05/30/2013 10:00 am ET Updated Jul 30, 2013

Earth: Love It or Leave It

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Whereas Stephen Hawking famously said that future generations of earthlings will have to find a new planet if humans are to survive, psychologist Mary Pipher proposes a different solution -- let's clean up our mess here at home. In her new book, The Green Boat, Pipher argues that there is still time to save our fragile planet -- but this will involve changing our thinking and actions in significant ways.

Marilyn Wedge: "What inspired you to write the Green Boat?"

Mary Pipher:
Since childhood, I have had a long and happy love affair with the natural world. However, in 2010, during the hottest summer on record, I read McKibben's Eaarth in which he argues that we don't have fifty years to save our environment, we have ten. That book sent me deep into despair. What pulled me out of my misery was the desire to get to work. Action has always been my healing tonic. I decided to write about why it is so hard for us to act in the face of global challenges and I organized a group in my hometown to fight the Keystone XL Pipeline.

MW: "The Green Boat contains the message that there might still be time, through the decisions we make day by day, to reverse the course of disastrous global climate change. What are some of these decisions?

MP: No one knows what will happen to our planet. I don't make predictions about climate results. Rather I make a mental health argument for civic engagement. I suggest that, by becoming involved in efforts to make a difference, we can transform our fear, grief, powerless and anger into joy, a sense of community, empowerment and hope. Of course, if many of us choose to act, we are more likely to have a sustainable planet.

You identify both the global and the local environmental impact of the Keystone Pipeline: the additional carbon dioxide pollution from extracting oil from tar sands and the impact on Nebraska's water, land, and animal habitats. Did you find that Nebraskans were interested in both these issues?

MP: Nebraska is a conservative state that historically has had little interest in environmental issues. But the Keystone XL Pipeline managed to unite urban progressives and ranchers, cowboys and Indians, and business owners and poets. We connected around our geography -- the Sand Hills and the Ogallala Aquifer -- and our shared desires to protect our land and water. As Republican rancher Randy Thompson put it during a 1000-person rally at the Governor's Mansion. "There is no red water or blue water, there is clean water and dirty water." Originally, the conservative members of our Coalition were not concerned about global issues such as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. But as we educated each other, many people became deeply committed to the larger causes.

What is the status of the Keystone Pipeline today? Did your grass roots campaign have a significant impact on policy?

MP: Sometime this summer President Obama will decide whether to approve the Keystone XL. Our Nebraska coalition has been successful in holding off, for over two years, what would have been an automatic decision. That has allowed time for other groups to organize and join our fight. One of the best things about the Keystone XL is that it offers us a 3000-mile-long opportunity for activism. Over 125 Nebraskans protested to Keystone XL in DC on Feb. 17, 2013. Last month the State Department held its only national hearing on the proposed pipeline in Grand Island, Neb. Over 800 people drove through a blizzard to voice their opposition to the project. No matter what President Obama decides this summer, this fight to stop the pipeline isn't over until we give up. And we are not giving up. We are not just fighting for our land; we are fighting for a future for our grandchildren and yours, and for the grandchildren of the fox, the frog, the meadowlark and the dogwood.

MW: What is "agnotology"? Do you have any thoughts about how we can overcome the challenge of agnotology both in the United States and globally?"

MP: Robert Proctor, a professor at Stanford, coined the word "agnotology," for the study of ignorance that is deliberately manufactured or politically generated. He writes, "People always assume that if they don't know something, it's because they haven't paid attention or haven't yet figured it out. But, ignorance can also come from people literally suppressing truth, or drowning it out, or making it so confusing that people stop caring about what's true and what's not." The way to fight misinformation campaigns is by effective education campaigns to open-minded people. I don't waste time talking to climate change deniers. It is impossible to reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into. But a great many people will respond to evidence when it is presented, simply, clearly and kindly.

MW: The Green Boat tells us that in healing the earth we can also heal our selves. As a psychologist, does you role as a professional include helping patients become aware of what actions they can take to save our fragile planet as a part of their personal healing process?

MP: As a therapist I worked with trauma and the human denial system. Americans are deeply traumatized by the news that our planet is in peril. We experience a kind of primal panic that makes it difficult to think clearly and respond in a resilient manner. Yet, we cannot fight a problem we will not acknowledge. With awareness we can move from trauma to transcendence. Saving the earth and savoring it are deeply related experiences. Our coalition didn't have meetings; we had parties with good food, wine and lots of laughter. Over time we became a beloved community. Hope is not about outcome. Rather it comes from engaging in hopeful activities. We can work for the common good in our communities. We can dream big and then actualize those dreams. Whether we know it or not, we are all community educators. We have all the resources we need to be helpful.

MW: The Green Boat inspires hope that a paradigm shift that can reverse the planetary destruction is still achievable. Do you have any thoughts about what the new paradigm would look like in peoples' everyday thoughts and actions?

MP: Dealing with GCC is essentially an ethics problem. If we do not expand our moral imaginations, we will destroy ourselves. Healing will involve re-weaving the most primal of connections to this sacred web. Interconnection can be seen as a spiritual belief, especially in Buddhism. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, "we inter-are." But it is also a scientific fact. Gregory Bateson said the unit of survival is the organism and its environment. When enough of us truly see the world this way, Mother Earth will be safe.