Deborah Byrd is one of science's premier voices—literally. Since the late 1970's she's produced more than 10,000 science radio shows, more than half of those with Earth & Sky, a syndicated short-format series she's co-hosted since 1991. Plenty recently spoke with Byrd about environmentalism's post-millennial renaissance.
You've covered science in print and on the radio for three decades. What principles guide your environmental thinking now?
It's clear that nature is very resilient, and no matter what happens to the human species, the planet will be fine. Earth will go on producing biodiversity on a million-year, a billion-year, timescale. In respect to a human lifespan, that's a long time. So the span we have to be concerned with is the next 100 years, when we and our children live.
Scientists are trying to show that people are coupled to the earth. In the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment that just came out, they used the phrase "ecosystem services." Think about the things nature provides—not just metals out of the ground, but fresh air, clean water, space for recreation. They tried to put this into an economic model.
A lot of environmental thinking has portrayed the natural world as something that should be sacred or inviolable. Does that reflect a conception of people and nature as separate?
That we shouldn't affect the land because we're not entitled to, that we should leave wild lands wild—there's a lot of truth and beauty to that idea, but it's not the reality. There is no place on Earth not affected by humans. At Earth and Sky, we don't see that as a negative idea. It just is.
There will be 9 billion people by 2050. Rather than viewing that with dismay or fear, we've learned by talking with thousands of scientists over the last 15 years that this can be viewed as an opportunity to create a garden world. An opportunity to create an advanced human civilization where people treat each other with respect, where there's social justice and environmental responsibility.
If I go downstairs to the gas station beside my apartment and tell the attendant, "The amphibians are dying," why should he care?
Maybe he shouldn't. Some species are going to die out. We can't save every one. There are 6.5 billion of us on the planet, and we're affecting things. Yeah, some amphibians are going to die, and there's nothing we can do to save them, though the more people that become aware and try, the better it will be.
What about things that aren't inevitable, like drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?
The more people that realize the earth is not an infinite source of resources for humanity, the better. A hundred years ago, people thought we'd never fish out the seas, and here we are, global fish stocks declining precipitously and accumulating toxins.
It's like when you're a little kid, you don't have to think of anything, because everyone's taking care of it for you. That's how humanity's been for much of its history. A lot of people say we're in our teenage years now, and we've messed up our room really bad. What happens after you're a teen? You become an adult, take responsibility for yourself. That means taking care of the planet—not because there's an intrinsic value to it, but because we're linked.
That realization seems to be popular—environmentalism is more commercially popular now than ever. But what if it's the next Free Tibet?
Things seem to happen in cycles. If I had to guess, I'd say the whole green thing will probably die down a little, then emerge even stronger.
What you're really asking is, do I have hope? Will people ultimately realize that we need to take care of the earth for the sake of ourselves? Will we realize our connection to the planet? Yes, I believe we will.
Story by Brandom Keim. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in November 2006.