David Biello is a science journalist, editor, and author who has been covering issues of environment and energy for over a decade. Currently the Science Curator at TED Conferences, David has served as associate editor for Scientific American, and his writing has appeared in publications as varied as Aeon, Elle, Nautilus, and The New York Times. His new book, The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age, considers how humanity has shaped the planet and why a more sustainable future will require wisdom and innovation. David recently joined Andrew Revkin, an award-winning science writer and author of The New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, for a Heleo Conversation at BookCourt in Brooklyn, New York. They discussed the advent of the Anthropocene and the need for hope in the face of impending climate disaster. Their full conversation can be viewed 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 event.
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.
“In about 20 years, China 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?”
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.
“I’m all for the awe and wonder and inspiration of going to Mars, but there’s no way that Mars is ever going to be divorced or independent from Earth. If we’ve wrecked Earth, Mars is wrecked, too. There won’t be some kind of refuge or starting over on Mars.”
Andrew: Can you talk about your Elon Musk hunt?
David: Elon Musk personifies this postmodern age. He’s on the cusp of all these trends: clean energy with his electric car company Tesla, solar energy with his cousin’s company SolarCity, and getting us off Earth with SpaceX and the flight to Mars. It seemed like he would be a good person to talk to. I didn’t see any reason why someone from Scientific American couldn’t reach out to Elon Musk, but it turns out that Elon Musk isn’t accepting offers of publicity. I guess he doesn’t need it anymore. So I had a little more difficulty tracking down Elon than I thought I would and ended up following him from event to event before finally cornering him at the NASDAQ building, where he was helping his cousin announce some SolarCity results.
We talked about his Plan B and why we need to go to Mars. I told him that I don’t agree. There is no Plan B. I have no problem with going to Mars. I’m all for the awe and wonder and inspiration of it, but there’s no way that Mars is ever going to be divorced or independent from Earth. If we’ve wrecked Earth, Mars is wrecked, too. There won’t be some kind of refuge or starting over on Mars, which is what a lot of people think, unfortunately.
Andrew: I was in Oslo in April for the latest meeting of the Anthropocene Working Group. Elon Musk came to give a speech at the same time, for a meeting on sustainable transportation. He said, “I just came to Norway. I’m not going anywhere else in Europe, because you buy so many of my cars. Thank you very much.” They have a lot of hydropower and they subsidize electric vehicles heavily.
David: Norway has the highest number of electric vehicles per capita, despite the fact that battery vehicles work very poorly in the cold.
Andrew: Some millionaire bought a bunch of them for a town in northern Norway, in the Arctic, so they have a fleet of Teslas. It was a very happy little pitch session, and then a woman in the audience raised her hand. She said, “Mr. Musk, what do you think about the fact that Norway, while we have a very green electricity supply, our sovereign wealth fund is all from oil revenue, from the oil that we’re selling to the rest of the world from the Bering Sea? And Statoil, the state company, just announced they’re going to be drilling more.”
He paused. Then he said, “You know, we’re going to need oil for a long time to come.” He was very realistic, which is a very rare thing. Even to hear him say that was refreshing. I want people to be honest. Transitions are slow and hard.
The Anthropocene Working Group meeting was in the Nansen Institute, and right down the path was the Statoil headquarters. Walking by it, all I could think was that the decisions being made in that building were a lot more important than the ones being made in our meeting.
You talk at length about the limits of the word “Anthropocene.”
“Everywhere around the world we’ve made a little smudge. It’s soot, these little spherules of carbon… They are found everywhere from Antarctica to the deepest regions of the Amazon to your backyard.”
David: I love the concept, I hate the name. Just the word “Anthropocene” is off-putting to a wide range of people, including geologists, who feel that we’ve now strayed into historical time. Why do we need geologic time to herald our importance? We can just say, “Yeah, in 1947 we started blowing up a lot of nuclear bombs and now we have plutonium scattered all over the earth.” Or, “In 1850 or so we started burning a lot of coal and now we have soot scattered all over the earth.”
Basically, everywhere around the world we’ve made a little smudge. It’s soot, these little spherules of carbon. There are similar spherules of carbon from a mass extinction event about 400 million years ago, so we have a good sense that these will last for at least 400 million years. They are found everywhere from Antarctica to the deepest regions of the Amazon to your backyard. It’s pervasive and permanent. That’s why this Anthropocene concept seems a no-brainer.
Andrew: Brad Allenby wrote a piece in Slate earlier this year where he rejects the notion. His thing about humanity is we are in so many states of change right now—information change, genetics—that there’s little we understand about where we’re going to be 30 or 40 years from now. You delve into some of that: the extinction, CRISPR. Does that unnerve or excite or depress you?
David: We don’t know how CRISPR is going to turn out. CRISPR is a set of cellular machinery that allows scientists to very quickly and easily edit the genetic code of any living thing. That could be a person, that can be a cyanobacteria.
The first person to be injected with human cells edited by CRISPR has a very aggressive form of lung cancer, so they’ve edited some of his immune cells to attempt to fend it off better. That’s just the first of what will be many examples of therapies using this gene editing tool. We’re also using it for things like trying to bring back the woolly mammoth and the passenger pigeon and other animals that we might like to see again—or hunt again. That seems to be a big driver for it. We’re a muddled up species, and that’s why my original title for the book was Human Nature, because that’s really what it comes down to.
“The books that are most effective for me are the books that allow you, the reader, to make your own decisions. Here’s the information that I gathered, here are the facts as I saw them, but you need to draw your own conclusions.”
Andrew: You took a reportorial, pretty neutral approach. Did you choose that approach from the get-go, not making this into a manifesto? Elizabeth Kolbert doesn’t hold back at all in terms of how she portrays her feelings about what she’s reporting. I’ve been historically much more in your mode, but even when I moved to the opinion side of The New York Times writing Dot Earth, I said right at the beginning, “my opinion is reality matters; get used to it.” That’s a hard decision to make.
David: Especially in this post-truth era. The books that are most effective for me are the books that allow you, the reader, to make your own decisions. Here’s the information that I gathered, here are the facts as I saw them, but you need to draw your own conclusions. They might be that the Anthropocene is a bunch of hogwash. Or, they might be, “Wow, this is a mind-blowing concept and it’s going to change the way I behave.”
Audience: Is governance a moot point given the range of different perspectives and different technologies?
David: Rules help. If you have the Clean Power Plan, it’s probably a little bit better for climate change than if you don’t, but at the same time even a President Trump cannot reverse certain secular trends like natural gas.
We have a legacy of top-down, “Oh, this is better for you, just take this and do it,” and that’s obviously not going to work. This is the whole saga of the clean cook stove movement, decades of effort to come up with a better way to serve people who are killing themselves by cooking with charcoal and open flames in enclosed huts. It’s taking years off their lives, but if the clean cook stove doesn’t fulfill the same cultural functions and isn’t cheap, easy to use, and better, then it’s not going to work.
Audience: David, you said that you’re hopeful. I’m curious where your hope comes from.
“An asteroid has no choice but to follow its gravity and collide. We don’t have to hit the earth like an asteroid. We can still change course.”
David: It’s changed quite a bit in the last couple of weeks. I still have a lot of hope, despite the fact that we may have taken a few steps back in recent weeks when it comes to fighting the environment. I saw a lot of hope in the essential decency of most people and their desire to do better and to be better.
That includes Senator James Inhofe, the biggest climate denier in the country, the originator of the “climate change is a hoax” phrase. Even he sees the value in protecting the least able among us from the ravages of—he wouldn’t call it climate change, but “extreme weather.” Evangelical Christians are among the most inspired to act to help the poorest among us in a way that perhaps those who are fighting against climate change are not.
We’re going to need to resolve all those problems, but what gives me hope is that you can always find that common ground. People want to do better. The other thing that gives me hope is that the other things that got an epoch named after them are asteroids or glaciers, not conscious beings. They don’t have an opportunity to change their ways. An asteroid has no choice but to follow its gravity and collide. We don’t have to hit the earth like an asteroid. We can still change course.
Audience: How much damage can be caused in the short term by an administration that turns back the policy advances that have been made over the last eight years?
David: First, I should preface this by saying we really don’t know, because Donald Trump has not made any coherent and consistent policy statements of any kind.
Andrew: Although there is one worst case. It’s very simple. It’s already been tried once by Congress. They just need to pass a law, both houses, avoiding the filibuster, that says, “The Clean Air Act does not apply to greenhouse gases.” If Congress does that, it takes us all the way back to before the Supreme Court justified EPA being able to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
That’s a big deal. It’s bigger than the Clean Power Plan getting underwritten, because the Clean Power Plan is mostly stuff that the government calculated it could do already. It’s not new. It’s just enshrining a trajectory that’s mostly there already, so taking it away doesn’t really do much.
David: All that would do is take away the impetus. The Trump administration would have to come up with some alternative to the Clean Power Plan because of the Supreme Court obligation. The Bush administration spent eight years hemming and hawing over environmental regulations. There’s a way to drag it out and not address it.
I don’t actually think that it will change. Whatever the legal landscape is, it can’t change the fact that there’s cheap natural gas and utility executives aren’t dumb. The economic trends, in some ways, will preserve us from runaway carbon emissions.
Andrew: It’s not like Donald Trump can order companies to dig coal.
David: Or burn it.
Andrew: By saying, “We need more coal and more gas,” he’s being fundamentally contradictory, because more gas will kill more coal economically. A lot of what he’s said is just flash in the pan.
Audience: What do the majority of people need to know about the problems to be able to participate in the solutions?
David: The most important thing to know is there’s still time and there’s still hope. A lot of people have given in to despair, whether it’s because of the election or because they feel like climate change is this giant, impersonal thing that they have no control over. They have to drive to work, so what can I do? Or the extinction of species—that’s happening far away, and what does it have to do with me? There are things that we all can do to ameliorate the problem, the largest of which is politics. We didn’t think about the environment when making our most recent presidential choice.
But if Donald Trump really wants to create jobs, then he’s going to be pro-solar, because there are a lot more jobs installing solar panels on people’s roofs than there are in digging up coal or burning it. That’s another reason to be hopeful no matter what the legislative landscape is. There are conservative reasons to go solar. They’re called “energy independence.”
Audience: What exactly are we trying to fix?
David: Our unbalanced relationship with the natural world, whether that’s mining, coal, overfishing in the oceans, dumping CO2 in the atmosphere. We have an extractive relationship with the world around us, and there’s a more balanced approach that might allow us to have this thriving world of plants and animals and microbes and fungi that are all having this wonderful life, and so are the people, too, and they’re not suffering from energy poverty. Yes, it sounds like utopia. We’re not there yet. We may never be there, but that’s a goal worth striving for.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.