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Bill Nye says the planet is on fire—but he’s still optimistic

AP/Vince Bucci
“The quality of information is the name of the game, people.”
  • Clarissa Pharr
By Clarissa Pharr

Deputy Ideas editor

Bill Nye, professional science guy, recently said that “the planet’s on fucking fire.” But despite the one-time PBS show host warning that we are “now deep into the most serious environmental crisis in human history,” he surprisingly still calls himself an optimist.

That’s because there is a grim silver lining: With the Green New Deal in talks in the US and the recent youth climate strike that mobilized 1.6 million students in 120 countries, more people are at least discussing climate change. This allows Nye to find new footing for the same arguments he’s consistently made for decades: the earth is warming, we need to do something about it, and science can help us.

He’s crafted his career in entertainment as a response to today’s scientific quandaries, big and small, and he has positioned his own science guy persona as the solution itself: “I encourage everybody to ask questions of the expert,” he said when asked for a bottom line. “The expert brings the information to enlighten us.”

So that’s exactly what we did. A few days before the release of his new podcast Science Rules!, out now, Quartz asked Nye just how we can identify and access verified experts in the age of technology, whether science needs to explain the nature of consciousness, and how he feels about a future built on artificial intelligence.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: You’ve been doing this for a while. Have you noticed any surprising trends that people have been talking about?

Bill Nye: Something people have been asking, and something I’ve wondered about continually, is the nature of consciousness. It’s really an extraordinary time when we’re able to take scans of brains of people when they’re alive, and work our way down into how we think.

I grew up driving a stick shift. Okay, so what! My grandfather was in WWI and he rode a horse in battle.

But how do we know that we know anything? This is a more philosophical question, but the only thing I can know is that I’m thinking.

And another thing I’ve been noticing is the business of CRISPR, this technology that will enable people to modify their genes. It’s really something.

What are your thoughts on advances in artificial intelligence, and scientists who are thinking of ways to recreate consciousness?

Artificial intelligence is just short-hand for better control systems. I’m in Oklahoma right now, and the freeway is blocked because of this semi tractor-trailer wreck—I just caught the end of it.

There will be a time when young people will say, “You let humans drive cars? That’s crazy!” And we’ll say, “There were wrecks all the time, yes! There were crashes all the time, yes!” So, that’s a problem that artificial intelligence will solve.

And I think it’s great! I think let’s go! Get it done! I mean, I’ve driven cars plenty. It’s work! I grew up driving a stick shift. Okay, so what! My grandfather was in WWI and he rode a horse in battle.

Is there anything you have expected to change, that hasn’t?

Well, just that anybody is able to get any following or acknowledgment with the idea that the earth is flat. It’s extraordinary!

That there are people running around saying the Earth is flat shows a profound failure of our education system. And it’s very striking, to a questionable degree, that people do not understand the value of vaccinations. People being unable to evaluate the value of vaccinations is discouraging.

How do you try to change these opinions?

An anti-vaxxer isn’t going to change her or his mind in a half hour. I went to elementary school with a guy who had polio. You do not want polio. And you can eat all the organic carrots you want, that does not prevent you from getting polio. Vaccines are 200-year-old technologies. It’s amazing, and it is surprising, how we failed when it comes to education here in the United States.

One notion that stands out in your new podcast is the idea that it’s possible to have a high quality of life for everyone on this planet.  

Yeah, is that so wrong?

No! That’s not wrong at all, but when you look around, not everyone does have a high quality of life, certainly not everywhere in the world. So, if that’s the mission, where do we start?

I’ve distilled these many, many ideas into three big ideas:

First, we want renewable electricity for everyone in the world. And it has to be reliable—so, renewable reliable electricity for everyone the world.

And second, we want clean water for everyone in the world. And in a sense, the electricity would enable everybody to have clean water. If you have limitless, or almost unlimited, energy, you can do almost anything. And when we’re talking about energy, we’re talking about electricity in this context. Electricity enables you to have a transcontinental phone conversation like this one. Or, it lets us make toast—the same form of energy, it’s amazing.

And then the third thing we want for everyone in the world is access to the internet—or whatever the young people will call the internet in the future.

If you could wave some magic wand, if you had some Harry Potter gizmo, and you could change everything very quickly, you’d want to raise the standard of living for girls and women. We provide a higher quality of life for women and girls by providing education. If you provide education, you provide access to the internet—or, again, whatever the internet becomes. If you raise the standard of girls and women, everyone is happier. Life is better for everybody. If a woman has a higher quality of life, she’s going to get a better job. She’s going to have fewer kids—so there will be fewer kids and every kid will have access to more resources. It’s a win-win-win-win-win.

These are shorthand—big ideas that enable me to talk about these things quickly, and, I believe, in a way that’s easy to understand. The triple threat. Or, rather, the triple cure.

There’s no one thing that’s going to accomplish all of this. It has to be approached everything all at once.

The recent measles outbreaks, the resurgence of the anti-vaxxing movement, climate change deniers—all these things have spread because of the internet. What do we need to be doing more of?

What an extraordinary time when people presume that anything on the internet is true—or, worse yet, presume everything on the internet is not true.

If you look up the atomic number of rubidium, it’s probably going to be right. Very few people are motivated to lie about the number of protons in rubidium atoms. But if people are saying whether or not someone running for president has a child pornography ring in the basement of a pizza parlor, you’ll have to find a way to learn that that’s probably not accurate—no matter how much you hate that candidate.

When I was in school, the skill that was emphasized was the ability to find information and to look it up in the library. Get the card catalogue, get the information from multiple sources, and make sure it’s reliable.

The skill we need now is to sort information, to assess the validity of information we find on social media and the electric internet machine kids use. People call it logic, or reason, but the phrase that’s being used right now in science is critical thinking. That’s the skill we want everyone to have. The quality of information is the name of the game, people. Critical thinking.

I’m pretty sure new media will be regulated in the same way radio, television and newspapers are regulated. Yes, you have the right to yell “Fire!” but you don’t have the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

So, pretty soon, all platforms like Facebook and Twitter will be regulated. Or they’ll have a quality vetting of some sort. This is going to require very sophisticated and dedicated laws to be in place.

So you feel hopeful that there is a way to regulate this?

Oh, yeah! I’m very optimistic. When the people coming of age today are running the show, all this stuff’s going to get addressed in five minutes. Climate change is just going to get addressed, and we’re going to have renewable electricity.


Yes! They’re not going to put up with fossil-fuel industries running around polluting; not going to put up with people like Kellyanne Conway running around screaming at the top of her lungs that we had more people at this inauguration when there clearly weren’t. This is not going to last!

It is interesting to note that as screwed-up as everything seems to be, there are fewer people in extreme poverty by percentage than ever in history. There’s actually less violence in the world than ever in history, on a per-capita basis.

I mean, you can watch Game of Thrones and all that but, in real life, we do not have a world war going on. In real life, we do not have a nuclear weapons exchange. In real life, New York City is safer than it’s ever been. Everybody’s quality of life is getting a little better. When people are provided for, and feel empowered to provide for themselves, everybody’s less violent.

A big question with climate change is how to get people to care. Statistically, climate stories are not the ones that are going to do really well. What do we need to do more of to make people really care?

If you’re not optimistic then you won’t get anything done.

Almost everyone who is a climate denier is of a certain age. As the climate deniers die off, young people are just going to get it done. I’m not saying there will be a protest akin to the Vietnam protest—that was a matter of life and death for many of us, immediate life and death. But things will change quickly.

And the economic drivers for this are very strong. The state of Iowa gets 25% of electricity from the wind, competing head to head, penny-for-penny with natural gas. So if there is just the slightest economic motivation for not polluting the atmosphere and not degrading the atmosphere, then people would embrace wind and solar power even more quickly. And, in a remarkable fashion, the same heartland states here in the US that have these large oil and gas reserves also have tremendous wind and sun resources.

I’m of an age when we had the Vietnam War. And nobody liked it, and eventually it was ended. Laws were put in place to address the power of the executive branch, and I think that’s going to happen again.

So, when renewable energy reveals itself to be cheaper and certainly catastrophically less polluting than fossil fuels, things will change very quickly. And the majority of states that have fossil-fuel interests will very soon have renewable-energy interests. Texas gets 20% of its energy from the wind—Texas, the oil state! So, things are going to change.

If you’re not optimistic then you won’t accomplish anything. If you’re not optimistic then you won’t get anything done.

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