Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Aengus Anderson: So how goes it?
Micah Saul: Pretty good. How about you?
Anderson: Doing alright. I feel pretty good about those other two interviews and this time we’re going to be heading off in a totally different direction.
Saul: Yeah. Those first two I thought in a lot of ways worked really well together as a way to kick this off, and now this is definitely going down the path of well, lesser known things. I think it’s really interesting. So once again the name of the guy we’re talking to tomorrow?
Anderson: We’re talking to Peter Warren, and he’s from the Nature Conservancy, and he’s been working with the Malpai Borderlands Group. That’s a coalition of sort of environmentalists and ranchers in Southern Arizona who’ve come together to jointly manage a lot of grassland in a way that is pretty unprecedented. It’s not common to have this sort of coalition, and it’s been a surprise, I think, that they found so much common ground and that they’ve been remarkably effective at meeting the goals of very different constituencies.
Saul: Absolutely. I think it’s really interesting that especially in the American Southwest the environmental movement and ranchers have always been at loggerheads.
Anderson: So what are some of the… There are a lot of directions I think this conversation can go. It seems like some of the natural ones we’ll want to talk about are how on earth did these groups come together? If we’re interested in the Conversation, I’m really interested in the logistics of like, how did these guys make the conversation happen?
Saul: Exactly, because I think of all of the people in organizations we currently have lined up, these people are the closest to actually really having the Conversation as we envisioned it. I mean if the Conversation is multiple varied disparate groups sitting down and talking about the future, well that’s exactly what this is. So I think you’re absolutely right. I think figuring out how that happened is going to be incredibly valuable for our version of the Conversation as a whole.
Anderson: So something I think we need to think about now before I go in and make a total fool of myself, what’s the connection to the bigger philosophical idea about this? They’re making the Conversation work; we want to pursue that. We see cultures that are threatened by economic changes sort of trying to negotiate that. Are there other big ideas we want to explore here?
Saul: As an environmentalist, I’d assume that he’s going to have more of a biocentric view of the world. The ranchers might have more of an anthropocentric view of the world.
Anderson: And maybe that’s a lens that we should actually be thinking about to explore this conversation through.
Saul: Exactly. It’d be, I think, interesting to see how you reconcile those two differing points of reference.
Anderson: Yeah, I’m really excited to see where this goes. After our last conversation was very philosophical, I think this one’s really going to bring us back to earth with a lot of tangible stuff about how do we do this. I’ll keep you posted and I’ll be sending you some audio to listen to soon.
Saul: Excellent. Alright. Take care, sir.
Peter Warren: My personal background is as a biologist working here with the Nature Conservancy for 25 years. So a substantial part of my background has been trying to understand changes, what happens to the natural communities of plants and animals over time in response to climate change and things like that.
And actually my first contact with the folks in the Malpai Group was focusing on rare plants. Turns out there’s a few very rare plants down there. One little cactus occurs only on one limestone hill on one ranch, listed endangered. So it’s like the classic horror story for a rancher and an endangered species, you know. They are the only place in the world that has this endangered species on it.
So anyway, we went back down there in the beginning in ’87 and helped put in some monitoring plots to document the trajectory of those populations of cactus, and in the process were really able to show that the management of the livestock operation of that ranch had no effect on the outcome for the cactus.
Anderson: So you’ve got a background sort of thinking about biology and change, that takes you down to Southeastern Arizona and you meet these ranchers.
Warren: Right, exactly.
Anderson: How does the Malpai Group start?
Warren: They started because, you know, they’re under a lot of pressure from, in a sense think of it as the outside world, the non-ranch community, for a couple of things. One is simply as these ranching families tend to grow over time, they have to make decisions about what to do with the ranch when there get to be too many people for the ranch to support. And often the only solution they can come up with is to sell it and divide up the proceeds to satisfy the family’s sharers in the ranch.
Pressure to split that up is related to external pressure for housing developments, things like that. When ranches are sold and sub-divided the market is continental. A recent branch sub-divided there sold in parcels to people from twenty different states. Literally. Hawaii to Florida, including British Columbia by the people that bought into the pieces of that ranch. Because the market is on the Internet. So that’s the pressure that they’re faced with. But that’s purely economic.
So from the Conservancy’s point of view, we want to see the land protected as natural habitat for wildlife, that kind of thing. And so this kind of socioeconomic problem with these ranches being sub-divided is also an ecological problem from the point of view of land connectivity for wildlife movement and functionality of watersheds and things like that.
So although our ultimate goal is protecting biological diversity on the land and protecting the integrity of these natural communities, the strategic way to get there is to prevent these ranches from being sub-divided. And it turns out the issue that these ranches are having, you know, they get together and talk and say, “Wow our neighbor over here sold out and that ranch got sub-divided…” every time that happens, it puts pressure on the remaining ranchers who want to stay in ranching.
And these are folks who might’ve been out there for four or five generations, over a hundred years. Their family tradition is all about ranching. From the point of view of folks that have survived that long, what it means is their family tradition is all about taking care of the land, keeping the grass healthy. So they were seeing this as a process that was a challenging issue for them as ranchers to kind of think about the future. They’re thinking about from the point of view, “How do we prevent this to protect ranching in this valley?” We’re thinking about, “How do we prevent this to protect the biological wildlife resources of that valley?”
Turns out we’re both trying to accomplish the same thing.
Anderson: But for…
Warren: For different reasons [crosstalk]
Anderson: Very different reasons.
Warren: Very different perspectives on the same reason, in some ways.
Warren: But back to the question, how did they start? They were having these informal get-togethers among neighboring ranches, talking about this. And one particularly insightful guy, Drum Hadley, who was part of that group, owns one of the ranches, he was really— Drum, he said, “You know, we really need to bring in some of these conservationists to help us think about what to do here.”
Anderson: How did that go over? It seems like—
Warren: It didn’t go over at all. The first time they brought this guy John Cook in, he was at the Nature Conservancy and at that time was trying to figure out what the Conservancy would do with the Gray Ranch, which we owned at that time. This was like 1990. The first time Drum took John to one of these little community get-togethers, they didn’t tell them where he was from. Just a friend. [laughs]
Another piece of this story back there as far as our relationship. There’s a ranch right in the bottom of the San Bernardino Valley. This ranch has a lot of natural waters, artesian springs on it that have, it turns, out some endangered fish and things like that. So this property came up for sale back in the late 70s. The Nature Conservancy bought it. We turned around and gave it to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They made a refuge out of it to manage those fish. And in the process, the guys working with the Conservancy at that time just basically ignored or disrespected the involvement of any of the neighboring ranchers that had been there all their lives.
So some of these folks, who are now our best partners, were sending these letters to the Cochise County newspapers really just ripping into the Nature Conservancy, attacking the Conservancy for cutting the heart out of the valley, for destroying ranching. Because it really was the best water. It was the historic center of the valley. And we took it out of ranching and gave it to the Service for fish.
So there were some really passionate hard feelings.h
Anderson: And that seems like that’s a pretty common theme across the West, right?
Warren: It is. Absolutely, yeah. That site actually represents kind of an evolution in the Conservancy’s thinking from focusing on small places that have kind of high local value like a spring with a lot of fish in it and just buying it, trying to protect that spot, to thinking more broadly. What does it really mean to try to protect that spot. This is the bottom of the valley. It’s surrounded by a 200,000 acre watershed, all of which feeds into that spot to sustain that water and the condition of the stream there. So the long-term solution there is not just buying the spring, the long-term solution is protecting the whole watershed. And there’s at least seven or eight different ranches, all of which own a substantial amount of property in that watershed. So the real, full, big landscape solution is working with all those ranchers to come up with some kind of common solution.
Anderson: That’s really interesting, because that makes me think of— I mean, this conversation happened between ranchers and conservationists there. And it seems like it went from the point of thinking about the small and local, specialized, to this bigger-picture holistic conversation—
Warren: That’s right.
Anderson: —where everyone understands that the ecosystem, as a unit, is something that needs to be thought about.
Anderson: Which has really interesting parallels with the structure of the project that I’m doing, which is sort of like how do you get people to be having a conversation about our holistic future? We have people who will be talking about aspects of the economy or the environment or science, and it feels like those don’t always overlap. So I’m really interested in this because it’s kind of like a cool parallel, almost a case study to think about bringing people together to talk about a bigger system. What actually brought the people together?
Warren: It was just their concern about the future of ranching in that valley. I mean, that was what kind of got these conversations started. But John was actually a really important catalyst in recognizing that these guys were all really motivated, really capable people. And having the skill to organize that into what our current accepted legal structure is for a non-profit organization to do that kind of thing.
Anderson: Was it hard for both sides to set aside how they viewed each other?
Warren: It was. That was the first… You know, the traditional pattern up until that time was buying a piece of land and the solution would be giving it to the Federal government to manage. In order to think of these bigger landscapes, though, clearly the Federal government couldn’t do it all. We had to have these collaborative approaches with multiple owners, private and agency land managers working together. The Conservancy decided we were going to make this an example of private land conservation and kinda set the mark for how you stimulate these collaborations for big landscape conservation among diverse ownership of different philosophies in the landscape.
How this ties in…thinking about this as I’ve been thinking about your project here… What does that mean for thinking about the future and changes that we’re experiencing? The ranchers in this case, they have a fairly long tradition of how they operate, what kind of life they lead, what kind of traditions they have. And it doesn’t include a lot of the same priorities that some of the conservationists have. But it does include a very strong sense of being self-identified as an environmental manager of the condition of the grass, that kind of thing. So if you can just kind of begin understanding how each other views those goals, which are very similar to ours, the challenge is taking what started out as a very strong antagonistic relationship and trying to direct that passion into shared goals instead of directing it at each other.
Anderson: What are some of those shared goals? I guess for a group like The Nature Conservancy, the land has value in and of itself in a non-anthropocentic way, like the land just has value, and the things living in it.
Warren: Yeah. All the species out there have value. And from the point of view of a rancher, I supposed you’d say the land has value as it supports their livestock. I mean, making a living off the land is a key element of the value the land has. And that’s true for people around the world.
I think the angle which to me is really fascinating, which Malpai is a great case study for or something, is that these ranchers recognize they had this concern which the viewed as a threat to their way of life. Their family, heritages, tradition, was being lost. So there’s this intimate link between this family tradition, community, heritage and tradition, and the land that they’re making a living on. And the Conservancy is incorporating that concept into almost everything we’re doing now around the world. We have to work with local community to find sustainable ways of using the land that are compatible with the biological diversity goals that we have for these natural landscapes.
And so it means coming to an accommodation from both sides.
Anderson: So there’s a real level of just pragmatism in this sort of alliance between I guess biocentrism and anthropocentrism.
Warren: But there’s room for both. And it turns out you can have a really healthy grassland which is feeding bison and deer and pronghorn and other wildlife, and there’s enough productivity there for some cows also. You just have to pay attention and manage the system in a balanced way.
Many of these rural communities, it turns out all around the world, people who make their living from grazing livestock of some kind whether it’s the Masai in East Africa, the Serengeti, it’s been a traditional herding culture of people there for thousands of years side by side with the best-known biggest congregations of mammals on Earth. Same kind of thing in Mongolia, a traditional herding culture, big landscape, a lot of interesting wildlife, and natural values. And every one of these local cultures is under pressure from the world at large. Whether it’s mineral development in Mongolia or pressure for agriculture in Tanzania, these herding communities are being pushed off of these traditional lands by other more intensive uses.
Just like the Malpai ranchers here, other ranchers all over the West. They’re looking for ways to protect their traditional livelihoods, and the traditional lands that go with those livelihoods, and they need to look out to other constituencies to support their goals. And it turns out the conservation world an obvious… I mean, it wasn’t obvious at first, but it turns out we’re one of the best and strongest partners for them to adopt to try to achieve their goal of protecting this ranching livelihood. That’s true…you know, herders in Mongolia, we’re partnering with some of them. It’s true with the Masai in Kenya and Tanzania. We’re kind of collaborating with them to try to protect their traditional lands.
Now, more than ever, we’re aware of what people are doing everywhere else around the world. This is a challenge that people are facing even in urban places. Bombarded with this global information sea makes it challenging, I think, to identify what are the key elements of your traditions and your culture that you need to protect. And how do you protect that at the same time that you’re bringing and engaging collaborators, engaging constituencies to help you achieve your goals, who have very different cultural backgrounds than you do?
Anderson: And how do we choose what to keep and know that some things will be lost?
Warren: I’m not even sure where this is going. This is the point where it’s— I’m not sure what the future holds, but I think this issue of both identifying and preserving local cultural traditions… Like at the Malpai Group, our Western ranching tradition, that’s only a hundred year-old tradition or so, hundred and fifty year-old tradition.
Anderson: So it’s not an old tradition.
Warren: Not and old tradition compared to the Masai, but it turns out US ranchers and Masai have a lot in common. We’ve had a couple of exchange visits between them, and it’s like, they spend their day to a large extent looking at the grass and thinking about water and where to move their cows to. The guys in Mongolia, I think the same—if your job is managing livestock on the land and a way to sustain the productivity of that land, you think about things in a very similar way, it turns out.
Anderson: So it seems like we’ve seen this amazing conversation, unlikely allies coming together, very different sort of philosophical bases for their concerns, in a way, that have some common ground that’s unexpected. And it seems like it’s been pretty successful. When you think about this as a model for any sort of conversations, this seems like it would make you pretty optimistic. Do you think you can generally broker a conversations between very different sides?
Warren: It turns out it’s actually pretty difficult, I think. Because there’s got to be a core number of people from that community who are willing to really try something new and different, and to really keep at it. Because it’s been successful. It’s been almost twenty years. And there’s been ups and downs, and people get angry, and sometimes they row; are they going to come back or not? But they do. And so just kind of keeping the momentum of this community organization I think is actually pretty challenging. Simply because it takes extra work. Everybody involved has to do something more than they would have otherwise, and their lives are already full just taking care of the ranch and family business. And not everybody wants to just try something that is pretty new and different and maybe foreign.
Warren: And working with several different local ranching communities in Arizona, I think it ends up being a pretty difficult thing to sustain.
Anderson: Do you think that’s something that could be sort of preemptively sparked, that conversation can happen, or is that something where to do all this extra work you really have to be sort of in the jaws of desperation?
Warren: Part of it, I think, is you have to legitimately be interested and curious about trying something new. Certainly some people might come to a process like this because they really need some kind of financial assistance to keep the ranch together and selling a conservation easement is one way to do that. But the longer run, and I think the more important thing is there’s got to be a core group of community members who are willing to take a leadership role to try something that not everybody trusts… Because even though Malpai’s been going twenty years. After twenty years there’s still people in that community who do not trust what’s going on, because the Conservancy is involved. So that’s the challenge.
Anderson: So if we scale this model up to sort of a conversation about the future, I guess before I quite make that jump, something I’ve asked a lot of the people I’ve talked to is, do you think that this is a moment where we should be having a conversation about the global future, that kind kind of holistic…the ranchlands scaled up to everything we’re dealing with?h
Warren: I think it’s possible. I mean, I think it’s kind of happening in a way, because countries all over the world are engaged much more extensively than they ever have been before. If you’re kind of uncertain about your own values, your own cultural heritage and what’s important about it, all this other stuff can be viewed as very threatening. Somebody else, if they have a very strong identity that they’re comfortable with, if you are uncomfortable with yours that could be very threatening.
And so it forces you to them kind of self-identity how you feel about your own values relative to all these others. And I think if you feel comfortable you could clearly draw your boundaries where you’re going to protect, and at the same time feel really comfortable about everybody else out there and their values, just kind of appreciate what they have. You know, the fact that human diversity is worth protecting somehow. I think a lot of the global dissension we’re seeing is some of these local communities exposed to all of this are seeing it as fundamentally threatening, so they’re reacting to it in really violent ways.
It’s a huge issue around the world right now, how local cultures react to this kind of process of being inundated with information about all the other cultures in the world. Do you view it as threatening or not?
Anderson: Do you think that is the issue of our time?
Warren: It could be. I think it’s an issue that threatens fragmentation of the country. Especially in a democracy, where everybody has to kind of accommodate each other in some process. A tendency to push for some kind of homogeneity across education, that kind of thing. But I think more and more these little local communities are surviving. And how do you accommodate all that cultural diversity is really one of the challenges we’re facing right now. I think it’s… We’re in an election season that’s kind of highlighting it, because folks are so polarized about how do we come together as a country to deal with significant national shared issues. The fragmentation is paralyzing us.
Anderson: And that’s something that also kind of sparked wanting to do this project, you know. In a little sense thinking about US politics and wondering how do we sort of get past that? How do we shake hands like the people in the Malpai Group did?
Warren: I don’t know how. It takes leadership that is really willing to take a risk, try something different. And the problem is our political leadership, you take a risk, you’re booted out of office. You aren’t really able to act.
Anderson: So it feels like we kind of need people of the same foresight that we’ve seen in maybe something like Malpai.
Anderson: People who can sort of take a little bit of that risk. I hope the structure isn’t rigged in such a way that that is impossible. Are you optimistic about the future?
Warren: Uh, I guess I am. Yeah, I’m kind of inherently optimistic, but… I don’t have any answers, though.
Anderson: Do you think—
Warren: I think one of the neatest things, in a way, that makes it possible to be optimistic is that when you see folks like… The changes we’ve had with Malpai Group, exchanges with Masai herders in Africa, exchanges with some of these guys from Mongolia, they have so much in common. And they can talk about so many things that they understand really well, because their lives are based on the same kind of fundamentals of ecological productivity and livestock. Radically different cultural backgrounds, languages, but a similar worldview in many ways.
And so if that’s possible, then it seems like we should be able to come to some agreement here. I don’t know. One of the difficult things is it seems like people that tend to be more similar disagree more violently about the differences they have. Which is ironic and kind of nonsensical, but it seems like it’s true, you know.
Anderson: I kind of wonder, are we putting our heads in the sane? We use these issues as a way to not think about some of these really… Because the changes thath it seems like we’re dealing with a very big and involve a lot of…I mean, soul-searching is a cheap term, but kind of that sort of—you really have to reflect. I mean like you were saying with thinking about what are your cultural values that you want to preserve.
And it seems like a lot of it comes down to sort of, we need to be having a conversation about what is good. That’s where I think with Malpai it’s neat to see that both groups can go, “Okay, we’re coming to this from very different backgrounds, but we have a sense of good.” Maybe it’s lucky that it’s in common, but maybe it can also be made to be in common. But I wonder if that’s sort of the fundamental base language that almost needs to come to the surface.
Warren: Yeah, I think maybe it does. You’ve really hit the nail on the head as far as what makes it possible to have a strong collaboration like Malpai is that agreeing on some shared goals. These goals defined as something like keeping the landscape whole, keeping the grass healthy. The “good” goal you’re setting for yourselves out there. I mean, there’s clearly a lot of things that each of us disagree about with each other, but for the purpose of Malpai, we’re all focused on what we agree on, which is the shared goals for the land.
So for whatever reason, our political process has pushed us to focus on the things we disagree about, not the things we agree on. But in order to actually move ahead with these strong partnerships, you’ve got to focus on what you agree on. And for a politician, to show agreement with someone who’s from the other side, so to speak, is a sign of weakness. Which immediately causes you to lose ground with your core. As long as compromise, which is critical, absolutely necessary for the democratic process to succeed…as long as compromise is viewed as weakness, our system’s not going to work.
Aengus Anderson: Greetings!
Micah Saul: How’s it going, sir?
Anderson: It’s going alright. I feel like we should have a bizarre, different greeting every time we start or close an episode.
Saul: I like the sound of that.
Anderson: So, I talked to Peter, and you got chance to listen to it?
Saul: I did. I did. That was, uh… God damn, we’re three for three right now. That was awesome. It’s the first really practical… This was The Conversation. That was The Conversation that they are having right now, and have been having for the last twenty years.
Anderson: You know, we talk a lot about these sort of big picture things, and I think we’re going to talk about a lot more big picture things about how do you bring people together. But I like Peter’s story about how these are people who…there’s just some guy who’s the first guy to basically extend his hand to the people on the other side and say, “Look, we can work together. We have some common goals.”
Saul: Yeah. Something that Peter said that really sort of struck me was the idea of disagreement stemming from being too similar.
Saul: And I think you were dead on. You were talking about the political parties in the US and how really they’re just two faces of the same coin. And that—
Anderson: Oh, thank God for the subjectivity disclaimer.
Saul: Uh huh. But what I thought was interesting is that in some ways, other sides of what he was talking about sort of contradict what he was saying. I think it’s really interesting that… Let’s take the Masai and these Malpai ranchers. Though on the surface they seem just completely different, they’ve realized they have incredible amounts in common.
I wonder how to reconcile those two thoughts. This group and this group have, when you look down deep inside, they have a ton in common and that’s why they’ve been able to work together. And then you look at the Democrats and the Republicans, who seem to be the same thing to, well, me. And yet they have a completely inability to work together.
Anderson: I think this is going to be something for us to also carry forward into other interviews, the kind of split between well…this is something you deal with all the time as an ontologist, or whatever the hell your job is. But what are the relevant differences? In the case of the Masai or the Mongolians or the guys ranching down in Cochise County, they have a fundamental economic similarity that allows them to kind of relate over the cultural differences.
So if we go over to the political side, whatever party affiliation you have, we’re all part of this modern economy. So we’re very similar in most ways, and our differences are sort of like the little cultural pieces of cilantro on the dish, the garnishes, the small stuff. Which I mean, admittedly those things matter, too. But it is…it’s smaller.
Saul: Right. I think you’re right. I think it’s a theme worth exploring as we continue moving on.
Anderson: The part that really caught me, and I think you can hear this on the tape, is the bit where Peter talks about that you just need to start by finding what you have in common. That’s huge.
Saul: It is. It’s sad, in some ways, that that seems so huge, isn’t it?
Anderson: Yeah. Somehow it seems like there must’ve been some former golden era when people kind of just knew that. But I don’t think that’s the rule.
Saul: It’s interesting, I think, one of the reasons it’s become so hard to say that… Bear with me here. It actually pertains to something else that struck me. You asked Peter Warren if he was an optimist…
Anderson: Mm hm.
Saul: And he seemed really hesitant to say so. To say yes. And then when he finally did, he said, “But I don’t the answers. I believe that things will be good, but I don’t know how yet.” And I wonder if being an optimist without feeling like you know the answers comes across, in modern culture, as naïveté. Or in the modern, sort of irony-based world, if being an optimist just isn’t…not cool, cool’s the wrong word. But if being an optimist seems…silly. In the same way that I wonder if saying, “Well, all we have to do is reach across and find these commonalities,” can seem, in our irony-based world, silly.
Anderson: Right. It almost has sort of a childishly simple ring to it.
Saul: Right. Despite the fact that here’s an organization that has existed for twenty years and at least anecdotally suggests, oh hey if you just reach across and find your commonalities, you can get things done.
Anderson: If you’ve got the disposition that will do that.
Anderson: And this also makes me think of the conversation with Dr. More, where he was talking about the idea of complexity. Basically, it’s so difficult to be anything more than a specialist. And I think that makes it hard also to say that you’re an optimist, because you can really own a couple of sub-fields. You can know them inside and out.
Saul: Oh, interesting.
Anderson: But to know enough to say that you’re really an optimist about the future? involves a huge knowledge that, by saying you’re an optimist you’re sort of inviting people who’re specialists in other areas to say, “Well, you’re a fool about this and this and this. You don’t know about these things. How dare you be an optimist?” Like, our default is pessimism…when it comes to thinking about the future.
Saul: God, that’s a scary thought.
Anderson: The burden of proof is on the optimist to have a sort of systemic knowledge of everything, so they can say, “This is why I’m optimistic.” And maybe that’s a false read. Maybe it’s actually really easy to go, “Oh, the future’s going to be great,” and then just kind of sign off. But maybe in the circles we’re talking to, that’s different.
Saul: Is that scary to you?
Anderson: That the default assumption is pessimism?
Anderson: So…it is, sort of. But as a pessimist, I think that’s kind of reassuring. I would be more worried if the default assumption was optimism. Because for me, I think, if your default assumption is pessimism, then you’re going to be constantly working to make the world better. And if your default assumption is optimism, you’re going to be more inclined to go with the status quo. And so, for the kind of people we want in this project, who are shakers…you know, people who are going to agitate, I wonder if we’re going to find more pessimists than optimists, because you have to have that to get you out trying to reform.
Saul: I’m intrigued by the idea that if the default is pessimism, you have to strive to improve things. I feel, in many ways, that pessimism can just lead to fatalism.
Anderson: That’s probably true, too.
Saul: In many ways personally, I’ve always sort of been intrigued by the Norse end of the world.
Anderson: Oh, you’re thinking like Norse myths.
Saul: Norse myth, yeah yeah. It’s predestined what is going to happen. At the end of the world, evil wins. But in order to be an honorable person, you have to fight on the side of good. Knowing that you’re going to lose.
Anderson: No wonder no one’s into that religion anymore. But you know, on a slightly more serious note, I’m thinking the optimism/pessimism thing isn’t a binary, right.
Saul: Oh, absolutely not.
Anderson: Or maybe it is binary, but it’s a fluctuating binary. I’m thinking of all these interviews I’ve done on other radio projects, as I’ve ridden around the country talking to people. And I’ve often been really surprised at the strange way that optimism and pessimism come in a package together. And maybe there is no logical way of reconciling which one is ascendant. I would go into many interviews and ask someone about the hardest decision they’d ever made, or what they were most excited about. And often I would get a story which seemed on the surface to be incredibly difficult, to have a sad lesson, and then the person would end, almost invariably, by saying, “…but I am happy about the future.” And I could never square that. And I don’t know how many of them could rationally square it, but I think they were being totally sincere. And maybe that’s just part of what we are as biological creatures. Pessimistic about the present, and kind of—
Saul: Optimistic about the future.
Anderson: Yeah, just a little bit starry-eyed. Even when it’s not socially cool. I think you have to be… I think you have to be a little bit optimistic about the future.
Saul: I mean, if you’re not there’s only a few options available to you.
Anderson: Ragnarök, and the bottle.
Anderson: Ideally together.
Saul: Yes, yes. In fact, this might be a good time to plug my new vodka…
Anderson: I think it’s time for us to end The Conversation and just go into selling vodka to pessimists. This Friday we’ve got Colin Camerer, who’s one of the founding minds of neuroeconomics, and so we’ll be changing paces yet again.
Saul: That seems like a common thread here. Although, again what’s interesting is that how many of the same themes just keep coming up, and as we realize more themes in the future, we’ll realize that we missed them earlier but they were totally there.
Anderson: Absolutely. It’s going to be very fun to map this thing visually.
Saul: Oh, yeah. I’m looking forward to hearing what Colin Camerer has to say, and I’ll talk to you a day or two before that to give our little intro.
Anderson: Cool. Alright, well I will talk to you in a couple days, then.
Saul: Sounds good. Take care. And we’ll talk soon.
Anderson: That was Peter Warren, recorded May 4, 2012 at the Nature Conservancy’s office in Tuscon, Arizona.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.