Effective Altruism: How to Support Sustainability, While Still Enjoying Nature
Johnie Gall “Dirtbag Darling” interviewed by Laura Visconti
Q: Can you walk us through a day-in-the-life? Where in the world are you today?
A: I am perpetually bouncing around the country for work, but right now I’m sitting at a friend’s house in rural Kodiak, Alaska. In a few hours I have a flight to Anchorage to go meet with a glacier guide to learn about her work educating youth on climate change. My husband and I are currently one month in of four months of continuous travel as he develops a sabbatical program for his company — my usual routine is way less exciting. A lot more desk time, and a lot more iced coffee.
Q: Sustainability and protecting the environment have become a big part of your storytelling. How do you practice sustainability in your everyday travels? What are a few things we all could easily implement right away to lessen our impact on this planet?
A: My entire career as a writer and editor has revolved around the environment in some capacity. My first job was in the surf industry, so I had the opportunity to observe and work with organizations like Surfrider and Protect Our Winters early on and those insights really informed the type of work I lean into now.
I think, like most environmental advocates, I can find myself a bit embattled internally over a desire to protect and preserve wild places while simultaneously using them. It can feel overwhelmingly hypocritical at times, but I also know the way people feel about a place, their emotional tie, informs the ways they act to protect it.
I often reference one of my favorite books called “The Most Good You Can Do,” by bioethicist Peter Singer, who subscribes to the idea of effective altruism. It’s the practice of using both reason and evidence to determine how one can use their resources to do the most good. So, for example, taking a cross-country flight generates about 20% of the greenhouse gases my car emits in a year, but that flight is typically necessary to my work on a documentary project or photo assignment I believe will help educate others about environmental issues. The hope is that the work may affect enough positive change and awareness that it offsets that flight (I’ve also taken to paying more for direct flights and buying carbon offset credits to benefit wind farms and forest conservation programs, but that’s another story). Is the equation perfectly balanced? Probably not.
The point of all this being that I try my damndest to do more good than harm, but it’s an evolution and a learning process, not just for me but for all environmental advocates. Part of that evolution is a commitment to asking the brands I work with to prove their contributions to conservation and sustainability, or to show me their roadmap to getting there.
The easiest ways to help the planet: consume less and live more mindfully. Those actions together are often the hardest to accomplish, but the most important. Also, find ways to bring more people into the fold. Activism needs to be inclusive in order to be productive so that social justice and environmental justice go hand in hand.
Q: Who are some companies or brands that are practicing sustainability really well?
A: Sustainability has so many definitions and complexities. Any company creating a product is having some negative impact on the planet, so it really comes down, again, to whether a brand is doing the most good it can do. Patagonia is obviously leading the way in social and environmental responsibility. They do a great job yielding their influence at a political level, too, which is so crucial. Other mission-driven brands I love include Seea, Prana, September The Line, Toad and Co, Bureo, Filson, Conner Hats, and Mohinders.
Q: I’ve been working with you on Teva blog content for awhile now. You’ve done a tremendous job elevating storytelling around the Teva brand these past few years — what kind of content do you think people are most interested in right now? Do people still read blog posts?
A: When I took over the Teva blog, I thought about what Teva offered as a brand that other shoe companies couldn’t. What I landed on is their heritage: they were truly the first adventure sandal purveyors. The Original Universal sandal was designed by a river guide using two watch straps and an old pair of flip flops, and with that, the brand created a crossover shoe that opened up this entire world of new adventures to people. Now people could go where they couldn’t before. Everyone remembers their first pair of Teva sandals. I try to evoke that feeling through the content we create, and tell stories that appeal to the human spirit of adventure, while also elevating the messages of people working to protect and preserve the outdoors. I know people are reading the blog posts because I’ve got access to the analytics, haha, but I hope they continue to visit the blog because it makes them feel something.
Q: You spend a lot of time living out of a van. What’s the least glamorous thing about van life? What’s the best part?
A: Yeah! We’ve spent the better part of seven or eight years living out of one van or another for periods of time. Will try to avoid the cliches here, but the least glamorous thing about van life is the lack of routine, to be honest. It’s taxing on your body, your career, your mental health. The best part is simply learning that you can get by with very little and feel satisfied and whole. It’s such a good and needed reminder for me to wear the same outfit for weeks and realize style matters very little. Perspective is the gift of van life.
Q: What project are you currently most excited about, and how can we follow along?
A: Right now I’m meeting with non-profits and individuals around the world to find out what they are doing at a community level to mitigate the effects of plastic pollution. So many incredible people — from marine debris artists to aquarium curators to researchers — have gifted me their time to teach me about the far-reaching implications and downstream effects of plastic pollution. It’s a more complex issue than I ever could have imagined. I’ll be sharing some of what I learn on social media for now @DirtbagDarling, and eventually hope to find a home for a larger article on the topic.
Q: You inspire us, so we want to know: who inspires you?
A: People who lean into uncertainty, controversy and growth. People who act with integrity and passion. The people who inspire me most aren’t big names with thousands of followers — they are the ones working on the frontlines and behind the scenes of important projects and causes who don’t always get the accolades and attention.