By Legs McNeil


When the rainforests go, so will we. Forget about nuclear holocaust for a second. Imagine what the world will be like when ecological calamity hits -- worldwide famine, a lack of oxygen, the complete disappearance of fresh water, and the Greenhouse Effect gone mad. This time, it won’t be restricted to some natives in Africa. We’re talking worldwide dustbowl. Valuable plant and animal species that produce substances that have potential as cures for cancer, AIDS, and other diseases will be gone forever as well. The statistics are staggering -- one hundred acres of the world’s tropical rainforests, roughly the size of about 20 football fields, are destroyed every minute. Half of the tropical rainforests on this earth are already permanently destroyed. Scientists predict, at the rate of present destruction, all rainforests will be gone by the year 2050, just sixty years from today. Tropical rainforests are the richest, oldest, most productive, and most complex ecosystems on earth. While they comprise only two percent of the globe, they support an estimated five million plant, animal, and insect species, as well as many indigenous people who can survive nowhere else.

On Tuesday, September 13, 1988, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Mickey Hart from the Grateful Dead, as well as Dr. Jason Clay, the director of Cultural Survival, Peter Bahouth, the Chairman of Greenpeace USA, and Randall Hayes, the Director of the Rainforest Action Network, sat down at the panel in conference room four of the United Nations and alerted the world's press to the horror of the vanishing rain forest. When asked why the Grateful Dead was getting into the act and helping to publicize the plight of the rainforest, Jerry Garcia answered in his own inimitable style, "It seems pathetic that it has to be us, with all the other citizens of the planet, and all the other resources out there, but since no one else is doing anything about it, we don't really have any choice."

HIGH TIMES hooked up with Jerry back at his hotel room and asked him to elaborate on his role in speaking out in defense of the rainforest a few days before the Dead's benefit concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

HIGH TIMES: This is an overwhelming project you've got yourself involved in.

Jerry Garcia: Oh, man! It's taken up a lot of a year so far, and that's been mostly just understanding what it is. It started off with this French guy who wanted kind of an old world, seven continent mega-event, and he wanted to involve every major environmental agency in the world. He's a nice guy -- very bright. He was at a party promoting this notion in San Francisco a little more than a year ago. Bobby was there, and Mickey, Randall from the Rainforest Action Network, and Jason from Cultural Survival. So what happened is what always happens at these kind of affairs -- it takes a while to understand environmental groups don't like each other. They're like Indians. They don't like each other. This group doesn't want to work with that one because these guys have their hands in this -- these fuckers are over here with the big major corporations -- so they don't work with each other, or talk to each other a lot of times. So getting into these problems, or any kind of large-scale environmental problem, means you have to swim through the crowds.

With us, the whole notion of doing good is always a little suspicious anyway. We've been working on it for years and we've discovered certain things about it -- like you have to follow the money to find out if it's actually doing any good. We've done it successfully before, because we mostly deal with real close-to-the-bone "give us a hundred bucks, we can open a few cans of beans" kind of grassroots, low-scale, direct-action stuff. No bureaucracy. They're not supporting secretaries -- they don't have a lawyer. It's that kind of stuff we're used to working with, and that direct "When do you need it? Right now? Bam, there it is." That's the way we like to work. That's the way our foundation works -- it deals with lots and lots of little things.

So now we're looking to address a large idea. And so, Bob starts to talk me into it. The whole thing metamorphosed into finally getting the groups that were willing to work together -- which turned out to be Greenpeace, the Rainforest Coalition, and the Indigenous Peoples. These guys are all pretty far out on the fringe. You know Greenpeace -- they're the guys that go out there and nail themselves to a tree. That kind of direct action is what we're looking for. We want it to be as easy to understand as possible.

The rainforest problem seems so remote. It's like, there's no rainforest around here. Who's it bothering? It really is scary, because we started first hearing the bad news about this 20 years ago. They said, "We gotta do something about the rainforest. They're burning it down -- they're tearing it up even as we talk." Now, here it is 20 years later, and sure enough, the rainforests are almost all gone now. Fifty years -- they'll all be gone. That's it. Fifty years is not a long time anymore. That's in the life span of my kids.

HT: You've made the statement that you think it's pretty pathetic that you're the ones who have to do it.

JG: Yeah, it is. It's an alarming feeling. This is an earth problem -- the whole earth. And who's left talking about it? Us.

Come on! We're not the ones. We're not qualified to do it. But we're going to do it unless, or until, somebody else does. We're going to keep working on it. We're going to get as much support from as many people as we possibly can. We're committed to it, so if that's what it takes, that's what it takes. We're pretty serious about it.

HT: It's about fresh water, it's about...

JG: It's all that stuff. It's the ozone layer, it's the CO2 methane, it's all these delicate balances that keep the atmosphere functioning. Plus, it's the weather, generating stuff which nobody understands.

If we lose it, we're not going to get it back. It's definitely life-threatening, in the same sense that atomic bombs are life-threatening, only this one is mindless. It's gone along and there's nobody at the wheel. Out of control. It's completely mindless, and it's in action every day. Something needs to be done about it. We're alarmed -- we're just making an effort to communicate our own alarm.

Raising a million dollars is no big thing. In some places, a little money goes a long way. Mostly, it's getting to the World Bank and getting to the Japanese and getting to misappropriated money designed to help the so-called Third World countries -- that bad-thinking money -- "We'll bring this country into the 20th century by simply paving it from one end to the other."

HT: In Brazil, there's a program where it's legal to clear half your land. So a guy buys the land, clears out the land, then sells the other half.

JG: Right. You can do it infinitely. Zeno's Paradox. Obviously, those things are not going to work. There are people in Brazil who understand. The whole thing is getting together with the ecologists and environmentalists down there to find out the proper way to address the people who make the laws there. You can't cop an imperialistic point of view -- you know -- "The rainforests belong to all people" -- you can't do it. It's their right, and it's their resource. But global survival means there is more at stake than that.

HT: What kind of direct-action stuff do you think Greenpeace will do?

JG: Their aim has to do with the pesticides and vegecides the U.S. sells to countries in South America -- all those poisoning and defoliating chemicals. Greenpeace is prepared to go out there and, in their own inimitable way, park in front of the ships as they're leaving the docks.

HT: Do you think confrontational policies will work?

JG: Only in some situations. In some situations that's the only thing you've got. In others it's really hopeless. For example, you have to sit down and talk at the World Bank or they won't let you in.

HT: What does the World Bank do?

JG: The World Bank are the people that guarantee the loans that go on between industrial nations and the Third World. They're the guarantor banks. They're made up of a coalition of banks from America, Europe, and Japan -- all the places you'd expect them to be from. There are about 120 member banks, and they put together these humanistic-sounding programs, but it's mostly just take the money and run. Like all banks, they're interested in making as much money as quickly as they possibly can. They're not well-advised most of the time, and they don't get the benefit of a lot of input. They have a tendency to fund these programs before they really know what damage they'll do. These people can be appealed to -- they're not hidden -- they're known. You can write to the president of the World Bank and make a serious appeal to him. Likewise, the Japanese have a sense of pride which is very touchy, and they don't want to be thought of as being people who willingly trash the world, so the idea that, well...

HT: Apply the pressure and appeal to their pride.

JG: Right. It's possible to turn it around, but it means lots of letter writing, lots of dull stuff -- big, grassroots campaigns all over the place.

HT: Do you think people are getting more concerned? What have the reactions to what you've been doing been like?

JG: People are amazed that this is still an issue. "Oh, really? Is that still happening?" They're also amazed to find out how close we are to the end of this -- we're not going to have this to talk about much longer. That's the scary part. The other part is that everybody feels remote and powerless -- it's something going on between those huge companies somewhere in Brazil and what can we do? It's so distant. So, after we've done this show, and followed this money to the work that it's supposed to accomplish, and come back and say, "Well look, we've raised a million dollars at this show. We accomplished this, this, and this; that, that, and that."

There is something you can do -- it's just a matter of just knocking them over one at a time. We've been advised now to focus on these areas. Each one will pull our focus a little tighter, so that we know a little more each time. This is something that has to be learned -- nobody knows it yet. So we're going in the spirit of an ongoing learning situation which will tell us how to deal with it.

HT: Have you talked to Sting? I know he got involved.

JG: I haven't had a chance to, not yet. I'd love to talk to anybody. We need all the help we can get, and anybody who has an interest in this is welcome to correspond with us on any level.

HT: Did you got involved in this because of a spiritual awakening you experienced after you were sick?

JG: Not exactly. It's kind of turned out that way, I guess. When I was lying there in the hospital with tubes in me everywhere -- "This machine is breathing for me. God, if I ever get out of here" -- more like that. I can think of a million things I'd rather be doing than lying in a fucking hospital bed. That was such a bad experience I'll do almost anything to avoid that. They were washing my blood, you know what I mean. You know -- where you can smell your own blood -- the big hoses -- you feel like a bag of chemicals. When I came to, after that coma, I mean, there I was -- a bag of chemicals, you know, this machine slurching and things beeping and monitoring stuff -- I mean, I don't want to have that happen to me anymore. No more of that.

HT: Would you go and talk to the people at the World Bank?

JG: If I could. If I thought it would matter. I would definitely bring somebody with me that knew how to talk, because after certain levels all this stuff is language. I can parrot well enough, but I have zero understanding of a lot of it. But that's part of what this has been about, to learn some of that talk and to learn some of the kind of thinking that goes into this stuff -- how did it get so bad in the first place? Why is it that they think this is the right way to manage this resource? Who is making all the money? It's indirect in a lot of places.

Take this huge dam project. There's a dam project coming up in Brazil, which coincidentally cuts lots and lots of forests, but it's really a dam project. Theoretically it's an energy project. The World Bank views it as energy for the Third World. So they're going to build this huge, grossly inefficient dam. The people who are going to end up making the most money are going to be the Japanese, who are sending the earth removers. So the Japanese have been pulling for this project because they're going to sell a lot of earth movers -- a lot of tractors, overground four-wheelers, dump trucks, all that stuff. They're the ones who are going to take the first money out. Then, after the dam is built, the second money comes out. And so on and so on. So, these things tend to be kind of pyramidal.

HT: The way I understand the soils of the rainforest, all the nutrients are on top.

JG: That's right. There is no soil in the total sense. And when you take that away, that's it.

HT: It turns into desert.

JG: There's the stuff called hard pack. It's just clay. Insects don't live in it. Nothing lives in it. So when the rainforest is gone, that's what you've got left, and that's nasty stuff.

This business in Bangladesh -- the rainforest was taken down over the last few years. Now they're in the disaster swing. First you get the floods. The remains of what little topsoil there was is gone now. Next, you get the famine that follows from not being able to produce any food on the land. So they're in that cycle now. Now it's the flood followed by disease, followed by the famine. That's it for Bangladesh. It's appalling. Thousands and thousands of people die. This is appallingly wasteful shit.

Meanwhile, in the Brazilian jungles there are all these incredibly subtle genetic things -- plants that will cure cancer, cure blindness, cure AIDS. And these Indians know which ones. Those guys are getting poisoned systematically. This is pathetic. That's our store of knowledge and our genetic resources.

HT: I read about a psychotropic Mexican salamander that lives in the rainforest in Guatamala. But the properties of the tail drops off when predators kill them.

JG: That's right.

HT: And they just discovered a new frog that's the most poisonous...

JG: Those poisons are the kind of things that people use for open heart surgery.

HT: Yeah, they can trace the problem to the brain.

JG: Right. It's all this magical shit, you know. It's crazy to lose it and for such dumb reasons.

HT: For hamburger.

JG: For fucking hamburger. That really is a burn. Mickey's got a great story that he tells about his kid. He's six years old, a snappy little kid, and he loves his burgers. Mickey said, "Hey listen, there's these forests that have lots and lots of little animals in them, and crawling things and snakes and lots of things that live in there. And there are people who are taking these forests and cutting down the trees and taking away all the animals. And they're doing it just so they can raise cattle to make the hamburgers that you buy here. If you had your choice between having the hamburger and letting the forest exist, what would you rather do?" And his kid thought about it for a while, and said, "Yeah, I think I'd rather have the animals than a burger."

Think of what that would mean to those places, if they thought that the five to twelve year olds were capable of deciding not to buy hamburgers -- you know what I mean? It would scare the daylights out of them. A grass-roots kid-operated boycott. They would fall way back. That's their crowd.

HT: Or if you could make the dinosaur connection -- the kids...

JG: They love dinosaurs, yeah. This is where the dinosaurs used to live, and they understand that.

HT: Kids know all these Latin names of dinosaurs -- they memorize them.

JG: I remember I loved dinosaurs myself.

HT: Have you been to the rainforest?

JG: I've been to a couple of them, the Yucatan down in Mexico, that's about the closest to here, and Hawaii. It's definitely not friendly to humans -- you're covered with bugs in a matter of seconds -- everything eats you. It's weird as hell, but it's an amazing place. From an aesthetic point of view, the world should leave it alone just for that. Just so there is such a place. I feel strongly about that, but that's not good enough. So, finding other reasons has been part of that -- here's the reason why we need not to do this.

HT: It's a shame.

JG: Yeah, it is. But as long as we do there are plenty of reasons, too.

HT: You mentioned Mickey being into the marketing aspect of it. For instance, people give money to baby seals and the whales. Nobody gives money to frogs or salamanders -- they're not "cute." They don't make nice t-shirts.

JG: The rainforest's animals aren't that cute, like a three-toed sloth -- an amazingly uncute animal. They're real slow. They have homely faces and they don't look like much. Orangutans are pretty cute and there are some rainforests that have orangs in them. That's part of it. Part of it is that we have to get off this thing of cute. We have to develop other biases. The fact that humans are being destroyed in this is appalling. They are also being killed. Some of them even are systematically poisoned out. They've dropped in sugar cubes that are loaded with poison and they actually kill humans.

HT: I remember when they were building the Trans-Panama highway there was a lot of that.

JG: Yeah. They've done that kid of stuff -- not quite like it was, but there are lots of tribes whose existence is threatened.

HT: Kill the alien.

JG: That's right. That doesn't seem necessary, either.

HT: This is an election year -- shouldn't Bush and Dukakis be saying something about...

JG: They should be, but it's just an indication of how little attention this idea is getting. It's not getting the attention it deserves. They're leaving it alone because they can't deal with it either. And we already have such a twisted policy -- I mean, American money is defoliating parts of Colombia for drugs.

HT: And putting dictators in power.

JG: And they're clearing land in other places to grow drugs. I mean, we're giving this signal that's so complex, and our notion of what's helpful is the whole Contra thing and the rest of that stuff. It's like we don't know what side we're on, and neither Dukakis or Bush knows any better than the rest of us.

HT: How can our readers handle this problem if a presidential candidate can't?

JG: Because I think a lot of the important stuff takes place outside the political arena. This is not really inside the realm of politics, or even in the realm of foreign policy, because this has more to do with world economics. The World Bank is the closest thing to a governing board here and the governments of the world defer to the World Bank.

HT: Are you afraid of this being an ongoing thing?

JG: I'm afraid of not being able to solve it. That's what I'm afraid of. But we'll stick with it. We're committed. We'll stick with it until the ball is really rolling. But nobody should mistake us for being the people that can solve this problem, because it's everybody's concern. We don't know how it's going to go, or what the best way to deal with it is, but we will definetely report back with everything we find out about. So we're good for that. Everything else I don't know.

HT: I guess we can end this here. Anything you want to add?

JG: No, but we appreciate any help we can get. They can get ahold of us, or any of the organizations. People can write to the president of the World Bank, too.

HT: Thank you very much.

JG: Yeah.