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Consciousness Is Cool, Just Ask Julia Butterfly Hill

A band of celebrities, musicians and activists are touring the country to promote the coolness of environmental consciousness.
 
 
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September 7 -- It's Sunday night, and Julia Butterfly Hill's eyes look a little bloodshot.

That's because she and everyone at Circle of Life, the environmental organization she founded four years ago just before ending her infamous two-year tree-sit in Northern California, have been working around the clock for months to get the first-ever We The Planet tour ( www.wetheplanet.org) on the road.

hillA unique collage of celebrities, musicians and activists in on-stage discussion, the tour will travel by vegetable oil and bio diesel-powered bus to a dozen locations across the Midwest and Southern California over the next two months.

The bus leaves in the morning en route to its first stop on September 11 in Boulder, Colorado. Instead of catching a few hours of sleep, however, Hill is moderating a panel discussion on activism in San Francisco, where she is joined by musician/peace proponent Michael Franti, human rights activist Van Jones and anti-war campaigner Gloria La Riva. The crowd is local, but the issues touched on -- sustainability, incarceration, pro-peace work -- are global. Part of the audience came for an acoustic performance by Franti, or to see Hill, an international celebrity.

Whatever their reasons, Hill is counting on using the same recipe to draw in university crowds and communities throughout the tour, which she conceived of a year ago while flying around the country for speaking engagements. Free admission, a casual setting and a cocktail of celebrities and activists (Tracy Chapman, Woody Harrelson, Patch Adams and Alice Walker are all part of the rotating lineup), are intended to reach out to a wide group of people.

"There's a whole other audience out there who are actually people who care, but they're not being reached out to in a way that they understand," says Hill. "Part of the reason is because a lot of people now communicate through marketing and branding. It's an actual language. So when we come in with our grassroots activism, it's as if you're trying to speak a foreign language. I know that grassroots activism is where the power is at, and yet we've gotten very good at articulating to a very specific audience."

Hill has substituted a brand of her own creation: Consciousness is Cool.

"The whole purpose behind We The Planet is that everything that is good for our bodies, our communities, our world and our planet is called 'the alternative,'" she points out.

environmentLeading by example, the tour emphasizes accessible, positive everyday solutions -- printing promotional materials on recycled paper and serving vegan/organic food. The We The Planet concert kickoff in April 2003 was the largest event in San Francisco's history to use recycling and composting: it cut down the waste stream by 70% and served food on biodegradable dishware (which vendors used solar power to cook). 10,000 people enjoyed music from a bio diesel-powered stage and visited over 50 non-profit stations. Pre-production carbon emissions were offset with wind energy, which was put back into the power grid later on.

The Lollapalooza music festival was quick to follow suit this year, powering its second stage with bio diesel, creating fuel cell and solar power technology demonstrations, and featuring dozens of progressive non-profits at its shows.

Sustainability is only part of the focus of We The Planet. Stops in racially segregated cities such as Chicago and Detroit are intended to highlight many of the social justice issues that affect communities of color.

"I'm going to all these areas to try to do what the mainstream media doesn't do, which is to shine a spotlight into these communities and say, "This is your backyard," says Hill. Circle of Life received its fair share of incredulity in the course of proposing to bring the tour, with its celebrity luster, to less wealthy neighborhoods.

Van Jones, National Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and an advocate for the reform of the U.S. criminal justice system, will take part in the tour.

"I feel like we don't have enough bridge-building people in the movement," he observes. "We have a lot of bricks but very little mortar, and I feel like Julia is willing to be the mortar that holds together a lot of the causes."

In this case, many of the groups coming together in the course of the tour may never even have heard of each other or the causes they represent. According to Jones, that's a special opportunity.

"The whole progressive movement is on a journey to itself, and we are coming to a realization under the new global reality that we need each other. The walls that divide us ... can be bridged by intention, and Julia has the intention to bridge those divides," he says.

We The Planet also includes several daytime events like the one in Rapid City, South Dakota, where Hill and environmentalist/indigenous rights activist Winona LaDuke have offered to help the local Lakota people try to prevent a shooting range from being constructed on their sacred grounds. "There's going to be a rally and a team of us going out to the actual site; also in the area is one of the top ten most endangered national forests. There's going to be a benefit screening of a film as well, so the community is leveraging us in three or four different ways," explains Hill.

Over-committed celebrities and musicians, along with bus routing considerations, have made for a shorter tour than was envisioned. Funding sources will have to be diversified if We The Planet is to sustain itself in the long run: Hill paid for most of it out of her own pocket this time around.

"The biggest reason I was willing to give everything I have for this tour is because I wanted to take the beauty, the power, the importance of grassroots activism and be able to articulate it in a language so that it could be heard," says Hill, smiling.

"Then people get it; then they go to the grassroots groups' tables and say, 'How can I help?'"

Julia Scott is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco.