September 2, 2008 at 5:07PM
by Tommi Lewis Tilden
Bill Nye is a long-time environmentalist with a motto: "Leave the world a better place. (Sometimes you gotta pick up somebody else's trash.)"
After a successful run on PBS with "Bill Nye the Science Guy," the multi-hyphenate comedian-TV host-science educator-mechanical engineer is now finding out how "Stuff Happens" on Planet Green's new half hour show (catch it on Tuesdays at 9PM ET). In it, Nye traces where the things we eat, wear, and use come from, and what impact that has on our entire planet.
If anyone's equipped to find links to our stuff and make the information fun, it's this 53-year-old who once had a day job as an engineer and spent nights doing stand-up comedy. "My family is funny," Nye said. "I mean funny in the sense that we make people laugh, not just funny looking."
We talked to Nye about his "feud" with neighbor Ed Begley, Jr., why breakfast matters and got him to confess his biggest eco sin.
TDG: One of your first "Stuff Happens" episodes is about breakfast. What's so special about breakfast and the environment?
Are you kidding? It's the most important meal of the day. It had the iconic story that North American pigs - from where we get bacon - I presume unwillingly are fed feed made with South American anchovies (and herrings and sardines). Farmers say eating fish helps their animals grow to that wonderfully ample size consumers want. Because of this, we're accidentally destroying an ecosystem. It's the story of stories. How so?
We're seriously depleting the world's anchovy population and leaving the penguins and South American seabirds with nothing to eat. These birds are dangerously close to starving because the anchovy and sardine populations have been decimated.What can we do?
Strange as it may seem, you could eat more anchovies. This would raise the price of the fish and make anchovy fish feed more costly and less desirable to pig farmers. Also eat organic bacon from pigs raised on 100% agricultural feed. If you're looking for the true organic meat products, make sure it's grass-fed only.Let's talk about your green competition with neighbor Ed Begley, Jr. On a show last year, he put up a wind turbine and you said you were doing the same ... did you?
No. His didn't work. There were problems with it. But I'll jump back on the bandwagon. To have 500 kilowatts running through my house is well worth it. What's the better investment: wind turbine or solar panels?
Solar panels for sure, for a person at home. Wind turbines for home use are hard to make economically rewarding because you have to build them at too low an altitude. This kid, Chris Columbus, or Master in Commander Jack Aubrey if you prefer ... these guys came up with the idea that the highest you are off the sea surface, the harder the wind blows. The idea of a tall ship is to get up there where the wind blows hard. So for home use, you need to get your turbine up unrealistically high.What can the average homeowner do to save energy?
The really good investments are what we call the low hanging fruit ... insulating your house, putting in better windows, caulking your attic, coming up with systems that move cool night air, all fundamentally very straight forward. You cut your energy bill in half. If everybody used half as much electricity, it would change the world. Hardly anything gives me greater joy than watching the electric meter in my home go backwards.Did you ever "wow" Ed's wife Rachelle with the aesthetics of your green home? Like with your nifty looking rain barrel? You seem to take that extra step to make things look good.
Nothing Ed does is aesthetic ....
OK, enough said. Did you ever win a science fair as a kid?
Sure. I was on an academic team in high school. We were on a game show on a local station. I didn't finish as one of the first three. That's surprising. Rumor has it that math was your passion?
One friend and I used to race each other to see who could get the answer first on a slide rule. There are tricks. Slide rules were cool then but kids today don't know anything about them. You can add or subtract on calculators. Is the telescope still your favorite piece of equipment?
The telescope's pretty great. I love my microscope and I love my sundials. I first became aware of climate change through astronomy. When you look at the climate of a Mars or Venus, you understand the changing chemistry of the world.What's your main mode of transportation?
It depends what you mean by "main." I do the most, per errand, by bike. The most miles I travel are still by airplane, and I buy carbon offsets but it's just a dent, it's the least you can do. Is it true you are a member of The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry?
I was on "The Larry King" show twice talking about UFOs. There are at least three guys who really believe that a UFO visited an air force base in Montana in 1957 and disabled nuclear weapons. It's interesting to note that in the report there were references to airmen drinking alcohol. Plus an air conditioning unit was drawing too much power so a circuit breaker kept tripping. But the alien invasion conclusion [to these believers] was more reasonable. The burden of proof is on them. Which is in every way associated with science ... to understand the quality of evidence. Future generations will be disappointed with us.Why is that?
Because our scientific community has allowed people without very strong evidence to degrade the threat of climate change or assert that climate change is not as serious as it is. And then, in interest of "balanced reporting," we're allowing both sides to be equal, but you're talking about thousands of scientists who believe in climate change versus a handful of skeptics. My criticism of the scientific community is that we have not been strident enough. What about people who believe climate change is a myth?
People criticize Al Gore for being so wound up about this issue, but it's pretty appropriate. I'm all for saving whales, but we need to save the Earth's environment so humans can live here. Humans are extinction proof but it's the number of humans who will survive that is at risk.What else are you doing on "Stuff Happens"?
I talk about vampire electricity...the electricity that's sucked out of the power grid for devices that are in standby mode. It's like a vampire that comes in at night and doesn't kill you but slowly drains your blood. It's gotta be a solvable problem. Now we even have dimmer switches for CFLs. We're also doing a bathroom show.
What "stuff happens" in the bathroom?
Lead in lipstick. And I do a classic science guy demo ... I show the importance of having a curve-shaped drain pipe. Any eco sin you want to confess?
Yeah, I am working all the time on my own vampire load. All the electricity we use to keep TVs on standby, fax machines, cell phones. Tivo's a big load. Traditional environmentalists want you to do less, drive less, wear dirty clothes and if possible, don't eat. But that's not what people want. We want to live the way people in the developed world do but find ways to do more with less. What do you drive?
I have a Prius, it's a first cut, and the first time a manufacturer ever got serious about this thing. Everyone's hope is that GM will not screw it up with the Volt.What about the hybrid battery problem?
Easy, you do what you do with car batteries now, recycle them. When you go to your dealer they don't throw it in a landfill, it's recovered and recycled.
What do you think about the candidates and their energy policies?
They're telling people what they want to hear. Generally I recommend to voters which candidate would be better suited to changing things, which would be more open minded to new energy policies and new systems. And this is true of every judge, every congressman, and every elected official. How do you plan to keep green fresh in light of concern about green fatigue?
If we've got green fatigue, we've got a problem. Climate change is the most serious thing. I'm all concerned about the mortgage and military situation overseas and the fact that the wealthiest country on Earth has a substantial population of poor people and people in prison. But climate change, it's the real deal...it could decimate the entire population in the next century. This should concern everyone, it's really hard to overstate. So will your show make a difference?
"Stuff happens" is not going to save the world but we want people to lean in the right direction