It’s not often that I spam refresh my podcast feed, but at 4 pm this Thursday I found myself repeatedly swiping on my phone to get the first episode of a brand new show. “How to Save a Planet”, hosted by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg, just launched. It is a podcast about climate change, and it is exactly what I have been looking for.
To be clear, “How to Save a Planet” is not the first podcast about climate change. There are others, but they are mainly commentary on climate news, rather than tightly edited radio shows. “How to Save a Planet” is also produced by Gimlet Media, who are great at creating high quality audio. These improvements in production value make a difference in the listening experience… but that isn’t what has me excited about this podcast.
As someone who thinks about climate change a lot, I struggle with an uncomfortable internal dialogue. I am constantly being jerked between optimism and pessimism. One day I am stewing over new research that shows the world is get hotter than we had expected, and a few days later I am waxing poetic about the power of the climate discourse. I get excited learning about Kamala Harris’ environmental record, then get depressed thinking about climate denialism. Frankly, it is emotionally exhausting, and I don’t think I’m alone in this inner-battle.
“How to Save a Planet” has an approach to talking about climate that is different in a subtle way: they are here to focus entirely on climate solutions. What are people doing to get us out of this mess? Where is progress being made? Who are the heroes of this story? Reporting on these subjects is not entirely new, but it is different when it is packaged in a show that is explicitly for the purpose of sharing good news. When I encounter a hopeful climate story, I become defensive, or even hostile.
“Interesting idea, but is it practical?”
“Good luck getting that through Congress!”
“This story is downplaying how bad things are right now...”
By creating a podcast with an optimistic premise, I am able to turn off the pessimistic part of my brain. It also means the show doesn’t need to begin every episode with the requisite throat-clearing about how dire things are. By creating a space devoted to good news it offers the listener an opportunity to mentally disarm and experience hope.
This isn’t to say the podcast is naive. They are aware that climate change is very real and a very scary threat. In fact, I feel like the motto of the show is summarized in the trailer to the podcast, where the hosts are asking climate experts the most important question of our time, “How screwed are we?”
We can choose to be completely screwed, if we want to. But, also have the ability to limit the damage. So, we can choose whether we’re screwed.
— Dr. Kate Marvel
Perhaps unintentionally, Dr. Marvel has summarized what I see as the soul of “How to Save a Planet”. Yes, things are bad, and they are on track to get much worse, but this is all a choice. For now, let’s not focus on what it means to be “completely screwed”, but instead learn about the choices we must make to stop us from being “screwed”. The horrible state of the planet is taken as a given.
Now, you might think this sounds dull. Though depressing, the “we’re all gonna die and the earth is on fire” content is more engaging than listening to people meditate on the beauty of solar panels. Aside from being lame, these “feel good” stories can become dishonest by understating the obstacles to a sustainable future.
Episode one of “How to Save a Planet” manages to avoid these traps. The show focuses on the small town of Somerset, Massachusetts, that is dealing with the closure of its coal plants and decides to transition into a hub for offshore wind power. Through the story we encounter a number of instances that challenge our preconceived notions about climate change and environmentalism. We encounter the “Queen of Coal” who becomes the “Wind Witch”, a group of liberal landowners stopping a renewable energy project, and a community that learns to see climate change as an opportunity rather than a burden. By managing to subtly poke holes in the stereotypes associated with sustainable energy, the show is able to engage with interesting topics in an engaging way.
It probably seems weird to write a glowing review of a podcast after just one episode, but I am excited about this show! “How to Save a Planet” is a great podcast to follow for anyone passionate about climate change. Having a space to both learn and feel hopeful is refreshing. While I still believe unsettling content like “The Uninhabitable Earth” plays an essential role in the climate discourse, “How to Save a Planet” provides an upbeat perspective to balance out the doom and gloom.