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New PBS series tracks effects of humanity on the planet


How have humans shaped the planet we live on? The better question might be, is there any way humans haven't shaped the planet?


SHANE CAMPBELL-STATON: Humans are a cosmopolitan species, and wherever we go, we bring other species with us. These biological invasions cost the global economy $1.4 trillion a year.

SHAPIRO: In a new six-part series on PBS called "Human Footprint," biologist and Princeton University professor Shane Campbell-Staton travels the world to wrap his brain around the impact of our species on Earth. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CAMPBELL-STATON: Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: When I heard about this series, my first thought was, how do you tell the story of human impact on the planet without making it relentlessly bleak and depressing? And you managed to do it without glossing over the reality that Earth faces. So how did you pull that off?

CAMPBELL-STATON: Well, you know, when people think about our impact on the planet, I think it's easy to sort of see us as the villains of the story. But the reality is it's more complicated than that. You know, we are a complicated species. Our culture is complicated. Our history is complicated, and our impact on the planet is complicated. There are bad things. There are also good things. There are things that are none of those two. There's things that are just goofy, or there are things that are just weird. And we explore all of those different impacts.

SHAPIRO: One particularly charming episode of the show is about dogs. What was your biggest takeaway from reporting that out, apart from how cute they are?

CAMPBELL-STATON: Yeah, so dogs are adorable. I myself own a Great Dane. And, you know, when we think about dogs, I think a lot of times we have a tendency to focus on how we have changed them, but dogs have also changed us as well.

SHAPIRO: In what way?

CAMPBELL-STATON: So for instance, in terms of - if we look at, you know, human history, you know, dogs have helped us to colonize some of the most extreme environments on the planet. I got to go to the Arctic Circle and spend time with this young Inuit dog sled trainer named Devon (ph). You know, he's a young kid about maybe 21 years old.


DEVON: I used to watch videos on YouTube of Greenland mushers. You know, I tried to do how they did it.

CAMPBELL-STATON: You learned how to run a sled dog team from YouTube?


DEVON: Well, not entirely, but it was part of it, yeah.

CAMPBELL-STATON: Speaking with Devon - you know, we went out, and we went on a seal hunt. And, you know, talking with him and spending time with his dogs, I realized that our connection with dogs is something that runs really deep. In this case, you're talking about a thousand years deep.


DEVON: One day we saw these wolves, and they were faster. They had better smell than us. You know, they could hear better than us. So we're like, oh, why don't we befriend this animal?

CAMPBELL-STATON: And that connection, you know, helped us, as a species, to conquer one of the most extreme environments on the planet. I've never been any place where I was so absolutely sure, if left to my own devices, I would die - like, 100% for sure die.


CAMPBELL-STATON: And these dogs have been key to surviving in such an extreme environment.

SHAPIRO: As you were producing this series, were there things that surprised you, or was it pretty much sort of like, yeah, I knew about that?

CAMPBELL-STATON: You know, as somebody who studies - like, I spend my life thinking about, you know, the lasting biological impacts of humans. But I realized that that expertise is very narrow in terms of the scope of our human impact. Going on this journey, I think one of the most incredible things was, like, speaking with people who weren't biologists - speaking with fishermen, speaking with farmers, speaking with, like, local experts who, you know, made me realize exactly how intertwined we are with the natural world in all these crazy and unexpected ways.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us about one particular surprise where you were like, whoa, I thought I knew this but didn't realize that was the state of things?

CAMPBELL-STATON: The most intense example I can think of is - so in the last episode of the series, we explore the footprint of cotton.


CAMPBELL-STATON: From the shores of an ancient ocean to the DNA in my cells today, cotton is the thread connecting so much in the South. By 1860, cotton alone represented half of all U.S. exports, and it was reshaping the world in profound ways.

You know, I am an African American. I was raised in the South, in South Carolina. You know, now I'm a biologist who, you know, studies human-induced changes. Obviously, domestication is - you know, is a core part of our sort of current biological footprint. And going into that episode, coming from both of those backgrounds, it's like, you know, I've got a pretty good feel for what this episode is going to be about. But then, along the way, it just fundamentally changed. You know, I met with a biologist. We met in Alabama - a biologist named Craig McClain. And, you know, we were standing on these deposits that form the basis of the Black Belt that runs through the Deep South.

SHAPIRO: It's really shocking. He maps these ancient geological formations onto present day Democratic-Republican divides - health outcomes, things that are so present in our lives right now that are a reflection of where oceans were hundreds of millions of years ago.

CAMPBELL-STATON: Exactly. And, you know, it's something that you'd never think about, you'd never expect. It's a time frame arc of history that just seems so impossible, yet there it is, right in front of your face. You know, which counties across the South go Democrat, which go Republican, instances of obesity - all of these things, they trace an ancient coastline that has not existed for a hundred million years.

SHAPIRO: You know, in the first episode, somebody talking about invasive species say, we made the problem. We have to fix it. With all the changes that you document, the idea of fixing it or undoing it seems totally unrealistic. We're not going to return to some kind of, like, Garden of Eden prelapsarian state. So what do you think our goal should actually be? - not specifically with invasive species, just broadly, when we look at the human impact on the world.

CAMPBELL-STATON: I think, at this point, our goal should be, one, understanding exactly what this impact is, understanding that our decisions, be they intentional or unintentional, are going to have a really important impact on the world around us. I think the second thing is, you know, a conversation needs to happen in terms of what we want this planet to be. The earth is fundamentally different, and it's not going to go back, especially as long as we're around. So what that means is that the future is literally what we make it, and we need to decide what we want that future to be.

SHAPIRO: Biologist and Princeton University professor Shane Campbell-Staton is the host of the new series "Human Footprint" on PBS. Thank you so much.

CAMPBELL-STATON: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marc Rivers
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.