History Tends to Surprise Us
by Krista Tippett, host
The terminus of Gangotri glacier, the source of the Ganges River. In the last several decades the glacier has been receding at an accelerated rate, which most climate scientists attribute to climate change. (photo: Maneesh Agnihotri/The India Today Group/Getty Images)
It’s been striking how, across the past few years, the environment has found its way inside my guests’ reflections on every subject, as they say, under the sun. And we do need fresh vocabulary and expansive modes of reflection on this subject that, we’ve come to realize, is not just about ecology but the whole picture of human life and lifestyle.
Here are some pieces of vocabulary and perspective I’ve loved and used in recent years.
Starting with the basics, Cal DeWitt — a scientist, conservationist, and Evangelical Christian living in Wisconsin — pointed out to me that “environment” was coined after Geoffrey Chaucer used the term “environing.” This was a turning point in the modern Western imagination — the first time we linguistically defined ourselves as separate from the natural world, known up until then as the Creation. This helps explain why the language of “creation care” is so animating for many conservative Christians — as a return to a sacred insight that was lost. But from quantum physics to economics, too, we are discovering new existential meaning in terms like interconnectedness and interdependence.
Many people, but most recently the wonderful geophysicist Xavier le Pichon, have made the simple yet striking observation that climate change is the first truly global crisis in human history. In other words, just as we make newfound discoveries about old realities, they are put to the ultimate test. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the signs that we are not up to this test as a species. So it was helpful for me to have Matthieu Ricard, a biologist turned Buddhist monk, remind me that evolutionary change, which is what we need now in our behavior, always comes precisely at the moment where survival — not just betterment — is at stake.
Such ideas can make the task of integrating, or reintegrating, environmental and human realities sound far away and abstract. But it’s not.
The most redemptive and encouraging commonality of all the people I’ve encountered who have made a truly evolutionary leap is that they have come to love the very local, very particular places they inhabit. They were drawn into environmentalism by suddenly seeing beauty they had taken for granted; by practical concern for illness and health in neighborhood children; by imagining possibilities for the survival of indigenous flora and fauna, the creation of jobs, the sustainability of regional farms. The catchword of many of our most ingenious solutions to this most planetary of crises is “local” — local food, local economies. Ellen Davis and Wendell Berry illuminate this with poetic, biblical wisdom, each in their way reminding us that the health of our larger ecosystem is linked to knowing ourselves as creatures — “placed creatures.”
There is so much in my most recent conversation about all of this with Bill McKibben that will frame and deepen my sense of the nature and meaning of climate change moving forward. Among them is an exceedingly helpful four minutes, a brief history of climate change that we’re making available as a separate podcast. But what has stayed with me most of all, I think, is a stunning equation he is ready to make after two decades of immersion in the scientific, cultural, and economic meaning of our ecological present. He points out that cheap fossil fuels have allowed us to become more privatized, less in need of our neighbor, than ever in human history. And he says that in almost every instance, what is good for the environment is good for human community. The appeal of the farmers market is not just its environmental and economic value but the drama, the organic nature, of human contact.
I also gained a certain bracing historical perspective from my conversation with Bill McKibben. He and I were both born in 1960. He was waking up to the environment in years in which I was in divided Berlin, on the front lines of what felt like the great strategic and moral battle of that age. He published The End of Nature in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell. And as I learned from that book, the science of climate change had already begun to emerge at the height of the Cold War. In 1957, two scientists at the Scripps Institution described their findings that humanity initiated an unprecedented “geophysical experiment” that it might not survive.
So I’ve been chewing on this thought lately: If humanity is around to write history in a century or two, what was happening with the climate in 1989 may dwarf what we perceived as the great geopolitical dramas of that time. Living through the fall of the wall and the reunification of Europe emboldened my sense that there is always more to reality than we can see and more change possible than we can begin to imagine. I draw caution as well as hope from the fact that history tends to surprise us. And I draw caution as well as hope from the knowledge that humanity often surprises itself on the edge of survival.
Office Chair Exploration
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
One part that stood out to me from Krista’s conversation with Bill McKibben was his statement that “we’re going to have to learn to do a lot more travel via Google than American Airlines.” I was a bit skeptical of the idea that virtual globe-trotting could ever replace experiencing a different landscape and culture first-hand.
Then I found myself living that reality last week as I culled through the thousands of photos in 350.org’s Flickr account. Not only did I learn about a melted glacier in Bolivia and a school in Zulfiqarabad, Pakistan, I also read the story of a six-year-old girl from Samoa reading her poem about climate change. I’m still not quite sold on the prospect of travelling “via Google,” but I can’t help but feel a bit more worldly after putting this slideshow together.
If you’d like to dig deeper, I’ve collected these photos — as well as a few that didn’t quite make it into the slideshow — into two galleries (1, 2) on Flickr. Do a little digital exploration of your own.
Fact-checking Climate Change
Colleen Scheck, Producer
The image to the right (larger version) is a scan of one of the pages from our script that I marked up during our last editorial listen for "The Moral Math of Climate Change." It may not seem like it, but one of the very interesting aspects of working as a producer is fact-checking scripts and interviews to ensure that what we present to our audience is accurate and credible. This felt like a somewhat daunting task for this week’s program with Bill McKibben.
Climate change is a very broad topic, heavily covered, with many details, points of debate, and advocates from all directions. For example, a good start is simply clarifying the use of the phrase "climate change" versus "global warming" — phrases that are sometimes used interchangeably though they have distinct meanings.
For me, the most important aspect of this task is making sure Krista’s script is accurate, and that’s why I value our highly collaborative process of multiple reviews and refining. It starts with simple points, such as the use of quoted material:
First script draft:
He’s currently focused his energy on 350.org, an international campaign that he founded, with a mission to build a movement that can quote “unite the world around solutions to climate change that both science and justice demand” unquote.
Second script draft (after reviewing the mission statement posted on 350.org):
He’s currently focused his energy on 350.org, an international campaign that he founded, with a mission to build a movement that can quote “unite the world around solutions to the climate crisis — the solutions that science and justice demand” unquote.
But also often includes more nuanced points:
First script draft:
This became personal for Bill McKibben in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2007 when he caught Dengue fever — one of several mosquito-borne diseases that are rapidly spreading in Asia as a direct result of a warmer planet.
Second script draft:
This became personal for Bill McKibben in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2007 when he caught Dengue fever — one of several mosquito-borne diseases that are spreading to new areas of the world in part as a result of rising temperatures.
That evolution happened after one of our listen sessions where the phrase “direct result of a warmer planet” was questioned (Is the correlation that direct? And exclusively the result of a warmer planet? Is “warmer planet” an accurate phrase to use in this case?). Further research (such as articles like this from the Natural Resources Defense Council) yielded better language.
Beyond our script, there’s considering the accuracy of statements of the guest. Here we are careful to respect the guest’s authority, expertise, and personal experience while at the same time seeking clarity about the information they share in an interview. A good example this time was Bill McKibben’s "90-second course in climate science” (actually closer to four minutes).
We were all impressed by his succinct explanation of the history of global climate change, so much so that we’ve isolated it and invited you to share it with others. But we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t ask “Does he get it all right?” We put that question to our colleague Ben Adair, the editorial director of sustainability and global climate change coverage for American Public Media, who has been steeped in the details of climate change for a few years. Though McKibben’s information is accurate, Ben responded, it is incomplete in that it is focused primarily on the history of how the target figure of 350 parts per million came to be. There’s much more to tell, but what McKibben shares is very compelling and a reflection of his own focus and intersection with the issue.
Finally, there are things discussed in an interview that just make you want to know more. Our fascination with this was borne out for a while in the “Particulars” section we produced for each program. Unfortunately, we eliminated that section due to time constraints, its labor-intensive nature, and changes in the focus of our work. Every now and then, though, we hear a program that begs for particulars (such as next week’s production on Sitting Bull), and this is one of them.
There are many fascinating points to explore, including:
October 24 and the story of Noah:
McKibben mentions that he was pleased to note the Torah reading for October 24, 2009, the global day of action organized by 350.org, was the story of Noah. It’s true that the Torah portion for that day is Parashat Noach, readings from Genesis 6:9-11:32. Indeed the biblical flood story is a powerful metaphor for climate change. If you consider the triennial cycle observed by some synagogues, however, then the Torah portion for October 24 is not about the flood itself, but the final third of Parashat Noach that begins with the Tower of Babel. It’s a story of God’s contempt for human pride, and also a story of the division of nations and languages, both interesting metaphors for climate change.
Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad Gita:
McKibben also mentions that J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted from the Bhagavad Gita when he watched the first test detonation of the atomic bomb. Video of his quote is online: ”Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds” Like all scripture, the Gita is subject to translation and interpretation. One translation online has the quote as: “Time I am, the great destroyer of the worlds, and I have come here to destroy all people.”
In the end, there’s never enough time to dig in as deep we would like to, and so we do our due diligence and move on to the next topic. But that’s where we enjoy hearing from you. We’d like you to contribute your own knowledge and experience with this vast topic. Are there sources of information on climate change that you’ve found credible and helpful as you consider this issue on different levels both practical and moral? What did we get wrong? What could we have phrased better for the tight format of the radio? Even, what did we do right?
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
These slides are from the results of a study released by the Yale Project on Climate Change in the autumn of 2008, which surveyed Americans on their ideas and attitudes about climate change (you can download a PDF of the report here).
This report made its way here last September when several SOF staff members attended an American Public Media conference on sustainability coverage — which also included producers from Marketplace, American Radio Works, and Minnesota Public Radio. Edward Maibach, one of the Yale study’s principal investigators, was also there to talk about the conclusions of the “Six Americas” — six different profiles of U.S. dispositions on climate change:
The Alarmed (18 percent of the U.S. adult population) are the segment most engaged in the issue of global warming. They are very convinced it is happening, human-caused, and a serious and urgent threat. The Alarmed are already making changes in their own lives and support an aggressive national response (see graphs below).
The Concerned (33 percent) are also convinced that global warming is a serious problem and support a vigorous national response. Members of this group have signaled their intention to at least engage in consumer action on global warming in the near term, but they are less personally involved in the issue and have taken fewer actions than the Alarmed.
The Cautious (19 percent) also believe that global warming is a problem, although they are less certain that it is happening than the Alarmed or the Concerned. They do not view it as a personal threat, and do not feel a sense of urgency to deal with it.
The Disengaged (12 percent) do not know and have not thought much about the issue at all and say that they could easily change their minds about global warming.
The Doubtful (11 percent) are evenly split among those who think global warming is happening, those who think it isn’t, and those who do not know. Many within this group believe that if global warming is happening, it is caused by natural changes in the environment. They believe that it won’t harm people for many decades, if at all, and they say that America is already doing enough to respond to the threat.
The Dismissive (7 percent), like the Alarmed, are actively engaged in the issue, but are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Most members of this group believe that global warming is not happening, is not a threat to either people or non-human nature, and strongly believe that it does not warrant a national response.
After looking through information on the subject, I’m pretty sure that I sit safely in the larger “concerned” category.
Which one are you?