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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Preparing to be an Environmental Scientist

If a student is wondering how he or she should prepare for this world you're describing of immense environmental challenges, and a lot of public work yet to be done, what would you recommend, how would you recommend that he or she prepare for a career as an environmental scientist who also is an activist?

Well, I'd tell them to get as many courses as they could in different fields that are relevant, not just ecology and economics, but also political science, maybe ethics, anthropology, that kind of thing. And also, especially, to find those courses on campus, just a very few, which would train them, as a scientist, to become an activist, to find out how the system works, where are the nerve points in social systems or political systems where you can insert your lever and generate most leverage, with multiplier effects. Because there are places like that.

I would also encourage students to bite the bullet and learn how to speak in public. I was once at a cocktail party in London, a government cocktail party, and who should come into the room but Margaret Thatcher. She walked around, as politicians do, saying to everybody "what do you do?" She came to me and I said, "I'm an environmentalist." And she said, "Oh, you're one of those silly scientists who waste the taxpayers' money on the environment." And I said, "Now wait a minute Prime Minister, it's not like that. If you will give me just thirty seconds I'll tell you it's different." And she said, "All right, thirty seconds from now. Go!" Harry Kreisler and Norman Myers And I had to start talking. After thirty seconds she said, "Try another thirty seconds." And after that she said, "Ring my secretary. Come in some time next week, we'll have half an hour together." I would like all students to think, what would they say if they came face to face with a politician who said, "You're wasting taxpayers' money, justify it. Thirty seconds, go."

Did any good come of your meeting with Mrs. Thatcher?

Oh heavens yes. Yes. We had a series of meetings.

What about just the general public? What can the individual do if they believe in the message of the environmental movement but they feel powerless to act?

It's an awful thing to feel powerless, because then you start to feel paralyzed and of course you tune it out. You really need to do something. And I would figure: tackle the biggest threat of all, in the long run, apart from mass extinction, and that is global warming. And that means getting out of fossil fuels. And average American can save enormous amounts of carbon dioxide causing global warming quite readily. Getting 5 mpg better mileage in the car will straight away do it. That'll save one ton of carbon every year. One ton, that's a heck of a lot. And how do you do that? Well you don't have to buy a more efficient car, though that would be very fine. All you need to do is to drive a bit more carefully. Don't scream up to the traffic light going red and then stand on the brakes. That wastes gasoline. You could save a lot that way.

Recycle one newspaper, one aluminum can, and one glass bottle per day and that will save almost 300 lbs of carbon over the course of a year. Switch off unnecessary lights, that will save 200 lbs. And of course, a lot of these things, like switching off unnecessary lights, driving more carefully, will put money in your pocket. It's a win-win situation.

At the end of a year an average American family can save enough money, let alone carbon, to go off and have a long weekend at some seaside resort. And apart from that I would say citizens should do their homework, get informed, and then join an environmental group of choice. There are lots and lots of really very good ones. And when you've joined one, join another. Don't ask: can you afford it. Ask: can you afford not to do it? And bear in mind that in America there are ten million paid-up members of environmental groups. There are a lot of folks out there. In Denmark, there are more members of environmental groups than there are Danes.

Looking back at your quite interesting life, your many careers -- teacher, photographer, administrator -- what lessons are there for students about learning to conceptualize, learning to be an activist, using science in the public policy arena? Any or all of those.

All of the above, and one that's even more important: while you're at school, teach yourself to teach yourself. Don't be content with the stuff you learn to get a Bachelor's or a Ph.D. Above all learn to learn. Because the world is changing so fast, and there's so much knowledge coming on-stream; learn to learn. That's what Arnold Schultz finally taught me. And to become an activist. Recognize that there's been no time like now when you can really count, when you can register your opinion, most especially in the dollar marketplace by your consumption patterns. And use the Internet. It's fantastic now. You can reach out and make common cause with people all around this country, all around the world. As somebody said, there's been no time like the present. This is a time when everybody can be somebody and nobody need be nobody. And if you think yourself too small to make a difference, well you haven't been in bed with a mosquito.

One other question that comes to mind is, do you ever have a conflict between your role as a scientist and your role as an activist? In terms of what a political cause might dictate versus what the science itself reveals.

No. I've never ever taken any political stance except it be grounded in good science. I've been very careful not to exaggerate, to overstate a case, because if my scientific credibility goes then it would take fifty years to get it back.

Next page: Conclusion

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