Interview #9: Lisa Wells, author of ‘Believers’

I am excited to bring you yet another interview with an incredible sustainable visionary. Lisa Wells is an american poet and essayist and the author of Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World which is her first nonfiction book.

I fortunately stumbled upon Lisa’s thought-provoking approaches to sustainability in her recent podcast interview with Futuresteading. I was listening to the interview last week whilst riding my motorbike from our little jungle village to Ubud to pick up my youngest son from school. And, listening to Lisa saying things like: “let’s recognise that we are just creatures on this planet with a very short life that should be as joyful as possible, and one of the ways that we get joy is by doing the things that are going to heal us and create abundance,” made me feel like: “yes! Exactly”, as did her talking about the importance of both making individual steps towards a more sustainable lifestyle by building and nourishing local communities and fostering personal bonds to nature, and trying to affect political change by for example showing up for future generations at protests: that we need all of that and everything in between.

When I got home I ordered the book and wrote to Lisa to ask her to do an interview for The Immaterialist. Now I am hoping that Believers will reach the jungle before too long, as the extracts and interviews I have found online have triggered my interest even more. Not least since it appears that one of the predominant missions of the book is to do away with the sustainability-mantra of “leaving no traces”. The people Lisa visits leave traces; they shape and affect their surroundings, only in a sustainable way

It took Lisa six years to write Believers, which is built around a series of interviews with off-grid believers and activists who are all dedicated to reconnect to earth and to save the planet from human exploitation and climate change.

The believers in the books demonstrate that there is not one answer to how to live sustainably; there are many.

***

What does sustainability mean to you?

It’s a question worth asking. Before I started writing Believers I hadn’t given it much thought. I had gauzy, culturally received notions of sustainability in the vein of “leave no trace.” As I dug into the stories in the book a thread began to emerge about the impacts of those received ideas and where they came from. In the U.S., settler-environmentalists like me grew up with a conservationist literature and ethos that exalted nature and treated so-called wilderness areas as cathedrals. But nature was separate, nota community of life they belonged to and shaped. The whole thing is predicated on the idea that humans don’t fill an ecological niche like every other creature on earth. It’s also an erasure by omission of ancientland-tending traditions that were practiced for most of human history all over the world.

In short, what sustainability doesn’t mean is “leave no trace.” So what does it mean?

The book’s answer is provided by the people I write about, and most have a similar message: commit to a place, feed that which feeds you, give life to that which gives you life, plant more seeds than you harvest, etc. If your lifestyle can sustain you, your community, and the myriad lives you depend on indefinitely you’re probably on the right track.

***

How would you describe your mission in Believers?

My foremost mission as a writer is to keep the reader interested. I try my best to honestly explore difficult questions without paying lip service to the doxa or defaulting to cliché. I’m always interested in increasing complexity. I don’t always succeed and acknowledging my own short comings and poking fun at myself is part of the agenda, too.

My Believers-specific mission was to discover ways to live that support life on the planet now and for future generations. At the time, I felt like the discourse was pretty heavy on “dismantlement”—which is great—but I don’t think it’s enough to tear stuff down, we also need positive constructs to live into.

If our descendants are alive and well in 100 years, it will not be because we exported our unexamined lives to another planet. It will be because we were, in this era, able to articulate visions of life on earth that did not result in their destruction.

Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World

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What do you view as the biggest environmental problem?

The civilization most of us live within is our biggest problem: an expansionist, hierarchical system dependent on what Daniel Quinn called “totalitarian agriculture,” so named to “stress the way it subordinates all life-forms to the relentless, single-minded production of human food.”

Atmospheric carbon from industry, deforestation, soil degradation—they all come back to this single system. The good news is, for most of human history people have lived in heterogenous ways that support the health of the soil, the air, and of their ecosystems so it’s something we’re quite capable of doing.

***

What’s next for you?

I’ve just finished a piece for Harper’s Magazine about composting human remains (spoiler alert: I plan to have my corpse turned into compost!)

I’ve also been exploring group dynamics and the unconscious forces that shape them. I don’t plan to look at it exclusively through the lens of environmental impacts, but I do think much of what we’re afraid to let go of—stuff like climate control, streaming TV, eating for sport, etc. are the consolations of the chronically stressed and isolated.

Many of us have lost our ability to live together cooperatively over the long run, but there are interpersonal technologies that can help us remember how, and I think that’s the huge prize we stand to gain as infrastructure collapses. We are wired for interdependence and without it we miss out on a lot of meaning and purpose, belonging and pleasure… You can’t override millions of years of social adaptation in a few hundred, or even a few thousand years of empire.

Read more about Lisa and her work here.

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