We Are Nature

We Are The Future

February 10, 2023 Carnegie Museum of Natural History Season 1 Episode 13
We Are Nature
We Are The Future
Show Notes Transcript

On today’s show, the last episode of Season 1, we look ahead at possible futures. Join us in imagining a planet with space and dignity for all earthlings. Featuring Museum Director Gretchen Baker, Curator Nicole Heller, and Educator Taiji Nelson from Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Watch the companion We Are Nature video series here.

Episode Credits: Produced by Taiji Nelson and Michael Pisano. Editing by Michael Pisano. Music by Mark Mangini and Amos Levy.

Follow Carnegie Museum of Natural History on Instagram, Tiktok, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook.

Michael Pisano (00:00:13):

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 is the last episode of our season about climate action. To bring us home, we're taking a look ahead at the futures that season one's stories inspire. Throughout, we'll check in with some of my collaborators at the Carnegie. First, we'll spend a bit on biodiversity and visions of the future with section of an Anthropocene curator, Dr. Nicole Heller. Then a conversation with museum director Gretchen Baker about the future of museums and the planet. Finally, a last call to climate action with my producer and pal Taiji Nelson. One of the biggest lessons I'm walking away with from this season's stories was the essential link between diversity and resilience to climate change. When I say diversity, I mean a few things, and we'll touch on all of them throughout today's episode. I'd like to start with biodiversity, the variety of life on Earth. To do so, I've asked for some help from biodiversity expert Dr. Nicole Heller. Can you explain why biodiversity is important in a couple of sentences?

Dr. Nicole Heller (00:01:40):

Yes. Yeah. Biodiversity is, and I'd say in many senses, maybe we could argue that the problem of the Anthropocene and the crisis of the Anthropocene is it's really a manifestation of realizing how much. Because we were eroding that biodiversity on the planet, we've been eroding that biodiversity, many scientists argue that we're in the sixth mass extinction of the planet right now. As we lose that biodiversity, we lose function and we lose resilience to storm events, to changes in weather, to crop failures, to pestilence, all of these things. Diverse ecosystems regulate those aspects. As we lose biodiversity, we really lose resilience and to respond to changing conditions so diversity is not just something beautiful and wondrous, it's our life support system really.

Michael Pisano (00:02:45):

Yeah, it's fundamental. I think something that's come up in other interviews for this podcast that I've really loved to have coalesce unintentionally is that people have talked about biodiversity in that way as this foundational essential part of our experience and our survival. But also the diversity of approaches to climate action and the diversity of perspectives in solving any sort of problem are all essential and foundational and specifically contribute to resilience. That word I think is a really important one for us right now.


I think it actually stands against the idea of helplessness and hopelessness. I'm not criticizing people who feel doomed. That's so natural. Again, I feel that way, maybe three out of seven days of the week, depending on the week. But to be resilient against that is to enable yourself to not only try to feel a little better by finding something active to do, it's to prop up the people around you, the community around you, the non-humans around you and to say like, "I am something that will help mitigate." It won't be me again, like you said earlier, it's not that I have to mitigate everything on my own, it's that I just have to not fall down when the storm comes. I have to be standing and help that one stranded kitten or whatever it is. Maybe something less cute.

Dr. Nicole Heller (00:04:15):

No, no, I think that's awesome. I think... Yeah, I don't quite have the words for it, but I think what I hear you driving at is so important is we're not just going to solve this, right? But every day we have a chance to practice living on a planet that is broken, right? How do you live in a way that starts to mend things and the little mending, I think that is where the hope lies. There are so many benefits that will come from that in the moment, from those relationships that you build with other people and with non-humans and the feeling that you have in acting on something this important to so many of us and to future generations. I think that mending these humble ways of being, watching, looking, mending, caring for each other are really the seeds of transformation.

Michael Pisano (00:05:22):

I again want to draw us back to this community scale. You mentioned this vision of a future city that is less cordoned off from nature or less hostile to the animals that live here with us that we see and that we don't see. I guess I'm curious if we can get specific about this city that we're in now, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I'm curious about in the next 20, 50, even 100 years, what you hope we'll have accomplished here and what this city might look like.

Dr. Nicole Heller (00:05:58):

Yeah. This city has so much potential. It's already a great place in a lot of ways. It's a very beautiful city. It has a wonderful tree canopy, a lot of large scale parks. It has rivers all around. We have a pretty okay climate here. The biggest challenges that this community is going to be facing are around heavy rain events and flooding, erosion that is related to that, as well as then pollution getting into the rivers that is related to storm water. I think those are some of the biggest issues. But what I imagine is that Pittsburgh keeps caring for the open space and the parks we already have and introducing more and more green space throughout the city to absorb the heavy rain that's coming from increased storm events. That green space, and that can be called green infrastructure, as that's being done, it's also being done with a real attention to the biodiversity dimension. How do we make habitat in these little spaces, but make habitat that's really ecologically complex that has multiple layers, that can support a lot of different species and a lot of function then that comes along with that. I imagine a city where the water is clean, we are swimming in the rivers, there is beaches and boat life, and people can ride their bikes through green paths that go all over.


Yes, there are cars, but they're smaller and they're electric and there's not so much traffic. Biking is easy because there's good bike lanes and there's just green space and butterflies are flying around the city, and there are birds of diversity, of types of birds and plants. For me, I can just see it right there. I can see it. I think what we can do together as a community is to imagine those positive futures that we want and that maybe some of us can see a little more easily. We can share it with our friend. They can tell us what they see, and we can start to see and imagine these futures and work for them together.

Michael Pisano (00:08:40):

Collective imagination.

Dr. Nicole Heller (00:08:41):

Yes. Yeah.

Michael Pisano (00:08:42):

You hear a lot about collective action as the antidote to entrenched power or maybe a status quo that's not quite up to snuff for the moment. Collective imagination I think of as not only necessary to collective action, but also as an antidote to the problems with our mental health, the feelings of helplessness, isolation, disconnect. What better way than to share our visions with each other and to build something together? Without that vision, how can we possibly hope to achieve it in reality and manifest that kind of city that you're describing?

Dr. Nicole Heller (00:09:22):

Yeah. One of the fun things that we talk about here at the museum is I sit next door to Matt Lamanna, who's our paleontologist, the curator of vertebrate paleontology and a dinosaur expert. The work that he does and his colleagues do is they go on these digs and they find bones of dinosaurs, and they'll use those in order to reconstruct what the animal might have looked like. In some cases, they might only find a few intact bones. They don't often find the whole skeleton. That work is pretty speculative. As you look back in time and you imagine what the earth was like 65 million years ago and what a dinosaur looked like, there's some artistic license there. There's some speculation that has to happen. The same thing when we look into the future. We don't know what the future looks like, just like we don't exactly know what the past looks like, but we can imagine what the future looks like based on inferences from what we have today. We can construct or speculate about a future.


There's this really neat way where whether we're looking back in time or we're looking forward in time, both are very speculative. They both require this imagination. They require our ability to make inferences from what we see in the world today. Matt gives himself creative license to look back in time, and he uses the best science he can to do it. That's what the situation we're in with thinking about these environmental problems is we have to give ourselves a little bit. We have to use the best information we have, and then give ourselves a little bit of creative license to look forward and build that collective will and sense and desire that conviction to want this. I think anything is possible. I totally believe that, and I'm excited for that moment when this starts to happen and what role I can play in the museum and other educational institutions can play in these dialogues with our communities.

Michael Pisano (00:11:50):

When I listen back to the stories from this past season, I can see the first glimmers of a brighter future, a world in which we've created and restored space for non-human life. Grassroots efforts to rewild our lawns and parks and corporate and college campuses have grown and spread to invite the rest of nature to share and enrich human places. Our daily experiences with the beauty and benefits of biodiversity spurred people to demand better policy from their cities and states and countries. That policy set aside significant wild habitat. Protecting and connecting to that green space created jobs and prosperity. It held and absorbed carbon. Now, those undisturbed waterways and big swaths of wild green thrive and grow and in return offer us resilience against storms and floods and fires and disease.


In this future, we've reconnected to our food because it grows all around us. After we've pressured our governments to redirect farm subsidies to support regenerative agriculture, community gardens and local farms replaced endless fields of corn and soy. We don't worry so much any more about supply chain shortages or grocery store price hikes because there's plenty of healthy food to share. Polyculture and compost programs have replaced synthetic fertilizers, and now our biodiverse soil holds carbon, holds water and grows healthier food. The switch from industrial scale monoculture and policies and banning noxious pesticides have nurtured even more biodiversity. In return, rebounding pollinator populations make our crops more productive, and insects and birds and spiders manage the pests just fine. In cultivating the land in community with human and non-human neighbors, we've cultivated our own wellbeing.


Now, our homes are powered by clean energy. We fought fossil fuel extraction with every available tool from divestment to direct action to democracy. People stood up with their communities and their neighbors to watchdog and sue and shut down polluters. We claimed our human rights to clean air, clean water, and healthy lives. We voted every fossil fuel shill out of office, and redirected oil and gas subsidies to support community solar and wind and wave power. Some of that money went to retrain fossil fuel and heavy industry workers for safer jobs in green energy, healthcare, education, and outdoor rec. Some of the money went to repair the frontline communities where fossil fuels were mined and fracked and burned. Asthma and cancer and chronic disease rates plummeted. We invested in public transit to limit reliance on personal vehicles, and we invested in the efficiency of human infrastructure, both limited new extraction for batteries and renewable power and made sure there was enough clean energy for everyone.


Now we all drink cleaner water. We breathe cleaner air, and global warming is stabilizing. Through it all, through reimagining and reforming and rewilding, we grew closer together as humans. Sure, we argued, we fought, we weren't perfect. It didn't happen as fast as anyone wanted it to. There's still fires. There's still floods and hard times. But because we had grown closer to our neighbors, because our communities were stronger, and because we prepared, we weathered the struggles. Our care for each other and for the planet is our resilience. From care and resilience spring the better future that everyone deserves.

PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:16:04]

Michael Pisano (00:16:13):

So we're going to start really easy. Just introduce yourself. Tell me who you are and what you do around here.

Gretchen Baker (00:16:18):

I'm Gretchen Baker. I am the director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Michael Pisano (00:16:23):

Perfect. And you've been here for a couple years now?

Gretchen Baker (00:16:27):

It'll be two years in April.

Michael Pisano (00:16:28):

Yeah. That's wonderful. You've been here for a couple years, but you've been working in museums for two decades plus. Started with research as I understand it, and then exhibitions. Just tell me a little bit about what kind of drew you into this career path.

Gretchen Baker (00:16:43):

Well, the funny thing is, I think there are two different kinds of museum people or staff. There's the story of people who studied museum studies. They knew they wanted to work in a museum, and they've been on the path for years and years and years. And then there are those that didn't even know people worked at museums. And I fall into that category. I grew up in a really small town in central and western Illinois. There was a very, very small geology museum on the university campus, just a handful of rocks on shelves. And we would go to Chicago to the Museum of Science and Industry or the Field Museum. And those were my big museum experiences as a child. But it never occurred to me that people actually work in museums to make all that happen.

Michael Pisano (00:17:30):

It's a lot of behind the scenes kind of [inaudible 00:17:30] at the museum.

Gretchen Baker (00:17:30):

It is. Where did the dioramas come from? It never occurred to me that there were artists and scientists and collections all coming together to make that come to life. So I went to a small college in Ohio and I studied biology and anthropology, and I was really interested in the relationship between people and plants. And I happened to find out about a job at the Field Museum as a research assistant on a new grant that they had to work on a collection. It was a very special collection. It was a collection from a botanist, Timothy Plowman, who had tragically died in the eighties, but until that point, he had been doing a lot of research in the Amazon on medicinal plants and understanding how people use plants for medicine and textiles. And this collection had essentially been uncurated since his death.


And so this grant was to curate the collection, rehouse a collection, enter all of it into a database, and then also develop educational materials using these items. And so they were looking for someone that had a background in botany and anthropology and interested in ethnobotany. And I was like, oh, I'm in. That was my thesis work. And so I got my first job at the Field Museum because of this research interest. And then this whole world just opened up to me. And that was 27 years ago.

Michael Pisano (00:18:54):

Sounds like that was quite a big task. I imagine that was a large collection. But then from there, what kind of questions did you start asking in your own research and where did that lead you?

Gretchen Baker (00:19:03):

Well, the thing about working with a collection, that was really the first time I ever had. And so it was learning how to handle objects, learning how to create the cases or the mounts that would hold those safely and securely in collections, understanding the importance of the data and the information that goes with all of the objects. But part of my job was to then bring those objects out into the public through programs, through public festivals, through exhibition, thinking about how to activate the collection because they're only so good as we use them.


And so that really moved me out of the vaults, if you will, and into the public spaces. And so just learning what kind of gets people excited about science, what gets people excited about the ways people have lived in the world over the last thousands of years. And so the questions were, okay, what are the plants that people are using and the chemistry of them and that sort of thing. But then also what made these compelling to the public and how did we connect these stories of maybe obscure plants and animals and peoples with everyday people in Chicago coming into the museum. So I became more interested in the question of relevance, the question of how do people connect to these distant places and people.

Michael Pisano (00:20:24):

And what are you finding connects with people here in Pittsburgh? And I, if you could, I'd love that if we could push this into the topic of this podcast season, climate action, climate change, museums trying to do this sort of forward thinking, future thinking. So yeah, what's resonating with people in Pittsburgh? How are you trying to broach tough topics like that with them?

Gretchen Baker (00:20:44):

Yeah, so last year we started doing some research with our audiences, both in focus group settings as well as larger scale surveys. And people in Pittsburgh care about Pittsburgh. They want to know more about Pittsburgh, they want to know more about the deeper time passed of Pittsburgh. And so anything we do here at the Natural History Museum going forward is trying to connect that to life today here in Pittsburgh. And that doesn't necessarily mean that we're only displaying objects that were found in this region, but thinking about some of those universal questions and how they tie back to our local lives.

Michael Pisano (00:21:27):

Absolutely. And I think when it comes to climate change communication in general, we find that the global picture is overwhelming, whereas the local picture maybe offers points of entry into feeling less helpless, less doomed, all of that kind of stuff. I think speaking or, yeah, I guess I would just venture that most people consider Natural History Museum as a place to see a collection of the planet's past, but this museum, like most natural history museums also are very engaged with the present, the future. Could you speak about that kind of broadly and then just about what you hope is happening here at this museum?

Gretchen Baker (00:22:04):

Yeah. I think the term natural history gets a lot of people tripped up. And that's something else we discovered in our research over the last year that for me, as someone who's worked my whole career in natural history, it's almost like one word, natural history. And I know what that is because I've worked in these institutions that have really defined that. But when you ask visitors, for them, it's 4400 Forbes Avenue. It's what happens inside these walls here at that museum. And there's great potential in that because we can define what natural history is for people. The people who are not coming to the museum often break down natural history into two words. So it's natural, which often means for people not human and history of the past. Neither... We talk about humans here and we're very much about the present and the future. So it's a term that may not serve us in some ways as far as thinking about where we want to go.

Michael Pisano (00:22:56):

Right, right.


Yeah. I mean, I think a key part of the museum's mission is to embrace responsibility for our collective future. What does that look like to you in the next five, 10 years?

Gretchen Baker (00:23:08):

Well, we have all of this archive of life. We have all of the records of biodiversity, a lot of record of this region, but of other parts of the world as well. And again, it's no good if it's just sitting on the shelf. So how do we make that data available to as many scientists as possible so we can start to make sense of the rapid change that's happening today, and think about the scientific and policy changes that we can help inform. So it's better informed policy decisions based on a century of scientific data. It might be, for example, what's happening out at the Powdermill Avian Research Center where we have 60 years of data about birds and we don't, it's hard, there's so many changes from one season to the next. So what becomes, what's just seasonal variety and what's actually a long-term trend change that we have to really pay attention to and understand.


Other things with the plant, the botany collections. And we're able to look at plant specimens from a century ago, and in those plant specimens, we can see on that particular day in April, this plant was blooming. And we might find that exact same plant today in February, and it's blooming, and being able to look at how climate change on this global stage is really showing up in our backyards here in Pittsburgh. So there's that data that we have at the museum that can help to inform and understand what does a change really look like here locally? But I think also just in engaging people in nature and helping us to fall in love with nature again, or to find it again in our lives and care for it and protect it.

Michael Pisano (00:24:54):

Yeah. Let's talk a little bit about that. And I think the museum often frames our relationship with nature with this we are nature phrase. I mean, what does that even mean to you to start with?

Gretchen Baker (00:25:05):

Well, when the museum first did its Anthropocene exhibition in 2017, I was living in LA at the time working at the Natural History Museum, and it caught my attention. And I had never, I mean, it's such an inclusive statement, you can say it as an institution, we are nature. So we are nature as subject, the Natural History Museum. But then we in a broader sense as people are nature, and it's just a very inviting phrase. And when we were thinking about doing some additional programming this year, everyone just kept coming back to that, we are nature. And I think it does embody a key to a solution for our future. So for me, we are nature is empathy and community, and that is really kind of the ways forward.

Michael Pisano (00:25:54):

I completely agree. Do you have any insight into how to mend that relationship, either from your personal life or from the wealth of the resources at the museum you were speaking about? I mean, what do we do?

Gretchen Baker (00:26:11):

Well, I think there's a lot of opportunities for the Natural History Museum to engage visitors in nature within our galleries, but also nature in the broader world. So thinking about experiential learning and how it goes beyond our walls, and especially how we use Powdermill, this incredible 2200 acre biological reserve, which is, it's not a pure virgin landscape. It in itself is an example of an Anthropocene landscape that's been modified for our use. And how do we start to heal and repair the landscapes around us, and we have the scientific knowledge to inform that kind of regeneration, if you will.


So I think part of it is helping our visitors get out into nature and enjoy it. But when you think about the visitor experience here at the museum too, nature is pinned behind glass and in a case that has not changed in decades. And so we have to think about new technologies and ways of displaying the most wonderful aspects of nature. And a lot of that requires microscopic, looking at things extremely up close and really understanding the wonders of insect diversity. And we have some incredibly talented new curators here that can help us really understand the beauty of nature and the miracle that it is. And then hopefully that can convert into some really special experiences here that are dynamic and changing and feel very, very fresh and alive.

Michael Pisano (00:27:41):

I absolutely think that you have the talent here to do that, and it's exciting to hear that there's also a will to do that. I'm curious about over the course of your time in different museums, how you've seen the discourse shift about how you talk about that nature as a separate thing, or even about climate as that has become a bigger and bigger part of science today. How has that been represented over time in different museums?

Gretchen Baker (00:28:07):

Well, there's some natural history museums, like a lot of the natural history museums in Europe do not include anthropology. It's just non-human species. And so that, I'm not saying that that is why we have this conception, but it's a Christian sort of conception. So it's so ingrained in the way many people have been brought up to think of us as exceptionally special and separate from other natural species. So it's not some easy thing to address. But I think that the Natural History Museum has a really special and unique opportunity to bring all of that together in space because we have these collections from different cultures in our care as well as the natural species. So how do we in exhibitions and programs really connect the people on planet in everything that we do?

Michael Pisano (00:29:00):

That's a great challenge. And I guess I'm curious, looking ahead at the future of this museum, the future of museums in general, as with every other part of our society, our culture, there's a little bit of a reckoning happening now with how you relate to your collections of objects, whether it's something about colonialism or domination or whatever. What do you hope to see in the next five, 10 years in the field as a whole? What are the questions that are important to start answering as museums?

Gretchen Baker (00:29:39):

Well, I think the question about climate change is, I guess I should go back to your original question. You had asked me about museums and how they're changing with climate change. And I think about it not even being a... You would never see it on the walls in museums. And for a long time you wouldn't even see the word evolution on the walls in museums. And I remember when we had to start talking about intelligent design and what that was when we were doing a whole exhibition on evolution at the Field Museum, and we couldn't get the guts to call it the Hall of Evolution, it became Evolving Planet.

Michael Pisano (00:30:17):

Wow. Sure.

Gretchen Baker (00:30:17):

Which is also a lovely title.

Michael Pisano (00:30:19):

It is.

Gretchen Baker (00:30:19):

But we weren't quite ready to say evolution. And now that seems kind of silly to me that we say that without even worrying about some of the fallout. And I think we're at that point with climate change now, which is museums that may not have been ready to really address it for a whole variety of reasons, not because they didn't believe it was true, but you have powerful members of your committees and your boards who may not accept it, and you're worrying about the fallout of funding. But we don't have the luxury of that kind of time anymore.


But I think for climate change, it is scary. It's very scary. And as a museum, people don't want to come and become scared when they come to the museum. They're coming to spend time with someone they love or they want to be inspired. And so we have to strike that balance of being very clear about the science, but also providing solutions or hope. And so we're going to have to really find that way of showing great success stories. And I think Pittsburgh has a lot of those success stories about how the environment, which was once completely devastated, is coming back and we sort of see that hopefulness. So we've got to find a way to tell the science, the complexity of the climate science, but then also how do we move forward and not feel despondent.

Michael Pisano (00:31:50):

Sure. I think part of that is also acknowledging how the kind of climate doom, climate breakdown, climate problems that we're having intersect with human problems, the ways that they illuminate other...

PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:32:04]

Michael Pisano (00:32:03):

... Intersect with human problems, the ways that they illuminate other existing human problems. Is it the museum's province to discuss that? When you think about Pittsburgh, one of our biggest climate issues are the emissions from our industry, historically and today, and along with that comes problems with our air quality and then along with our air quality problems come environmental justice problems with who suffers the worst air quality in our region?


Yeah, I don't know. I guess I'm curious about what kind of place that has in the museums discourse or engagement with the community even outside of the building?

Gretchen Baker (00:32:42):

Well, I think one of the wonderful things about museums is that the kind of engagement we do can happen in so many different forums and formats and places and spaces. So we can be engaging with our communities through things like the CRISP Program. We can engage with communities and our visitors and other scientists and each other in a seminar or we can have gallery talks, or in the process of developing an exhibition, there's a lot of conversation and dialogue that happens through the process of developing that content.


So it's not like just an exhibition is going to allow us to address it. It's not the right communication vehicle for all kinds of conversations, but we can package that together with programs and social media and things like podcasts and other ways to get content out there and have people take time to reflect and feedback on that.


But I think museums all over, especially natural history museums, seeing all of us move from places that are more kind of static displayed to places that are much more about convening and advocacy.

Michael Pisano (00:33:51):

Awesome. I would love to see that. Climate experts tell us that we have something like a decade to take this decisive, meaningful action. This is the phrase that I hear a lot, to keep warming under that golden one and a half degree Celsius threshold. What do you hope to see accomplished in that amount of time in our region?

Gretchen Baker (00:34:13):

Well, I'm learning a lot still about the region, having not come from here, and understanding the history of how things have come to be. But a couple of weeks ago I went to a decarbonization event downtown that was really exciting and I wasn't necessarily providing content, but just learning. There's not a silver bullet here, and especially in the Pittsburgh region, I think we have some unique assets that can position us well to move in some other directions and then some other things that are really making it challenging.


There's certainly a lot of great thinkers that are coming around, thinking about policy and energy investment. I think that, for the role of a museum, the best we can do and the best role that we have in this is helping our public understand the complexity of these issues and how they all intersect. Whether or not we're in the room, kind of forming policy, that may not be the place for a museum, but thinking about how we can help educate all of our public in the complexity of these issues. It's not very much time at all. It takes three or four years to develop an exhibition, often.


So, for us trying to think about how we can be much more nimble and quick and providing spaces that we can turn over more quickly, working with communities to do exhibitions so it doesn't have to be this long, protracted, precious process. We just don't have time for that around some of these issues. I think in another immediate sense with our scientists and our knowledge about species, kind of how they evolve, ecology, how they interact with other species, trying to bring that information forward as quickly as possible and working with our other scientific partners at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy or Eden Hall Campus, or thinking very much about a consortium across the Pittsburgh region that would bring in all of us who are in this space in a more formalized way, because everyone has such incredible areas of expertise, but figuring out where those gaps are and where we can be complemented to have the greatest impact in thinking about Pittsburgh as a biodiverse city and how we can all work together on that.


Because it's certainly not just going to be up to the Natural History Museum to make the kind of impact we need.

Michael Pisano (00:36:31):

No, certainly not. It's an issue of collective action, and the museum, I think, has, as you've mentioned, many assets, gathering space and exhibition space and places, and funding that can bring some of those partners together. You already have that network and it's great to hear about how you think about leveraging it and working together with people.


You also mentioned diversity. I think that's a theme we've hit again and again in the stories from this season of the podcast. There's the biodiversity that provides not only the world that we enjoy and the resilience to the climate as it changes for our ecosystems and for us. There's the diversity of types of action that we need to tackle climate change and the diversity of perspectives that will bring us there. I guess I'm curious about what those ideas of diversity and resilience bring up for you in your role here.

Gretchen Baker (00:37:24):

Well, certainly from an ecological perspective, which is what you've kind of already alluded to, we understand the importance of a biodiverse system in maintaining resilience over time or being adaptable to change. We also know that certain species adapt much quicker and fare better during times of drastic environmental change. The fossil record tells us that.


But humans were never around when some of those other mass extinctions were happening, so we don't know how well we'll adapt, so we're going to have to rely very much on each other and our ingenuity to adapt during these times. But I guess the notion of diversity and resilience, there was a researcher who was looking at communities in New Orleans and how they fared after Hurricane Katrina. And those communities that had built floats together for the Mardi Gras parades were the ones that fared the best during the aftermath.

Michael Pisano (00:38:23):

I love that.

Gretchen Baker (00:38:25):

I know. It's just that they had already come together in very creative ways during a time when there wasn't a crisis, but a time of celebration, that they had those networks and the trust and the relationships set, so when a really difficult time came, they were able to respond more quickly. I think that key of resilience ... So how can we think about building more of those kind of networks?


I mean, we're in a moment of crisis, but we're not seeing it in the most acute ways here in Pittsburgh, as a way some other communities around the world are seeing it. I think the thing about climate change, if you think about it, as it relates to natural history is, it's going to impact and is impacting different habitats, different communities, different parts of the world differently. So, here in Pittsburgh, we may not be seeing some of it in the most acute ways, but it's affecting a lot of people in very tragic ways [inaudible 00:39:23] already.

Michael Pisano (00:39:24):

Right. It's not the future. It's now it's happening, and it is hard for people in Pittsburgh and other places that are a little sheltered, I think, to connect to the gravity of it when it's not in front of their face. That's just natural. It's just human, I feel like.


I guess I'm curious about going back to this, looking into the future kind of idea. I'm curious about what the future world in which we have averted climate catastrophe will look like to you?

Gretchen Baker (00:39:52):

Well, I have a daughter, so it would be such a great relief and so much joy to know that she could appreciate some of the world that I did 40 years ago, or certainly our ancestors did. So I think it's joyful. I think it's a joyful world and hopefully everything feels even more precious than it did before. I think we'd probably feel a great degree of excitement and confidence in our ability to come together at a time of planetary crisis and find a solution. Helps us override maybe some of the conflicts that, in hindsight, might seem kind of petty.

Michael Pisano (00:40:38):

We've got plenty of those going on, don't we? Okay. Is there anything else you want to add, anything that we've missed here?

Gretchen Baker (00:40:47):

Well, when I think about the future of museums and the conversations that we're having among the staff here and the importance of humility, as museum professionals. For a century, anything we put in our galleries is taken as absolute fact and the truth, whatever you might want to call it. And knowing that the one way that we've been presenting information, it's not that it necessarily is incorrect, but it may not be all of it that we need to know. I think that sense of humility going forward is going to be really important to finding ways forward for this museum as it continues to be a beloved institution for the people of Pittsburgh, and humility as people to find our way forward in this kind of moment of crisis with the planet.

Michael Pisano (00:41:36):

I think that's great advice for anybody, to move forward with humility and an open mind. So, on that note, thank you so much for your time.

Gretchen Baker (00:41:43):

Thank you.

Michael Pisano (00:41:52):

Part of humility and keeping an open mind is examining how we view our fellow earthlings across difference. So much of the struggle for a better future is cultural, and so, improving the ways that we communicate and work together is essential to successful climate action.


This brings me back to that big takeaway about diversity and to the final conversation of the episode. I'd love to take this season out the way it started, with a chat with my producer and pal Taiji Nelson.


Hey, Taiji.

Taiji Nelson (00:42:24):

Hey, Michael.

Michael Pisano (00:42:25):

How you doing today?

Taiji Nelson (00:42:26):

Oh, I'm doing great.

Michael Pisano (00:42:28):

Let's get straight to it. Why is it important, Taiji, that we collaborate across difference and that many different people have a seat at the table when we're talking about climate action?

Taiji Nelson (00:42:39):

That is the promise that America makes. We tell ourselves, and we tell everybody else in the world, that if you put in the time and the effort, you can make it here, that you have a fair shot. That ain't always true. That is rarely true. That is not true, but it could be.

Michael Pisano (00:43:03):


Taiji Nelson (00:43:03):

And we are an experiment.

Michael Pisano (00:43:04):

Pretty good experiment.

Taiji Nelson (00:43:09):

It is always going to be work. That's a big answer. That's like a 30,000-foot view. It's like, don't they deserve it?

Michael Pisano (00:43:23):


Taiji Nelson (00:43:23):

They don't need us to tell them they deserve it to have that right.

Michael Pisano (00:43:27):


Taiji Nelson (00:43:28):

It's like, diversity. People should be able to be who they are. Who am I to tell someone that? So, there's that. We do not grant each other rights. We inherently ... You have rights as a living being, and it is not just people. Nature has a right to exist and not be bothered by us. And we are always going to ... I have an impact, even when I'm trying my best to not contribute to climate change, not hurt anybody or anything else, I always have an impact. But what I do when I learn that and what I do afterwards, what I do during and after matters.

Michael Pisano (00:44:15):

It does.

Taiji Nelson (00:44:16):

And so I think in the big picture, diversity matters because everybody has a right to be themselves and to live.

Michael Pisano (00:44:24):

Yes, they do. Sorry to interrupt. I was going to just add that your impact on nature, it does not solely have to be extractive.

Taiji Nelson (00:44:32):


Michael Pisano (00:44:33):

It can be reciprocal. The more that we try to see the diversity of life as on equal footing and express solidarity with it, I think the more joy we will find in doing so. It relates to everything that we do. It seems maybe like an imposition to think about the diversity of life in such detail, but I find it to be the opposite. I find it to be enriching and I find it to be provocative in a way that ... I would rather be asking those questions than blankly staring into the void. I think there's a middle ground, but ...

Taiji Nelson (00:45:16):

It makes me think about the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Oftentimes we'll talk about evolution, ecology and the Anthropocene, and evolution being the tree of life, ecology being the web of life, and the Anthropocene being the future of life.

Michael Pisano (00:45:35):


Taiji Nelson (00:45:36):

And so the tree of life, to me, that represents depth. It's telling the deep stories and following the trail back. That is evolution. Ecology is the web of life. It is deep, but it's also breadth, right? It's like the connections, the relationships, the moving pieces of it. And then the future of life is what's new for us. At the museum, it's new for us. It's like, what is [inaudible 00:46:02].

Michael Pisano (00:46:02):

I worry about the future of life all the time, Taiji.

Taiji Nelson (00:46:08):

Yeah. Again, and it's just difference breeds beauty. I believe that. Diversity breeds beauty and strength. It reinforces and it builds strength and it's also a sign of strength. If your system can uphold diversity where these different things need different things and everybody can get what they need, that's a sign of strength. And I would push us to say it's a sign of weakness if we can't.


I just think, for me, the other thing your question made me think about is solidarity and what I've learned ... I think, people, when they hear diversity or a conversation about diversity, oftentimes it comes to race. I'm a mixed-race person. My mom is white. My dad is Japanese. There's just a lot of different racial representation in my family. My dad was adopted by a Puerto Rican woman. My uncle is Black and he is a leader within the Episcopal Church, kind of was a leader during the civil rights movement, was a leader when women were being ordained in the Episcopal Church.


He helped to write the liturgy for gay marriage. It's just like diversity is my family's story, but I think about diversity paired with solidarity, when you can feel true solidarity. And I think what I have learned from other movements that we're calling for solidarity, Black Lives Matter, specifically, there were some organizers here in Pittsburgh that I learned so much. I just remember one of the protest leaders said like, "When you say Black Lives Matter, you scream it. You do not whisper it. This is not something you should be shy about. If you believe it, scream it ..."

PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [00:48:04]

Taiji Nelson (00:48:03):

Should be shy about. If you believe it, scream it. And I've taken that to so many different aspects of my life, particularly climate change. I'm like what do I have to lose? I know where this train is heading.

Michael Pisano (00:48:16):


Taiji Nelson (00:48:16):

It's like the way we are right now, if we don't change where our track is leading, that is where we are going. We are going to a place that is going to be harder, that it's going to be like more people will suffer. There will just be so much that it'll just be harder to be the person I am and to support the communities I love. And so that is worth being... That is deep within me, and I see the relationships between climate change and race and gender and how much money you have. Climate change is coming for you and it's coming for all of us. But if you don't have money, the likelihood that we'll be able to lead a happy, prosperous life, it's just going to be harder to do that. And if you're a person of color, if you're a woman, if you are marginalized in other ways, it's just adding onto the burden. But it is our opportunity to get it right.


This is the chance to be like, "Yo, we need to transform." And it ain't easy. And it's easy to say, but it's so much harder to do. But I hope the stories in this podcast will show you that the seeds are there, that that world we want is here if we just let it be. If we just let it happen and we looked at the people who are already doing good work, work we care about, work that we are tied to, we've got this. I really think so. When I look around and see all the really brilliant, smart, loving people doing things, we could just get out the way and let them do their thing and support them and learn from them, that is it. We are there.

Michael Pisano (00:49:58):

I feel that hope too, Taiji. I really do. And I think to address the divisions between us is to address the injustices that are being made very clear as the climate changes, as conditions for people change and who gets impacted. If we address one, we address the other. They're connected. And so what is really meaningful to me is to say, "Hey, in my lifetime, I might not see some of the things that I wish were different change in the world." They're just longer time skills than one life. This is multi-generational work. You hear that a lot in climate and in racial equity and all sorts of activism that you don't necessarily work for your own benefit, you work for people who come next and you build on the people who came before.


That's not to say that I don't hope to see some positive change in my lifetime. There are some things that are urgent and can't wait and that do impact people's daily lives that we can make a difference with. And I only think it can bring us connection, joy, richer lives all around. No matter what you believe in, we can figure it out if we talk to each other and stop letting these conversations be mediated by people who want something from you, whether it's your vote, or your dollar, or for you to just sit down and accept your quiet fate while they prosper and probably die on a spaceship halfway between here and Mars. That's their problem. But maybe that's a dark place to end.

Taiji Nelson (00:51:36):

But ain't that the truth?

Michael Pisano (00:51:39):


Taiji Nelson (00:51:42):

And that is a truth. Yeah, I think about that a lot of just why is it so easy to drive a wedge? I feel like so many parts of things I care about are all wedge issues.

Michael Pisano (00:51:56):


Taiji Nelson (00:51:57):

And it's like, "Oh my god, race." It's like that's a wedge issue. Queerness, that's a wedge issue. It's used as that climate, it's a wedge issue and it's a tool to divide us. But where I've been finding that the beauty and solidarity is as much as it's a wedge, it is also a connector.

Michael Pisano (00:52:16):


Taiji Nelson (00:52:17):

And yeah, just the idea that when we are presented with something that is a wedge like climate change, when climate change is being used as a wedge to divide working class people, it's like we need to be strong in reminding one another that no, that thing that is being used as a wedge is actually our shared destiny. That is the thing that holds us together. There's a union saying that, "United we bargain, divided we beg." It's like we cannot let ourselves be divided. It's so hard to stay united because there are differences. But it's like if we can figure out a way to bring a diverse group of people together, set the table so that they can talk and just have the time to work through... Big, meaningful changes can happen. When we come together as a community, we aren't asking for everything we want, but we are saying, "We deserve to shape where we're going. We deserve to drive where we're going. We deserve a seat at the decision making table."


So when it comes to climate change, that for me is it. It's like we're just trying to set that table so everybody has a chance to weigh in on what they want. So many people have this deep desire to understand the whole problem and then we'll be able to act. And I just want to stress that these are stories of people that know a lot, know enough to start taking action. And I think all of us know a lot and know enough. If we wait to understand the whole thing, we'll wait too long and it'll be too late. So I think we know so much about what we can do. Google it. You can Google actions for climbing. Literally, you can Google it. You can Google our starting places. What can't Google is how it fits in your community, what we do next. Our first step is really only to get us started and to show us what our next couple steps are going to be. But to wait to take your first step, again, that's not it.


So try and find some inspiration in these stories about a first step, whether that's what you do at home, whether it's what you do at school, at work, do something different. Do spend an hour you weren't spending yesterday on climate change today. Do something different. Try something new. Find a group that's already doing great where you don't have to invent it. So many good groups, find your people, try something new, push yourself and just have faith in yourself and trust that we don't got an option, and that's what makes us our best opportunity.

Michael Pisano (00:55:17):

If we can support sustainability in energy, food and green space, we will be on a very good, very hopeful track to create this better, livable future I keep talking about. And hopefully, we've made it clear that the solutions must be collective. We must collaborate and call in friends, neighbors, coworkers and public officials to push for change at every possible level. This collaboration must reach for new visions of the future. We must produce new stories and ideas that help orient us towards action and hope. The cost of complacency and doom are too high. This is an opportunity for collective reimagining, and it starts by connecting to your neighbors.


Take a look around and see what's happening wherever you call home. Surely there are people fighting for its survival and prosperity, fighting for your community's basic rights, rights to clean air, water and soil, to affordable healthy food, to beauty and biodiversity. Joining these fights is joining the fight for the planet. Every point of a degree of warming that we can prevent means saving real lives, preventing real future suffering. It is never too late to fight and it's far from too late now. So don't get lost in stories about global doom, but rather help write your own story about local victory. Those are the victories and stories that we need. A million thank yous to Nicole Heller, Gretchen Baker, Taiji Nelson, and absolutely everyone at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History for their help on this podcast and for all of the excellent work they do to inspire wonder and connection with our world. A billion thank yous to field reporters, Di-ay Battad, Jamen Thurmond and David Kelly for running around southwestern Pennsylvania with me to collect and share all of these stories. This series is dedicated to the memory of David Kelly. Rest in power, David, and thank you for everything. Another billion thanks to Mark Mangini and Amos Levy who made all the music for this season of We Are Nature. And for its companion video series, which you can watch on the Carnegie Museum of Natural Histories YouTube channel. Finally, a trillion, gazillion thanks to each of you listening out there. I am grateful for every second you've spent with us and our guests this season and I hope you've gotten as much hope and inspiration from these stories as I truly have. Until next time, whenever that may be, here's some wise words to remind you that a better world is possible.

Speaker 1 (00:58:26):

Another little bit of an introspective question, so amidst often grim and depressing news about climate change and injustice, what keeps you going personally and gives you hope for the future of life on our planet?

Summer Lee (00:58:39):

Yeah, it's because we only have one direction to go in and that forces you to really keep your eyes on the goal. I think the thing that encourages me the most is that I know that the generations after me, even my generations, I am a millennial, but the generations that come after me, we are increasingly global minded, right? We are increasingly collectivist. We believe in my neighbor's happiness and my happiness protecting each other, right? We believe in equity, injustice. And this generation and these generations are increasingly fierce and outspoken and confident. So the hope that I have is that as we are looking to dismantle oppressive systems, right? They understand the urgency behind that like none other because more than any generation, my generation and the generations after us have experienced the devastation that can come from unfettered capitalism, the devastation that can come from racism and sexism and homophobia, right?


We understand how those things lead directly to our climate crisis. And back to that intersectionality, that interconnectedness, we understand that to target that means to solve it all. So I have so much hope that this next generation's going to come in fierce, right? Ready to come, change laws, change systems. So that hope really is channeling our energy into action. And the action is who do we need to displace? Who do we need to move out of the way so that we can do what we need to do? And I stay laser-focused on that, right? So whether that's electorally, right, whether that's system space and focusing on what systems needs to be overthrown, it's a channeling of the energy and it's a focus that really removes all of the distraction, right? So that's what I wake up every single day ready to do.

Speaker 1 (01:00:26):

Love that. I love that.

Michael Pisano (01:00:33):

That was Representative Summer Lee from Episode 2, Steel City. I've been and hope to remain your host, Michael Pisano. Thanks for listening.

PART 4 OF 4 ENDS [01:00:46]