Today is my last day as a staff reporter for The New York Times. After spending more than a quarter of a century writing about science and the environment, more than half of that time here, I am switching gears for the second half of my professional life. I’ll be continuing to blog, write and work with video. And I’ll certainly keep contributing to this remarkable newspaper as it works to sustain a reliable view of the fast-changing planet while straddling the uncertain interface between the front page and home page.
But my prime focus now will be education and a broader exploration of new ways to make information work – to give ideas the best chance of getting where they are needed to help advance our relationships to the environment and each other. I’m taking a position as senior fellow for environmental understanding at Pace University, situated in the school’s young Academy for Applied Environmental Studies. There’s more background on my plans in the Columbia Journalism Review, the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media and CEJournal. I’ll also be working on two books, one for middle school kids on resilience to disasters and another, for adults, on ways to navigate the next 50 years with the fewest regrets.
I’m convinced that there is vast untapped potential to use the Web and other means to build global awareness and meaningful relationships. Here’s some evidence. While giving a talk at Linfield College in Oregon in September, I learned of a professor of U.S.-Russian relations at another school who, on his own and with no extra budget or bureaucracy, recently linked his course through Web video with another course in U.S.-Russian relations in St. Petersburg, Russia. The same could be done for courses in climate policy, linking North and South, and even within schools. Imagine parallel deconstructions of climate legislation by, say, political science students and climate science students, using an online document dissector — essentially a more sophisticated, layered variant of the speech and document annotations done here on Dot Earth. (Please let me know if tools like this already exist out there.)
Another hint of what’s possible came in November, while I was in Istanbul to report a forthcoming story. I visited a poor neighborhood called Bagcilar. As I interviewed residents at a community center that had a dozen heavily used computers, several kids ran up to me, checking out my camcorder and pad. A common greeting of theirs was, “Facebook? Facebook?” Some are Facebook friends of mine now.
A couple of days after that incident, I suddenly had a thought (not a new thought, I’m sure). There’s no need for a universal language like Esperanto when a translation algorithm might break down the Babel barrier. I know that connectedness can work for ill as well as good. But I can’t see a bad outcome from having a way for residents of Bagcilar and Buffalo to learn about, and from, each other through a computer screen.
My thirst for such experimentation is what pushed me to create Dot Earth two years and nearly 850 posts ago. The blogroll here is an incomplete directory of relevant sites. But I want to build a much more usable “tool kit” for people or groups working on these issues. There are lots of efforts percolating around the world, but I haven’t seen a “go to” portal where they are compiled and examined. (Just one example, with a different focus, is the “Do Tank” of the New York School of Law).
I’ll keep blogging, of course. Frankly, I consider it an unavoidable responsibility of communicators. It has not been easy to blog, particularly while synchronizing that effort with ongoing print work. Through moderating tens of thousands of comments, I’ve had to deal with some angry people not interested in learning, but far more individuals with a thirst for community and understanding and a willingness to encounter contrary views as part of that quest.
In many ways, this kind of two-way communication is well suited to the implicit complexities and uncertainty attending life on a crowding planet that is showing signs of strain from the blazingly fast expansion of this human experiment. When I was 12, in 1968, there were about 3.5 billion of us. We’ve nearly doubled since then and will approach triple that number around mid-century. And our appetite for energy and other resources has grown even faster. So far, technological and social innovations have enabled our species to burst through predicted walls. Can we keep that up? This remains an open question, to my mind.
Lately, I’ve been describing the kind of inquiry I do on Dot Earth as providing a service akin to that of a mountain guide after an avalanche. Follow me and I can guarantee an honest search for a safe path. This is a big contrast from the dominant journalism paradigm of the last century, crystallized in Walter Cronkite’s “That’s the way it is” signoff.
The core of my work at Pace will be the creation of a classroom and online course that, in essence, is an expansion of Dot Earth. As is the case here, the prime framing question explored each year by students will be: 9 Billion People + 1 Planet = ? This course will use mechanisms I tried in a seminar I taught a few years ago at the Bard Graduate Center for Environmental Policy. At Bard, for certain core assignments, students were divided into groups taking the approaches of different stakeholders in the drama of human development on a finite planet.
At Pace, I envision teams of students taking on the stance of techno-optimists and libertarians on one side and proponents of steady-state economics and growth limits on the other. Depending on the issue, they could be the Global North and South, or “Guardians of the Future” versus interests of today. For discussions of the science, they would critically examine the role of “real” skepticism and the perils of oversimplification and advocacy when science meets the media and politics. I’d love to think that each year this course could produce a Web-based wiki-style product and/or printable book memorializing the journey.
Who knows, I may build a “Second Life” course to go with the real one. I was fascinated when the University of Delaware made it possible for a lecture of mine there to appear “live” in that parallel world:
You can probably understand by now why I no longer see journalism, on its own, as the single best use of my remaining days. Among other goals, I want to help make scientists and scientific institutions into better, more committed, more creative communicators. In a world of shrinking specialized journalism, direct outreach will be more vital than ever.
I plan to do this by helping design a curriculum component, or Web-based training portal, that could be used to help ensure that students bound for careers in science learn how to navigate the interface between their domain and the outside world. Part of this would probably link schools of journalism and communication with science departments on the same campuses. Communication should be a central component of a science education, not seen as an inconvenient obligation.
Finally (this is more than enough for the rest of a lifetime), I want to help build networks of journalists and communicators in rich and poor places so that good ideas can be efficiently shared and flawed ones modified. The Earth Journalism Network is one example. Developing Radio Partners is another. When writing my book on the Amazon, I learned about the power of radio (which was an organizing tool for the rubber tappers seeking to gain land rights). But this potential goes way beyond radio. What happens to all those “one laptop per child” machines? Are they simply dropped off, or are the recipients cultivated as a network?
My charge to my students will be simple: Let’s find out.