An Interview with Mary Pipher, Author of The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture

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UnknownThe cure for knowing too much is not knowing less, but rather understanding what to do with the information we have.
Mary Pipher, The Green Boat

It’s rare I finish a book wanting to shout from the rooftops how great it is, and even more rare that I read a book I want to buy cases of to hand out at the beach and in church and to leave on the break room table at work. That book is Mary Pipher’s The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture, a wake-up call about the dire state of our earth as well as a how-to guide for dealing with the trauma of that knowledge.

What is so wonderful about The Green Boat is that Mary Pipher doesn’t just identify the myriad problems we face; she also illustrates how to find hope through awareness, then acceptance, then action. For Pipher, that action was (and still is) her grassroots work at preventing the TransCanada energy corporation from building a pipeline through the Nebraska Sandhills and over the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest water tables.

Nebraska Sandhills

Nebraska Sandhills

In working with others to create the Coalition to Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline, Pipher not only found hope through action, but also through a community comprised of people who might seem completely disparate on the surface: conservatives and liberals, ranchers and poets, artists and teachers, as well as natives who’d lived in Nebraska for generations and refugee immigrants new to the state, all working together for the common goal of protecting fresh water for future generations.

In between her readings, book talks, webinars and signings, MaryPipher took a moment to answer a few questions about this remarkable book.

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KF: In The Green Boat, you write about “The Great Acceleration,” a description for how the major systems of the world are breaking down far faster than we can manage, whether it’s the natural world, the political world, or the financial world, and how far too many of us give in to denial simply because we’re overwhelmed with helplessness. You found hope through your efforts fighting TransCanada; now that you’re traveling around the country to share the book and its message, what are you discovering? Do you think your call to action will spread to different causes and different communities? 

MP: People seem interested in talking about our shared difficulties in facing all the traumatic issues of our time, and they find comfort in knowing that denial, while natural and understandable, is not inevitable. With action, people become more hopeful and less upset. Many people seem relieved that I’ve found a way to discuss global climate change that doesn’t make them want to slit their throats. And groups are organizing all over the country, not because of me, but because what I understand about action with others is becoming a shared understanding. It is heartening, actually, how much energy I am seeing for social change.

KF: When you discuss our lack of awareness, you bring up the term agnotology, “the study of ignorance that is deliberately manufactured or politically generated.” Our lack of awareness is certainly helped by corporations and politicians who don’t want us to know what they’re up to. Friends and I cynically joke about the “Lame Stream Media,” recognizing that most of what we read online or in the papers is slanted one way or the other, or that most of what passes as journalism anymore is of the “gotcha” variety, where we’re fed stories about politicians’ sex exploits or egregious use of public funds rather than the nitty gritty of what they’re doing in Washington. Where to find the truth? Could you share some trustworthy news sources you’ve discovered so we could at least win the war on information?

MP: Well, I read high quality journalism such as Mother Jones, American Prospect, the New Yorker or the New York Times. I listen to NPR news. To remind myself of all the positive events happening around the world, I also read The Intelligent Optimist and Yes!  

KF: “Our country is approaching the kind of tragic polarization that we had just before the Civil War.” This quote from The Green Boat struck a frightening chord, if only because we’ve all witnessed how quickly people separate into different camps—liberal or conservative, gun rights or gun control, pro-life or pro-choice. Can you explain how these divisions can be bridged? Or perhaps how these divisions are used by politicians and businesspeople to further their own aims? 

MP: Most of the problems we face are not political problems and we are less likely to find good solutions to them when we deal with them in polarized ways. For example, global climate change is a matter of physics and chemistry. We can deal with it only by putting aside partisan ideas and thinking clearly about what to quickly do next. In our fight against the Keystone XL in Nebraska, we never used polarizing language. We talked about our love of the land, the water and a future for all of our children. Few people disagreed with us. We also tried to make our campaigns about joy, fun, connection and hope. That inspired people to join us. No one has time for dreary work, but almost everyone wants to come to a party.

KF: I was disheartened by the revelation in The Green Boat that most people check their morals and beliefs at the door when they go to their jobs, a belief you illustrate by writing about the denial of people working near extermination camps during WWII. How can we move past this?

MP: I just saw a June Pew Poll that showed that 70% of Americans are disengaged from the work they do. This statistic says a great deal about the choices we offer our citizens. Robert Lifton did research that found that people would do almost anything, including kill other people, if they called it work. We humans are capable of that level of compartmentalization. On the other hand, we are only truly happy when we do meaningful work that engages our hearts, minds and value systems. The lucky 30% who have those kinds of jobs are the ones who are flourishing.

I’d like to see us develop a culture that has a place for every human gift and allows all citizens to be authentic and vibrant. The only way I know to make that happen is to act where we are, to create all opportunities possible for good work. For example, I give money to Community Crops, which makes it possible for people to grow their own produce. I like to support small literary magazines too, because writers tend to be doing meaningful work.

KF: “Democracy may yet be reborn as this generation redefines it in the context of our corrupt and oligarchic times.” When I read this in The Green Boat, it sounded downright revolutionary! I was excited and also a little nervous—I agree there needs to be a vast change in democracy, in large part because we no longer live in a democracy. Your exposé of how many Nebraska politicians were in TransCanada’s pocket is absolute proof. But where do we go from here? Without the system we’ve always known, the future seems scary and anarchistic.

MP: Well, I am not advocating any kind of violent revolution. We all know how badly those tend to go. My definition of democracy is that people have a say in the issues that matter to their lives, issues such as high quality food, health care, education and neighborhoods. Sadly, by my definition, I don’t think we live in a true democracy. The way to create that ideal is through grass roots action at the local level. Our fight against the Keystone XL was our way of saying to our politicians, “Hey, you can’t just sell our future to the highest bidder. We know what you are doing and we want it stopped.”

KF: I love your descriptions of how the creation of community trumps any setbacks. It was inspiring to read of the festival your group put together to fight the XL pipeline, even though you lost significant political battles afterward. “The bittersweet phenomenon of a successful event paired with no discernable political gain seemed to be a chronic problem for our group.” But hope remains because the group remains. Can you describe where your community is now with your fight against TransCanada?

Image courtesy of BoldNebraska.org

Image courtesy of BoldNebraska.org

MP: Our group has been together now for almost three years. So far we have stopped the Keystone XL. This fall President Obama will make a decision to approve or deny the permit. No one knows what he will do. He is a smart man with daughters and I like to think he will deny the permit. But, sad experience has taught me that he could go either way. But, whatever he decides, the fight to stop the Keystone XL isn’t over until we give up—and we are not giving up.