The Overstory: Drawdown

Season One, Episode Five

March 6, 2019


In Episode 5 of The Overstory we talk with author-activist Paul Hawken about his new book, Drawdown, and why he thinks that global warming may be a blessing instead of a curse. And we travel to Acadia National Park in Maine, where National Park Service biologists are experimenting with what's called "assisted migration" to help tree species cope with climate change. Also: sustainable living tips from our advice columnist, Mr. Green, and a moving radio diary from a North Carolina woman demanding clean water for her town.

The Overstory: That’s the word ecologists use to describe the treetops. There’s a riot of life above us, but usually we’re so focused on what’s right in front that we forget to look up. Season One took us from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the wilds of Patagonia. Season Two will continue to explore the world with changemakers and storytellers who offer different perspectives of the natural world. See all episodes.


Madeline Ostrander speaks to Nick Fisichelli and Kate Miller about how the Acadia National Park and other national parks are preparing for a warming climate. Deborah Graham shares how her town, nicknamed Dukeville after its energy company, was build around and now being poisned by Duke Energy. Jason Mark interviews Paul Hawken about his new book "Drawdown". The Mr. Green segment discusses making your home energy efficent. 

(1:15) Preparing National Parks for a Warming Climate

Nick Fisichelli: There’s the spruce and red oak, red maple species native and come in here today. And then these more southern species, the Juniper and the honey locust that aren't found here today but are projected to have habitat in the future.

Jason Mark: On a decommissioned naval base on the coast of Maine, about a thousand seedlings huddle inside a wire fence under a layer of fresh snow. It looks kind of like a tiny tree farm, but actually it's a radical experiment in something called assisted migration. Madeline Ostrander has the story.

Nick Fisichelli: So did a few different experiments that we have out here.

Madeline Ostrander: Nick Fisichelli is the forest ecology director at the Schoodic Institute, the Research Center for Acadia National Park. And he's leading this experiment in what's called assisted migration, relocating species to a new habitat to help them survive decades from now when things will get hotter, drier and much more uncertain.

Nick Fisichelli: And next summer we'll do the sampling to be able to look at some of the plant traits, the characteristics of these species to get a sense for what enables a species to do well here.

Madeline Ostrander: Beyond this research field. Acadia's dense forests are dominated by Maine's iconic red spruce trees, which spread across the park from one shore to the other.

Nick Fisichelli: It's in the background of everybody's vacation photos here in Acadia.

Madeline Ostrander: Back inside the research center, Nick reflects on some of the current data and it doesn't look good for the red spruce. According to climate projections, that picture-perfect spruce could dwindle or die off in a matter of decades.

Nick Fisichelli: And it's a species that is projected to lose about half of its suitable habitat under warming conditions.

Madeline Ostrander: If spruce can't take the heat and loses its lead role in these ecosystems, much of this national park and all of the wildlife, fish and plants that live under the spruce's prickly canopy could be left vulnerable unless another species shows up to fill the same ecological niche. That's where assisted migration comes in. Nick's research team is looking into what other kinds of trees might be able to live here if Maine becomes inhospitable to the red spruce.

Nick Fisichelli:  It's interesting that the coolest site in the experiment, all the species are doing best at that site. Even the more southern species and it's because there's been more soil moisture.

Madeline Ostrander: Other trees have failed. Sweetgum, a tree that's common from the Carolinas all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, shot up in the summer of 2017 but withered in the winter cold.

Nick Fisichelli: There's different growth strategies that species have. Some of them are at the James Dean, the live fast die young kind of a strategy.

Madeline Ostrander: The idea of assisted migration is still relatively new and kind of controversial.

Kate Miller: So I was very conflicted about it or even just, I don't think that we know enough to make the right decisions.

Madeline Ostrander: Kate Miller is a plant ecologist for the National Park service. She keeps track of forest health in 20 parks on the East Coast, including Acadia. Some of Kate's research has helped shape Nick's assisted migration experiment, but like many other scientists and conservationists, Kate felt a little weird about assisted migration. She wasn't sure it was a good idea to take a species from a distant location and drop it into an entirely new and unfamiliar ecosystem.

Kate Miller: I was very hesitant about the idea because I didn't want to be making a decision that could create another invasive species.

Madeline Ostrander: For decades, the National Park Service has tried to avoid meddling in wild nature. Nick says the agency has long focused on conservation, not intervention.

Nick Fisichelli: For these protected areas that in the past it really had hands off management, it's definitely something that is in a lot of cases new and different, and to be honest, kind of uncomfortable to make those kinds of decisions.

Madeline Ostrander: But in the face of a crisis as vast as climate change, park managers wonder if they might need to take a more proactive approach.

Nick Fisichelli: Four out of five national parks are already at the extreme warm edge of historical conditions. So we have to be talking about adaptation and there's a spectrum of adaptation strategies from resisting change to directing change. And somewhere in the middle is this sort of accommodating change or allowing things to change on their own. Parks that have this postcard quality to the landscapes, but they aren't static images and they're always changing and so the creation of them in one sense is in itself a climate adaptation strategy, in that we're trying to give species the time and place to adapt. But that may not always be enough, there may be more active interventions that managers will need to consider.

Madeline Ostrander: In other words, wild nature in the national parks is already changing in dramatic ways as the climate warms. And park managers have to decide whether they want to fight that change, let it happen, or try to steer it in a particular direction. This is a whole new way of thinking about nature. Some scientists still feel adamantly that people should let nature handle climate change on its own. After all, species have always adapted to climate change. Trees, for instance, have actually moved across big distances, but very slowly, one generation at a time by dispersing their seeds, sometimes with help from animals like squirrels and birds. But these days it's harder for plants and animals to move and adapt because human development stands in the way.

Kate Miller: Their major dispersal barriers in the Mid-Atlantic part of the U.S., like around Washington, D.C., up through southeastern Pennsylvania, there's so little connectivity of forest that trees are probably not going to be able to migrate through that.

Madeline Ostrander: And the climate is changing so quickly. Trees might need a little help.

Kate Miller: Trees are not going to be able to migrate on their own very quickly, or at least on the scale that's important to us if we want forest. So I think assisted migration with a lot of thought and experimentation early on so we know how to make informed decisions is ... Yeah, I think we need to do it.

Madeline Ostrander: The success of the experiment still remains to be seen, but Nick's hope is that the information can at least educate people about how to adapt to a new reality.

Nick Fisichelli: It's a tremendous opportunity. It's an opportunity to realize the dynamism of nature.

Madeline Ostrander: But Nick says, the reluctance to intervene is understandable. In the past, even when humans tried to do right by nature, we haven't always known the best way to go about it.

Nick Fisichelli: Couple of years ago was the centennial of the National Park Service. And you see tremendous evolution just within what was considered good stewardship. You know, early on in parks, things such as feeding wildlife was really standard and even feeding the bears, that was actually part of the park experience. And parks literally would put up bleachers out at the dump and you could go and watch the bears eat trash.

Madeline Ostrander: So we now know that feeding the bears wasn't such a good idea, and maybe moving tree seedlings will fall into that camp. Conservation is an ongoing experiment.

Nick Fisichelli: The reality of today is that climate change is happening, it's ongoing, and climate adaptation has become a really important aspect of stewardship. And it means using some new tools and considering things that hadn't been considered in the past. And I think that's a real challenge, but something, a conversation that we need to have.

Madeline Ostrander: But that conversation isn't all bad. Kate Miller is excited about the potential impact of assisted migration and the positive effects it could have.

Kate Miller:  And so in some ways it's this grand experiment. It's exciting as ecologists to see what's going to happen and I would like to think that we can help reverse the course of some of these problems. In 20 years, if you ask me how are things going, hopefully I'm able to say, "Well, you know, 20 years ago we discovered these problems in forest health and here's how we dealt with them and we're better off because of it." I would like to think that that is what will happen.

Madeline Ostrander: For the Overstory, I'm Madeline Ostrander.

Jason Mark: To read Madeline Ostrander's full article, go to our website,

(10:09) Mr. Green on Energy Efficent Homes

Jason Mark: Now some advice on sustainable living from our own advice columnist, Mr. Green. Today we've got a question from Bruce in California about solar panels.

Bruce: Hey, Mr. Green, this is Bruce from Pleasanton, California.

Mr. Green: Hi there. How are you?

Bruce: I'm doing well. Thanks for taking my call. The electricity we use at home is California Grid Solar, but we still have natural gas for heating and hot water and we'd love to close the gas account.

(10:40) Bruce: I wanted to ask you, we could get a heat pump for room heating and cooling, but what could we use for our hot water? What would you recommend?

Mr. Green: Well, tankless gas is pretty efficient. You save about 30 or 40 percent of the energy that you would otherwise use with a tank heater, so that would be the best option at this point, as far as water heating goes. Now in the future, the price of the others may go down. I can't predict that. I think you'd be okay with that for now unless you want to cut your gas off completely.

Bruce: Just recently we got rooftop solar panels for backup. So recently that we're still waiting for approval to flip the switch and start running the meter backwards. And it should, according to the engineers, produce about a thousand kilowatt hours per year more than we've been using.

Mr. Green: Mmhmm.

(11:32) Bruce: And I'm thinking rather than accept the utility's, not so generous, 3 cents a kilowatt hour for our excess electrons, that maybe a tankless electric water heater would make sense?

Mr. Green: It might in California, especially. In fact, in California, total electric house is now feasible according to the University of California. I can't say what it would be in terms of expenses, but in terms of your contribution to global warming, you might be better off with that electric water heater, yes.

(12:03) Bruce: We made the house very energy efficient at the start of the process.

Mr. Green: So you've insulated and double-paned windows and you've put weather stripping?

Bruce: Yeah, weather stripping and led lighting and high-efficiency appliances.

Mr. Green: Oh that's, that's pretty good.

Bruce: And then we had a detailed energy audit, 'cause I really wanted to know is there anything else we could do because this was not a house that was built to a high standard. And we knew there would be gaps in the insulation in the walls and things like that. And the engineer said, "Really there's nothing left much that you could do that would pay back."

Mr. Green: Well, it sounds like you are almost an ideal case.

Bruce: We're trying. We're pretty typical suburban Californians.

(12:49) Bruce: There are a lot of houses like ours that we wanted to see, is it really practical to make it better?

Mr. Green: Oh my goodness. You're doing great. I think you're an ecological saint. Keep up the good work.

Bruce: Thanks Mr. Green. You know, I think we all have to do what we can and we're just looking to see if we can get this old house to be performing the way that more houses need to be.

Mr. Green:  Very good.

Bruce:  Appreciate your input.

Jason Mark: That was Bob Schildgen with Ask Mr. Green. He's our advice columnist for sustainable living. If you've got a question about how to reduce your environmental impact, just go online look for the Mr. Green tab, send Bob a question and if you're lucky, we'll have you on the show to talk to Bob himself.

(13:40) Duke Energy's Coal Ash Pit and Salisbury's Clean Water

Jason Mark: Deborah Graham has lived in Salisbury, North Carolina, for 30 years. The town was nicknamed Dukeville because everything there seemed to revolve around Duke Energy, one of the country's largest utilities. Now everything in Deborah's life seems to revolve around something so simple as finding clean water. That's because toxins from coal ash pits set up by Duke Energy have leaked into the town's water supply. Here's Deborah's story.

Deborah Graham: When I first realized that there was a problem, we were down at the beach house and my neighbor called and said, "Hey, Deb, y'all might want to come home. There's going to be a meeting at the fire station. I think you need to be there." And they were talking about "Y'all need to be concerned as a community. You've got three pits back here." And I didn't even know that. They could burst. It's made up of earthen dam. There's nothing underneath all of it. It leaks into the ground, and y'all should be concerned about your water. For 30 years I didn't know of a coal ash pit. It is not a pond. You know a pond, you would think of Andy Griffith skipping rocks. I'm fishing. These are not ponds. These are pits. They're dark, they're gloomy. They was some people that were really upset and their kids had been sick. I had no idea.

We got a letter, a little postcard from the state in December saying, "We would like test your well. You're within a thousand feet of a coal ash impoundment. April 18th, 2015, a Saturday morning, we'd got up. I was walking good. So we decided to go do a little bit of work out in the yard, pulling some weeds. The mail lady, she goes, "Hey Deb, I got a letter here. Y'all need to sign." And we like, "Oh, got a letter." My husband signed it. She gave him the mail and I was sitting at our kitchen bar, last little bit of coffee. And I said, "Oh, who's it from?" He said, "Well, it's from the state." And he opened it up. I'm sitting at the bar drinking coffee and he was reading it to his self and I saw this look come over his face. Unbelievable look come over his face.

He said, "The water's contaminated." Had coffee in my mouth. And I went, "What? Our water's contaminated?" And then I take the paper from him and I'm looking at it and I'm reading it. And I just swallowed this coffee, I mean, I'd had a whole cup of coffee. I drink it every day and we drank tea and we drank Kool Aid and it was all made out of that spigot water. You know, out of the kitchen. And I'm reading the paper and it says, "Do not use your water for food, for cooking or for drinking."

To have your well listed as contaminated from the state, it changes everything you do. It changes your life. 889 days we've been living on bottled water. For my family, Duke Energy is now providing water to us. I've got three stacks of water in the house and in my dining room, two or three piles high in the living room as a side table. And then I'm using the gallon jugs. I got it sitting all around my kitchen. Everything we do revolves around water now. And I would stay up, it'd be 11, 12, one o'clock in the morning and I'm reading articles. If it was real good, I'd print it, just so I could read it again. I'd have it laid all over my bed in my room, and I think about water all the time.

I don't hate Duke Energy. I love having electricity. Yeah, I love having air condition and heat and power. I don't hate Duke Energy and you know, people can't believe that, but I don't. I mean, I need them. I need them. I just need them to do the right thing.

(17:36) Drawdown - The Comprehensive Plan to Reverse Global Warming

Jason Mark: Last month I had the chance to sit down and talk with writer and activist Paul Hawken. He's the editor of the book Drawdown, the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. Hawken is an entrepreneur. He's an author of many books and I think it's fair to say he's something of a visionary. He's also an environmentalist with an optimistic take on climate change. He says global warming is a gift, not a curse.

Paul, thank you so much for coming in. I really appreciate it.

Paul Hawken: Yeah, my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me and thank you for bringing me to the Sierra Club.

(18:12) Jason Mark: I want to start with a remedial question. What do you mean by ‘Drawdown?’ Like what does drawdown mean? Especially in the context of climate change and global greenhouse gas emissions?

Paul Hawken: You draw down troops, you draw down a well, you draw down your checking account. In this case drawdown applied to climate is that first time on a year-to-year basis where greenhouse gases peak and go down. And I thought that was important to name the goal. We're still using words like mitigate and curb and stabilize, none of which was really what we want. I mean they may be steps on the way to what we want, but nobody's really has named what the goal is, and that is to reverse global warming without which there won't be a civilization. So why don't we just first of all, name the goal and that's why Drawdown is used as the title of the book.

Jason Mark: And you've got a great metaphor. I think it's in the foreword or your introductions, pointing out, if you're on a road to disaster and you simply start to slow down, that's insufficient. You will eventually still reach disaster. The trick is either getting on a different road or making some kind of U-turn.

Paul Hawken: Stop and turn around. They were using very wussy, weak, limp and non-motivating verbs to describe the actions that we should be undertaking. Okay, reduce, is that what you want to do? Reduce? Mitigate means to reduce the pain and seriousness of something, and if you go into a hospital and you're all smashed up from a car accident and they give you Vicodin, they've mitigated. You're still smashed up. That is one of the many ways in which the climate movement, broadly described, has basically learned how to alienate, numb, or turn off people.

(19:48) Jason Mark: So much of the climate change conversation is really focused almost exclusively on our energy systems. It's clear that energy is a huge part of the problem, but it's not the whole part of the solution, right?

Jason Mark: You've got a huge number of the responses that you guys point to are based in natural systems. Silvopasture, regenerative agriculture. I wonder if you could talk about those and how-- when you guys were starting this process, knowing that you had to break out from just having an energy conversation.

Paul Hawken: Well, the great thing about the processes we didn't know and we knew he didn't know, and we also know that no one else knew. Because what we set out to do was to map, measure and model the 100 most substantive solutions to reversing global warming. Well, I think all of us have a bias. I had a bias about what they were, at least the top three or four or five. Certainly solar, wind and, as I say jokingly, Elon Musk. You know, those energy, electrical energy generation and transport cars, et cetera. And I would assume that those had been at top three. What I was interested in, what were the next 97? And that's where I was foggy. But I have to say that when we hit the total button on the model and we looked at the top 10 and 20 solutions we were going, "Oh my gosh, who knew?" And the fact of refrigerant management came out number one, I thought, "Oh my, this is a PR disaster. We'll have no credibility at all."

But it's true that, I mean combustion of fossil fuels is 60+ percent of the emissions on a yearly basis… or from combustion. So it stands to reason that the main solution is the converse of that, which is clean energy. But actually the way out is not the way in or the way in is not the way out. In other words, it doesn't make sense because even if we went to clean energy today, right, we could just snap our fingers and it's done, presto, we would still be in deep, deep trouble because of the levels of CO2 and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the fact that we haven't addressed the other causes of greenhouse gases.

Jason Mark: And CO2's persistence.

Paul Hawken: CO2's persistence, exactly. In other words, it's up there, it's just going to stick around. We do not whistle past the graveyard of the science. Not at all. We are just vastly respectful and aware of the threats that beckon and that are looming. But at the same time what we feel is, "Got it. Understood. Thank you. Now let's work on the solutions." Let's work on the possibility this innate in this gnarly super wicked problem as opposed to repeating the problem over and over in different ways and reminding people that we're up a creek without a paddle and it's getting worse every day. Cause that doesn't engender participation. It engenders, numbness, despair, denial from some people because the facts don't change people's beliefs.

(22:44) Jason Mark: And so it's really about having an action plan that's going to, again, resolve those issues, the despair that people have?

Paul Hawken: Well, sure. I mean because I think people all care. They all care about their children and they care about their family, their community. They care about the things that we all care about. I don't think people are indifferent at all. And at the same time that climate action has been perceived as a threat, as an outlier, as something that's going to undermine people's security, and both food security, both their personal security, economic security, I think that's not true. I mean in fact, I know it's not true. When you look at these 100 solutions, 98 of them are things we would want to do — no regrets solutions — if we didn't have a single climate scientist alive and we had no idea what was causing extreme weather. We would want to do those 98 solutions because-

Jason Mark: Anyway.

Paul Hawken: ... anyway with benefits they have for women, children, work, prosperity, water, innovation. I mean it just goes on and on and on. And so the idea that somehow the solutions to reversing global warming or sort of over there somewhere and I have a business to run, I have an economy to run, I've a country to run, is actually upside down and backwards.

(23:56) Jason Mark: Of the top 10 solutions, two of them are social issues, and that's educating girls and family planning. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that and whether that was a surprise.

Jason Mark: Again, when you hit the go button and the algorithm or whatever you had ranked them, that those came out, respectively, number six and seven.

Paul Hawken: Catherine Wilkinson, we co-wrote the book. She is a scholar, Oxford PhD and she said, "I'll do the research." And she came up with this an incredible amount of research and wrote that particular piece. Educating girls is really another pathway to family planning and girls that receive a high school equivalent education and are supported to do so behave in a very different way. They've become a woman on more or less their terms instead of somebody else's terms. And they're not forced to go to work to put the brothers through school and they are smarter, they earn more money. They want to have less children and put more of their resources, which they have more of into those children so that they do not have the same experience in childhood that this woman had or this girl had. And so it's one pathway to family planning and then the other pathway to family planning is clinics, family planning and... But we wanted to break them out because actually very different solutions. They just end up in the same outcome. You put them together and they are the number one solution. Right now, as I said, we're talking about it as way of… It's kind of dread... instead of like ...

Jason Mark: Possibility?

Paul Hawken: Possibility and celebration, like global warming's a gift. It's not a curse.

Jason Mark: A gift in terms of being able to open up just the potentialities of new routes of new ways of living, being, doing?

Paul Hawken: Any system that ignores feedback dies. Your body does. It's a system. You ignore feedback, it's giving, you know, you're getting sick, your fever, this, that you're talking ... Whatever the feedback is, you just ignore it and override it, you'll die. So the earth is a system. Global warming is the feedback, and feedback is a gift to the whole. It is actually something we should be grateful for. So again, using war metaphors about it, like to fight and combat and so forth, is actually the mindset that created the problem, which is that everything's separate, different, other. It's not me. It's other. Creating fear is the mindset that caused global warming. And so creating fear to solve it won't work. Rather we need literacy, but we also need to understand that it's a super wicked, gnarly problem to be sure, but every problem is a solution in disguise. That's what a problem is. Global warming, not surprisingly, it is just a plethora of transformative solutions that lead us to a much better outcome, much better world than the one we're in now.

So actually reversing global warming is a pathway to all the things that actually people say they want. Politicians say they'll do. People are promised to do as CEOs, but actually in fact oftentimes do the opposite.

Jason Mark: Paul Hawken, thank you so much for coming in. I really appreciate it, and sharing this, this wisdom and this inspiration.

Paul Hawken: Jason, it's a delight. Thank you.

Jason Mark: Thank you.

Notes and Thank Yous

The ending soundscape by Bernie Krause spans several years of recordings at Sugarloaf Mountain state park outside of California's Napa Valley. The sounds of the natural world become quieter over the years as a result of global warming. 

The Overstory is produced by Josephine Holtzman and Isaac Kestenbaum at Future Projects Media with help from Danielle Roth. Our theme music is by Jeff Bradsky. This episode was mixed by Dara Hirsch. Next time we talk to a young British activist who’s paddle boarding across rivers throughout England to pick up trash and to send something of a message. I'm Jason Mark, and you've been listening to the Overstory.