I have been making films since high school, and have worked on many different subjects in a variety of styles over the years. During that period the medium itself has evolved, from film to tape to digital. It’s been interesting and rewarding to follow that evolution through my own professional development.
Over the last 30 years the bulk of my work has been on environmental documentaries, the subject that is closest to my heart. Even as a teenager I had come to see the trajectory of human development on the planet as unsustainable. Everything that has occurred over my lifetime has confirmed that point-of-view.
My environmental documentary work has focused on my adopted landscape — the Pacific Northwest. My first major film was Critical Habitat, an examination of the scientific, economic, and political issues underlying the conflict over the northern spotted owl. Critical Habitat won several awards, and aired on public television stations nationwide. Educational versions have been distributed to schools internationally.
I continued to focus on forest, salmon and stream issues. In 1996 I produced the documentary Torrents of Change. It stirred a simmering controversy within the U.S. Forest Service, but was eventually embraced by reformers who were trying to institute science-based policies within the agency. It played an indirect role in an initiative that led to the protection of 55 million acres of public lands.
Several years ago I had occasion to reflect on my environmental work. I had long thought that if I could only effectively explain the science behind environmental conflicts — with emotional impact as well — that it would sway audiences to an ecosystem-friendly point-of-view. After years of trying, I had to acknowledge that people make their major life decisions for reasons that have little to do with the objective facts of science.
So I wondered if there might be a more effective approach. To cut to the chase, after a lot of reflection and reading, I decided to focus the remainder of my career on understanding the evolution of the human sense of fairness. I saw disagreements over “what was fair” as the underlying cause of most environmental conflicts – at interpersonal, intergroup, and intergenerational levels.
In the course of my research into the underpinnings of fairness, I created two multimedia stories, the Evolution of Unfairness, and Are We Born with a Sense of Fairness? both originally published in Pacific Standard magazine.
I also discovered the work of Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, for developing the design principles for common-pool resource groups — a novel solution to the fundamental environmental conflict known as the Tragedy of the Commons. To me, these design principles represent a practical approach to instituting fairness in groups.
From that point in my career, an interesting synergy emerged. My fairness multimedia stories were discovered by the Evolution Institute, whom I work for today. Its president, David Sloan Wilson, invited me to join a project that would come to be known as Prosocial World, a method of implementing a generalized version of Ostrom’s design principles in any human group. I produced an introductory video, and helped develop the methods and approach. I continue to work on the development team.
In 2014, an opportunity arose to combine my interests in fairness, the Ostrom design principles, and environmental issues. The Siuslaw National Forest, the subject of my 1996 film Torrents of Change, had gone through a transformation over the previous 18 years. It exemplified how solutions to environmental conflicts can be achieved through a dedication to fairness, when everyone is willing to sit down and talk. The result was Seeing the Forest, my most recent documentary film.