How can we be optimistic? Publisher of The Mother Earth News, Bryan Welch. From D.C. Environmental Film Festival, Harry Lynch, Director of “Switch”, Alexandra Cousteau, and Robert Cole.

This week on Radio Ecoshock, we go green media. You’ll hear an interview with Bryan Welch, publisher of the Mother Earth News and the Utne Reader. Then off to the D.C. Environmental Film Festival, to talk with directors and producers of the energy film “Switch” and previews of the Blue Planet North America Expedition.

Radio Ecoshock correspondent Gerri Williams is joined in our Washington Pacific studio by Alexandra Cousteau, and film-makers Robert Cole and Harry Lynch.


Let’s go to Bryan Welch – why is he so optimistic, in these difficult times?

He’s the publisher of some of the only magazines I still read: Mother Earth News, Utne Reader, and Grit. Starting as a journalist, Bryan is now a successful businessman – and still a homesteader in Kansas.

I begin by admitting Radio Ecoshock may be the most depressing program on radio. We have scientists, oil experts, and economists explain our coming doom. Bryan has written a book saying there may be a better way.

It’s called “Beautiful and Abundant, Building the World We Want“.

Abundant? What about peak oil, climate catastrophe, reduced consumerism? I ask Bryan to explain.

He begins by pointing our humans have gone through periods of extreme creativity. For example, in a 15 year period around the turn of the century we invented bicycles, cars, airplanes, radio, and many other things. In that same time, Einstein developed a theory of light, energy, and the universe itself.

As the need becomes apparent, we may experience a new burst of creativity to help solve our problems, Welch says.

But these technical accomplishments require a “grand vision” of how humans could be sustainable in the long term on this planet. For this Welch suggests 4 criteria for sustainability (and he uses these in the operation of his various business ventures as well.)


Number one: does it create beauty? That might not be intuitive as first on your list. But Welch says humans are attracted to beauty, and it motivates them in powerful ways. A new technology, or even a political movement, needs an inherent beauty to be communicated, to be successful.

Number two: does it create abundance? In the oil industry, we expect any worthwhile source to create much more energy than goes into producing it. Investors expect more than just a meager return. Perhaps this expectation of abundance, especially in planet-saving technology, is a requirement. Especially if it must help billions of people. Small thinking need not apply.

Welch also thinks capitalism, properly and honestly applied, is still the best system. Again, abundance is required, because we need an excess, known as “capital” to develop still more innovation.

Number three: is it fair? This is kind of a balance to the requirement of abundance. It’s not enough to make a few people rich, and certainly that isn’t sustainable if the technology ruins the commons all humans and other life forms need to survive. There are cases in capitalism where everyone seems better off, through the innovation and production, Welch thinks. There is a lot more to this one, which helps guide the way business should operate to be sustainable, and the way communities and whole societies need to think things through.

Number four: is it contagious? What good is the best idea or tech if nobody really wants to spread it around? Especially if our time is limited (it is) – changes need to move fast to succeed, and that means motivating people.


Given the above, Welch thinks greens have not been effective communicators. Enviros don’t talk enough about beauty, abundance, fairness, and contagious thinking to reach the mass public. Bryan, who includes himself as a long-term environmentalist, says we have alienated a lot of people, by not using effective communication strategies.

As an aside, Radio Ecoshock has probably turned some people away, with our serious warning of dire challenges, but I feel we all have our role to play. I don’t plan serious changes to the program, although I am always looking for solutions I can believe in, or methods our listeners can use to cope with the stress of knowing things are not going well for the planet.

When I question Welch on how abundance is possible, given limited resources and growing billions who want to consume more – he answers we can choose our future, by choosing our population numbers. If we can control population, we can plan for vast areas of wilderness, and there should be abundant resources for a sustainable lifestyle.


Bryan helps to balance his own consciousness, and experiments with things you might find in The Mother Earth News, on his 50 acre homestead in Kansas. He raises chickens, goats, cattle, and I presume vegetables. Welch thinks a daily engagement with nature on some level helps to keep us more sane.

Homesteading also helps make Welch more optimistic. He sees nature solving problems, and meets others working on the land, that seems to make people happier, and more hopeful of finding solutions.


Let’s face it. Bryan Welch is now a multi-multi millionaire. While he’s retained a kind of common-person’s state of mind, willy-nilly he is part of the 1 percent. So I ask him: what does he think of the Occupy movement?

“We’re really at a watershed moment for business, as well as for humanity in general.”

After saying Capitalism is pretty new, only known for a couple of centuries, he sees the need for a new variation which expects benefits for all people and for nature. There is no reason this could not be done, Welch says.

He likes the Occupy movement, and particularly the version he saw in Occupy Fayetteville Arkansas. Occupy people set out to help their communities, finding practical things that need to be done, while calling for a new vision for the system.

Bryan thinks the real opportunity to change corporate practices that are harmful is through consumer demand, and consumer action. Welch says corporations “turn on a dime” as soon as they see a tide of consumer reaction. If we keep buying sustainable products, and move away from corporations that are damaging the planet, that will reshape society, he tells us.


I ask this major alternative publisher how print magazines, like the Mother Earth News, or the Utne Reader, can survive the onslaught of Net publishing and free information?

Welch isn’t at all concerned. In fact, they get more print subscribers from their web sites, than from any other sources. Plus, like all publishers, they are moving more content to the Net. Now thirty percent of all their revenues come from digital content.

Still, Bryan asks, why is there a Wired Magazine? Even the most committed Net people still want some of their information in print form, obviously. As a personal aside, I would want a stack of Mother Earth News magazines, in print, at my homestead, or even in a “city-stead” – because if the power goes out, or gets too expensive, or some super-bug or solar storm takes down the Net (could happen!) – I want my tips on how to get extra cucumbers to be available to my grubby hands.

The main company, Odgen Publications, is also experimenting with more video content.

At the same time, The Mother Earth News hopes to connect more people on a face-to-face level. The Mother Earth News Festivals may expand from 2 per year to more events. The next one is in Pallyup Washington on June 2n and 3rd. Since that is near me, I am toying with the idea of going, and maybe doing some interviews and research on new products there.

Read Bryan’s blog here.

You can download a CD quality version of just this 23 minute Bryan Welch interview here, or a faster-downloading Lo-Fi copy here.


From the Washington DC studio of WPFW Pacifica radio, Radio Ecoshock correspondent Gerri Williams takes us to the D. C. Environmental Film Festival.


The first film interview is with Harry Lynch, the Director of the new film “Switch“.

Download this interview by Gerri Williams here.

The basic story line: Texas scientist and energy Professor Scott Tinker sets off around the world, to find out what can possibly power our planet in the future.

The result is film footage you have probably never seen. They go to Iceland, and look at perfectly clean geothermal energy, tapping natural steam. Of course not everyone has that easy resource.

Tinker looks at big solar and wind installations in various parts of the world. Then he calculates how many of them we would need to power a modern society.

The fearsome part comes as Tinker meets with various experts, who add the energy needs of China and India to the mix. All of a sudden the problem of SCALE comes up. Things that work on a small scale, may be next to impossible for the world as whole, the film suggests.

They look at fossil fuels, including footage at giant offshore oil rigs normally not allowed, and ditto deep in coal mines.

Nuclear power plants, and their economics, are part of the film.

In a twist, Dr. Tinker decides to measure his own energy imprint, as he travels about. It’s not just about air miles, but all the products you and I use on a daily basis. He calculates it all, and the numbers are pretty frightening. Now multiply that by a billion, and our energy plans fall apart.

Global warming, and the need to slash emissions, are not left out of the film. Neither are they central to it. Tinker does acknowledge fossil fuels will need to be phased out, for various reasons, and he’s looking for the big fix.

Gerri and I want to add one caution about this film “Switch”. The film-makers seem to take for granted our continuing massive use of energy. There is no talk of energy descent, or economic collapse. The need to decarbonize is acknowledged, but the film-makers, especially Dr. Tinker, seem comfortable with a 30 year transition period, which includes nuclear and fossil fuels like natural gas.

Fukushima in my opinion showed nuclear power can destroy a big region, if not a whole country. Climate scientists warn we must act now, within the next ten, not thirty years, or risk catastrophic climate change.

You should know that Dr. Scoot Tinker is totally connected to the oil industry. His bio reads, quote:

“Dr. Tinker worked in the oil and gas industry for 17 years in research, exploration, and development, prior to coming to The University of Texas at Austin in 2000.” He is a past President of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.”

We might find it unlikely a man of his background will suggest we decentralize using totally renewable energy, – very, very quickly. But I won’t speak for Dr. Tinker. You need to make your own conclusions from the film.

Teachers who plan to use this film, backed by the industry-friendly American Geosciences Institute, should be ready to encourage students to learn from the breath-taking shots of big power operations, but to question our continued dependence on them.

Director Harry Lynch also describes an innovative use of film on the web site. The plan to offer short (3 to 5 minute) clips that can be assembled in various ways according to your interests. Say you just want to learn about renewables: fine, make your own movie! It’s a good concept.

Find out more at the “Switch” web site.


Our next interview with Gerri Williams is less controversial. Let’s get back to the studio, to find more from the D.C. Environment Film Festival 2012.

In her next interview, Gerri has two guests: Alexandra Cousteau, and Robert Cole.

Yes, Alexandra Cousteau is the granddaughter of the famous underwater film maker Jacques Cousteau. Alexandra learned to dive at age 7. She’s just finished a tour, and a film, about the magic and the sad state of American Rivers.

For example they interviewed and filmed along the Colorado River, which has been robbed of waters before it can reach the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Other rivers have been heartlessly polluted or built-up – but Alexandra maintains some optimism. Other rivers are much cleaner than they were 30 or 50 years ago. (Perhaps that is a mix of Clean Water legislation, and the deindustrialization of America.)

Also joining Gerri, is Robert Cole. More than twenty five years ago, Cole made a documentary about the river flowing into the nation’s capital, the Potomac. It is called “Potomac American Reflections“, expressing what the damage to the river says about American society. Now that film is being reshown again.

Robert Cole is less optimistic. He sees progress as lamentably slow, even for a river which flows through Washington D.C.

I like these interviews. There is a good exchange, and lots to learn about more than rivers. Who are we? What do we want and what will we tolerate? Do rivers have rights to exist on their own? How can film and radio help that discussion?

That’s it for Radio Ecoshock this week. My thanks to our D.C. correspondent Gerri Williams. Be sure and join us again next week.

Radio Ecoshock