If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, Dallas, the ensemble comedy Relationship Status or any number of popular TV series, you probably know Emma Bell. But you may not realize the actress-director is also a lifelong environmental activist who regularly works with organizations such as Earthjustice, Unitepeople, and Greenpeace to repair the planet. In a cover feature for our print edition ONE (on sustainability and holistic thinking), we consulted Emma for her very informed takes on fracking, reusable resources, and femininity’s special bond with the Earth.
HONEYSUCKLE: You’re so active in the sustainability space. How can more people get environmentally involved?
EMMA BELL: Honestly I feel like I could be doing so much more in sustainability, because there’s always something else to focus on. It can become overwhelming just trying to be “environmentally conscious.” To different people that means different things. If you focus on one cause at a time, it can be easier to manage. For example, if you are focusing on plastic waste, you can research groups that specifically deal with that cause and volunteer or utilize practices in your own life. The same goes if you care about healthy oceans, stopping clear cutting, or communal gardening, etc. I’ve dabbled in all of those!
The biggest thing I tell people is that if they can make incremental changes in their own lives, it makes a huge difference. It’s also catching. When I refuse a plastic straw at a restaurant, people always ask me why and I get to tell them about something they weren’t aware of. The toughest obstacle to change is convenience. When our lives are so full, we always go for the easiest choice. It’s easier to order takeout or double-bag your chicken at the grocery store; to drive instead of walk; to buy the big brands we know. Remind yourself that the extra time spent doing research on farm practices or ingredients in our products, or even pre-cooking meals for those late nights is time well spent for our future. Saying that, of course I fall into laziness; it’s all about doing better.
What are your favorite causes?
There are so many important causes for me it’s sincerely like Sophie’s Choice! I am particularly partial to protecting our forests and old growth trees here in California. As such I’ve been a giant supporter of the Sierra Club and the national parks systems for almost my entire adult life. I’m getting married in October and we have an option on our registry to donate to plant trees around the States. Every branch of environmentalism is connected, so if you help in one way you are actually helping in more ways than you think.
It’s really important that we don’t just fight for change on individual levels, but also hold our government and corporations responsible for long-term changes on a legal level. To that end, we can research candidates and see where they fall on environmental issues and what legislation they’ve already passed or supported. Voting and being more involved politically is another great way to make sincere change. Look at our current President – he nominated a man as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who wants to get rid of it. So a vote for Trump (or not voting) was a vote for disastrous environmental policies!
You’ve spoken about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and the wide availability of alternative energy sources. What makes fracking so destructive, and which sustainable sources should we be developing?
I could write a book about my thoughts on fracking (but I won’t). It’s a multi-pronged problem. The first and most glaring is that the fuel itself is actually cleaner, so companies were very quick to switch from coal or gasoline to the gas captured from hydraulic fracturing, but the extraction of the gases is the environmental issue. The process requires an insane amount of water, which is then mixed with highly toxic chemicals, and this mixture enters and pollutes waterways. Also, the gas needs to be transported by pipelines, which often go through protected lands and residential areas. Pipelines are dangerous because they’re hard to maintain, especially as far down as some pipes need to be, particularly when they go under waterways like rivers. Going through protected lands also means drilling in places that should be preserved and affects many animals’ migration routes, not to mention the destruction of trucks caravanning to pipeline sites and the high probability of gas leaks. A proposed PennEast Pipeline is slated to go through protected lands in New Jersey along a fault line. Imagine what could happen if there was a quake and the pipeline burst? Did I mention the extracted gas is highly flammable? And the extreme rate of contamination in the small communities surrounding these pipelines means people will get sick from drinking polluted water.
Another issue is using more hydraulically fractured gas, theoretically, allows the US to be less dependent on foreign oil, which is better for our economy. The pipelines are supposed to help local communities as well by supplying jobs and creating economic growth for small businesses, but in many cases the fracked gas is sold overseas instead of being distributed to the communities the pipelines cross. Also, most jobs created are temporary because they end once the pipeline is completed. Notably, most of these positions are filled by workers who travel across states following pipelines. So it hasn’t been proven to help any local workforces long-term.
Lastly and most significantly: Like gasoline, fracking is not a reusable energy. We will run out of fracked gas and before we do, we’ll destroy and pollute our cities and wild areas. I believe we need to focus on truly sustainable sources, my favorites being solar and wind in areas where those resources are plentiful. I don’t know enough about thermal energy, although that’s another big contender in the field.
Are you still a dedicated organic gardener?
I try to grow my own food as much as possible, but that’s gone down dramatically in the last few years because LA County has been under a water advisory due to our everlasting drought. I’ve had to limit my water output, especially in summer, so the only real foods that continue to grow are my tomatoes, herbs and hearty greens such as kale. But even this is helpful and tasty. My tomatoes are the sweetest I’ve ever eaten.
Growing up in New Jersey, we lived on a lot of acreage in a pretty farm-centric town, so growing or picking your own food from local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs was second-nature to me. My mom had a giant vegetable garden and we had many fruit trees as well.
But I didn’t start growing my own food until I moved to LA and got a place with some land. I was inspired by a book I read about Biodynamic farming and how utilizing the celestial map and homemade fertilizers can produce more abundant, healthy food. It was then that I started composting, which is the best way to use food scraps so they don’t get thrown into the landfill, while also creating some of the richest material for vegetables and flowers alike! My garden thrives on compost. I highly recommend having your own garden even if it’s just your favorite herbs. If you have only a window box, you can still grow something.
How does humanity’s connection to the Earth relate to your core beliefs?
Of course there’s connectivity between us and nature. Humans are a part of nature and therefore nature is a part of us. If we fail to protect our environment to the point where it becomes a hostile place to live, we are screwing ourselves! Anyone who argues that it’s environment vs. economics is full of it. Firstly that is incredibly shortsighted and potentially fatal. Secondly, I think it’s just flat-out wrong. The environmental conservation sector hasn’t been allowed to be tapped for job opportunities because the powers that be like the current system. They stand to make far more money off fossil fuels than solar energy. But if we demand it, we can make it happen and transfer that power from corporations to the people. Look at how much we spent on relief efforts last year alone – billions of dollars that could have gone back to education, health services, technology, and transportation.
There’s much to be said of the connection between caring for the environment and raising community consciousness. We have so many opportunities to help the people who need it most through conservation-centric programs. Taking low-income kids into nature increases their confidence level and instills a sense of hope. Through this lens, we can teach our youth the skill sets they’ll need for our expanding world and give them an advantage in the job force of the future.
Nature is the greatest gift we have for mental, emotional and spiritual health. A walk in the forests, a swim in the ocean, a hike on a mountain and river rafting have all been proven as natural anti-depressants. I believe being in nature has the power to inspire change and create happiness. We could all do more to appreciate something outside of ourselves.
How do your twin passions for environmentalism and women’s rights advocacy converge?
This goes hand-in-hand with our connectivity to nature, but the parallels between advocacy for female rights and the environment are intrinsic. Women have the unique responsibility of being the stewards for our future generations. Childbirth is the most natural experience a person can go through; therefore, fighting to ensure women have the right to make the decision themselves when or if they want a family is crucial to a healthier environment. I’ve worked with some very low-income moms and I’m always struck with their fearlessness and perseverance through hardship. These women work two or three jobs to take care of their families and as such don’t have the luxury to be incredibly eco-conscious. I think we could be better about not only teaching women the importance of good nutrition, but making those foods more accessible to them. Being ‘green’ or eating ‘organic’ is an option for the wealthy, where they can afford to buy a $20 chicken because it’s from a small farm and has plenty of roaming room. Many struggling women out there can’t make that same decision. This needs to change. Again, your vote is an important contributor.
Do you notice any trends within the entertainment industry toward sustainability and healing the planet?
There are numerous trends in the entertainment industry and a movement towards eco-consciousness. For example, certain studios have banned plastic water bottles, which is great. Many “wrap” gifts are reusable to-go mugs or water bottles – also great. But I definitely think there’s a lot of ground to cover in this particular field. It’s upsetting because it truly is cheaper to go with more conventional materials like plastic or paper. You can buy them in bulk and they’re easy to throw away, which means you don’t need to hire anyone to wash them. I have run a couple of my own sets for short films I’ve directed, and on a tight budget it’s incredibly hard to justify the expense of washable plates or buying everyone reusable materials. I’m not exactly sure how to tackle this, except to remind people to be responsible for themselves. I always try to bring reusables whenever I’m on a set and encourage others to do the same. I also think more sets could be better about recycling and making sure bins are easily accessible.
We do now have some outspoken celebrities who advocate for the environment and that is very hopeful. Leonardo DiCaprio, Shailene Woodley, Mark Ruffalo, Natalie Portman are among those using their platforms to inspire change. I hope we don’t have the need for subsections of people who are advocates in the future, but rather that it just becomes a part of our daily consciousness.
Tell us about your new projects! You just directed your brother Chase Bell’s excellent music video “HARD ROCKR,” and you’ve mentioned more coming up.
I did just finish directing my brother’s latest single, “Hard Rockr.” It’s on YouTube for those interested! I’m also editing my second short film, Between the Pines, which tells the story of a family living through the grief of losing a child and having completely different perspectives on how to deal. It is a dark fairytale, which is my absolute favorite world to be in, and I will be pushing it on a festival run when we’re done with post.