From tiny cowries to giant clams, seashells have gripped human imaginations since time immemorial. In her magnificent new book, The Sound of the Sea, journalist Cynthia Barnett tells the epic history of humanity’s interactions with shells and the soft-bodied animals who make them. These stories of how we have treasured, traded, plundered, and coveted shells reveal much about who we are and who we’ve been, both good and bad. Barnett’s deep research ranges from the awe-inspiring “great cities of shell” of the Calusa people in Florida, to the use of cowrie shells as currency in the Atlantic slave trade, to the decimation of mollusk populations due to climate change and over-harvesting. In this episode, we speak with Barnett about what she describes as our “world of shell,” what shells can tell us about our past, how they have shaped our present, and how the future of shells and their animal makers is tied to our own.
Hedgehogs, despite being consistently voted the most beloved mammal in the United Kingdom, have suffered great population losses as industrial agriculture and other human impacts destroy their hedgerow habitats. Our latest guest, Hugh Warwick, has studied, celebrated, written about, and fought to protect hedgehogs for more than 30 years, leading a groundswell of local and individual action to protect the small animal. We spoke with Warwick about his role as the spokesperson for the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, his writings on the impact of manmade lines on the ability of wild animals to thrive, and the environmental importance of loving your hedgehog.
In 2013, a sperm whale washed up dead on Spain’s southern coast. In its ruptured digestive tract, scientists found an entire flattened greenhouse that once grew wintertime tomatoes, complete with plastic tarps, hoses, two flower pots, and a spray canister. The whale also contained an ice cream tub, mattress parts, a carafe, and a coat hanger. And that was just the obvious human refuse. Our toxic chemicals build up in whale blubber over years such that the concentration of pollutants in some whale bodies now far exceeds that of the water surrounding them. In whales’ vastness, the reach of humanity’s destruction is magnified — but so too is the potential of our compassion. In her genius debut book, Fathoms: The World in the Whale, writer Rebecca Giggs asks: Who are we to whales? What does it mean to pollute not just places, but animals? What can understanding our ecological crises through the perspectives of other creatures teach us about ourselves? In this episode, we speak with Giggs about the astonishing ways in which whales and humans live in each other’s wakes and the enormous power of the world’s largest mammals to expand our own moral capacity.
Roughly two-thirds of emerging infectious diseases — including COVID-19 and almost all recent epidemics — originate in the bodies of animals. Microbes have spilled over from animals to humans for time immemorial, but, as our species dominates the biosphere and transforms the frequency and nature of human-animal interactions, the rate at which microbes are jumping the species barrier is rapidly accelerating. In this episode, we speak with investigative journalist Sonia Shah, author of “Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond,” about the history of viral infections and how our treatment of animals and the planet — via the burning of fossil fuels, biodiversity loss, deforestation, factory farming, the wildlife trade, and more — is fueling the eruption and spread of infectious diseases.
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.
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 the United States today, 10 billion land animals are raised and killed for food annually. That’s over 19,000 animals per minute. About 1.1 million animals during the length of this podcast. Yet as far as federal law is concerned, farmed animals do not exist. They are not counted as “animals” under the country’s primary federal animal protection law, the Animal Welfare Act. Their status is finally changing at the state level, thanks to the remarkable work of our guest, corporate lawyer and activist David Wolfson and his colleagues. We speak with David about nonhuman personhood, about the importance of teaching in driving long-term social change, and about how he’s worked to make animals legible to the law.
For decades, researchers have debated whether or not animals make friends. “Friends” — the taboo “f word” — was generally put in quotes if it was used at all. But if you study the social networks of elephants, whales and other animals, it is clear that they have friends just like we do, according to Dr. Nicholas Christakis. Friendship, like other societal characteristics, evolved independently and convergently across species.
Co-Director of the Yale Institute for Network Science, Dr. Christakis is a leading Yale sociologist and physician known for his research on human social networks and biosocial science. In this episode, he speaks with us about the ancient origins and modern implications of our common animality and his new book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society.
In their book, Love in the Anthropocene, our guest, the environmental philosopher Dale Jamieson, and his co-author Bonnie Nadzam invite us to imagine a not-too-distant-future in which our technologies have continued to transform the face of the planet. In this world, the “sixth extinction” is long underway. Like the cities of today, rivers, lakes, forests, oceans, and fields are curated and managed by humans. Other animals remain only insofar as their existence contributes to human enjoyment. Most of them are bioengineered. We speak with Jamieson about the spiritual costs of this “narcissist’s playground,” and what we can do to preempt it.