Earlier this month I had a chat on the fate of the planet and humanity in a Brooklyn bookstore with David Biello, who recently became curator
of science at TED (as in talks) after many years at Scientific American. The subject was his first book, “Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age”
— a brisk, unsettling and, yes, hopeful, guide to the Anthropocene. We also touched on my recent magazine essay, “An Anthropocene Journey.”
The discussion was happily recorded by Heleo, a web enterprise devoted to fostering consequential conversations. Read on for excerpts from the video and Heleo’s helpful transcript,
but I encourage you to watch and/or read the longer conversation at the links below:
Andrew: The concept of the Anthropocene is that Earth has entered an age that a species is in charge of. We’re not the first species to become a planetary force. A couple billion years ago,
cyanobacteria created the biggest catastrophe ever when they burst oxygen in the atmosphere. It was an anaerobic environment so everything died. A great extinction. Now, we’re doing the great carbonization
Unlike cyanobacteria, we’re capable of understanding this is happening—but we’re not absorbing it fully. That’s the paradox of this moment.
David: There’s no question that our marks are deep and pervasive, and probably permanent. They’re not necessarily the kinds of marks that you want to be remembered by: extinctions,
climate change, ocean acidification. These are not the hallmarks of a thoughtful species.
Andrew: And here’s the other paradox. For all the curves of destruction—deforestation, ocean acidification, CO2—the other curves that we mark our progress by, like lifespan,
infant mortality, rising prosperity, and the Stephen Pinker curve of less conflict on a per capita basis, these are all doing great.
That leads to this other debate, even within the scientific community: are we putting off when we’re going to hit a bigger wall by just going “progress, progress, progress,” and not keeping
track of these other curves? What’s your sense? You say in your book that despair is not productive, but there’s a lot of bad stuff happening. Is there a way to not despair and be realistic too?
David: If you despair you don’t do anything. You don’t change anything. You eat, drink, be merry, and wait for the end. Despair does not inspire action in the same way that a little
bit of hope might.
Let’s face it, if we get started today, great, but it’s okay if we start tomorrow. Ten years from now? It’s still better than 100 years from now. There’s always hope. It can always be
a little bit better. Maybe you can’t stop climate change at one degree Celsius but maybe you can at two, maybe at three. Each of those is better than the alternative.
Andrew: This is true. Who encapsulates for you best the spirit of this approach to the Anthropocene that isn’t just “woe is me”?
David: The person who encapsulates it best for me doesn’t even know the term “Anthropocene.” His name is Fan Changwei, and he is an environmental bureaucrat in a small coastal town in China. He has been tasked by his provincial government with trying to turn a city carbon neutral. This means
that they would emit no more CO2 than they took in and destroyed, which is a beautiful-sounding circular economy concept.
It turns out to be incredibly difficult in practice, as Fan is finding out. That struggle is the one that we’re all facing, and certainly it’s more important that it happen in China than anywhere else,
and maybe India right after it.
Along with those curves of improvements in human health and wellbeing, we’ve had some environmental improvement curves in this country. The Hudson is a lot cleaner than it was even in the ’80s. We
have cleaner air, cleaner water, and that’s because we decided that we didn’t want killer smogs. The Chinese are deciding that right now. Perhaps the Indians will decide not to have killer smogs
before they happen.
Andrew: One of the other paradoxes is that the revival of the Hudson River took the emergence of a big middle class that cared about the environment and pollution to be supportive of the multi-billion dollar bond acts, to build the sewage plants to cut the crap flowing into the river. You have to get a middle class that’s big, and of course a middle class that’s
big is consumptive.
India is going to be up to about 1.7 billion [people] by 2070 or so, depending on fertility rates. Having a middle class that size and not overheating the planet, even with what they’re doing… In Years of Living Dangerously,
David Letterman goes to India. He talks to [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi, and they’re doing this great job of expanding solar,
but they’re also going to double their coal use because they need electricity for 300 million people. Can some country do better, faster?
David: China developed exactly the same way we did, but they did it better and faster. In about 20 years they’ve reached a level of pollution that it took us 50-100 years to reach, and they’re
going to clean it up much faster, it seems. Maybe 10-20 years from now, China will be enjoying an environment that is similar to the one that Americans enjoy. The question is, can India skip that? No country
in the world has ever industrialized without burning a ton of coal, and I tend to agree with Stephen [Pyne] that there’s something about pyromania that’s baked into humanity.
Andrew: Absolutely. Loren Eiseley in the ’50s wrote this essay, “Man the Firemaker,” and he talks about
progress. He says, “Man’s long progress through history has been a climb up the heat ladder.”
David: Can we escape our own pyromania? That’s the question. You talk about India and sooner or later you will uncover one of the thorium enthusiasts, and they will tell you that this is
an alternative fuel for nuclear reactors. The people who believe in it, believe in it passionately.
Andrew: Just as passionately as the “Renewable by 2050” crowd.
David: There’s something religious about energy. It might be coal, solar, nuclear. People passionately latch onto whatever particular form of energy they like, and then, of course, all the
other ones are terrible. But it’s going to take them all, actually.
Please read the rest and watch the full recording at Heleo.com. You can
watch or share the video excerpt on Facebook here.
And don’t stop there. There’s also a conversation, transcribed from a Facebook Live recording, in which Mandy Godwin of Heleo talks with one of my favorite researchers of all things cognitive, Dan Siegel, on “The ‘Optical Delusion’ Keeping Us from Understanding the Human Mind.”
Postscript | Dot Earth’s 2,800-plus posts will live on, but I’m moving to ProPublica on Dec. 5. Read the back story behind this blog at Times Insider,
my reflection on 30 years of climate reporting and continue the conversation with me on Twitter or Facebook.