Stephanie Mills: Environmentalist and Northern Michigan Resident

As another Earth Day nears, nationally renowned environmentalist, author and Stephanie Mills, who lives in Northern Michigan near Traverse City, shares thoughts on where we’re headed here on spaceship Earth and why local economies such as, Traverse City, should fuel the journey.

It was 1969, Mills College in California, and for Stephanie Mills, everything was about to change. She stepped up on stage, cleared her throat, and delivered a college commencement speech that catapulted her into the national spotlight. Paul Ehrlich’s bestseller, The Population Bomb, had come out the year before, and young Stephanie Mills had been galvanized by its message that we humans were up against it, that we were staring into a future of calamitous strife, war, and famine, victims of our own reproductive success, and our overuse of Earth’s finite resources.

There she was, a nice, studious young woman from a nice, middle-class family, telling her generation that the most responsible, the most moral thing to do with their lives would be to have no children. It was such a controversial, even revolutionary idea, that it gave rise to a whirlwind period of speeches and media interviews. Everyone, it seemed, wanted an explanation, and the pace—and the pressure—took a personal toll. After the furor died down, Mills caught her breath and settled into the world of environmental activism in California’s Bay Area. For more than a decade, she worked with some of the great luminaries of the environmental movement, like Stewart Brand, founder of Whole Earth Catalog and the Sierra Club’s David Brower. Activism was satisfying, and they had an unmistakable impact.

But by the mid-80’s, the situation had changed. The political winds had shifted, the environmental movement had become more Washington-centric, and work was getting hard to come by. Mills had become increasingly interested in an emerging concept called bioregionalism. She had begun to dream of living a simpler, quieter, more localized life, a life amid the splendors of nature.

Then she went to the first American Bioregional Congress, and she met a man there from Northern Michigan. She came to his home for a visit. It was July, summer in the Northwoods was in its full glory, and she fell in love—with the man, and the place. Shortly thereafter, Mills moved to Northern Michigan, she and her man got married, and they built a small home with their own hands in the woods outside Traverse City. 

Now, more than 25 years and seven books later, Mills still lives in those woods (though the marriage didn’t last, she stayed in the house, and she and her ex remain friends). And while her life has changed a great deal since those heady days in California, she is still worried about our future. She’s worried that human beings have already overpopulated the planet, exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity.

To her way of thinking, things are going to go one of two ways. We can either pretend that everything is fine, maintain the status quo, and march blindly toward the end of civilization as we know it, or we can choose to change our ways now—to consume less, much less, reproduce less, live lives of voluntary simplicity—and perhaps save civil society for the coming generations. Either way, things are not going to be easy. But if we take the second path, and choose to shape our own future, at least we won’t be blindsided by the civil strife and economic depression (and maybe worse!) that will result from inaction.

But she’s not just worried about the future of human civilization. The rest of the biosphere is equally important, and imperiled, and she spends her days in her tiny one-room writing studio in the woods, trying to figure out how to get people to give a damn.

I sat down with Mills at Horizon Books in Traverse City on two separate occasions not long after she was back in the national media, featured in the PBS documentary, Earth Days, about pioneers of the modern environmental movement.

If our situation is so dire, why aren’t more people paying attention?The thing that we have difficulty understanding, here in the early 21st century, is that our society has emerged in a period that’s just totally unprecedented in human history. So our idea of normal is a sample of a totally distorted situation, and clearly unsustainable. A problem we have as human beings is that we didn’t evolve to pay attention to trends. There’s not a whole lot of survival value in it … There has not been, hitherto. But now there is.

All this end-of-the-world talk can get pretty bleak. But hope dies last, right? How can we stay hopeful, even optimistic, and at the same time recognize that we need to make fundamental changes to our way of life?

Involving people in a constructive process to plan a way from impending disaster can be very empowering and uplifting. So getting folks directly involved with activities that are taking us in the direction of survival, regardless of what their ideologies are, is a great … you know, that’s worth doing. I also think that a lot of folks are more intelligent, and have more horse sense than they’re given credit for, and I think an awful lot of the policies that we see flout the common wisdom. So that’s where hope lies: hope lies in the resilience and beauty of nature and in the inborn wit and good will of human beings.

When you frame this issue in terms of survival, are you saying that humans could actually go extinct due to our own overpopulation, overuse of resources, and so on? Or are we talking about the demise, or death, of civilization?

Human beings are an incredibly resilient species. I’m not enough of a scientist to really have an authoritative answer to that, but it seems unlikely that we would go extinct. It seems pretty likely that our numbers will be diminished one way or another, either voluntarily or by the normal biological constraints on population eruptions. Civilizations are wont to collapse; it’s what civilizations do more often than they endure, because they have this unfortunate habit of overextending themselves. But, you know, there are ways that a devolution could lead to better lives, more interesting lives, than the technological totalitarianism that we’re confronted with now. The extinctions that worry me more is the rest of the biosphere. There comes a point at which the fabric of the planetary ecosystem is so shredded that the whole thing folds, and we’re all dining on jellyfish.

Do you think technology has a role to play in solving ecological problems?

That’s a complex subject. My offhand remark is that faith in technology is the world’s great religion right now. I think it’s a misplaced optimism. There are important things to be done in the realm of technology, but I think they tend to be stepped back from the macro scale towards what we, in the 70’s, talked about as appropriate and intermediate technologies. The thing to bear in mind about these technological proposals is that materials and energy are involved in the production of technology. So while I do think that more canny design, more frugal design, of absolutely necessary technologies, can be very important fields of endeavor, it doesn’t appear to me that there are any technologies that are going to get us off the hook of having to reproduce less and consume less.

Do you ever wonder if it might in fact be possible that technology could trump the need for a healthy ecological system? In other words, what if we don’t need a healthy ecological system? We may think it’s an uglier world, or a less interesting world, but what if we don’t actually need it to survive. You ever get disturbed by that possibility?

I just think that’s, I don’t think it’s a possibility. It might be a possibility for a tiny elite. But we’re heading for 9 billion people on the planet, and the materials and energy intensity of those kinds of techno-fixes would preclude them being widely available. So I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about those things. However, what you say about the quality of such a world is an important point. We’ve spent a lot more time evolving in wilderness than we’ve been doing anything else on the planet, and I don’t think it’s going to be possible to overcome—and why would we want to?—the constraints imposed by the natural world.

Your latest book is a biography of a man named Bob Swann. What made this an interesting project for you?

I wanted to get inside Bob’s economics—that’s what his big contributions were in—what I’m now terming sort of a folk economics, in the sense that he understood economics very well, but from an untutored point of view. He was really interested in empowering individuals in communities to just build useful local economies, you know, not to overturn the system at the macro level, but to really do some evolutionary work right in the locales where energized people were confronting specific problems. Access to land, finding ways to structure land ownerships so that land wouldn’t be vulnerable to speculation, mechanisms like micro credits, small loans, local currencies—those kinds of things were among the challenges that Bob’s wonderfully inventive intelligence rose to.

In this day and age, community economics sounds like a bit of a throwback. What’s the point?

The thing about local economic mechanisms is that they’re operating on such a scale that local values can influence them. Who knows what’s going to become of the U.S. economy and the dollar, and all of that—it’s just too large a system to manage intelligently and for the common good, whereas at the local level the feedback loops are shorter. And it doesn’t mean that local economies can be completely self-contained or isolated. That’s just not going to happen, because of the degree of globalization and the fact that, human beings, even before the mercantile era, have always traded. We like to trade. So there need to be ways that these systems can interact. But it’s in our own best interest to build local resilience and to learn to meet basic needs locally to the greatest extent possible.

Bob Swann was instrumental in creating a successful local currency out East, and you are involved in our own local currency, right here in the Grand Traverse region. A lot of people have probably never heard of Bay Bucks. Why is this an important aspect of relocalization going forward?

A local currency can be an element in a more functional, more self-reinforcing local economy. It’s an element, as would be local investment mechanisms, and the reason for that is to avoid being totally subject to the whims of the national and international economies, which are big enough to fail catastrophically. Local resilience in all these aspects of life is increasingly crucial, so we need locally owned and interested banks that are investing in local enterprises, and that apply ethical and ecological criteria to their lending. If we got a deflationary depression, and suddenly cash was extremely scarce, there would still be people with skills, people producing goods, and what they would lack is a medium of exchange, and a local currency provides that. And that’s why there were hundreds of local currencies in the U.S. during the Depression, because it was a deflationary depression. So that’s one practical reason for local currencies. Another reason is that they can be very empowering, and educational—it gets people thinking about the notional quality of money, and that’s quite illuminating.

You are often called a “bioregionalist.” What is bioregionalism?

Bioregionalism is a spirit, or a philosophy, or a tendency within ecological activism, and, I’d say that one of its most important aspects is looking at the natural history of places, as the basis for character, and local identity, and local culture. And this is just what it’s been for human beings right up until the industrial revolution, you know, when we began uncoupling ourselves from solar economies and distinct cultures of place. Part of what appealed to me about bioregionalism was that it pointed away from nation-state government, and towards a devolution of government and economy, and production.

A lot of ecological activists are talking these days about relocalization and reinhabitation. Will you explain these concepts to us?

And, um, reinhabitation is a part of that, because human occupancy has really wrought havoc with the biodiversity of the planet, and you don’t have to take my word for that—ask the United Nations—so reinhabiting means, really, addressing the natural habitat, and for human beings to understand that we don’t just need to meet our basic needs, but we need to restore and revive the biodiversity of our home places, because we need the whole system if we’re going to thrive, and, and plus it’s more interesting and beautiful if nature around us does not consist of two tree species and three birds . . . and knapweed. And, so I think that reinhabitation’s got a little bit more of a concern with botany and wild nature than relocalization, strictly.

Relocalization to me—and this could just be idiosyncratic—sounds a little bit more socioeconomic, and that’s good. And I do think it’s the direction we need to be going in, because globalization has been underwritten by cheap fossil fuels, and we’re at peak production of those. And so, one way or another, we’re going to be relocalizing a lot of our endeavors. And the upside of it can be that we will be better citizens and neighbors, and have a lot more direct engagement in our ways and means. We won’t be using proxies for everything. And that’ll be good.

Local food has been getting quite a bit of attention in recent years. Do you see that as a cause for celebration?

I think that is one of the bright spots. And, and not just here, but all across the land actually. Because it’s so fundamental, you know, it’s so fundamental. It gets you to the root of all kinds of problems, and it requires you to look at some things that need systemic change. I love that the farmers market is so popular that we’re getting multiple farmers markets, and that there’s a culture of local food developing around here. And we need way more of it, way more of it.

The question of localism vs. globalism is a sticky one. There’s the old slogan “Think globally, act locally.” How do we strike that balance? How do you view activism outside of one’s watershed or bioregion? Should I be working on trying to preserve Alaska, or should I just be working on the place where I live?

Maybe it doesn’t have to be either/or. Maybe you figure out what proportion of your time and treasure you want to devote to those things. And some of it’s intuitive—it’s kind of what presents itself. I’ve been involved with our local currency for a while, and before that I was involved with the natural foods co-op, and partly I chose them, partly they chose me. So I think it’s to people to discover that balance out of their own gifts and proclivities. Just dive in and follow your heart. However, I think that being well informed about ecological concerns is sort of primary. It does seem to be the way that the planet has been setting its priorities for 4 billion years.

PBS Documentary Filmpbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/earthdays

Stephanie Mills’s websitesmillswriter.com

Bay Bucksbaybucks.org

Stephanie Mills, Post Carbon Institutepostcarbon.org/person/36221-stephanie-mills

Stephanie Mills Books:  

Whatever Happened to Ecology?

In Praise of Nature

In Service of the Wild

Turning Away from Technology

Tough Little Beauties

On Gandhi’s Path

Epicurean Simplicity 

Article Comments

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the great interview!