Invited guest-post by Miles Traer, producer for Generation Anthropocene
As I was walking through the wide, quiet, and unusually warm corridor of Braun Hall – Stanford University’s Geology building – I was stopped by one of the professors. He had recently contributed to our podcast, Generation Anthropocene, where we discuss the new geologic age with experts from a diverse set of fields. He mentioned the section in nearly every NSF grant that requires an outreach or science communication component – and that everyone who applies for these grants rolls their eyes or at least allows a short guffaw when they reach this section, knowing that its objective will seldom be fully met. So, what is Generation Anthropocene? At least partly, our podcast series is a way for scientists and other academics to keep the communication and lose the eye roll.
Generation Anthropocene is also an expression of the curiosity, enthusiasm and concern of 14 students, most of them undergraduates, who selected contributors and conducted in-depth interviews for the series. And it’s an expression of creative frustration on the part of two late-stage PhD candidates who wanted to do something outside the lab. And lately, it has become a pretty thrilling ride, as an idea cooked up listening to comedy podcasts while processing paleoclimate data to its release into the world and finding an audience much larger than we could have imagined.
Our podcast Generation Anthropocene is an experiment in interdisciplinary science communication. Over the past 4 months, creator Mike Osborne along with co-producers Miles Traer and Thomas Hayden offered a course to undergraduate students where they approached Stanford University faculty members who in one way or another are dealing with 21st century environmental issues.
Our students elicited their expertise on the evolving perceptions of environmentalism, sustainability, and science. We spoke to geologists, engineers, ecologists, doctors, project managers, oceanographers, and historians on a wide variety of topics ranging from biodiversity loss to historical perceptions of the environment to agricultural systems to urban design to conservation philosophy. Generation Anthropocene became a cross-generational conversation, and perhaps at times even an interrogation, initiated by the curiosity of the new generation of students who will inherit the world we have created – all with the goal of furthering the public and academic discourse of global change through the lens of the newly proposed geologic boundary called the Anthropocene.
Make no mistake, the Earth is old and a lot has happened in its four-and-a-half billion-year history. Glaciers advance and retreat with each ice age, continents collide and extend, tropical belts expand and contract, mountains crawl skyward and erode back down, and oceans spread and shrink with each new tectonic configuration. All of this takes staggering amounts of time and with each event, the Earth changes the terms of life. These forces are geological, primal, and astonishingly powerful. And with the Anthropocene, geologists now debate humankind’s global impact as comparable to these forces and events.
A colleague of mine once said, “the failure to understand global environmental change is in many ways a failure of imagination.” Visualizations of the Anthropocene vary: Sprawling cityscapes where residences and commercial warehouses look like fungi growing upon a mossy hill – seemingly endless rows of pulsing steel oil platforms piercing the desert – greenhouses etched as neat polygons into the landscape that now appears broken and fractured like glass with each crystalline crack some tendril of a no-longer-natural stream. Such visualizations are visceral, but still somewhat local. Imagining your own residence is easy, your city more difficult, and an entire country bombarding you with a myriad of visual cues becomes nearly impossible.
Likewise, looking back through four-and-a-half billion years is not easy. The most common analogy I’ve heard is that of a clock, where the whole of Earth’s history is compressed onto a twelve hour face and humans appear only in last 2-3 seconds. Seconds we can understand, but each second on this abstracted façade represents roughly 100,000 years or 3,155,692,597,470 seconds. Try to explain the scale of 3 trillion anything and you end up with an unbearable university admissions essay. But to understand the magnitude and the importance of a potentially new geologic boundary caused by the global footprint of humankind, we must learn to reconcile the immense time scales of earth history with everything we know about human history. Communicating these concepts becomes all the more important.
If you ask any scientist about the quality of science communication, chances are they will say, “not very good,” or something akin to that. But media outlets are changing as the old paradigms of newspapers and magazines continue their gradual decline. In this new age, everyone has unprecedented access to the public through new media outlets such as twitter, blogs, and podcasts. Scientists need to take advantage of these new media to communicate their own work rather than waiting patiently for other outlets to discover their contributions. Generation Anthropocene is our attempt to do this.
What we like about podcasts is that they can be digested somewhat passively, taken in during a commute or while processing hundreds of samples. Whatever it is you take from listening to a conversation seems to us a very different animal than what you take from the written word. It is somehow more intimate. As the conversations evolve, your ears adjust to expect a pause, a drawn out hmm, or a quiver in the voice. Excitement becomes palpable, distress more personal, and that beautiful moment of hesitation before addressing a difficult question offers the listener a unique moment of personal reflection. It makes the contributors easier to empathize with, easier to identify… more human. Audio is the theater of the mind – of the imagination. Our hope is that the conversations we have recorded for Generation Anthropocene inspire the imagination and help connect our listeners to these global phenomena that are geological, primal, powerful, and human.
Previously in this series: