Around, say, February of this year, you probably got an email forward titled "Hipster Olympics." There are good forwards, and there are bad forwards. This was a good forward—a mockumentary. After you watched nonchalant hungover hipsters being rated on the tightness of their pants and the aptness of their ironic T-shirt selections, you sent the clip on to a dozen friends, most of them in their 20s or 30s, like yourself. You may or may not have been too busy laughing to notice that the clip was produced and distributed by Current TV, a peer-to-peer station founded in 2005.
But Current TV, founded by Al Gore and entrepreneur Joel Hyatt, is no joke. The network’s 24/7 programming includes everything from political satire to music journalism to investigative global pieces. Its Emmy-winning team of about 400 is aiming for a kind of YouTube meets Nightline: helping young adults create interactive, viewer-created content (VC2) that explores the world as they see it. And Current's investigative team, Vanguard, is at the top of its game, sending dispatches on our changing world from "Africa's Chinatown" in Angola to the straits of Malacca. Recently, Current sent Adam Yamaguchi to Greenland to see how locals and end-of-the-world tourists experience a country that sees global warming as having an upside. Watch his 22-minute documentary, I Heart Global Warming, here. Plenty caught up with Adam to talk about Current TV and Vanguard, and to ask what's so great about global warming.
PLENTY: How do these stories evolve for you? How do you decide what to focus on?
ADAM YAMAGUCHI: I've been with Vanguard for about three years, and one of the things I've hit on consistently is the environment. I've traveled around the world and I've seen the human footprint everywhere. My first global warming story was done in Louisianna, a month before Katrina hit. And I spoke to locals who said, "Our land is subsiding, the sea's encroaching upon us, and if a hurricane hits, we're all doomed." It was clear before Katrina, but it became more clear after, that something was going on. There was something much larger. And today, when you talk about really any issues of global importance, the environment is always a central theme. So at that point, three years ago, I knew this was one of the central issues I would have to cover throughout my career. So after that I went to Alaska, then Bangladesh, then Madagascar. And everywhere I've gone, the environment is on the minds and lips of the people I speak to, regardless of what story I'm covering.
How big a part of Vanguard's original mission was environmental coverage?
Never have we sat in a room and said, "Ok, we need to dedicate a fifth of our content to environmental stories." Our overall mission has always been: We're living in very tumultuous times, things are changing around the world at a more rapid pace than any time in human history, and we want to capture that and show our audience. We're at a point in time when the earth is clearly under stress, and it's something we can't ignore. And so it naturally falls into our coverage.
Who's the Vanguard audience?
We're trying to reach people in my generation—people in their 20s and 30s. In many ways, the media has written off young people as an audience that doesn’t care about current events or the environment or politics. I think they actually do care about what's going on in the world—they just aren't being spoken to in the right way.
Your most recent story was about Greenland. What was the feeling you had watching these people who had come to enjoy the seafood and watch this tragic spectacle of glaciers melting and residents' lives being changed?
It was strange because we were all tourists. There are only two major hotels in that small town, and one of the few reasons to be there is specifically to see the ice, the capping of the glacier. I remember the day before the tour we were all congregated in the lobby, and that was all people cared about: "We want to hear the loud crashes of the icebergs dropping off into the water." These were hardened tourists who've seen everything. Greenland is so hard to get to—it's incredibly expensive. So these are tourists who have literally seen everything.
Are they environmentalists?
A couple were, but most of them were people who happened to love to travel, and are not easily impressed. They came specifically because they wanted to see this spectacle. And I've traveled to a lot of places and in some ways I feel like the jaded traveler who doesn't ooh and ahh very often. But when I was out there, as we were out on the boat overlooking the ice, it was tough for me to come up with intelligent things to say.
Were you worried about putting what you could see as a positive spin on global warming, that people would take away a sunnier message than you had intended?
Oh absolutely. When I first pitched the story to my supervisors I said, “Here's a potentially risky story.” Because who in their right mind today wants to highlight the positive spin? For the most part, it's clearly cataclysmic to the planet, but if I could add some texture to this ongoing story, then I think it's worth exploring. And throughout the shooting process and the post-production process, this is something I grappled with a lot. When you come out of the second part of the piece, you're thinking “Oh, maybe it's not that bad. These people might gain independence, they might gain some mineral wealth, that all seems positive.” And then when you come out at the end and you're like “Well, we've sort of released this massive giant ice sheet on a course that is going to have very negative implications for the world.” That was an important message for me to bring out at the end. Sure it may look nice in some places around the world for now, but something bigger is looming. The other thing I wanted to put out there is that for those of us who live in LA and New York or wherever, we have yet to feel any real, real impact from climate change. We know it's out there. But having gone to Greenland, seeing what's happening there, knowing that it's a foretelling of the future, really puts everything into perspective. The worst is yet to come.
Chatting with locals, did you get the sense that most people are happy, or did you meet people who were really worried or upset?
There were people who were just out and out happy, but every one of those people I think also carried a sentiment with them that was a little more bittersweet. "This is a good thing, but it means that we're losing a tradition and a lifestyle that we've had for generations, for eons.” They're happy, but I think behind that smile is a little bit of anxiety. There were people who are worried and anxious about their lifestyle changing, but I think what was so interesting about those people was that the climate has changed before in Greenland and mother nature has always been very harsh in that part of the world, and they have this attitude about yes, we're going to have to change and accommodate mother nature. They've learned not to fight with it. They've learned to roll with the punches. And so even though there is a bittersweetness about the fact that life is changing, they know they can't do anything about it. It's a sort of toughness that comes from being in the arctic. So did we get people who were worried? Absolutely. Did we get people who felt like “Oh my God, I'm going to lose everything”? No. Because they've always figured out a way. That's fascinating to me.
Do you think we all, people in other parts of the world are going to develop that same toughness and ability to adapt in time?
We're going to have to. There's a lot of talk. Really in the last five years, people have developed this environmental consciousness, which just amazes me. In just the span of five years, we've gone from people knowing very little about the environment and climate change, to now it's sort of foremost in everyone's minds. But if you ask people how their lives have changed thus far, I don't think you would get any real anecdotes. People's outlooks have changed, people's habits have changed. But our livelihoods haven't yet. And I think that one of the things we wanted to get out there with piece is the idea that change can come very quickly, very soon. So unless these attitudes really start to change now, and we start to think about adaptation in the future, something might hit you very hard, and you're going to have very little time to adapt. But I think the consciousness is there, and that's certainly a positive thing. In the next few years, we're going to have to step it up much more, and actually start changing our habits on a larger scale.
Did the glacial water you drank taste noticeably purer than what you're used to?
You know, water straight out of the tap was amazing. Noticably better than anything I'd ever had.
What about the glacial beer?
It's just regular old beer.
Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in December 2008.
Copyright Environ Press 2008
Focus: Greenland — Q&A with Current TV producer Adam Yamaguchi
TV's reporter went to Greenland to see how environmentalists and end-of-the-world tourists experience a country that sees global warming as having an upside.