Dialogues on the Environment: Q&A with Andy Revkin
Mark Tercek: What inspired an acclaimed environmental journalist to release an album?
Andy Revkin: I’m a storyteller by nature and have been using every possible medium to convey stories for more than 30 years now to as many audiences as I can reach – from book readers to TV watchers, children to elders, Twitter followers to lecture audiences. For me songwriting is simply another medium and some subjects, situations or, particularly, feelings just cry out to be sung instead of typed. Music is also a great counterpoint to journalism, which can be dispiriting and contentious.
I’d been writing songs and performing in acoustic bands and as an accompanist to Pete Seeger since the early 1990’s, but got serious about recording after a close call with an out-of-the-blue stroke that deprived me of the use of my right hand for a few weeks. As both a writer and guitarist, that kind of midlife jolt really gets your attention!
Mark Tercek: The album’s title track, “A Very Fine Line,” is about life’s close calls. Is there any metaphor here for environmental issues?
Andy Revkin: One thing I’ve learned, both in exploring issues like conservation biology and in family life, is that success is often a result of having strategies or capacities for surviving pinch points or critical turning points. In a person’s life, it can indeed be “a very fine line between loving and leaving.” In covering the negotiations between New York City and upstate communities over how to keep reservoirs clean, a couple of individuals, with beer as a lubricant, found ways to sustain fractious negotiations that could easily have broken down.
Mark Tercek: What’s your message in the track, “Liberated Carbon”? Why put it into song?
Andy Revkin: Even though the song is about fossil fuels, I don’t see it as having a message so much as compressing into three raucous minutes the human history of fuel use that the anthropologist and science essayist Loren Eiseley called our climb up the “heat ladder.” I was a huge fan of Eiseley in college and his 1954 essay, “Man the Firemaker,” stuck with me. I wrote about this aspect of my song on Dot Earth as BP’s wrecked oil well soiled the Gulf.
Mark Tercek: In 2009, you left your role in print journalism at The New York Times to explore “new ways to make information matter” at Pace University. What advice do you have for environmentalists for getting our message heard amidst today’s flood of information (and misinformation)?
Andy Revkin: I think environmentalists too long have relied on framing issues in two ways: “woe is me” and “shame on you.” It’s all terrible and it’s all someone else’s fault (usually a big company). There are plenty of bad actors, mind you (I’ve done my share of revealing them), and environmental losses and risks can be unnerving. But there’s plenty to be energized about, and it’s also vital for us — as consumers of oil and coal and metals and plastics and all the rest – to confront both our indirect role in despoliation and to acknowledge how these resources have improved lives.
I actually wrote a relevant piece awhile back about the need for a new kind of message (and song) for environmental movements, moving beyond those finger-pointing messages of decades past. Here’s an excerpt:
I see declining utility for the framing notions of those days — “woe is me” and “shame on you” — whether in songs or environmental campaigns. There are still plenty of bad actors, and there is a vital role for activists and journalists calling attention to willful malfeasance. But the biggest issues require that we turn the spotlight on ourselves. Exxon pumps the oil. We use it. Madison Avenue sells consumption, as T-Bone Burnett so artfully sang, but we do the consuming.
Mark Tercek: You wrote your first long article on climate change a quarter century ago. How do you evaluate the progress we’ve made on the issue since then?
Andy Revkin: It does sometimes haunt me to re-read that piece, and the book I wrote on global warming in 1992. Just looking at emissions rates, of course, there’s little evidence of progress. But when you look more carefully, there’s room for optimism. The lack of progress is mainly due to inertia in developed countries – a transportation analyst once told me it took a century to invent suburbia and will take a similar span to un-invent it – and eagerness for cheap energy as a path out of poverty in developing countries. But both willingness and capacity to transition from a wasteful fossil fuel diet to a thriftier and more sustainable one are rapidly rising, to my eye. The climate scientist Jerry Mahlman warned in 2000 that scientific progress clarifying the picture of a human-heated world was going to be “incremental forever.” At the same time, solutions will be incremental and diverse, what Bill McKibben calls “silver buckshot.” That can be frustrating, but somehow we need to have a simultaneous sense of urgency and patience, to my eye.
Mark Tercek: You’ve given a series of talks framed around the question “9 Billion People + 1 Planet = ?” What have been your takeaways about the question mark in that equation?
Andy Revkin: That phrase has also the focal point of my Dot Earth blog since its launch in 2007, and what’s so fascinating – and both encouraging and unnerving in some ways – is that it remains an open question. Nine billion people living like vegan monks will not have the same environmental impact as the same number living large in Las Vegas. Obviously, reality midcentury will mostly be somewhere between those two visions. My most valued guide on this question has been Joel Cohen, the Rockefeller and Columbia University population scholar whose keystone book, “How Many People Can the Earth Support?”, essentially concludes with, “It depends.” Overall, that’s good news.
Mark Tercek: You’ve obviously been paying very close attention to the environmental scene for a long time. Are you optimistic about humankind’s ability to manage the challenges we face?
Andy Revkin: My daily rhythm is to be optimistic and energetic each morning and pretty drained and cynical by the time I get ready for bed. But somehow I wake up again most mornings ready to roll once again. I’ve seen so many examples of people, particularly young people, pursuing technological, scientific, social or financial innovations that can make a difference that it’s hard not to be upbeat.
Mark Tercek: In your view, what are environmentalists doing well? What could we do better?
Andy Revkin: Environmentalists come in all shapes and flavors, which is appropriate for a “silver buckshot” world. There’s a role for everyone, from edge pushers to centrists. I’ve criticized some Greenpeace actions, like the destruction of a government-funded test of a genetically modified wheat variety in Australia in 2011. But I lauded Greenpeace’s “Pulping the Planet” push on big companies wrecking rain forests in Southeast Asia. The group’s work showed how, in this century, transparency can be imposed on destructive activities, creating pressure that can to more responsible behavior.
Other groups and campaigners have been effective at making President Obama’s decision over the Keystone pipeline a hot political issue, but I’ve worried that this takes attention away from the importance of blunting oil demand if the goal is to slow extraction in marginal places – whether Alberta’s tar sands or the Niger Delta.
Mark Tercek: Have you read any good environmental books recently?
Andy Revkin: I’m always years behind on books, sadly, but here are a few that I thought stood out in the last few years. On energy, Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale, by Tom Wilber, is the best up-close look at the issues attending the shale gas boom. On the unsettling and wondrous ecology of the Anthropocene, I recommend Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. As a guide to the complexity underlying environmental stories that seem simple at first, try Hannah Nordhaus’s exploration of honeybees’ troubles, The Beekeeper’s Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America. Finally, Carl Safina’s The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World, is a spell-binding meditation on humanity’s place in nature in a complicated, consequential century.
Mark Tercek: Any good music recommendations for a fellow music fan?
Andy Revkin: I really like the young talented band Dawes, which combines infectious guitar riffs and drum patterns with carefully crafted (and thankfully audible) lyrics. (Too often, words these days are lost in overproduced layers of sound.)
Sarah Jarosz is an incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who forges superbly understated tradition-tinged compositions with her partners on cello and fiddle.
I’d also be remiss not to recommend some of the amazing musicians who contributed time and talent to my album – including the songwriter Dar Williams, the fiddler Bruce Molsky and mandolinist Mike Marshall, whose collaborations with the Brazilian virtuoso Hamilton De Holanda are particularly stunning.
I set up a YouTube playlist of some of my favorite songwriters.
There’s much more on my music in an essay I wrote for the new website Medium.com titled “Why Singing, Not Typing.”
Andy Revkin has covered science and the environment for 30 years in newspapers, magazines, books, documentaries and his New York Times blog, Dot Earth, winning the country’s top science journalism awards multiple times. He was a staff reporter at The Times from 1995 to 2009. Since 2010, he has been the Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding at Pace University, where he teaches courses on blogging, environmental-science communication and documentary video with a focus on sustainable development. He has written acclaimed books on global warming, the changing Arctic and the fight to save the Amazon rain forest. Revkin has also written three book chapters on communication and the environment and speaks to varied audiences around the world about the power of the Web to foster progress on a finite planet. Two films have been based on his writing – “The Burning Season” (HBO, 1994) and “Rock Star” (WB, 2001). He’s been a performing songwriter and accompanist for Pete Seeger in spare moments since 1991 and recently released his first album of original songs.