John Seed has been called "the town crier for the global village" for his work promoting and protecting rainforests around the world. He has made films about rainforests and traveled the world with his rainforest roadshow, spreading the word and building networks of people committed to the cause. He is also the founder of the Rainforest Information Center and the Rainforest Action Network and in 1995 was awarded an OAM (Order of Australia Medal) for services to the environment.
His passion for rainforests can be traced back to the Terania Creek protests in 1979 when the so-called "new settlers" in the area clashed with police, loggers and the Forestry Commission in what became a pivotal moment for the environment movement in Australia and the world.
"I was living on Bodhi Farm at The Channon and thought I was going to spend the rest of my life organizing meditation retreats and growing organic food when somehow I found myself involved in the direct action at Terania Creek," he said. "It turned out to be the first direct action in defense of rainforest anywhere in the world, though we didn't realize that until many years later. I knew nothing about rainforests at the time but in the process of protecting Terania Creek we learnt lots... That rainforests are the very womb of life, home to more than half of the species of plants and animals in the world."
John said satellite photographs that showed the rate of rainforest destruction at the time led to predictions that they would be wiped from the face of the Earth within a human lifetime.
"There wasn't a single environment organization in the world that had the rainforests on their agenda at the time and so we decided to sound the alarm and started the Rainforest Information Center as a vehicle for doing that. At first we were involved in communicating to groups all around the world about the importance of rainforests while doing direct actions in Australia. We went from Terania Creek to Mt Nardi, down to the Franklin River and then up to the Daintree with all kinds of less memorable actions in between, just getting arrested at each place."
John said the battle for Terania and the 1982 ‘Rainforest Decision', when Premier Neville Wran agreed to protect 900,000 hectares of native forests in NSW, was "the highlight of rainforest conservation worldwide".
But after several years of direct action and training others in non-violent tactics such as digging themselves into the ground in the path of oncoming machinery, John realised he was never going to be able to save the planet one forest at a time.
"The whole idea that we only have to protect representative areas is based on a complete misunderstanding of the nature of ecology and life... Vast areas of wild nature need to remain in order that the so-called free ecosystem services can maintain the balance of gasses in the atmosphere, the maintenance of the water cycle, the maintenance of soils and so on. These things are created by wild nature and if we think we can just have a little national park here and a little national park there, we've go another thing coming," he said. "I began to look at the underlying psychological disease that inflicts modern humans that allows us to imagine that we can profit from the destruction of our own life support systems.
"Paul Urlich, the American ecologist, said, ‘We are sawing off the branch that we are sitting on', which clearly indicates some kind of psychological problem... I began to wonder if there was a way of addressing that, rather than rushing from one kind of crisis to another trying to put out the flames."
John said it was in this context that he came across the concept of Deep Ecology, a philosophy formulated by Arne Naess, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Oslo University.
"There was a great sense of relief because finally somebody had helped me understand why humans are dong this," he said. "Deep Ecology says the fundamental problem is the illusion of separation between human beings and the living earth and this is a result of anthropocentrism, or human centeredness. The idea humans are the center of everything, that we are the crown of creation, the measure of all being, that only man was created in God's image, that only human beings have soul... the rest of nature is to be in fear of us and a resource to mine... any value that anything else has is instrumental because it's useful to us.
"This notion that the Earth is a pyramid with humans at the top is contrasted with the wisdom of indigenous peoples who have always understood that the world is a web and we are just one strand in that web and if we destroy the other strands we destroy ourselves."
John co-wrote a book called Thinking Like a Mountain - Towards a Council of All Beings with Arne Naess, Joanna Macy and Pat Fleming. The book helps people develop empathy for the Earth and has been translated into several languages and sold all over the world.
John also facilitates Deep Ecology workshops and said whenever a group of people get together with the intention of healing the illusion of separation from the Earth, "something amazing always takes place".
"It's impossible to find an indigenous community anywhere in the world that doesn't have ceremonies and rituals that allow the human community to remember our interconnectedness with the rest of nature and honour that in dance and song and ceremony," John said. "We moderns may be the first culture in the history of the world to think we can dispense with this. This tendency to separate out, and identify as social beings only, has a lot of psychological and spiritual impacts. These workshops, created by Joanna Macy and myself, teach despair and empowerment. When we allow ourselves to feel despair, which is so forbidden and taboo is this culture, it's like you're letting the side down to admit despair... but when we create a container to feel this, empowerment inevitably follows. Empowerment is what you're left with when you've dealt with the despair."
John said activists are notorious for burning out, but by doing the Deep Ecology workshops and continually reaffirming his connection with the Earth, he is able to keep on fighting the good fight on behalf of the rainforests and supporting environmental projects around the world.
"As the facilitator, I introduce the process but then I melt back into the circle and become a participant. By doing it six to eight times a year, the same way that indigenous people do their ceremonies... I don't have to worry about burn out and how I sustain myself. Being an activist in a world that's crumbling, it's a balancing act. There may be lots of ways to do it (sustain yourself), but that's my way."