Exploring a Changing Eco-Mindset with Journalist Brian Clark Howard

July 5, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so excited and honored to have Brian Clark Howard on. He’s an award-winning journalist, author, editor, producer. Welcome to Green is Good, Brian. BRIAN CLARK HOWARD: Thanks, John. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Brian, you’ve done so many cool things. Your bio — It would take me the whole 15 minutes to get into everything you’ve been doing your whole life that affects the world for the better. Can you share your journey, though, and your history with our listeners before we get into any Q & A today? BRIAN CLARK HOWARD: Sure, John. Thanks. So, I grew up in the Midwest, and my parents were huge outdoor people. They always took me camping. I started out doing a lot of hiking in a papoose when I was really little, so I always had a great affection and love for the outdoors. I was an Eagle Scout, and I went to college thinking I wanted to study ecology. I actually did research on birds, and it was great. I learned a lot. I loved being outdoors. But I realized over time that what I really enjoyed most was the communication aspect, commuting my love for nature and science to others. So, I got really into reading about science, writing about science, and I started to work for E-The Environmental Magazine as an intern, just right off college. It worked out great. I worked up to an editor there. Then I worked for a green living-focused website called The Daily Green, and I’ve been at National Geographic now a year-and-a-half working on that website. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Cool. And so, talk a little bit about what you’re doing at National Geographic. Like, what’s happening over there, and what are the hot topics? BRIAN CLARK HOWARD: So, a lot of great stuff. National Geographic is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, actually. It’s a great time of convergence, for a lot of folks know us from the magazine, which is still going strong. The National Geographic channel – actually, there are two channels now. There’s one called Wild, which focuses on animals and nature, and then there’s the National Geographic Channel. It’s kind of the flagship. More books are being produced than ever. There’s Traveler magazine, and a lot of action on the web, which is where I spend most of my time, but it’s a great time of convergence. We’re very active in social media. We’re one of the top brands on Instagram, where people share photos. We have amazing photographers around the world who put incredible photos sort of through the National Geographic eye, the National Geographic way of looking at the world. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, you know, we’ve just passed Earth Day. Has Earth Day just become sort of a ho-hum day, or is it still relevant to what we’re trying to do with regards to the sustainability revolution? BRIAN CLARK HOWARD: Well, I very much think it’s still relevant. I know every year we have this big debate in media, and especially among the people that identify as environmentalists, of do we still need Earth Day? Some websites like to say that every day is Earth Day, and a lot of companies like to say that. You know, I think that’s great. It’s great that it’s become more mainstream in a lot of ways, and it’s something that people do think about through the rest of the year. That’s critical. But I think it’s a really good time to reflect, both on where we’ve come as a movement, as a culture, and to kind of celebrate the gains that we’ve had. You know, a lot of times, especially activists get so concerned about what the next fight around the corner, which is great to have that motivation; but it’s also really important to take a pause and remember what’s been done, and also just to get outside. I always encourage people, make sure you do at least one enjoyable outdoor thing on Earth Day. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s a great message. For those who just joined us, we’re so excited. We’ve got Brian Clark Howard on with us right now. You can check out his great work. I’m on his website right now; it is a very cool website. Brian, you’ve put a lot of great stuff up there at brianclarkhoward.com, and also go to nationalgeographic.com if you want to get inspired about what’s going on in the great outdoors and the world around us. You know, Brian, you’ve traveled the world; I’ve traveled the world. Europe’s got sustainability part of their DNA, parts of Asia, Japan has sustainability and good environmental practice as part of their DNA. Has green become mainstream here in the U.S. yet? BRIAN CLARK HOWARD: Well, I think it depends who you ask. I think in a lot of ways it has. Certainly when I started around the year 2000 as a professional environmental journalist, there really was a lot less awareness than there is now. It’s really exciting now that everyone knows what organic food is, and everyone has a pretty good idea of what that means. Most people, at least I talk to, have a sense that it’s better; better for the environment, probably better for them. There have been different studies, but people have a strong awareness about that. When I started, nobody knew what organic was. In a lot of ways, in certain areas, it’s been really strong. Everyone knows what a hybrid car is now. For years, people had no idea. Everyone thought it’s going to be plugged in. Now, of course, you have plug-in hybrids. More people understand that, and they understand that their choices have impact. You know, a lot of people say we have a long ways to go in terms of the energy, in terms of a lot of the ways that we live our lives. But I think in some of the core areas, like awareness, I think people are way more mindful. In that sense, I think it very much is mainstream now. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Does this whole green revolution cut across political and cultural lines also? BRIAN CLARK HOWARD: Oh, absolutely, John. It’s a little bit of a rubber band back and forth, because sometimes it can get politicized. Certain politicians or groups can kind of seem like they’re clotting the green message. I think that’s part of the way culture evolves, though. It’s always going to be a little bit of a back and forth, readjusting. I think the overall trend line very much is cutting across all boundaries, class, race, politics. I think that awareness, certainly, has permeated everyone everywhere. Even in the poorest developing countries to the boardroom, people now, they can’t hide from the environment. For the most part, you can’t actively damage it and get away with it. You know, there has to be a lot more awareness, sensitivity to it than ever, and so I think it really is coming across. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Is it more expensive, though? Is buying an organic apple more expensive than a regular apple, or is the cost benefit analysis just too important and overwhelming for us to be eating right, living right, using cleaners that don’t have untested products in them? Does going green really have to cost more than not being green, Brian? BRIAN CLARK HOWARD: Well, luckily, for the most part, it does not. Certainly, there are a lot of instances where it can cost a bit more upfront. I like how you mention that there is an ROI, return on investment, in the much bigger picture. By eating healthier, you’re much less likely to need healthcare down the road. But the thing that’s most exciting is that because green is maturing a lot, there are so many options now for truly affordable choices. There are a lot of things that are really great, like the Dirty Dozen list, which is the twelve dirtiest produce. If you buy organic for those, you’re going to get much more bang for your buck in terms of spending a little bit more, but avoiding the worst actors. There are a lot of things that it doesn’t matter as much, like bananas, for example, where you’re not eating the peel. Most of the pesticides are going to stay on the peel. So, that’s an example where if you’re really on a budget, it might make sense. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Is more choice good, though? Is the revolution on and more and more and more choices coming up for all the consumers, both in what we eat, what we use to clean with, what water we drink, all this other kind of stuff? Is this plethora now of choices with regards to sustainable and green products good for us? BRIAN CLARK HOWARD: I think so. I think choice is always good. There is always the downside. There is a psychology study that came out a few years ago, and it said that if you give people too many choices, they get overwhelmed and they won’t make any choice. There is some element of that, and it’s definitely true that some of the green stuff can seem complicated. There are a lot of competing certification programs. I always go back to the USDA organic standard, because it’s so strong because it’s so simple. It’s no pesticides, no genetically modified organisms. It’s very simple. The problem with some certification-style programs is that their rules can get complicated, and their rules can shift because everything has changed. That’s good because it allows flexibility, but it can be a little overwhelming for consumers. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Brian, we’re down to the last two minutes or so. What final pearls of wisdom can you leave with our listeners around the world with regards to how to live more green and how to live more sustainably? Also, there are a lot of young people who want to be the next Brian Clark Howard. Any pearls of wisdom on how to follow that path? BRIAN CLARK HOWARD: Well, I think kind of hitting both areas, the thing to do is to do what makes the most sense for you. There’s usually somebody that comes to green from a particular interest, whether it’s a woman who’s just had a child and wants to detoxify her house, someone who’s naturally a foodie so they’re attracted to the food side of things, if you’re a gear head you might be attracted to the transportation things more. Similarly, career-wise, whatever you passion is, you can kind of combine that with green. It’s a natural entry point, both to building a career and also to building a happy green life. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yeah, that’s a great point. And for our listeners out there, I want you to go to Brian’s great website, brianclarkhoward.com. But also Brian’s the editor and producer — he’s a humble guy — he’s an editor and producer for National Geographic’s award-winning website, and go check out his great work at nationalgeographic.com. You know, Brian, you’re always welcome back on Green is Good. We want you to come back on. You’re doing so many great things, and your voice needs to be heard, and the great work that you’re doing needs to be seen, so we want our listeners to go out there and enjoy again nationalgeographic.com. Your sustainability and green thought leader, Brian Clark Howard, and truly living proof that green is good. BRIAN CLARK HOWARD: Thank you, John.