Given her decades of success in the movie business, environmental activist and actress Daryl Hannah could be lounging on any beach in the world today, drinking rum punches, working on her tan or perfecting her mermaid’s kick.
That she recently spent a week in the Maldives, much of it indoors participating in a pair of eco-symposiums focused on climate change and the future of island nations — just days after being arrested in Washington D.C. as part of the protest against the planned $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline — says a lot about her priorities.
It’s easy to cast a dubious eye at celebrities who align themselves with environmental causes since often it’s clear managers or agents have encouraged them hoping to better a client’s position based on image rather than sincerity. With every actor under 40 (and many older) attempting to gain environmental cred these days it doesn’t take too much effort to scratch the surface and find out who of them really bleeds green.
Having participated with Hannah in a bunch of roundtable talks and spoken on a panel together with her on ocean biodiversity during the recent, third annual SLOWLIFE Symposium, I can vouch for her dedication, commitment and truly green blood. On a quiet beach we talked about how she came to this level of commitment and how, having grown up in America’s heartland, she became so impassioned about the ocean.
“I grew up not only in the heart of the city of Chicago but on the 42nd story of an apartment building, so I was really disassociated with the natural world in a strange way. There was a park nearby which I thrived off of, but I felt kind of strange and alien as a kid. It wasn’t until my dad sent me off to a camp in the wilderness that I formed a bond with the natural world and understood that’s where things made sense for me.
“It was also around that time that I started diving, at 13, with pony bottles, and it was just magic. It was like being a bird in the ocean, giving you a feeling like flying. Whenever I’m in the water my heart rate slows, I get really calm … it is a constant sense of wonder every time.”
I’m specifically curious how she came to a life committed to environmentalism, whether it was imbued in her Illinois youth or dawned later on a sunny California day.
“I used to think that the most important thing I could do was to live as ethically as possible, which I still think is a really important step for people to take. But once I began to really understand the crises that we are in the midst of — extinctions, over population, ocean acidification, and more — I started to realize that it was absolutely imperative that we all do everything in our power to change.
“It wasn’t really a decision. I just feel compelled. I’m like one of those mamas trying to lift a car off her baby, I have no choice, I just have to (be involved).
Have her acting jobs, like “Splash,” informed her sufficiently? “I don’t have to be a scientist or an oceanographer to see that the coral reefs are bleached and that there are no fish left, I can see those things with my own eyes. I’ve seen things change in such a short amount of time.
“And not just in the oceans. We are in real trouble if we don’t start living more ethically and mindfully and employing all of the solutions we have available to us.”
I remind her of a common theme among committed preservationists, which is that people generally protect best what they love most. If we expect people to truly take better care of their little patch of land or sea or sky, they must have great affection for it first.
“That’s absolutely it, we protect what we love. But I think the ocean has a particular challenge. Less than one percent of people have spent any time under it, so they look at it from the beach, from the shore, and it looks just fine. But it’s not fine. Once people understand the interdependence of all life on this earth, that we are all interconnected — that when we fix the problem with our energy consumption and dependence on fossil fuels — we would also fix some of the serious issues facing the oceans.”
Back home in the U.S., one of Hannah’s major disappointments is recent change in laws allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections and lobbyists.
“I never put my faith in government or politicians,” she says. “It’s people who are going to change things. If we each took responsibility for our own lives we wouldn’t be in the mess we are. But there’s no way we have a voice unless we insist upon it.
“As long as people get out there and start sharing information with each other then people can make their own decisions. Most people wouldn’t make a decision to commit suicide or poison their own children … or kill their loved ones. They are going to make wiser, more informed decisions if they know that choices are available.”
She returns to the core belief that individuals can, and must, lead. “We have to hold people accountable, hold corporations accountable and hold politicians accountable. But we have to hold ourselves accountable first.”