Q&A with Mark Ruffalo: Shining a Light on Solutions

Mark Ruffalo speaks out on climate change and fracking.

November 30, 2017
Mark Ruffalo
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Mark Ruffalo—an actor, humanitarian, social activist, and film producer—sat down with youth activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez to discuss climate change, the Flint water crisis, and fracking. This interview was originally published in Xiuhtezcatl’s book, We Rise.

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: In the late 2000s many people working on climate issues hadn’t woken up to the dangers of fracking. You were one of the first public figures to speak out on the issue. What opened your eyes and motivated you to speak out before others?

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Mark Ruffalo: At that time, many people in the environmental movement saw natural gas as the remedy to the horrors of coal. Most of the big green NGOs saw the transition to methane as a way for us to combat climate change and pollution. My family and I had moved to upstate New York around that time and little did we know, we had landed right smack dab into the Gaslands that Josh Fox’s excellent documentary Gasland portrays. At first, like many environmentally conscious people, I thought that methane was a reasonable transition fuel because it burned clean. I was not aware of the devastating impacts methane has as a heat-trapping gas or how destructive the process of fracking is on the environment. I would have felt differently had I known how much pollution it produces and how damaging it is to air, water, and land. I started to study it, and what I came to learn was a very different picture from the one that its supporters were painting. What really moved me was my visit to Dimock Township, Pennsylvania. Ramsay Adams, executive director of Catskill Mountainkeeper, invited me to visit a fracked community. What I saw and heard on my visit broke my heart and drove me into action. I saw a community that in most ways could have been living in a banana republic. It was like a gold rush. The rule of law had become a single industry falling over itself to turn profits as quickly as possible.

What was the outcome? A community devastated by an industry that had all but bought off the local and state government. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection was in charge of promoting drilling in the state, which put it at odds with its own reason for existence. You had neighbor hating neighbor and an influx of money into the hands of a few while property values plummeted, trucks tore down single lane country roads, and people’s drinking wells became contaminated by methane gas and fracking chemicals. The general mood of the place was utter despair and desperation. The federal EPA was also at that point a somewhat captured agency with the false belief that methane was the lesser of two necessary evils. They too were falling all over themselves to accommodate and accelerate the transition from coal to methane. During my visit to Dimock, 30 people came together to testify to me and others about how this out-of-control freight train had ruined their lives. It was in the pleas of the good, decent, blue collar and working class people in Dimock that I found my calling to fight against this monstrosity that was already deeply established and heartily welcomed from Wall Street to the big greens NGOs...from devastated farmers to the president of the USA.

More: Bill Nye: "If the EPA Is Under Assault, We're All Under Assault"

XM: You are a cofounder of the Solutions Project, a nonprofit that has mapped out the way the entire world can go 100 percent renewable, while creating jobs and saving lives. What do you think is keeping us from making this transition as quickly as possible?

 
 

MR: The two “I”s: inertia and ignorance—some of it accidental, but much of it willful. We have to remember that much of America’s supremacy in the world hinges on the fact that we have cheap fossil fuels and that we have built an entire economic hegemony on that basis. This gives the fossil fuel industry and the utility and transportation industries an outdated and unprecedented amount of influence over our political and economic system. We can’t forget this didn’t come about overnight and for the most part the entire growth of our nation over the last hundred years is wound up and bound tightly to the fossil-political industrial complex. Even with the emergence of clean energy that every day becomes cheaper, and even when all of the hidden costs in the fossil fuel paradigm are factored in—pollution, remediation, health effects, wars fought over resources, infrastructure, and the damage of climate change—most of our politicians and many of our business leaders are doing as much as they possibly can to stand in the way of the inevitable transition to clean and renewable energy sources.

Why? Well, what makes a human being do thoughtless, senseless things that hurt their communities, harm their neighbors, cause them to go to war, bury their humanity and become deaf to the voice of common morality that lives in the minds and hearts of all healthy people? The answer is money and power. Political and business leaders don’t want to lose out on the money and they don’t want to cede their power. A transition to 100 percent renewable energy will give an enormous amount of power to the consumer. It will ensure that money circulates inside communities instead of going to a single corporation like Exxon or a monolithic utility company that will take money out of the community and send it to coal companies or shareholders. The 100 percent distributed energy system simply harvests what is falling down out of the sky, blowing across our lands, and moving through our waters. It puts power and money into the hands of the many instead of the few. Unfortunately, there are some very cynical forces that will do anything they can to stop the current system from being disrupted. It is in their best interest to pretend that climate change is a “hoax” and that renewable energy is unaffordable. Of course, climate change is a very real threat, and renewable energy is abundant and accessible to all. There is no turning back now. We must address the ignorance of society at large, perpetuated by the media and our politicians, and spread the word that renewable energies are ready to go now and will give people a better life and world.

More: 50 Effective Ways You Can Cut Your Carbon Footprint

XM: You went out to Flint, Michigan, and put a spotlight on a community whose basic human right to clean water has been neglected. What did you learn from your trip to Flint?

MR: The one thing that I constantly see is that when a community comes together and fights for what is right, and the world is given a chance to hear their concerns and experiences, over time, they will eventually win out. We all share some basic understandings unless our minds and hearts have been poisoned in some way. We have an innate decency and compassion in us and even if we don’t agree with another person’s point of view, we can usually agree that person has a right to life, liberty, and happiness. Most sane people can agree that when a community is poisoned and children’s lives are altered forever, and when the government is complicit in that injustice, there is a serious problem at hand. Where things get particularly ugly is when folks start lying to protect themselves or are on the take in one way or another. That seems to be a huge part of the problem in Flint and in most places where there are contaminations. There is often money passed around from industry figures into the hands of local politicians. In Flint, just as in Dimock and Standing Rock, the strength lies in the community uniting and fighting together. When alone, most folks are generally fearful and feel powerless. When you get a group of people standing together under a common banner of righteous morality and decency, their fear, fatigue, and fragility fall away and you get the emergence of a decency movement. That is what I have taken from all of my travels. My job has been to draw the cameras to me so that the people who need to be heard can step into the field of the American viewers’ sight.

More: Call to Action: How to Start Your Own Activist Crew

XM: We are living with a president who denies climate change and is reversing a lot of the progress we’ve made on climate change over the last 8 years. Do we need to change our approach to match the reality of a Trump administration? Are there lessons we can learn from the 2016 election?

MR: We need to resist and renew. With every action there is an equal reaction. The Trump presidency will not only be marked by the tragedy of a regressive and reactive political shift that feeds off our baser, intolerant, and fear-driving tendencies, but also by the amount of people it has awakened to the fact that we must engage in our lives. Donald Trump is the ugly part of America that has taken precedent. Greed, power, fear, ignorance, intolerance, white supremacy, and hatred are the shadow side of the character of this nation. It has always been there. It was concealed and played out in dog whistles and doublespeak, winking at those who share the same darkness but who would normally be unwilling to show themselves from under their hoods in the light of decency. Those darker shadow tendencies have been made manifest in the Trump ascendancy. The shadow nature of our country is now given the full expression of its being. We get to see now the exact nature of our shadow selves. We can no longer claim ignorance to this part of ourselves and now must make a conscious choice about who we are and how we intend to live in the world. So what do we do in the face of this? What every civilized nation has done in the face of tyrannical rule. We resist. To quote Mario Savio, “There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

Climate change is like gravity. It cannot be denied for too long. Sure, you can deny it for a while, like jumping from a building into the air. As you go up, you can say, “See, there is no such thing as gravity. I fly!” But very soon, you will plummet, because that is the reality here on Earth. Climate change and man’s hand in it are another undeniable reality. We can only hold off the outcomes of our ignorance for so long before we are bitten or beaten by the truth. Climate change will continue to get worse and as this happens, people will become more emboldened to join those putting themselves “upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus” to make it stop. That is the resistance. Anyone who is serious about fighting climate change should also learn the techniques of nonviolent action laid out and taught by groups such as Beautiful Trouble. As for renewal, we should first help front-line communities transition equitably to renewable energy and unite the great movements of native rights, civil rights, and climate justice to ensure that we imagine, create, and talk about what kind of abundance will exist for us when we leave the fossil fuel paradigm behind. It is a paradigm that extracts without reciprocating in kind. It is inherently unjust, unfair, and unsustainable. We must renew our commitments to the idea of decency toward each other and decency toward the world around us.

More: Al Gore: How to Talk to Climate Deniers

XM: You’re constantly in films, you’re on Broadway, you’re a spokesperson for a movement, you have two nonprofits, and you have a family. As a family man and the father of three beautiful children, how do you feel about the future your children will inherit?

MR: Oddly enough, despite all of the chaos that has moved into the public realm, along with the promise of much more, I am gaining in my sense of calm and hopefulness. My resolve for a better and more just world remains ardent. Not because I see some easy way of getting there or that I have some inexhaustible source of energy and time, but because so many people are becoming aware of so much. Our knowledge grows as our ignorance diminishes. We are able to speak directly to each other instead of through centralized and easily manipulated systems, and young people like you and my children are becoming more engaged, aware, and empowered. I’m not going to lie, however: We are really up against it. Things will probably get worse before they get better, but what is clear and what I have witnessed is that together we can do extraordinary things. There is reason to celebrate. I am also reminded of a great Hopi elder’s quote at this moment: “... At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt. The time for the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

You can learn more about how Xiuhtezcatl and his youth activist group Earth Guardians are saving the world in his book We Rise.