Twenty five years after Julia Butterfly Hill climbed atop a 1,000-year-old redwood tree where she would live for 738 days, the renowned environmentalist is back with an unlikely act of civil disobedience: a poem.
Julia Butterfly Hill gained worldwide recognition in the 1990s for her action to protect California’s forests from loggers by “tree-sitting” for over two years. She became an "in-tree" correspondent for a cable television show, and hosted TV crews in order to protest old-growth clear cutting. Her action saved Luna — so named by activists who first hiked up the mountain at night to avoid arrest in honour of the moonlight that guided them there — and the surrounding grove.
For the past decade, Hill has remained out of the public spotlight but is now reemerging ahead of COP28 to team up with Everland — a specialized organization that represents the largest portfolio of community-centered forest conservation projects — to add her voice to call for the world’s decision-makers to keep their promise to end deforestation.
“It’s a little daunting and overwhelming to be coming out of this cocoon but it’s so clear to me that this is it, this is the time,” she told Global Citizen. “It is so clear that people around the world are begging and calling out for forests to be protected, for people to care and take action. Our leaders, all of us, have to be more than just talking about solutions. We absolutely need to be taking action and living these solutions.”
Not only are forests home to more than half of the world’s land-based species of animals, plants, and insects, they also combat climate change by removing carbon from the atmosphere.
Yet, since 1990, deforestation has robbed the world of approximately 420 million hectares of vital forestry. The most affected forests are in Africa — with major forest loss occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, and Tanzania — and South America. In the latter, Brazil and Paraguay are by far the most impacted countries. By 2030, there may only be 10% of the world's rainforests left.
One of the crucial actions that Hill is calling for is investment into community-centered REDD+ projects, moderated by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Established as part of the Paris agreement in 2015, the REDD+ framework aims to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.
This year’s COP will kick off on Nov. 30 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and is a significant milestone in the history of the climate summits. It’s the first assessment of how countries are faring against emissions-cutting commitments made at COP21 in Paris in 2015 (known as the Paris agreement). This process is known as the “global stocktake.”
In an exclusive interview with Global Citizen, Hill spoke about why she’s returning to the environmental movement’s spotlight, her poem, why we’re all making a difference already, and what’s changed since she first set foot on Luna.
Why are you returning to the public eye now?
It's a little daunting and overwhelming to be coming back out of this cocoon, but it's so clear to me that now is the time. I'm willing to put myself back out there in a way that's actually really challenging for me because the world needs it. Our children's futures need it. Biodiversity and wildlife species need it. The people who live in [forests] need it.
It's such a clear, loud demand of a need and I have an alliance [with Everland] that I can feel good about and say: “Look, here are models of how to keep our forests standing.”
Next year will be the 25th anniversary of my coming down [from Luna] and that has been pressing on my mind and my heart.
Then I was also seeing my story blow up on social media all over the world without me doing anything because people care deeply about protecting our forests but they also need to feel a sense of hope.
Even though this poem has a tinge of “Oh, well, we didn't do it right,” the tone is a playful one to remind us that we actually do have the capacity to keep ourselves from becoming an extinct species.
All of these things together, I felt like this is it. This is the time. I'm committed 100% and when I commit I go full on and live in a tree and not touch the ground, so you better believe that's what I'm gonna do.
You ask the viewer: “What does it mean to live our lives in a way that will impact generations to come, most of whom we will never meet?” Where has asking yourself how to be a good ancestor of the future led you?
While I was in the tree, I really saw cause and effect in a real way, not merely conceptual because I could see for miles in every direction how the landscape was changing as a logging company would come in and just clear cut everything in sight.
It really had me start looking at all the ways I had lived my life unconsciously. I was the girl who would go to the coffee shop twice a day and get my latte in my disposable cup. And I was the more conscious person in my group back then. Yet, I was still not making that connection that that cup comes from a tree which comes from a forest which comes from an ecosystem. That plastic lid comes from petroleum that comes from underneath the ground in a community in a place like Africa or Ecuador. That thread of connection is very real and very profound.
While I was up there, I started to think of this idea of ancestors of a future. Native Americans have the Seventh Generation Principle [a philosophy in which the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future].
If I am an ancestor of the future, what do I want my life legacy to be? That legacy is not about becoming famous. Legacy is about thinking that every time I make a choice, I'm changing the world that the future generations will inherit.
How do you think front-lining has changed since then? Is it still important?
I remind people that the greatest changes in history and herstory have always come when people are willing to put their bodies where their beliefs are.
At the same time, laws have changed, including in the US that used to supposedly be this space of free speech. Now, if you speak out — even if you're marching in the street —and say a corporation needs to be dismantled because it is too destructive, you can be labeled a terrorist and sent to prison. It’s horrifying and it's making it harder for people to do direct action.
Direct action has always been the last line of defense, not the first line. Direct action happens because governments are failing their responsibility to protect people today, the planet, and future generations. Corporations are using the power that they've amassed to destroy the planet. And everyday consumers are failing because they're not thinking about the supply chain. Direct action only happens when those three systems have failed.
When we see direct action, it’s a reminder and a wake up call for all of us that this is a team effort. And the team is not doing so well because if it was, direct action wouldn't be needed. For me direct action is ultimately about a call to action for our human family.
You wrote “Where Have All the Humans Gone” some time between 1997 and 1999 while living in and protecting a tree. What do you think has changed in the environmental movement since then?
I think the biggest challenge, ultimately, has always been and probably will continue to be about people feeling that we are connected. It's not just a spiritual saying, it's a scientific thing. We are connected to everything that was, everything that is, and everything that will still come.
It’s scientifically proven that when you take a breath, you're breathing in the same air that countless generations behind you breathed in.
Still from "Where Have All the Humans Gone?" by Julia Butterfly Hill.
Another challenge for the environmental movement has always been that large corporations, corrupt government officials, and the media that makes money off of playing off of it, have always pitted the environment versus jobs. I've always asked: “who decided that was the storyline?” Somehow we all decided to agree that that was the storyline. But somebody made that story up and then collectively as a human family, we agreed that that was going to be the storyline we were going to be arguing over for the rest of time.
Part of why I felt called to come back out of my cocoon is to remind people that every time we make a choice, we change the world because no choice happens in a vacuum. It is scientifically impossible to make no difference.
Can we get out of this feeling of disempowerment and change the conversation from “Can I make a difference?” to “I do make a difference. What kind of a difference do I want to make?”
One of the other things that I think has held the environmental movement back is an inability to build bridges and communities of care. They are what creates resilience and we are part of nature and nature needs resiliency, because the storms are going to blow, the fires are going to come.
It's not just about reducing emissions and stopping polluters; it’s about taking the time to think about what we are for, not just what we’re against.
We're always running around behaving like we're in the emergency room. But who can build a movement out of an emergency room?
If you could get just one person in the world to watch the poem — who would it be?
The whole reason we're launching this poem is to try and reach as many people as possible because we're in an all hands on deck situation.
If someone's a teacher, what they have to offer [to the environmental movement] is going to be different than if they're an artist or if they're a scientist, but every single person has a way to show up and make a positive difference.
The poem is a call to action to everyday people to look at themselves and say: “What am I doing as a person to either contribute to the problem or to contribute to the solution?”
This article was written in collaboration with Everland, a partner of Global Citizen. Everland exists to help people prosper from conserving their forests and wildlife, resulting in climate change mitigation for the benefit of all. We mobilize transformative investments into forest communities who are on the frontlines stopping deforestation, halting climate change, and safeguarding biodiversity, in order to deliver conservation outcomes at scale.