Mountainfilm 2010: Journalist John Vaillant

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Prayer flags , worn by the wind, strung between trees just outside of Patagonia, Arizona
Prayer flags , worn by the wind, strung between trees just outside of Patagonia, Arizona (© Jay Graham /
Over the coming months, Outside will be posting interviews with adventurers, environmentalists, filmmakers, and others conducted by Mountainfilm. Many of the icons appearing at this year's festival have been featured in the pages of Outside. For more information on this year's festival, which begins on May 28, please check out Mountainfilm's Web Site.

While on assignment for Outside Magazine in the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, Vancouver-based journalist John Vaillant stumbled upon a heartbreaking story of an environmental anomaly, a 300-year old golden sitka spruce, that had been chopped down. Revered by the local indigenous tribe, the Haida Nation, who even referred to it as “Elder Spruce,” the golden sitka was an iconic feature of the region’s forests. In a region where local culture has for centuries been closely tied to the environment, Vaillant’s story highlighted the tensions of a radically changing landscape and shifting values. The story appeared in The New Yorker and was later expanded upon in Vaillant’s first book, The Golden Spruce. His next book, The Tiger, takes a serious look into what happens as wild animals are increasingly threatened by human interaction.

In both “The Golden Spruce” and “The Tiger,” you address fundamental issues about the natural order, Man’s attempts to conquer and exploit it and the havoc that ensues. Do you foresee the possibility of mankind ever peacefully co-existing with the natural environment? What has to happen to make that a reality?

I think human beings have a hard time with the status quo. Balance and stability are not our strong suits, but nor are they Nature’s. That said, “Peaceful” – that is, sustainable, co-existence – is occurring right now, but only in places where the human population, and Nature’s ability to renew itself in the face of that population’s demands, are in balance.  Such equilibrium tends only to occur at the village level, in rural areas, which is not to say it’s not possible in urban areas – I believe it is. But in order for it to happen, three things are required: a manageable population; humility, and a loving knowledge of the land. In general, all three of these criteria appear to be in short supply because, as the environmental historian, John Perlin, said so well: “Civilization has never recognized limits to its needs.”

Given the current state of the world’s population and its increasing appetite for the incredible array of things most readers of this blog already take for granted, I don’t see how such co-existence can occur on a large scale without a massive, and most likely cataclysmic, recalibration of our expectations for what the world “owes” us in terms of allowable consumption and lifestyle. This recalibration is unlikely to come about voluntarily. What may force it is when the earth bites back hard enough to get our attention, and that process has begun in earnest.

Most people convert only in the face of crisis, or government edict. Given the compromised state of most governments in the face of corporate-style capitalism, it is unlikely that our governments will impose the necessary changes. Which means we’re in the hot seat, but collectively, we can convert that into the driver’s seat.

How do you think this year’s Mountainfilm theme of species extinction plays into a larger discussion of our society and our future?
We are at a pivotal moment in terms of our relationship to the very systems that keep us alive. Extinctions are merely symptoms of a greater ill. Insofar as attention to this subject guides us toward root causes and effective, appropriate action, I think it’s valuable. The more vectors we approach this by the better.

What does the loss of biodiversity mean for the world’s human population?
It depends on the scale of time you want to use. In the short-term, very little. Most of us already live in places where the biodiversity has been radically reduced, cities being the obvious example. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where food, shelter and safety are at the top, loss of species – for most humans – is down there with ‘What color socks should I buy?’

In the long term, however, this ongoing disruption of the natural order will impact the quality of human life in more ways than we can possibly imagine because so many of the species and systems currently being lost or degraded are interdependent – acidification of the oceans and the loss of pollinating insects being two dire examples.  When you remove species, or alter the systems in which they live, weird, often unpleasant, things happen. Just look at the current collapse of Canada’s Pacific salmon fishery, which is being hastened by salmon farming.

Ultimately, the loss of biodiversity will lead to the impoverishment of our experience as humans at every level, from the practical to the spiritual. Northeast China is a good example: everything that once grew, flew, swam or walked there has been pretty much wiped out. Manchuria’s rich and intricate ecosystem (which, until recently, included tigers and leopards) has been replaced by a steadily growing number of humans who work very hard to produce basic foods on increasingly poor soil in desolate surroundings.  China is a preview.

What impact, if any, do you think showcase events such as the Mountainfilm festival can have on causes like environmentalism and social justice?
None, unless the stories, lessons and passion manifesting there can be carried into the wider world.  Events like these preach to the converted, which is important because every “congregation” needs places  where it can gather, re-energize, cross-pollinate and strategize. But it’s not enough to feel deeply or even render it powerfully in another medium. It has to penetrate the culture at large; it has to reach people who would never attend these festivals. Evangelists have already figured this out; they take it to the street, to New Guinea, to the White House.  Nature needs evangelists.

How do you see media – be it film, photography, journalism, art, etc. – serving as a catalyst for positive change?
All these media are vehicles for stories, and stories are the armatures on which we build our understanding the world. Now is a great time to be working in these media because all of them can be disseminated so far, so fast and so cheaply. Spreading the message, however fatuous or profound it may be, is what Americans seem to do best these days. In this sense, there’s never been a better time for grassroots movements. That said, there’s no substitute for direct action, and in the right hands, these media can inspire such action.

What can ordinary people do to meaningfully impact the kinds of global crises we face today such as climate change and species extinction?
Take a rigorous personal inventory: what do I have?  What do I need?  How do these tallies stack up against my neighbors’, my ethics, my educated understanding of what this planet is capable of bearing. Check your carbon footprint. Charity begins at home and so does every other virtue, and every other meaningful change.  All of us impact (and often inspire) those around us in ways we can’t fully understand or anticipate.

Summon the courage to defend what you love.  Don’t do it alone.

With a lot of talk going on currently about how to save our world, or pieces of it, what do you think are the conversations most worth sustaining?
Climate change may be the most important and useful topic because it is such a vast umbrella under which so many other niche concerns can find a place. Recognizing that climate change calls for a massive reexamination of our values and priorities – of how we live and what we do. This has to happen at every level.

Right now, Nature is inviting us to mature as a species, and addressing the myriad causes of climate change is one way to accept that invitation. If we don’t accept it, Nature will find more rigorous methods to make us focus.

The work you’ve done both as a journalist and an author has brought you face to face with some of the worst perils threatening us and our world. How do you stay motivated and optimistic?
Managing and transforming rage and sorrow is an ongoing process for me. For better or worse, it seems to be an essential part of the human condition. We happen to have been born into a period of cataclysmic  global change, and my small role appears to be to chronicle what I see. When I’m writing or researching, I feel powerful and purposeful – as if I’m engaged in the drama I am trying to render and illuminate. This may be an illusion though. I feel sometimes that merely describing is kind of a cowardly act – a luxury, and that true activism is where the rubber really meets the road. There’s a role for both, of course, and I’m not, by nature, an in-your-face kind of person. That said, I think that courage and well-informed outrage and action is what it takes to effect real change.

When things get really bad, I retreat to the long view: I think about asteroids, supervolcanos and ice ages, and take some comfort in the fact that we are a small, relatively minor event in the long and tumultuous history of this planet.  Heraclitus is helpful here: “All is flux.  Nothing is stationary.”  People struggling with this might also want to read Emma Brown’s article about Annie Proulx and the Red Desert.

The bottom line is: We and all we do are parts of Nature. Nature has given us the tools and wherewithal to manifest as we do. She sets the terms, and imposes the corollary limitations. In the end, Nature will prevail.

What cause are you most passionate about and what collective action needs to be taken to address it?
The cause I am most passionate about is encouraging my fellow humans to see Nature in a collaborative way. Unless we treat the earth as an equal partner, we are going to suffer.  As a species, we are hard-wired to embrace an “us” and “them” mentality. For hundreds of millennia, that approach to the world has kept us alive in the face of horrific threats and challenges, but lately (the past 10,000 years or so), it has done enormous damage. Today, such a provincial approach to others and to the earth threatens to radically alter life as we know it. Our collective well-being depends on the mass recognition of what we hold in common, and this is a tall order for an inherently troop- and tribe-oriented species – especially when unlimited growth is perceived as a virtue and a birthright.

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