Retired professor doesn’t mince words on humanity’s destruction of the planet
As an environmental speaker, Guy McPherson practices tough love. He delivers blunt messages—full of doom and gloom—that tend to jolt even those listeners who come in deeply aware of climate change.
His thrust is best summarized by his blog’s title: Nature Bats Last. To put it another way, McPherson posits that humans have tinkered with the global ecosystem so much that we’ve caused our own death by natural causes.
In the past, he’s gone so far as to forecast humanity’s life expectancy, giving an expiration date of 2030, but lately has refrained from issuing such a bold statement—not because our circumstances have improved (they haven’t), but because his approach has shifted. Nowadays, rather than delivering science-laden presentations that leave audiences numb, McPherson seeks to help people process what he’s presented.
“It used to be I was looking for shock value, so I would focus on the date,” McPherson said. “But as my message and my delivery have become more nuanced over time, and have tended to focus increasingly on the individual human response, I’m trying not to focus so much on the date and instead focus on the emotional and psychological response we might have.
“That said, [climate scientist] Paul Beckwith’s statement about 6 degrees [Celsius rise in global temperatures] within a decade, made just over two years ago, is compelling. Other scientists have been unwilling to state a case, to make the kind of statements Beckwith and I have been making, which is unfortunate….”
McPherson—a retired professor of natural sciences, ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona—lives off the grid on a 2.7-acre homestead in New Mexico, which he and his wife share with a small family. He ventures out periodically, speaking to groups large and small, across the world.
When the CN&R reached him by phone last week, he’d just returned from New Zealand. This weekend, he starts a speaking tour of Northern California and Oregon that includes a local swing Nov. 18-20 and culminates in the Earth At Risk conference Nov. 22-23 in San Francisco.
It’ll be his second trip to Chico in as many months. Peter Melton, who organized his upcoming itinerary, brought him to town Sept. 30 as part of wider circuit. McPherson drew capacity crowds of 130 at Chico State’s Colusa Hall and 50 at the 100th Monkey Café, Melton said, with the vast majority staying till the bitter end.
In fact, Melton said, most attendees moved past the initial reaction of “What can we do?” to a realization of “the Titanic already hit the iceberg.” The Chico talks went like others where “every different range of reaction shows up, and people get to decide who they are amidst the high probability that the ship’s going down.”
Added Melton: “Most of the people who come have some kind of sustainability or environmental or green energy to them; they care. From [McPherson’s] perspective, there’s not much we can do, and that’s a whole other elephant to swallow.”
So, then, why does McPherson even bother? Why not stay home, within his self-sufficient spread?
“I strongly suspect it’s too late for our species—I don’t think it’s too late for many other species,” he said, “and I’m a huge fan of those other species.”
In other words, humanity’s days may be numbered, but we can make responsible decisions nonetheless.
McPherson’s latest tour, coincidentally, comes on the heels of the synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC, established by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization, spells out environmental impacts in stark terms.
“The hits keep coming,” McPherson said—another reason he’s modified his prepared remarks, even since September, to focus less on scientific evidence and more on humanistic impact.
“I used to get people who denied anthropogenic [i.e. man-made] climate change on a regular basis,” he explained. “I haven’t seen that for a while. It’s getting really, really hard to deny anthropogenic climate change.”
This local visit coincides with a Butte College seminar in sustainability studies taught by sociology instructor Mimi Riley. After becoming familiar with McPherson’s work, Riley connected with Melton. She will host McPherson, who will speak at two seminar sessions (Tuesday and Thursday) plus at the college’s Chico campus.
“Climate change, there’s so much political blockage out there in the mass media that people are afraid to take a position on it,” Riley said. “Another reason people don’t want to talk about it is [because] it’s scary; it’s a topic that the human race has never had to deal with….
“I wanted to book [McPherson] here because I think it’s really important for community members to engage in this dialogue. Whether people walk away thinking [he] has it right or [he] is a nut case or whatever people walk away with, I think it’s going to provoke a debate that’s really necessary for us at this point.”