This article is part of the Daxsen Agents of Change series.
Susan Rockefeller is an inspiring force in the world of environmental sustainability, using her influence and leadership to drive meaningful change on a global scale. As a dedicated philanthropist, filmmaker, and entrepreneur, she has worked tirelessly to promote the conservation of natural resources and the protection of the planet’s biodiversity. Her tireless efforts to inspire others to join her in this mission have earned her a reputation as one of the most influential voices in the environmental movement today.
Susan’s work is guided by a deep sense of passion and commitment to the earth and all its inhabitants. Her dedication to sustainable living is reflected in her many initiatives, including the founding of Musings, a digital magazine that showcases responsible innovation and action for a better world. As a board member of several high-profile environmental organizations, including Oceana, she has played a vital role in shaping policy and driving change. Her passion for conservation is also evident in her work as a filmmaker, having produced and directed several documentaries that explore the intersection of humanity and the natural world.
In this interview, we will explore Susan’s views on the pressing environmental issues of our time and her vision for a more sustainable future. From her perspective on the moral implications of environmental sustainability to her thoughts on the role of technology in promoting a greener world, we will delve into the most pressing questions facing the environmental movement today. Above all, we will seek to understand how Susan’s inspiring work can help to shape a more positive future for our planet and all those who call it home.
1) What inspired you to become a filmmaker and how has that passion influenced your philanthropic work?
I’ve been an artist all my life. From journaling and writing, watercolor and ceramics in my early years, to gardening and photography in college. After college, I morphed into photography and storytelling and then organically into filmmaking. I love the different skills involved in filmmaking from producing, directing, writing, fundraising, filming, editing, and music choices to, at this juncture, ushering new talent into the field with stories that need to be told and new ideas that need to be amplified around the world. The draw of filmmaking is that it provides an opening for art, beauty, and storytelling to bring empathy into the hearts and minds of people who watch your film. Our world needs more empathy and understanding of ‘other’ and filmmaking is a powerful vehicle to do so. I love the collaborative nature of it, and that you are only as good as the ecosystem you put together to make your film and the notion that ideas matter and filmmaking entertains and inspires. It is also philanthropic and can activate the human heart towards compassion and action. I give to nonprofit organizations connected to campaigns associated with films to message and create movements around ideas that matter. Whether it be on ocean conservation, food justice, music as a force for healing, psilocybin use for dying patients, etc., film can elevate vital conversations for systemic change.
2) You’ve been an advocate for sustainable living and environmental conservation for many years. How have you seen attitudes towards these issues change over time, and what more needs to be done to address them?
I think the biggest change I have seen relates to people understanding more fully the role others play in the labor and manufacturing of everything we use on a daily basis. More eyes have opened to the horrible working conditions of many women in factories around the world, and the fact that the Global South is inheriting the majority of the climate crises with flooding, heat-related deaths and more. Climate is now part of the news cycle, and part of films and television series that are gaining more and more momentum around the world (think Extrapolations, The Last of Us, Don’t Look Up and books like The Ministry for the Future).
I believe we need leadership in government and in business and collaboration throughout supply chains to address climate issues and systems change. There are more coalitions working together like Net Positive with Paul Polman, and global groups like Oceana who are helping enforce fishing regulations country by country to save the oceans and feed the world. I also think technology is helping people understand modeling and direct relations and outcomes that will affect people. When it becomes personal, people wake up. Climate is affecting millions and millions of more people around the world and hence waking people up to the realities facing us and our planet.
3) In your opinion, what is the most pressing environmental issue facing us today, and how can you address it?
Climate change is the biggest threat facing our planet and I will speak specifically to how I address it with my work as a board member at Oceana. Obviously, we need to find our way to a clean energy future, and we work to prevent offshore drilling, promote wind energy and save our oceans for the future health of our planetary ecosystem. The good news is that our oceans are, so far, resilient, and if we work to protect them from overfishing, bottom trawling and pollution, we can help feed over 3 billion people who rely on fish as an animal protein meal each day. Livestock production is a major driver of climate change that uses water and agricultural land to feed cattle. By contrast, fish need little fresh water for processing and are the last major wild protein left in the world that can feed some of the poorest and most vulnerable coastal communities. Protecting our oceans for food security is a big win in the battle against climate change.
4) There is a growing movement of climate skeptics who dispute the scientific consensus on climate change. How do you address this skepticism, and what strategies do you use to communicate the urgency and importance of addressing climate change to a skeptical audience?
I frankly don’t spend my time defending myself against climate skeptics. There is too much work to do to protect what we love. But one inroad for me is focusing on human health and compassion for animals. If someone loves their dog, they wouldn’t think of eating it right? If people understood the sentient nature of animals (and I recommend watching Gunda, a beautiful film on this topic), there may be more compassion toward not eating animals which is a big contributor to climate change. Eating a more plant-based diet would have positive climate impacts and healthier human outcomes as well.
5) The concept of sustainability is often viewed as being at odds with economic growth and development. How do you address this criticism, and what strategies do you see as most effective in promoting sustainable development that also supports economic growth?
Much has been written on the benefits of sustainable business practices, from the circular economy and reusing water and waste streams to minimizing waste at every stage of an industrial process. Business is now responsible for ESG reporting and minimizing carbon to net zero or net positive outcomes. Businesses adhering to these paradigms are innovating and winning the purchasing dollars of Gen Z, Millennials, and conscious consumers around the world, who are looking to make choices that will be a win-win for the planet. At this time, sustainability is seen as the rational means of doing business and staying in business. Also, public-private partnerships will accelerate business and infrastructure toward sustainable ends.
6) One of the key debates in the sustainability movement is between “deep ecology” and “shallow ecology.” How do you see this debate, and where do you stand on this issue?
Deep ecology at its core emphasizes that the living environment as an ecosystem has the same right as humans do in terms of their ability to flourish. ‘Shallow ecology’ focuses on more short-term answers to environmental issues through the use of technology. Personally, I believe we need both paradigms and what is considered shallow ecology can be part of a transition necessary to meet the needs of a flourishing future. Deep ecology is philosophical and a beautiful lens in which to ideate and think about living systems and how to maximize for ecological health across bioregional and global commons. Together we need short and long terms goals to address climate and this is one way to do so.
7) The concept of “ecological debt” has been proposed as a way of recognizing the historical and ongoing exploitation of natural resources by wealthy countries. How do you see this concept, and what strategies do you think are most effective in addressing ecological debt?
This will most likely will be addressed more fully by governmental bodies and transnational corporations, as well as UN conferences that are looking at climate issues and ecological debt. Historically, it has been the result of the exportation of raw materials from the Global South, which doesn’t account for the full system accounting of the impact on poorer communities. Also, the richer countries use a disproportionate amount of these raw materials and account for more of the global carbon footprint. Payment of some kind is a negotiation that needs to be looked at and worked out for our common future.
8) You’re a member of the Rockefeller family, a family with a long history of philanthropy and public service. How has that legacy influenced your own work, and what responsibility do you feel to continue that legacy?
Being married to my husband David Rockefeller, we work together in many areas of philanthropy and public service. Our mantra is ‘to protect what is precious’ and we have three pillars: Family, Art, and Nature. These pillars keep us focused on supporting efforts in our local and global communities to help ensure that the poor and most vulnerable have food security. We support the arts as creative glue to help communities come together and share in the beauty of creative expression and believe that creativity can move people from consumption to being involved in creative processes. And we support nature because if our environment isn’t healthy we won’t be either. We support, in particular, work with healthy soil and healthy seas through regenerative agriculture at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture and through our work with the Peggy McGrath Rockefeller Foundation in the Hudson Valley of New York where we farm 2k acres of grain. With regard to healthy seas, we work on global ocean protection through Oceana.
9) What advice do you have for individuals who want to make a difference in the world but don’t know where to start?
I believe everyone can start in small ways to make a difference. One way for better human and planetary health is to eat a plant-based diet and less meat. From an environmental and compassionate standpoint, reducing meat consumption is better for your carbon footprint, and reduces your personal contribution to an industrial food system that treats animals in a horribly degraded way. Your choice of what to eat matters; eating as Wendell Berry says is ‘an ecological act.’
I would also encourage adding an environmental lens to whatever field you are in and your lifestyle choices. On a local and national level, support candidates who have an environmental understanding for greener systems of transportation, waste management, and energy efficiency. There are so many ways to make a difference in your own life, your job, and your community. Once you start this journey, you begin to see the interconnected nature of all life and it deepens the choices you make. I say ‘just start’ and you will find that whatever your passion is, the environment will also be there as it permeates every aspect of our lives. When you step deeper into what you love, and where you find love and beauty, you will also find ways to protect it that relate integrally and intimately with our environment as a whole.
The Profound Interconnectedness Of All Life In This Planet
Susan Rockefeller’s unwavering commitment to environmental sustainability is an inspiration to us all. Through her tireless work as a philanthropist, filmmaker, and entrepreneur, she has shown us the power of passion, dedication, and leadership in driving meaningful change.
Throughout our conversation, Susan shared her deep insights and perspectives on the most pressing environmental issues of our time. From her thoughts on the importance of individual action to her vision for a more sustainable future, her wisdom and experience provide a roadmap for those of us seeking to make a positive impact in our own lives.
But perhaps most importantly, Susan’s work reminds us of the profound interconnectedness of all life on this planet. From the smallest microbe to the mightiest whale, every living thing is part of a delicate ecosystem that requires our attention and care. As Susan has shown us, it is up to each of us to take responsibility for our actions and work together to create a brighter future for ourselves and future generations.