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Byrd is the Word


Deborah Byrd of Earth and Sky radio believes humanity is adolescent and é─˙messed up its room real bad.é─¨ By Brandon Keim


Deborah Byrd is one of science's premier voices—literally. Since the late 1970's she's produced more than 10,000 science radio shows, more than half of those with Earth & Sky, a syndicated short-format series she's co-hosted since 1991. Plenty recently spoke with Byrd about environmentalism's post-millennial renaissance.

You've covered science in print and on the radio for three decades. What principles guide your environmental thinking now?

It's clear that nature is very resilient, and no matter what happens to the human species, the planet will be fine. Earth will go on producing biodiversity on a million-year, a billion-year, timescale. In respect to a human lifespan, that's a long time. So the span we have to be concerned with is the next 100 years, when we and our children live.

Scientists are trying to show that people are coupled to the earth. In the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment that just came out, they used the phrase "ecosystem services." Think about the things nature provides—not just metals out of the ground, but fresh air, clean water, space for recreation. They tried to put this into an economic model.

A lot of environmental thinking has portrayed the natural world as something that should be sacred or inviolable. Does that reflect a conception of people and nature as separate?

That we shouldn't affect the land because we're not entitled to, that we should leave wild lands wild—there's a lot of truth and beauty to that idea, but it's not the reality. There is no place on Earth not affected by humans. At Earth and Sky, we don't see that as a negative idea. It just is.

There will be 9 billion people by 2050. Rather than viewing that with dismay or fear, we've learned by talking with thousands of scientists over the last 15 years that this can be viewed as an opportunity to create a garden world. An opportunity to create an advanced human civilization where people treat each other with respect, where there's social justice and environmental responsibility.

If I go downstairs to the gas station beside my apartment and tell the attendant, "The amphibians are dying," why should he care?

Maybe he shouldn't. Some species are going to die out. We can't save every one. There are 6.5 billion of us on the planet, and we're affecting things. Yeah, some amphibians are going to die, and there's nothing we can do to save them, though the more people that become aware and try, the better it will be.

What about things that aren't inevitable, like drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

The more people that realize the earth is not an infinite source of resources for humanity, the better. A hundred years ago, people thought we'd never fish out the seas, and here we are, global fish stocks declining precipitously and accumulating toxins.

It's like when you're a little kid, you don't have to think of anything, because everyone's taking care of it for you. That's how humanity's been for much of its history. A lot of people say we're in our teenage years now, and we've messed up our room really bad. What happens after you're a teen? You become an adult, take responsibility for yourself. That means taking care of the planet—not because there's an intrinsic value to it, but because we're linked.

That realization seems to be popular—environmentalism is more commercially popular now than ever. But what if it's the next Free Tibet?

Things seem to happen in cycles. If I had to guess, I'd say the whole green thing will probably die down a little, then emerge even stronger.

What you're really asking is, do I have hope? Will people ultimately realize that we need to take care of the earth for the sake of ourselves? Will we realize our connection to the planet? Yes, I believe we will.


Comments

I think Earth & Sky is great. Not only the radio series, but the website. You should add it to your "Eco sites & blogs"! It's earthsky.org

She seems to be saying some weird stuff..liek stuff a non- or anti-environmentalist would say.

"It's clear that nature is very resilient, and no matter what happens to the human species, the planet will be fine."

--Uhh? The planet may be fine, but will it still provide suitable living conditions?

When talking about increasing land usage, she says:

"there's a lot of truth and beauty to that idea, but it's not the reality."

--This, land management, is huge issue for environmentalists...how can she just deignate it to be something that is, just because it is?

"Some species are going to die out"

--True. BUT, arent we as a human race expediting that process with our current civilization? And isnt this expedited process wreaking havoc on biodiversity by not giving other species ample time to evolve and adapt liek they have been able to in the past?

Deborah Byrd is a shining star in the firmament. The light from lives like hers will save the world as we know it for coming generations.

Awesome interview. We are so very PROUD of you!

mitch,

dare i say it? your argument smacks of human-centrism. and earth-centrism.

if our planet expoloded tomorrow, the fate (and general health) of the universe would not hang in the balance.

i find that deborah's perspective -- which, while not uncaring, does feature a kind of healthy detachment -- helps me fend off utter despair about the course of world events, the polluting of our skies and seas, the total disrespect shown to mother earth -- misogyny on the grandest scale. yup, that's what i think it is!

but if the whole joint goes up in smoke, well...at least there's still andromeda.


Hey Mitch,

I think her point about the planet being fine is not anti-enviro. You two are actually in agreement. When she says, "no matter what happens to the human species, the planet will be fine.", she is saying that its us who would not recover, the Earth will, potentially long after we as humans are dead and gone. People become more engaged in enviro issues when they realize it has a real impact on them.

I applaud Deborah and Earth & Sky for their "weird" way of thinking. I agree it's not "environmentalist" thinking. Hooray! Thinking like an evironmentalist, or like a feminist or a Republican or like an anything is a trap. It doesn't allow for change. And change is what we're really talking about here.

Humans have spent their most of their existence using Earth's creatures and natural resources for their personal use. How could anyone possibly think we can save "all" of the creatures and resourcses left at this late date? I agree with Debbie in that we cannot do much about what we have damaged and must concentrate now on what we can save. Humans are no better than anyother creature on Earth and can become just as extinct.

Sandra, Beth and Mitch,

I think it is more accurate to say that the Earth will have lost an opportunity -- a great one.

Between the general obliviousness of popular culture and the utter despair of doomsayers, lies the reality of our current moment. There is no reason for humanity to give up, as Deborah said, we are entering our young adulthood. Sure, it is challenging to face the awesome responsibility we have for determining the fate of all life on Earth -- on the other hand, the opportunity is ours. We could create a "garden world" as Deborah puts it.

Where I work we talk about the potential for a Great Transition to planetary civilization rooted in ecological sustainability and social justice. Using rigorous scenarios, we are trying to paint a plausible potrait of such a world. You might find these images offer inspiration and hope (check out the first two papers in the GTI Paper Series at www.GTInitiative.org).

I think Deborah's point is for us to take a sober look at our situation, recognize the tradeoffs to be made, and choose wisely what world we want to create.

Sandra, Beth and Mitch,

I think it is more accurate to say that the Earth will have lost an opportunity -- a great one.

Between the general obliviousness of popular culture and the utter despair of doomsayers, lies the reality of our current moment. There is no reason for humanity to give up, as Deborah said, we are entering our young adulthood. Sure, it is challenging to face the awesome responsibility we have for determining the fate of all life on Earth -- on the other hand, the opportunity is ours. We could create a "garden world" as Deborah puts it.

Where I work we talk about the potential for a Great Transition to planetary civilization rooted in ecological sustainability and social justice. Using rigorous scenarios, we are trying to paint a plausible potrait of such a world. You might find these images offer inspiration and hope (check out the first two papers in the GTI Paper Series at www.GTInitiative.org).

I think Deborah's point is for us to take a sober look at our situation, recognize the tradeoffs to be made, and choose wisely what world we want to create.

Miss Byrd, I really like your answers, they come off as very 'real'. We need more environmentalists like you who don't sound like total nuts and think that they are going to get everyone on the planet to change, but give us real solutions to the problems which everyone can grasp!

mitch, you need to think about what deborah really says here. i find her viewpoint refreshing and hopeful. we're teenagers on the brink of adulthood! imagine the possibilities.

great interview with Deborah. I read her website all the time. You can get the radio shows on the website and all of her daily blog posts. There is a good post on there now called "What future will we choose?. Check it out at earthsky.org

I'm very much into this concept coined by Paul Crutzen called The Anthopocene
The fundemental idea here is that humans can influence nature greatly, but we ultimately cannot control nature. And depending on what humans do, nature can support humans or not.

To me, the ideas of "pristine nature" are outdated and not possible. Human's dominate and influence every corner of the globe. What is possible is a healthy nature in a world dominated by humans.

We are at a time in history when we must save the nature we need to save ourselves. Given the enormity of this task, I don't consider this concept watered down environmentalism. It takes the idealism and romanticism out and enables us to focus on the life or death task at hand.

Byrd is right in most respects, but humans need to remember that they are not in charge just because they do the most damage. I also think there are better ways to move people than to tell them how bad it is. They are going to have to figure that out for themselves.

What makes humans think they are not going to become 'extinct' just like so many other animals before us?

Hello all! Thank you for all the great comments. And thanks to plentymag.com for hosting this interesting discussion.

Especially to Loretta ... correct. We are not in charge. We dominate Earth, but we don't control nature.

Especially to Jude ... yes. Humans can become extinct just like other animals. I care about my kids and grandkids. I care about your kids and grandkids! I hope we can all work together ... hear each other ... care for each other ... and find the road to sustainability.