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Amidst all of the perspectives and arguments around our ecological future, this much is true: we are not in the natural world — we are part of it. The next-generation marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson would let that reality of belonging show us the way forward. She loves the ocean. She loves human beings. And she’s animated by questions emerging from those loves — and from the science she does — which we scarcely know how to take seriously amidst so much demoralizing bad ecological news. This hour, Krista draws out her creative and pragmatic inquiry: Could we let ourselves be led by what we already know how to do, and by what we have it in us to save? What, she asks, if we get this right?

This conversation was recorded at the 2022 TED Conference. You can hear all of the talks coming out of the conference by following the TED Talks Daily podcast, wherever podcasts are found.

The British psychologist Kimberley Wilson works in the emergent field of whole body mental health, one of the most astonishing frontiers we are on as a species. Discoveries about the gut microbiome, for example, and the gut-brain axis; the fascinating vagus nerve and the power of the neurotransmitters we hear about in piecemeal ways in discussions around mental health. The phrase “mental health” itself makes less and less sense in light of the wild interactivity we can now see between what we’ve falsely compartmentalized as physical, emotional, mental, even spiritual. And so much of what we’re seeing brings us back to intelligence that has always been in the very words we use — “gut instinct,” for instance. It brings us back to something your grandmother was right about, for reasons she would never have imagined: you are what you eat. There is so much actionable knowledge in the tour of the ecosystem of our bodies that Kimberley Wilson takes us on this hour. This is science that invites us to nourish the brains we need, young and old, to live in this world.

Few books have been more eagerly passed from hand to hand with delight in these last years than Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. Krista interviewed her in 2015, and it quickly became a much-loved show as her voice was just rising in common life. Robin is a botanist and also a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She’s written, “Science polishes the gift of seeing, Indigenous traditions work with gifts of listening and language.” An expert in moss — a bryologist — she describes mosses as the “coral reefs of the forest.” Robin Wall Kimmerer opens a sense of wonder and humility for the intelligence in all kinds of life we are used to naming and imagining as inanimate.

The ornithologist Drew Lanham is lyrical in the languages of science, humans, and birds. His celebrated books include The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature and a collection of poetry and meditations called Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts. Drew Lanham’s way of seeing and hearing and noticing the present and the history that birds traverse — through our backyards and beyond — is a revelatory way to be present to the world and to life in our time.

This conversation took place in partnership with The Great Northern.

The astrophysicist Mario Livio spent 24 years at the Space Telescope Science Institute working with the Hubble Telescope, which has revealed the reality and beauty of the Universe to scientists and citizens in whole new ways. The Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Telescope, will become fully operational in 2022, and will further some of the questions about the early formation of the Universe and the origins of life to which Mario Livio has been devoted. Krista spoke with him in 2010, and this conversation has become an On Being Classic, imparting a thrilling sense of all we are learning about the cosmos in this generation in time, our terrible earthly woes notwithstanding. Also: how scientific advance always meets recurrent mystery, from the emergence of life in the Universe to the very heart of mathematics and the puzzle of dark matter and dark energy.

Trabian Shorters is a visionary who has seen and named a task that is necessary for all healing and building, for every vision and plan, whether in a family or a world, to flourish. It’s called Asset Framing — and it works with both new understandings of the brain and an age-old understanding of the real-world power of the words we use, the stories we tell, and the way we name things and people. From everyday social media, to hallowed modes of journalistic, academic, and policy analyses, we have a habit of seeing deficits — and of defining people in need in terms of their problems. This has not only doomed some of our best efforts to failure — it leaves all of us prone to cynicism and hopelessness. What’s exciting is that what Trabian Shorters proposes is not only more effective, it is simple and straightforward to grasp. It is in and of itself dignifying and renewing. The main question you might be asking at the end of this is why, at this advanced stage of our species, it took us so long to learn to asset frame.

The esteemed writer Jane Hirshfield has been a Zen monk and a visiting artist among neuroscientists. She has said this: “It’s my nature to question, to look at the opposite side. I believe that the best writing also does this … It tells us that where there is sorrow, there will be joy; where there is joy, there will be sorrow … The acknowledgement of the fully complex scope of being is why good art thrills … Acknowledging the fullness of things,” she insists, “is our human task.” And that’s the ground Krista meanders with Jane Hirshfield in this conversation: the fullness of things — through the interplay of Zen and science, poetry and ecology — in her life and writing.

What if the future of well-being is about “tipping the scales in the world away from fear and toward love”? And what if it’s a surgeon general of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy, who talks this way? Krista draws him out with his friend, the groundbreaking neuroscientist Richard Davidson. Together they carry deep intelligence and vision from the realms of science and public health, expansively understood. They explore all we are learning to help move us forward as a species. This conversation was held as a live Zoom event, sponsored by the Center for Healthy Minds.

Jane Goodall’s early research studying chimpanzees helped shape the self-understanding of our species and recalled modern Western science to the fact that we are a part of nature, not separate from it. In honor of the publication of her 32nd book — The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times — we’re re-releasing her beautiful conversation with Krista over Zoom from pandemic lockdown. From her decades studying chimpanzees in the Gombe forest to her more recent years attending to human poverty and misunderstanding, the legendary primatologist reflects on the moral and spiritual convictions that have driven her, and what she is teaching and still learning about what it means to be human.

When Krista interviewed the psychiatrist and trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk for the first time, his book The Body Keeps the Score was about to be published. She described him then as “an innovator in treating the effects of overwhelming experiences on people and society.” She catches up with him in 2021 — as we are living through one vast overwhelming experience after the other. And The Body Keeps the Score is now one of the most widely read books in the pandemic world. His perspective is utterly unique and very practically helpful — on what’s been happening in our bodies and our brains, and how that relationship can become severed and restored.

If we didn’t have vast civilizational challenges upon us, we might be living in a constant state of wonder at what science in this century is learning and showing us about the cosmos and about ourselves — the new questions it’s giving us to live. We are the generation of our species to map the genome, to detect black holes colliding, to hear gravitational waves. The physicist Brian Greene is one of our greatest interpreters from the human enterprise that is science. And in his most recent thinking and writing, there’s a stunning evolution in his own approach to science and life and the matters of purpose and meaning. We delve into his exuberant, cosmic lens on living in the here and the now.

There’s dark matter in the cosmos, and inside us, and hidden beneath our feet. Robert Macfarlane is an explorer and linguist of landscape and his book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey, is an odyssey that’s full of surprises — from caves and catacombs under land, under cities, and under forests to the meltwater of Greenland. “Since before we were Homo sapiens,” he writes, “humans have been seeking out spaces of darkness in which to find and make meaning.” Darkness in the natural world and in human life, he suggests, is a medium of vision — and descent, a movement toward revelation.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — or SETI — goes beyond hunting for E.T. and habitable planets. Scientists in the field are using telescopes and satellites looking for signs of outright civilizational intelligence. One of the founding pioneers in this search is astronomer Jill Tarter. She is a co-founder of the SETI Institute and was an inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact, based on the novel by Carl Sagan. To speak with Tarter is to begin to grasp the creative majesty of SETI and what’s relevant now in the ancient question: “Are we alone in the universe?”

The classic economic theory embedded in western democracies holds an assumption that human beings will almost always behave rationally in the end and make logical choices that will keep our society balanced on the whole. Daniel Kahneman is the psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for showing that this is simply not true. There’s something sobering — but also helpfully grounding — in speaking with this brilliant and humane scholar who explains why none of us is an equation that computes. As surely as we breathe, we will contradict ourselves and confound each other.

The light at the end of the COVID tunnel is tenuously appearing — yet many of us feel as exhausted as at any time in the past year. Memory problems; short fuses; fractured productivity; sudden drops into despair. We’re at once excited and unnerved by the prospect of life opening up again. Clinical psychologist Christine Runyan explains the physiological effects of a year of pandemic and social isolation — what’s happened at the level of stress response and nervous system, the literal mind-body connection. And she offers simple strategies to regain our fullest capacities for the world ahead.

“Having tasted beauty at the heart of the world, we hunger for more.” These are words from Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek in his book, A Beautiful Question. It’s a winsome, joyful meditation on the question: Do cosmic realities embody beautiful ideas? — probing the world, by way of science, as a work of art. He reminds us that time and space, mystery and order, are so much stranger and more generous than we can comprehend. He’s now written a wonderful new book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality.

We’ve realized in 2020 that the way we’ve organized culture — from the economy to race to work — could be done radically differently. We’ve been modeling our life together on “survival of the fittest” long after science itself moved on from that. And we’re learning to see that in every sphere of life we inhabit ecosystems. Agustín Fuentes brings spacious insight into all of this as a biological and evolutionary anthropologist, exploring how humans behave, function, and change together. In this conversation, he is full of refreshingly creative and practical fodder for the necessary reinvention ahead.

“The sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us may well be the most serious business of all,” Michael McCarthy writes. He is a naturalist and journalist with a galvanizing call — that we stop relying on the immobilizing language of statistics and take up our joy in nature as our defense of it. And he reminds us that the natural world is where we first found our metaphors and similes and it is the resting place for our psyches.

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