Readers of Don’t Forget Your Boots will know that we often struggle with finding positive environmental stories. Recently, I reached out to the most positive-and friendly-man in conservation, Mike Gaworecki, the Staff Writer and Editor at Mongabay.com, with burning questions from “how to get into wildlife conservation writing” to “are we all doomed under Trump”. He responded graciously and thoroughly to my (slightly panicked) questions and left me feeling better and much more informed—thanks a lot, Mike!
Having written extensively about conservation and environmental issues for years, Mike can no doubt speak for himself better than I can, so I have included the unedited interview below. So, without further ado, here’s my conversation with environmental science journalist, writer, and musician Mike Gaworecki—
Q: You haven’t always been a conservation journalist, what got you involved in it?
A: I’ve always been keenly interested in environmental issues, for some reason. I grew up in an unincorporated area outside of Houston, TX. The suburb I grew up in was surrounded on all sides by woods, and I spent most of my free time traipsing through them. It was a very undeveloped part of the world, at that time. I drove past a horse ranch every day on my way to high school. But as I grew up, I watched it all slowly get whittled away. The woods were turned into more subdivisions, the horse ranch was turned into apartment complexes. Maybe that had something to do with why I would become so concerned with what human activities are doing to our planet.
I had a couple canvassing jobs on behalf of environmental groups in college, and also wrote for my school newspaper at UT-Austin. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, though I was more interested in writing fiction and eventually ditched the journalism part of my double major to focus solely on studying English. But journalism was always something I was interested in, and when I moved to San Francisco to get my Masters degree in literature at San Jose State, I also found work as a freelance features writer and guest editor with Alternet. Shortly after I graduated, I went to work for Greenpeace USA and then Rainforest Action Network in an online communications/campaigning capacity for the better part of a decade. I credit both those orgs with giving me my environmental science education — the campaigners I worked with there are true issue experts, and I really feel like they provided me with an invaluable crash course on the issues around climate change, forests, and oceans.
One day I decided that writing was really where my talents lay, ultimately, and that I could be making a bigger contribution to environmental causes via those talents. So I quit my job at RAN and started writing full-time as a freelancer for Mongabay and DeSmog Blog, among others.
Q: What advice would you have for someone trying to get into writing about environmental conservation? In your opinion, is a degree in English or journalism required?
A: I wouldn’t say a degree is required, but I definitely feel that my degrees — especially my advanced degree — helped me get interviews for jobs in cases where, otherwise, my resume and experience wouldn’t have necessarily stood out.
I will say, as someone who has two English degrees but whose formal training as a journalist has been mostly on the job, I am often very impressed with the depth of knowledge and just what you might call journalistic know-how displayed by my colleagues who did go to j-school. They are equipped with terms for discussing journalism and ways of thinking about their job that I simply don’t have, though I’m lucky to be learning from them.
A strong interest in writing of course is important — the quality of your writing is ultimately what sells you. But equally important is an inquisitive nature, I’d say. You have to really know how to ask questions and do research that gets to the heart of whatever story you’re trying to tell, and those are skills like any other — you can be trained in these skills, by teachers or by yourself or colleagues, but you must practice them, hone them, and keep applying them in new, adaptive ways throughout your career. I suppose it’s kind of like what they say about going to college at all: It’s not about what you learn, it’s about learning how to learn. As a journalist, you essentially have to be open to learning every day of your life, and you have to be really good at knowing how to learn what you need to know to tell a story properly.
Q: Which one of your stories that you have written are you most proud of?
A: That’s a nearly impossible question to answer! As a native Houstonian, though, I’m pretty proud of a recent piece I wrote looking at the wildlife rehabilitators who rescued wildlife in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. These people get almost no support from the government, spend a lot of their own money to be permitted to do wildlife rehab work, and many of them rushed in to help without a second thought. The connection to my hometown just made it that much more important a story to me, but regardless of that connection, their story really deserved to be told, and I was glad to tell it.
Q: While at MongaBay, what is a passion project that you have worked on?
A: The Mongabay Newscast, our bi-weekly podcast. I’m a musician and self-taught audio engineer, and I happen to have a home studio. I actually also did a podcast dedicated to local music in the Bay Area for about a decade for an internet radio station. So I already had all the tools and experience necessary to do a podcast, and one day it just clicked: It would be really cool to take what I was doing for Mongabay as a journalist and translate it to this new, burgeoning medium. We have now just begun our second year of the podcast — episode 27 went up yesterday — and it’s opened up whole new worlds of scientific research to us and allowed us to tell some stories we would not have been able to tell otherwise. Perhaps my favorite part, aside from having two legendary musicians on the show who use their music as a platform for supporting environmental causes — Paul Simon and Bruce Cockburn — is what we call our “Field Notes” segments. These are segments where we speak with field researchers who use bioacoustics to do their work — in other words, they make recordings of the sounds of nature and use that in their research, from evaluating the overall health of an ecosystem to studying how climate change is shifting species’ ranges. Not only is it fascinating work, in my opinion, but by playing some of these recordings on our show, I feel like we’re really making scientific research more immediate and accessible to our readers/listeners.
Q: Lately, I have been seeing a lot of environmentally conscious news pieces online and in social media, do you feel that people are becoming more concerned about the environment?
A: I definitely think awareness is rising, yes. It’s kind of undeniable that human activities are having a drastic impact on our planet, as massive forest fires rage out of control in the western US, large parts of the US and South Asia are battered and flooded by massive storms, we’re losing so many species every year that scientists believe we’re living through a sixth global mass extinction event, etc. The funny thing is, this awareness does not always lead to “concern,” per se. In fact, quite the opposite, at least here in America — people seem to be digging into their anti-science viewpoints even more obstinately, and the people at the top of our government are so beholden to dirty energy interests that they are all too willing to deny climate change altogether. I don’t know that you can say all of this is some kind of backlash to the growing awareness of how mankind is impacting the planet, but it’s certainly a part.
Q: I noticed that you did your undergrad thesis on Emerson, Thoreau, and Kerouac, writers who have strong themes regarding living simply and naturally. Which current writers, if anyone, do you look to for inspiration?
A: I’m a pretty big science fiction fan, so I read a lot of that. Environmental themes are, for obvious reasons, pretty big in sci-fi. I’m definitely someone who is motivated by visions of dystopian futures to work today to make sure those futures never come to pass. When it comes to analyzing what’s going on in our world, though, Naomi Klein leaps to mind as one of the foremost writers/thinkers. Noam Chomsky, too, of course, though I generally find his writing a bit of a slog… Journalists who I think do great stuff are Joe Romm at ThinkProgress, who covers climate science exceptionally well, and David Roberts at Vox does great work too in addition to being a very good writer. I’m a pretty big science fiction fan, so I read a lot of that. Environmental themes are, for obvious reasons, pretty big in sci-fi, especially the work of writers like Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood, both of whom I love.
Q: You are a conservation writer who specializes in forestry, do you ever get the opportunity to travel to the places you write about? If not, where would you go if given a chance?
A: Not as often as I’d like, because Mongabay works with over 200 different contributors in like 50 different countries around the world, and it’s always cheaper to have someone already on the ground do the reporting, plus their local knowledge means they usually understand the context and get better results anyway. However, I am currently planning a trip to Brazil, to go out in the Amazon and do a story about how indigenous communities are using new technologies to monitor their forests, which I’m very excited about.
Q: For those that don’t know, you are the voice of the MongaBay podcast. On it, you seem like a generally calm and positive guy, is it difficult to remain positive with the current state of affairs regarding climate change, deforestation, and obviously, the big T?
A: I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. But, you know, there are a lot of people doing really amazing work, so the trick is not to dwell on the negative too much and instead give equal space to highlighting the things people are doing to make the world a better place. As important as it is for journalists to present the unvarnished truth about what’s at stake to the public — and I really take that seriously, concerns about “dooming and glooming” turning people off of environmentalism notwithstanding — I also think there’s a lot of work being done by people who are determined to make a difference for the better, and it’s just as important to shine a light on that.
Q: Speaking about Trump, although he appears to openly disdain the environment, he has unwittingly done some things that actually help the environment, from dismantling the TPP, which was helping the palm oil industry in Malaysia and Indonesia, to suspending Brazilian beef imports which causes deforestation in the Amazon. Can you think of any other silver linings with this guy in office?
A: The only real silver lining I see is that Trump and his administration appears to be so incompetent that they may not actually be able to achieve much of their agenda. Though Scott Pruitt is pretty rapidly dismantling the EPA’s ability to actually protect the environment, so who knows.
An unintended side effect of Trump’s negligence on environmental issues, however, especially his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, is that you’re seeing a lot more collaboration and partnerships between the private sector and civil society around meeting climate goals. So, even though our elected leaders can’t seem to muster the political will or courage to do much of anything about climate change, the rest of American society — and indeed, the rest of the world, for the most part — appears ready and willing to move forward with solutions, and that’s certainly some kind of silver lining.
Q: To many, climate change is the most important issue regarding the environment, how does having healthy forests help combat climate change?
A: Aside from the fact that deforestation is responsible for about 10% of global emissions every year — meaning that by simply NOT chopping down trees, we could automatically lower emissions by 10% — forests are incredibly valuable carbon sinks. So there’s a kind of double jeopardy from deforestation — direct emissions and less carbon being sucked out of the atmosphere and sequestered in trees and other vegetation. Forests help regulate local and the global climate cycles, as well, to say nothing of providing habitat for wildlife and supplying us with “ecosystem services” like clean water, clean air, etc. And all of these things are inter-connected. Wildlife biodiversity loss can impact the health of the entire forest ecosystem, for instance, making it more susceptible to the impacts of climate change. So the importance of healthy forests really can’t be overstated.
Q: It looks like you are located in Brooklyn, New York, which isn’t where most people would first think regarding conservation. How is the conservation community in that area?
A: I can’t really say much about local conservation here in Brooklyn, as my reporting is pretty focused on international conservation issues. But I did edit this really interesting piece about a conservation initiative right here in my own backyard.
Q: What is an overlooked environmental issue that you believe people should be more concerned with?
A: There are probably more important issues I should mention here, but one thing that just really floors me is the fact that we’re currently proceeding apace with the development of seabed mines. We understand so little about ocean ecosystems, especially the ecosystems on the ocean floor, and we’re going to let people dredge it all up and completely destroy those ecosystems just to make a quick buck. It’s unconscionable to me.
Q: It’s difficult to be a conscious consumer in this day and age; there is a lot to avoid, from eating beef, to products with palm oil, to bluefin tuna. What products, if any, do you avoid, and what do you replace them with?
A: I’ve been vegetarian for 15 years, mostly due to environmental and animal welfare concerns. I never buy leather. I only eat peanut butter with no palm oil in it, and definitely avoid palm oil when I can (not because there’s anything inherently bad about palm oil, just the way it’s produced, and the sustainable versus unsustainable streams of palm oil are not really segregated, to my knowledge, so it’s best to avoid it). But I eat a LOT of peanut butter, which is why I specifically mention that, and I only peanut butter with two ingredients: peanuts and salt.
Q: I hear of reports on the Leuser Ecosystem, and often times my immediate impulse is to visit that area to learn more and bring more awareness to the situation. Is tourism to specific areas one of the solutions that can help with deforestation in those areas?
A: Certainly so-called “eco-tourism” is one strategy folks are using as a reason to preserve a landscape and to bring in money to help accomplish that. Like any conservation intervention, there are a number of factors determining its efficacy, and implementation must take these factors into consideration. But it certain can be effective, it appears.
If you are curious about Mike’s writing, you can follow him on Twitter, or read his contributions at DeSmogBlog, and Mongabay. Also, don’t forget that you can listen to his podcast, which I highly recommend. It discusses deforestation, has interviews with professionals (and an occasional singer-songwriter), and also takes on user questions.
Again, big thanks to Mike for taking time out his busy schedule of saving the world (quite literally) to answer my questions, I really appreciate it!