Servant of Pod Podcasts For The End of The World Episode 31
Sun, 1/31 3:54PM • 27:38
laughter, people, climate, feel, narrative, story, world, climate change, russell, death, power, happen, grief, podcast, long, writing, specific, pod, oil companies, unfair
Justino, Laurie French, Amy Westervelt, Sophie Townsend, Nick Quah
Nick Quah 00:07
We've made it to the end of 2020, one of the worst years in recent history, and a year that's felt pretty apocalyptic. So, to close out 2020, we figured why don't we sit with that feeling a little more?
Amy Westervelt 00:23
It can be very depressing, both in terms of what might happen with unchecked climate change, but also in terms of all this power structure stuff. The more I learn about just how well-funded and organized all of the the efforts have been to stop climate action, it both makes me feel like it's possible to do something about it, but also gives me a keen awareness of just how hard that will be. So, yeah. I'm a downer at parties sometimes. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 01:00
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: podcasts for the end of the world.
Nick Quah 01:25
Amy Westervelt has a history of forging her own path.
Amy Westervelt 01:29
I went through this period in junior high where I saw the movie Working Girl, and I thought that Melanie Griffith was so cool in that movie, and I wore power suits to junior high. [Laughter] I don't even know where my mom found them, or why she thought it was a good idea to encourage this, but like, full-on shoulder pad suits. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 01:58
Wait, what was the intent there? Like what were you...? [Laughter]
Amy Westervelt 02:03
I just thought that it looked cool, and it was sophisticated--and people mercilessly made fun of me. And I just was like, "They don't know. I'm so far ahead of the curve." [Laughter]
Nick Quah 02:17
She's brought that "give no ****s" attitude to her work as an award-winning writer, journalist, and podcaster. Amy's been reporting on the climate crisis for several years now, and she's the creator of Drilled, an investigative podcast about the fossil fuel industry, now in its fifth season.
Hora este rio Aguarico, hace tiempos, en la explotación petrolera de Chevron Texaco, vertieron miles de barriles de petróleo.
Amy Westervelt 02:45
This is a video of Justino on YouTube. He's standing on a bridge over a huge rushing river, and he's saying this river, the Aguarico River, long ago, when they were exploring for petroleum, the oil companies dumped thousands of barrels of oil into it.
Vertieron aguas tóxicas por este rio, por este rio, que a nosotros por miles de años nos proveía de alimento.
Amy Westervelt 03:11
"They've dumped toxic water into this river"--he means wastewater from oil and gas drilling--"into this river that for thousands of years nourished us."
Yo soy testigo de como a sido-
Nick Quah 03:23
She's also one of the founders of Critical Frequency, a women-run podcast network that produces shows about climate change and justice. That kind of information can be pretty difficult to absorb. So, how do you share this doom and gloom in a way that doesn't feel completely hopeless?
Amy Westervelt 03:41
The big thing for me, and this is the reason that I have, in the last, I would say 10 to 15 years in particular, really focused on on the accountability piece around climate, is that for me, there's something soothing about understanding that we're really talking about a fairly small group of people here. There's specific people who made specific decisions that put us all on this pathway, and it's not this... I find the the narrative of "general human failing" to be really unproductive. [Laughter] You know? "Welp, I guess we're just too short sighted to do anything about this." That doesn't make me feel like doing anything. But if it's like, "Oh, actually, we have these systems in place that have given an unfair amount of power to a small group of people, and we need to do everything we can to change that," that at least--it's a huge task, it's a massive undertaking--but it's at least something that could work. It's very specific, and it doesn't require widescale behavior change or us making a couple of giant leaps in our evolution. [Laughter] So, yeah.
Nick Quah 04:56
Say more about that, because my impression is that it does take evolutionary change, or widescale change. Can you unpack that a little bit more for me?
Amy Westervelt 05:04
I mean, yes, it does take systemic change. But I think that it's more specific and not like... We need to learn how to think long-term, we need to shift the focus of our society, there are massive energy structures that need to change, we need to think through power, and accountability, and all of those things. But there are actual examples in the past of societies doing that successfully, whereas there are no examples of humans, suddenly en masse, being able to think long-term. [Laughter] I mean, I think, actually, there's a lot of good examples in the Civil Rights movement that you can look at as like, "Okay, here's a movement that began with absolutely no idea that it would ever succeed." But... And, in fact, encountered loss after loss after loss, and kept going, and still continues today to push, and make incremental improvement, and all that kind of stuff. The issue, of course, on climate is that the window of time is dwindling. We have seen revolutions happen in human history--it is a thing that has happened multiple times. I do think that there's a possibility that that is something that could happen, and that might need to happen to actually do something about this.
Nick Quah 06:36
Hmm. So, from your vantage point as a journalist, and as a person who tells these stories, who makes these, essentially, media experiences for people to consume, who you trying to reach? What is the specific outcome in your mind? Like, "I'm telling the story of the season in Drilled, these are the people that are hoping to hit, and change their minds, and mobilize them somehow." How do you think about things like that? Or do you think about things like that?
Amy Westervelt 07:01
I do think about that. And I think that was actually a big part of the thinking around the show in general.
Nick Quah 07:08
The true-crime framing.
Amy Westervelt 07:09
The true-crime framing, yeah. I was like, if we can get this information out to people in a very digestible narrative way, then I think we could get a lot more people choosing to listen than would necessarily sign up for a very serious climate show. [Laughter] Which is pretty much all that existed when I started Drilled. It was like, "two serious people discussing climate," and I'm just like "Aww." [Laughter] There takes a specific type of person to tune in to that, and I don't think that they're the ones that necessarily need much convincing. So I do think there's people that were maybe kind of climate curious and this was an easy way to learn about some stuff. And then I've heard from a lot of people that it's given them something to send to more skeptical relatives, because--and this was another thing, too, that I learned in reporting the podcast, that--in the second season we followed this group of crab fishermen who wound up suing all the oil companies, and more than half of them were pretty hardcore conservatives who actually don't, quote-unquote, "believe in" climate change.
Laurie French 08:24
We're kind of both of the opinion that climate change has happened since the beginning of time. I mean, if you look at, okay, the dinosaurs began during Henry--I think it was Henry VIII, so I think we're going through a mini-Ice Age.
Amy Westervelt 08:39
Seeing what the oil industry knew and when, and what they did with that information, has shifted her view a bit.
Laurie French 08:45
Yeah, I would say there's some definite exacerbation.
Amy Westervelt 08:48
But ultimately, it kind of doesn't matter. For Laurie, it's less about climate change and more about fairness, the idea that everyone should be dealing with the same information, that people and markets shouldn't be manipulated, that most people and companies are at least trying to do the right thing.
Laurie French 09:06
And I would like to think that most people operate on an honest playing field, but they don't. And I don't know why I still keep getting surprised by that. I just do.
Amy Westervelt 09:17
And now, they're at a point where climate change is impacting their industry, and they're just like, "that's unfair. That's a rigged system. It's not fair." And so I think that very basic narrative, that's kind of the first thing that toddlers understand, fairness. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 09:34
Amy Westervelt 09:35
It's a lot more effective at getting through to a wider array of people than beating people over the head with the science and making people feel stupid when they don't understand it, and also even requiring that people understand the science enough to have an opinion about it one way or another, which I think has been just way too high of a bar that the climate movement has had for a long time.
Nick Quah 10:01
Like, "This is the science, the science checks out" kind of deal.
Amy Westervelt 10:04
Yeah, it's like, most people don't even have a basic understanding of biology, never mind climate science, which is many times more complicated, you know? So yeah.
Nick Quah 10:16
I'm curious, from your experience as a journalist covering climate stories, advancing arguments, and working against an environment of disinformation, of short-term thinking, etc., etc., etc., how do you change somebody's mind, from your perspective?
Amy Westervelt 10:33
I have had the best luck personally in doing that by--and this is, I think, part of what drives my obsession with primary documents--I think, seeing a document from a company, an internal document that shows exactly what their strategy was, is very compelling. I have only once had someone accuse me of Photoshopping. [Laughter] I think that really showing people that the data on things is very helpful. And also what I tend to do with people who--I mean, I don't always engage with the people that are like, climate-denier trolling. But I have had pretty good luck, actually, even with those folks of--you know, maybe the original person is never going to change their mind, but like three or four other people will be like, "Oh, thanks for providing that information. That was interesting." You know? I'll provide things and then I'll ask, for them, where does your opinion come from? What data is that based on? Show me your research. And that often ends the argument, because the reality is there's not a lot of good research that disproves that climate change is happening. So yeah, I do think that that tends to be helpful, to try as much as possible to get people to do their own research, so that it's not me telling them, they're kind of like, "Oh, I didn't realize there was this whole other layer to it." And then I do think that, because climate for so long was talked about as a science problem, I think engaging people in the broader inequality and powerful people weaponizing and abusing their power narrative is... tends to be more... it's just more relatable. [Laughter] Yeah.
Nick Quah 12:33
How do you find your footing in the face of most people being incentivized to look the other way? Or to see things not in the way that you see things? Where does that self-confidence come from?
Amy Westervelt 12:44
I think the thing that gives me confidence in the work that I'm doing now is that I feel like it's not about me. It's not my opinion. I think I've come to a place where I'm like, this is what's needed to protect everyone. And I feel like I've always been... I don't know, I've always sort of had maybe an overdeveloped sense of righteous indignation. [Laughter] And a feeling of obligation to fight for the underdog or fix things that are unfair. So anyway, that to me is what the climate story is about right now. It's more of a power problem than an energy source problem. So that gives me a certain amount of a thick skin, I think, because I just feel like I'm fighting for other people.
Nick Quah 13:45
Well, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I really admire your work. And I wish you the best of luck for everything else that you get to do.
Amy Westervelt 13:53
Thanks, Nick! I wish you a lifetime of giving no ****s. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 14:00
I will internalize that. I will work really hard to internalize that. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 14:11
So, how do you function when your world is ending, but the rest of the world goes on? More in a minute.
Nick Quah 14:29
The thing about the end of the world is that it doesn't have to be some sort of cataclysmic worldwide event.
Sophie Townsend 14:34
The really difficult thing for me when he died was that my world had ended, and yet it hadn't. I mean, it clearly had not. I had children to get to school, I had a job--which I threw myself into--I had all sorts of things to do. So all the evidence suggests that the world has not ended.
Nick Quah 15:04
This is Sophie Townsend, an editor and producer at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and the creator of the podcast Goodbye To All This. The show is a 12-part series about the death of her husband, Russell.
Sophie Townsend 15:18
We have breakfast and get the girls ready for school. Russell kisses us goodbye. His doctor has ordered a full body scan, just to be sure. And he's going, but just to be certain. And I have coffee with the school mums. Then my mobile rings, and I go outside to take the call. And I tell them what he tells me: a shadow on his lung. The tightness, the protein marker in his blood, and now, a shadow on his lung.
Nick Quah 16:08
After his death in 2012, Sophie started writing about her loss and widowhood. It wasn't until 2018 that audio production company Falling Tree approached her with the idea to turn her story into an audio memoir and submit it as a pitch to the BBC World Service.
Sophie Townsend 16:24
After some months going back and forward, they decided that they'd like a 12-part series, which seemed to me sort of extraordinary after doing little bits and pieces, and little moments from the last eight years since he died, to be given the freedom to actually tell the whole story from beginning to end. I mean, it hasn't ended because clearly grief doesn't work like that, there's not an end date. But to take that story of him being diagnosed, and getting sicker, and then dying, and then looking at what happened next, was a real privilege.
Nick Quah 17:17
To what extent does working on these pieces about Russell's death help you work through that grief?
Sophie Townsend 17:25
I think if you want to get over grief, probably going to a therapist is a better idea than making a 12-part podcast. [Laughter] I was thinking about it, because a friend said to me, "This must help you get through it." And I don't think it does. I think that's a very separate process. But I think there's something in me that is compelled to tell stories, and this is a story. And I have--"enjoyed" is probably not the right word--I think I've been slightly compulsive about shaping it into a narrative. And I think at times that feels like it helps, and possibly does, but I also think there's this... When you shape something into a narrative, and this is quite raw, and I haven't shaved off the difficult bits, but life is actually different to a narrative. And I think there's a lot of stuff that is sort of pre-language and pre- that sort of narrative drive of first, second, and third acts that sometimes I feel like, "Oh my god, I haven't dealt with the icky bits that lie beneath." Not even what I don't want the world to know, or that I'm trying to keep private, there are just very sort of... those cellular feelings that don't make it in there.
Nick Quah 19:15
So what you're saying is the act of building a narrative, and storytelling, is to impose or create a sense of order, and a lot about this experience is extremely chaotic and defies order.
Sophie Townsend 19:27
Yes, I think that's exactly it. And I think there is something about, particularly the episode about the night of his death, which is very much focused on the lack of... I have no clear memories of that night. So I've written it as sort of, "Did this happen then, or when did this happen?" And I explore that.
Sophie Townsend 19:56
I go to coffee, get back from coffee, make phone calls, answer the door to a friend who wants to visit Russell. I tell them he's sleeping. They leave, not wanting to disturb him. I pick up some groceries, I have lunch, I tidy upstairs--sweeping, not vacuuming, because I don't want to wake him up. I make myself a cup of tea and sit by him as I drink it. He's sleeping deeply still. And I think to myself, as I did this morning, "Good. He needs his rest.”
Sophie Townsend 20:44
And that was actually the time where I felt narrative is most useful. That was the first time I'd actually ever written about his actual death. It was therapeutic. It did free me up from a whole lot of vague feelings that were just sort of sitting there collapsed into each other. And it's not like I worked out exactly what happened, but I thought by writing through that I got a kind of a shape from all those. So I think there are moments in the story where actually writing stuff down has been really important.
Nick Quah 21:36
So, I've been listening to each episode as it comes out weekly. And hearing them released this way, I get the sense you're still working through stuff. And so I'm curious, how does it feel whenever a new episode gets released?
Sophie Townsend 21:53
Pretty, pretty awful, actually. [Laughter] I am really proud of this work. And I'm really deeply privileged that... I mean, what a gift to be given to be able to tell this story. But I have found each time it goes... I wasn't quite prepared for this sort of drip feed of it.
Nick Quah 22:25
Like the weekly cadence?
Sophie Townsend 22:27
Yes. That it would just... I feel like I'm reliving--not quite reliving, that's not quite the right word--but I kind of go back into that space. And it has been hard to, because obviously, I am a person that needs to work, and see people, and raise children, and I do feel like there's a part of me that every week has collapsed a little bit. And yet, I'm in a space in my life where I have to keep going. I had this idea, Nick, that it was just, "This is work. This will be fine. This is what I do. I'm a professional. I'll just get through it." But it has been much, much harder than that. I think, now, "Of course it's... What were you thinking? Of course it's hard." It has been surprisingly difficult for me.
Nick Quah 23:40
It's been nearly a decade since Russell's death. And so when you look back now, what do you think is at the heart of the story?
Sophie Townsend 23:49
I think it's a story about finding who I am. And I think back on my marriage to Russell, who was older and wiser than I was when we got together, more advanced in his career, knew himself in a way I didn't know myself. And I think... I mean, there were 100 reasons we got together. But part of what attracted me to him was because I felt so sort of all over the place. And kind of, "What should I do? Who am I?" And it was very comforting to me to be with someone who totally had it together. I mean, he obviously didn't have it totally together. But he was much more together and "grownup"--whatever that means--than me. And I think, since his illness and death, my struggle, as much as it's been about the grief of losing him and missing him--and I miss him terribly--there's been a sort of, like, finally, I got to look at who I was in the world, and what I would do, and coming up against that, and I've always been a person who has resisted growing up, and understanding money, and understanding how to pay bills, and it's all been very sort of like, muddle-headed, screwball-comedy heroine, which annoyed the hell out of Russell, and I just came up against... Actually, I don't know if you call it growing up or finding oneself, or... I think that's what the story is about: how do you live with yourself, and how do you proceed in the world, and who am I, and what do I want?
Nick Quah 26:18
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I feel like I have such a deeper understanding of the show now.
Sophie Townsend 26:25
Nick Quah 26:25
Thank you very much for talking to me.
Sophie Townsend 26:27
Oh, thank you so much.
Nick Quah 26:44
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show was produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.