Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Acast, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.
Matt Shears: Hello, OLLI at Berkeley. Happy Friday. My name is Matt Shears. I’m the curriculum coordinator at OLLI. And we’re happy to have you join us for our Friday Speaker Series. Today’s speaker is Bree Rosenblum. Bree Rosenblum is a professor of global change biology. Her research focuses on understanding biological diversity on our planet and has been featured in many textbooks, the New York Times, Discovery Channel and the BBC movie, Endangered.
Bree is also dedicated to transforming higher education and is the faculty director of Berkeley Discovery. Our talk today is entitled, “Finding Hope For Biodiversity Conservation in an Era of Rapid Global Change.” If you have questions throughout the talk, please put them in the chat and we can fill them later, but for now, please welcome Bree Rosenblum.
Bree Rosenblum: Hi, everyone. It’s so nice to meet you all virtually. I’m looking forward to spending this hour together. And I am going to share my screen so that I can give you a little bit of a sense of the work that I do. And it’s totally fine if people prefer to stay with their video off, but I can see you in a little sliver on the side and it’s nice to see a couple of people’s faces. So if there’s a couple of people that actually feel like being in conversation it’s nice for me to have that connection while I’m speaking with you about a topic that’s really dear to my heart. I’m a Global Change Biology professor at Berkeley and my research is all focused on the impacts of humans on our planet. And as you can imagine, this is a topic that many students and colleagues find really depressing.
What I’m hoping to do today is share a little bit of my research with you, but also some bigger picture thoughts about how we can really be meaningfully engaged in the conversation about what’s happening on our planet. And I am promising you not to have a whole bunch of fake rainbow and unicorn kind of hopeful statements, but actually hopeful statements that come from a lot of inquiry about what does it mean to be humans on this planet right now in this day and age. So what we’re going to journey through together today is four chapters of a story. I want to just briefly nod to the history of how we got to this moment and share a little bit about my own research about frogs, my own thoughts about how our environmental worldview is at a really crux moment right now, and some thoughts about where we go from here.
I am an evolutionary biologist by training which means when I think about the question, how did we get here? I think way back. I don’t think about what’s happened in the last 200 years that led to the impacts of human on the planet, I think about how does this big story start? How does the whole thing unfold from really the moment where the universe was created? And we know now that we are a very small part of the universe’s story, there are more than a 100 billion planets in our galaxy and more than 200 billion galaxies in the universe and scientists almost universally agree that the chances that there is life on other places beside our planet is absolutely positively, almost certain.
And so we are part of a big story of life in our entire universe which we don’t often place ourselves inside of because we don’t experience it. We experience ourselves as one species on one planet but the way that life unfolded even as art in this planet is pretty remarkable. The process of evolution that’s occurred over the last billions of years, that’s led from single celled organisms to complex organisms, to an incredible blossoming of life across the planet is remarkable. And what always is important for me to remember is that life has always changed the environment on planet earth. That doesn’t mean something important and different isn’t happening today because it is, but even billions of years ago when life first began to develop photosynthesis, we changed the atmosphere.
So this process of life evolving and interacting with the environment around it has been happening for billions of years. And in our own lineage, it’s been happening for millions of years. We are not the first humans to even have walked this planet, there are a ton of other early human lineages some of which actually co-existed on earth at the same time and we’ve adapted and evolved over millions of years to be who and what we are today.
And as I know, we’re in the middle of a four-part series that you’ve been on thinking about global change and climate change. I know that you’re already thinking a lot about, well, but our species is doing something different. Our species isn’t just run of the mill interacting with his environment. Our species is literally changing the face of earth and not just the face of earth, but the atmosphere of earth down to the deepest reaches of the seas, of earth, we have had an impact from the bottom to the top of the planet. And that comes in many flavors. This is just an indication of like the flight paths in a given day on our planet. So we’re moving around all the time, less now than we used to. We’re creating an incredible amount of waste. We’re changing how land is used and what that has led to is dramatic impacts on every single species that lives on the planet, including our own.
And so I, as an evolutionary biologist have always been fascinated in life itself, in how life has developed, emerged, changed, responded to environmental perturbations. And as an evolutionary biologist, I started my career studying the process of speciation, studying how species form on our planet. And this is really fun. It’s really fun and inspiring to study how new things emerge. And I had been studying speciation in a particular part of the desert US that I love. When a new story started emerging, that was really unavoidable to pay attention to as a scientist. And that is the story of extinction.
Extinction is also not new on our planet. We estimate that more than 99% of species that ever existed on the planet have gone extinct. So extinction is a natural process on planet earth but what’s different about the dynamics of extinction today are the pace, extinctions are happening much more quickly than they have in the past, and the cause. Extinctions have never before been caused by a single species. So species have always caused each others’ extinction because of species interactions. But the fact that we have a single species, our species, that’s having a global impact on extinction patterns around the world is new. This is something that we think has never happened before on the history of our planet.
And so extinction is a natural process, but extinction is being accelerated because of human impacts on the planet. And scientists basically agree that we not only are floating on the outskirts, but we have probably pretty solidly entered the sixth mass extinction on our planet. This was a seminal article that was more than 10 years ago now asking the question and answering the question and saying, yes, rates of extinction on the planet are so high that we’re anticipating that we’re heading into one of the major spasms of extinction.
And when I was in graduate school at UC Berkeley about 20 plus years ago, I wasn’t working on extinction and I certainly wasn’t working on frogs. I love frogs but they weren’t my childhood best friends like they were for some people. But what was happening is that my colleagues from around the world were starting to notice these massive die-offs of frogs all over the place, very similar timing with a mysterious cause. And so the question became, why are these frogs disappearing all over the world and what can we learn about the extinction crisis more generally from studying specific groups?
And so I’ll just give you a very brief little foray into the world of amphibians here. I don’t know if any of you are amphibian lovers but they are a big branch on the vertebrate tree of life. They’re incredibly diverse. There are amphibians that are smaller than your pinky fingernail and there are amphibians that are as large as I am. There are amphibians that the fathers carry the babies on their back and exhibit parental care. There are amphibians where the mothers swallow the babies and let them undergo metamorphosis in their belly before they puke them back up. So the amphibians are incredibly diverse and they also are real survivors. Amphibians evolved well before the dinosaurs and have survived the last three major extinction events on our planet. And so why amphibians were disappearing at such an alarming rate was an incredible mystery in a biodiversity sciences arena.
We know that current amphibian extinction rates are at least a 100 times higher than we would expect them to be if humans were not involved on the planet. And we can name a lot of usual suspects that are contributing to those elevated extinction rates, climate change, which I know is a big focus in your learning this fall, habitat change, over exploitation in the pet trade and the food industry, introduced species, contaminants, and what I became really interested in is the role of emerging infectious diseases in these biodiversity declines.
At the time, so this was more than 15 years ago, scientists were warning about how emerging infectious disease rates seem to be rising significantly over time. Sitting here in the middle of a pandemic that does not come as a surprise to anyone but 15 years ago, this was already being noticed in other species. And if you think about the degree of globalization we have in our world, it is not surprising that we’re moving diseases around at an unprecedented rate and that those are diseases that don’t only affect humans but they’re diseases that affect agriculturally or ecologically important species, so potato blight, Sudden Oak Death, Hantavirus, even bird conjunctivitis.
There’s an incredible number of diseases of wildlife that are contributing to declines. And the interesting thing is that this is not separate from human activities. This has causes and effects that relate to humans. We’re causing many of these wildlife disease declines because we’re moving diseases around the world at an unprecedented rate, but we’re also affected by them. So sometimes when I give a talk about like frogs dying from a deadly disease, it seems trivial relative to the kinds of challenges that humanity is facing. But I really want to underscore today the reality that we are existing in one planet with one health. So if we decimate the species around us, that does not end well for humans either. So the question of why should we care about impacts on other species is quite obvious when you think about the fact that humans also can’t survive if the trees are being killed, if our foods are being compromised, if wildlife chains of interactions are being disrupted.
So, this is a talk really about amphibians but it relates to humans in two ways. One is directly because as we affect biodiversity, we affect ourselves. And the other is more indirectly and I’ll talk about that towards the end of our time together. So after a few years of research, what we started emerging around the world was that there was a new pathogen that was unknown to science that was killing frogs all over the world and it has a fancy name Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis and I will not say that again we will call it BD for the rest of the talk today. And it’s a fungus… Let me turn the sound off here so you don’t hear the sound of listening to a microscope.
This is an aquatic fungus. You see these little swimmy cells, they’re fungal cells, they have little flagella, little tails so that they can maneuver around in the water. They find frogs, and then they attach to the frog skin, and then they develop into these reproductive bodies that then create more of these little swimmy cells that then go out and affect more frogs. So this was just emerging, this pathogen had just been discovered when I started getting interested in this question. And I started thinking about the systems that I knew best. I had really close friends and collaborators working here in California on the Mountain yellow-legged frogs, which are an iconic species in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and I had really close friends and collaborators working in Panama on this Panamanian golden frog. And both of these species just started tanking. And this was right around the time that something else was tanking.
And the other thing that was tanking was the price of doing science. I had been trained as a geneticist and so I had been thinking about, is there a way that I could use genetic tools to try to understand what’s happening with these extinction events all over the world. And right around that time, the first human genome had been sequenced and the first human genome took 15 years to sequence and nearly $3 billion. And by the time that I had my first faculty job, a human genome could be sequenced in less than $1,000 in less than a day. So there’ve been this massive technological revolution in whether and how we could use genetic tools to ask questions not only about humans, but about other species on the planet as well, because I promise you, no one is going to spend $3 billion to sequence a frog genome but if a frog genome could be sequenced in $1,000 now all of a sudden we can start understanding what’s happening at a genetic level and why this pathogen is killing these frogs around the world.
The other thing that was happening is that we’re now able to sequence DNA from much, much, much smaller amounts of DNA. You used to basically need to sacrifice an entire frog to get enough DNA to do anything with it but now we can have a feather, we can have a snake skin shed, we can have a little bear fur rubbed up against a tree. We can have deer poop. We can have a swab where we took a little skin cells from a frog’s belly. We can even just take water out of a pond and we can use that material to get genetic data and genetic data can then tell us an incredible number of things about the biodiversity declines we’re seeing today.
So I started out wondering if I could help answer some of the big questions about amphibian declines using some of these noninvasive genetic techniques where I swabbed frogs bellies, and then sequence the DNA because that swab has frog DNA on it, but also BD-DNA. So the questions that I set out to answer were things like, where did BD come from? What makes this pathogen so deadly? What makes frog susceptible to this disease? How can our science best inform how we use our conservation dollars in nature? And is there any hope? So I’m not going to take a very deep dive into the science details but I want to give you a few of the answers that came from these explorations because it’s been really like a 20 year mystery that we’ve been involved in a worldwide network of scientists trying to solve. And I’ll just give you a few of the highlights on the science side and then we’ll turn to talk about the implications of what we’ve learned for conservation.
This is the family tree of BD. It’s basically the same as if you were going to make a family tree but I’ve turned it on its side. So the nodes on the tree are the old times and these tips on the tree are the modern samples that we collected and they’re just color coded by what family group they’re in. So what we call BD is a complicated family, it’s not just one thing. There’s old lineages and there’s young lineages. And some of the things that matter about using genetics to understand a pathogens family tree is that we can understand more about where the pathogen came from and we’ve done, not we as me, but we as scientists have done the exact same thing with COVID spite strains is you use the genetics to trace back where the pathogen likely emerged from and how much it’s changing as it moves.
This is what we did for the BD fungus. And what we found is that BD is on all continents with amphibians. It infects hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of species causing massive declines and die-offs in many of them. We also found that one branch of the tree, this green branch is the most recent. It’s the most widespread. It’s the one that’s moving around the world the most quickly. And it’s also the most deadly. So what it looks like is there were some ancient types of BD that were places in the world, probably for a very long time. Right now it looks like Asia and some parts of South America probably had BD for a very long time, but something changed in the last few 100 years and a new, more deadly version emerged. And that version is what’s moved around the world so quickly.
It’s not that BD by itself is always deadly, but like we see also with human pathogens, deadly forms emerge. And then because of our globalization and because of humans moving, animals around for the food trade, animals around for the pet trade, when those deadly versions emerge, they move around the world a lot more quickly than they used to. So we have a recent emerging deadly pathogen, but how does it kill go frogs? Well, this is a skin micrograph and what you can see is these little circles are all the BD cells that have implanted them in the frog skin.
Now, frogs use their skin to breathe through. They use their skin for osmoregulation. They use their skin for electrolyte balance. So if you have a pathogen that’s literally poking holes in the amphibian skin, it doesn’t end well. And so that’s what’s happening is BD is disrupting how the amphibian skin functions and what we’ve been able to do with the genetic approaches is we’ve been able to identify the actual genes that BD is using to do this so we know what the virulence factors are in the genes at the genetic level. And that gives us all sorts of options for thinking about how might you be able to address these kinds of things. No one’s going to invest billions of dollars in a anti BD vaccine but knowing the genetic basis of the virulence really helps us address the problem. And the other thing we’ve learned from the genetics is that BD is stealth. It hides from the immune system. So the frogs are essentially dying before they’ve even mounted an effective immune response.
So what does learning all of this do for us? Well, the big thing that it does for us is it helps us guide conservation efforts. I work really closely with the national park system. We work really closely with Yosemite National Park and Sequoia Kings National Park where we have some of the last remaining Mountain yellow-legged frog populations that are healthy. And we also work really closely with Panama for their captive breeding and reintroduction program. And so what we do is we use the genetic information we collect to help the park service figure out where it’s okay to move frogs around to, which frogs are related to other frogs, and also to make sure that they’re not moving the fungus around when they move the frogs. So we want to make sure that we’re providing really strong, scientific basis for conservation decisions that are being made.
And we have projects focused on genetic monitoring all over the world because we can also look at the pet trade and see what strains of BD are being moved around, how we can stop that, how we can create antifungal drugs that can target BD. So there’s a lot of frog conservation process around this.
The good news about the frog system in specific, and then I’ll zoom out a little more broadly is that populations are actually beginning to recover. And not only are they beginning to recover but they actually show some signs of adapting to become more resistant to the fungus. And so this is our picture, a little graph of some of the recoveries in Panama. Each one of these lines is a different species and the whole community just absolutely crashed when BD arrived. But now 20 years later, some of those species are starting to recover and we’re seeing the same thing in the Sierra Nevada Mountains here in California. I’m not showing you that pre-crash stage but this is just an example from one of the populations we’ve been monitoring where the frogs are actually slowly beginning to recover.
This is not surprising. If we look at other examples of biodiversity crashes, this one has nothing to do with frogs. This is about a cod fisheries where cod were over-fished and once we’ve removed the threats that humans are imposing on biodiversity, systems often display some resilience. Doesn’t mean they have complete recoveries, but here what I’m showing you is that this whole fishery crashed, in the black line you have the cod themselves, but then you have other species that crashed because that species crashed and you just have a cascading effect. But when you stop overfishing, even though the cod are recovering slowly, the other metrics of the community health start recovering more quickly. Other species start coming back. Some of the functional diversity in the ecosystem starts coming back.
It’s not to say that every time we remove a threat, the system’s going to recover, but the science tells us again and again that if you don’t address the threat, the system is definitely not going to recover. So a lot of what our scientific data are doing are helping managers understand how to best remove the threats. So in the case of the frogs, we’re helping conservation practitioners understand how to best remove the threat of the fungus and best give the frogs a chance of recovery. The other thing that is hopeful in the small story about the frogs is that every time we’ve confronted as a scientific community one of these diseases outbreaks and addressed it, it tightens up the processes that we use as scientists and it means that our response to the next threat is much faster.
We had been working on amphibian declines for a decade before bat white nose syndrome, which some of you may have heard of. It’s a deadly disease that has been affecting bats around the country before that disease emerged. And because we already had a community that was really well positioned to take a multidisciplinary approach to wildlife diseases, the community was able to jump and address that threat much more quickly. So some of the hope that comes in the small story about the frogs is that science does help us identify threats to biodiversity. And it helps us work to remove those threats in an intelligent way. But one of the things that’s very clear to me as a scientist is that a lot of the hope in the stories of biodiversity come from the resilience of life itself. I, as a scientist, contributed data and ideas to help us think about how to remove a threat, but I did not help the frogs recover. I did not help the frogs evolve.
And so what I have come to as a scientist is that as scientists, we need to be deeply engaged in generating fabulous data and sharing it with managers on the ground so the biodiversity conservation can happen in the best way possible, but we can’t only do that. There’s something deeper we need to address. And so what I’d like to do for the second part of our time together is talk about that deeper thing. I personally do not feel as scientists that we can address the threats to biodiversity that are facing the planet if we don’t address the worldview that created them. And I’m very specifically focused on the idea of a worldview here not just the idea of people doing bad things because I don’t think that’s helpful and I don’t think that gets us where we need to go.
I’d like to spend a couple minutes pivoting, the frogs will reappear in a minute, but pivoting and talking a little bit about what I’ve noticed as a scientist and a science educator about what are the worldviews that are contributing to the biodiversity crisis we find ourselves in and what are the world views that we might need to recruit in order to really change the way things are going?
When I say worldview, I literally just mean how we see the world. We have a set of assumptions, values, beliefs that we’ve learned and adapted that constitute a worldview. And all of the evidence, if you look at the world objectively, all of the evidence suggests that we live in an absolutely networked and interconnected system. This is true for human society, but it’s true in the biological world. It’s irrefutable. Nothing exists without the totality. If you don’t have trees, if you don’t have the sunlight, if you don’t have soil, you don’t have frogs, you don’t have humans. You don’t have anything on this planet without the totality. It doesn’t mean that a species can’t go extinct here or there, and that the systems resilient, but there is connection, ecologically and evolutionarily that is in controvertible.
We don’t exist without the rest of the tree of life. We just don’t exist. We like to pretend that we are one species and we do it all ourselves, but we don’t exist without that connection. But the problem that I’ve come to see is that knowing and understanding interconnectedness at an intellectual level is totally different than feeling it to be true, than living from a really deep understanding of interconnectedness. And I wanted to share a little vignette about how this is true even for those of us that think about these topics every day of our lives. This is a little frog that I met in Panama when I was at our field sites last. And I was introduced to this frog because she was the only and the last known member of her species.
This is a species that was completely undescribed to science. No one had ever found a similar frog before in the Panamanian rainforest, they found one. They brought her into captivity and they went back to the same patch of rainforest for 10 years and never found another. But when I came to Panama and I was holding this little frog, she’s 10 years old waiting to see if they would find another one of her species which they never did. And she was dying. It was very clear she was lethargic and just sitting in my hand and staring at me and I am a scientist who studies extinction. I am a scientist who thinks about biodiversity and interconnectedness every single day. I am a scientist that teaches about these themes, but the difference between thinking about it and feeling a life slipping away in my hand and knowing that it was the last of an entire branch of the biodiversity on our planet was emotionally impactful in a way that I never could have expected.
And again, sometimes people have a feeling of like, it’s just a frog, like there’s terrible things happening all the time all over the world and I do not deny that, but life is life is life and seeing and holding a life form that’s dying in your hand feels like something and you feel the connection as life witnessing life. And so I really woke up in that moment to how hard it is to feel the interconnectedness for students in society even if we know it to be true. And I’ve been thinking a lot since then about why is that? Why do we have a worldview that keeps the reality of connection always at arms length? Why don’t we feel it on a day-to-day basis? Why don’t we feel the connection and the gratitude for the air we breathe and the plants we eat and I know many people have gratitude practices, but as a society at large, why don’t we feel it on a day-to-day basis?
And I think a lot of why we don’t feel it is because we are being constantly, constantly bombarded by fear. And fear is such an unpleasant and overwhelming emotion that when we try to shut off so we don’t have to feel as much fear, we also shut off the potential for the emotional connection on the positive front. And we all know this is happening all the time. The metaphors that we’re given about where humanity is and where the planet is, they’re dramatic, they’re extreme, they’re painful. And it feels like they’re tied to stories that we’ve been telling about our environmental worldview for a long time. They’re subtle stories but I wanted to just bring them out into the open for a minute because I think that in order to get to a more empowered worldview, we have to look honestly at what worldviews we’re already holding that are disempowered.
I wanted to share with you two disempowered worldviews that I see operating all around and then offer a slightly more empowered option. I’m just going to quickly share these as two kind of tired stories. The first tired story is the tired story of humans being at top of the pinnacle. So this goes back way back thousands of years. This is Aristotle’s ladder of man where man’s on the top and we know scientifically that this isn’t true but we see it represented over and over and over again in our culture even in simple cartoons about human evolution that picked human evolution as a linear progression towards a final tall white man. And we know that this is not even true about human evolution. This isn’t even how human evolution looked. Human evolution was way more plurality diversity, multiple species walking the earth at many different time points overlapping.
So the stories aren’t true but they’re there in our psyche. They’re in our psyche that says humans are the top. Humans deserve to have what they want. And what that story has led to is an incredible amount of extraction and depletion of the natural world and it hurt human societies as well as non-human species, because the subtle unconscious belief that our species is better means that we can extract and deplete with impunity. I’m not saying many of us hold this idea consciously, but we hold it unconsciously because it’s part of the history of our society.
The contradictory story, which I call the tired story number two is the opposite. And it’s summarized by this cartoon, go back, we screwed everything up. This is the story that says, humans suck. Not only are we not at the top of the pyramid, but everything’s messed up because of us and what this leads to is an incredible amount of guilt, an incredible amount of hopelessness and what my students and I talk about a lot is the credible amount of self righteous anger. And so I’ve always loved this cartoon because it captures, if you think humans suck and are the cause of everything being screwed up, then it’s really easy to shift into blame very quickly, look for someone to blame. And the interesting thing because I teach hundreds, if not thousands of undergraduates every year in the environmental science’s realm and I take polls all the time about which of these narratives do they believe in? And what I find over and over again is that most people in our society actually simultaneously believe both of them, even though they’re contradictory.
So they believe simultaneously that we are a pinnacle species that should get whatever we want and that we suck and we’re destroying the earth and what this leads to is a lot of cognitive dissonance. And it also leads to what I call daggers in and daggers out. So we’re simultaneously sticking our daggers out, looking for someone to blame, but we’re also sticking our daggers in feeling guilty about our participation in the whole thing. So we need a way out of this because not only are these environmental narratives painful to live inside of, but they’re not helping, they’re not helping us address the grand challenges of our time. It doesn’t help us to be lost in despair, hopelessness, guilt, fear, and blame. Those are not empowered stances. They do not foster a sense of connection and transformation.
hat I’ve really come to, especially as an educator at Berkeley is that if we want a new story and a new environmental worldview, a new narrative, then we have to be the ones to tell it, we have to be the ones to do that work. And it’s not just us who have been thinking about this, it’s been decades of scientific environmental philosophical thought about the reality that we need a new way of approaching being human. We can’t just rely on the same worldview, the same approaches that have brought us to this point.
One of my favorite environmental thinkers, Joanna Macy, frames this worldview shift as, what if our worldview was around an idea of the great turning rather than the great unraveling, rather than being bombarded with images of unraveling. What if we were being given images of turning, of changing, of transforming. And so what I’d like to offer in the last few minutes is a few ideas about what I think the medicine for our environmental worldview needs to look like with an understanding that you can’t just chug the medicine and be done with it or read Joanna Macy’s book and have a new worldview because we have to live it. We have to actually be interested in our own worldviews and seeing where we’re operating from a story of distortion or exploitation or guilt or fear and how we can actually address that. So I think that there’s two main characteristics of all hopeful environmental worldviews. And I’ll just talk briefly about these two characteristics. I think the two characteristics of empowered worldviews is that they link the individual and the collective and they link the internal and the external.
Many of you are familiar with the idea of The Hero’s journey. This is a foundational story in our society. If you think of any great book or movie you’ve read, it probably had a hero journey in there somewhere. And the key part of The Hero’s Journey is always the abyss, always. You don’t have the Lord of the rings if you just know everyone’s going to come home happily ever after at the end. And so what I often talk with students about is what does it look like at a personal level and a societal level to really meet those abyss moments well because as humanity on this planet, we are in an abyss moment. We are in a moment where our individual journeys and our collective journeys are linked.
It doesn’t help to think of ourselves as individuals struggling for our individual goals. We have to see a broader human narrative that we’re part of. And we have to see how our inner lives and the external reality of our planet are linked because it’s too easy to just say, environmental problems are out there. It’s someone else who’s like making the problems and we’re all good because we recycle, right? It doesn’t help to externalize environmental issues to being out there and someone else’s problem. We have to think and recognize that it’s not only our actions that shape the world, but it’s our beliefs that shape our actions.
So it doesn’t matter how many positive actions we take to combat climate change if all they’re doing is staying at the action level and they’re never changing our beliefs, they’re never addressing the fact that everyone feels alienated and isolated and hopeless. If we don’t address that, if we don’t create a worldview where people actually feel a sense of connection, then just having the externals isn’t going to get us there.
I’m going to just illustrate this in closing with a very simple activity I do with my students. And at this point you’re probably realizing like I talk fast, I’m all over the place I grew up in Brooklyn. So if some of this is too much, just let it go and just find the one thing that resonated with you today. But I want to illustrate it because I think that for all of us that are interacting with young people in our lives, it’s so important to have concrete resources to guide them through the conversations about how do we have a perspective on the environment that’s not just depressing. I do this activity with my class where I ask them what are the root causes of extinction in their mind. And they very quickly brainstorm a bunch of things that they consider kind of negative about society.
So they usually say, well, we exploit the environment and our economic system fosters that and then there’s inequality, which also fosters disparate use of resources. And so then what we do is we keep going down. We say, well, what are the root causes of those root causes? What are the root causes until you can’t go down any further? And usually the students come to a smaller set of adjectives that really capture what they feel like are the root causes of the biodiversity crisis. And they’re not big things like climate change, overexploitation, they’re simple human fears, greed, fear, isolation, confusion. And then what they do is they look down at those root causes and take, okay, we’re talking about extinction because we’re in a biology class, but what else do those same root causes have a symptoms on our planet and they immediately list out all of the other things that are really challenging that we’re confronting as a society, global warming, social economic inequalities, all of these symptoms coming from the same roots.
And so then we really go into what do the students have as a direct relationship with these root causes and are there ways that they can explore action to address those root causes? That doesn’t just come from I’m fighting against climate change. I’m fighting against extinction. I’m fighting against racial injustice but rather what are you planting the seeds for?
If you take those negative root consequences and you flip them, there is an incredible statement about what we collectively care about. What we collectively care about. We know what it is. We care about connection. We care about inspiration. We care about so many things that we could invest in and letting this students get out of a fight or flight, we have to fight climate change mentality into a worldview where their job is to foster their deepest values is really inspiring because what happens is then when you ask them, well, what are some actions you could take? They don’t only say the normal things. They start with that like, oh, I could buy biodegradable cat litter. I could use fewer disposable mugs. I could collect rainwater. But when you start connecting the internal and the external in this way and the personal to the collective in this way, this is a five minute exercise. They brainstorm these in five minutes and I just popped them in here because it seemed fun.
They start coming up with really interesting things that feel much more alive and more personal. I could walk barefoot. Maybe that would just help me feel more connected. I could talk to my garbage and talk to it about like, why am I producing so much? And is it okay? And like what could I cut down on instead of just being like, I’m a terrible person. I shouldn’t be using single use plastics. It’s like, hey, plastic, where’d you come from? They start getting creative.
One of them talked about how she could instead of being stressed out because when she gets stressed she wants to take a hot bath but then she feels so guilty about the water she’s using, she’s like I could ask the water permission to use it. And then I’m coming into a different relationship with the resources. I’m coming into a true relationship. And then they start coming up with things that really link their inner world with the environmental questions of the day.
Why do I think factory farmers are the bad guys when I don’t really take a deeper look at the ways I could be more generous in my daily life. Why do I think that my friends are worthy of forgiveness but I’m not. You start getting into territory within five minutes that doesn’t seem environmental at all. It just seems human. It just seems like it’s time for us to address how to be human in a more beautiful and empowered way and doing little exercises like this with young people, it takes huge problems like the biodiversity crisis or climate change. And it takes it away from just being intractable weight and it brings it in to being something that we care about and that we can address through empowered feelings, not only empowered action.
So my question that I’d like to leave you with is what if the Anthropocene, which is the term we use to describe this period of geological and human history, what if it wasn’t a time period where what it meant to be human was totally crappy when humans were defined by being greedy, exploitative and destructive. What if instead this was a time period where we really learned how to be human in a new way, where we really learned how to take our place in the incredible web of life that we need and that is what gave us life on this planet and that’s already happening. It’s happening around the world but my proposal is that it’s not going to happen externally unless we also do the work internally, unless we really think about how could we take the idea of interconnectedness out of our heads and into our hearts?
And so I feel like the story of humans where we really figure out what it means to have hope even during a hopeless time? What it means to confront an abyss personally and collectively with wisdom and courage? What it means to really start honoring the other life forms on this planet in a deep way? I think that’s a story worth telling. And the only way we can tell that story is by living it, is by figuring out how to live from a new story because we don’t get to live from the old story and then all of a sudden find ourself in some great new world. We actually have to change the story while we’re living it. We have to create the new story through living in a new way.
So if there’s anything that sparked your interest in this conversation today, I’ll just throw out a couple ways that you might be interested in following up. I know that they mentioned at the beginning that ours was a small segment in a bigger movie about endangered species that you can just get a free seven day Discovery Plus subscription and cancel it if you want. But it was a fun movie that looked at endangered species solutions around the world, that’s on Discovery Plus.
I also just finished writing a textbook, Global Change Biology. I certainly don’t think that average person wants to read a call college textbook, but it goes into a lot of these themes in more detail. And the last thing I wanted to mention for those of you that have a connection to campus is that I’m also serving as the faculty director of a huge new initiative at UC Berkeley called Berkeley Discovery. And what we’re trying to do is take this idea of what is the new empowered story look like for individuals in a community and bring it into the undergraduate education experience.
We’re trying to completely redesign how the undergraduate experience at Berkeley turns into more of a journey for students that are mentored on an individual path. Students will still have majors, they’ll still take courses, but they’re going to be exposed to an entirely different landscape of learning. And we’re really excited about this. This is just a quote from the chancellor, “Discovery will be the foundation of the Berkeley experience and really the fabric of what we do.” And so that’s a way that even though it doesn’t have to do with the environmental movement in particular for those of you that are engaged on campus, if you’d like to hear more about that, feel free to get in touch. It’s a really exciting time to be thinking about how we tell new and more empowered stories to young people. And I’ll just leave you with my email address in case folks have thoughts that they’d like to reflect after our conversation today. And thank you so much for being here today and being part of this lifelong learning community.
Susan Hoffman: Bree, let me be the first to thank you for an extraordinary talk. We were fully expecting science and we are surprised and delighted by the philosophy and by the attention to worldview which I believe most of our members would be solidly behind you. And the fact that we’ve got an existential threat, all of us, and we do have to see not only our role in it, but also as you suggest how we can make for better solutions and a path forward. As you know, one of the things that OLLI does is intergenerational dialogues and climate change was the first one that we had. And we discovered that it helped the undergraduates to hear from OLLI members who had been living and had experience living with the science and with a fear and on more than one student’s perspective, it helped. It helped to know we’re in this for the long run.
And I think I really appreciate the fact that you are a scientist who is interested in communicating. I think that’s been one of the things that we lost some moments around Copenhagen when the energy scientists could not relay the science well enough so that the average person could understand it. And I think you have taken us to a whole new place with how you’re thinking in this worldview. I’m looking at the chat and I imagine that… Let’s see what’s happening. Everybody is saying pretty much this is pretty extraordinary. Isn’t the extra… One of the questions. I’m sorry. Bree, go ahead.
Bree Rosenblum: I absolutely think that the policy is necessary. There’s no question. What I’m noticing is if the people making the policy don’t actually feel connected to the deeper reason, like if it’s all still a fight and relying on human ingenuity to save the day then there’s a way that the policy matters, but is a little hollow. I’m envisioning a world where it’s not that we don’t have policy change but that the policy change has a deeper foundation because the people that are engaging in policy change are doing it from a deeper place of interconnection and a deeper sense of collective… What I notice because I have a lot of friends and colleagues and I myself work in the policy arena. So it’s not that I don’t think that is worthwhile, but what I notice is that most of my students that are in environmental sciences that want to go onto policy are going into policy with the mentality that it’s a fight, going into policy with the mentality that we have to stop the bad guys. And that, that mentality itself is part of the poison that’s in our social waters right now.
And so it’s not to say we don’t need policy. It’s not to say we don’t need regulation. It’s not to say we don’t need innovation, but I think that where it comes from matters. And I think if we train a next generation of policy makers who aren’t coming at it as like I’m in a fight to save the world, but are in it because they deeply care and want to a honor a whole new vision of what it could look like to be in a human society that act actually lives in harmony with the planet, it just feels like there’s an energy that matters. So pro policy but would love to see it coming from a place of more connection.
Susan Hoffman: Sure. Thank you for that. That’s a really important expansion. One of the thoughts you’re talking about taking the science to the ground to the people who certainly, the park rangers, the others but is there examples in your field and others you’re knowledgeable about where crowdsourcing has been an important aspect? Can you speak to that issue?
Bree Rosenblum: Yeah, for sure. There’s some really exciting examples of crowdsourcing and biodiversity conservation. Right now most of them are on the financing side. There’s not a lot of examples of intellectual crowdsourcing and I can pass them along to, but there’s a few great examples of crowdsourcing funding for conservation action. And the reason why that’s so powerful and important is, and I see a note in the chat about a distributed approach. If you think about how we want to empower local communities to engage in conservation in meaningful ways and how a lot of conservation policy work has been very top down in the Western part of the world. And crowdsourcing can be a really effective way of supporting local and indigenous efforts towards biodiversity conservation and really removing the power structure of only having regulation as a mechanism for biodiversity conservation, but really empowering local communities to think about what they want to do, how they want to do it, and then bringing in funding from all over the world to make that happen and not just wait for huge international NGOs to decide that it’s a priority.
Susan Hoffman: Great. Thank you. I apologize. Other great comments. Alan Gould, is it ironic that people who strive to be stewards of the planet have a view that humans are at the pinnacle of creation and can care for the lower species?
Bree Rosenblum: Totally. Totally ironic. And something that I think about. Yeah.
Susan Hoffman: I think of that bumper sticker that’s on one of my family member’s trucks: “I didn’t get to the top of the food chain to eat.” Anyway.
Bree Rosenblum: I think about it a lot because it’s been one of the things I’ve had addressed most directly in my own practice as a scientist and as an educator is all of the implicit arrogance that is embedded in the way that my culture approaches conservation and spend many years really in that question of like what is an approach that is founded on humility look like as a scientist where you are actually engaging with what needs to be engaged and bringing your intelligence to it but not in this colonizing way of assuming that like we’ve got be the steward, it’s like, no, we have to be part of, we have to participate with wisdom in this incredible life support system that’s already here. So I appreciate that comment from Alan very much. Yeah.
Susan Hoffman: Yeah. Well thank you and Max, thanks Max gives the URL for the Discovery Initiative and we’ll make sure that we forward that as well so that people are even more aware of what you’re up to. I think that we’re almost at the end. I’d like to say another thank you to you. And also let our members know this is the kind of talk you want to share with others in your family. And we will have this captioned within the week and posted on YouTube. And for all of you who registered for today, you will get a link from us in your email that will say that it’s up and available.
Bree Rosenblum: Thanks all of you for welcoming me to the community. Have a great week.
Outro: You’ve been listening to Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Acast, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Also, check out another podcast of ours, Berkeley Voices, about the people who make UC Berkeley the creative, quirky, world-changing place that it is. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.