Nonhuman beings, and the passionate people who study them, animate Ed Yong’s vast, award-winning and kaleidoscopically varied body of journalism. His vivid stories explore the lives of scientists, the origins of life, social policy, whale hearts, the sixth extinction, the individuals we lose when a species vanishes or populations shrink, and the communities of tiny microbial beings that make us ourselves. To be at all, Yong demonstrates, is to be in partnership with other animals. In this episode, we speak with Yong about the wonders and burdens of telling stories about the animal world.
Over 40 percent of the Earth’s surface is open ocean that is over 200 miles from the nearest shore. These waters exist outside national jurisdiction and are almost entirely beyond the reach of law. Our guest, investigative journalist Ian Urbina, spent five years risking his life in these anarchic places to chronicle the lives he witnessed there. He met shackled slaves on fishing boats, joined high-speed chases by vigilante conservationists, rode out violent storms, and observed near mutinies. He lived on a Thai vessel where Cambodian boys worked 20-hour days processing fish on a slippery deck, shadowed a Tanzanian stowaway who was cast overboard and left to die by an angry crew, and met men who had been drugged, kidnapped and forced to cast nets for catch that would become pet food and livestock feed. We speak with Ian about the sprawling and dystopian world he chronicles in his acclaimed book, The Outlaw Ocean.
Professors Doug Kysar and Jonathan Lovvorn are the Faculty Co-Directors of the Law, Ethics & Animals Program (LEAP) at Yale Law School. Launched in fall 2019, LEAP is a multidisciplinary “think-and-do” tank dedicated to empowering Yale scholars and students to produce positive legal and political change for animals, people and the environment upon which they depend.
Kysar is Deputy Dean and Joseph M. Field ’55 Professor of Law at Yale Law School, and a leading scholar in the fields of environmental law, torts, climate change, products liability, and risk regulation. In addition to his roles at Yale Law School, Lovvorn is Chief Counsel and Senior Vice President for Animal Protection Litigation at the Humane Society of the United States, where he built and manages the nation’s largest animal protection litigation program.
In this episode, Kysar and Lovvorn speak about how animal law, industrialized cruelty, and climate change are inextricably entwined; why advocates and academics must focus on “animal destruction” laws in addition to “animal protection” laws; the deep questions animals raise about our country’s larger legal structure; and the profundity of the Monsters of Folk song, “The Right Place.”
For the past ten years, journalist Christopher Ketcham has documented the confluence of commercial exploitation and government misconduct on public lands across the West, the role of the livestock and energy industries in their despoliation, and the impact of rampant federal land management agency capture on wildlife. We speak with Ketcham about his fierce new book, This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption Are Ruining the American West, which Outside Magazine called “the Desert Solitaire of our time.” The national commons that Ketcham focuses on — hundreds of millions of acres stretching across 12 Western states — are managed on the public’s behalf by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Both agencies operate with a “multiple use mandate.” This means they are required to strike a balance between using the land for purposes that generate economic profit and protecting the health of the ecosystem. But today, Ketcham says, “multiple use” is multiple abuse and our public lands — and the wild animals and plants that depend on them — are being pillaged, poisoned, and assaulted by industries and the government agencies captured by them.
In the 1970s, scientists proposed what has become known as the Gaia Hypothesis: the idea that earth is best understood not as a passive substrate or background to life but as a life form in its own right. Our guest, journalist Ferris Jabr, believes the time has come to revive that idea. To understand how sentient creatures have evolved on this planet, he suggests, is not only to grasp that animals—human and otherwise—are offshoots of an evolutionary tree; it’s to see the tree itself as one element of a dynamic, interrelated organism. We speak with Jabr about the art of science reporting, the limits of life, and what the white cliffs of Dover are made of.
Author and sailor David Barrie voyaged around the globe and through scientific literature to learn about the awe-inducing and still mysterious navigational powers of animals. Barrie writes of mysteries such as how birds employ “map and compass” type navigation, how Box jellyfish use some of their twenty-four eyes to keep track of trees and other above-water landmarks, how sweat bees can detect and find their ways home using single photons of light, and how Sahara desert ants measure their turns and count their steps in a process humans call “dead reckoning” — in addition to relying on visual landmarks, patterns of light invisible to the human eye, wind micro-vibrations, scent, optic flow, and the earth’s magnetic field. Animals’ navigational feats reveal an extraordinary awareness of the environment around them — a form of perception that is often far different from our own. In his new book, Supernavigators, Barrie describes the navigational intelligences of other species, which often exceed our wildest imaginations, and issues a call for humans, too often “blinded by vision,” to better respect and celebrate these animals’ abilities in an era when human behavior is increasingly impeding them.
Film director and producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite did not set out to make a film that would force a national moral reckoning over how we keep whales in captivity, slash the profits of Sea World, and make her the unexpected enemy number one of a multi-billion dollar industry. But that’s what happened. Her acclaimed film Blackfish tells the thrilling and heartbreaking story of Tilikum, an orca whale who killed three people while in captivity. Shot on a budget of just $76,000 and released in 2010, Blackfish has been viewed by more than 60 million people and has become one of the most impactful documentary films of all time. In the six years since its release, Sea World has ended its orca breeding program and pledged to phase out orca shows all together by the end of 2019. We speak with Gabriela about the making of Blackfish, the hazards of keeping cetaceans captive, and how her film catapulted her to the frontier of marine animal activism.
“Books, like landscapes, leave their marks in us,” Robert Macfarlane once wrote. “Certain books, though, like certain landscapes, stay with us even when we left them, changing not just our weathers but our climates.” Macfarlane’s writing has done this for us and for millions of readers. It has shifted our climates for the better, deepened our sympathies, expanded our understanding of and attention to our moral and physical landscapes, and reminded us of the stakes of being alive. In this episode, Macfarlane joins us to speak about his new book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey. In the book, Macfarlane explores how we humans shape value across expanses of “deep time” — geological time in which the units of measurement are eons and epochs, not days or years — and asks: Are we being good ancestors? “When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert,” he writes. “New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless earth.”
In 1950, a physicist posed the question that has come to be known as the Fermi Paradox: given the high mathematical probability that other intelligent life forms exist elsewhere in the universe, why is there no evidence that they exist? In his blazingly original paper, “Radio Astronomy as Epistemology,” our guest, philosopher Anthony Weston, formulates a solution. What we take to be the silence of the universe, he writes, may teach us more about ourselves—and the challenges of receptivity to nonhuman minds in general—than about the prevalence of other life. The reason the universe appears to offer no evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, Weston suggests, may be that we are paying the wrong kind of attention. We speak with Dr. Weston about self-fulfilling prophesies, the limits of animal intelligence tests, and how to cultivate what he calls “receptive listening.”
In 2007, our guest, Fabrice Schnoller, was sailing off the coast of Mauritius when he had an encounter that would change his life and open a new frontier in marine biology. As his boat neared land, huge pillars of steam burst out of the water. When Schnöller jumped in to investigate, he was overwhelmed by a crashing, creaking sound. It was the echolocation clicks of sperm whales, the bearers of the largest brains ever known to have existed on Earth. In addition to helping whales navigate, some evidence suggests that these clicks also function as a language. To investigate this possibility, Schnöller founded DAREWIN, the first initiative devoted to studying whale click communication and exposing it to the wider public. In the nine years since the project launched, Schnoller and his team have amassed the largest database of sperm whale vocalizations in history — all collected non-invasively, through free-diving. We speak with Schnöller about DAREWIN’s work, its pioneering methodology, and what it’s like to be X-rayed by a whale.