Read and Act: Like the campaign used for decades by the tobacco industry, the oil industry knew that climate change existed as early as the 1970s and ran an extensive misinformation campaign. Now it’s easy to find the science that’s clear and the required responses, if you look for it. We just need to support these efforts through our businesses, our investments and our voices. Put your daily expenses — no matter how big or small — into plastic-free and renewable products, and your savings into banks and investments that support sustainable market changes. Recognize that our economic decisions drive societal change, and we can make a huge difference.
As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sally Cole-Misch.
Sally Cole-Misch is a writer, author of The Best Part of Us and environmental communicator who advocates for the natural world through work and play. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, a master’s degree in environmental education and international water policy from the University of Michigan, and a certificate in fiction writing from Stanford University. Throughout her career, she’s focused on communicating our essential connection with nature and particularly the Great Lakes, and the role each of us can play to restore, protect, and enjoy our water, land, and air. Most recently she worked for the International Joint Commission, a US-Canadian treaty organizations that focuses on water quality and quantity issues for shared waters between the two countries, and continues her other work through her consulting company. Her novel, The Best Part of Us, immerses readers in a breathtaking natural world, a fresh perspective on loyalty, and an exquisite ode to the essential roles that family, nature and place hold in all of our lives.
Sally lives in Michigan with her husband and son and enjoys hiking, kayaking, sailing, skiing, reading, and gardening.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in the 60s and 70s in suburban Detroit, so the environment was just starting to come to the forefront of our country’s consciousness when I was in high school, with the first Earth Day in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972. My family appreciated nature and we were active outdoors in terms of recreation -- hiking, gardening, swimming, sailing, skiing -- but I can’t say we considered how our actions impacted the earth at the time. The race riots in the late 1960s in Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland and the marches for women’s rights in the early 1970s were primary focuses for me, and I loved capturing the energy of those marches in pictures. Unfortunately it was a time of darkrooms and chemicals to process film, and I couldn’t stop getting migraines no matter how many fans I added to the college darkrooms. I switched to journalism as a major, and quickly learned to enjoy the variety of issues I could learn about and report on.
Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?
At the same time I was focusing on women’s rights while in high school, we discovered that fish were dying in a lake where my family spent our summers. A nearby electrical plant powered by coal was causing the water to acidify (called acid rain back then) and thus became toxic to the fish and other aquatic animals and plants. That caught my attention and I volunteered with local environmental groups to force that and other electrical plants to install scrubbers to clean the coal they used. But I didn’t really commit to the environmental field until after college, when I started to report regularly on the effects of toxic contaminants on human and ecosystem health. I realized I needed more understanding of the science behind the issues, so I applied to the University of Michigan for graduate school in its School of Natural Resources, now called the School for Environment and Sustainability. My graduate chairs, William Stapp and Jonathan Bulkley, were international rock stars in the fields of environmental education and water resources, respectively, and they cemented my interest and commitment to working on and communicating about environmental issues.
Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?
When environmental awareness and protection was growing into adolescence in the 1980s and 1990s, we focused on sharing information about how our lifestyles impact the majestic planet we live on, and the sometimes simple but often complicated and expensive choices we must make to restore and protect our water, land, and air. This is still essential to communicate, but it’s no longer where we start. Now, the messaging focuses first on getting people outside to let nature feed the soul and body, help us to become more aware of the world around us as well as within, and heighten nature’s value in our lives. What we value, we act to protect.
As science has identified how humans impact the environment, it’s also discovered how nature affects us. Thousands of studies over the past forty years show that time spent in greenspace lowers our blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduces anxiety and feelings of isolation, and improves mood and cognitive function. Beyond the exquisite vistas and escape from the noise and congestion of modern life when we vacation in natural places, mountains, trees, lakes and streams also release ions and chemicals that we absorb, and that further enhance our health and well-being.
More studies completed in the early 2000s also found that higher scores of connectedness to nature provide a strong sense that we are living life with purpose, fulfillment and satisfaction. The more connected we feel to nature, the more we sense a meaningful involvement in something larger than ourselves, a stronger interest in generosity, and a commitment to act to protect it. Sustainability of the planet is ultimately about maintaining an intimate relationship with nature, so that we want to be a positive global citizen.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
I’m an avid fiction reader, and one day I googled the benefits of reading fiction. Studies show that reading fiction is as beneficial as meditation or deep relaxation exercises for reducing stress. It helps us to sleep better, improves our self-esteem, builds vocabulary, expands our imagination, and slows mental decline later in life. Reading fiction also makes us happier and helps us want to make worthwhile contributions to the world. Sound familiar to the benefits to spending time in nature, as summarized in the previous answer?
That was the first time I decided to expand my environmental messaging into fiction by writing a novel that communicates the value of nature in our lives -- where the setting is as much a character as the people, the story inspires readers to remember places and parts of nature that they care about, and that hopefully provides the same benefits to nature lovers when they read and to readers when they go exploring. The Best Part of Us is my attempt to write about a woman who must decide whether to save herself and her connection with nature in order to explore the same choice humanity faces—for Earth will survive and heal, but our values and actions will determine whether humans and other species can as well.
In my work for the International Joint Commission, which focuses on boundary waters between the US and Canada -- especially the Great Lakes -- the impacts of climate change are already obvious. More frequent and more severe storms, changing lake dynamics and food chains, rapidly changing water levels, and increased algal blooms from rising temperatures are all occurring. Completing and communicating the science to make the link between climate change and these ecosystem alterations are essential in order for local, state and provincial, and federal governments to develop mitigation, resiliency and adaptation plans for their watersheds. The science is essential to drive people to change their personal and collective actions to ensure change.
Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?
I’m a big fan of looking at the global picture to identify personal actions that will make the biggest difference. Project Drawdown provides an ongoing list of practical, doable actions that the world can take to reach reduction goals for CO2 and other climate changing emissions by mid-century, if we make the best use of all existing climate solutions. In their table of solutions, the key areas for the most effective changes are in the energy and food sectors. Every action we take to ensure our homes, businesses and transportation choices are using the least amount of fossil fuels possible, and eventually using only renewable energy sources, is a huge step forward. Second, recognize that our food choices also impact climate and reduce your meat consumption as much as possible. Third, get outside -- whether it’s in a national park, a family cottage or a backyard garden -- and remind yourself every day of the many gifts that nature provides. That always spurs me on to keep fighting for change.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
Parents play an essential role in encouraging their children’s environmental interest and activism, and vice versa. Our children are growing up in a world where the impacts of climate change are obvious, and their impatience for change is pushing their parents to alter their behaviors. No matter where the initiative comes from, here are my five priorities for action on climate change:
1. Read and Act: Like the campaign used for decades by the tobacco industry, the oil industry knew that climate change existed as early as the 1970s and ran an extensive misinformation campaign. Now it’s easy to find the science that’s clear and the required responses, if you look for it. We just need to support these efforts through our businesses, our investments and our voices. Put your daily expenses—no matter how big or small—into plastic-free and renewable products, and your savings into banks and investments that support sustainable market changes. Recognize that our economic decisions drive societal change, and we can make a huge difference.
2. Consume Conscientiously: Once you decide new priorities for how you spend your money, this step becomes obvious and offers a wide range of options:
- wash your clothes in cold water and/or hang them outside to dry
- don’t leave your appliances on standby—a huge energy draw and painful to your pet’s ears as well, because they can hear the high-pitched sounds we can’t
- switch to renewable home energy through exchange programs if your local energy source doesn’t use renewable sources, or install wind and solar
- eliminate products that include or are packaged in plastic, which is created using oil and is ubiquitous in our waters, since it takes decades or centuries to degrade
- recycle and reuse whenever possible, and focus on lessening your purchases to those that you really need and from sustainable sources
- add native plants in your yard to reduce water and fertilizer use
- change your diet to reduce meat consumption, which will lessen one of the world’s biggest sources of air contamination, and make you healthier as well. And that’s great for all of us, because health savings from reduced air pollution could be 1.4-2.5 times greater than the costs to mitigate climate change. A win-win.
3. Change your Idea of Travel: We can reduce airplane emissions—which account for 11 percent of U.S. transportation-related emissions—by taking trains for longer distance trips, and fuel-efficient, hybrid or electric options for shorter trips. Virtual teleconferencing and meetings might have become a piece of cake as a result of the global pandemic, which should make flying across the country or world to sit in the same room with others for a meeting seem frivolous and stupid. Use mass transit more, walk or bike to the store, and switch to hybrid or electric cars. Given the significant portion the transportation sector contributes to global CO2 emissions, this is a big and powerful way to make a difference in climate change’s trajectory.
4. Think Global, Act Local: While the world’s leaders set lofty goals in Paris and Kyoto, our local and state governments have to respond to the effects of climate change that are already occurring and try to plan for the future. Read about your local and state governments’ efforts, demand mitigation and resiliency plans through your words, actions and votes, and volunteer your time and money to programs that contribute to your community’s sustainable efforts. Push for retrofitting of all public buildings to zero emissions, mandatory recycling and more mass transit options, and adding or improving public green spaces if you live in a city to make it more livable and reduce pollution at the same time.
5. Use your Voice and Vote! If you’re paying attention, you already know that our national and local elections are crucially important to changing the support structures that ensure actions to address climate change. Because our current legislative structure allows for total veto power in the U.S. Senate, the House’s historic climate change committee report in June and similar creative initiatives to act on climate change will end up in the waste bin as long as our senators refuse to act. Which they should, given the consistently high percentage of Americans who view this as either a crisis or a top issue that must be addressed. Which means we are not speaking up in ways or enough to garner that action. We can use our vote to reject any arguments to delay actions due to the economic effects of the global pandemic, and recognize that mitigating climate change will be incorporated into our economic systems if we use the collective political will we already have to transform our politics, and to adjust our personal actions to match the value we place on a healthy, sustainable planet. Parents who teach their children not to be afraid to speak their truth about climate change with friends, teachers and adults and become involved in the political process, will create sustainably focused children.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
It’s encouraging to see the number of environmentally conscious companies that have been created in the past five years and that are seeing their profits rise significantly as consumers find out about them. If they create a product that is packaged as minimally and plastic-free as possible and at a reasonable price, consumers want to support their efforts and buy those products. Using effective marketing and communications efforts to get the word out about those products is essential, something new companies often don’t allocate enough resources for to get to profitability as soon as they’d like.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Beyond Bill Stapp and Jonathan Bulkley, who I mentioned earlier, I am indebted to every scientist who I’ve worked with for helping me to understand the research and for sharing their passion for their work. I love translating their findings into a common language the rest of us understand and can use to drive our personal and collective actions.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
If we can accept and embrace that we are all one energy — one with the air, the trees, the birds, the grass, the elephants — we will treat other and our majestic planet differently. Spending time in nature will feel as vital, if not more so, than the latest episode of our favorite program. From there, we can begin to dream of a new structure to societies, which focus economies on well-being, health and connection with everything else on Earth. Nature has absorbed our negative contributions -- our society’s air, water and noise pollution -- and yet still continues to provide health-giving ions and photoncides, as well as the air, water and soil we need to survive. It’s well beyond time we celebrated our connections and gave to nature as good as we get.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
Think Globally, Act Locally was the top quote that drove the environmental movement in its early days, and I still find great relevance in that idea because it helps to drive our thoughts from the big picture to the personal actions we can take and contribute to.
We Are One is also significant for me, because if I consider myself as part of Earth’s energy, I think twice about some actions that might be easier but less sustainable for the planet and thus for me as well. It’s also a reassuring idea, that we are all in this together and can make a positive difference for every living thing.
I dedicated my novel, The Best Part of Us, to every living thing in recognition of this idea, with the following quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which also speaks to me: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how men would believe and adore. Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air. Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
Please visit my website: sallycole-misch.com, which provides social media links; or visit me on Facebook at sally.colemisch; on Instagram at scolemisch; on Twitter at SallyColeMisch; and on LinkedIn at sally-cole-misch-b926a117.
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!