Andrew Revkin is one of America’s most honored and experienced environmental journalists and the founding director of the new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He has held positions at National Geographic and Discover Magazine and won the top awards in science journalism multiple times, along with a Guggenheim Fellowship. Revkin has written acclaimed books on the history of humanity’s relationship with the weather, the changing Arctic, global warming, and the assault on the Amazon rainforest.
He addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- That we need to be aware of narrative capture and being misled by stories or avoiding truth.
- That we should engage in more conversations with others who have different views, and stay in curiosity rather than debate.
- That we need to work through the trauma of recent times and “look for compassionate intervention in our traumatized psyches”.
- That like the “Serenity Prayer”, we should embrace “the perfect imperfectness of our nature as humans”.
- Article: “Complicating the Narratives” https://thewholestory.solutionsjournalism.org/complicating-the-narratives-b91ea06ddf63
- Article: My Climate Change https://issues.org/my-climate-change/
- Video: We are perfect*: Andrew Revkin at TEDxPortland https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YuFDIB_ZSQ0
- Article: My Lucky Stroke https://revkin.medium.com/my-luck-stroke-revisited-96af579ed426
Connect with Andrew Revkin
Be aware of narrative capture, whether you’re a reporter or a citizen or a politician or a scientist; sometimes they get captured by narratives too. It makes you oblivious to the real dimensions of the problem or to some changing data that might say, you know what? Your old narrative is broken.
Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right, a project of the Post Carbon Institute in which we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good to help us all see more clearly and act more courageously in times of great change. My guest today is Andy Revkin. He’s an American science and environmental journalist, author and educator. He’s written on a wide range of subjects, including destruction of the Amazon rainforest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, sustainable development, climate change, and the changing environment around the North Pole. He is the Founding Director of the Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at the Earth Institute of Columbia University. I’m going to leave that introduction short so that we can get onto the conversation cause it was far ranging and a bit long. So, you will see more about Andy in the show notes. And here he is: Andy Revkin.
Hey, Andy Revkin. It is a great honor and pleasure to have you with me as my guest. I am a long admirer of your work of telling stories we need to hear about our interlaced global crises bundled currently under climate change, but they’ve been bundled under many headings for your entire career. One of the things I love is you’re not just an investigative journalist. You are a systems thinker, and you’re an engaged citizen, trying to both understand and impact the complex webs of cause and effect that humanity and the earth are not caught in. I call my guests “cultural scouts” and I see journalists as a particular breed of cultural scout, people whose job it is to scan the horizon for the emerging stories and to make sense of them, to translate them into information, news we can use. You are truly a guiding light in this regard and a mensch. So I’ve watched your show where you circle so many topics relevant to global warming, from geoengineering to the pandemic, to disinformation, to the weather, to racial justice. Now I want you to put it all together for us through your own lens. So where do you see the light shining brightly on the horizon? What are the most promising trends, the interventions? Where can we put our own fingers on the scale as the world still turns? And fundamentally, Andy Revkin, what could possibly go right?
Really, these days, that’s a pretty good question because it feels so often that things have gone terribly wrong. I just to start with, I tend to have a daily rhythm, where I wake up, focus on things that are going right. I kind of have a very positive sense of what can be happening and what I can look at. Then by the end of the day, I can get pretty dispirited, kind of worn out. Anyone who’s been online, particularly in recent months, can have that feeling of despair. But I always wake up the next morning with the sense of, Okay. So when you look at my shows, for example, that I’ve done through the Earth Institute, they’re not clean and neat. They start with sometimes a simple question like, how do we navigate the information around environment, around the pandemic better? But they usually end up with more questions than answers, but that doesn’t bother me. I know that, as you say, they’re systemic problems and solutions are not just like turning a knob, or turning off the volume or on climate change.
For example, these days, there are a lot of people who just want to turn up the volume and think that that’ll solve the climate problem. A harsher headline, use the word climate emergency instead of climate crisis, instead of climate change. I don’t have a lot of faith, that that’s the answer. The answer is on better awareness of conditions, a nonpartisan way to look at risk, whether it’s climate risk or pandemic risk. What are the drivers of risk? Once you identify the drivers of risk, what’s putting people in harm’s way? Or the biosphere, more generally, if that’s the question. Then, who is situated in a way that can lower the risk or raise the opportunity? And when you use sort of a risk framing, it doesn’t become as much about rhetoric, or even writing, which is what I do most of the time. I’ve been writing articles for decades, thousands of articles on these issues, five books, and it becomes more about what’s the ecosystem? Who needs to talk to whom to make a difference on this issue?
And that leads to my big “aha”, after the first 30 years of journalism – or really, I guess, 25 years – toward looking at models for better conversations, as important as telling a better story. Narratives can sometimes get in the way of solutions. I have been tweeting, for those on Twitter, the hashtag #narrativecapture, saying beware of narrative capture. That’s basically where you’re captured by a narrative, whether you’re a reporter, or a citizen, or a politician, or scientists; sometimes they get captured by narratives, too. It makes you oblivious to the real dimensions of the problem, or to some changing data that might say, you know, what? You’re old narrative is broken. I experienced this many times as a journalist, and the importance of breaking the pattern only became more important to me, in recent years, as these examples piled up of a narrative where you thought it was something and that it’s actually something else. That’s a really important part of the path forward, especially in complicated times like these.
So interesting about narrative capture, because a lot of the activity now, whether it’s politics or well-meaning people like you or me or many others, is the effort to use language to frame reality in such a way so that people can see what you see, and act and go in the direction you want them to go, which is, I mean, it’s manipulation, but it’s really language. You know, “watch out, there’s an elephant”. It’s the function of stories to guide us. So, in a way, I hear you saying, we’re sitting inside of both traditional stories and fabricated stories that are misleading us, even the well intentioned ones.
Right. I’ll give you a couple of examples. With climate, if you are embrace the climate crisis, meaning climate change from CO2 coming out of smokestacks, changing the climate and causing all kinds of mayhem, which I’ve been writing about since 1988. You can miss that, even now, in most instances around the world when people are have homes that are flooded, or wind storms wreak awful damage. Let’s focus on those examples. The reason for the surge and losses recently – oh, wildfires to California – most of the things that get the headlines is the losses, how many houses burned. And the biggest driver of that loss is not climate change; it’s human change. It’s where we build. It turns out California was built in the 20th century in a time that was weirdly wet. When you look at the timescale of centuries, the 20th century was really anomalously green in California. So we built a huge amount of vulnerability to a monster that’s living in the climate system, extreme Western drought, and that if you think it’s all about CO2, and you start yammering and yelling at Exxon, which we need to do to reduce the emissions for long term impact, that takes the onus off of looking at ourselves and why we built an entire state worth of vulnerability in areas that were never really going to burn in a century that was anomalously wet. That says there’s lots to do to reduce risk right now, even as we fight the big fight on climate change. So that’s narrative captures. And this is quite frequent in newsrooms too. It’s climate change, climate crisis. If your definition of the climate crisis is that there’s also a vulnerability crisis, I’m fine with that. Narrative can get in the way of a real look at the real problems and solutions, sometimes.
I find it really interesting, because, it’s like New Orleans. It’s built in this alluvial plain. And Katrina, you know… It was like, New Orleans has an identity, and it has not only an identity, but it has a history and a future, it has a process, it’s a thing. You look at where it’s built, and you say, That’s a big risk. But you look at New Orleans and it’s a process; it’s a history of the future and identity and music and experiences. It’s like human experiences woven into that high risk choice, or the houses in California where people who wanted a view and so they built an alluvial plain. I mean, all of this is part of the myopia, human myopia that we can override natural systems. But once we’ve done that, and built a life around the override, that creates a tremendous resistance to identify what the risk is. I think part of that narrative capture is that we don’t want to see the truth, because it might mean that our house is worthless.
Exactly. And this happens all the time.
So all of this is like the intersection. I think there’s a piece of what you’re saying, it’s not just narrative capture in terms of mindset, but it’s a narrative capture in terms of people will not see what’s obvious. So, what do we do about that, Andy?
I guess this gets at one of the other big learnings that came to me starting around 2006. I’ve been reporting on climate change starting in 1985, really with the nuclear winter, the chilling of the Earth if we put too much smoke into the atmosphere after a nuclear war; then 1988 global warming and several thousand pieces since then. It was only in 2006, that was the first time I recall interviewing a behavioural scientist about climate change, and social scientists. She was a sociologist at UC Irvine, Helen Ingram. She started laying out basic principles of understanding from social science that directly challenged me as a journalist because it said basically, information doesn’t matter a lot of the time. There’s all this work on what’s called cultural cognition, that we all wear glasses colored differently so that we look at the same facts and completely different reactions, especially when issues are polarized like abortion, gun rights, climate change now.
Again, to me, I’ve been winning prizes, writing really good stories about climate, greenhouse gases that are going into the atmosphere, and here’s a really cool graphic showing you why that matters. Thinking that was going to change the landscape of what people do, it was a real important moment for me. From then on, I dug in so much more in that arena, that by 2010 when I left full time journalism, partially because of this understanding, I took a position at Pace University, where they asked me to come up with a title for my position. It was Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding, not environmental writing. To me, that says a lot too. I was realising I had faltered on that component of the communication landscape, the reception of information, the rejection of information, and how that even then translates into action. There are plenty of people who, when you ask them in a polling question, are deeply worried about global warming, but what are they doing about it? Not so much. So I’ve just decided to give more focus on efficacy than on the art of writing. I could write lots more great stories about global warming, and biodiversity loss, like my book on the Amazon. But I also have been carefully interrogating myself about, is that the best use of my time, at this time? In some instances it is. I still write books, and I’m not stopping writing, or communicating. But I’m trying to keep that bigger picture in mind, too.
Yeah, something else that you said that I find provocative, I’m wondering where you go with it, is the idea that it’s not so much about the one way communication or writing or calls to action. It’s about conversation. And that actually is a way to disrupt narrative capture, because if you can be in a conversation with somebody doesn’t see it quite like you do, suddenly the solidity of your narrative, it’s just tweaked a little bit, if you can stay in curiosity rather than debate. So do you think that we need more conversation about this and not more reports? And what would that look like? Do you see it happening?
It’s out there. I think it’s incredibly important. I think that the means we’re using to communicate right now, through screens and stuff is definitely an impediment to impact in conversations. I don’t think it’s impossible to have a constructive conversation around something people disagree on online; I think it is possible. But the models that are out there are exciting to me. They’re as simple as a woman named Joanne McGarry, who I only know because of Facebook. She’s in Humboldt County, California. She’s a frequent viewer of my webcasts, and when I did one on this issue, divisiveness, she posted in the comment string that she’s part of some little group there, where they go out onto the town green with an umbrella and two folding chairs. The whole idea is to engage in a conversation with somebody on something that you disagree on. I love that. So that’s like at the bespoke level of a town green. Then at Columbia, I met Peter Coleman, who among other things, runs something called the Difficult Conversations Laboratory. For 20 plus years, he’s been studying conflict and complexity around the world, and his mantra is: You don’t need agreement. You just need cooperation. So you can have a conversation amid complexity and conflict, and you can agree on some things that to do, you can come up with a template of actions, despite having strong disagreement on stuff. Congress used to do that. There was a Joe Biden campaign on his capacity to do that back in the day, but you know, he would talk to a racist about something unrelated to racism. It creates all kinds of prickly feelings in people I know, including me, to think about some of the compromises that people make for the sake of cooperation. So it’s out there. The impediments are particularly large, when we’ve been forced with a pandemic to be isolated from other people.
Even before the pandemic, young people today, live in a digital screenish world. Sometimes I see even young people I know, even in my own family who have a certain nervousness about direct conversational engagement with people. We’re losing some of that. It requires work. And Peter Coleman would tell you that there’s a science to it too. Like Ted Kheel, who is this famous New York City based labor mediator. He mediated all the big labor disputes between the city and the unions in the 60s and 70s, then he became a philanthropist later in life. I remember having talks with him. He got very focused on climate, so we talked a lot and he talked about the anatomy of a dispute. You can understand the anatomy of a dispute as a lawyer, as a mediator. Their first step, it’s like with a divorce mediator, or psychologists have to do this all the time; so what kind of dispute is this? Is this a dispute of interests? A dispute of contract? And the way he talked about it reminds me so much of what I’ve learned more recently from Peter Coleman about there are ways to hold difficult conversations, and there are ways to end up screaming at each other.
So there’s the science to some of this. Journalists, there’s the Solutions Journalism Network, who are trying to change the way reporters report. I mean, every reporter I know, including me, is a perpetrator of trying to simplify stories. You’re listening after some event happened, you’re interviewing three or four people, and you’re listening for those crystalline quotes that you can then put into a story. But when you’re doing that, you’re actually distilling away the complexity. “He was an idiot, because…” Oh, good quote. So if you’re only engaged in an interview to get a good quote, are you actually doing a service to your readers? A woman named Amanda Ripley, a journalist, she has a new book out on conflict resolution. She wrote a long manifesto on how to flip the script and report using questions more like therapists use. You say, that must have been really tough being in that situation. Tell me more. Which is, again, the antithesis of how journalists typically behave. This is obviously not just for journalists. So we face choices in how we have conversations. Someone I remember… this probably goes back to Ben Franklin or something, everything seems to go back to Ben Franklin. Half the time when you’re in conversation, you’re just waiting to make your statement. You’re not actually listening. So, active listening; these are practices that I’d love to sort of propagate, as much as I would love to propagate understanding of climate change.
This is so evocative. When you said, it’s the questions that therapists asked. It’s like we’re traumatized. I mean, from 9/11 onwards, this country is in this trauma. Like, we are not the good guys, we are not in control. And, in psychology and therapy, when somebody’s in a trauma, you have to ease them out of the trauma before they can even begin to work on anything that’s underlying. So, is there some way in which there’s some compassionate intervention in our traumatized psyches here in this dominant nation, and the world as well? As you say, activists like to scream at each other louder. Actually if we’re in a traumatized collective experience, and people are acting out of trauma, that’s a frame to look at this. Then, activists yelling at each other, it’s just actually making it so much worse.
Yeah. And even so, stepping back from the discourse part, there’s also a value in looking at the problem, like climate change or biodiversity loss, and these issues that have such scale issues, scale challenges, both in time and space. The sixth extinction, you know, they’re all best selling book concepts, and they’re paired usually with an urgent call to action that doesn’t match the scale of the response of the problem. And a lot of people understand this, so they end up instinctively saying, Well, there’s nothing I can do. That can lead to paralysis, further paralysis. Another bit of a evolutionary moment for me came almost 10 years ago when I was lucky to go through most of my life – I’ve had accidents and things have happened – but my first real mortality moment came in 2011 when I had a stroke, and it was very lucky. People can Google for stroke, lucky and Revkin and find lots of things I wrote about it. But it really was my brain telling me, Hey, you know, you’re mortal. I’m your brain. You kind of broke me. So just get used to that idea, as opposed to waking up in the morning, not thinking about my brain, using my brain to think but not really thinking about the brain. It got me into this mindset, sort of like the Serenity Prayer, an agnostic version of it where it’s – and I’m totally blanking on some of this now – but it’s know the difference between what you can change what you can’t change, and get comfortable with that. It’s the comfort factor that some people find a hard time getting comfortable with. My activist friends, even the ones who are deeply knowledgeable about the scale of global warming, are not willing to acknowledge a big chunk of it is just going to play out; that we can rapidly decarbonize a global energy system that took 100 years to build dependency on carbon. It’s not just fossil fuel companies, telling Exxon to shut up and do reparations. It’s not going to solve this.
But it’s sort of hard to build a campaign around a Serenity Prayer, which is just do what you can do, understand the difference between what’s unavoidable, whether it’s your own mortality or global change, and make the best of the situation. But to me, it’s really the only path to sanity amid both being mortal and being on a planet that’s experiencing a human surge. That’s remarkable in so many ways. It’s not like you can stop the tide. Again as a journalist, that gets back to the old headline news norm. Most of my journalistic life was about getting to the front page or the front cover of magazine, and usually when I accomplished that, partially it was through the story being oversimplified, and not taking into account some of those big realities that don’t fit into a front page story. There are two different approaches to that moment of realization. One is you get comfortable with not being fully truthful, and one is you just decide to be complicated. I only learned this phrase this past year, from a filmmaker I’m working with on something. He taught that in the social political science literature, there’s something called “pro-social lying”. People can look that up, pro-social lying, where you’re essentially, for the sake of the greater good, willing to sort of brush around the edges of reality.
Little white lies.
Yeah. And some of them are big. Solve the climate crisis is pro-social lying.
Totally. Just a little editorializing from Vicki is that, I don’t think that we’re going to get through this without maturation, without exactly what you’re talking about, of facing the things that I cannot change and accepting those, and having courage to change what I can and accept what I can’t and know the difference. That is really like a little instruction manual for growing up, growing out of a sort of addictive, immature mentality. Then when you get through that, when you go like, Okay, it didn’t seem like there would be any life after alcohol, because that was everything. But now I’m sober, and actually there’s a lot of life. So that’s where your risk assessment is an interesting approach, because once you’re an adult in the matter, and not insisting that you live in an alluvial plane, or pull the chestnuts out of the fire, or you can be the hero, or whatever. Once you’re there, then you go like, Okay, fine. What are the systems that we’re managing? And how do we produce the best outcome given what we have, not what we wish we had or what the story we’ve told ourselves about the idealized Garden of Eden that we once had? How do we participate in the life process that is all about living and dying, and dead ends and opportunities and resilience? It’s not an imposed story that an activist can craft that will inspire everybody to take a new direction. It’s he fundamental story of being a creature.
This also gets to how we think about ourselves as a species. I think a lot of my environmental friends, and probably at some point, I felt this way too, that we were a plague on the earth. There’s actually a voluntary extinction movement.
I know. We had the founder of it over to dinner one time.
Interesting. I tend to have – again, some of this might just come through experience being, as they say, a Yiddish altacocker – I’ve gotten more comfortable with the nature of human nature. There are these extreme extremities, these sort of Trumpian extremities that I think make my mind boggle. But if you look at us in the grand scheme of things, we still have made the world an interesting place. We’ve done terrible things through history, both to other people and peoples and to other species, some of it unwittingly, some of that willingly. Yet, I still feel that overall, we’re kind of perfect in a way for this sort of weird landscape we live in right now, that’s partially our own creation, partially a planet we still don’t fully understand. I just did a session recently on the volcano in St. Vincent and Grenadines. It’s been sitting there waiting to blow for a long time. Lots of lessons there about, as you were saying about New Orleans, learning to live in temporary landscapes.
So what we want is adaptability. What we want is variety. A paper that resonated with me hugely when I first read it in 2011, was written in 2003; it was on what’s called response diversity, and ecosystems as a source of resilience by a guy named Thomas Elmquist in Stockholm. They looked through all the literature and they found that basically, the resilience of an ecosystem to environmental stress is more a function of the diversity of responses that species that have a function of that ecosystem have to the stress, than it is of this the diversity of species. So you think of a rain forest, well, you want to have lots of species, and that gives you resilience. That’s actually not demonstrated in science. It’s the capacity for the species that do some function in ecosystem to respond to a stress in many different ways, so that you’re not stuck. If every species just kind of hunkered into its shell, then that would be a problem if the thing you had to do is run. I wrote about this in a piece where if anyone just Googles for “response diversity” and “Revkin”, they’d find it. In a social context, then it became clear to me that you want to have edge pushers and you want to have go-it-aloners and you want to have communitarians and you want to have someone tending the fire. If we all were edge pushers here, homo sapiens would not be here today. If we all were sit by the fire types, we would not be here today. So somehow, part of that Serenity Prayer relates to embracing the perfect imperfectness of our nature as humans.
I could talk to you forever, but I think that’s a wrap. I think that’s your pearl of wisdom. It’s not a pearl, it’s like a string of pearls. Or maybe it’s not even a string of pearls. It’s like a bunch of little seashells and somebody to put the holes in because it’s very diverse.
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