perpetrator and a victim, you are off the hook. It is a very powerless place to be.
There is a lot of room to feel like this is an "us" and "them" and a perpetrator and victim and all of that. But you are saying we do not have the luxury of existing in that frame of mind.
Julia Butterfly Hill: Well for me, not only do we not have the luxury, it is a miserable way to live.
Chris Martenson: So let us start with that. I think that is enough.
Julia Butterfly Hill: Just get to the heart of the matter. It is just a miserable way to live. And life is too short to spend it miserable all the time. I tell people all the time the quickest way to die is get bored. It is a fast track.
Chris Martenson: It is a guarantee.
Julia Butterfly Hill: Yeah, sooner or later we are all hitting that dead point if we are bored. So we do not get to choose birth or death. We get to choose in between. And yes, you can choose "victim" if that is what feels right to you—you have been wronged and somebody else wronged you—that is a valid point. But it is a pretty miserable way to view life. And I would much rather, even if I in a moment feel wronged, I would much rather get out of the miserable downward spiral that comes with staying attached to victim mode.
I never resonated with the "everything happens for a reason" statement, especially because I experienced a lot of violence to me growing up. And it felt actually really hurtful to me for people to say "well everything happens for a reason." What I came to in my life was no, everything happens, and the reason is what we make of it. As far as we know, we are the only species that make reason. So something happened to me. Then I can choose to become empowered or disempowered as a result. But it does not mean that that thing happened to make me stronger. Getting beaten up as a kid, there was no reason for that. It is just kids are mean sometimes and they beat you up. That is just what happened. But I can choose to be disempowered and be the victim and be like, "I did not do anything wrong. I did not deserve it. They beat me up because I was poor. That is terrible." I could have that story and within five minutes I would be sobbing, miserable, and hate life.
Or I could be like, "Wow that was a crappy thing they did to me. I am just going to choose to be more thoughtful and more passionate as a result." I feel a lot better with that second conversation.
Chris Martenson: Well speaking of between here and there, what is next for you?
Julia Butterfly Hill: I am at this amazing space in my life of the great unknown. And one of, I think, the things that challenges people is that they get freaked out by the unknown. So we will stay on the sinking ship because at least it is comfortable.
Chris Martenson: I know this ship.
Julia Butterfly Hill: We know this ship. If I jump off this ship, I might drown or get eaten by sharks. Well if you stay on the ship, you are going down so take your pick. So it is amazing how often as a human family we stay attached to really destructive behaviors and patterns in our lives. And even if it is just destroying our heart and soul. If we are doing something that is just not in alignment with what we really want to be doing. It is not awful. It is not terrible. But it is not really feeding our passion. It is not feeding our purpose. It is not feeding what we are really committed to. Even if it is just a slow leak, it leaks our energy. It leaks our joy. It leaks our sense of peace and power. And we will oftentimes stay in a leaky sinking ship versus jump and trust.
So for me, I have just really reached this place in my life where I get excited by the unknown. I remind people a magician is a magician because we do not understand how they do what they do. Which means magic and mystery can only happen in the space of the unknown. Magic and mystery does not happen on charts, graphs, or business plans. Magic and mystery only happens in the place of the unknown. And I love being in a space of awe, wonder, and reverence. I love being in that space of magic and mystery. So occasionally in my life that means I have to jump into the great unknown. And right now in my life is another one of those jumps. I am completing the cycle of my life of being Julia Butterfly Hill on tour.
I am going to focus on my health for a little while because my health has been deeply impacted by many things including touring. And just know that I am not going to try and figure out now what is next because there is no magic or mystery in that. I am actually ready to invite in the unknown again.
So I am just going to stand in this place of taking care of the personal ecology so I can bring that back up. So that when I re-emerge, the butterfly, through the cocoon process, that I will be even healthier to take on whatever is calling me and is alive for me then. So it is a great exciting time for me right now.
Chris Martenson: Fantastic! I cannot wait to see what the mystery brings to you. And some other magic will strike or it will be something completely different. Who knows? And I will know that I have made it when I get my own Simpson episode.
Julia Butterfly Hill: [Laughs] I am telling you. All of your listeners, they need to do a letter writing campaign and be like, "we want a Simpson episode!" What would the episode be on? What would be your—if they were to do a Simpson’s episode on you, what would that be about? What would it look like?
Chris Martenson: It would be: Bart opens his own fractional reserve bank and runs it completely as is and people will think, "What a parody this must be." But he could just run it like banks actually run, and nobody will believe it [laughs].
Julia Butterfly Hill: Okay. Your listeners have now heard. Time to start the letter writing campaign. Come on Simpsons!
Chris Martenson: Well thank you so much for your time. You have been very generous with it. I have really enjoyed meeting you.
Julia Butterfly Hill: Likewise, I really appreciate it. And it is teamwork. We all have a unique place on the team. And when you were just saying thank you that was just the last piece that just came present to me to remind us that we are not all meant to do the same thing. We are all meant to do what is ours to do and to bring that to the team. So thank you for doing what is yours to do on this team and for creating a space for me to bring forth part of what I do. And that is how we work towards this vision we have for the world.
Chris Martenson: All right, shake on it. All right.
Julia Butterfly Hill: We just shook.
Chris Martenson: We just shook. Because we are, we are all on a team. It takes a lot of teachers and everybody bringing their gifts. And I have a lot of gratitude that I found the courage and had the support to bring my gifts into the world. And I am very good at what I do. And that I can do this at this point in time is actually really, really special. I think that this next period of time there is a lot to be fearful about on one side of the coin. But on the other side, it is destruction and rebirth. And it is interesting to see and be part of what is that rebirth process. What is that? What is that regeneration going to be? How do I play in that? Knowing that this book is going to be written for a very, very long time after I am gone. So I am just going to have fun with what I am doing while I am here.
Julia Butterfly Hill: And hopefully have a Simpson’s episode.
Chris Martenson: Indeed. All right Julia, thank you so much.
Julia Butterfly Hill: Thank you, appreciate it.