First Monday

FM Interviews: Stephanie Mills

Stephanie Mills

Stephanie Mills is an author, editor, lecturer and ecological activist who has concerned herself with the fate of the earth and humanity since 1969, when her commencement address at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., drew the attention of a nation. Her speech, which the New York Times called "perhaps the most anguished statement" of the year's crop of valedictory speeches, predicted a bleak future. According to Mills, humanity was destined for suicide, the result of overpopulation and overuse of natural resources.

"I am terribly saddened by the fact that the most humane thing for me to do is to have no children at all," said Mills, who was 20 at the time.

After graduation, Mills worked as campus organizer for Planned Parenthood. Within one year, she delivered roughly 80 talks on the subject of overpopulation and the necessity of birth control. Mills collaborated with environmental leaders such as Gary Snyder, Stewart Brand and Richard Brautigan to generate the ecological manifesto Four Changes. In 1970, Mills became Editor-in-Chief of Earth Times, a San Francisco-based monthly environmental tabloid, and later worked as an editor for Co-Evolution Quarterly, Not Man Apart, California Tomorrow, and Earth. In 1972, she received a grant from the Point Foundation to conduct a salon at the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm Sweden, and in Berkeley, Calif.

In 1984, Mills left the Bay Area and moved to rural Michigan, where she began her first book, Whatever Happened to Ecology? (Sierra Club Books, 1989). The book offers a bioregionalist's look at the idea of home and place. Mills went on to edit and write essays for In Praise of Nature (Island Press, 1990). In Service to the Wild: Restoring and Reinhabiting Damaged Land (Beacon Press, 1995) and Turning Away from Technology (Sierra Club Books, 1997) followed. Her latest book, Epicurean Simplicity(Island Press, 2002), addresses the rewards and challenges of a simple life.

Mills lives in northern Michigan, where she works as a freelance author and lecturer. This interview was conducted with First Monday's Chief Editor Ed Valauskas via a series of postcards between February and May 2002, since Stephanie does not use a computer or the Internet.

First Monday (FM): Technology is ultimately subversive; even typewriters need to be registered in some places. Why? Because technology ultimately enhances communication and allows diverse individuals to organize collectively and act. The computer and modem are more powerful than the missle. So why are you so proud of being a Luddite?

Stephanie Mills (SM): It's not that I'm proud of being a Luddite, it's that I'm content with the pace, volume and style of communication I do enjoy. Technology surely makes quantitative changes in communication (vide movable type) that lead to qualitative changes (vide the Protestant Reformation and, further on down the road, People Magazine). Whether technological change actually enhances human relationships and social organization is not so clear. It does allow the little guys to move almost as quickly and far less powerfully than the big. Ultimately, it's face-to-face embodied encounter that finally confirms a relationship. As they say, "Don't believe everything you read in the papers."

FM: If Epicurus had access to a computer and the Internet, would he use it? What would be the calculus of his decision to use a computer, or not use a computer? That is, would his decision be made on completely utilitarian factors?

SM: Nah. Epicurus would have stayed in the garden, drinking fresh water and earting barley porridge with his friends and followers. Human nature has some constancy, is not entirely subject to being shaped by historic or technological forces yet I think that an Epricurus would have found it difficult to flourish in a world of digital communication. One of his dicta was "Live unknown", and while he travelled some in the ancient world, he may not have done so in an evangelical spirit. He was, apparently, a lovable person, and won the personal devotion of Epicureans with a mixture of charisma and philosophical "news" - no god, no fear. Whatever it is that inflames chat groups and Internet romances is a different, less risky version of Eros.

About the hypothetical calculus of the virtual Epicurus to use or not to use a computer ("distance learning in ancient Athens") I suppose it would have been "utilitarian" in the Epicurean sense: does my use of this instrument ultimately bring me pleasure or pain? Near as I can tell, there is little sensual pleasure to be enjoyed confronting a computer screen and keyboard; several of my friends now have painfully crippling repetitive motion disorders. I'd like to think that Epicurus wouldn't write those consequences off as "side effects" or costs of doing business. More importantly, letting one's reach exceed one's grasp, or to let one's rhetoric outrace one's personal responsibility often leads to painful outcomes. Writer's cramp can be a brake on excess.

FM: Can there be such a thing as a philosophical critical mass? That is, if a sufficient number of people subscribe to a particular lifestyle, at what point do all of those individual, isolated decisions matter to the biosphere, to humanity?

SM: Thanks for Mother Jones! [Editor's note: Mother Jones was the illustration on the postcard with the question above.] - the grande dame of anarchy (in the best sense of the word), which philosophy may be gaining critical mass in the global justice movement. I'm sure there must be good analyses of the percentage of people in a society necessary to effect a shift. What percent of Indians had to engage in satyagraha to win independence? And what really changed? So far the most consequential philosophical/lifestyle shifts (monotheism, agriculture, enlightenment and industrialism) have been neither democratic nor all that biospherically beneficial. Still, like Mother Jones, we mustn't give up working for a better day no matter what.


Figure 1: One view of postcards from Stephanie Mills for this interview.


FM: It seems ostrich-like to state that technological change has questionable effects on human relationships. What are the effects of ships, trains, automoblies, and airplanes, if nothing but improved means to reduce distance between people and enhance communication? The Internet is only the latest transportation device to reduce distance between individuals. You use a car, you ride on planes - to ultimately visit and communicate with colleagues, peers, friends, and family. So why be so selective and say no to a computer and the Internet but yes to other modes of transportation and communication?

SM: Call me an ostrich, but just don't call me late for dinner. All of the transportation technologies you mention have the dual effect of dispersing people and then relinking them through vehicles and communications media - one effect of allowing our reach to exceed our grasp, letting us have attenuated relationships with families, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. There is a difference between living in the same town with a parent or friend, and staying in touch by phone and it's a qualitative difference. So I chose to draw a line where I could, and to exert some preference and be sparing in my use of other modes and media. My daily life is fine without e-mail and the Internet.

FM: Is there truth in simplicity? Beauty?

SM: Yah, I think that simplicity is a likely venue for capital T. Truth. I'm inclined to believe that Truth lies closer to the bone. Yet the greater Truth of this planet is complexity. Neither Simplification nor Complication serve Truth and Beauty well. I think of simplicity as akin to Essence. What's the simplest, frugallest, gracefullest means to a given purpose. "Simple in means, rich in ends" is how Arne Naess frames the philosophy of deep ecology. That natural richness of the whole system, compounded of the infinite simplicities of electron, atom, molecule, cell, organ, organism, population, habitat manifests tremendous beauty, which is beyond art and ego.

FM: Arne Naess might be best described as a skeptic. Pyrrho and his colleagues in Greece thought that real knowledge about anything is impossible. Would you describe yourself as a skeptic? Does a materialistic life, cluttered with things, inhibit a real understanding of the world? Consumerism is antiskeptic?

SM: My old mentor and friend Robert Theobald held that the only responsible answer to most consequential questions would begin "It all depends ... .

I do believe that real enough knowledge about things is possible, and that that is what the senses have been providing us and every other animate thing all along. So regarding those realms I am not skeptical, even though I'm aware that reductionist approaches can atomize them. There's much that I am skeptical about, and that's intraspecies intolerance and its content.

Materialistic lives look numb and bothersome to me, although they seem to be worlds to themselves. Still, the busier and thingier my lie gets, the more my understanding - in the sense of compassion as well as that of knowledge - is diminished.

FM: It is by the sweat of our collective brows that we know the Earth. Isn't it so? With various devices and tools as intermediaries between us and the Earth, between our sweat (and hence personal knowledge of the Earth) we lose our connection to our own planet. So a simple - and active - life makes us more understanding of the plight of dear mother Earth?

SM: Your sense that we know the Earth by our labors is shared by David Rothenberg in his Hand's End: Technology and the Limits of Nature (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1993).

Certainly, technique alienates us from the Earth, one another and ourselves. Or maybe not so certainly, come to think of it. If we regard foraging as "work" then that work is our primary connection with the planet - like a mouth to a mother's breast. Yet it seems to me that quantitative changes in our means - for instance in agriculture - wind up stripping, or rather confounding and obscuring, the quality of that relationship, as well as many others by putting us at such great removes from our sustenance.


Figure 2: Another view of postcards from Stephanie Mills for this interview.


FM: Arne Naess described the origins of his philosophy in William James' terms of tough-mindedness [1]. That is, James divided the world as a place populated by tender-minded and tough-minded indivduals. Would you call yourself tough-minded or tender-minded?

SM: Tough minded or tender? Not knowing the context James gave those items, I can only guess what I am. Tough. I think in my biocentrism, which is a hard row to hoe in an anthropocentric, increasingly anthropogenic world. Not tough in that I'm not a trained logician. Tender and fuzzy in my inconsistency. Tender within myself, actually. Who did James place in those interesting categories?

FM: How important is locale to ideas? You live in a rural area in Michigan, were raised in Arizona, and educated in part in the Bay area. You've remarked how important your education and experiences were to you in the Bay area in your book Whatever Happened to Ecology? (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1989) in creating your philosophy and perspective. Suppose you had been raised in northern Michigan, and educated in Arizona. Would locale play a different role in the formulation of your ideas?

SM: Locale in important to ideas, surely. For me, Arizona, Phoenix, was something to react against. I didn't like the town, couldn't wait to leave, and in the Bay area, I chanced into a circle of thinkers who helped me understand why. All of that was influenced by place. The Appalachians make a huge cultural divide in America. Likewise the Tehachapi Mountains.

Place is a rich and complex reality and the more nature is apparent in place, the more distinct the influence, I believe. Writing from the desert sounds different than writing from the North Woods. The big divide is between city place and country place. Cities rule! And I am glad that I passed through a great city on my way to the country, that I sojourned in California before settling in the Midwest. Huge subject. No telling what my life would be if I had followed my grandmother's trajectory. She certainly lived a much different life.

I escaped from one place to another and then another. My choice is not to live in the Noosphere, or even in the cosmopolis of thinkers to the detriment of my relationship with the reality that surrounds me here.

FM: Will the basic tenets of deep ecology ever penetrate very deeply into human consciousness? Are you optimistic about a reasonable recovery of global resources and environments in your lifetime?

SM: I'd like to think that the tenets of deep ecology are part of human consciousness by dint of the fact that we evolved, co-evolved with entire biotic communities. My hope would be that the philosophy of deep ecology, variously expressed or experienced, might strike resonant chords, or maybe send a thrill of recognition up and down one's spinal cord. The dominant culture is utterly antithetical to deep ecology, and planetary ecosystems are now so distorted, for the most part, that deep ecology's ground of being is threatened, and to think about the world in a deep ecological mode is threatening. Threatening, in a sense, to the thinker because the moral implications are deeply unsettling, and threatening to the anthropocentric world view. Same kind of discomfort the Origin of Species caused: we're in it and of it, not apart and over it. And how have we put our particular gifts to use in our biotic community here on planet Earth?

To quote the sage Sterling Bunnell: I think we're in for some rough bumping over the next 200 years.

FM: Do you see geographic divisions in ecological responses? That is, there is a certain perspective we have about the environment in the U.S. which might be considered radically different from those in Thailand or Nigeria or France. These differences about ecologically appropriate behavior in different places mean what? A less effective resolution of "global" problems? Or more realistic approaches to ecology in specialized "niches" in different places?

SM: I see geopolitical divisions in ecological interpretation, and differences owing to different environmental histories, different primal ecosystems having experienced different styles and durations of human occupancy. Indigenous peoples have always localized ways of doing things. Agriculture generalized behavior towards ecosystems and the ecosystems themselves. Resistance to globalization and its attendant problems is localized. I think that resistance to global problems like fossil fuel consumption, chemical contamination, the whole slew of woes needs to be both local and planetary. Alternatives can best be developed, or modified locally. Some kind of planetary parliament - the U.N. is all we have so far - needs to keep trying to "rule" (for lack of a better term) for the common weal. We've got a long, long way to go.

FM: We've talked a little about Arne Naess and ecologically sympathetic philosophies. Lois Ann Lorentzen, in an essay entitled "Reminiscing about a Sleepy Lake" [2], argues that many environmental movements on a local level are "women-centered" since women, especially in developing countries, are involved in day-to-day sustenance, and bear, according to her, "a disproportionate brunt of environmental impacts." She argues that these movements have a very practical aim, and require large scale reforms to improve local conditions. Would you argee with Lorentzen that there is a gender difference in environmental concerns? There are certainly North-South, developed-developing world differences, right?

SM: It's not all philosophy. Philosophy is crucial, has intrinsic value, is a very important pursuit and practice of clarity. Ideas do matter. That said, there's a sense in which environmental philosophy is epiphenomenal. And the day-to-day, common sense of people bearing the brunt of environmental destruction is a power and impetus to be reckoned with. I quite agree with what you attribute to Lorentzen. Women bearing the brunt of contamination, carrying much of the burden of householding, have been blunt, direct, nonviolent and persistent in their efforts. Also more comprehensive in their analyses, less hierarchical in their organizations, better at working on a shoestring, used to being dismissed as simple-minded.

Huge generalization.

Plenty of exceptional men in the cause. Far more women at the growing tip of grassroots movements, or supporting the front men. This is changing.


1. "William James introduced the terms 'tender minded' and tough minded' to characterize philosophers. I received a very strong push towards toughmindedness from my elder brothers." From Arne Naess, "How my philosophy seemed to develop," In: André Mercier et Maja Svilar (editors). Philosophes critiques d'eux-mêmes. Volume 10. Bern: Peter Lang, 1983, p. 213.

2. Lois Ann Lorentzen, "Reminiscing about a Sleepy Lake: Borderland Views of Women, Place, and the Wild," In: David Rothenberg (editor). Wild Ideas. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995, pp. 71-80.

Contents Index

Copyright © 2002, First Monday

FM Interviews: Stephanie Mills
First Monday, volume 7, number 6 (June 2002),