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David Skorton: Hello, everyone. Thanks so much for joining us for this first session of Second Opinion, an ongoing series where the Smithsonian is attempting to convene conversations among interesting people with interesting points of view and interesting experiences, on issues that we believe are of national importance. For our conversation today we're going to address an issue that is of concern to all of us and each of us, the state of our planet. Given the impact on the planet, of the rise of the human species, the dawn of agriculture, increasing land and water use, emerging infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, climate change, species extinction, and other challenges, is there a reason to be optimistic about the future of our planet, and our place on it?
Will our species have the ideas and means, and the will, to successfully adapt to this upcoming era of change, and to alter its course for the better? Here to discuss this question with me is a very esteemed group of interesting people. I'm David Skorton, I'm the secretary of the Smithsonian. And going to my left, I will introduce the different people around here. I'm going to tell you a little bit about how you can learn more about the wonderful work that they've done. I'll tell you that in just a moment. To my immediate left is Denise G. Fairchild, who's president of the Emerald Cities Collaborative. It's a national nonprofit organization working to ensure equity inclusion, while building resilient green and healthy economies.
To her left is Steve Monfort, who is the John and Adrienne Mars Director and chief scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. And Steve is also the deputy director of the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park. To his left is Mary Evelyn Tucker. She's co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University, where she teaches in the joint master's program between the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Divinity School. Next to Mary Evelyn is Anson Hines, who goes by Tuck, and he's the director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
Next to Tuck is Catrina Rorke, who is the senior fellow for energy policy at the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank, advancing solutions to complex public policy problems. And between Catrina and me is Jedediah Purdy, who goes by Jed, professor of law at Duke University, and the author of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene. Now, I welcome you to dig deeper into the individual works of these panels, which can be found on our Second Opinion website.
Well, thank you very much everyone for being a part of this. And I also want to point out that we have an audience of very interesting people as well all around us. And you will have a chance perhaps to hear some of their questions later on. So, let's start by a quote from Catrina. And this quote that Catrina has written, "The globe is indeed warming, and we are largely responsible."
Well, the Smithsonian Institution a few years ago issued a statement to that same effect, saying, "The global climate is warming as a result of human activities." Yet despite this general overall scientific consensus, there remains continuing need to understand more about the exact details of what the warming of the planet will mean for the world and human civilization, and over what time period.
Tuck, I'm going to throw the first one to you. Tell us a bit about what you see as the challenges ahead, for getting a better understanding of the impact of this undeniable climate change? Tuck?
Tuck Hines: Thanks. It's very clear, the science is very clear, that the planet is warming, and that this is a result of rising carbon dioxide, which has a fingerprint of coming from burning of fossil fuels. There's no doubt about that. The trend for that has been well established and is projected into the future. What's important to understand is the role of science and the uncertainty of the implications for that in our social and economic systems, and the interactions of the many factors that that enormous change to the planet is causing. Interactions with food production systems, with weather, with plant growth, with rising sea level, all of those things vary enormously across the planet, and interact with each other.
And there's a real need for research to understand those interactive factors as an important next step, not in denying the positive direction of the climate warming, but the consequences of that, and how that will play out.
David Skorton: Thanks a lot, Tuck. Speaking of research and studies in the human psyche, there are numerous psychological studies that suggest, and somewhat paradoxically, that the more evidence people see in certain situations that a particular belief they hold is incorrect, the more they may actually dig in and hold on to the idea that that belief is true. Denise, I want to challenge you with this one, if I could? What can you tell us, from your career, are the challenges you've seen getting large groups of individuals, entire societies even, to change their minds about a particular aspect of the world, such as climate change, and further change their behavior?
Denise Fairchild: Well, thank you for the question. Actually, I do believe we're seeing sort of a mind shift, an idea shift happening in America, if not the globe. I mean, to the extent that we have had the Paris Climate Accord, for example, that represents nations around the world, for the first time, recognizing that there is a problem. [Ed. Note: This conversation took place before President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Accord.] That's been 20, 25 years in the make to get to that point, that nation states are recognizing that there's a problem, something to do about it. The fact that we can actually see low-income communities of color ... now, often the environmental movement is seen as a middle-class, white movement. But to this day, all the research points to the fact that low-income communities of color care about, and want to do something about, climate change, even greater than middle-class, white communities.
It means that these are very fundamental issues that people care about. I think what needs to happen at this stage is sort of figuring out, what are the tools that people need to actually make a difference? So people are doing things, like making their homes more energy-efficient. People are moving towards solar energy. Folks are preserving and improving how they conserve water, and they don't turn on their washing machines in the middle of the day, or their dishwashers. So just gradually the knowledge is disseminating across the globe and particularly in the United States, where people are making individual behavioral changes. The thing that I think is a fundamental challenge, however, is looking at the structural causes of climate change, and how we get people to understand that we are part of the problem in terms of mass production and mass consumption.
You talked about greenhouse gas emissions and carbon and the burning of fossil fuels. Well, that's fueled by an economic model that supports an extractive economy in digging up the oils and all the fossil fuels. And the question becomes, how do we get out of the cultural mindset that we have to have more stuff? And we have to produce more stuff, and we have to consume more stuff, that just continues to drive the conditions that cause climate change. That's the fundamental issue, that's the behavioral changes that need to be made at the personal level.
Often the environmental movement is seen as a middle-class, white movement. But to this day, all the research points to the fact that low-income communities of color care about, and want to do something about, climate change, even greater than middle-class, white communities.
David Skorton: It’s a tall order; it sounds right to me, and I'm sure that we can solve this problem during our discussion.
Denise Fairchild: Absolutely. There's no question.
David Skorton: Following along on to what you mentioned about the role of individuals, some people continue to argue that the U.S. government ... the government itself, the federal government, can and should play a greater role in helping to direct large-scale initiatives for the greater good in a whole variety of areas. Among them building infrastructure, addressing social inequalities, undertaking scientific research. Catrina, you've worked a lot in that area, the interface between individuals and the government, what are the challenges in your observation, in getting governments to address the looming changes ahead? And while you're thinking about that, should any governmental initiative be at the federal level, or should it be at the local level, or state level, or both?
Catrina Rorke: That’s a complicated and maybe loaded question. I think that policies are best designed by people closest to problems. So, in this pending debate over infrastructure spending, we're seeing some contest between who's going to make decisions about how any future dollars get spent. Will it be at the federal level, or are we going to devolve decision-making to the cities? I think it's a nice way of looking at public policy problems generally, because in individual communities we can identify problems that we find to be more pressing much more immediately and with better data and narratives than a federal government could. I do think that finding the right stages of implementation for policy decisions is really important, even for subjects like global climate change, which affect us as a global population, and not individual populations.
But I also think it's important to note that the government is not the root of cures for every public policy problem. Often we find cures in innovations in individual communities, and the creativity of humans is what leads to solutions, not the ingenuity of a bureaucrat. And so one of the things that we work on at R Street is, how do we identify a way to make the footprint of government small enough to allow this intellectual curiosity to lead us to solutions at the same time that we don't ignore significant market failures, where there is a compelling need for government to intercede?
Without answering your question specifically, because I think that would take about six hours of conversation, I think what we're looking at in the subject of climate change, but in these global problems more broadly, is a way to mobilize individuals and communities, and then take that information and do great things with it. Rather than having decisions come from some centralized power.
Government is not the root of cures for every public policy problem. Often we find cures in innovations in individual communities, and the creativity of humans is what leads to solutions, not the ingenuity of a bureaucrat.
David Skorton: Very, very interesting. And as a lifelong bureaucrat I take that in a very positive sense. I love that title. Following along your line of thinking, it's been suggested over the years that sometimes individuals don't always make the right decision in their own interest, even if that decision is made close to the action. And in the ’60s ... I'm looking around the table here. Some of you may still remember the ’60s perhaps. Tuck, put your hand down. In the ’60s, the ecologist Garrett Hardin, you may remember this, published the essay on the “Tragedy of the Commons,” which has been used in many different areas of endeavor and thought. And he pointed out, for those who are just learning about this, that there are some situations where people, even acting apparently in their own self-interest, will engage in behaviors that in the end collectively affect their own self-interest in the wrong direction, negatively.
And he used as an example shepherds who were having their sheep graze and eventually perhaps overgraze and destroying an area, making it barren, and therefore hurting their own self-interest. You could argue, I suppose, that the current dilemma that we're in, in terms of the climate, is another example of a commons, where people and nations act in their own interest, apparently, but eventually you wind up creating a result that is much worse for them in the end. Jed, I'm wondering if you could tell us what you think are some of the challenges in overcoming this, if it really is under tragedy of the commons, what's your thought on that?
Jedediah Purdy: David, thank you. I think it is a commons tragedy. I think it is the largest and most general that we've ever faced. It threatens to be the commons tragedy that ate the world really. And precisely because it's so global, I think it confounds many of our ordinary expectations about how we ought to address even the most complex problems. Catrina, I think of what you just said about the need for solutions to come from those who are closest to the problem. One of the characteristics, I think, of global climate change is it can often be difficult to see who it is exactly, who is closest to the problem, right, in its various stages and its complex interrelations.
I'd also just say, and one further note of piling on pessimism, before I try to turn a little bit constructive, that it's not just a collective action problem across individuals or across nations in the present, which is clearly right. It's also a commons tragedy across generations. Because each generation can in a narrow, rational sense act in its own interest, while putting the cost of dealing with the consequences of what it's done on those who come after. So in that sense, the people making the decisions are always the ones who can least be counted on to do the right thing. I think of this as pointing in two directions. On one level I want to sort of echo and amplify and generalize what Denise said a little bit ago, about the need for change on the level of behavior and even consciousness. This has to invite an answer where we change our understanding of what problems are ours, you know, and what interests are ours?
One of the things I find hopeful in the history of environmental thought and action is that it's often involved people re-imagining their place in the world. Revisiting the question, who are you connected to? Which problems are yours? Is it in your interest to save something that you can't immediately use? And we think about these questions, we actually live these questions very differently than people once did. That seems hopeful. But I would also say, and I don't think anyone has said the contrary, but I just emphasize, changes of consciousness on the individual level have to be turned into legal and political structures that people can rely on, and live by. That was the conclusion of Garrett Hardin’s famous article that you began with, that we needed what he called mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon, to control access to the commons.
So I think a political expression and reinforcement of a changing consciousness will be equally important.
David Skorton: Thoughts about that? Yes, Mary Evelyn?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: If I could build on that? Thank you.
David Skorton: Please.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: And for these other comments as well. I think this is very critical, because the way I would see it is, we have a great value in the last 200-plus years of Enlightenment thinking, of individualism, liberty, equality and fraternity. But individualism and innovation is terrific, and Catrina, I agree with that. But I think we're also at a point of hyper-individualism, where we haven't really acknowledged what is a community-building way of being in the world? This is one of the great characteristics of humans, we can build communities. So I think we need from individualism to interdependence, independence to interdependence, from equality to equity, about [how] these issues have affected so many people, Native Americans, African-Americans, Latinos out of the picture.
And fraternity, we really need to claim a grounds that says: We are in this together, for children, for inter-generations and so on. And I think that is one of our greatest challenges. That we'll have consequences for structures and politics, but that the individual sphere is, I think, being almost suffocated by hyper-consumption and hyper-individualism. We yearn to be part of something larger, and call to something larger, which is why this conversation is so important.
We really need to claim a grounds that says: We are in this together, for children, for inter-generations. And I think that is one of our greatest challenges.
—Mary Evelyn Tucker
Denise Fairchild: And I would also suggest that this notion of the commons is nothing new. I think this hyper-individualism is something that's only been within the makings of the Western economies, and then we can look to indigenous cultures where the commons was how people lived. We look at our Native American community, for example. They say you make decisions, Jed, to your point, based on seven generations. Two in the past, the current generation, and four generations going forward. Which gives you a sense of the inter-generational nature of this, that we are one, and part of an ecosystem, and we cannot just see ourselves as consuming or producing for me and myself and mine.
But that we are making decisions for the globe. For the part that we have in the entire ecosystem. So, I think there are places that there's a sense of optimism. Places where we can look, cultures that we can look to, that really give us the pathway towards a different kind of way to live in this climate challenge that we're facing.
David Skorton: Very interesting. And is it a practical thing, or do we have a moral obligation, would you say, looking at you, Mary Evenlyn, to think about future generations? Are we just being pragmatic, or is there a moral aspect to it?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Well, pragmatism has its role, for sure. But I think that the moral call, and I know Jed would share this, and many of us here, I think is very profound, and your point to other cultures. I study Confucianism, the oldest ongoing culture and civilization in the world, now in its hyper-development phase. But the idea of Confucianism is, even the character for the individuals is "an individual in relationship" to others. And the idea, even for public service, is you're doing this for the common good. It's a completely different way of being human in the world. And there's a revival of Confucianism for reasons of over-consumption, over-individualism, and a spiritual vacuum. So in short, I think there is a complex multi-faceted moral call at this moment in human history that needs to draw on other cultures, other religions, other peoples and races and so on, to build what I would call a multicultural, but planetary civilization, for the future. I think we can do that.
Jedediah Purdy: If I might just add one note to what Mary Evelyn says, the distinction between pragmatic and moral motivations is useful, but in some ways it's also an artifact of our rather individualistic conception of what it is to act as a person.
David Skorton: These are the points I was hoping you would bring out, and I'd appreciate my other colleagues bringing out points that I'd like you to bring out.
The last thing you just said, thinking about the planet broadly, I'd like to talk a little bit about species beyond the human species. It's been suggested that one of the biggest impacts of climate change, some of the things that Tuck said we have to pay attention to, is the growing extinction of other species around the globe. Steve, you have spent a very distinguished career working in this area, but for those of us who haven't thought about this, why worry about it? Why does a diverse population of animals or plants matter to us or to the Earth in general?
Steve Monfort: I think it's a great question. I often, since climate change came onto the horizon over the last decade or so, and was in front of everybody's mind, it sort of cast a pall, I think, over everyone feeling there's this sense of gloom-and-doom, and what can I do about the climate? What can I do about the atmosphere, and so forth?
But there's another effect, and the effect has been that all of the funding, a lot of the attention shifted away from biodiversity and functioning ecosystems to now a sense of "What do we do about the climate?" I guess I feel there's a very likely chance that ultimately, humans will figure out the climate situation. It will eventually be solved. It's an existential problem. And if, say it's solved and we do that, but then we turn around and say, "What happened to the biodiversity? Where's everything gone?" And the reason it matters is because everything we require as a species is derived in some way or another from biological diversity. And for that I mean things like the air, and water and food and fuel and fiber, and all of these things.
The conservation community has been trying very hard to make an economic case for "What are the benefits, nature's benefits," and this sort of thing. And there's certainly a good case to be made for that. The fact is, our society would collapse without biodiversity. We wouldn't continue to survive. But there are other elements of biodiversity that provide us with value, and that's everything from spiritual and cultural value to entertainment, to all of these sorts of things. Most of us, if I make the argument to a politician, I say, "You care about prosperity and security, and those sorts of issues, well then you should care about biodiversity." But if I ask most people, I think there's an innate connection people have with nature. I don't think you can separate, you shouldn't separate humans, from biodiversity. We're part of that.
So there's this part of being human that is tied to biodiversity, and to the Earth and to nature and the sense of wildness that we think or hope that exists in the world. And so I think there's an idea maybe we could manufacture our way through an absence of biodiversity. We could use all kinds of new engineering technologies and do something, but what would our life be like? What would the quality of the human experience be like without biodiversity?
So, I think there's different arguments you can make. Fundamentally, though, I think it's more than just the economic argument. There's an intrinsic value in nature that sometimes gets ignored. In the conservation community, people are arguing with one another. Should we save nature because of its economic value in a landscape of "in the Anthropocene" or is there a place for just nature as an intrinsic right? Do all other living things on Earth have the right to exist and to function without human interference or damage?
It matters from across the spectrum, but I worry that we forget biological diversity. This idea that we're going to bring back species from the dead that are extinct, and so on, it's mostly a fantasy. So, we need work at both fronts. Let's fix climate change, work on that, but at the same time let's not lose these functioning ecosystems that humans require for their survival.
I don't think you can separate—you shouldn't separate—humans from biodiversity. We're part of that.
David Skorton: I think some earlier point that you were making about indigenous cultures living that philosophy every day is very important.
Steve Monfort: There was something else that was being discussed before. When you talk about individuals trying to take action and do things, most people that I've been talking to, we are increasingly bludgeoning them with gloom-and-doom, and we're not giving them any solutions. They keep saying, "What can I possibly do?" Well what challenge, if you talk about the atmosphere, what more ephemeral thing are you asking people to do? They can make a choice. You can do all kinds of things personally, but at some level, I feel the right to a functioning atmosphere, clean air, somebody said recently, "To me, that's a basic human right. Clean air and clean water and food, those to me should be basic human rights."
What are we going to do about maintaining those rights? There needs to be some role for the regulatory state, for governments. I think of California. They just went through their drought, and so they had mandatory water restrictions, and everybody went along with that because they knew, you run out of water we're in big trouble. California is also an example of how they've regulated emissions. They've just said, "You're not going to have a car here in this state unless it meets these requirements."
So I do think there's both individual action, but also governments have to act for the benefit of everyone. So I think it's both. You have to have individual choice, and you have to have good governance and good decision-making.
Bill McDonough was at the Earth Optimism Summit and he said, "CO2 is the pollutant, and it's going into the atmosphere, and how would you think that people in Flint, Michigan, would feel if you said, 'You have lead in your water and it's at 100, let's say, units, and we're going to reduce it down to 40.' Would you feel good about drinking water that only has 40 parts of lead in it instead of 100? It's the same way with the atmosphere and carbon dioxide." Anyway, if people looked at CO2 as a pollutant that was affecting their health, they might think of it differently.
David Skorton: In the late '50s, the environment in Los Angeles was tough. As an asthmatic kid, there were many days where they said kids shouldn't go out to play, and so on. And a lot of changes were made predominantly through state-level regulations, although there was of course the Clean Air Act.
I stepped in front of you Jed, who wants to say something, but I can't resist asking Catrina where she comes on this issue, because threading that needle of how much to bring in regulation, how much to use a carrot and stick and so on, how much should be relegated to individuals, municipal, state, versus federal? It's one that we don't agree on as a country, and I'm curious, Catrina. Then I promise, Jed, I'll stop stepping on your minds and let you come in.
Catrina Rorke: I think that we've touched on two parts. This sort of individual call to action, "What can an individual do," and "What can the government do?" I think this individual conversation is a really important one to have about how you feel like you participate in your community, however broadly you might define it. But everybody on Earth taking shorter, colder showers is not going to solve climate change.
And then you can look at government policy, and government policy is maybe this opposite mechanism that dictates which actions are preferable or not allowable. Those instruments can be helpful. You can adapt them in a variety of ways, like market mechanisms to reduce acid rain were obviously quite helpful, and came in at a relatively low cost for all the achievements we made.
But between those two is the marketplace. And every day, trillions of decisions are made in the marketplace. And right now, the vast majority of them don't think about climate change as a problem. They don't think about global problems as a problem. When you buy a pack of gum, you're not thinking about the supply chain. When you take the bus, you're not thinking about "Was this bus manufactured according to the values that I hold?" So we're in a marketplace where we're making decisions without accounting for these problems, and that marketplace itself can be constrained, not necessarily by the individual side, but by the government side. And we're seeing that right now.
So, I do a lot of work with distributed generation, and that policy is largely set at the state level. And there are very many states that don't allow people to produce electric power on their roofs and then sell it to market, or won't allow a company, like let's say a big box store like a Walmart or a Target, to cover their roofs in solar panels and profit that way. That's a government policy problem.
So we know that companies want cheap power. We know that that technology exists, and yet public policy stands in the way. And so I think that we need to maybe step back and consider when we're thinking about public policy strategies to combat any number of problems, what's the natural limit of what public policy can do? And how do we sort of induce the marketplaces that we would prefer, by mobilizing individual action and collective action? I think that we leave this part out too often, and that we count on sort of individual compunction or the power of the state, when the reality is that the solutions always come from somewhere in the middle. How do we mobilize those solutions, I think, is a really interesting public policy to do.
David Skorton: I interrupted Jed then. And then we'll come to you next.
Jedediah Purdy: Generous of you, thanks. I just wanted to add to what Steve was saying, 'cause it was so engaging. The importance of other species, I think, goes to very deep questions about what could make life on Earth worthwhile, if we move away from ever accelerating accumulation and growth. There's this passage in Walden where Thoreau asks, "What greater miracle could there be than to look through each other's eyes, just for a moment?" Think of how true that is as between human beings and other species.
We're just beginning to understand what kinds of consciousness, what kinds of experience, what kinds of language and culture and memory we coexist with all over the world. And I think if we return ever to something that has more elements of certain kinds of traditional and indigenous practices, it will be through our increasing both scientific and cultural understanding of how many other kinds of consciousness we live here with, and how we can relate to them. We don't even understand what we're losing, in that sense. We're just beginning to understand it as it disappears. And it's not just a whole other world, it's dozens of hundreds of worlds that are coexisting here in our world.
We don't even understand what we're losing (in biodiversity). We're just beginning to understand it as it disappears. And it's not just a whole other world, it's dozens of hundreds of worlds that are coexisting here in our world.
David Skorton: Yeah, it's very very true. Denise, do you have something?
Denise Fairchild: This is a great conversation, and we could go on forever, but I do want to talk about the role of government, because I do believe the role of government is critical for mediating the climate change environment and helping individuals as well as markets perform and behave better. It's very clear that regulation is just one tool that government has to move markets, but the other, I think, is that it incentivizes markets to perform and to innovate, and to bring into the marketplace ways to think about bringing new technologies to the forum.
To the extent that today, because of investment and because of research and development, and new climate change technologies, we're seeing that renewable energy is cheaper than coal. I mean the business case now for renewable energy is clear, and the fossil fuel economy is struggling. I talk to our utility friends all the time. They said they were in an existential crisis. They know it. They have to figure out how to make the shift, because the bottom line is profit. The technologies are there and it's now profitable to go renewable.
So government has a role to incentivize the market to perform in different kinds of ways.
I'm also seeing, Catrina, the local communities like in Florida this last November election, where it's a very conservative environment that says "We want distributive energy." At the end of the day, they beat back state legislation advanced by utilities to prevent distributive energy. And the folks in that community says "No. We want state regulations." So even in a conservative setting, we're seeing the need for regulations and the desire for regulations in local communities.
And the last thing I'd say about that is "shareholders." I see, actually, the market performing very well and big business really clearly trying to improve their business services, their business products and practices to address sort of this new sense for having sort of a clean economy. And shareholders are looking at this from a risk analysis basis. "What's the risk if we don't fix climate change, and what profits are at risk in this sense?" So I do see that government has a role, and I do see the market is stepping into that role in a very proactive way, incentivized by government.
Tuck Hines: I agree with that. I think that there is a lot of opportunity for the broader standards to be arrived at by community, by government, but individuals will behave in their own best interests, and there's a diversity of interests out there, so the collective interface of that is important, of those differing opinions and values and wants and desires and solutions.
But there is a business approach. Business is not always the problem. It can also solve problems. It's a powerful force, and everybody needs to make a living. So the question is, can those be done in a way that's consistent with, and incentivized to, solving the problems. I think there are many examples of that. Certainly, renewable energy is a great example of that. But there are lots and lots of others.
David Skorton: Other thoughts you have, Mary Evelyn?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Well this is a great discussion, and I appreciate the differing points of view. I want to come back, Jed thinks in this philosophical way, and I think with the world religions, a complement. And we've talked about ethics and so on, and you've said so beautifully, Steve, about how we value species not only in our own self-interest. Ecosystem services has developed a huge following, and partly because it's trying to speak to the market. You know it's very pragmatic. What's the value of the wetlands, and so on and so forth.
I love that you say we need intrinsic value. It's part of this conversation, and that means for species, clearly. It means for ecosystems, clearly. It means for what is a commons, and a common good. What I would suggest that we're in this exciting transition where we actually don't have a fully developed sense of ethics—the world's religions, by and large, apart from indigenous traditions as we've mentioned. My husband is a student of indigenous religions. But we don't have an ethics that is up to the task. So our cultures need to expand.
There's movements, of course, for environmental ethics, for eco-ethics, there's even a cosmological ethics, to say if we're part of the stars, that this whole universe and Earth system is something we've come out of and are responsible to. So I just wanted to put that into the conversation because I think it's a very exciting, creative, cultural opportunity to expand our thinking, expand our consciousness.
And certainly, there's parallels with environmental law. Thomas Barry, our teacher, was working on Earth jurisprudence. How do the rights of nature come into this? And I'll just end by saying it's quite astonishing that several rivers have been given rights of humans, including in New Zealand, thanks to the work of Maori and others, and two of the most sacred rivers in India. The Yamuna and the Ganges River now have rights as humans. So I think we're in this exciting moment of expansion of an ethical and moral sensibility that's grounded in the science that gives us that sense of the intricacy of ecosystems.
We're in this exciting transition where we actually don't have a fully developed sense of ethics ... So our cultures need to expand.
—Mary Evelyn Tucker
Denise Fairchild: Could I, David, ask a question?
David Skorton: Please. Anything.
Denise Fairchild: To what extent is religion, Christianity, particularly a part of the problem, in terms of how the Bible has said it's the rights of man to basically dominate, extract, exploit the environment. Is that real…
Mary Evelyn Tucker: It's not!
Denise Fairchild: Or is it not, you know?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Such an important question. Part of this human-centered and "dominion" idea in Genesis. I would suggest, and this is what we've been trying to evoke, midwife, birth, a larger sensibility, if you will, among the world's religions, that says all of these traditions have changed over time.
They have expanded their understandings of their scriptures. So in the mid ’90s, we did conferences on all the world's religions, to begin to evoke this sense that "What are views of nature? What are environmental ethics?" And so on. Within Christianity specifically, while it has had this reputation of dominion vis-a-vis Genesis, there are astonishing theologians and ethicists who have moved this way beyond that particular idea. Stewardship, but even more than that, a sense of reverence for these ecosystems and species.
The books have exploded. On our website, the Forum on Religion and Ecology, there are statements of all the world's religions on this, but in particular, Christianity has opened the doors, I would say widely.
David Skorton: I want to think a little bit more about this communication. One thing that has been implied in the recent give-and-take we've had is interface between science and non-science areas. And Tuck will be surprised that we're going to quote from Sean McMahon, a scientist who works at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, which Tuck so ably leads. This is a quote from Sean: He said "It is sometimes more effective to convey an idea to society with art rather than with science."
I think it's true that visual art, performing arts, arts of all kinds, can connect in sort of a visceral way that sometimes just the presentation of facts doesn't get across. And so I want to throw this out to anybody and everybody in the panel. What are the challenges in leveraging what I'll call "culture"? Arts and other kinds of cultural uses to help people better understand the changes that are underway. What are the obstacles in getting a cultural message out? Not any particular cultural message, but messages in general. Any thoughts about this?
Denise Fairchild: Well I would just say that part of what I hope we're building is a movement. It's an environmental movement, it's a climate change movement. It's going to radically change how we live and what we value. And if you look at other movements, as in civil rights movement of the ’60s, and yes, I was around. I was one of those around at that period that culture was very critical to building and sustaining and growing the movement. It was freedom songs. It was the Black Arts movement at that time, in terms of the poets, the artwork, it was what actually energized people and gave them a sense of hope, as opposed to being pessimistic in the face of challenges, that it is the art, the culture, the music, that breeds life into the possibilities for change. And so I think it's a very critical part of a climate change movement to bring our artists and our culture into communicating values and ideas that are hard to dissect through scientists.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: I think there's no question, just building on that, that the arts are, I think, going to be one of the greatest change agents that we have. Music. I just wanted to bring back in … Paul Winter has done an earth mass at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. The animals come in. He's been doing this for 30 years. Thousands of people come to this. He also does a celebration of winter and summer solstice. It's extraordinary. The arts, we've got Andy Goldsworthy and many people doing amazing things. Film. The Environmental Film Festival here in the nation's capital, and we have one at Yale. We did a film on Journey of the Universe to tell the story of science for a larger audience, that evokes wonder and awe. I think we've got tremendous potential here, with the arts.
Tuck Hines: Art is often talked about as something over there that's on the wall or performed on stage. But I look at it more as it's our interaction with the environment. Architecture is a form of art.
[The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center] just got done building this fabulous new LEED Platinum building, only LEED Platinum building that the institution has. But you walk in, and the first thing that strikes you is not that it's so energy-efficient, and it has all these water cycling systems. But it's a fabulous building, and we put as much thought into the psychology of how that building was designed to promote the science and the teamwork that we do, and how it links to the outdoors, and all the functioning systems that are supporting in that as a continuum.
So landscape architecture and architecture, and the environmental interactions that we have around us, to me that's as important as the art that's on the wall. We have those things. Even some of our scientists do art. But it's an interactive thing, with us and the environment, and that's what motivates people in their daily lives as well.
Jedediah Purdy: I think that's just exactly right. There's this arresting passage late in Otto Leopold's classic work Sand County Almanac where he says, "The purpose of conservation policy is to breed a consciousness and a way of seeing that can appreciate the world in a new fashion." That is to say, our land use policy, our agriculture policy, our energy policy, they all have aesthetic and even moral dimensions. They shape the landscape and they shape the terms of experience where people will learn to relate to and value the landscape.
Steve Monfort: Environmental folks or people working in science usually have some innate interest in nature, so I've always thought there was very little separate between art and science, at least in the environmental sciences. And we all go to a place that we have some spiritual reaction. When I was young, we went to Yosemite every year. That's, to me, it's like a cathedral. It was an experience that I had that was very impactful. But when I try to remember it, I'm never going to remember it better than Ansel Adams' photographs, or I'm never going to probably visualize birds better than Audubon painted them, or talk about nature better than Thoreau.
And so, to me, those are ways for me to remember and to heighten my remembrance and how I value that in my consciousness. And so, those are touch-points for me. So when I see art that's about nature, it reinforces for me this intense emotional feeling that I have arrived. So I think it's a very powerful thing.
Catrina Rorke: I think art also has the power to tell many different stories at once, right? So, the Environmental Film Festival is a great example. You know, half of the movies could be about a changing climate, but from completely different perspectives!
And I think it helps us weigh how complex what we're trying to impact might be. It helps us approach complicated problems in a way that's relatable. And helps us, I hope, make individual choices, and collective choices so that we can gain a better perspective on what happens outside our own backyards. Yeah.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: I just wanted to mention ... Maybe you [Secretary Skorton] could comment, because you ... that environmental humanities within academia have really exploded on many campuses. We have over 100 classes on environmental humanities, across history and literature and the arts and film, and so on. And I think you've also worked on this with STEM and humanities.
David Skorton: Yeah, I mean Yale's been a great benchmark for the whole academic community in this regard. But if you look backwards in the world of higher education and learning in general, these disciplinary separations are relatively recent. And acquisition of knowledge and exploitation, and so on, whether for practical purposes or just to learn, used to be much less disciplinary and much less divided.
And it's true that there's a little reversal going on now. More and more educators around the country are seeing integration of the STEM disciplines and non-STEM disciplines; I feel it's important. But I want to keep the heat on you guys.
That was a nice try. That was a nice try.
I want to just go back a little tiny bit to the energy issue that was brought up about distributive energy and different technologies. Really on the way to asking a different question. Someone asked the question at the top of this little explanation, and asked it again at the end.
Many of us interact with technologies of various kinds. And these days, we live our lives, a lot of it connected to technology. And there's almost an intrinsic assumption that technology will save us, from whatever dilemma we're going to have.
And so, there's plenty of reason that people feel that way. One example, in the middle of the 19th century, there was a rising concern about whale oil becoming scarce. That was used then to light lamps to light your home. And eventually human ingenuity led us to petroleum products, and then now these newer forms of energy and so on.
And when you think about creating energy for the future, and adapting to potentially large shifts, and many of the problems that we're talking about today. Innovative new technologies is one of the first things that we always bring up.
And so the question is, now, I don’t mean this to sound negative, or cynical, but can we invent our way out of this dilemma? There's two points of view. One point of view is population will get to a certain size, Tuck and I talked about this before, and will reach some sort of limit to our ability to adapt.
And the other point of view is that technology will, and ingenuity, let's put a more general term, will allow us to make some changes. Where do the panelists fall on that issue? Can we invent our way out of this set of problems? Anybody? Everybody?
Catrina Rorke: I totally believe so.
David Skorton: You believe so.
Catrina Rorke: Yeah, so, the global 2000 report in the Carter administration talked about this super bleak future. About resource scarcity, and abundant poverty, and a polluted environment. And you'd think that heading into the year 2000 meant a total global collapse, and that's not what happened! So this Malthusian perspective, that people may be a burden to one another, that we could reach some sort of carrying capacity and the world will collapse around us, that idea has been presented many times.
And I think the data that we collect suggests that humans are not a burden, that we're not going to reach a carrying capacity. That our capacity for innovation actually allows humans to be ever more productive. Which is why population continues to increase, and not collapse. It's because every generation we can add more.
And so, when we think about the policy problems that we're looking at today, we can look at them as technology problems.
David Skorton: Mm-hmm
Catrina Rorke: And we have confidence. And we can see right now that we're innovating our way around them.
So whether it be the propagation of disease, well not only have we developed the medication to treat diseases tremendously, but we've developed aggressive supply chains that helped get medication out into communities that need it more quickly.
That's human innovation, that's not some gift of nature. And so we need to think about how humans have the capacity to innovate, and how we definitely have the impetus to innovate if we're looking at a collective problem like climate change.
Even if we don't want to solve climate change, the things that we're innovating right now are helping us find our way around that problem.
Because what we want is cheaper, more local forms of energy, and we're finding that. What we want is to feel like we're more sort of in a spiritual balance, and not consume aggressively, right? The minimalist movement is moving across the United States like wildfire. I think everybody has Marie Kondo's book now.
And so, this idea, that humans can't solve a problem that we're presented with? I think we have no data for that. Humans are marvelous at treating problems, especially aggressive problems like this, quite well. That's why agricultural productivity is up. It's ... I don't know, that's why we're going to solve the climate challenge.
This idea, that humans can't solve a problem that we're presented with? I think we have no data for that.
David Skorton: You know, I have to just jump in on this one. When you talk about infectious diseases, which is such a very interesting sort of cyclical problem, I remember when I was a med student, a long time ago in the ’70s, that we were talking a lot about non-communicable diseases. Heart disease, and cancer.
And one of our infectious disease professors at Northwestern said, "We'll invent a better mousetrap, and nature will invent a better mouse." And that was before, just at the very beginning of the recognition of HIV, before Ebola. So, I go back and forth.
Much of my life I lived thinking exactly what you said is right. But then I think eventually those cycles may unwind in a way that we can't come to. But it's a ... but I hope you're right.
Others have a point of view on this?
Denise Fairchild: I don't think ... I think technology is a tool, but I don't think it's going to get us out of our climate challenge.
David Skorton: Not even these 360-cameras like this?
Denise Fairchild: Great, great tools, toys. They're not tools, they're great toys.
You know, because, when you look at energy, for example. We use technology to invent, you know, steam engines. But we've used renewable wind and solar energy, we had those in the beginning. And we used and created fossil fuel technologies that got us into the place where we are today.
And we are now going back, and to your point, to the sort of renewable technologies that we had in the beginning. The only reason why fossil fuel technologies advanced, for cars and other things, is because there was a greater market opportunity to accumulate wealth and to make money off of this.
And so, I believe that it is an ethical challenge that we're facing. I do believe we're two-and-a-half times past carrying capacity in the earth. That we cannot continue to produce and consume at the level that we are now. We have not realized the full impact, we're starting to! In terms of the extreme weather conditions in California. [Secretary Skorton], you’re from California, the drought conditions and the loss of our water aquifers just totally destroying agricultural opportunities.
I've met farmers who're coming east looking for land to grow food because it's an issue. However, we do have aquaponics and hydroponics. We're finding some tools to help solve, to mediate, to mitigate some of the problems, but I don't think it's going to solve the climate change.
David Skorton: Other thoughts about this one?
Denise Fairchild: Unless we change our economy and change the ethics behind it.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Steve you had your hand up, I'll go after you.
Steve Monfort: Yeah, I mean, I'm actually more optimistic about, I'm not a climate change expert, but it does seem to me, we know what that problem is, where there are alternatives that people can be using. And frankly if there was more consensus or action around policy, we probably would be on our way to making the change that's needed.
But technology in itself is also a risk if people become disconnected with nature. And I think that's a huge issue with our generation, the up-and-coming generations. It's the ... you can't do conservation from a satellite. I mean, and a cellphone. And this idea that you can substitute that for going out in the field and discovering biodiversity and understanding how those systems function? Those can't be done by robots, or, human beings, working with their hands, in the field, need to be doing that.
And people are not going to protect—it sounds cliché—but what they don't love and don't understand. So young people who don't have perspective of what nature is, or don't have that opportunity. And in the West, we ought to have that opportunity, we're wealthy enough to do that.
I can understand how children in underdeveloped countries might not have the same privilege. But I see, or I think people are too reliant on quick fixes through technology and it makes them complacent. And not dealing with the immediate threats to biodiversity that we can solve right now. We definitely know what’s causing biodiversity loss, and it's also us.
And it's habitat fragmentation and pollution, invasive species and disease, and so forth. We know there's also known solutions for those. Technology's not going to fix our consumption patterns or behaviors about over-extraction of rare resources, for example.
So I think there's a role for technology, genomics is a great example, you know, it's a great tool. But in and of itself, it's not going to solve anything. It's just a tool that we need to use in a bigger way.
But technology in itself is also a risk, if people become disconnected with nature.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: I agree. Just briefly, I think that technology is necessary, but not sufficient, which is what I think we're all saying. The power of human creativity, I think, is what Catrina is trying to put into the mix, here. The creativity has many expressions. And it needs to pay attention to equity issues. It needs to pay attention to inclusivity. This is human creativity, too. And I would just conclude, a very complex discussion here, but by saying -- part of, I think, our American technology, our know-how, our can-do attitude, which is very pragmatic, and so on, has no sense of limits. There is no precautionary principle in our thinking, or in our agencies here.
Why is it that the [European Union] has precautionary principles about a whole range of things, including what food goes in and out, and so on? So, I think technology as a solution alone is a misplaced notion, but especially without a precautionary principle. What are the implications for these technologies that we're releasing?
Technology as a solution alone is a misplaced notion, but especially without a precautionary principle. What are the implications for these technologies that we're releasing?
—Mary Evelyn Tucker
Tuck Hines: Every other species and population responds to Malthusian principles of limitation on the earth. So, it's, the question then becomes, are humans totally different from every other species? Or are we subject to some limits of growth, at some point?
The question of whether technology, or innovation, can solve the problems that we're facing with is a somewhat different question. But at the grossest level, there's only so many square meters on the planet, and if everybody's standing on all those square meters, then you’ve got a problem that technology isn't going to solve.
So it may be that technology will get to the point where it's acknowledging and solving a way to live within those limits, but it isn't scientifically, I will say, possible for an infinite growth of the human population on the planet.
We can see that those limitations are starting to impact us, and there are new solutions coming along to some of those, absolutely. Renewable energies could very easily meet some of the challenges that we're seeing. And we see, I think, at Steve's Earth Optimism Summit that we participated in, there was a guy that said, you know, "Back in the Stone Age, we didn't run out of rocks before we left the Stone Age behind." We moved on, you know, to a new technology. And I thought that was pretty amusing.
But on the other hand, if you project the current rate of population growth on the planet. And every civilization, actually, that is in this, has actually started to level off, because of advanced technology. So the concept that Malthusian limitations and technology and economic, the concept that economic models require, always growth, to be successful, are not necessarily at odds with each other, if you look at a larger view in life.
David Skorton: Jed, last thought on this?
Jedediah Purdy: I would just add that when we ask whether we can expect to solve problems, prospectively, we run the incidental risk of forgetting that we're already an ongoing catastrophe, for the planet, in so many dimensions. It's not as if we've succeeded so far, and we can expect to continue to succeed.
We don't need whale oil anymore, but many of the whales are still substantially gone and depleted. Just to come back to your original example, and that's almost the least of it. So we don't just have preventative work to do, we have reparative work to do, as well.
When we ask whether we can expect to solve problems, prospectively, we run the incidental risk of forgetting that we're already an ongoing catastrophe for the planet.
David Skorton: Anybody, any thoughts on the one biggest challenge?
Jedediah Purdy: Yeah.
David Skorton: Jed?
Jedediah Purdy: I think we need to find a way of redefining what wealth is. And to put a new conception of wealth and well-being at the center of a revised understanding of what markets are and what relation they have to our other modes of organizing collective life.
Denise Fairchild: Yeah, I would agree with Jed, in sort of following the ideas of Naomi Klein, where she talks about, this says everything about the economy and how we define wealth and prosperity as being central to this. And understanding, I think, also, Steve's point, about the intrinsic value of nature, but more even advance that further, to understand the intersectionality of nature and how we are a part of nature. That we are a part of nature, not separate from it. And that the intersection of environment, economy, and even our social issues, are all intertwined, and that the solutions has to be holistic, integrated, comprehensive. That's a big challenge.
David Skorton: It's a good one. Steve?
Steve Monfort: Yeah, think it's a matter of providing people with win-win choices, there, that we need to, there need to be, it has to be an opportunity for someone to make a good choice as a consumer, let's say. For a product, whether it be a car, or something else they need to live or the food that they buy. We can't expect people to not need those things or want those things. But somehow the market has to be incentivized in some way so that those choices are available. And then people need to be able to make a choice that benefits their livelihoods, their families, and so forth. But that also has a minimal impact on others in terms of things like climate change.
And then people need to exercise their power in making those decisions through their pocket books, but also they need to also at the ballot box. People need to become more, better citizens, with respect to expressing what they want, and making that known to their ... those that we employ to govern us.
And I think it doesn't even have to be activism. It just has to be an increased awareness, and personal responsibility, and expressing that through the choices you make, whether it's in the marketplace or in the ballot box.
David Skorton: Thank you, Mary Evelyn?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Well, I love the point that Jed made about well-being. And I think that's certainly key to what we're all talking about. And I would just make two suggestions, if I might, picking up on what my colleagues have just said. That, if we understand, that human economy is a sub-system of nature's economy, that clearly there will be limits that are built into that, that's how an ecosystem works. But it's complex!
And the other part of that is, is again our colleagues have been saying, what is conservation? What is preservation? How do we go back to some of the great thinkers about this in our own history? And from other traditions and cultures.
But I love this point, that, I would say, it's conservation, preservation, management. But it's also restoration. It's restoration of these ecosystems. And along with restoration of the human spirit. What is it going to mean to redefine our place within these planetary systems? We're the first generation to know we're part of a very complex earth system, 4.6 billion years old! What does that mean for well-being? It's an exciting thing to...
David Skorton: Very good point. Tuck?
Tuck Hines: I'm very pragmatic, and I see the rate at which the climate is changing, and the consumption of fossil fuel as an enormous challenge. It's coming at us so fast that there's not a lot of change, not a lot of time to change everybody's ideas about their cultures and their global values, in my opinion.
We have 50 years, or something like that, the inertia of that change, and the climb at the rate of the oceans, for example, just one of the energy and warming, the expansion of those consequences, are impacting all the coastal cities of much of the population of the world.
And so I think the biggest challenge is to get using economic incentives, with scientific understanding, to shift our economies off of fossil fuels and onto renewable energies. And at as fast a possible pace as possible. Or the inertia of the system of this giant planet that we're on will overcome us.
David Skorton: Catrina?
Catrina Rorke: So, I'm gonna maybe throw a bone in the mix and say that maybe our biggest challenge is perspective. So we haven't yet done a lot of talking about the challenges between the developed and the developing world in addressing climate change. But we do know that climate change is not the only problem we're facing.
And we do know that some mechanisms of solving the climate challenge might actually be counterproductive to solving other challenges in the developing world.
And I think that's a conversation that is a subset of this broad conversation that we're having now, that we've failed to have in a constructive way at the global level. And I hope that it’s one that we can have, that it's not taboo to contextualize climate change against other problems that we're facing. And try to devise solutions that help us address more than one thing at the same time.
David Skorton: So I'm going to put my vote in for the biggest challenge. It's somewhat related to Catrina's comment and in part to Jed's comment. I think the biggest challenge is the attitude that we don't need to learn anymore. That we know everything we need to know, and we're just going to argue it through from our various points of view.
And I worry that we may fail to invest in research, of a broad variety of types. Not just scientific research, not just technological research. Research of the kind that would help answer the question that Catrina raised.
Now I'd like to give a chance to our audience members to ask any questions. You don't have to ask questions, you can ask questions, you don't need to, but you could. And you can see that this is a fairly friendly group. They've failed to go after each other, so.
Ahyende' Gray, Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access: So, I have a question. It's mostly for basically all of you, because you all kind of touched on like y'all messages that's been given to. So let me be blunt with it: We all, as a human race, we have to like get past the third-dimensional thinking.
It's like everything is here for us with like, we got the tools to do it, we just have to look at it from a different perspective. Ants for example, they work together on a level we overlook and not really understand. There's certain things that they do. And it's like little stuff that escalates like the eyes we have, the cosmos stuff like that, offers a form of communication. And so I feel as though we have like Earth is just one small part of what God has created as far as like us, 'cause you know, it's all atoms, and mass, so, we all coming from like one direct source, and it's like, we got dimensions.
And right now we at a low dimension and the higher dimension will be sent from different perspectives. Certain higher levels, certain individuals, function like animals, we got the technology to watch these creatures, and stuff, and see how they like get, use the technology to get more insight on what they are doing, instead of worrying about the other stuff that's not going to help benefit earth and its evolution. 'Cause I feel as though celestial messages come down to other people when we give them our sole mission to do stuff and sort of, I don't want to get too deep on you but that's all I have to say.
David Skorton: Appreciate that, Ahyende’, and I think for those who couldn't hear that, Ahyende raises a point about the greater context in which we're living our lives and in which we're receiving challenges and messages. And appreciate your perspective on that. Anybody have any comments on that at all?
Denise Fairchild: Well I think I was also hearing a solution. You were defining a problem, but I think you were also telling us what the solution is to be resilient. Right?
Ahyende' Gray: Can I add on one thing, excuse me. Because I forgot, I didn't mention what I was supposed to say in the first part. But it's like, so we have religions and stuff. So we all come, so it's just like the animals, they come from different environments so they have different perspectives on how they see things and I feel as though religion is just a way of how we see things, and the experiences we're given. So music ties into that…
Denise Fairchild: Well, again, I'm challenged by religion and the perspectives that it provides us in this conversation. But I do see, looking at nature, I think as you were saying. How nature functions is the beginning of how we need to be resilient. And I'm not a natural resource person, so I almost look to Steve to answer the question about nature, understanding its interdependence. And how to be resilient. And seeing how it operates in an ecosystem where it survives and it understands its threats and it knows how to mitigate those threats. And how we need to, in terms of our solution, be more like the animals. And to be one in nature with the ecosystem. And find a way to be interdependent, to be more resilient.
David Skorton: Thank you, thank you, Ahyende', for the thought. Other thoughts or questions, from the audience?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Can I just make a response here quickly?
David Skorton: Yes, please.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: I think maybe what I'm also hearing, but I want to hear more. It's my view, religions have their problems and their promise. But, if what I'm hearing from you, one of the ways we're trying to interpret religions, is these are systems that have embedded peoples in ecosystems for millennia. Rituals are done in relation to specific places, directions, water, the elements, et cetera. So we call them, actually religious ecologies. See, where humans have done this over centuries, Native Americans, indigenous peoples. But, all religions have had that sense. And their rituals are winter solstice, Christmas, Easter, connected to celestial movements and thought. So I think the question is to raise up ... OK, how have cultures actually tried to relate to ecosystems, and how can we do a better job, you see, that's the challenge.
David Skorton: Thank you, yes, you had a comment.
Sebastian Tayac, Fellow, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage: Yes, it actually has a lot to do with what you just said. Again my name is Sebi Tayac representing the Piscataway Indian Nation, and the Beaver Clan, and I have to acknowledge that we're on the ancestral land of the Nacotchtank village, which is part of our Piscataway chiefdom. It actually goes a bit back to what you were saying. My uncle, who's the chief of our tribe, when we do ceremonies he tells us that every organism was given its original instructions. No one has to tell a blade of grass how to grow, like you mentioned ants know what to do. Every organism on this planet, and even the larger systems which represent sort of living, cyclical things, like the water cycle, the cycle of rocks, and the cycle of the stars, all follow original instructions. And we say it was given to us by our creator. However you interpret that is up to you, but that humans, we're the tricky ones, because we have strayed and forgotten a lot from our original instructions. We're taught that the closer we get to our culture, walking the red road we call it, the closer we return to the creator's original instructions for us.
So that's the mentality I grew up with. And specifically in this ecology of southern Maryland, what is now Washington D.C., having at least 30 generations of oral history back here. The question I wanted to ask as someone who has been to Standing Rock, as someone who has been fighting the Potomac Pipeline, which is going to be crossing the Potomac River, the Dominion gas compressor station which is located right on our sacred lands. And various other immediate environmental attacks on our people, and all peoples in this area, but particularly low-income, indigenous, and people of color.
I think Standing Rock brought consciousness of the struggle of native people and our Mother Earth, and waters, which we consider to be our livelihoods. We say we come from the river, we come out of it. We flow from it.
And in this round table, in this Smithsonian Castle, in this elite space with a 360-camera and people wearing collared shirts, I see people referencing and talking about indigenous knowledge as part of the solution. And I haven't been alive for very long, but my understanding and given what I've been taught by my mother, my grandparents, and the plight that they went through for our knowledge to be respected and invoked and presented as a possible solution, is something that's very new. It's something that's very radical. So I just wanted to ask before our break here, for the people who have been talking about indigenous ways of understanding the world, indigenous technologies which I think history proves are superior to sustainable living than what we would consider our modern Western technologies. Where did you hear about that? When did you start to take indigenous seriously as a person in your position? As a decision maker, as a person of influence? When did you start to take indigenous knowledge seriously and when you bring it up, what's the image in your mind? Because the image in my mind is my land and what I experienced at Standing Rock. Confronting the state directly. But I want to know for you what's the image in your head when you talk about indigenous ways of living?
David Skorton: I'll take a crack at that first and then open it up to the crew. I appreciate the question, appreciate you being a part of this today. You're bringing up indigenous knowledge and very important issues in a social and political context. Which is more than reasonable. But the direct question that you asked is where did we first begin to say appreciate or invoke, and for me it was during my years at the University of Iowa, and also at Cornell University, where I had the great pleasure of learning from the Native American community there. Cornell is on the Haudenosaunee lands. And I got to know a bit about it, and that's all I know is a bit. I freely admit that. Through people I met who are members of the nations in those areas. From religious things that I read and tried to understand. And then through just discussions like this, about specific problems that then shed some light on a different way of looking at problems. A different way of thinking. So that's where it came to me. Any others wish to?
Denise Fairchild: I've always been culturally rooted, and when I speak of indigenous cultures I look to even my African ancestry and know about from the fact that they, from mother Africa, look at trees as living beings where the elders reside, and how the water and rocks are seen as fully animated. But just a lot of that reading was important. But this movement, this climate change movement in a global context, there's a lot of conversation with respect to our peers in the global south, that are bringing the indigenous cultures and values to the table. And it's a contest, it's a challenge, but it is actually ... There's a huge international conversation taking place and there is a local community, national community here of indigenous folks that are working on climate environmental justice and bringing indigenous knowledge to the table across the different ethnic groups.
David Skorton: Thanks. I'm gonna call our break, because they keep putting a break sign over there. And before I go on break, I just want to remind those out there who may want to know what the URL is to follow us along, because I think what the world needs is more people paying attention to Second Opinion.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Could I answer his question? Would you mind?
David Skorton: Sure.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Only 'cause I think it's so important.
David Skorton: Please, Mary. Please.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: So in the early ’70s, Thomas Barry, our teacher, was teaching classes at Fordham and Columbia on Native Americans. And my husband for his PhD did his thesis on shamanism with the Haudenosaunee and other groups. And then in 1997 we had a large conference at Harvard on indigenous traditions and ecology, bringing people from every continent for this issue. And my husband teaches this at Yale as well. And we're friends with Oren Lyons and a number of other people. So the image that comes to mind, I wanted to just reaffirm the Standing Rock moment I think underscores this coming together of a profoundly spiritual grounding. Rituals, fire, and ceremony, that made that possible. And the younger peoples who started it I think had a resonance around the world that was astonishing. So I just wanted to say that's what comes to mind for me, right now, is Standing Rock and the other issues across the country that have been birthed out of it. And I really thank you for your question.
David Skorton: Thanks.
Denise Fairchild: And if you want to be connected to some of the movements in that space, we can help you with that as well.
David Skorton: Thanks very much everybody.
David Skorton: Well, Catrina, in one of your writings, which I've had a very good time learning about, you've written, "There is no morally correct level of atmospheric carbon dioxide."
And so my question to you, Mary Evelyn, is how does adapting to these coming changes and things we're already experiencing, how does this adapting require new forms of morality, new views of religion, philosophy and law?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: What a huge question. And I think there's a community of people who are struggling with this, people in law, people in philosophy, people in religion, religious studies, but also in the various communities. And I think there's this tremendous sense that our moral vision needs to rise to the occasion. That if E.O. Wilson says we're going through an hourglass, especially due to the sixth extinction. We are going through some historical moment that is unique, let's just say, and very pressing, and very confusing. And I think we need, probably, plural moral visions to come through this, for sure. We need that from scientists. We need it from entrepreneurs. We need it from people in urban communities, and so on. But I think that is happening, and that's what's very exciting.
We are going through some historical moment that is unique, let's just say, and very pressing, and very confusing. And I think we need, probably, plural moral visions to come through this.
—Mary Evelyn Tucker
Let me just give you one example on an international level that I think is rather fascinating. In China, there's a movement called ecocivilization. Ecological civilization. It's part of the constitution that this is a right of people for healthy water and air and food, as you mentioned earlier. They are drawing on their traditions of Confucianism and Buddhism and Taoism to say, well, how did these traditions integrate humans into nature? What are their views that can be brought forward?
So that's a rather stunning, I think, example. To say how will this have traction over time with the tremendous problems China is facing is a very, very big question, but I put it before us because I think it's a very fascinating movement forward.
I would also say that the pope's encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’, which really brings together what I think is coming together, and that is ecology and justice. That the ecological community has often been concerned with preserving or conserving ecosystems. Humans are over here. The religions have often been concerned about justice for humans, but not seeing it related to the environment. So, the huge movement of Laudato si’, “care for our common home,” is to say, people and planets are integrated and that clearly we have to have environmental justice at the core of this. Those who are suffering from climate change in coastal communities and elsewhere are the most vulnerable, people who haven't created the problem but are suffering from it.
So, that, I think, is very promising. People at our School of the Environment at Yale feel even that that broad, moral vision, helped to get the climate agreement in Paris, in fact, because of [the pope’s] speeches both here in Congress and at the U.N.
So, just to conclude, every religion now has a statement on the environment, whether it's from care for creation or the sense of intrinsic value, and that's a remarkable movement in 20 years. They also have statements on climate change. And now the call is how to actualize those statements, how to move them forward.
And I'll conclude that the climate march in 2014 with 400 people in New York began with indigenous peoples in the front. It was magnificent and powerful, but 10,000 religious leaders and laity joined that march, and it was a watershed for this religious environmentalism, if you will.
David Skorton: Thanks, Mary Evelyn. Other thoughts about this, Jed?
Jedediah Purdy: I think often in the tradition of law and philosophy, questions of justice among human beings and questions of environment have been thought of with separate vocabularies and separate silos. And I think in quite a deep way environmental questions can't be siloed going further. I think there are at least three ways in which this is true.
One is that climate change, along with other contemporary crises, reinforces and expresses human inequality, both in the global distribution of who contributes to it and in the global distribution of who is vulnerable to it. So, it is itself a question of environmental justice all the way down, and one that's not separable from other forms of global justice.
I think second, because we can't avoid making choices about what sort of world we're going to preserve and any world will foster certain forms of value in relationship to it and preclude others or make them more difficult, it's essential that plural moral voices and traditions participate in a genuine and empowered way in the question of what sort of world we're going to make. So, there's a question, if you will, of political justice, and a question of distributive justice.
And then the third thing, I think, is that questions have often been thought of as matters of domestic policy, welfare and social provisions, say, have environmental dimensions on many levels. Let me give one example. If we want to think of the question how we could understand ourselves as living well without demanding more, always demanding more, if we could decouple our sense of wealth from the fact of growth at some point, which I think has to be part of the said innovations that we're talking about. Well, at present the need for more is enforced politically. If a democratic government or even just a minimally popularly responsive government like China's presides over a collapse in growth and employment, it's going to fall.
And the individual experience that underlies that political enforcement, if you will, the microeconomics of the macroeconomics that says we always need more, is the individual experience of never being sure you have enough to be safe, because the world is so insecure and so precarious. And actually, in a highly unequal country, is becoming more so. Even as we're getting richer people's individual positions are becoming more precarious.
So, an economy that makes people more secure, that makes people safer, gives them more room to take risks, not just in the entrepreneurial sense, but in other senses, may be a precondition to or at least the help to transformative environmental politics.
David Skorton: Really very interesting. Other thoughts about this?
Denise Fairchild: Well, I'm in agreement, basically, with the idea that environmental climate justice, economic justice and social justice is intricately related.
I'm a part of a global, but clearly U.S., movement of frontline communities that have seen the intersections of environmental, economic and social justice. And we're developing formulas, strategies at the local level, looking at local initiatives about how to address these things. You know, Black Lives Matter and Dreamers are working together with [environmental justice] communities and really beginning to see that the causes of poverty and pollution are really the same.
It's the notion of an ethic where extraction at all costs is OK, that it is rooted in how we measure well-being. It's rooted in the gross domestic product, GDP, as opposed to looking at different ways of measuring well-being, as in the country of Bhutan, where the happiness index, people are beginning to understand that it's not just about how much we produce and how much money I make. It's the environment I breathe, the time I have to spend with my kids, the other dimensions that matter to people, and they really do matter. No one really wants to work 60-hour weeks. Nobody really wants to work 40-hour weeks. But that is how our economy is driven.
And to be able to begin to understand solutions that understand the intersections of these elements are very important. And it really starts with measurements of well-being and life-cycle accounting when it even looks at the market economies. Having them look at market economies so they see whatever we do is not just at the point of production, but it is the full life cycle of a material or a product that's produced, begins to get at a different way of measuring what we're doing to ourselves and to our environment.
David Skorton: Thank you. Catrina, please.
Catrina Rorke: So part of the motivation behind writing that phrase is that this is a really complex question about what the future of the globe looks like. So in [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] models, even if we do nothing about global climate change, economic development accelerates at such a rate that in the future we will be better off as a globe, in spite of even catastrophic climate change, which is a really incredible measure, because that can't be consistent with catastrophic climate change, but that's what the models bear because economic growth can solve so many problems.
We know that in the developed world we face fewer obstacles in treating communicable and noncommunicable diseases. We know that a rich country that exists largely below sea level can thrive, while a poor country that exists largely below sea level cannot. And economic development is a terrific indicator, not just for mortality and morbidity, but a terrific indicator for our ability to weather what the environment can throw at us. And so when we think about what these new models and paradigms are for considering global equity, is that part of it? Is a solution to just not deal with this and allow the globe to become richer? What is it that we would be sacrificing if we can solve this problem by ignoring it? I'm not sure that we've necessarily addressed that quite yet.
David Skorton: Very, very interesting. Other thoughts about that?
Steve Monfort: Well, that particular idea, I think, doesn't really match with my own worldview, because economic justice, or economic increase in everybody's standard of living, doesn't necessarily translate to a quality of life holistically, and we were just talking about what it means to live more completely and more holistically in the world, or my connection with nature, or how ecosystems function and biodiversity is sustained.
You can be wealthy and you can have more money and more justice in that sense, but I'm very worried that that is not a solution if you're not also solving how do these systems function? We can't just grow without taking account for the natural function of systems that need to be left alone, need to be intact.
Money alone is only one measure, I suppose, of justice, and well-being, for sure. In my view, that's pretty dangerous, I think. It's sort of a dangerous thought. I can't imagine that just making more money will get us to where we need to be in terms of a sustainable planet.
Money alone is only one measure, I suppose, of justice, and well-being, for sure. In my view, that's pretty dangerous.
David Skorton: Let me push this a little bit further. It depends, I think, in a way, on where you are in the spectrum of economic development. In the West and in the cultures that most of us come from, we tend to think about economic development as starting from a pretty good place and trying to get to a better place. And yet, I think echoed in some of Catrina's comments is a concern about societies that are way below that level of functioning and sufficiency, and whether movement of those societies into more predictable food supplies and so on is a good, no matter how you get there. You didn't say it that way, but I think the ultimate argument would be that the end justifies the means if one is at a barely subsistence level.
Steve Monfort: Well, there was an implication, though, in what was said, that, if I understood it correctly, that we could ignore the problem by just focusing on economic development. I think you have to have increased economic development, that's for sure, but I don't think you can ignore all of the side effects of economic development and that has to be managed in some way that is sensible and that will sustain justice in other ways. I'm not an expert in social environmental justice, but I would say it probably has many dimensions to how we define it. You were already talking about it. So economic justice is only one part of that, so that's all I was really trying to get at.
Denise Fairchild: And I would say the issue of equity, even in Western society, is an issue we have to attend to. That poor communities are very vulnerable to climate change. And I was just talking to Tuck earlier that if you're wealthy in America, you can move to higher ground when there's sea level rise. Not a problem. I can buy another house. I can get in my car. I can drive away. Katrina can hit. No problem. But if you're poor and you're vulnerable ...
So there’s the distribution of wealth is an issue with our economic development models. And even in the global south, the poor communities in the Southern Hemisphere, for example, are challenged. I'm working with Afro-Colombians that live in the Amazon that are looking to preserve their biodiversity. And they've been discovered in the last ten years by the fossil fuel industry that's coming in and extracting their resources, extracting their wealth and their ability to subsist and to live off the land and to live a quality of life in the interests of our economic development, goals and objectives. So I think the economically developed world are causing the pollution and the inability to subsist in other parts of the global south, in particular.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: I just want to mention that I think this is absolutely crucial, what you both said. But the U.N. is attending to some of this, despite that people think it's removed and out there. The millennium development goals were very much oriented to what is genuine development? What is more equitable development? This whole redefining development, especially with your concerns, rightly so, for the poor and for the global south, and then the sustainability development goals that just came out right after the pope spoke at the U.N., adopted by all nations in the world. I think this is a point of optimism and hope that we can recalibrate what is genuine development.
In that mix, in the Rio conference in '92, which was about sustainability and development, ecology and economy, [former Soviet Union leader Mikhail] Gorbachev said we need an ethics that's going to help adjudicate or help weave these two clashing problems, and the Earth Charter came out of that. It took ten years to develop that. People from every continent were represented. Women's groups, minorities groups, business communities and so on. And I think the Earth Charter is a measure of the sense that we have a much richer sense of interdependence. That charter, just briefly, ecology, the integrity of ecosystems, justice and peace. That's the framework. And I think this is really essential for a broader picture in addressing some of these specific issues.
David Skorton: I think bringing up the Earth Charter is a really relevant thing for this conversation, because without such a, to use a cliché, holistic view, you could imagine a certain arrogance where countries that have attained a certain level say now we got to really put the brakes on X or Y, and then countries that are trying to get up to a subsistence level are not there, but the Earth Charter took a holistic view and followed very much the kind of words that you were espousing, Steve.
Steve Monfort: Economic development is, of course, at the heart of everything. Every other society wants to live the same way we do and so on, with the benefits that we have, but this whole idea of smarter development, smart green infrastructure development, there are ways to do that that are not incompatible with sustaining biodiversity and functioning systems that won't have add-on effects to climate change and so on.
To me, the reality is we’re going to have, trillions of dollars are going to be spent on development in one way or the other, so the idea is well, how are we going to deploy those funds to develop in a smart way that gets people what they need without also destroying the environment? That's the win-win that's out there for me. And it's all relative, like you said. In the Masai culture it's about how many cattle you have, let's say. If we just endlessly increase cattle herds, we're going to have no grazing pasture and we're going to have this commons tragedy going, so we have to create other avenues for these folks to have economic development.
And I believe, somehow, they can be done in smarter ways, in compatible ways that can allow you to do both things, which is to have environmental justice and sustainability and also economic development. I don't think they're necessarily incompatible things.
David Skorton: This is a very positive statement and moves us in the direction of optimism, and I want to explore that a little bit more, especially from the point of view of what an individual can do.
So obviously, at least I will tend to hang onto examples throughout history of where an individual who was courageous and visionary has been able to make a difference that caused a ripple effect that caused more differences and something very positive happened. So what can each of us do individually to make a difference? I want to begin to talk about solutions, not necessarily this panel, but just each of us in general. What can we be doing? What can we suggest to our friends and colleagues and neighbors in the United States and around the world, to make a difference about this set of problems. We all acknowledge there's problems. We all acknowledge that there's complexities in what caused the problems and what might sustain them. What can each of us begin to do?
Steve Monfort: Can I use one example? It's not my own personal action, but we just held this Earth Optimism Summit and so we invited these 250-plus people from around the world to come and tell us what works in conservation and why and how can you take those successes to scale. And one of the guys who was there, his steps stood out for me.
His name is Afro Shaw, he's from Mumbai, he's a lawyer, and he lives in an apartment building. He would look out the window and he saw that Verosa Beach, which is out where he could see, was just covered with plastic pollution, just horrific. And he gave his talk here, and he's been evangelizing what he does. But he and an 84-year-old neighbor looked at this and said, "We have to do something. The government's not doing anything, what can we do?"
And they went out and they decided they were going to start a social media campaign and they were going to start picking up plastic. And he was telling the story, so now they're 75 weeks into it, it's the largest beach cleanup that's ever been done with thousands of tons of plastic have been picked up. And this was about just two individuals taking action. And so he said to everyone, "I don't believe you have to wait for the government. You don't have to wait for anybody to tell you what to do." He says, "The problem was with me. The solution was with me." And he took action to do something.
And I think that was an example of personal commitment and action, but that's infectious, and that probably at some level embarrassed or incentivized the government and others to use that and to take it up. And I was just impressed by so many individual examples of people who have taken action.
So in my own life I'm a bit, also, sometimes humbled, as to what can I possibly do? And I think it's a struggle. We talked earlier about making individual choices and kind of the food that I ... I think more about where my food is sourced from. I drive a car that's more fuel-efficient, things like that. But as we said earlier, everybody doing that, you know, taking a shorter shower, isn't going to save the planet.
So I think it's a wicked kind of a problem for how can a person have an impact? It's basically trying to catalyze a community in wherever you live and to take action. Someone told me once that ... I was doing an environmental education program in Miami with middle-school kids, and a guy who I was there with, he says, "Well this is great." He says, "So what do you do back home in your own kid's school?" And I realized I was a thousand miles away, working with middle-school kids, and I'd never been to my own kid's grade school.
So I came home and I went and I saw the principal, and I went and talked to him, and I started doing environmental education there. So one of the things that I think you can do, wherever you are, wherever you live, is to take ownership of the community in which you live in. And we're so distributed, and we live ... No one's from here. This is a famous place, where no one is really from Washington. A lot of people aren't. You are. But take ownership of the place that you live in. And learn about it, and know about it, and try to become engaged in it. I think that's the only way I can think of, is to be involved in your community on a personal level.
Tuck Hines: I think that's a great comment. You know, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center focuses on our home in Chesapeake Bay. And we view the largest estuary in the country, the Chesapeake Bay, as really a system that includes the watershed. 64,000 square miles, six states and the District of Columbia. You know we're all sitting here on our main study site.
That's an enormous area, and an extremely complicated challenge to try to regulate and engage. It's got some 18 million people on it, now headed toward 24 million. But one way that we've found is it has to become personal. You'll be much more motivated about you and yours and your situation. And these things scale. So a 64,000-square-mile watershed has lots of little watersheds. And the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is on a much smaller watershed called the Rhode River where we've set this model system for understanding how it works, and what's driving it, and how it interacts with the larger world.
And the people in that community we've begun to increasingly interact with and get them aware of what we do and make that accessible, to engage them in that process. That engagement is part of what the Smithsonian and our new strategic plan is all about.
So, to Steve's comment, you have to interact and take responsibility for yourself. Yes, you are one person. But that's what you can control, for sure. And you can make that happen by connecting to others through culture and choices. And making the economy drive forward, and improve ... Apply those technologies in an effective way, rather than staying in the rut of how it was done before.
You have to interact and take responsibility for yourself. Yes, you are one person. But that's what you can control.
Denise Fairchild: Yeah. I think part of the solution has to do at the individual level. It depends on what you really ... Your perspective as to what the problem is. And if the problem is seen as how the economy works, then human agency needs to be deployed in a way that puts our money where our mouth is. Where we withdraw resources that we do not spend money in places for irresponsible business. Now there's a whole new movement of socially responsible businesses, the Ben & Jerry's of the world, and what we can name the B Corps. The whole notion of B Corps are growing. And so we should really pay attention to that.
And also, as our own agencies live large on less, and the different ways of doing that, but the notion of power. We have power with respect to money and how we use money, and I think it's not just the individual agency around withholding resources, but it's collective power as well. And to the extent that we actually join organizations and influence the policy environment and influence the market to behave in ways that will create a climate that will adjust for climate change, I think is important.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Like divest. Divest.
Denise Fairchild: Divestment. Mmhmm.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: And invest. Jed, you were trying to get in.
Jedediah Purdy: I just would like to agree and amplify how essential I think this point is, about collective work that aims at mobilizing power. If we're on the theme of optimism and what the individual can do, much as I think it's important to honor and cultivate all the kinds of virtues and local commitments that people are talking about, and I really do, I think we all do, I think optimism can be a double-edged thing.
An analogy. I will never forget this public opinion finding, now more than 15 years ago, that if you add up the share of Americans who think they're in the top 1 percent of national income, and the share who think they aren't yet but soon will be, you get more than 50 percent. So, that's optimistic.
And in some ways you might try things that you wouldn't try otherwise, if you didn't believe that, but it's a cruel and unrealistic optimism, and it sets people up for a disappointment that may account for some of the kinds of simplistic political solutions that they are drawn to.
So many of the environmental problems we're talking about will not be solved by more virtuous personal and local action. Even if that action is a necessary prerequisite to the kinds of collective action that'll be required. And so our optimism is cruel and incomplete if it doesn't include saying that one of the things people need to do is see how hard the problem is, and what kinds of changes at the level of the architecture of economic rules and power we're working within have to happen. Which are really questions, to come back to your point. These are really questions of collective power.
Steve Monfort: Just to add on to that. I think once you've made this personal decision to change your behavior or change the way you live, it makes you more likely to then join with others that share those values, and it makes you more motivated to want to vote with your money and vote in the ballot box with people who support your viewpoints, and makes you more active in wanting to see that end at a point that you believe it may occur.
And so I think maybe it's optimism that you can have an impact, but I think also that personal responsibility motivates you to be an engaged citizen, and to learn more, and to stay informed, and so forth. And I think that's another thing that we can all be doing. If everyone was more informed about the facts, they would at least make a better decisions, or at least more informed decisions.
Catrina Rorke: But I think this is really interesting, right? Because we talked earlier about how if you pulled an opinion and you see more evidence to the contrary, your opinion becomes more ingrained. And one of the obstacles we have to fighting climate change in the United States is the lack of political will, because there is a large population that sees data on climate change and says, "Oh no, God's just tugging us a little closer," or something. So how do we break through that?
We want to communicate with people in a way that brings them to solutions, without getting them bogged down in the problem, if the problem is their roadblock to seeing the solution. And so I work a lot with conservatives and trying to identify why there is this block, why we can't value the economic principles with which we look at other policy problems in this instance. And that is one of our obstacles, is that we talk about the problem in a way that makes it seem that solutions are expensive, and will require us to assume some deprived lifestyle to see the future, when what we want to do is communicate the sense of optimism.
So yeah, there is a problem. Yes, we all need to take some amount of action. But we don't want to get stuck on that problem and that individual action if it's what's stopping us from reaching a more complete solution.
Steve Monfort: But the question about getting more information and being more entrenched in your view, I think part of that is, where are we getting information from? And today it's very difficult for people to know, to receive information that isn't super biased in one way or the other. Even the way people get knowledge off the Internet, or watching the news media, there's inherent bias in the way things are being presented. People aren't being given the knowledge for them to make a decision, the actual facts.
When you say people are presented with climate data, I don't think very many people look at climate data. I think they look at someone else's spin on whatever the data was. That's a huge problem. Because where are people getting their information, how are they supposed to make a decision if all they're getting is what reinforces their own view?
David Skorton: I think we're depending too much on the usual ways of disseminating information. This is going to sound like a hopelessly retro suggestion, but what we're doing here today, and obviously this is a carefully selected group, it's like an old-fashioned salon. We're sitting around, we don't really know each other that well but we're talking about things that we find of mutual interest. Are we lacking that in our communities, even in our households? Individual, looking at our phones, trying to get information from some other source?
Steve Monfort: That's why you took away our phones, I think. So we'll actually talk to one other.
Denise Fairchild: I think it is an issue. And I think Catrina's right, in terms of how we have conversations. How do we talk about climate change? And if climate change is something that is going to create barriers, then we don't use the language of climate change.
I do have colleagues that work in rural communities, conservative rural communities. You can't talk climate change, but you can talk about environmental change, because they live it. They see it with their farming, what the seasons are looking like and how it's impacting their produce. They see it in their fisheries. They see it all around them. They know, whether it's extreme weather conditions and the number of tornadoes that are coming through or whatever. They see the environmental change, so we don't have to call it climate change. We can talk about what's happening in your backyard, in your approach to taking local initiatives, and then what can we do about it.
And so, we're stuck with language, even though I find it very curious that the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, was created under a Republican administration and up to ten years ago there was a bipartisan agreement that climate was an issue and environmental issues are important. What has happened to the communication vehicles that have all of a sudden shifted that, I'm not sure, but be what it may be, how do we talk to people where they are, to address the things that they see happening in their everyday lives?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: I agree with that, of course, very much. And everyone's talking about framing and telling stories and so on. That's very much in the air, and I think it's terrific. I mean, the EPA came into being because of the Stockholm Conference on Environmental Development, and everywhere around the world started EPAs. So that was an international pressure as well.
And I just wanted to put back into the conversation a couple things. That we asked the question about individual action, which again comes from our valuing of individuals in our own culture. But I wanted to suggest that our individual action is always community based, and it's also resulting in further communities.
And I wanted also to suggest that I think some of the wisest traditions in the world have this very long-term sensibility of detachment from the fruits of our actions. We will never know what our particular life work is, the wu wei of Taoism. The Bhagavad Gita talks about karma phala. We will never know. This is what Gandhi based his work on for non-violence and Thoreau and King.
So I just want to tell two quick stories. Wangari Maathai, in Africa, in Kenya, the first woman to have a PhD in eastern Africa, started the Green Belt Movement of planting trees and empowering women, which was astonishing and extraordinary, against very difficult political odds, and she went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize, the first time the Peace Prize was given for environmental work. To say peace building and the environment are one, and women empowerment is essential. And she was doing this out of her religious sensibilities, being both African and Christian, profoundly spiritual person.
The other story I wanted to tell was, in the Ecological Society of America in Baltimore a couple summers ago, 10,000 of our best ecologists gathered. You were probably there.
Tuck Hines: I was there.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Exactly. And it was tremendous. And we had two days on religion and ecology, which was wonderful. And I love that meeting. In that meeting the president endorsed the papal encyclical, along with the past president and future president, which was unprecedented for a society like that. So I think we're making progress in this sense that there's a moral forte.
But I came out of that meeting, went back to the Holiday Inn, and an African-American older man was on the street of Baltimore, that had just exploded with its own internal issues, and he was putting water in those trees. And I said to him, "There's nothing in that water, is there?" And he said, "No man. This is just water." And he said, "These are my friends. And I do this every day." And he said, "During the winter this one tree was dying," he said. But somebody told him it's OK, it's gonna make it through the winter. And he said, "Look at that tree. It's growing." And he said, "I call this tree 'Hope.'" Which was so striking, hope in that tree.
And to me, this is the sense that even in urban settings, where we can have tree planting and so on, we can have that sense of the possibility of resilience and hope.
David Skorton: It's beautiful. Now, I'm going to ask the panelists one final question. Integrating all of this thinking, you’ve been thinking about this for years and decades in some cases, in the end, do you have reason to be optimistic about our future in this regard? Something more than a simple yes or no would be appreciated.
Steve Monfort: Yeah, I will start with that. I make the analogy about my job. People say, "What's the best part of your job?" And I say, "The best part of my job is the people, and the worst part of my job is the people." And I think that when it comes right down to it it's really about the nature of humankind, and whether or not we're the worst of what we are, or we can become the best of what we are capable of being.
So we're capable of being selfish and shortsighted and ignorant, but we're also capable of being incredibly generous and thoughtful and we have our intellect that we can exercise in amazing ways. So the question then becomes which of those are we going to choose? Which of those pathways will maybe save humankind?
So I believe that people, the best of people, will eventually come forward and win out. So I tend to be optimistic and hopeful for that reason, because frankly I think those two emotions are what make us able to go forward in our lives. And if you take hope away and you eliminate optimism, I think you lose a will to want to go forward.
We're capable of being selfish and shortsighted and ignorant, but we're also capable of being incredibly generous and thoughtful. So the question then becomes which of those are we going to choose?
David Skorton: Denise?
Denise Fairchild: I'm very optimistic. I have a book coming out, October 17, called Energy Democracy, presenting case studies, 12 communities around the United States, that are actually working on this question of environment, climate, economy, and social justice, proving at the local level that there are models being created, there are successes taking place, and there's a growing movement of movements that are merging together around this notion, this intersection of climate, economy and social justice.
So we're presenting case examples that can, we hope, grow from these sort of cottage demonstrations into sort of larger movements. So I'm very optimistic.
David Skorton: You know if we had our phones we could preorder that book. Mary Evelyn?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Well, I'm optimistic because of the students I teach at Yale, who are incredibly creative and dedicated and are inheriting some of the largest problems humans have ever had to know. And therefore I'm delighted to have this group circling us of young people who are working on these issues. I think it's so appropriate, symbolically and otherwise. So my hope goes into the next generation, and into our intergenerational handshake with them.
David Skorton: Thanks Mary Evelyn. Tuck?
Tuck Hines: I'm also very optimistic, for a number of reasons. As Mary Evelyn just mentioned, the next generation of scientists that's coming along is much smarter, much better integrated, and better trained than we ever were. And they're able to encompass the holistic and complex problems that we're taking on to arrive at solutions. Moreover, I've actually seen in my lifetime things get better. I've seen small instances, but also big complicated systems get better. Monterey Bay is doing better. Chesapeake Bay is even starting to do better. The sound system in North Carolina are coming along better.
So these are systems that have faced really big problems, and were way further, in much more trouble than they were. I believe that the technology can solve some of the really urgent problems of climate change, and will have to be brought to bear urgently now. But we've even seen in the last five years how that can actually come to fruition at a global scale. So I think that there's a lot to be optimistic about, but it's going to be a pretty heavy lift for the next 50 years.
David Skorton: Thanks Tuck. Catrina?
Catrina Rorke: I'm optimistic. I'm optimistic because I think we're already making it easier to solve these problems. Yeah, I'm a huge believer in technology. And I guess I'll say that the way that we can tell it's getting easier is one of my favorite analogies in the technology development space.
In the United States, the development of the telephone was a super democratizing influence that connected people in a way that we hadn't been connected before. But your access to this democratizing influence was based on where you were located geographically, having a telephone line go to your house. And that was limiting. I remember I would get hobby kits when I was younger and it would ask you even if you had a phone, not what your phone number was.
Denise Fairchild: You're not that old.
Catrina Rorke: Well there's been a lot of innovation, thank you, in subsequent years, and now we have cellphone technology, and it seems bizarre that you would need centralized infrastructure because cellphones can connect through distributed infrastructure, even through satellite technology.
So in the developing world, phone access actually never was predicated on last line phone service. It started when we had the cellphone. And we see that in energy technology today. So we're not going to build a massive electrical grid that starts at a coal-fired power plant and runs to every household in the world. That's an impractical and very expensive solution, and it worked for us 'cause it was what we had at the time. But right now we're giving people access to reliable forms of energy by sending out technologies that are getting cheaper every day. Wind power, solar power, small hydroelectric power, even, in a lot of parts of the developing world, and batteries that are getting astoundingly cheaper, largely because we want them for our cellphones.
And so, that we're already solving these problems today, sure energy might be a small example, but you can see this footprint of innovation allowing us to leapfrog a lot of the obstacles that we faced in the developed world to just skip over a lot of the problems we've generated for ourselves. And so I'm optimistic, because I think we're going to keep inventing really cool things.
David Skorton: Thanks Catrina. Jed? Last word.
Jedediah Purdy: I find that I can't let my attitude toward this question turn on the balance of optimism and pessimism. Because there are powerful reasons for optimism, which people have surveyed very articulately, but there are still crushing reasons for doubt in place, going back to the collective action structure, the very problem we're addressing, and many more rooted in the uncertain and ambiguous character of human nature.
But I don't find that a reason to despair. As Steve said, the reason we care about optimism is that it gives us reasons to act toward the future. But I think there's so much insight in Mary Evelyn’s adverting to the many, many traditions in which we have to detach our will to act from our expectation of consequences. And I think that that's not just an idea. If we look at the people who were historically responsible for many of the kinds of progress that give us the greatest sense of historical possibility now, especially reform in social life and economic life, they didn't necessarily take heroic measures because they were optimistic. It was because they felt solidarity. It was because they were in it together with other people, and that gave them enough reason to act together toward the future.
So I don't know whether I'm optimistic, but I'm sure that it's not the only way to have reason to act.
David Skorton: Beautiful. I want to thank the panelists for a really fascinating discussion. I learned a lot from each of you, really had a great time. And to those of you who are viewing this I hope you enjoyed it. I hope you learned a lot. You want to learn more, it's easy to do by going to www.smithsoniansecondopinion.com. You can drill down on some of these issues. And please watch for more interesting conversations with fascinating people coming up. I'm David Skorton, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, bidding you a good day.