Focus: “Sustainability” is meaningless without asking, “Sustain what? For whom? How?" Subscribe to my open learning journey seeking actionable steps on climate, conservation and sustainable living that can hide behind the nonstop flow of overheated headlines and opinions.
Process: Building conversations and connections through two brisk dispatches a week, with occasional deeper dives, webcasts and other events.
I shot the photographs above pretty much blindly. I was on the North Slope of Alaska in December, 2003, reporting a story for The New York Times on a climate feedback mechanism that was proving inconvenient for big oil. The human-driven warming of the Arctic, happening at more than twice the pace of the rise in global temperatures, was shrinking the "tundra travel" season - the span during which the ground was sufficiently frozen for the state to allow drilling crews to create ice roads and explore for new deposits.
Harry Bader, the state's land manager for the region, was testing the hardness of the tundra across a windblown stretch of America's Arctic shore with a colleague by hammering a calibrated steel rod into the ground. Drive a little. Walk. Hammer a little. Measure. Repeat. The temperature was about 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit even before the wind rose toward a gale, creating a horizontal ground blizzard. Bader trudged on, following his headlamp beam.
We're all facing a different kind of blizzard these days - a relentless information extreme storm, pummeling us through portals seemingly designed less to illuminate and more to validate, aggravate, confuse or sell. The World Health Organization last year even initiated a series of urgent conferences to build an emergent field called "infodemiology." The context was the pandemic. But there are extreme information storms everywhere these days.
Trouble signs were clear well before the pandemic, and the 2020 election. I wasn't surprised to see Jaron Lanier, a pioneering figure in the online world, urge everyone in 2018 to delete all social media accounts, although he did so while acknowledging the many reasons why most of us realistically can't.
To me, it would have been worse than capitulation if we'd all turned off and tuned out, even knowing what's happened since in politics and culture.
But it's also clear that a shift is needed. Great stories will always be a vital part of the human journey, but - to me at least - the most urgent need now is for better conversations and connections.
Here's my argument and plan.
Record-smashing “heat domes” are broiling cities, driving infernos and puddling permafrost. Brazil’s annual Amazon “burning season” is ramping up. A significant portion of the global supply of a key ingredient in solar panels has come from China’s forced-labor factories. And while American stadiums are filling, only 13 percent of humanity has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Welcome to the rest of this century.
It’s easy to feel paralyzed trying to shape a sustainable path for yourself, your family or your community given how the downside dominates discourse. I should know. I covered hundreds of such stories in 38 years (so far) of prize-winning output for a batch of great magazines, The Times and other publications. But what the field of journalism honors doesn’t always match what communities need.
Making matters worse, campaigners championing different climate and sustainability strategies - No nukes! Yes nukes! No meat! Less meat! - often end up in circular firing squads. This pattern delights those trying to maintain the status quo. They have by far the easiest task and often the most resources and power. Kathy Zhang, while a student at Columbia, drew a compelling cartoon after hearing me make this point in a talk some years ago.
Despite all of this, I wake up hopeful every day, in part because of what’s at the end of each of those web links above. A growing array of meteorologists like Jeff Berardelli of CBS and the organization Climate Central are engaging audiences way outside the climate-awakened bubble on the dangers of extreme heat and the climate-change connection.
China’s forced-labor abuses of Muslim minorities were exposed by the online newsroom Buzzfeed with two technology partners mixing remote sensing and on-the-ground verification.
The Our World in Data project tracking vaccination inequity is a beacon full of trustworthy indicators.
The common element in all of these communication and media breakthroughs is novel collaborations across professions, disciplines, regions and segments of society. A connected planet can be a protected planet.
Communication only works, of course, if it triggers responses. That remains a grand challenge on many fronts, which is why I still find myself reposting something a German reader of my New York Times Dot Earth blog asked back in 2008: Can we kick our “blah, blah, blah, bang” habit?
Despite its technological and economic power, Germany saw an epic disaster unfold in several regions scoured by astonishing flooding earlier this month.
I remain convinced that the answer is yes, with a big IF - if those desiring positive outcomes work to break their bubbles, test assumptions and find ways to do more together than each of us can accomplish alone.
So let’s get going.
I promise not to flood your in-box. The Bulletin platform allows me to publish other content, like evergreen resource pages, without every post triggering an email.
I will generally set a theme on Mondays and follow up with a deeper analysis and reflection, including your input, on Thursdays.
Sustain What posts will both inform and be informed by intervening discussions with subscribers in the comments and in a Facebook Group coming soon here. This enterprise requires give and take. I'll regularly post reader insights, as I did in “Your Dot” and “Meet the Neighbors” posts back in my New York Times blogging days.
Occasionally, I’ll publish a more traditional story or an interview. You’ll meet scientists and engineers, philosophers and futurists, writers and educators, fishers, farmers and builders, community leaders and activists, artists, filmmakers, even climate-focused comedians and, yes, even a politician or two.
I have an acknowledged skill for identifying emergent phenomena. In my 1992 book on global warming, I noted that we had jolted Earth out of the climatic comfort zone of the Holocene epoch that fostered human progress for 11,700 years and were entering "a geological age of our own making." In 2000, two scientists more formally proposed the planet had entered an Anthropocene Epoch and in 2010 I was invited to join the Anthropocene Working Group assessing evidence.
Perhaps most important, I've demonstrated the willingness to talk to just about anyone in search of common ground in a world primed - and programmed - to highlight differences. (You never know what you'll discover.)
You can best get a sense of what I'll do here by looking back at the nine years and 2,810 posts I put into my Dot Earth blog at The New York Times. I launched the blog in 2007 after realizing that conventional stories were often too distilled to convey reality. I was honored, in 2009, when New York University journalism maven Jay Rosen, who shares my view that traditional stories are not enough, credited my blogging effort. "One day, I think all beat reporting will be done this way," he told NPR (in the same episode covering Rush Limbaugh's suggestion that I kill myself).
I also encourage you to explore the 200-plus world-spanning Sustain What webcasts I've run as part of my work building a new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and now the nascent Climate School. I launched the webcasts in the early days of lockdown; they remain an invaluable tool for convening experts and others on the urgent challenges of the day. Going forward, more of these live conversations with experts, communities and you will be a core element of this project.
In shaping discussions here, I'll draw on the wisdom of social scientists like Peter T. Coleman, the founder of Columbia’s Difficult Conversations Laboratory, which identifies paths to cooperation amid complexity and conflict. (Can Congress get one of these? Here’s a great tip sheet on how to hold a difficult conversation.)
Another guide always is Amanda Ripley, a journalist who wrote a pivotal manifesto for solutions-focused writers and is author of High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out.
Two other promising projects that give you a sense of what I seek are the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange, which is essentially a Match.com for communities at risk and relevant expertise, and the Rural Climate Dialogues run by what is now the Center for New Democratic Processes (formerly the Jefferson Center, a pioneer in citizen juries). Both are fantastic models, but the committed people who run them acknowledge the vast unmet need for more. I’ll be writing a post soon providing a closer look at both of these efforts and seeking paths to scale.
Sustain what is not really a newsletter. By definition, newsletters are transitory and unidirectional. Headline-by-headline reading is vital if you’re tracking a clean-tech IPO or hanging on the fate of a piece of infrastructure legislation. Happily, there are now hundreds of fantastic specialized journalists reporting on and explaining unfolding events and issues around energy, climate, biological diversity, agriculture, water, conflict, misinformation and more.
For moment by moment developments, follow me on Twitter (@revkin). I’ll help guide you to the best work and identify flawed coverage. Also explore my Twitter lists of great journalists, communicative scientists and innovators for some guides. Then come back here so we can hash out emerging patterns, themes and identify next steps.
In the long run, my goal is for Sustain What to become an enduring online resource and hub for exchanging ideas, data, experiences and skills in ways that boost local and global resilience and wellbeing.
Facebook, faults and all, is an emergent global and local agora. Our Philipstown Locals group where I live in the Hudson River Valley is the go-to place for tips and help for thousands of neighbors. Through Facebook, I’ve made virtual friends on the other side of the world who ended up the face-to-face hugging kind - like Ameet Singh of Pune, India, who kindly offered to drive me around when I journeyed there to report for ProPublica on cooking pollution.
I’m impressed that Facebook’s News Partnership team is committing $5 million to develop Bulletin newsletters by local journalists, with a special focus on communities of color, particularly in regions lacking conventional news outlets. (If all goes well with this project, I’d love to see that triple or more, given the need.)
For these local journalists and the rest of the inaugural cohort on Bulletin, the incubator approach here is a welcome departure from the urgent pressures of conventional media. Explore the Bulletin home page for Facebook's answers to a batch of questions - and of course to explore the amazing array of contributors.
See you again soon.
After all, there is no Planet B.
And please share Sustain What with solution-focused friends and colleagues!