“I find it unconscionable of any person running for public office to ignore data,” explains Sigrid Wright as we speak about political candidates denying global warming. “To pretend that there’s even a debate about this is deliberate ignorance.”
To say Sigrid, the CEO/executive director of the Community Environmental Council (CEC), is passionate about the subject is an understatement. She has more than 25 years of experience in environmental nonprofits, including the past 15 years of managing the production team for Santa Barbara’s Earth Day Festival.
When she was named as 2015 as the CEC’s next director in 2015, Sigrid became the first female to lead the 45-year-old nonprofit. When I ask her about the importance of having a woman in a leadership role, she gives a very mindful answer, careful not to sound like she’s painting in bold strokes.
“We’ve had several decades of clear environmental destruction,” she explained. “Globally, we’ve had a disregard for our use of resources and a general cultural greed. It clear this isn’t working. Women tend to bring to the table an ability to collaborate, to listen a bit more deeply. Women’s voices are desperately needed. We excel at building teams. Evolution is not just about survival of the fittest, but about survival of who’s the most cooperative.”
While sharing a lunch with Sigrid, I ask her why it is so important to eat local. Prior to World War II, she explained, every calorie of fossil-fuel energy put into a farm, from fertilizers to diesel tractors, yielded 2.3 calories of food. But today, it takes 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of processed food.
“So we’ve taken something very basic, food, which used to run on energy from the sun, and are now running an energy deficit, using fuel from fossils that were left over 300 million years ago,” explained Sigrid. “We moved to a mechanized food movement where we’re disconnected. We moved towards convenience and not only did we create an environmental unbalance but we lost the joy of having a meal and understanding what we’re putting into our bodies.”
Sigrid combats this disconnect at home, where she enjoys tending to her garden every morning and loves canning peaches. In fact, if it weren’t for her important job at the CEC, Sigrid said, “I would be homesteading full time. It makes me feel connected to a sense of place.”
While conversing with Sigrid, you notice she is always thinking, always extremely focused and concentrated. “I’m not a very light-hearted person,” she admitted with a laugh, “so I like to surround myself with people who have a sense of fun.”
As we part, she tells me one last thought about climate change. “We have a pretty narrow window where we can act boldly and aggressively,” warned Sigrid. “ We need to act like we’re in a climate emergency.”
Sigrid Wright answers the Proust Questionnaire.
Which talent would you most like to have?
Long distance running. I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, Track Town USA. Our living gods were runners like Steve Prefontaine and coaches like Bill Bowerman and later Alberto Salazar. Our church was Hayward Field, with its wooden stadium that would shake and echo as the crowd stomped.
When Pre would lay into the back stretch, bringing on his trademark kick, the place would go nuts. I was eight years old then, and somewhere in that same crowd stomping on those same wooden floors and making the same memories was an eight-year-old boy who I hadn’t yet met, but who would become my husband.
All of it still resonates with me, including the lifelong lessons about going all-out, and for burning bright and hard for the time you’re here.
Who do you most admire?
Female environmental leaders like Naomi Klein and Annie Leonard, and anyone who has put themselves bodily into a cause. Those activists who dangled from a Portland bridge last summer to stop a Shell Oil barge from passing through.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’d make more space for fun. Since that isn’t my default setting, I try to attract people who bring that in.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Women whose names you’ve never heard of, but who pioneered California and Oregon in the late 1800s. I’ve read dozens of their letters, and am continually awed at how they just did what had to be done.
What do you like most about your job?
That I get to serve a greater good. That I get to work with good-hearted people to ensure that the incredible natural blessings of our region extend to everyone, and extend into the future.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Swimming an unnamed glacier-melt lake in the Arctic, sliding into the upper Rio Grande at midnight, floating in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the Amalfi Coast. Being in or near water, any temperature, any time.
What is your greatest fear?
That we’ll give up on Earth and colonize Mars.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Traveling by airplane. It’s the most ridiculous, fuel-inefficient, awe-inspiring thing. I live a minimum of 500 miles from my closest family members. When I think of what it would have taken to see them 100 years ago – how we would have parted in our 20s to marry and live our own lives, maybe to see each other two decades later – I’m incredibly grateful.
Even after taking hundreds of flights, I’m astounded by it. And yet everyone seems so bored by the fact that we basically pump the refined leftovers of primordial plants into a machine and push ourselves above the clouds.
What is your current state of mind?
What is the quality you most like in people?
Doing what it takes to live authentically, whatever that may be.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Small mindedness, deliberate ignorance.
What do you most value in friends?
What is your most marked characteristic?
Thinking about thinking.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Let me think about it.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Relationships: marriage, family, friends, colleagues.
Where would you most like to live?
Here, but without the drought.
What is your most treasured possession?
My wedding ring. Also a hunk of fossilized coral that is somewhere between 300 and 600 million years old. One grounds me in deep time, the other connects me to now.
Who makes you laugh the most?
The team that puts together Earth Day – it’s a very fun and irreverent crew who work incredibly long hours.
What is your motto?
“The people I love the best jump into work head first without dallying in the shallows,” ….. and every stanza after that in Marge Piercy’s poem, “To Be of Use.”
On what occasion do you lie?
When I’m at my best, I don’t bullshit. However, I’m not a big fan of “brutal honesty” – there’s enough violence in the world – so occasionally I’ll soften the edges. Those would probably be white lies.