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Earth & Sky - Radio for the Human World

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by Worldchanging Austin local blogger, Katie McDonald

Recently, I interviewed Deborah Byrd, executive producer, editor-in-chief and founder of the Earth & Sky radio series and website. Syndicated by more than 1,000 radio affiliates all over the U.S., Earth & Sky, and it's predecessor astronomy series "StarDate," have always found its home in Austin, Texas.

Earth & Sky radio is a "clear voice for science," the environment and the "human world." You can listen to any number of compelling and educational Earth & Sky shows either by tuning into local KUT-FM, or by going to the Earth & Sky web site and signing up for the shows Podcast Feeds

Earth & Sky in Deborah Byrd's words:

What is your earliest memory of loving science?

You know, I wouldn't say that I love science. I love nature. And I love the beauty of thinking clearly about things, which is what science tries to do. When I first encountered science in a serious way, in my 20s, in college, I had no idea what it was. I was taking one of those "physics for poets" classes, and I had to look up physics in the dictionary ... I just didn't get the point. Then I went through a period where I thought science was about "truth." But truth, even scientific truth, is a strange and slippery commodity. There was a period in there - in the early 1980s - where I felt disillusioned by scientific truth, even though I was reporting about it on the radio. Then over time I began to appreciate science again. I realized I simply enjoyed thinking about it, and I thought it was good ... good for people to consider and to have in their world. In the past few years, I've warmed to science more than ever. I'm coming closer to loving it now than I ever have. That's because science itself has changed.


Thirty years ago, it was considered glamorous to work on the very abstract problems. Now, through our work at Earth & Sky, we hear from scientists who want to work on human problems. I'm talking about things like how we humans will grow enough food to eat as the population grows toward 9 billion in the middle of this century ... how we'll supply enough fresh water for everyone ... how we'll transport ourselves when the oil runs out ... how, as the world grows smaller through things like air travel, we can maintain global health. Scientists are hard at work now on all of these issues. To me, that's way more lovable than scientists hard at work on abstract problems, even if those abstract problems are very interesting to think about.


What was the inspiration behind starting Star Date…and then later transitioning to Earth & Sky?

Star Date started as a telephone message service in the late 1970s. You would call a phone number and get a message about astronomy. I was working for McDonald Observatory then, writing some brochures on astronomical research, and they had asked several people to write the phone messages, but no one liked doing it. Then they asked me, and I loved it. I'd done some playwriting in high school. So it seemed natural to me to write lines for someone to speak. A few months after I started writing those little "sky messages" for McDonald Observatory's telephone service, an Austin radio station called and said they liked the messages and wanted to use them for the radio. That program was the precursor to Star Date. It was called Have You Seen the Stars Tonight? on KLBJ-FM. After about another year, I wrote a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation and got enough money to syndicate the show on radio stations all around the country. That's when I changed the name to Star Date and started producing it myself with Joel Block. I produced that show for 15 years.

I started Earth & Sky after reading a long excerpt in the New Yorker magazine by Bill McKibben, from his book The End of Nature. It touched me very powerfully. I wanted to be able to write about the Earth as well as the sky. It really bothered me that we could affect nature so profoundly, and in such a devastating way. I don't look at it like that now, though. Now I see things entirely differently.

What do you mean?

I mean that I don't see humanity as separate from nature anymore. That's what I've learned from my work with so many scientists around the globe, over the past 15 years of producing Earth & Sky. Scientists today talk about what they call the "coupled human-environment system." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coupled_human-environment_system) The idea is that we don't just live on the Earth. We're OF the Earth. In some ways, we ARE the Earth. You can't separate out the things we do to the Earth from the things Earth does to us. We affect Earth, and Earth affects us. The effects cycle back and forth. In other words, for all of human history, we struggled against nature to survive. We had to learn to use nature's resources in order to survive. So it's probably only natural that, in the 20th century, when we humans finally developed the technology to be able to "conquer" nature and not only survive but also live comfortably ... we went a little overboard. We overshot, and began using too many resources. We produced an overabundance of carbon emissions and began changing the climate. But the great thing about us humans is that we're really intelligent, as a species, and really adaptable. And cooperative. And we now have exactly the tools we need to overcome the current problems. We have science, for one thing, which lets us measure the problems. We wouldn't know about global warming, if we weren't measuring temperatures. We can look down at Earth from space now. We can run computer programs to predict future situations. And we have the internet and other forms of speedy communication that let all of us in all parts of the globe talk with each other, and try to understand each other. Scientists, for example, are using the internet to talk with each other about global problems. They're sharing ideas and finding solutions, together. All of this is what we at Earth & Sky call the "human world."

How has E&S evolved over the last 10-15 years?

Well, its reach has grown very dramatically. We started on 30 radio stations in 1991. Now we're on 1,000 U.S. radio stations, satellite radio, shortwave. We're heard all around the globe. At first on Earth & Sky, I wrote about geology and astronomy ... that was all. But then, as we received more grants and were able to bring on more staff, we started branching out into other sciences ... biology ... chemistry ... environmental science ... physics ... all kinds of science. There was a period in the 1990s when we were very big into answering people's questions about science. And we're still interested in what people have to say. Our website is designed to be one big blog. We have great discussions. Now the science we at Earth & Sky are most interested in is a mixture of lots of different sciences to create what scientists call "sustainability science." We're interested in the scientific solutions to the global problems looming ahead of us in this century. Of course, sometimes the solutions aren't known yet, but the scientists are searching for solutions. They're working hard at it and are very dedicated to it.

What has been your favorite story covered in your career – or most memorable?

Gosh, I don't know. My favorite story is the story I worked on today. Ask me tomorrow, and it'll be a new favorite. Science is such a fascinating thing. It's very pure in a way, and the people who become scientists tend to be idealistic. They want to make a difference in the world. I like that. My dad was a newspaper editor, and I've got idealism in my blood. But my current favorite ... for the past few years, I've been very interested in a group called the Great Transition Initiative (http://www.gtinitiative.org/). They're based in Boston, and they work with scientists and futurists all over the world to create global scenarios (http://www.gtinitiative.org/default.asp?action=59) that describe possible futures for humanity. They use the tools of science to create these scenarios, but their idea is that, in order to work toward a good future for humanity, you have to picture it. I heard Alex Steffen say at his talk here in Austin that "no one can picture the future." And it's true we don't know what will happen. But it's possible to use the tools of science to predict possible futures for humanity ... possible paths that might unfold based on decisions we make along the way.

Of all the awards you or E&S has received, which means the most? Why?

The biggest reward is when people come to our website to ask questions and express their opinions. Blog with us. I've been a journalist for a long time, and I feel very strongly about the new trend in journalism toward blogging. Journalists don't just talk to people anymore. People talk to us, and they talk to each other. It's part of what I was talking about earlier ... it's one of those things we need to survive in this century. We need to talk to each other and try to understand each other. Blogging is an important part of that. Can you imagine the world today if we didn't blog? If people were out there were just hearing information, but not participating in creating the information? Blogging is important because a very key component of our surviving the future is that we all talk to each other and share our thoughts and feelings and ideas and creativity. That's part of what's ultimately going to create one world, in my opinion. And I think it's pretty clear that any advanced human civilization is going to have to be a civilization where we all feel ourselves, first and foremost, to be just humans on planet Earth. Not Americans or Iraqis or Christians or Jews or whatever ... but just humans inhabiting a single human world.


How did you feel having an asteroid named after you?

Good! It's good! Lots of luck involved there. I just happened to be working in astronomy at a time when lots of asteroids were being named. I know a number of people in astronomy who have asteroids named for them. Still, it would be very cool to get to travel out into the asteroid belt and visit 3505 Byrd. It's an honor and a thrill, and I'm grateful.


Do you still attend the annual Texas Star Party?

When my two daughters were little, we went a lot. Now they're grown up, and I haven't gone in the past few years. I did travel out to Big Bend National Park over this past Thanksgiving weekend, and it's only 90 miles from the Davis Mountains, where the Star Party is held. The dark skies out there are still amazing!

What current environmental/sustainability movements are you seeing that impress you?

I love WorldChanging. Of course! The focus on solutions is clearly what's needed now.

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Comments

Very interesting to hear more about Deborah - depth to the voice I hear daily. Thanks!


Posted by: Brian on 20 Jan 07

Wow! is all I can say.

Go 3505 Byrd! and Go Worldchanging! Gerund-as-noun a la Bruce Sterling.


Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 21 Jan 07

Very Cool. I've listened to the radio show before but wasn't aware of the history. Deborah sounds like a cool chick.


Posted by: Chris on 23 Jan 07

Ms. Byrd stands alone in my experience as the most dedicated person to find and give voice to that which is true, as best we can know it, thanks to God's gift of good science.

Especially, I applaud Deborah Byrd's uncommon effort to plumb the depths of the latest research from Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel on human population dynamics and the human overpopulation of Earth in Century XXI. The implications of these data for our children and coming generations appear potentially profound.

Thanks Deborah,

Steve


Posted by: stevenearlsalmony on 23 Jan 07

Fantastic article covering some points I really needed some good usability info for.
The Deborah's guide link in particular was especially useful.
Best regards from Poland


Posted by: Tanie linie lotnicze on 25 Jan 07



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