079: Andrew Revkin, Part 1; Global Warming, pollution, and hope for our future (transcript)

August 28, 2018 by Joshua
in Podcast

It was a great honor to have the writer behind the New York Times blog Dot Earth which ran for something like 10 years up until recently. Andrew Revkin got that started. You know whether you agree with the New York Times politics or not, I hope that I don’t have just a bunch of people who agree with me listening to this podcast. I really want to get diversity of views and thoughts and things. It was pretty prominent placement in mainstream media. And if that’s not prestigious enough now he’s at National Geographic where he’s not just reporting but he’s advancing how they create community so not just telling stories but actively involving their readers and their listeners in their community. He has a very long-term view, from personal experience, on U.S. and New York environment. He saw clean and pure environments becoming polluted. He reported on the early understanding of climate change how it first started coming out, how people viewed it then and how it evolved into today so you can start getting some of that context. He shares a bunch of what works in other areas so if you’re listening to this podcast for ideas about how you can take on a leadership role or become more active, listen to ideas for how things work for example how not to get frustrated or how the Volkswagen scandal can help and give hope for influence of corporations. I hope that you can find a lot in this conversation and in Andrew Revkin’s writings for resources for you to act on what you want to act on.

***

Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I am here with Andrew Revkin. Andrew, how are you?

Andrew: I’m good.

Joshua: We are actually at my place, we’ve been talking for a while but the listeners haven’t met you. I wonder if you can give a little bit of background about yourself, the top level.

Andrew: I am 62 years old. I’ve spent half my life writing about sustainability issues so more than 30 of those years mostly for the New York Times. I’m now at National Geographic Society and I started out in life once I got into journalism thinking I was an environmental journalist but my beat and my pursuit is a question which is like how do we navigate the next few decades with the fewest regrets. It’s an open question. When I was at the Times I started a blog called Dot Earth in 2007 that ran through 2016 and was exploring a question. It wasn’t like an environment blog, it wasn’t… So that’s kind of me. You know I do lots of other things.

Joshua: I’m really curious. You ask the question or you say your business is to ask the question “How do we get out of this? How do we fix this?”

Andrew: No, I used to think you solve environmental problems because I grew up in the 20th century when we did solve environmental problems. They were very discrete though, it was you know the sewage going into the river or Narragansett Bay where I grew up in Rhode Island or sewage in the Hudson or wherever you live. Smog and bad combustion and a lot of pollution was killing people and making people sick and it was in your eyes and in your face and in a bipartisan way the country did amazing things and those things have spread in other countries as well. There’s still a lot of work to be done on conventional pollution but it was discreet and it was literally an engineering and the politics was easy, the engineering was pretty easy too.

Joshua: So when you say discrete you mean local like this canal is polluted, we will fix that, we will make…Or someone was shipping off to other places.

Andrew: To a certain extent but sewage was not shipping it to other places. Sewage was the Hudson river full of condoms and turds and Coney Island whitefish you know that was the phrase and that you build sewage plants and rebuild better and better ones. There definitely are justice issues because where the sewage plant gets built like the one in Harlem on the Hudson River is the function of politics and the weakest community and it ends up with that [unintelligible] park on top of it. But if you drive past there of course you smell it. But basically, the country in the 60s got around the idea that a river full of crap is a bad thing. And it was something that unions supported because we had to build stuff, sewage plants that everyone got in behind it, industry you know a lot of cement or get into a sewage plant. So it’s sort of suited everybody.

And we did solve some pretty complicated ones like then along comes a much more subtle environmental problem – CFCs or fluorocarbons and other synthetic chemicals eroding the ozone layer that science built over the course of a decade. And there was the Montreal Protocol 31 years ago was this final step, one of the final steps toward really getting rid of a chemical that was going to have a long-term impact on our health and welfare and our ecosystems. So then everyone thought, “Oh, wow.” You know it was a grand achievement. But it was also discrete and solvable and not costly. I’ll get back to that thing in a moment.

1988 I started writing about global warming. And like everyone writing about it or dealing with it at that time whether you were a scientist or policymaker it felt like the same kind of thing. Something coming out of smokestacks, tailpipes, burning forests, greenhouse gas accumulating in the atmosphere. OK, let’s pass a bill or a treaty and we’ll solve that problem. And I wrote stories for the next 20 years from 1988 through mid to like 2006 six at least thinking well, I’ll just write better and better stories, I’ll incorporate better graphics. In 2005 I worked on a documentary The Times did on the Arctic and Arctic climate change and you know winning awards and thinking yeah, we’re you know…But through all that time the emissions of carbon dioxide kept going up and up and up. And that’s when I started to realize this is bigger than a quote unquote environmental problem.

Joshua: I can’t help but look it’s a systemic issue. It’s designed to distribute resources and it distributes resources in some places more than other places. So if you are in the place where it’s not distributed, you are not going to get resources.

Andrew: So it strikes me as an arena where you work in a consistent concerted way. If you care about equity and opportunity, it’s something you work on. And you know I look back in history we didn’t always have a Department on Health and Human Services. We didn’t always have an EPA. These are emergent arenas that we invest time and resources and going forward not because we think we’re going to solve the problem.

The war on cancer in 1971, Richard Nixon. How are we doing on that?

Joshua: We’re going backwards.

Andrew: Well, not backwards and forwards you know… What’s happening is…The things that matter in addressing cancer are the same things that matter in addressing climate change. Surveillance you know understanding the system and when something’s going awry. Testing new interventions. Absolutely. You know chemotherapy sucks. My mother’s going through this right now and it’s so primitive and we know it’s primitive. And there are scientists working hard at the frontiers of new methods. But you know Arizona State sent an astrophysicist to the National Cancer Institute seven years ago because they said, “We need new ideas.” That’s absolutely part of it but none of this is a solvable problem.

Joshua: Now I want to ask you something that what you talk about makes me ask a question that I asked you when we met the last time, “Do you get frustrated?” And you immediately said no. And I’m kind of curious about… I don’t want to put words in your mouth but that’s what I remember. Correct me if I remember wrong. So it sounds like you’re talking about something that could be very frustrating and I think a lot of people feel like, “Well, it’s really hard. It’s just easier to keep doing what I was doing. You know I will just keep doing what I was doing.” But I don’t hear that from you.

Andrew: Well, it is hard. And it’s mostly the challenges are enormous and it’s all an emergent and new environment. You talked about the climate and the world’s physical environment and its biological environment changing profoundly right now because of invasive species and climate change and mobility and everything but the other thing that’s changing even faster is the communication environment and anyone who thinks he or she understands that is probably being wishful to the max because…And they’re too, to me the question is, “Is the noise factor out there?”

You know it’s been totally frustrating to those who jumped in early thinking this is finally the vision of a connected planet and we can now be a global village because you can be aware of Malala in an instant. And on and on. It’s easier now than ever for an environmental group to say the palm oil plantations in Indonesia are devastating orangutan habitat. All of you people eating the candy bars using that palm oil you know. And that’s changed things. It’s great. But then along comes…

Joshua: Specifically, that got people to stop…

Andrew: Yeah, it was a specific example of…It was Greenpeace and I mentioned this before as sort of this shows you that connectedness and making an argument using data from the source and clever marketing to have consumers build pressure on the companies to act better is fantastic. I wrote a piece recently about we do finally have a possibility of CSR you know which is basically just hash tag corporate social responsibility being more than a slogan because it can be enforced. The Volkswagen. It was a huge scandal but how did they get and reveal that it was a ten thousand dollar grant from a tiny non-profit group to a West Virginia University laboratory? That basically unthreaded the whole thing. And that capacity is widespread. If we line up the incentives right [unintelligible], they have more of that. But that shows me… That’s the great upside.

The downside is everything that’s been freaking us all lately you know Russian interference and fake news and noise, the noise factor is so high and people are just turn off. In all of that my engagement and interest in pursuing something better is just like part of that.

Joshua: I think I’ve seen what you described. When I asked, “Do you get frustrated?” I think you mean, your answer is, “Yeah, there’s big potential solutions”. Not solutions. But there is like communication, networks. There is this opportunity to act on these things. And then you also mentioned you yourself. This is, I think you said your nature. You said you really enjoy this, on a personal level I think you enjoy reading, I am reading, tell me if I’m wrong, you enjoy rooting out things that are happening that people don’t know about, bringing that to the fore. Hopefully, people will see that, “Ok, that work there.” The West Virginia that got a big result. But then it didn’t continue. How can we make that systemic? How can we make that work more?

Andrew: Yeah, well I guess you know frustration. The other way the people sometimes have them they think about climate change is worry you know and part of my emerging different model for thinking about what this thing is has taken away the sense of worry. You know like you worry on a daily basis you’re going to die. We’re all going to die. I had a stroke six years ago and that really woke me up to mortality. And I tried to change the things you know to make sure that things are going in a different direction.

I wrote a piece a couple of years ago examining the stroke, how that revealed to me my mortality and thinking deeply about that and terms of how you build your life going forward and the climate problem which feels like mortality in many ways and aspects. Once you realize it’s an emergent property of, significantly an emergent property of how we’ve developed this species the last thousand years that it takes away some of that…Worry is to me the difference between the way the world is and the way you think it needs to be.

Joshua: As a post stress.

Andrew: Right. You know whether you call it urgency, frustration, worry and then people say, “Well, oh my god. But then you know isn’t that fatalism?” One reaction to that is just fatalism, you’re just giving up. And to me no, it’s just like recognize the problem for what it is. The other model or metaphor for this that’s come to me recently is kind of like the serenity prayer. You know give me a camera that does…

Joshua: To do what I can’t.

Andrew: Yeah, yeah you know. You know you can change. You know when you can’t. You know the difference. Yeah, essentially that’s my agnostic version of the serenity prayer. And science can help you with that delineation. You know science is the thing that can give you a little clearer picture of the things you can and can’t change and/or science and/or history and or just the nature of the world. But then once you have that sense, then you focus on the things you can change or might change.

***

Joshua: I’m glad you said that. Now I want to shift to your challenge. So I’ll say it quick, some listeners this maybe the first episode. So yeah, the environment seems to be something you care about and I’m going invite you at your option to take on a behavior or something to act on. And here’s the rules. You don’t have to solve all those problems all by yourself overnight.

Andrew: Thank you.

Joshua: And it can’t be something you are already doing. I mean keep doing those things but you know something new. It can’t be you telling someone else what to do. We’ve got enough people doing that. And there has to be some measurable difference that’s not just awareness or education. Those are fine but for this [unintelligible]. Is there anything that’s come to mind for you to do based on what you value?

Andrew: Well, in strict terms of math we’ve greatly reduced our meat consumption. We hardly ever have red meat. We have poultry and fish a lot but… That will be too easy to say we’re going to cut more meat out of our diet. It would be too easy for me to say I’ll take the train into the city more which I do. I take the train and that’s my [unintelligible] of the city now. I don’t drive and hardly at all. But it’s fine, for me it’s fine. Like for so many people and especially in communication, especially what I do which is facilitating, grant making at the global scale on telling better stories. I go a lot of places and finding a way to cut back on that and still have impact has got to be what I would focus on. Otherwise it would be kind of hypocritical. And how to get a measurable thing there is interesting question because statistically my travel needs have been very variable so I don’t know how we can measure a real change in the trend going forward form this year. I think certainly not in the next 30 days.

Joshua: For some people meat is so important to them that a week is a big deal. They want to do something that takes a year to work out. Dorie Clark is like 6 months of her eating vegan in a certain way. So she wanted six months. So it’s the time scale, whatever works for you.

Andrew: So again, for me it’s fine. I’m trying to think of… And not all [unintelligible] within my control [unintelligible] a big giant entity like National Geographic Society. So I could say there’s a certain number of trips to schools and stuff that are discretionary. And I have shifted some of those to sort of a Skype kind of thing when I can and there has to be a way for me measurably to take a stronger stance on doing more of that. I’d have to come up with a metric.

Joshua: I am so glad. You’re the first person who’s actively saying, “I will consider flying less.” I mean I have talked to people who already had done it, [unintelligible] but most people were like, “You cannot touch that.”

Andrew: Oh, I think it’s touchable. It’s challenging because there is great value in face to face… There are innumerable meetings. Just in the last few weeks I’ve been to where I haven’t been in a room with people and it’s almost not quite random but we’re overhearing conversations and stuff. There is value to the exchanges that happen in face-to-face workshops and meetings.

Joshua: The challenge is to replace it with something even better.

Andrew: Yeah and technology can play a role there although it’s still quite often the frustration level can be really high with technology. So I’d like to work that through. I have a vision you know which relates to what I’m doing at National Geographic about having an easier way to interface in that sort of virtual reality way with like… I mean there are these examples that pop up periodically. There was these three young Brits around 2000… A decade ago they were going around the Atlantic Ocean. They took containership across the Atlantic to limit their miles. There were recently out of college and they did this communication project called the Atlantic Rising where they ran little workshops on sea level rise in coastal communities. It was in Nigeria and in Scotland and Nantucket and 20000-mile radius around the Atlantic. And they connected a lot of schools through Skype. So Nigerian students could talk to students in Massachusetts about what it’s like to live in a coastal setting facing sea level rise. Fantastic. The National Geographic got this incredible education component to it. And there are people working actively in trying to build that capacity to engage students. And you know to me it’s that interactivity that does not have to be getting on a plane and it can lead to meaningful change or meaningful exchanges. I think there’s lots to be done there, not just in my own life but if I can help build tools that can do that would be great.

Joshua: Is the goal that you have on of [unintelligible] for you that if we pick a time to talk again, that you’ll be able to say, “I figured out how to quantify it and I did it”?

Andrew: Yeah, I think probably a year from now. It couldn’t be sooner than a year from now.

Joshua: Then I propose that after we finish this we’ll get our calendars and schedule when the next meeting will be. I presume we’ll be in touch in the meantime anyway.

Andrew: Oh, I like that. I really like what you’re doing because you’re testing a new, not a new but you know an important way of sharing and shaping ideas and conversation. It is so undervalued. We have tried an experiment almost three years from now. Sorry. I’m chewing on a nut. Warm regards. It was a podcast I started with Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist writes for Grist now and Jacqueline Gale at the University of Maine who’s a paleo ecologist and we have very different backgrounds, attitudes on aspects of the climate problem but the conversation has helped us and we bring on guests. It’s been a great experiment in trying to see where a conversation can lead on an issue like climate which is surrounded by people with fundamentally divergent senses of the problem or what you do about it and even just basic sort of cultural values that’s the kind of thing. Conversation is key.

Joshua: I’m glad you agree. I don’t want to be late at NYU because it is 1:47. And you have to be there at 2:00?

Andrew: Yeah. I have to be there at 2:00.

Joshua: Alright. I want to wrap up with a question. Is there anything I didn’t think to ask that is worth bringing up? [unintelligible]

Andrew: I think the world has positioned… I guess the other thing, the thing I hope is that the connectivity and the noise factor around it and the confusion around it and the initial exploitation of it around our 21st century online communication platforms. A lot of what we’re seeing right now is the initial turmoil that comes with a fundamentally new capacity.

Joshua: In terms of fake news and…

Andrew: Yeah. And many people are not feeling they know how to get real information or how to engage meaningfully or at National Geographic, a big priority for us right now is research on making the case for nature how to use these great tools for photography and film to get beyond someone just liking something to actually engaging them on well, let’s say eating less meat or having a different approach towards you know being for let’s say manufactured meat. You know they want to go there or whatever.

Joshua: The founder of Impossible Burger.

Andrew: Yeah, yeah. So my hope is that what we’re seeing, what we’re in right now is a state of unbelievable noise, a noise factor kind of like and that there’ll be directionality coming forward and in a sense of motivation and especially in our education system where kids can learn the skills and develop a motivation to as I say sometimes to make reality cool like until reality is cool meaning desirable, meaning that you feel that it’s better to be the person who can help foster some understanding of what’s going on with politics or with climate than to be the person who’s just sending around caricatures. And that’s a frontier. I don’t know the answer to the question “How can we make reality cool?”

And this would be like Tristan Harris who was a Googler who now is championing Take Back Your Time. You know he’s trying to get software coders, algorithm writers to have a code of ethics. So because it’s so easy to capture our attention and take it to the downside. Jaron Lanier has a book out right now, 10 Reasons To Turn Off Your Social Media. I don’t think I have to go that far but his thing is you know it’s really easy to take us down using social media because all of our reflexes as he said in an interview yesterday at WNYC that our reflexes are the things that make us stressed or angry or fearful or really fast and relaxing and understanding and the other side is really slow. And the code writers know this and so it’s so much easier to capture you through fear, stress and that kind of thing. But can we build an ethic and a culture where things can go in the other direction? It’s early days and even understanding whether that’s possible.

Joshua: I want to thank you for sharing that last bit. And I want to share something that listeners can’t get which is as you’re seeing these things, I’m seeing a gleam in your eye. They can probably hear you that there’s smile but you…I read that you are enthusiastic about these things, that these are things you look forward to.

Andrew: Yeah, probably you know there was a guy named Stuart Hart. I heard he’s at Cornell. He’s a management person. He gave a speech somewhere years ago and he said every generation in history has felt that’s exceptional. There’s a word for this Krono centrism. But I think we really are at an exceptional moment given where we are with our surge, this great acceleration as sustainability scientists call it, given that trajectories are the signs that these trajectories on emissions and resource intensity and everything can change. This is like an amazing moment to be alive. You know it’s like a hang on to your hat moment. There’s huge uncertainty and complexity. But what a consequential time to think that… Like with the VW thing. There is potential to be asymmetrically powerful in a positive direction.

Now there’s also potential like with ISIS to be asymmetrically powerful on the other end. So that’s not new. But I think the capacity factor right now is thrilling in many ways even as it is sometimes exhausting.

Joshua: That’s a big message I want to get out there because so many people feel like it’s so complicated that “I don’t want to do anything” or “I can’t do anything.” You’re saying it’s so complicated, everyone’s got an opportunity.

Andrew: I pointed out to the VW thing, it’s just one example and it doesn’t have to be internet stuff. In the 60s here in the Hudson River which was a sewer and ships were coming in and dumping their crap before they were taking on loads in Albany. These fishermen and some of their allies they found these 19th century laws, laws that were on the books about that allowed a citizen to collect a bounty if you identified someone dumping something in the waters of the United States. 1970 law as far as I can recall and not been used at all.

And they took these laws out of [unintelligible] and went to court and they generated not only change in the practices of the ships but they generated revenue in which they built the Hudson River environmental movement on. And that says you know creativity, searching for tools, thinking, sharing information gives you potential for lots of cool things to happen. And now I would love to think that there is a law on the books that could do the same thing for air pollution. You know it’s not there but thinking creatively about these things and going back in time like in that case can be very beneficial. That was free internet. So it’s attitudes and creativity and exploiting new opportunities and great time to be around.

Joshua: I am going to close it up there about opportunity, about creativity, about taking advantage of… I mean if someone’s listening to the Leadership and the Environment podcast, I presume they want to meet in some way and I feel like you’ve opened up doors for a lot of people. And I presume if they read your stuff, if they dig in Dot Earth and they dig into this stuff that’s soon coming on National Geographic, they are going to find lots of opportunities that are there for the taking.

Andrew: Yeah, I would hope so.

Joshua: Can they contact you?

Andrew: Yeah, well at @Revkin on Twitter and arevkin@ngs.org as nationalgeographicsociety.org.

Joshua: Okay, I’ll get those links to put on the page.

Andrew: And you know basically just google for Revkin and whatever. Google for Revkin and corporate social responsibility, Google for Revkin and rainforest, Google for Revkin and climate policy and you will find too much.

***

He finished on a hopeful note talking about power, how we all have power, the power to influence others, the power to influence ourselves. I think that’s the root of hopefulness that he knows the extremes of the environment in every direction – how we act on it, how we don’t, and he sees the potential for power for us to act. As for the personal challenge, he’s changed a lot already. But he was quick to come up with plenty of other things that he could do which I also find as well. The more I do, the more I find I can do and it sounds like that’s the case for him as well. And he considered not flying which so many people say is impossible for them. Now saying it’s impossible I think that’s a statement about their imaginations more than what’s possible or impossible. I think that illustrates the root of the power that we all have to start with changing ourselves. So I look forward to hearing his second conversation.

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