Studying an Ever-Changing Urban Environment with UCLA Institute of the Environment & Sustainability’s Jon Christensen

June 12, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re going from New York City all the way to Westwood, California. We’ve got on the line with us Jon Christensen who’s an Adjunct Assistant Professor and Pritzker Fellow in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability in the Department of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. UCLA’s in the house. Jon Christensen, welcome to Green is Good. JON CHRISTENSEN: Thank you. It’s great to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Jon. You have such a fascinating journey to getting to where you are today and all the great work you’re doing. Can you share with our listeners a little bit to how you became Jon Christensen and how you got to where you are at UCLA right now? JON CHRISTENSEN: Well, I’ve been an environmental journalist and science writer for 30 years now. I’ve written for the New York Times, for Nature, for the western newspaper called High Country News and many other newspapers, magazines, journals, radio and television shows. About 10 years ago, I had a mid-career sabbatical fellowship called the Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford in 2002 and 2003. This was a time of really great changes in both journalism and the environment, and it persuaded me that with all these changes that are happening, there are really interesting opportunities at the intersection of journalism and university research, non-profits, and philanthropies, and that as we see this tremendous breakdown and fragmentation in the media that we’re all really concerned about, particularly as journalists covering the environment, that there were all kinds of interesting opportunities to create new coalitions and new partnerships, new ventures, to really harness all of those energies and continue to elevate the public conversation about the crucial issues of our days. So, that’s when I decided to stay at the University to work on a Ph.D., and I was at Stanford for 10 years. I directed a Center for the American West there, and then came down to UCLA last fall because of the terrific opportunities here in Los Angeles, a great global city, a diverse city, where people from dozens of countries speak dozens of languages, facing all the kind of global environmental challenges, but also opportunities that we have here. So, it’s a great laboratory for thinking about the environment, particularly in an urban setting, and understanding the challenges we face and the solutions. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so great. I mean, it’s such important work you’re doing. So, you teach a class at UCLA called Environmental Communications in the Anthropocene. I want you to share with not only me, but all of our great listeners out there, what is the anthropocene, and what does that mean to all of us? JON CHRISTENSEN: Well, the anthropocene is a new geological era proposed in 2000 by Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and his colleague, Eugene Stoermer, anthropos meaning human, and cene being the geological era. They proposed this as a new era that we’re in defined by human domination of Earth. Our influence is felt everywhere. Human population has increased more than tenfold in the last three centuries. Urbanization has increased tenfold just in the last century. 30-50% of the Earth’s land surface has been transformed by human action. We eat more than 25% of the primary production of the oceans. More than half of our fresh water is used by humans. We’re transforming landscapes. Species extinctions have increased by 1,000-10,0000 fold in tropical rainforests. We’re leaving a signature now in the geological record. That’s what defines these geological eras, a shift that is visible and detectable in the geological record. We’re leaving a chemical record. The increase in sulfur dioxide from burning coal and oil is now at least two times larger than all natural emissions. More nitrogen is fixed synthetically and applied as fertilizer than fixed naturally in ecosystems. As we know, greenhouse gases have increased, carbon dioxide by 30%, methane by more than 100%. So, we’re leaving all kinds of evidence in the geological record. There’s a lot of debate about when this era started. Was it at the beginning of industrialization, was it perhaps further back when human agriculture began transforming the Earth’s surface and atmosphere? But it’s very, very clear that we’re now in a different kind of era. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Since you’re a journalist first, how do these shifts and changes interrelate with environmental communications then? JON CHRISTENSEN: Well, I think what it means is that nature and humans are not separate. There’s no pure nature. Our fingerprints or our footprints are everywhere, and we need new stories. Our relationship with the environment is a story of fall from Eden, a story of decline, trying to get back to get to nature and get back to some kind of Eden. But we need new stories about going forward with nature. Human beings will be a major force, even geologically, on Earth from now on. We need to get good at it, and we need to get green about it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wait a second. Is this a post-Inconvenient Truth era now, and the storyline should be different than what it was five-six years ago? Is that what you’re positing? I’m a little bit confused. JON CHRISTENSEN: I mean, I think that’s right. As one of my friends and colleagues, Andy Revkin at the New York Times says, the old story “woe is me” and “shame on you” just doesn’t work. We’re all in this together, and we need to find solutions. I think Al Gore’s message has helped show us that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right. So, tell me about what your vision is. Where should the communication and environment now interrelate and intersect and now take it to a whole another level and platform issues that the next generation can go out and tackle? JON CHRISTENSEN: Well, so, Los Angeles, New York, the big cities of the world are great examples of this and the growing cities around the planet that are going to absorb all of the population growth in the next 40 years and double in size. These are densely connected places of communications networks, of mobile devices, and we can no longer think of communications as a kind of one-way pipeline into people’s brains, the decision makers, policymakers, scientists can deliver a message through the media and people will absorb it. That really never did work, but it’s very clear it doesn’t work anymore. There’s no one reliable source. It’s a conversation, sometimes even a cacophony. You know, we have to go where the conversation is. Scientists and scholars and researchers need to participate in the public square, and many are not used to that. It’s uncomfortable for them, but that elite model of communication that we can sit in our labs and come up with new knowledge and that it will be reliably transmitted to everyone else is no longer working. So, the new model of communications is the conversation, and we all have to participate in that. These new technologies, these dense networks of communications, enable us to. It’s challenging, but we need to do it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so interesting. You know, my friend Allen Hershkowitz at the NRDC, when he came on the show, he talked about the issue of science, sports, and the environment, and he said, “Listen, John. Only about 13% of Americans, when polled, really are into science, but about 68% of Americans, when polled, really enjoy sports. We have to go in and green sports now because we’ve got to go where the people are.” So, I totally get what you’re saying. It makes a lot of sense, Jon. For our listeners out there who just joined us, we’re so excited and honored today to have Jon Christensen from UCLA on with us. If you want to see more of Jon’s great work and what he’s working on with the anthropocene, go onto his website christensenlab.net. It is a beautiful, wonderful site. I’m on it right now, actually, Jon, and you’re working on so many interesting things. Talk about what’s on the top of your mind? When you wake up in the morning, what are some of our greatest environmental challenges that we face today as a society, as a country, and as a world? JON CHRISTENSEN: There are four grand challenges that we face in this century, and particularly in the next two generations, the next 40 years. I think about this a lot because I spent the last 21 years telling my daughters, “Don’t let the bastards take the future away from you.” Young people get the message that, “Sorry we screwed up, and it’s only going to get worse from here.” I don’t think that that’s the message that should be giving to young people, and I don’t think that it’s an accurate one. We do face incredible grand challenges. One of them is the growing population, but it’s not the problem that we generally think of as just a problem or a challenge of population. It’s urbanization. The population of the planet is going to grow from 7 to around 9 billion over the next 40 years. Those 2 billion people are going to end up effectively in cities. That means that the urban-built environment on the planet is going to double in the next 40 years. How that happens is going to fundamentally determine not only how we live with nature, but how we live with each other. Climate change is the second one, and the challenge is no longer just how can we mitigate or lessen climate change by reducing our emissions, but how can we adapt? Change is coming. That means it’s going to be hotter in many places. It’s going to be drier in some places, wetter in others. We’re going to deal with changing water regimes, less snow pack in California, it’s going to change our water supply, sea level rise. These are all things that we’re going to need to adapt to, and we need to start thinking about that now. But it also means that there are ways in which we can change our cities in other places to make them more livable, more enjoyable, more healthy. The third major challenge is biodiversity loss, and particularly also the fraying of the ecosystems that other species depend on, but that we depend on too. The fourth major challenge we face is sustainability. How can we not only think about sustainability as the ability to continue what we have now, but what does sustainability mean in a world of great inequality? It’s clear that that’s not sustainable, that many people around the world need and deserve better lives, and they will have them. So, how do we figure out how to think about sustainability in that kind of world where we need to think about the wellbeing of people as well as the planet? JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s interesting. So, you know, you do a lot of research, and you’re also writing. You’re writing a book right now called Critical Habit: A History of Thinking With Things in Nature. Before we get to that, talk a little bit about at the top of the show, you talked a little bit about the excitement that you have about working at UCLA and teaching at UCLA because it’s in such a diverse city. Your research on city nature, share what that means to you and what that means to your students and to your research at large. JON CHRISTENSEN: Well, when we think about nature and cities, we’ve often thought about cities as a place where nature is not, and we go out of the cities to get back to nature, go into the Sierra Nevada, go out into the wilderness, but cities are made out of nature. There is nature in cities, and it’s also in cities that have been the birthplace of environmental movements, environmental concerns, environmental laws. We also have a very long history of conservation, of nature in cities for people and nature, and that gives us a really diverse toolbox for thinking about people and nature that I think is going to be very, very helpful for us, as I said, in the next 40 years as the urban population and urban-built environment doubles on the planet. If you think about the history of nature and cities here in the United States, it tends to go through a pattern where first we think about protecting nature for protecting watersheds, for clean water for people living in cities. Then we think about enclosing the commons, the commons being the common grazing areas for animals in cities. Those are often enclosed for parks. They’re turned into parks. The third phase is recreating good citizens, for recreation, for creating good democratic citizens, that we need places for people to recreate themselves. Then we have what’s often called the city beautiful movement, an aesthetic movement of thinking about the importance of beauty and of nature as part of that beauty in cities. You know, we’re moving into the 20th century, particularly in the post-World Word II period, of great economic booms. The movement for conserving nature for open space, for aesthetics, arises. That, then, turns into a movement for thinking about those open spaces as habitat for other species, and it’s important for us to provide that kind of habitat in our urban and suburban metropolitan matrix. Finally, we’re now in an era where we’re thinking about those open spaces and habitat and nature in the cities as providing ecosystem services for us, that they’re protection from floods, that they clean and filter water, that they clean and filter the air. That goes full circle back to why people first thought about conserving or preserving nature in cities, as I said, for clean water. I think in going through that whole history, you see we have a wide range of reasons, very good reasons, for thinking about conserving nature in cities. That provides a diverse toolbox for us to use in making sure that as we continue to build new cities, to grow cities, and to bring back nature into cities, that we have a lot of different ways of thinking and talking about this, that is thinking about how nature is important for people as well as for other beings. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Jon, we’re down to the last minute-and-a-half or so, but I want you to just touch upon the issue that you’ve talked about on your website and in your lectures of crowdsourcing, and how that interrelates with the environment and what you’re trying to accomplish right now. JON CHRISTENSEN: So, we’re doing a really fun project up in the San Francisco Bay Area, around the year of the bay, which is this year, the opening of the new Bay Bridge there, the America’s Cup races are coming to the San Francisco Bay, and we’re opening up the celebration to all of the people of the Bay Area and world, people who have come to and enjoyed the San Francisco Bay Area, to see if by listening to diverse communities, diverse people of the Bay Area and the world, we can crowdsource a new environmental history. I really believe that there are lots of different ways of knowing and valuing and relating to nature, and we’ve often only thought there’s kind of one way of being an environmentalist, the sort of 20th century environmental movement way. But we now know that there are lots of different ways of thinking about and relating to the environment. What we need to do is ask the question: How do you relate to the environment? What do you think of nature? What’s important to you about nature? How do you value it? If we ask those questions and listen, we can hear the many different ways that people do that, and it helps to build a much more diverse constituency, movement, public for the environment. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Thank you, Jon. Jon, we’re going to have you come back when your book is written, Critical Habit: A History of Thinking with Things in Nature. Jon Christensen from Christensenlab.net, Jon Christensen, you are an environmental sustainability thought leader and truly living proof that green is good. JON CHRISTENSEN: Thank you.