If you want a great synopsis of the state of the planet and whether you should be worried about the future, you should set aside an hour over this holiday break to sit down and listen to this excellent (and simultaneously non-excellent) talk by Lester Brown. It is packed with head-turning numbers and specifics. It’s the best overall presentation of the state of our planet I’ve heard in a long time. Even if the emotional message of it is hard to figure out.

FIND THE TIME FOR THIS — YOU’LL NEED 42 MINUTES. This year, instead of turning to religion for hope, you might want to turn to science, technology and society for your dose of hope via this very concise and interesting presentation by one of the grand old men of the environmental movement, Lester Brown.

brown eye


How can a talk be simultaneously excellent and non-excellent? How can a talk be boring, disastrous and perfect. It has to do with different audiences.

This talk by Lester Brown is amazingly good if you’ve got a long attention span, have no need for visuals, and can listen close enough and be smart enough to get your message ONLY from the substance of what he says, not from the style.

On the other hand, if you’re a short attention span person (like most of our society today and the artist half of my brain) it has the potential to be disastrous. First off, he says absolutely nothing with the style channel of communication. His largely monotonic voice does not waiver from when he’s talking about the grimness in his first third by describing a potential “perfect storm” of population explosion, global warming, and crop failure as soon as 2030. He’s predicting total calamity, and doing it without even changing the pacing of his words, versus the end of the talk when he pretty much says it’s starting to look like we may have this environmental thing licked. But with the same emotionless sterile delivery.

By the end of the talk he’s telling about how we’ve moved out of the age of coal, into the age of oil, and are now clearly headed to the age of wind — Yay! But he delivers this hugely optimistic good news with … alas … the same dispassionate even keel as the bad news. Which is great if you’re an academic and can get your cues just from the text delivered, but not so much if you’re a multi-tasking soccer dad who is trying to listen to this while talking to the wife on the phone and picking up the kids from practice. That audience member will have a hard time answering his friend’s questions that evening when he mentions at a cocktail party that he listened to this talk and they ask, “So what’s Lester Brown saying, are we doomed or not?”

The even worse news is that the last third of the talk is so packed with optimism that it would be very easy for a listener to come to the conclusion of, “Hey, we’re doin’ it! We’re actually saving the planet! Yay, I can quit worrying!”



Seriously. The broader messaging dynamics of this talk are a mess. And not the least of which is that he begins by saying, “The title of the latest book that came out earlier this year, “World on the Edge,” is intended to create a sense of urgency.” Well … if you wrote the book … and you want to create a sense of urgency … why are you so relaxed and presenting your talk in an utterly non-urgent manner?

You might answer, well, that’s just who he is — it’s his style of presentation. But I’m telling you that ALL elements of presentation come into play. This is like the people at NSF giving boring talks about science that are promoted with the slogan, “Science is Fun!” No, it’s not. Not if your presentation isn’t fun.

I mean, it’s comical, but it’s no different than the most boring, lifeless, droid of a person saying, “I’m really excited about the work I’ve been doing lately.” Yes, your substance says you’re excited, but your style doesn’t. It’s that simple.

So I hate to say anything critical about this talk because it is very, very good. In fact, why in the world can’t President Obama just take the EXACT transcript of what Lester Brown says here and deliver it to the entire nation in a national address. It really poops all over the climate skeptics. The statistics on wind power and fazing out of coal plants and implementation of energy efficient bulbs just absolutely steam rolls over the climate skeptics in their efforts to combat the climate movement as the numbers really do say, “It’s happening.”

My recommendation is that you find an hour over the holidays, turn off your cell phone, do a few mind relaxing exercises to get your attention span ready to listen for 42 minutes, then hit play. It is the most concise and broad ranging presentation I’ve heard in a long time that will give you a clear idea of how there really is hope for humanity. Which is a nice message for the holidays.

It was a great session, and here’s a great blog review of it in case you weren’t able to attend.

Jason and Sean were excellent, as was the audience. It was the best one of these video events I’ve seen so far, in large part because the videos themselves were so good.



Liz Kalaugher wrote this blog review in which she did a perfect job of catching all the best moments and quotes from the event.

Last month the World Wildlife Fund celebrated their 50th anniversary and were nice enough to let me crash the festivities with this talk. My basic message is that the climate movement has done an impressive job with the CEREBRAL part of communication. Now they need to shore up the VISCERAL side.



Filmed at National Geographic’s headquarters — they did a really nice job.



The overall message of this talk is relatively simple. The American climate movement has done an impressive job with the cerebral side of communication, producing mountains of polling data, values models, mental models, classification and description of climate skeptics — all sorts of METRICS. But that’s only half of the communication picture — the cerebral/informational half.

As I say in this talk, there’s the other half — the more visceral component — the more experiential stuff. The divide is as simple as the difference between buying a book on acting versus taking an acting class where you actually have to act.

So I thought I was going to be the big rabble rouser of the day with my talk, but little did I know how blunt and incisive Martin Palmer’s talk would be. Which was nice. My message was mild by comparison. His talk (see video below) is truly amazing. I had heard a podcast from him in 2009 for which I sent him a fan email raving about how great it was. But I had totally forgotten about him until he began his talk and I started hearing some of the same things from that podcast, causing me to sit up and look around like, “wait a minute, this is that awesome guy!”

The talks might have benefited for the web by being only 10 minutes, plus I say “um” an awful lot (terrible to have to watch yourself giving a talk), but the talk presents pretty much the main things I have to say these days. Something has to change with climate communication. They have to realize they’re only addressing half of what communication is about. As a friend said to me last weekend, it doesn’t work to just buy a video about surfing. If you want to surf, you have to get out there and DO IT!



I’m ready to start the Martin Palmer Fan Club based on this talk. His organization clearly understands major parts of human nature that the climate movement doesn’t.

Hollywood has a lot to offer the science world, but you gotta respect the cultural divide.

THE S FACTOR PANEL AT AGU: All three of us were in the same film school class at U.S.C. starting in January, 1994. Previous to film school I was a tenured professor of marine biology, leaving me with a brain that is still 50% scientist. Sean Hood did an undergraduate degree in physics at Yale University giving him a brain that is today 75% Hollywood, yet still 25% scientist. And Jason Ensler? Ain’t no science bones in his body. He brings the 100% pure voice of Hollywood to the mix. Out of this combination we will provide a bridge from the way scientists approach communication to the way Hollywood approaches communication. This is how you effectively connect the two worlds.

yo mang


In my 20 years of living in and around Hollywood I have attended numerous events in which the organizers have this great idea of, “let’s put a group of great scientists together with a group of great filmmakers and let them cross pollinate!”

Guess what happens most of the time. They might as well say, “Let’s put a group of people who speak only the Ebo language of Nigeria together with a group of people who speak only Greek and let them cross pollinate.” (the Ebo reference is of course a nod to my best friend and Sizzle co-star Ifeanyi Njoku).

In the end, the Ebo speakers will gather on one side of the room and speak amongst themselves as the Greek speakers gather on the other side to speak amongst themselves. I’ve seen it over and over again. Scientists and filmmakers do not match. They not only speak two different languages, but they think very differently when it comes to communication. I talked about this a lot in my book.

Scientists are “story-averse.” They have a sort of story-phobia — the fear that “if I start worrying about telling a good story, I’ll stop worrying about keeping things accurate.” Which is a valid concern, but the fact is you can tell great stories without having to alter any information whatsoever. Journalists do it every day. You just need guidance in how to organize the information in a manner that will grab the interest of the broader audience, and that is exactly what we will be doing in this workshop Tuesday evening at the AGU.



I spoke yesterday with Sean Hood about the workshop. He’s viewed the ten selected videos twice and has a bunch of the same thoughts and comments I have — starting with being pleasantly surprised with the quality. The videos are good. And yet … they don’t do a particularly good job of storytelling, so there’s plenty to work with.

We’ve got lots of specifics to offer up — one video has spectacular footage buried in the middle of it instead of putting it at the start to grab the viewer’s attention, another desperately needs music scoring, several need to not open by introducing the on-camera host (and maybe not even have an on-camera host), pretty much all of them need to give more thought to posing an initial question, most of them need better visual elements, and all of them need to give more thought to how you grab, hold, and satisfy the attention of viewers.

Lots to work with. It’s going to be a great session. Bring all your friends, it’s open to the public. Look forward to seeing you there!

If you’re going to tell the world how to communicate, you have to communicate it well.

Would you take advice on how to dress for success from this guy?



You’d think this would be a piece of common sense. But it’s not. I don’t want to mention any names because all the guilty parties are so well intended, but I’m subjected to this over and over again. It’s happened AT LEAST five times I can think of. People get in touch with me about making a video about how to communicate science well, but when I start asking questions about how much budget they have, how good of a crew, what are their plans for sound design, do they have a good gaffer who knows how to light well — all sorts of reasonable and necessary questions for good communication, I usually get an answer of, “nah, we just got a friend who has a handi-cam we’re gonna shoot it on.”

You can’t do that. You can’t make a video telling an audience about how messages need to be communicated well only to have the video turn out so poorly lit with such crappy audio that the viewer can hardly understand it.

Does everyone understand this simple problem? Did I just start talking Portuguese up here? Does anybody remember H. Ross Perot?

Let’s repeat this all together … FILM AND VIDEO … ARE … VISUAL MEDIA. Say it a few more times to yourselves. A “well communicated” video consists of plenty of visual material that clearly conveys a certain amount of information coherently. Looking at the face of a human being (i.e. the standard “talking head”) says only one thing visually — “face.” That’s it. If you want to make a video about fish, you need to have images of fish. If you want to make a video about bridges, you need to have images of bridges. But here’s the hard part …



If you want to make a video about something that is exciting, the video itself needs to be exciting. You can’t have some lackluster person staring at you saying listlessly, “It’s important to make exciting presentations.” That does not work.

Similarly, if you want to lecture people on the need to communicate effectively, it does not work to do it in a video that most people want to shut off after 30 seconds. It doesn’t. Sorry. It’s a conundrum. I’ve railed about this before with the stoopid Bloggingheads concept that usually presents two horribly lit old men blabbing about some dull topic. Yes, the transcript of what they say may be fascinating, but do you know what they are saying VISUALLY in such a presentation? “Hi, we’re boring old men who don’t care what we look like because we’re so certain that everything we have to say is priceless.”

Do you have any idea of why TED Talks have become so popular? Do you really think it’s because the content of every presentation is so amazing? Would you watch a TED Talk if it were poorly lit with bad audio shot on a single camera that is so wide the speaker is just a little blip on the screen? TED Talks are exciting and interesting in large part because they are shot in a manner that is exciting and interesting with great lighting, multiple cameras and flawless audio. They are presentations spoken perfectly in the language of presentations.

Yes, we all want to communicate better, but you need something more than good intentions. You need an ability to communicate well to start with. Unfortunately, for film and video production this usually requires money, with the bottom line being that you get what you pay for. And this is a concept that most scientists, who are the ultimate do-it-yourselfers, simply cannot comprehend. (and I know this to be a fact — I was a scientist and was just as bad at it as anyone)