Norman Myers Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Journey of an Environmental Scientist: Conversation with Norman Myers; 11/11/98 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Learning to "Think Sideways" at Berkeley

You went on a lecture tour as something of a conservationist, and at some point somebody put in your head the idea of going to graduate school. Tell us about that and why you came to Berkeley.

My first degree was in French and German, and nothing at all to do with the environment. When I became a professional photographer I learned pretty quickly that getting a picture of an elephant just standing there wouldn't get me any money. I had to get an elephant tearing up a tree. Or I had to get a lion jumping on board a zebra. And getting shots like that is very difficult. I used to go out just before dawn every day and go to a water hole where I'd find a lion waiting in ambush for zebras to come down and drink. And I'd wait and wait for hours until the zebras would arrive and the lion would attack. And stupid thing, it would miss 29 times out of 30. And I'd have to sit there for five days before I'd finally get this work in action. But all the rest of the time I'd just be sitting in my safari truck. So to pass the time I started reading popular articles about wildlife, and then scientific articles. What makes the lion tick? What makes the zebra tick? How do they tick better together? And during five years I put myself though an undergraduate course in biology without realizing what I was doing.

Then I came on a lecture tour here to Berkeley and a professor said, "Have you ever thought of coming to grad school and putting all this knowledge and understanding into some shape?" I hadn't thought of that but it didn't take me long to decide that that was what I really wanted to do. It took me to age thirty-five to know what I wanted to do with my life.

And then you really knew.

Yes. And I would say to students, don't say to yourself at age twenty that you want to become a lawyer or a doctor for the rest of your life. The world is changing so much and you are changing so much. I've had five careers. A worthwhile person in the next century will have maybe ten careers.

Your degree here at Berkeley was an interdisciplinary one. How important was that for what you were to do with your scientific work later?

Immensely important. I came here to study wildlife management, and that was okay, but I very soon found out that wildlife needs to be managed because it is threatened, and then the question is what is threatening it? And of course there's growth in human numbers and growth in human activities. So then I wanted to go off and do some demography, why are human numbers growing? Why do people in the tropics have nine or ten kids? And also I wanted to do some economics and some political science, some international law, some agriculture, all kinds of things. And I couldn't do that in the wildlife management school, but fortunately at that time Berkeley, alone among American universities, allowed people to do an interdisciplinary doctorate. And I took that up and it was great, marvelous.

You said yesterday in your lecture that one of your professors taught you how to think sideways. What did you mean?

That was Arnold Schultz. I've worked at Harvard, Cornell, Stanford, all kinds of universities, and have rarely found a man of such stature as a teacher and as a thinker as Arnold Schultz. He taught me that if you're to understand the environment, you have to look at water and plants and sunshine and all kinds of things, and also at political systems and human values, human communities, all kinds of things come into it. And you've constantly to keep an open mind about further things that could come into it. Let me give you an example, a little story he once told about the English detective of fiction, Sherlock Holmes, who was called out to a murder case. He went and had a look around and said, "How strange about the dog." And people said, "What was strange about the dog? The dog didn't do anything, it didn't even bark." And Holmes said, "That's what was strange, that the dog didn't bark." Because it knew the intruder. That led to the solving of the case. Arnold Schultz constantly tried to teach me to keep ears open for the non-barking dogs around in the environmental scene. Marvelous teacher.

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