We Are Nature

This is an Emergency, Not an Apocalypse (with Jad Abumrad)

October 26, 2022 Carnegie Museum of Natural History Season 1 Episode 1
We Are Nature
This is an Emergency, Not an Apocalypse (with Jad Abumrad)
Show Notes Transcript

Why is it so hard to talk about climate change without plunging into an anxious doomscroll? How can we change the ways that we talk about the story of life on earth to emphasize hope over despair, and collaboration over competition? Featuring Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad and Nicole Heller, Associate Curator of Anthropocene Studies for Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Episode Credits: Produced by Taiji Nelson. Research and editing by Michael Pisano. 

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Michael Pisano (00:00:03):

Climate change stories are hard. They're hard because they can be so diffuse. They can be like, "We don't even have a way of thinking about the environment. It's so big." What is the environment? It's weather. No, it's grass. It's just like, It's so big. It's all of it. And also at the very end of every story about climate change, there's this sense that it's too late. Sound the alarms. We're done for, right? And the situation is dire. It is as dire as said. But at the same time, that might be the thing I would disagree with. No, we can fix this. There are levers we can pull, and I think we can do it in our neighborhoods and in our homes and in our communities. Welcome to We Are Nature. A podcast about natural histories and livable futures. Presented by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I'm your host, Michael Pisano. And this first season of We Are Nature is all about climate action as in what we humans can do to support life and build resilience as our climate changes. We've collected stories of what people are already doing, the people who grow our food, care for our green spaces, and create our policies and connected those stories to natural history, ecology, and other insights from researchers at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Through these stories, we've gotten a glimpse of the livable, joyous futures that we can win if we take climate action now.


Now, there's no two ways about it. Climate change is scary, it can be confusing, it's overwhelming, and it puts us face to face with that most miserable of all vibes, impending doom. That fear and doom seems to be the focus of most stories that I hear about climate change. And speaking for myself, the climate action featured on this first season of the podcast are a welcome counterpoint to this fearful narrative. Not because these stories contain all the answers, not because they make the impending doom any less urgent to address, but rather because they are each an example of a place for me to start, an effort I could join and ideas worth nurturing.


I hope that these stories do that for you too, because for me, it's only really been by jumping in and taking action that I've found hope to keep fighting for the safe, clean, equitable world that we all deserve to live in.


To kick things off, today's episode is all about the challenges to communicating about climate and about how changing the stories that humans tell about life on this planet might help us along the path towards a better future. Coming up, we'll hear from Radiolab creator, producer, and host Jad Abumrad about meeting difference with curiosity and empathy. I'll also chat with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's curator of Anthropocene studies, Nicole Heller, about how science communication can rise to meet the urgency of the moment. And finally, to help me make sense of it all, we've got environmental educator, researcher, climate justice advocate, and my dear friend, Taiji Nelson. Taiji's the producer for this first season of We Are Nature. And he also happens to be sitting right here in front of me. Hey Taiji.

Taiji Nelson (00:03:42):

Hey Michael.

Michael Pisano (00:03:43):

Is that an okay intro for you? Is there anything you would add? Who are you? Who are you, Taiji?

Taiji Nelson (00:03:47):

Who am I? I am a person who genuinely, I think the most fun I have, the most when I'm most interested and engaged is when I'm in conversation with other people and just sharing my ideas, hearing from other people's ideas and just figuring out how we move forward together. So that's me. I'm... Like this podcast, the people we got together for this, the people we're hearing from is such just all people I deeply admire who are doing amazing work in our community that I have learned from, benefited from. I feel like I have contributed to their work either directly or indirectly or we're just working towards the same thing. And so I'm just so happy to be doing with this with you, Michael. It's truly a great little project.

Michael Pisano (00:04:41):

Thank you, Taiji, could not have done it without you. It's very much ours and all those people who you mentioned. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, what is Season One about? What are these people all talking about?

Taiji Nelson (00:04:53):

Yeah, they're talking about good change. One of the working titles we had as community change makers. We were looking for stories of people taking action. I think when it comes to climate change and the environment, people care deeply. They want to see a change. They have a sense of what change they want, whether it comes to energy and where we get our energy, how we produce our energy. Who's harmed in that process. When it comes to flooding? I think there's people that know that the tides are rising, our rivers are flooding, we're having to deal, our infrastructure isn't ready, We're not prepared for climate change. There's also people that know we need a future where I have a job that pays my bills and doesn't poison me. We want everybody to be happy and healthy and thriving and have it not just be some people happy, healthy, and thriving.


So I think there's stories of people who actually know how to do that, who are taking meaningful action and can serve as examples. There are so many different ways that we're going to get there, and these are great stories that really highlight that the change is already here. The world we want is here. It's just in seeds right now. And if we water those seeds, we choose the right ones to water, it's going to grow into something beautiful. And so I think this is just a story and a collection of stories of just people who can really serve as examples, get on board, join the movement. There's lots of ways to plug in, no matter who you are, where you're from, how much money you got, what you have to offer. It's like there is a place for you in building stronger, more thriving futures.

Michael Pisano (00:06:42):

There absolutely is. And I love that we've spoken to people who tackle that in so many different ways. And I am a very firm believer in the necessity of a diversity of pathways. There's not a magic button. It's not like at the end of the episode about regenerative agriculture. I'm going to say everybody has to do regenerative agriculture. There's viable paths all around us. And those aren't really, that's not really the narrative I hear when talking about climate change. We made a pretty specific decision to use the phrase, climate action instead of climate change or climate change mitigation. Can you talk about that decision?

Taiji Nelson (00:07:25):

Yeah. So when I think about the way that climate change has been talked about, or most people's relationship to climate change, how they hear about it, who they hear about it from. It's so much about understanding. It's about if we just got people to understand how greenhouse gases work. The idea that humans are burning fossil fuels and it's releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and that acts like a blanket and it heats up the earth. And over time, that's changing everything. How we grow our food, what our weather's like. Where people can live? If we just got people to understand, then they would act. It's this idea of urgency leading to action or understanding leading to action, hope leading to action. And I think there is some part of that that's true, but it's not unidirectional. Taking action is what gives me hope. Taking action is what helps me understand what is working and what isn't working. And so I think people, right now, we have a ton of stories about the urgency. We see it, right? We know we see the sea level rise. We see the wildfires locally. It looks like flooding. It looks like days over 90. It looks like hot nights. And so we have those stories, but we don't have a lot of stories of people taking action, what to do, what people like me or different from me are doing. And so I think it takes practice because we're just used to... You see a presentation about climate change, it always starts with a wildfire. It's like that is the thing we'd start with. And then we lead into solutions. But what happens when we flip that script?

Michael Pisano (00:09:15):

Sure. Or one of my favorites is the kind of planet earth style documentary where you have 50 minutes of respondent, slow motion nature, and then the 10 minutes at the end where everybody leaves is the 10 minutes where they're like, but dolphins are in trouble. It's just like, okay, yes, great. This is not an effective format for me.

Taiji Nelson (00:09:38):

I mean, that's the thing is, it's like that has been effective for so many people, but we need a compliment to that. It hasn't worked for everybody, clearly.

Michael Pisano (00:09:50):

That's right.

Taiji Nelson (00:09:50):

And so trying something different, trying something new, that's what we're about. We're just trying something new because the urgency and save the whales. That has worked. I care deeply. You care deeply. It's worked.

Michael Pisano (00:10:01):

Oh, I love whales. Yeah.

Taiji Nelson (00:10:02):

The whales, we should have a whole podcast about whales because I've been watching these documentaries.

Michael Pisano (00:10:08):

I wonder if we can get a whale to host.

Taiji Nelson (00:10:10):


Michael Pisano (00:10:10):

A really pleasant sound. But yeah, we could use some new stories about conservation and climate stories that try to emphasize action over impact like you were saying. And also stories that emphasize collaboration, which brings us rather nicely to today's first interview with your colleague, Dr. Nicole Heller, who I spoke with about pretty much just this idea.


Let's just start with introducing you. I think it'll be helpful to have your name, your role at the museum, and how long you've been at Pittsburgh working here.

Nicole Heller (00:11:02):

My name is Nicole Heller. I am the curator of Anthropocene Studies at the Natural History Museum. I've been living in the Pittsburgh region about five years now and working at the museum for most of that time.

Michael Pisano (00:11:20):

And before we go further, for someone who's never heard that word Anthropocene, can you tell me what that means?

Nicole Heller (00:11:26):

Yes, yes. The Anthropocene, it's a big mouthful. So the Anthropocene refers to the new, proposed geological epic that we are in, when human activities begin changing the way the earth system works. And that manifests in things like climate change or the way that our oceans are cycling. And that's the scientific meaning. But what's really interesting is that concept of the Anthropocene, really, I think it's a great keyword, a cultural keyword that also describes this moment that we're in that we all recognize, whether we're scientists or non-scientists about kind of, yes, the planet is changing, the climate is changing, the world is more globalized than it used to be. Social systems are changing, all this kind of rapid change and that many of these changes are unsustainable and are not just. And so the Anthropocene is also a cultural keyword taken up by artists, historians, English professors, to really think about, "What does it mean to live in this moment of time where we are seeing a crisis in biodiversity. We are witnessing experiencing a crisis of climate. We know we need to shift our political, social, economic institutions, yet we're not quite there." And so the Anthropocene is sort of a stand in to really think about these larger systems and how we come together as community to transform them for sustainability and resilience.

Michael Pisano (00:13:19):

We're calling this podcast, We Are Nature. And that comes out of your work as I understand it, or your team's work. Could you explain what you hope people take away from that statement and how it's connected?

Nicole Heller (00:13:33):

Yes, We Are Nature was kind of introduced when the museum first started to study the Anthropocene and engage public. So in developing a first exhibition around 2017, and We Are Nature really is a reference to this idea, this fundamental idea that humans are a part of nature. We're not separate from nature and we're dependent on nature and nature depends on us. So there's this interdependency and this kind of mutual... This is a hard word, constitutiveness, this is that, right? Mutual constitutiveness, mutual... We make each other, we co-make each other. And while that can seem really intuitive, on the one hand, I think most people do understand that they are part of nature. At the same time, we really don't live our lives as if we are part of nature. And conceptually in the way that we organize, we think of... Okay, there's the city and then there's the wild lands. There's people, and then there's all the other creatures as if we're separate from each other and that humans can kind of move forward making decisions about our lives and only considering, "Well, how does that affect humans? How does that affect our wellbeing?" Without thinking about the larger ecosystem that we are a part of, and we're dependent on.


This concept of nature is both so fundamentally problematic in Western culture which I think we're speaking about here. This is really a kind of Western culture concept of nature that's rooted into a lot of the science and environmental work. But when we explode that term and we say, "Well, we're all nature, we're all a part of nature." I think that sometimes people interpret that in a kind of postmodern way. "Well, if everything's nature, then we can just do whatever we want and nothing matters." And that's not the point of We Are Nature. It's really more to kind of recognize that obligation and responsibility and the joy and wonder.


And the joy and wonder that comes from realizing our kinship with other creatures and how much they help us. They regulate our water, they clean our air, they bring us joy when we walk in the park. Non-human animals and plants are so integral to our life, and then there's all the stuff we don't see at all, the microbes that are regulating everything. And so, that's kind of the spirit of We Are Nature and why we've continued to keep using this term over the years, because it breaks down that fundamental dichotomy of nature culture that is not as useful anymore to organizing our lives.

Michael Pisano (00:16:53):

Yeah. Arguably, was never particularly useful as western culture kind of exported itself around the world. But thank you for lending us this excellent phrase to help frame this collection of stories. I think that each story here includes people finding material ways to express a commitment to that interconnectedness and to solidarity with the non-human world. And as you know, this first season is all about climate action. And so, maybe we can turn to talking about that. To start, I mean, what even just pops into your head when I say those two words, climate action?

Nicole Heller (00:17:31):

What pops into my head is really that transformative work that I've been talking about. So, it's that it's adapting everything to the reality of a changing climate and the fact that we've got to get off fossil fuels, because the climate is changing faster and faster. And humans are great at adapting and we can adapt a lot, but there is a limit to our adaptation. And I think we're starting to see that. So, for me, climate action is like, we're not talking about is climate change real or not real anymore, we're talking about what are we going to do, and we're talking about that at the scale that is necessary to affect the problem.

Michael Pisano (00:18:17):

Right. I mean, I guess one of our goals with this season of the podcast is to combat some of that helplessness. And a main way that we're going about that is sharing stories from people who are actually engaging in climate action. None of them have a magic bullet, none of them are going to fix it, but they're all trying. And we're intentionally trying to highlight many different ways to take action. Where do you think that kind of storytelling, whether it's at a museum, on a podcast anywhere else, fits into the ecosystem of making change?

Nicole Heller (00:18:49):

Yeah. I think that storytelling and language are so important. And you referenced earlier, a lot what I think about in my work is the language and recognizing that a lot of the terms that I use, the ways, the narrative, the way I kind of form the story, how I do a PowerPoint presentation, that I'm just reusing these terms that are problematic or these frames that are problematic. Because we start to think about the unsustainability of our society and think about, well, okay, how do we become sustainable? What does transformation look like? If we've been imagining ourselves apart from nature, but now we're part of nature, what are the right words to use that represent that shift? What are the right words to use when I'm talking about science that don't alienate some people, don't contribute to maybe using terms that have racist histories in science.


And it takes a while, I've noticed, in a field to move away from the language that you have. And so, our stories matter a ton and it's not like you automatically can just use a new story. It's a real unraveling to reflect on your old stories, start to find those new stories, and the new language that's both understandable, but also points us in the right direction. And so, I think storytelling, practicing, really thinking about our language, I think that that's a huge part of transforming society for sustainability and justice.

Michael Pisano (00:20:49):

I really hope so. In your experience, because I mean this is a challenging thing to communicate about climate action, Anthropocene, not only because of the kind of doom and gloom part of it, the complexity of it is real. I mean, yeah, climate change is tough to talk about. And I know that part of your research focuses on effective environmental communication. And I'm curious about what you've learned from your experience that might be useful not only to me and my collaborators making this podcast, but also to anyone listening who's struggling to talk to people in their life about climate, which we know is something that maybe we don't talk about enough with the people in our lives. So, I kind of broke out three big challenges in talking about climate. I'm open to other ones once we go through there that you would like to suggest, but I'm hoping that we can talk through your experience with each one and failures, success, whatever comes to mind. Does that sound okay?

Nicole Heller (00:21:48):


Michael Pisano (00:21:49):

So, the first one is complexity. Climate change is a global challenge. It's an intersectional challenge that has its fingers in every part of life. It's so big. How have you found success in breaking that complexity and making that accessible?

Nicole Heller (00:22:08):

Have I found success?

Michael Pisano (00:22:09):

Have you found success?

Nicole Heller (00:22:10):

Yeah. Yeah. It is super complex and it's not something that a lot of people have a lot of experience doing this kind of social ecological thinking and systems thinking, and really holding all of the complexity that comes when you think about an economic system, a political system, an ecological system. I mean, it really is mind boggling. And yet, that is the reality of the world we live in. And so, I think where I'm finding success in that is by starting to make those connections with people. We tried recently something called a futures board, where we had prompts where we asked people to talk about infrastructure. So, even though it was about environment and climate change, we said, let's talk about our energy system, let's talk about infrastructure, let's talk about things like broadband. How is access to broadband related to environmental problem solving?


And so, I think that's one technique, is to sort purposefully... It's really like getting interdisciplinary, kind of bringing in parts of the human system that we haven't thought about as part of nature, like access to broadband. Oh, that's a human thing, but it actually could really affect where people can live, how they commute. What are the economic prospects for a region like Western Pennsylvania that has been dependent on fossil fuels? But if broadband is more easily accessible, you can have more teleworking, you can have new economic opportunities. That could really help shift, adjust transition, a transition toward a less dependent fossil fuel economy. So, I guess that's one kind of strategy, is to purposefully talk about the social economic, political alongside the ecology. And I think that's not something that's often done, especially because scientists might feel that's political. They might be a little, "Well, that's not my expertise." So, I think that's a big part of complexity and Anthropocene learning is making spaces to really map the systems and start to think about them as interconnected.

Michael Pisano (00:24:34):

Excellent, excellent. Okay, the next one's related to both broadband and fossil fuels. It's misinformation and disinformation. There's a lot of misconceptions out there. They spread really easily via social media, via word of mouth, via all sorts of things. There's issues with our education system that make it hard to maybe discern between something that's fake news and real news. How do you try to address that in your work?

Nicole Heller (00:25:04):

Well, this is, I think one of the most fundamental things. It's really important for a place like the museum, which has credibility in its community on scientific issues to speak very clearly and about the science of something like climate change, and to make sure that we represent that science in our museum in very clear ways. A lot of people think that the science of climate change is political. They question whether a place like our natural history museum should talk about climate change, "Well, wait a sec, isn't that a controversial political?" And to that, I say, "Well, 99.5% of scientists agree the climate is changing and it's driven by human activities." There is no controversy about the science. There is controversy about what to do about the science. And that is a policy, that is a political, that is a social negotiation.


And no scientist can tell you what to do. They can give you suggestions, but the scientific community is absolutely in consensus about the reality of global warming. A lot of people don't know that the basic science was understood in the late around 1895. So, this is not a radical new controversial science. And from that point of view, I've been really clear in my mandate here at the museum, because we are dedicated to sharing science. That's our purpose. I think a really important thing we're doing and the way that we can combat some of this misinformation is by speaking very clearly, assembling resources to help people navigate the science, and staying true to the science. And that's what I try to do in the work I do.

Michael Pisano (00:27:12):

Excellent. Thank you for doing that. And the last one we already touched on, this sense of helplessness and doom is pretty pervasive. And when anyone talks about climate change, it's hard to keep hope alive, especially when you have an intersecting pandemic, and the social problems, and crises of the last bunch of years that are ongoing. How do you seek to balance that? How do you find hope and communicate about hope in a way that doesn't feel disingenuous, is still realistic? This is a tough row to hoe where we are in trouble. We can still be hopeful though. How? How? Tell me. Help me.

Nicole Heller (00:27:58):

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, this is one of the hardest issues. Anyone who gets into climate communication struggles because it is a gloom and doom topic at some level, or at least the science of it is. But what we do doesn't have to be gloom and doom. That's the exciting part and the part that's really in our control. And one of the things that we've been thinking a lot about at the museum is the way that there's this doom and gloom narrative that you talked about, and that there's kind of this way we always talk about climate, like, "Oh, my God, the climate is changing, everything's going to get worse. And holy moly, if we don't all reduce our climate emissions, we're never going to solve this problem. Oh, my gosh, I'm going to bury my head in the sand." And in the scientific community, the way that shows up is there is just a ton of research about the impacts.


What are the impacts of climate change? And when we think about something like the Anthropocene, we often just talk about, what are the impacts? Here are all the impacts, here's all the bad things that are happening. But meanwhile, there is this whole other side of what is happening that is not discussed as much and is kind of like a complete reframing. And we've been thinking a lot about, in the museum, one is kind of collective or shared responsibility. And that can feel overwhelming, but it also means that it's all hands on deck moment. Everyone has a role to play. It isn't like my job to fix it or your job to fix it, it's like, what are you going to do, Michael? What am I going to do? We all have something to play.


And so, that kind of appeal to collaboration and thinking less about competitive framings, it's nature versus humans, or all animals are competing survival of the fittest. Instead, there's this whole story about collaboration and the role of mutual benefit symbiosis in the story of life, that is just as important as the competition that's out there. It goes hand in hand, which is the stories of creatures working together basically, or becoming integrated with each other. If we talk more about the important role that collaboration has had in the story of life and in building the complexity that we see in the world, and building human bodies, and allowing us to do things, to make things, and making nature what it is, I think that might help us to tap more into that part of who we are and help us to rethink how we work with other people. We collaborate with other people and how we collaborate with non-humans to find those solutions.


And so, this does get back to your point. The stories we tell, they matter so much because they structure how we relate to the world. And we're at a moment where we've got to learn to relate differently to each other and to non-humans. What gives me optimism and makes me excited is I want to know what can we do with this. What could our cities look like? How abundant and rich and diverse could they be if we embrace this? How joyful could our time be if we were able to spend more time admiring other creatures, and our kin, and learning from them and valuing them, making space for them rather than imagining that that makes a place dirty or somehow dangerous. And I just think there's incredible opportunities for learning and growing.


... incredible opportunities for learning and growing as individuals through our relationships with non-humans and a friendship and learning and reflection that can happen through working with another being.

Michael Pisano (00:32:18):

We'll hear from Dr. Heller again later this season. In the meantime, go check out what she and her collaborators are working on at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Head up to the third floor and you'll find the We Are Nature hub space, which includes tons of info, art, interactive exhibits, and video and photography from me and the rest of the We Are Nature podcast team. Now, it's my genuine podcasting honor to introduce Jad Abumrad. You almost certainly know him from NPR's Radiolab, which he created, produced, and co- hosted from 2002 to 2022. Or perhaps you're familiar with one of his other excellent podcast projects like The Ring and I, More Perfect, UnErased, or one of my personal favorite podcasts of all time, Dolly Parton's America. I had the pleasure of chatting with Jad in March 2022, just a few months after he announced his retirement from Radiolab and just as we were starting to edit the first stories from this season of We Are Nature.


[inaudible 00:33:39] today's conversation with you is plop it in the first episode of the new podcast when we launch.

Jad Abumrad (00:33:45):


Michael Pisano (00:33:46):

Given that you've just recently passed the torch at Radiolab. Given that we're just starting this podcast, we're kind of hoping for a little bit of counsel on the eve of our voyage.

Jad Abumrad (00:33:55):

Oh, okay, cool.

Michael Pisano (00:33:56):

Yeah. And not just us, but extending maybe out to what listeners and just generally humans who have to communicate with each other in this time can maybe take away from looking back at your experiences at Radiolab telling I guess the hallmarks of those stories to me are like, they're deep, they're humanistic and multidimensional. It's maybe lumped into science communication, but it's not just science. It's about science intersecting with a messy world. And yeah, I think over the couple of decades that you and Robert Kroitch and the rest of the team told sciencey stories I'll call them at Radiolab, I think it's fair to say that you've really infiltrated the DNA of how science communication is done.


It strikes me that you're passing this torch to Lulu and Latif and the rest of the team who are carrying Radiolab forward, but also to other people who have been inspired by Radiolab storytellers who are sitting in front of other microphones, but also any listener who maybe learned something with you and your collaborators and decided to share it or maybe even found a talking point for a tough conversation with their family or their coworker. So what do you hope that this community of Radiolab inspired voices keeps in mind about human to human communication in today's, maybe I'll call it a chaotic messaging landscape?

Jad Abumrad (00:35:23):

Yeah, yeah. Oh boy, that's a big question. I mean, there's a few things that I think about as I sort step out of Radiolab. I mean, it's hard for me to say how much Radiolab has or has not influenced the universe because it's funny, even in these last 20 years I've lived in a very small world, which is just me and the team and a few collaborators, and it's always been a very small bubble. But as I personally think back, I think about you contained it in your question in a way that there's a kind of cross-disciplinary fourth dimensional leap that a Radiolab story will make where you think you're having one kind of conversation and then you jump into another. You think you're talking in the language of science and then suddenly you're talking about in a language of art or poetry or faith even at times. And that jump is very important to me. That ability to do science, but science for poets or to do poetry in a precise way, as precise as science in a way. And also if you take that out, as we began to do stories about the law and about politics and government, that same approach applied where it was about... I don't want to get too grandiose, but really trying to never get pigeonholed into one way of thinking or one way of speaking. But to always approach every single topic with a sense that our own perspectives are very impoverished, really small, and the world is much bigger than we can even contemplate. And even the people we think we hate are much more complicated than we give them credit for.


And so it's that kind of humility that and that dedication to speaking across boundaries, whether they're sort of disciplinary boundaries, whether they're cultural boundaries, whether they're racial boundaries, to have those kinds of conversations and to approach them with a sense that I don't know the right way. I have my opinion. I have my predispositions. I'll be totally upfront and honest with that, but I don't know any better than you, so let's dig into it and let's let questions guide us. And I don't know, there's just an approach. There's just a posture. I mean, it's more than the style at this point. I mean, often people talk about the sounds, and this and the aesthetic. It's more than that for me. That stuff is really innate to me. But the stuff I had to learn in making Radio lab was precisely what I just said. How to have those conversations, how to listen to people. And I'm still learning. And I hope that approach... I mean, I hear it in other places, and I hope that that's what people take with them.

Michael Pisano (00:38:50):

I love that. It's crucial and I hope to hear more and more of it too. And it's a lifelong thing that you're learning how to do, or that all of us are learning how to do. Something that's come up in a lot of the interviews we've done. So we've interviewed maybe 30 people for this first season, is the importance of finding common ground. And our stories are all local to Pennsylvania, which is a pretty good... It's maybe a great snapshot of the US right now in being 50/50 kind of conservative liberal with maybe pockets of progressive, other things in that spectrum. But one thing that jumped out at me from one of the interviews, we were talking to some organizers in Cole Country outside Pittsburgh, and they were talking about how they're able to mobilize their community, which is rural Pennsylvania. It's politically pretty divided around property rights.


That was the big thing that they hit on that was everybody cares about property rights. Someone's coming in to this community and saying, "We might challenge your property rights or your clean water, or the value of your home. All this constellation of issues." It doesn't matter who you voted for, they're going to jump on board and start talking to each other across these divides. And that was actually... I did that interview just as I was listening to you and Shema Olia on Dolly Parton's America. And I think that's a really great case study in sharing stories. And Dolly in general is this figure who talks about unity and empathy I think is what you were talking about. So can you just speak to your experience about how sharing stories broadly can help foster unity and empathy?

Jad Abumrad (00:40:39):

Yeah. Let me... Sorry. I had three different thoughts all at once and I was trying to figure which one to go to. Yeah, I'll just say it personally. There's a way in which when we say things like common ground or that kind of thing, it can feel a little homeworky. It can feel like medicine that we've got to take so that we can be better people. It never really begins like that for me. I mean, it begins, there's just a sense that I have always that I somehow missed something that I just... I once referred to it as like, ah, I feel like I missed that day in school where they taught you what government is. It was that sense of not knowing that gave rise to the entire spinoff project of More Perfect. So it always begins with this sense of, huh, I just feel like people are really excited about X and y and I don't get it.


And I really would like to. And it always begins with this strange feeling that I'm staring at a group of people across the room and I'm just like, am I like them? Are they me? Should I go over there and talk to them? It's a slightly spectrum feeling of distance, right? And it always starts there where I'm just kind of like, "Huh, what's that all about?" And then you go and you investigate and you ask questions. And what ends up happening? You ask questions about that person and you tell their story. And of course, you're trying to find a story that's worth telling. But on a more primal level, you're just trying to understand something and know something.


And then you get the first wave of knowing is sometimes simple. People are answering what they feel you want to hear. You're asking questions which aren't quite the right questions. And then there are always these moments in a reporting of something. And that happened again and again for Shema and I in the Dolly Parton's America project, where you encounter something which upends your perspective. And an example that I think of in the Dolly Parton's America was going to the University of Tennessee interviewing a bunch of students who were taking that Dolly Parton's America class. They were all from East Tennessee Appalachia. Many of them were the first in their families to ever go to college.


And I grew up in the South, I was a Tennesseean. But there was something about the way these kids held themselves, the smart things they said, the incredible nuance with which they held Dolly. They loved her, but they also kind of begrudged her a little bit for making a caricature of the South. They were just so interesting. And something about them made me think, damn, I don't know the place I grew up at all. I don't understand this place. And I have always felt like I can talk badly about Tennessee because I know Tennessee. I grew up in Tennessee.

Michael Pisano (00:43:54):

I'm from New Jersey. I can relate.

Jad Abumrad (00:43:56):

You know what I mean? You get to talk about Jersey. Nobody else does. And I felt the same way about Nashville and Tennessee. And then I realized, I don't know shit. I really don't know the place. There's so many universes in inside this that I don't understand. And that's where the empathy happens. And it begins almost as... For me, it begins selfishly where I realize, I don't understand. I don't get it. And then it's that idea that I am big and then suddenly I'm small. And that for me is the... That surprising rescaling of one's ego becomes the sort of gateway to empathy where I'm like, oh, okay, well dang, what else I know? Tell me more. And then that person shares, and then the stories come out and you realize, oh, okay, we may not just agree on everything. We may have different political viewpoints, whatever it is, but there's so much that I'm learning about you that is interesting, and that is rich, and that is nuanced.


I fully believe that to be the case with everyone. And it hurts me. It actually genuinely hurts me that there are I... And I get it and I empathize with it, but when I see people who are like, I don't need to be curious about that person, their X or their Y. And I'm like, well, are they? I mean, probably maybe a little bit, but there's so much... That hurts me when people, I'm a fully disclaim. I am a pretty far left, but there's a whole contingent of people on the left that just are deeply incurious about people on the right. And that just feels wrong to me. This is the moment where we have to lean into our differences and really try and understand those differences. So how did I get up on the soapbox? What was your initial question?

Michael Pisano (00:45:49):

I was wondering about how sharing stories can help foster unity and empathy, which I think you went into there and you kind of led me to another question. You're talking about left and the kind of divisions and the walls that we put up towards trying to understand one another. There's a lot of frustration, and I think in climate storytelling and environmental justice storytelling, there's a ton of that at play where people throw up their hands. But something that I think about in these stories is there's decades of disinformation that have undermined people's faith in each other, the truth of human impacts and obscured who profits, who loses while we keep up business as usual in the face of this escalating chaos.


And what really gnaws at me is the messaging that pits people against one another directly. Yeah, we're all susceptible to that. And I think that contributes to uncertainty, overwhelm, in action, and only really benefits this small number of people who are profiting from the way things are. I wonder if you could speak to how you think stories can combat misinformation, disinformation, both that kind of insidious intentional kind and the accidental kind that we're seeing very easily spread across social media.

Jad Abumrad (00:47:18):

Yeah. I mean, that's a really interesting question. One seems to be an inoculation for the other, but they're fundamentally different games in a way. The thing that I always find about... I have friends who are vehemently anti-vax, right? And I feel totally differently. I have debated the information with them up, down, right, left, center, It doesn't seem to work. It doesn't seem to help. You know what I mean? So there's some way in which the information itself and just the exchange of information, it's not that efficacious really because there are pools of information that-


Because there are pools of information that anyone can dive into to confirm any belief. What the story will do is, I don't know if it necessarily counteracts disinformation, but it creates a foundation where you can still talk. There's something about understanding the story. Let's say it's a character-driven story where you're just getting to understand another person's life, that creates a sense of, any person is a three-dimensional thing, and if you can experience them in that way, it's just harder to hate that person. You know what I mean? You can disagree with them, you can vehemently argue with them, but hate, you can't really hate someone that you understand.

Michael Pisano (00:48:54):

Absolutely not. And yeah, the more that I speak to anyone, the more connection points you find organically. You're both human beings on earth at this time. It's really hard. You have to work hard to not connect to someone if you talk to them and hear an anecdote from them or hear about their personal experience. Yeah.

Jad Abumrad (00:49:11):

Totally. I feel like the exchanging of stories, rich, well-researched, deep stories that bring to life people, places and ideas, the exchange of those kinds of stories just makes it harder to default to the sort of cartoon versions of each other that we all carry around every day. Am I going to convince somebody who's a climate change denier that climate change is real and that we have to act? I don't know. There's some way in which the moment you're in that conversation you've already lost. Do you know what I mean?

Michael Pisano (00:49:54):


Jad Abumrad (00:49:54):

What I do find is interesting, and I don't know how, I'm just poking into it myself, but I do find language is such a fascinating... The ways in which we're we fastidiously hold certain ways of speaking can sometimes itself be the barrier.


You look at the right, which, going back to, I don't know, the '80s or '70s, it became politicized that environmentalists are the enemy. And then it became of relig-ified within the evangelical community. That said, there are ways of speaking within that community that are analogs to ways of speaking on the left. We talk about the environment, they talk about our beautiful earth. There are ways of speaking, which I think if we just understand the language we're using and the language they're using, we can still maybe have a conversation. I'm not sure about that, but it does feel to me like the moment you are trying to wag your finger at somebody, that never works. It just never works. I say that as a journalist, it just doesn't work.

Michael Pisano (00:51:13):


Jad Abumrad (00:51:14):

So, I don't know. I don't know. I do feel like there's some exercise in rethinking the way we speak that could be useful. And unfortunately the onus is on us, it's on all of us, because we're all going to burn, but it's on those of us that want action to try and think about how we're speaking and just try and think about, I think as you were saying, property rights. If that's our entry point, okay.

Michael Pisano (00:51:41):

Run with it. Absolutely.

Jad Abumrad (00:51:42):

Run with it. Do it. Yeah. It is the biggest issue.

Michael Pisano (00:51:46):


Jad Abumrad (00:51:47):

There nothing is bigger than that. So, okay, we should be able to form coalitions with pretty much anyone on this issue.

Michael Pisano (00:51:54):

Sure. I'm willing to make some linguistic sacrifices for that.

Jad Abumrad (00:51:57):


Michael Pisano (00:51:59):

On that kind of topic of people shutting down, maybe when you start talking to them in a certain way with a certain sort of language, I think something that Radiolab has done really well in telling these kind of complex, multidimensional stories is that they feel expansive. And when they're serious, and you often tackled subjects like grief or disease, even apocalypse, somehow at the end of an episode, I never really felt overwhelmed or weighed down by gloom. It wasn't that there was this saccharin turn at the end where you're just like, "But don't worry about it." It's just like, "No, we're going to talk about this. It's serious."


I wonder, as we set out, as my collaborators and I on this podcast set out to tell stories about climate action, ecology, climate justice, these complex things that do have maybe divisive language around them, can you talk about your approach to keeping vast tough topics engaging and not overwhelming and terrifying?

Jad Abumrad (00:53:03):

Yeah. I mean, yeah, it's interesting. Climate change stories are hard that way. They're hard because they can be so diffused. I think we don't even have a way of thinking about the environment. Somebody I was talking to you a couple days ago was quoting somebody. I'm like, I'm sorry, I'm going to give you two vague non-attributions, they quoted somebody as saying that the environment is so big that we have no way of conceiving of it. It's almost like a hyper object. That was the term used.

Michael Pisano (00:53:36):

Sure. I've heard that.

Jad Abumrad (00:53:37):

You can even think about it, it's so big. What is the environment? It's weather? No. It's grass? It's just like, it's so big. It's all of it. And so there's a way in which that can be just the death of story. Also, at the very end of every story about climate change, there's this sense that it's too late, sound the alarms, were done for, and the situation is dire. It is as dire as said.


But at the same time, I also had a conversation with Alex Bloomberg the other day who is doing climate change reporting of his own at Gimlet and he had just the most interesting sort of response. He was just like, "It's not hopeless. There are things we can do. We can solve this. Look at the automobile industry." They had tons of emissions and then they invented this thing called the carburetor, or something. I forget what it is.

Michael Pisano (00:54:38):

Michael, from the future here, I had to look this up. It is a catalytic converter. These became standard on cars in America in the '70s after the Clean Air Act established new regulations around a host of just awful pollutants and automobile exhaust.

Jad Abumrad (00:54:53):

And suddenly that one device took emissions and just, you see on a graph it nose-dive. And then I think about, God, 1950s New York, you see these pictures, people are covered in soot.

Michael Pisano (00:55:05):

Oh, sure.

Jad Abumrad (00:55:06):

There's just thick coal-burnt fog hanging shroud over the city. And now it's not that way. The awareness that there's so much energy and so many solutions that could be brought to bear on this. Seeing what's happening with the automobile industry gives me great sense of hope. The kinds of stories where you see, things that I never thought. I mean, God, the electric car was a joke all through my life, and then suddenly it's like it's a reality. Seeing that those kinds of things are happening and they're happening quickly and that we may be at some kind of tipping point. There's a lot of reasons to feel slightly panicky, but there's not reasons to feel despair, I think. Panic, not despair.

Michael Pisano (00:56:00):

Emergency, not apocalypse.

Jad Abumrad (00:56:02):

Yeah, exactly. We can fix this. So I think there is a way in which there can be a kind of nihilism that falls over climate change reporting, and that might be the thing I would disagree with. No, we can fix this. We can change this. There are levers we can pull, there are levers we can pull, and I think we can do it in our neighborhoods and in our homes and in our communities.

Michael Pisano (00:56:33):

Breaking it down to a local scale is fantastic, I think.

Jad Abumrad (00:56:35):


Michael Pisano (00:56:36):

It makes it less overwhelming and it also, ideally, gives people who live in that local place, that neighborhood, whatever it is, agency to envision their own better future. And maybe for a rural coal community in Pennsylvania, they might chafe against what someone in a neighborhood in Pittsburgh is going to say about what they want for their future. And maybe that's really okay, as long as we're all working towards harm reduction, mitigation, and a future that feels livable and isn't constrained by where we've been or the talking points of today. I don't know. I just agree with you so deeply. I wonder if there are stories or a kind of story that personally make you feel less helpless, because that's one of the big things right now is helplessness. What do you think?

Jad Abumrad (00:57:25):

What makes me feel less helpless is seeing just the level of engagement and the level of activism, and it's all very creative. This generation coming in their twenties is engaged and activated on climate justice in a way that is really amazing and heartening. People like me of a certain age tend to get grumpy when thinking about young people and I feel like that is our birth rate as old people to complain about young people. But I have been just amazed at the level of engagement around climate.


I was just talking to somebody from the Loose Foundation who's doing a lot of funding of climate activism, and she was showing me graphs that show kind of people's sense of belief or trust in institutions, and that's at an all-time low. So nobody believes that government, Congress, big storied institutions are going to save us. But there's all of this activism at the grassroots level, and so there's all of these creative ways in which people are engaging with the issue and trying to make change around the issue. So that creativity, that finding new ways, it just gives me hope.

Michael Pisano (00:59:03):

Many thanks to Jad for helping us start this first season of We Are Nature, keeping empathy, curiosity, and hope at the forefront. If you like empathy, curiosity, and hope, and especially if you're in need of fuel to fight back existential dread and imagine better futures, then I think you'll like the stories we've collected and I hope you'll join us again next week.


In the meantime, check out the We Are Nature Feed for a bonus episode featuring Taiji and I trying to record a 10 minute long wrap up segment that turned into an hour and a half long conversation. We chuckle, we do just a little bit of shouting, and we get deep with the ideas and hopes behind this season of the podcast. Thanks again to Jad Abumrad for his time and wisdom. If you don't already listen to Radiolab, what are you doing? Go queue up an episode to play after this one. Any episode, you will not regret it. Thanks also to Taiji Nelson, Nicole Heller, Bonnie McGill, Sierra Krist, and Sloane McCrae at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.


The music in today's episode was made by two of my most talented friends, Mark Mangini and Amos Levy. There's also a companion series of videos about climate action in rural Pennsylvania. You can find a link to those in the show notes. Until next time, here's some wise words to keep you all brave and standing tall against the face of doom." When we talk about climate change, there's often a hidden resignation, like, of course we harmed the earth. And when we talk about acting on it, there's also an undercurrent that it will require a level of sacrifice that is worth it, but just barely. What if, instead, the story we tell about climate change is that it is an opportunity, one for humans to repair our relationship with the earth and re-envision our societies in ways that are not just in keeping with our ecosystems, but also make our lives better. If this doesn't sound possible, ask yourself, why not?" That was Kendra Pierre Lewis from her essay Wakanda Doesn't Have Suburbs in the collection All We Can Save. I've been your host, Michael Pisano. Thanks for listening.