Patti Smith On Climate Change And The One Thing Donald Trump Is Afraid Of
“The saddest answer is we can’t do anything until more and more people are personally affected”
On the mid-October afternoon I spoke with Patti Smith about her involvement with Pathway to Paris, the collective organization of activists and artists working to amplify solutions to the crisis of climate change, it was a humid 87 degrees in New York City. It felt like August—in Miami. Beyond that, the news was filled with stories of the horrific wildfires devastating California and the hurricane-ravaged conditions in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Texas. So it felt beyond appropriate to be talking with Smith, who will be one of many notable musicians participating in a Pathway to Paris concert at Carnegie Hall on November 5 (along with Joan Baez, Michael Stipe, Talib Kweli, Cat Power, and more), about the perils of ignoring our changing environment, what we can all do to help, and how the younger generation must—and will—be the one to enact radical change. Smith feels this last thing deeply as her daughter, Jesse Paris Smith, is one of the co-founders, along with Rebecca Foon, of Pathway to Paris. Read our interview below to find out Smith's thoughts on what's going on in the world and why she maintains hope for change in 2020.
We're speaking at a time when wildfires are blanketing California, and New Yorkers still need air conditioners. I guess my first question is, what do you say at this point to people who are climate change-deniers?
I think that this is a subject that has concerned many of us for a long time. You go beyond America... as a traveler, everywhere I go people talk about this. They are concerned about the extreme change. It's not like, "Oh, it's warmer than usual," it's, like, so hot that you don't have the facilities to cool anything down. There's nothing in one's recent history to prepare oneself for these changes.
So I guess the simplest—or the saddest—answer is we can't do anything until more and more people are personally affected. I mean, we can do everything that we can do, but it seems that people are going to be in denial until they are so affected, that they become concerned. It's just like the war in Vietnam; we couldn't get people involved against the war that was so long and so terrible until so many people lost sons, so many people lost brothers. So many young men or so many young women realized they were going off to some war they didn't understand, and might never come back. This became so widespread, it was touching everyone, and then the people rose up and protested.
But I don't want to hope for that because, in hoping for that, we are hoping that things will get worse and worse, but they're already worse. They're already so bad everywhere you look. The air right now in San Francisco is the most toxic it's ever been in San Francisco's history because of all the fires in Santa Rosa. So, I don't know how much worse it can get except all these dots start connecting, and it takes a toll on human life, on human health, on human resources.
That's why for me this event is so inspiring. It's not really an event that's going to raise a lot of money or anything like that. It's not that kind of event; it's an awareness event. It's to do something high-profile and to really have good people gather together to raise some awareness about the situation.
This is something done by two young girls, and that is the other thing I find so extraordinary. Of course, one happens to be my daughter, but still, I'm in awe when I think about myself at her age. Yeah, I was speaking against radio censorship and I was concerned about the war in Vietnam at the time and, of course, Civil Rights, but the amount of activism that she's engaged in far surpasses anything I ever did as a young person.
So, for me, there are two things that make me want to be a part of it. One, is the support, the activism of our youth, and the other is because it's a necessity. Even though my daughter's concerns are my concerns, she has become the more articulate one. She has been the most active politically. She is the one going out there on the forefront, and so I'm not leading this charge, I'm following.
I think it's important that young people lead these charges. So that's why I'll be there. Because we're doing two things by supporting this concert: It's a learning experience, it's also entertainment. But we're not only supporting an idea, we're supporting the young who have taken an initiative. This initiative is far more reaching than the concert. The concert is one milestone or one stepping stone. I want people to come and know they're doing. They're learning, and they're also responding to this crisis, but also supporting the youthful initiative.
Something that stood out to me about Pathway to Paris is how it's really youth-led, which is really inspiring and also emblematic of the activism that I see in people who are in their 20s or in their 30s right now. But also it's great because it's drawing on different generations of people who have all been activists and people who can bring together the kind of audience that needs to be paying attention to this issue. It's fascinating to think of using activism techniques from the last 50 to 60 years, in order to try and effect change now for the environmental disasters.
Well, look at the people... I mean [Jesse] got in touch with Joan Baez, and Joan Baez responded. Fifty years ago, Joan Baez was walking with Martin Luther King. Joan Baez has been working on behalf of the people, the environment, against war, against racism, in support of immigration. Here she is again coming to help a young girl who she's never met. I've met Joan Baez, and she's a wonderful person and I'm a big fan of hers. But she's coming from California to give support to this, and she believes in the same thing because that's what she did as a young girl.
This environmental crisis essentially is a human rights issue, and it's just going to affect everybody, but it's going to affect everybody in the world incredibly unequally. It's really easy if you live in a first world country and you're semi-protected by the infrastructure to think, Oh I'll just have to use my air conditioner an extra couple months of the year, or, That's why flood insurance exists, and not actually change your behaviors and your habits.
Mother Nature knows no race, she knows no good or evil, she just exists. How we abuse our planet and abuse Mother Nature, and how she erupts because of it, is on us all. About 20 years ago, I think, a group of us were working with the Dalai Lama. We were sitting around, and Adam Yauch, who was in the Beastie Boys, asked His Holiness, "What is the number one thing that young people can do for Tibet?" The Dalai Lama looked at him and said, "The number one thing that young people can do is be concerned and vigilant about the environment." He said, "Not Tibet, not any place," he said, "we have to go beyond personal concerns."
We have to choose, if you're going to be an activist or if you're going to be active or aware; choose the thing that affects all mankind, not just the people of Tibet or any particular region. He said that close to 20 years ago, that's why you have to be attentive, because everything that we do, every atrocity that we perform upon the Earth environmentally to pollute our water, the dirt, fracking, hazardous waste, all of these things that are poisoning our water and our Earth, are going to eventually seep into the greater water system. It's going to seep into the drinking water. It's going to seep into the Earth. You're gonna have animals and bees and flowers filled with pesticides. Everything he said has come to pass. In terms of activism, the most beneficial to all mankind is the one that benefits and will protect and help all of mankind, and that's environmental awareness and what we can do to move from antiquated energy sources and going off of fossil fuel and developing renewable energy and transforming our cities. That's what we have to do, in city after city after city after city.
I guess what always shocks me is the inherent nihilism that goes along with not caring about the environment. You're preparing the world to end for your children and your children's children. It's so fatalistic.
People say, "Well, I have air conditioning," or "those fires aren't coming my way." There are always ways to feel like it doesn't affect you, but sooner or later, the dots will start connecting, and it's not just affecting your neighbor across, you know, three states. It's going to be your backyard. You know, it's not like doomsday things, these are things that are happening around us. I'm 70 years old, and I can't ever remember such extreme weather in so many places.
It's happening everywhere. What's your feeling about people who might be disillusioned or disheartened because of the monstrous human being who is now our president? Do you have any inspiring words?
Well, I feel the exact same way. Beyond being broken-hearted, there are all the things that go with it. Anger, a certain amount of fear, shame, all kinds of things, because again, as I travel, I see how the respect that people had for us and for Americans and for our country is so diminished. When you have someone for president, he becomes, whether you like it or not, a role model for behavior and police systems. And we have a person that doesn't seem to have any empathy, who is not qualified, is not knowledgeable, and it's like... his golf course wasn't affected by the storms. If it was he probably has the best insurance. Like he said in Puerto Rico, "Oh, you didn't lose thousands of people, it wasn't so bad." Thirty-four people died, and if 15 of them were his family members, how would he feel about that? Are those 34 people expendable?
I know for myself, it's very very hard. Every single day, it's a challenge not to get swept up in the worst of his behavior. So I try not to do that, and I try to just be as good of a human being as I can be, that's productive, and stay healthy. Basically, try to be even more positive than ever, even in the face of all of this.
I remember once when I was working for Ralph Nader, he said, "Pessimism and negativity breed nothing." You don't create out of pessimism, you don't create out of negativity. So somehow, we have to stay optimistic and stay on our own course. We can't feel powerless; we can't let ourselves feel helpless. Like those at Standing Rock who stood and fought and fought until they bled, we can't give up. The best thing that we can do is unite. That's the one thing that we have and young people have in this present culture. This present culture is a lot more complex than things were when I was younger. But the one thing that this present culture has that we didn't have is the technological ability to unite almost instantaneously. And if young people just decided to take one initiative, which would hopefully be climate-involved, and decided they are going to globally take a stand—whether it's against nuclear weapons, whether it's against war—they can become the most thunderous voice in human history.
I think it's very very hard to think about what we can do to change things or be positive right now with [Trump] at the helm. But we are the people, and the people in the end rule. The people vote, the people march, the people can unite, and the only thing, when you think about Donald Trump—what fills him with anger, worry, and made him start to lie in the very beginning of his presidency—he didn't have as many people at his inauguration as Obama. Numbers are very important to him, and if we multiplied our numbers against him, numbers are the one thing he fears and cannot deny. I'm not talking about a thousand people, a million people. I'm talking about millions. We can do that. The youth of America has it in their power. The youth of the world, not just America. They just have to start developing a network. A network that has a plan and comprehends their potential power. Their potential positive power. Just about the best way I can answer is somehow in the midst of everything, stay healthy, stay strong, and don't let anybody beat you down.
There is power in truth and numbers and ultimately, there's a lot more of us who either already realize or are beginning to realize or are just on the verge of it that this just isn't a problem that we can ignore.
It's just gonna happen because even if it takes a while, in 2020, there's going to be another election. And 2020, when you think about it is "20/20," and what does "20/20" represent? It's perfect vision. It's, like, time for the visionaries to roll up your sleeves and get ready for 2020. We're all making little patches for the great activist carpet, we just have to get our little patches stitched together.