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Talking Story with Dr. M. Sanjayan

Dr. M. Sanjayan (COURTESY PHOTO)
Dr. M. Sanjayan (COURTESY PHOTO)

Last week’s Waimea Ocean Film Festival brought together an impressive line-up of filmmakers and guest speakers to inspire, educate and engage participants in a celebration of the ocean and island culture. One of those speakers was Dr. M. Sanjayan, a leading ecologist, speaker, writer, and Emmy-nominated news contributor who’s focus is the role of conservation in improving human well-being, wildlife and the environment.

Dr. Sanjayan appeared at the festival to share a behind-the-scenes look at filming Showtime’s groundbreaking documentary event series, “Years of Living Dangerously” while on location on Christmas Island, Hawaii and in the Andes. As the scientist correspondent for the show, his goal is to discover the science behind climate change. The new series is about people affected by and seeking solutions to climate change, and is set to air this April. It is a collaboration between some of Hollywood’s biggest stars and leading national news journalists.

North Hawaii News had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Sanjayan and learn more about his passion for conservation and the welfare of humanity.

NHN: How is your message of conservation received in more affluent societies like the United States compared to other parts of the world?

Sanjayan: At a superficial level, I’d say that the poorer places on the planet — places where people are living closer to nature and are more likely to bare the brunt of it’s impacts — are more perceptive, or more empathetic to my message of conservation straight off the bat. But then, if you go deeper, I think affluent societies are just as open to re-thinking things as other places are.

I think if you go deeper and start really asking people about where their water comes from and what happens to some of the things that they take for granted, then it starts sinking in. So for example, if you want to sell almost any product to a world of seven billion people and you run out of the raw material, you’re in trouble. Coca-Cola worries about water. Not necessarily because Coca-Cola cares about conservation, but Coca-Cola certainly cares about making a product and it takes a lot of water to make Coke. So unless you’re sure that the river or the watershed is going to continue to run, your multi-billion dollar company now is at risk. So I think at the end of the day, nature is so powerful and so important that rich or poor, it’s going to bite you in the ass if you don’t take care of it.

NHN: What behavioral adaptations do you feel human populations have the most difficulty adopting?

Sanjayan: Let’s talk about some easy ones first — the things I feel have an easier time moving forward. The idea of green infrastructure, creating something with nature like coral reefs, mangroves, forests, and things that protect communities from weather events are something that people can accept. But the things we have a more difficult time accepting are those that come to our own personal life. We all want to find the bad guy and stop the bad guy, but when the bad guy is us, it’s just much harder to do. How we travel, how we cook food, where we get our food from, how we build our cities, all of these questions have some bearing on us. I think we could have a pretty good quality of life if we start having these conversations early enough to make a difference.

NHN: What do you find is the most effective way to create change and meaningful dialog with those who deny that climate change is real?

Sanjayan: I’m meeting less people who are flat-out deniers, which is good news. Most people who I meet who are on the denying side of the equation tend to be people who think this is happening, but think we have lots of time or think we are smart enough to get ourselves out of it. I think it’s a dangerous cul-de-sac to drive yourself into. If you fly an airplane into a canyon, you’re either hoping that canyon is going to open up, or that you’re going to be able to get the plane over the rim. Either way you’re still flying into a blind canyon. You don’t really know what’s going to happen, and if something goes wrong it’s going to be catastrophic.

Most people feel like we have more time or that some white knight is going to come to the rescue. But there isn’t a white knight — it’s us. We’re in the front lines and it’s up to us to do something about it. I think that the best way to get this message across to people is by humanizing it — by not being preachy to people. I really kind of get it. I understand why it’s so hard to make some of these changes. I think if we can humanize it, if we can make it real for people and make it about something that’s happening now and give them some control over what they can do, then people are more likely to take some action. I think we should make people feel it, and then we will see changes.

NHN: What are some changes you’re seeing that allow you to be optimistic about the future?

Sanjayan: Investment in clean technology and the end of coal as a source of fuel is happening in the United States. It’s partially happening because of fracking, but it is still happening. People in China are absolutely livid that they are at risk of dying from air pollution and they’re asking for change. The government is hearing it because they don’t want social unrest. Every year that I talk about climate change there is a bigger and more willing audience open to making those changes. I’m optimistic that we will get this right. My big worry is that we may not get it right fast enough. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, I just want to get there before the train runs me over.

NHN: It seems so easy for much of our society to ignore the problem of climate change because we don’t feel it affecting us. Do you think things will have to get catastrophic before everyone acknowledges the effects of climate change and works for significant changes?

Sanjayan: Everyone says it has to get really bad before it gets better. The problem with that is it will cause so much suffering and so much misery. If things get really bad people will do something about it, but you don’t want it to get so bad that that’s the only way we can get ourselves out of a box. When Pearl Harbor happened we didn’t sit around and wait for another one to happen, the country acted. When 9/11 happened, the country acted. It was a warning sign of something that could be much worse if we didn’t act. I think climate change is giving us warning, after warning, after warning. The question is, when are we going to act?”