Julia Butterfly Hill is probably one of the world’s most famous environmental activists, best known for her 738-day tree-sit in Luna, a 1,000-year-old redwood in a California forest. However, she has not become complacent. Her organization, Circle of Life, was founded in 1999 with the stated goal of inspiring, supporting and networking individuals, organizations and communities to create environmental solutions with respect for the interconnectedness of all life. Hill has further championed environmental activist causes through her public appearances, lectures and audio recordings.
Hill is the author of two books: “The Legacy of Luna: The Story of a Tree, a Woman and the Struggle to Save the Redwoods” — a biographical account of her treesitting experience — and “One Makes the Difference: Inspiring Actions that Change Our World.” In addition, she has been featured in the documentary “Tree Sit: The Art of Resistance.” She was the keynote speaker for April 21’s Earth Day festivities on campus, and she returns to Eugene for tonight’s performance with The Everyone Orchestra.
Emerald: What do the words “direct action” mean to you?
Julia Butterfly Hill: Every time we make a choice, it is a direct action on the planet and on people’s lives. And we’ve been conditioned into forgetting that. It’s about becoming aware of the fact that every time we make a choice, it has a direct action.
The problem is, in this country we’re separated from the consequences of that action that we don’t see it as a consequence of that action. So, if I use a disposable cup, it has made a direct action on energy use, on the water use, on water pollution, on raping of land. I see even in the movement that is understood as a direct action — the movement of people locking down and people doing tree sits, and those kind of things — so many unconscious choices happening within that movement. We need to reawaken to that, we need to reclaim that and we need to start looking at all the ways in which we are having a direct action on this planet and on the people on it.
Emerald: What is the connection between art and activism?
JBH: Art is about creative expression — therefore, it’s about life. The connection between art and life in all of its forms is as diverse and amazing and full of possibilities as life is. So, art and activism is about finding creative ways of expressing our connection to life. That’s what activism is about. And so often, activism becomes entrenched in anger, and frustration, and how everything’s wrong with the world, and it comes across as very negative and very self-righteous. I think the beautiful thing about art and activism is that it tends to take down those walls, it puts us on a level playing field again, and it invites people to hear what we have to say and to think in a new way.
Emerald: Will you ever sit in a tree again?
JBH: (Laughs) I sit in trees all the time. But if you’re asking if I’ll ever sit in a tree again as a form of protest, I get asked that question a lot, and I absolutely would if I thought it would help. But one of the things I’ve noticed about this media-driven culture is that it creates false realities, and even though I sat in a tree for two years and eight days, I still have to prove myself to people. If I were in it for myself, I would have come down after a hundred days. That’s when I broke the international record, and I could have come down and went to Hollywood and hung out with famous people. If I did another tree sit again, the media would just be, “Oh see, she just stopped getting press and now she wants press for herself again, so she climbed another tree.” It would end up hurting the movement instead of helping it. So I continue to remain involved in tree sits. I’ve done resupplies for tree sits, and my organization, any time we get any information from the front lines on tree sitting, we send it out to our network and let people know what’s going on.
In California, I’ve been working on a bill for years that would protect old growth as historical and cultural landmarks. We got it passed through the senate, which was a very hard thing, and now we’re working to get it passed through the assembly. And if we do, that would help a lot of tree sits, because a lot of the trees we’re sitting in are old growth, they’d be protected, and we wouldn’t have to be there any more. I’ve continued to work in various ways in being supportive of tree sits, but now I pretty much just sit in trees for myself, for my own renewal.
Emerald: How important is feminism in direct action?
JBH: I do my very best to steer clear of any word that ends in “-ism” (laughs). I think it was started as a way of trying to help us connect, but over time it has become very disconnecting. I would rephrase that word and say how important is it for women to be respected and uplifted in the movement. I think that we need balance, and I don’t look at it as we need more women and less men. We need our male allies to create a space for that balance to help exist, because currently it doesn’t.
To be a women in this world period, to even get by, is a form of activism, because there’s such an ingrained oppression for women, especially in this country. It’s about that bringing back of balance, bringing back the voice of the feminine. And the feminine exists in all life. Male and female exist in all things. It’s about bringing back the voice of the feminine. We need not only the rise of the feminine voices in women, and equality and justice for women, but we need the rise of feminine voice in our male allies as well.
Emerald: Do you think it’s possible to achieve a sustainable relationship with the Earth within a capitalist economy?
JBH: In capitalism, no. And I think that it’s important for people to realize the difference between economics and capitalism. We’ve been tricked in this society in equating them together so we strike out at economics and we’re really missing the point when we do that. I think there’s a huge difference between economics and capitalism. The problem with capitalism is that its whole structure is based on perceived value, so it’s not based in real value. And the result is that the perceived value is destroying the real value. And economics can be based in real value and it’s about creating the means of exchanging energy in a real way, in a way that acknowledges real value.
An example of that being capitalism, the gross national product, it goes up every time somebody gets cancer and has to go get treatment, it goes up every time there’s war, it goes up every time someone consumes another tank of gas. And that’s capitalism. That is a cancer. It grows purely for the sake of growing, consuming its host in the process. That’s a bad system.
We have to recognize that we are as people, just a parasite. But parasites aren’t inherently bad. Good parasites live in a symbiotic relationship with their host, and capitalism is not that way. An economics that can work that way are real value. So that would be a system that says when the water is clean and the air is clean, the value goes up, and when the air is polluted and the water is polluted, the value goes down, that solar solutions and wind solutions and things like that for meeting our energy needs versus nuclear and coal or petroleum, that’s where the real value can be based in.
Sustainability and cancer can’t work together. But a system that recognizes we live and interact with a host, and learning how to take care of that host that takes care of us, that can be done economically.
Emerald: Do you ever get exhausted by people? It seems like a lot of people want something from you, and that would be hard to deal with all the time.
JBH: It can be really exhausting. The biggest reason being because I’m more well known, it has people projecting things on me. And the reality is, I’m not more special, more important, or more bad or evil than anyone else — I’m just maybe more well known. That’s the only difference. Because I’m more well known sometimes people want things from me, or they need things from me, or they’re angry at me, and they see me like I’m a physical manifestation of what makes them angry about our world. But I don’t mean it to say I’m complaining, “Oh, poor me.” I see that this attention and energy is rare for our movement. Those of us who care about social justice, environmental justice and justice across the board, it’s not that often that we have opportunities of really bringing attention and energy to it. So I felt a sense of responsibility when that attention came my way. It’s about trying to do the best I can with that attention and energy and really use it for change. I don’t want people to just come up to me and say I’ve inspired them. I think, “Great. What have you been inspired to do?” And if someone doesn’t like what I’m doing, fine — what are you doing? That’s what I ask.
When I get exhausted, my responsibility is to take time I need to fill myself back up inside, so I am not relying on other people for my happiness, and not relying on others for my acceptance. I go inward, check myself, and go, “Am I continuing to speak and act in a way that is in line with this vision?” That’s how I work with it.
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