Stephanie Mills

A Life of Dedication

Recorded: June 19, 2013

Stephanie's signal moment came in 1969 when she addressed her graduating class at Mills College. Her address was entitled "The Future is a Cruel Hoax," and her controversial speech catapulted her into environmental circles where she was embraced and challenged. Later, in the 1990s, Stephanie was invited to go to Stockholm to help Huey Johnson and others with their mission to create an environmental agency within the United Nations platform. In this video Stephanie shares wisdom from her journey.

Stephanie Mills grew up in Phoenix, Arizona in the 1950s and 1960s appreciating the desert and its wildlife.  She credits her mother for her early ecological consciousness and both of her parents for her sensitivity to nature and her sense of wonder.

As a liberal arts student at Mills College in Oakland, California, and later at the 1972 UN conference on the human environment in Stockholm, Stephanie was a catalyst for shifting people’s attitudes and drawing influential leaders from other fields to her circle of ecological advocates.

Since the 1970s, Stephanie has produced seven books, including Epicurean Simplicity, Tough Little Beauties, and her most recent, On Gandhi’s Path: Bob Swann’s Work for Peace and Community Economics.  She was a long-time writer for the Whole Earth Catalog publications, and is currently a contributor to the Post Carbon Institute.   Since 1984, she has lived in a house she helped build on the edge of a forest in Lower Michigan.

Huey Johnson:    Stephanie Mills is a longtime friend.  She’s a remarkable writer, public speaker and teacher.  She’s written a number of books relating to nature and she has had a fascinating history.  She gave a major speech at her college, Mills College, announced she was never going to have children, this was 30 years ago I guess because the environment was in such sad shape she hated to bring more people in to have to struggle with it [1969 Commencement Address to Mills College]. And with that courage, she’s lived her life and has her own cabin in the forest and writes daily and relates to the community where she lives.

A thousand of us had worked for years trying to get an environmental agency inside the United Nations, it’s finally going to be voted on in Stockholm in ’90-something and we decided to try and have a salon and invite participants to come to dinner and to talk behind the scenes off the record. Stephanie ran the salon.  She did the cooking and issued the invitations.  We had Margaret Mead, famous anthropologist sign the little invitations for us every day and we would end up with a representative from China and Afghanistan and Australia coming to dinner for instance, with Margaret Mead at dinner.  We had a wonderful time and I really think that Stephanie’s guidance, we did as much good in human communication between nations as the whole U.N. did during that week of that conference.

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Stephanie Mills:   The speech was titled The Future is a Cruel Hoax and it concerned the emerging ecological crisis and overpopulation. And in it, I said that the most humane thing for me to do would be to have no children.  If you want a population decline that doesn’t involve, you know, letting people die from epidemic disease or coercing childbearing, then there has to be, you know, many, many, many individuals have to exercise their conscience.  It really sucked me into a whirlwind of activity too because it was the beginning of the, you know, the next wave, the ecology movement and there were a great many symposium conferences and lots and lots of initiations to speak and participate in conferences and that was kind of my graduate education in ecology and biology.  It was a signal event to get the world’s attention focused on ecology.

You know our mutual friend Stuart Brand was saying “Well, we’re going to Stockholm, do you want to do something there?”  And I said “Well I feel confident about throwing dinner parties,” and, and I had been to enough conferences by then to know that some of the most important work goes on over the dinner table or at the bar and the idea was to provide some kind of focused and thematic hospitality around the conference and invite people who should meet to some home cooking and just free willing conversation.  People could just voice their passions, share information, you know everything was off the record, but it was really a chance to break bread and establish covenants.  I mean the thing is, you’ve got to make a human connection for this work to go forward and I think people, you know if you’re going to forge lasting working relationships, you really do have to come out from behind your persona at some point and voice your, voice your passions, not just your profession.

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It’s a practice that I need to stay with continually and that is kind of balancing vision and fear.  The situation is, you know unprecedented and grave and yet there’s, there’s endless amounts of good, good and fulfilling work to be done with people who are wonderful to be with.  One of the things that my vocation has given me is the opportunity to get out in the living world with people who are knowledgeable about it.  I mean walks with naturalists, best thing ever.  You know learning, learning about the texture of the living world and having a, having a felt connection with other beings, you know, recognizing their otherness, not projecting the human, you know, melodrama onto them but just realizing that we’re all species.

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