Please note: This interview was recorded in a noisy environment, which may affect the clarity of the contributor's words.
Interviewer: Jonathan, can you give us some sense of where your engagement in environmental issues came from?
Jonathan Halperin: Sure. I think I first started doing environmental work when I was probably in grade school. We had a local newspaper recycling community that my sister and I set up at our school, and I have very clear memories of riding around in the back of the school pickup truck, collecting bundles of newspapers that people tied together; we took to get recycled and raise a little bit of money for the environment committee at the school. And I think, I mean, I grew up in New York City but in a part of the city where it was not particularly urban, so we had trees and we had raccoons, and I think I’ve always lived sort of in those two worlds, of both very much liking being out in the natural world and being a city kid from New York.
Interviewer: What are you working on at the moment or the most prominent piece of work in the last year or so?
Jonathan: We have just completed a film called Hope in a Changing Climate, which is being screened at a couple different times at COP15 in Copenhagen. It’s aired on BBC World and will air again on January 1st, with the BBC, and it’s an unusual film and a fun film, and a fun film project to work on, because it tells the story of people in different parts of the world, particularly China, Rwanda and Ethiopia, who are restoring degraded, denuded ecosystems and bringing them back to life.
So amidst all the difficulty and challenge associated with dealing with climate change, it’s a story about possibility, it’s a story about successful ways that we can address the huge challenges we face, because if you work with the ecosystems, and allow nature to do what it does best, you can address, not carbon in isolation, but you can address ecosystems, agriculture, poverty, sustainability and a whole host of other questions.
I think part of what I’ve, part of what I like to do is to work at the intersection points, at the nexus of different issues, where different things come together because that’s where it gets, you know, where the oceans hit the sand and the sand reacts to the ocean, and vice versa. And I think people in Copenhagen, are beginning, at COP15, and some political leaders, the sense that’s been talked about a lot is that integration, integration, integration; can’t deal with any of these problems in isolation. And that’s true, and if we learn from how ecosystems function in the real world, as opposed to in sort of an artificial political world, everything is integrated; it balances, and there’re storms and there’s calm, and it’s a system that works together in a holistic way.
And the other fun part of the film, in addition to that it’s stories about people succeeding at bringing back, creating value where there’s debt essentially now, is that we have put together a network of organisations around the world, quite diverse, probably about almost 50 now, in about 25 countries, who are hosting facilitated discussions and screenings of the film. So it has legs of its own, outside the box of television. So people can work with it and build on it.
Interviewer: What do you see as your role in that project? And what kind of past experience are you drawing on to make that work, make your investment in the project work?
Jonathan: My involvement has been mostly in the things not related to the specific camel work of making the film. It’s been strategy, team, comment and working with the rest of the folks involved in the project to figure out: how do we make this a package that gets the message out into the world. So that’s everything from raising funds, from sponsoring organisations, to the network, to writing the discussion guide, to working with the press, to working with the policy community, to try and explain what it is we’re doing and why we think it’s important.
Interviewer: If you’re looking one year out, five years out and ten years out, what do you anticipate filling your head, like in terms of your work and the wider environmental debate?
Jonathan: I mean I think part of what has been pretty dysfunctional in the way we’ve dealt with environmental problems in the past that’s beginning to change, is the divorce of environmental issues from economic issues. There have been a lot of myths and a lot of, sort of, conventional wisdom that hasn’t proven really to be correct. In the sense of, for example, there was, for instance, even in the United States certainly for a long time the notion was: well if you’re doing something that’s good for the environment, it’s probably bad for the economy, it’s going to cost us jobs, etc, etc.
I think what’s happening, and where I definitely see myself being involved in the next year or five, maybe ten, maybe more, is that as we understand the value of ecosystems intact – you know, as we understand that a forest can have a lot more value standing, in many instances, rather than as board feed – economics and ecology begin to merge, and that’s a game changer. And natural resource economics and environmental economics are fields that are, you know, pretty well grown now. 30 years old, that’s not very well matured, but pretty enshrined in the economics world, but there’s a whole next layer where we begin to value ecosystems for their services, for their core inherent values, and when we take the notion that people understand intuitively, which is if you’re in a motel and you have a room facing the ocean versus one facing the parking lot, the one facing the ocean probably cost you a little bit more. That’s intuitive. Everybody gets that that makes sense. But that writ large, globally, has huge implications, that there is core inherent value in the system. And if we rely on them, they will help us repair the problems that we’ve often created.
So I think that the merging, or the greater integration, of environmental value and economic value is a really rich and fun and interesting place to play.
Interviewer: The last question, deceptively simple – do you consider yourself more optimist or pessimist as we face the next ten years?
Jonathan: Optimist or pessimist? Interesting question. Let me share a story, I used to do a lot of work and live, for some years, in the Soviet Union and then became the former Soviet Union and then Russia, today, and there’s a story that’s worth sharing, I think and that I may have edited slightly. And that is: a pessimistic person in Russia is talking about how terrible everything is: prices are completely out of control, pollution has run rampant, there’s corruption in the mafia, and I can’t afford to send my kids to school anymore, I can’t buy local products – it’s just, it’s an absolute disaster – it couldn’t get any worse. To which the optimist responds, “What are you talking about? Of course it could!”
That’s a little bit of a pessimistic definition of an optimist but nonetheless an interesting story about the relationship of the two. But I think in a certain sense I’m a realistic optimist. I think we all come to our places in life with an obligation and responsibility and a gift. And the responsibility is to try and bring back and give back to the world more than you take away from it, and I think if we live that way, the potential for human beings to do good is phenomenal, just phenomenal.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a lot of real challenges and a lot of difficulties to overcome but, you know. And I guess, and in terms of being an optimist I think one of the key things that enables me to stay an optimist, in the face of difficulty, is that if we learn, which we have the capacity to do, if we have memory that we draw on to learn from the mistakes that previous cultures have made and to not repeat them – make mistakes but new and different ones – I think if we keep learning, there’s no reason not to be optimistic.