Saving Ourselves by Giving Nature Space
Collectively - you know - we tend to think that the human mind is a perfected thing and there are... there are many very obvious reasons why that's not true. There's nothing at all perfect about us; we are a work in progress. So, thank you. I’m talking today with Carl Safina and Carl you're a New Yorker? Yes.
>>>Yeah, I thought I recognized that lilt, shall we say, it's nice. >>>I’ve heard it...I've heard it called 'the bridge-and-tunnel' accent recently. >>>Yeah, and I want to say: my deepest appreciation from the bottom of my heart for the work that you do. >>>That's really kind, thank you. >>>The framing on that earlier TED talk "Do they love us - do we love them?" enough to give them space to live.
You're an incredibly skilled communicator for the rest of the... >>>Thank you, thank you. >>>And I wanted, if I could, focus on something. This is not an interview; I don't do interviews. I do conversations. >>>Okay. >>>So, I wanted... if we could converse a little bit about: how you are seeing us dig our way out of this morass that we've created. Now, the way I’ve ideated it in my own head, and this came out of my work in the climate crisis, until I finally realized that the UNFCCC is... they may be
honestly trying to solve the problem, but the nations that are negotiating are not. >>>Yeah. >>>They're disingenuous. They... you don't try something for 25 years and make no progress, right? ...>>>It takes... that takes effort... that it takes effort to make no progress in 25 years. >>>It takes effort to obfuscate... to make the public think you're trying to make progress. >>>Yeah. >>>And it takes allowing the fox to guard the hen house, so Exxon and
Chevron are invited in as sponsors of the climate talks. >>>Right. So, it's... I realized finally it's our whole economic system, which is built to attack Nature, to monetize it; to try to make money out of every last tree. I often quote the CEO of some lumber company, some forestry company that said: when I see a tree, a standing tree, I see a whole bunch of hundred-dollar bills on a...on a stump. >>>Yeah. >>>So how do we crack this nut and save ourselves by say... by giving the rest of Nature some room?
>>>Well, it would take a while to unpack simply what you've just said as a bit of an introduction, but if I knew the answer to how we could do it I would be doing that the - you know - there are... there are sort of a number of different angles at which one can come at these issues and some of them sound very cynical; some of them sound defeatist and some of them have seeds of hope. I think unfortunately all of them have a lot of truth, so I don't know how you want to start first, but I will say that I think that collectively - you know - we tend to think that the human mind is a perfected thing and there are... there are many very obvious reasons why that's not true. There's nothing at all
perfect about us. We are a work in progress, and we have lots and lots of work to do. The way I look at things as an ecologist is a continuum of life; every... all life is on a continuum and if you... if you observe life on its continuum you see our place on that continuum and you can see or at least I can see that while we might be the extreme animal. and I think that
that's one way of understanding what and who we are. the extreme animal: we're not perfect in any of the things that we are extreme at, so for instance, we are the most creative and we are the most compassionate of all animals, but we are also the cruelest and the most destructive. There... if you want to... if you want to emphasize what seems like the good part of that, the creative and the compassionate, then obviously we have a tremendous amount of room to improve and perfect that part of us, because we are destructive to other living things; we are destructive and competitive to other people; we are cruel to people who hold beliefs that are different than ours, whether they are cultural beliefs, ethnic differences, economic differences - you know - my most recent book is about culture and the most interesting thing about culture on the... on the idea of this continuum is that not all animals have culture, but for all animals that do have culture and what culture is... we tend to think of culture as material things. We think that it is - you know - music
and dance and arts and technology. Those are just manifestations of culture. What culture is... the answers that an animal has, or a community has to the question of how do we live here? So how we live here is our religious beliefs, our technologies, our... the sports teams that we... that we boost; that's how we live here and the thing that... >>>Political rivalries...
>>>Well, yes, the thing that you see with other animals is that what culture always does is... you have... you have a group of individuals, and culture makes the individuals come together, gives them a cultural identity which is the way we do things, but then with those other animals the cultural groups tend to avoid each other or they're actively hostile to each other. They... the groups... once the groups are formed and they have their way of doing things, they don't mesh those things, because confusion arises and this is true with people as well. If - you know - one religion and you go into a different house of worship, you don't know what to do; you can't cooperate. If you... if you speak Greek and you mix... meet somebody who speaks
English and those are the only two languages you have between you, you don't know what to do; you can't cooperate. So, what do you do? You stay with the ones who know the same answers that you have. And this is really - you know - I learned this by watching these other animals and writing my most recent book, which is called "Becoming Wild", but this is really... I’ve come to see it as the root of our cultural frictions and the intractability of these problems which stem really from totally arbitrary things: you do it one way, I do it another way. Why should that be a problem? It's a problem, because deep in our animal nature we're not comfortable with people who have other answers to the question of how do we do things. So that's part of it. Now I - you know - you asked me how to... how do we... how do we solve this? Well, I think first of all is a recognition that we have collectively... we're not up to solving it, and I think that only by creating a culture
of compassion and a culture that seeks to stop the ways that we live, that depend on destroying the world, those are the only hopes and that's a very, very tall order at this point, as you can tell. >>>Yeah. >>>I think we've made a lot of progress along those lines on an individual basis. I think our understanding of these problems is much better than it was when I was a kid. It's much more in the conversation, it's much more in the... in the international treaties - you know - the languages are... the language is there, but the implementation is not, and I think the
reason the implementation is not, it's that it's much too difficult to cool a system that depends on providing things for people, when the number of people has tripled in my lifetime. There are three times as many people now as there were when I was born. How do you cool a destructive system that depends utterly on acceleration? That I think is the problem, right? So, I think the hope is that when the human population finally plateaus and hopefully begins as... a slow and smooth descent to something that the world could bear; that we will be able to take what is left and create something that is beautiful and sustainable and works for everybody. >>>So,
we've circled around to the population or overpopulation issue. My understanding, gross understanding, is that it's said that the planet might support three billion of us sustainably, but we're at seven, on its way quickly towards eight billion, so we're already in overshoot. >>>Yeah, well 'sustainably' depends on exactly what you... what you want to sustain - you know - I would say more like one billion people probably, which is around the population that there was say in 1800, when a few people like Malthus started to see that there... looked like there would be problems coming with population number... human population numbers. He didn't... he didn't live at a time when people extracted nearly as much per person as we do - you know - in our kind of lifestyle, but nonetheless that... that to me is probably about the number of people that could live well... live sustainably,
live in peace and not be driving almost every other living thing to its lowest population level in history and creating the extinction crisis that we have as well as all of the frictions that we - you know - find so intractable. >>>Now, you, when I first posed that question of how do we... well, you use the word 'solve' and I don't believe in 'solutions' anymore; I believe in 'interventions'; is too much 'putting the toothpaste back in the tube' and there's too much out on the floor already, but in terms of interventions then... you mentioned three categories of interventions. I can't recount them now,
but I don't think you exhausted with an example of each and I think that would be a good way to lay out the field, because again what I hope that you and I are contributing in this conversation is... my audience which thinks about these kinds of things... how do we help them structure their thinking in a way that creativity will evolve on - you know - 'we should' or 'I will', >>>Well, I think at the risk of sounding not very original... I think the compass is a culture of compassion that the - you know - the spreading circle of compassion. We tend to be compassionate to our own kind. I think - to really oversimplify I think - an argument could be made that all...
almost all philosophy to date boils down to one dictum which is 'don't hurt our people' and what is 'in' our people and who is 'out' of our people is really the thing, so we have had - you know - in Western civilization... our people used to be men who owned property, that... that has been expanding - you know - we... we've expanded recently to other people, other races, people of other economic circumstances, people of other cultures, people of other genders or sexual proclivities... every time we expand the circle of compassion - you know - to say whose interests are we concerned with, every time that gets bigger, it gets better and it is generally recognized in hindsight as better. Every time we try to shrink it and say
keep them out, leave them on the outside, we recognize in hindsight how hideous that is, so I think compassion as a compass for checking in, is this action right? Is this policy right? Gets you pretty far and I think that something is right when it adds compassion to the world and adds beauty to the world, and it's wrong when it... when it subtracts compassion and makes something less beautiful. Now - you know - some of those things are subjective: what is a beauty to you is maybe different than it is to me, but for the most part I think we know what ugliness looks like and we can quibble about some of the edges of those kinds of things, but I think those sorts of - you know - a direction, a compass, a way of checking in, I think, is more valuable than saying: well, this policy is the thing, because circumstances change, which policy should be the thing, but I... I'll stick with that for the time being. Another thing was... you mentioned the economic system that we have as being a fundamental problem or maybe the fundamental problem. And at one level I would completely agree with you; at a slightly different
level I would say any system delivers on its values. You can have capitalism and business if the main driver is compassion and trying to float all boats. Communism, the way it was practiced in the Soviet Union, for instance, and the way it's practiced in China today.
is certainly as destructive of Nature and as oppressive of people and freedom and dignity as I would say as the worst kind of capitalism is. Why is that? Because the values that are driving them are similar. The values are all about competition rather than compassion, and all about getting more, wringing more out of the natural world rather than finding a way to live in... in a living world in which everything thrives. And I think that we could live in a living world in which everything thrives. Humans did that for tens of thousands of years.
I think we could adapt our technologies to doing that as well, but we can't do it at the... at the intensity and at the population level that we have. One way that I easily envision this is to think about, what is arguably my favorite place in the world, Southeast Alaska. You can go to Southeast Alaska and you can be in a very nice boat, be on the internet, listen to good music, send pictures to people; you have all of the benefits of all of the technology that we like to have, but every animal that is supposed to live there, still lives there and in great abundance. Why is that? Because they simply have room. If... you don't have to limit technology, but you do have to leave room. That I think is the thing. >>>I’ve done programs at the annual climate talks "Nature needs half" as well the means so yeah, Nature needs more than half, but half would be a good start. >>>You know - I thought of
that when I was in college. It was one of the great ideas I had that I didn't...[laughs] that I didn't really properly develop or advance, but - you know - I mean just think about it: Nature, the whole rest of the world, everything that supports all life on Earth gets half and one species gets half... that's not fair - you know - a lot of people find that appalling: 'Oh my god! Giving half to Nature well... that's... I think... I think...
if we understood what we were talking about and often the problem arises because we're not in the same conversation, when we think we are, but if we understood what we were talking about, we would understand that Nature is what we're... what makes life on Earth possible, and to give Nature half is essentially to say... well, we'll make life on Earth half as possible. It... it's - as you say - maybe that's a start, but that's really not what the goal should be - you know - the goal should be that... that we let life proliferate and thrive. And we understand that we come from a deep past, a deep history, in... in which the
world has gone through many, many changes, but what has been preserved is the process of life and what is the process of life? Well, first of all it's all the non-living cycles... carbon cycle, the atmospheric composition, the water cycle... these things that... that can support what is alive and secondly, it's the process of evolution by which life survives, adapts and proliferates; that's the process and we...
I don't know really, I don't really know any major effort that has that preserving the process of life on the planet as its stated goal, which - when you think about it - is... >>>Shocking. >>>It is not psychologically well. >>>No, no... I remember a time where I was asked to do a workshop in Kuala Lumpur. And I’d been wanting to do something like this for years. I was taking my own carbon footprint more
and more seriously and unwilling to go just to do a 45-minute speech, but I said, 'if you give me a day to do a workshop that would be my worth my going for' and the fellow who invited me, introduced me to.... he was a Speaker in - I think - the upper chamber of the Malaysian parliament. And I went into his office and I... his English was quite good, and I said, 'Here's one for you that's conceptually very simple, won't be that easy, but if you were able to do this, it would transform your nation, Malaysia, and it would put... thrust Malaysia into a position of world leadership in a certain way' and he said 'Well, what is it?' I said: 'If you could pass a law that every business major had to study ecology and ethics... that would transform your business world and, by extension, transform the international business world' and he turned to the fellow who brought me to his office and said 'Well, that's a good idea'.
Needless to say, I never got done, but my question to you is 'how do we take something that's even more abstract than that, 'compassion' and I won't say 'teach' it, but 'inculcate' that into a society that... 'Hey show me the money!' You know - how do we do that? >>>Well, I don't know how... you I don't know how you arrive at either of those things; whether it's compassion or a 'show me the money', unless somebody has taught you that that's how we live. It's a cultural thing. And I think your idea that everybody should learn something about ecology and ethics is absolutely fundamental; that's - you know - that's a simple, but very brilliant statement. What could we be without an understanding of ecology and without ethics? >>>And yet we turn out business majors one after the other after the other, who have no concept, who are taught not to care at all, not one witness. >>>Well, that's the thing - you know - they're taught compassion
they're taught a kind of compassion that is the exact opposite of what we call compassion, which is... they're taught not to care; they're taught that to win, someone must be made to lose. And that's not a truth; that's a position. When I was in high school I... Well, I'm a musician. I used to play a lot of music when I was in high school and through college, and of course I was around a lot of sports teams, because that's what there is in high school. And the thing that struck me at that time was the tremendous, basic difference between the idea of getting together to play music and getting together to play sports. In sports the idea is you must win and winning makes... winning happens because you've made someone lose.
In music the idea is you must win and winning happens because everybody wins. >>>WoW! >>>Business could be like that; life could be like that, but we teach... we teach a competitive and I - you know - I don't want to sound like I'm speaking in hyperbole, but we teach in destructive and aggressive and, in some cases, vicious ways of being. One of those are taught they're not... that's not the way you just are, those things are taught. >>>Yes, and I agree completely. I mean in... in kindergarten the teachers try to inculcate a model of cooperation and respect,
but then - this is one I cite frequently - we teach about our economic system, call it capitalism, I don't like to use the word because it engenders a knee-jerk... if you're talking about capitalism. you must be a communist - if you're talking negatively at all about capitalism... so, but we teach about capitalism with a very pernicious model of capitalism, called 'monopoly', where you don't win, when time is up, and you have the most; you win by driving everyone else out of business. >>>Yeah. >>>Lethally, gleefully.
>>>Yeah, I - you know - and that's why I was kind of getting around to saying, I don't think the problem is capitalism; I think the problem is the way capitalism is done. There's a lot of good things about capitalism. I've been in business myself. You can have a business that is a constructive force, a fairly gentle force, one that has a mission of helping accomplish something, or you can have this vicious dangerous form of it. >>>So again, how do we move... how do we move from where we are towards where we need to be,
aside from you and I talking like this and hoping... >>>Well, I think overall, as I said, I think it's incredibly, incredibly difficult as long as the human population continues to grow. >>>Yeah. >>>And then - you know - there's also... there's a lot of confused concepts
that are used to run the world. One is that the economic system must grow. Well, let's try to come back to that, but let's talk about the human population for a moment. The human population seems on track to slow its growth and maybe begin a very slow, very long contraction. If you look at the overall human population, you see that's still growing a lot, but if you look at each country you see that some countries are not growing at all, some of them are actually declining slightly in population, and very, very generally - although there are exceptions - very generally it has a lot to do with the full citizenship for women. When women are full citizens and can own and inherit things, can get loans for businesses, have various kinds of authority, and can run and hold run for and hold office, the choices they make result very voluntarily in small families, because the secret of rich people is that small families give you bigger lives, and really large families make everything hard for everybody. So, in that sense the good news is that we seem to be on track well after our lifetimes, I guess, to have better conditions for more women, resulting in a slowing and then a decline of the human population trajectory, hurting no one in the process, done purely voluntarily by giving everyone what everyone wants, which is dignity and the ability to make their own choices.
So that's - I would say - the good news in a sense I would say that's the best news I know. >>>So, you're actively involved now mostly in writing or in lecturing? >>>Yeah, mostly in writing and speaking, yeah, and I was - you know - I was starting to say this confusion that exists there... we have a lot of confused conversations about very important things and one of them is that the economy must grow and - you know - that's a… that's a pyramid scheme really. The economy must grow to give more people more things, but to give a lot fewer people more things, you don't have to grow the economy; in fact, the economy could very comfortably shrink and shrink and shrink, while individually people could be doing quite well.
And the other confusing thing is the idea that bigger is better and that growth is the same thing as development and improvement. If you look at our bodily history, we had a period of growth, which is focused mostly on growth, and then we have had a period of improvement, where we try to be better people, we learn more about what life is about, we acquire some wisdom without physically growing. What growth is it means to put more material into your system. That's growth. Improvement does not necessitate, and often can only happen when you stop putting, needing to put more material into the system. You can have better education, better hospitals, better health,
better - you know - better everything, better jobs, without growing them or having more. If you're focused on growth and having more, you can't really focus on really improving things and - you know - what is the only other living thing for which growth is the entirety of its design? >>>Cancer. >>>Right. >>>I know that personally. >>>Yeah, and it's destructive, it's destructive to what makes it possible, its host platform.
>>>Yeah, I've seen the parallels in what I've got and what in... in some regard I feel like I've taken on my personal cancer in trying to help cure or address the cancer that society's got. >>>Yeah, unfortunately it's a very apt metaphor, it's very apt. >>>I'll make that even a little bit more quixotic - shall we say - by introducing the idea that I've haven't studied so I can't teach it, but I've read and heard that the cancer process is very similar in ways to the way that an embryo will implant itself in the placenta and grow into a baby, initially with very rapid multiplication of cells, but it's the act of being able to implant. And because I believe that many of us who don't have cancer, have cancerous cells floating around in our bodies, which are swept out with the trash regularly, but it's the rare one that implants itself as with an embryo and grows, because it's found hypoxic conditions, anaerobic conditions. That's what turns into the disease of cancer,
so it... I bring that in, because for such a destructive process to actually be an offshoot of what is genetically the procreative reproductive process kind of gives one pause. >>>Things go awry. >>>Yeah; you have some food for thought in this year of change 2021. >>>Okay, Yeah. >>>Thank you very much for speaking with me today. >>>Oh, well, it's a great honor to speak with you and I really appreciate your interest in what I have to say. >>>Yeah, okay take care. >>>All right, Stuart, take care. you