Jesse Paris Smith remembers the exact day she became a climate activist. Late on a school night, in a Manhattan deli, frantically skimming the New York Times to finish a last-minute homework assignment in 10th grade.
“I loved nature, so these words like global warming, greenhouse gases, fossil fuels struck me,” Smith, 30, says while sitting in a Midtown Manhattan conference room. Smith is warm and unimposing. She smiles when she speaks so her eyes are like little brown crescents framed by her plum knit cap.
Back at home, Smith continues, she messaged the one still-awake person on AOL Instant Messenger to see if he knew anything of these intriguingly named concepts. “It was terrible,” she said flatly. “It felt like I was dealing with the end of the world and nobody was talking about it.”
That genuine fear she felt as a teenager was also a call to action that she’s developed as an adult. In 2014, Smith founded the nonprofit organization, Pathway to Paris, which hosts inventive events where a hodgepodge of artists, academics, politicians and scientists gather to talk about environmental rights. Smith – daughter of Patti Smith and the late Fred “Sonic” Smith – connected with co-organizer, the cellist Rebecca Foon, before the People’s Climate March the same year.
High-profile artists like Thurston Moore, Michael Stipe and Thom Yorke became regulars, drawn to Pathway’s message and its clubhouse-like vibe. Last summer, for example, Smith threw a Pathway fundraiser/200th birthday party for her favorite poet, Henry David Thoreau, in an intimate wine bar. Stipe read the great transcendental work, “My Love Must Be As Free” for the occasion.
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But in the dark aftermath of the 2016 election and President Trump‘s abrupt decision to pull the United States out of the global Paris Agreement, Smith and Foon concocted Pathway’s most impactful idea: 1,000 Cities. Starting this year, the new initiative will provide funding and awareness to help cities become completely carbon-neutral by 2040. As part of a new climate-fighting triptych with the United Nations Development Programme and grassroots group 350.org, Smith is energized by the new solution-oriented direction.
On Sunday at Carnegie Hall, Pathway’s Smith, Foon, Stipe and Patti Smith will be joined by a cadre of eclectic names including Joan Baez, 350.org founder Bill McKibben, Cat Power, Dr. Vandana Shiva, Talib Kweli and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to begin the vital new chapter.
How has the feeling around Pathway to Paris intensified since Trump got elected?
It’s still horrible, but if there had to be a silver lining [to Trump’s presidency] it’s that it ignited a whole new wave of action. After the election, everyone who lives in my neighborhood – we all gathered at this same place – and in the morning everyone came in like a zombie. It disturbed me to see how upset and angry and how totally beaten down everyone was. Something snapped in me, where I was like, ‘We can’t sit around – this is more urgent than it was before.’ And, of course, it was already urgent.
And now, without Obama, we’ve got something to lose.
Yeah. And it’s good to talk, but we can’t just sit around complaining about how terrible it is. That just normalizes [these issues] into becoming a conversation piece. After Trump, so many of us felt sad, heartbroken, we felt sick, anxious and worried. We have to turn those feelings into action. Instead of dwelling forever in the darkness, we need to turn towards solutions, and ask ourselves and each other, ‘So how do we fix it? What do we do?’ That’s what helps me to cope. Even if you don’t know what impact something will have, doing something, anything, any act big or small feels better than sitting at home and living in this miserable, lonely panic.
Turning our angry feelings into positive action and working together, finding each other, finding others who feel the same, is the best work we can do.
What was your reaction to the business community and politicians pledging to uphold their emissions targets despite Trump backing out of the Paris Agreement?
I felt a whole new wave of citizen uprising; a new voice of citizen activism. The day Trump pulled out of the agreement, you saw people talking who weren’t talking before. They weren’t talking a year or even five years before that. Pathway to Paris had been going on since 2014, but it was still tough to get people to listen, come to our events and join the movement. Now it’s really easy. Even with my own friends, there was a big spike. I feel like saying, ‘Guys, I’ve been here doing this for 15 years!’
Sometimes unfortunately it takes terrible news, tragic events, and scary people in power to ignite people to action. People often don’t join a movement until it affects them personally. My mom said recently, ‘let’s hope the whole world doesn’t wait to join the climate movement until every person becomes personally effected.’ Climate change is the most critical issue of our time, it affects every living being, every person on earth and the Earth is our collective home.
How do you envision a 100 percent renewables-based city?
It’s almost a metaphorical idea. Because what that looks like for New York City would be different from how it would be in New Delhi, which would be different from Tokyo. It’s fun to imagine how, as we went into the industrial revolution, we can also go into this new era of renewable energy. It could be a brand new era of our world.
How will you measure the progress of partnering cities as they work on becoming more carbon neutral?
One thing we’re using is a free Creative Commons tool called City Insight. It basically inputs all the data of a city – all its GHG emissions from all sectors – to help create a climate plan in order to reduce emissions by 100% by 2040. That’s what they used with Toronto – a 1,000 Cities partner – and it was successful. Our other hope is to create a network for cities get funding to help implement their plans. And then the music and the concert aspect of [Pathway to Paris] is there to keep the issue in the culture, where people feel connected and can get involved.
The individuals you gather for Pathway events are increasingly eclectic – Bill McKibben to Michael Stipe. Why that approach?
What we noticed was that it felt like there was a gap, that there wasn’t a strong or wide reaching cultural voice in the climate movement. I think that is why groups like 350.org, and speakers like Bill McKibben were excited to get involved with us. On the other side, [musicians like] Michael Stipe were excited, too. I really love the mutual admiration of the events. When the [United Nations Development Programme] got involved, they would say things like, ‘Oh, no one wants to hear from all these speakers, we need more music.’ On the flip side, the musicians said things like, ‘We have too much music. Let’s get one more speaker!’
You’re only 30, and in addition to Pathway to Paris, you’ve curated unique music and arts events at places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Rubin Museum and the annual Tibet House fundraiser. Where do you think your desire to curate came from?
I would go on tour with my mom and her band during the summers when I was a teenager, and looking for a role to have, I became an assistant to her tour manager. I really liked the behind-the-scenes stuff. Setting up the stage, checking microphones, printing things, calling everyone to tell them what time they’re getting picked up in the morning. Whereas my brother’s a guitar player and he would go and play with her. I was more interested in the behind the scenes work, maybe from putting on musicals in middle school and high school
And you were like, what, 14?
Yes, 14, 15,16 [laughs]. I loved playing music and I wanted to take piano lessons when I was 13, but I always thought of music more as my own private hobby.
When was the first time you performed with your mom onstage?
I was 16. We played “Imagine” for John Lennon’s birthday at the Free Library in Philadelphia.
Were you nervous?
Terrified [laughs]. I didn’t have any experience performing, and then I had to go onstage with this band that had been playing together for like 30 years! I didn’t tell anyone I was nervous, I just thought to myself, ‘they need me to do this. Just be cool, don’t mess up.’ [Laughs]
It’s like what you were saying about poetry – how it’s a lot easier to get up onstage when you’re reading a poem as opposed to singing a song.
That’s how I learned to compose music – writing music for my mom to read poetry to. She would give me a poem or a piece of writing to read at an event, or to be recorded. So together, we would look at the poem, thinking through its movements, ‘what is the feeling of this poem? What changes are there? Is this hopeful, is it sad, dark, is it peaceful? I would go through and diagram what lines or parts sounded intense, solemn, or maybe required something else that was different, interesting.
It taught me so much about how while we need some technical understanding and skills, music is about feeling, emotion, intuition, something that is expressed without words. You hear the music and without needing to be told, or have it explained to you, the feelings are all there.
What’s your earliest memory of feeling a connection to nature?
Well, I was born in Detroit and grew up in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, which is a little town on the lake on Lake St. Clair. Our area of town was called the Nautical Mile. Behind and in between all the houses were canals leading up to the lake at the end of our dead end street. There were tons of kids in our neighborhood, so we would get home from school every day and go on an adventure. Growing up there I was fully immersed in nature every day.
Did you have a boat?
No, but some friends did. We’d go fishing on our deck for – muskies? Yes [laughs] – I think that’s what they’re called. You’d have to ask my brother. Where we lived was filled with shops selling all kinds of lures. There was a bait shop, a marina, a supply store for sailing clothes and souvenir shops selling little sailboats and lighthouses. We moved to Manhattan when I was nine. It was an intense transition. I don’t know if I’d have the same love of nature if I was born in Manhattan.
Why do you think you think climate change had such a strong impact on you?
It felt I was dealing with the end of the world and nobody was talking about it. When I was 15, I said okay, I have to become a climate scientist! And I’m gonna have a science lab and live on the glaciers and study the ice melting! [Laughs].
I started to volunteer for different environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Environmental Defense. When I was a teenager, I was a little shy, a little awkward. I didn’t really know how to find other people who felt the same way as I did. So every night I’d go on my computer and sign petitions, write letters to the mayor for hours by myself.
I remember there was a section on the Environmental Defense’s global warming campaign website called “Undoit.org” where you could download all the materials to start your own local chapter. I downloaded all of the brochures and signup sheets and posters. I went to Kinkos and made copies, I had a filing system, clipboards, pens – I was so excited about starting my own chapter!
But then this fear set in. And I was too afraid to find anyone. I was even afraid to hang up a poster. I went out one day to hang them up and I just remember thinking ‘I can’t do this.’ I still have the box with all of those materials. I didn’t even tell my friends at school about it.
What was holding you back?
I was just so solitary and quiet. But being an activist and having a nonprofit is all about bringing people together and collaborating, just like being a performer and a musician. The older I got, the more I learned that and became more comfortable, and realized that finding each other and working together is what we absolutely need to do. There isn’t time to be fearful or worried, or have doubts about reaching out. Whenever young people ask me for advice about how to get involved, I always tell them, ‘don’t be afraid to find your people, to find each other, and work together.’
What did you do after high school?
I was determined to be a climate scientist, even though I wasn’t particularly good at math or science [laughs]. But I was also torn between pursuing science and music. It felt like choosing between what was in my heart and what came more naturally. So I deferred my acceptance to Sarah Lawrence College to figure out how I might do both. I applied to Columbia University – they have this incredible climate program – but got rejected. I was also in my first band at the time and I thought, I’ll forget being a scientist and I’ll work on music instead. But I kept going back and forth.
I took courses at the New School about environmental writing. I also worked in a book bindery on 27th Street, and I loved binding books so much. Those experiences physically making books reminded me of how much I loved writing, and how much I wanted to write a book. I felt drawn to so many vocations, wanting to follow different paths, and I was just trying to figure it out. My mom inspired some of that, too.
Because you saw it was possible to do more than one thing?
She’s singer, a songwriter, a writer, a poet, a photographer, an artist. So many people throughout history that I admire are polymaths, people who follow different paths, have many vocations, express themselves in different ways, and use their energy in more that one way. I also very much admire people who are masters of their crafts, but that isn’t the path for every person. You can choose more than one path.
Do you see the 1,000 Cities initiative becoming bigger than Pathway?
Definitely. My hope is that Pathway to Paris continues to bring that cultural aspect and becomes a global event, where people in different cities can organize their own Pathway concerts as a way to bring people together around this issue.
To participate or find out more about Pathway to Paris’ 1,000 Cities initiative, sign up here.