In Episode 82, Quinn & Brian discuss: How to fix our somewhat pressing land reconfiguration issues -- from 30,000 feet down to the soil under your feet.
Our guest is Dr. Iara Lacher, a land use ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. She is also the co-runner of a small nursery out of northwestern Virginia called Seven Bends Nursery. The work she does is based around sustainable planning and living, where they conduct the science to provide information for use in planning, land use, and conservation. She also wants to, through the nursery, provide these materials on a smaller scale to homeowners.
We have a lot of work to do to combat climate change. We need to drastically rebuild our land use from top to bottom, reforesting the world — and before we can even start doing that, we have to stop deforestation. There is no one solution that’s going to solve it all, but we need a diverse portfolio of planning for our ecological future.
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Quinn: Welcome to Important, Not Important, my name is Quinn Emmett.
Brian: And I'm Brian Colbert Kennedy.
Quinn: That was very, who was that famous news anchor? Concrete?
Quinn: Conkrite. Anyways, this is the podcast where we try our hardest to bend the motherfucking arc of the universe towards a more livable planet for you, for me, and for everybody else.
Brian: We're going to dive into a specific question affecting everyone on the planet right now.
Quinn: If it can kill us or make the future a hell of a lot cooler for everyone, we are in.
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Quinn: Yep, occasionally, when they show up. This is your friendly reminder you can send questions, thoughts, ransom notes and such, maybe even a cat to us-
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Quinn: This week's episode is: How Death Metal is Going to Fix Our Somewhat Pressing Land Configuration Issues.
Brian: That's a good title.
Quinn: It is, isn't it?
Brian: Our guest is Dr. Iara Lacher, who's over there kicking ass and taking names at the Smithsonian, and we're here for it.
Quinn: Here for it.
Brian: This was a great conversation.
Quinn: Loved it, enthusiastic, fired up-
Brian: I was going to so feisty.
Quinn: So capable, so smart. Clearly one of those ones where, again, the guest is using 10% of her brain to engage with us on the basis level.
Brian: And we appreciate it.
Quinn: Yeah, all for it. Anyways, let's find out how people can get their hands dirty and help solve this little issue.
Brian: Nice, great one, wow.
Quinn: Yeah, you're welcome. I got puns, kid. Here we go.
Quinn: Our guest today is Iara Lacher, and together, we're going to talk about how to redesign our lands from 30,000 feet up, down to the soil, Brian, because we need to, or else that's it, and it's find. Iara, welcome.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Thank you, thank you for having me.
Quinn: Of course.
Brian: We are thrilled to have you.
Brian: Let's get going by, if you don't mind, just letting everybody know who you are and what you do?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Sure. My name is Dr. Lacher, I am a Land Use Ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and I also run and operate, I'm a co-owner of a small nursery based out of northwestern Virginia, called Seven Bends Nursery. With all of the work that I do, I'm really focused on sustainable planning and sustainable living, so we conduct the science to produce information for use in planning in land use and conservation. Through the nursery, I want to provide access to plant material so that homeowners can do the same at small scales.
Quinn: Sounds very well put together.
Brian: Yes, yes it does.
Quinn: Brian, by the end of the day, I want you to have a job description that concise for what you do here.
Brian: We can't all have those.
Quinn: What? Well, she's obviously worked very hard to put that together, I'm just saying you could do something similar.
Brian: All right, we'll figure it out.
Quinn: Okay, great.
Brian: Back to Iara, a quick reminder for everyone, what we're doing here, we're going to provide some context for our question or topic at hand today, and then we'll dig into some action-oriented questions that get to the heart of why we should all give a shit about it and what we can all do about it.
Quinn: Does that sound about right?
Dr. Iara Lacher: That sounds about right.
Quinn: Rock and roll. Dr. Lacher, we start with one important question to really set the tone of this conversation today, instead of saying, "Tell us your entire life story," as interesting as we're positive it is, we like to ask: Dr. Lacher, why are you vital to the survival of the species?
Dr. Iara Lacher: So, I have listened to several of your episodes-
Quinn: You cheater.
Brian: We got a cheater.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yeah, and I think what I want to start off with is I, individually, am probably not. What I do think is-
Quinn: We'll be the judge of that.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Is that we need people who are willing to be a jack-of-all-trades, to understand how to connect to communities across the globe, across all types, and that includes communities of politicians or those that make the decisions that really define how we live our lives. I think that that's really why I "could be vital to the survival of humankind". We also need people who are going to be thinking about how to change systems that don't currently work. So, for me, that is both within the system of academia, which has been operating in a particular way for hundreds of years, and it doesn't work for us anymore in the way that I think it should. And, also, providing, like I was saying before, access to materials so that individuals can actually feel like they have some sort of power over their own lives and their futures.
Quinn: Yeah, that sounds pretty good-
Brian: I love when we get an answer that you just go "That's the best answer."
Quinn: Yeah, I mean, to be clear, she cheated. However-
Brian: But still, the result was wonderful.
Quinn: No, that was fantastic, however fueled by a Bloody Mary it might be.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yes.
Quinn: Whatever gets it done. I love it, I'm excited about it and thankful for you already. We're going to talk about a little, just quick context for today, we're not going to make it too long because we've talked about agriculture and land use in a variety of different ways because, obviously, it's super important. We've talked about super sciency versions, like the conversation we had about how our fruits and vegetables are half as nutritious as they used to be, that was Episode number ... I don't remember-
Brian: Was that pretty early?
Quinn: Dr. [Christie Ebby 00:06:06], that was pretty fascinating stuff. You could go down a thousand different variations. The story is what can we do about ... everybody asks me, the Uber driver, "What can we do about climate change?", and it's like there's so many things going on, right, we've got the fossil fuels, which is what we all focus on; there's natural gas, but it's clean, it's not, fracking.
So, we've got electric vehicles, and maybe one day electric planes, and maybe electric-powered ships, and solar farms, and solar roofs, and wind turbines in the planes, and huge wind turbines off the coast. And it's not those sexy things you hear about all the time are not enough because what most of our land is is agriculture and farms, most of which are huge and some of which are small, those are dwindling out. We've got what do we do to our animals and our plants with antibiotics and fertilizer, and what's the health of our seeds. In America, we grow mostly corn and soy and we try to ship it to China, but sometimes we're not allowed to, and forests are burning or being cut down, and then there's drought and monocrops and diversity ...
Our lands have helped slow the tide of climate change, and they could do so much more if we let them do what they do. And the IPCC, which is the UN's Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, for those of you that are new, they said in 2018 that drastically rebuilding our land use from top to bottom has to be a central pillar of this climate fight. The question is: are we willing to do what it takes, which is a lot of different things, are we ready to reforest the world, and before that, to stop deforestation? So, that's what we're going to get into today, to talk about redesigning how we use our lands, from 30,000 feet up, down to the soil.
So, Iara, one last bit of context to get where we're going today, and I'm hoping you can fill some things in. Everyone's really excited about trees, which is awesome, right. There's a report from last year that says the Earth could handle 500 billion more trees, which could help remove two-thirds of the carbon we've pumped into our atmosphere, it sounds great-
Brian: 500 billion?
Quinn: Yep. And that's obviously a hell of a task, it's a hell of a payout, but that is going to be a lot more complicated than it sounds. Can you talk to us about how land is currently divvied up and why we can't just plant trees everywhere to fix that?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Sure.
Quinn: We try to basically put our listeners on the same page, because so many of our listeners are urban or don't go into forests or haven't traveled that much, or if they have, it's not to go to forests and things like that, so I want to paint a picture that this is how the land is currently used and why we can plant a hell of a lot of trees but we can't just plant them everywhere and any trees we want, does that make sense?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yeah. There are a couple of points here. First, I would be, to whoever's listening, be cautious about these studies that give you explanations about what's happening across the entire globe; the purpose of that is to provide some perspective and sense of scale with the kind of resources we have. The second, yes, planting trees is, please, plant trees, ideally native trees to wherever your region is. They can operate, there are no other systems that we have that are manmade that do as good a job of taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it in the ground, and then on top of that, provide habitats, resources that are important for us, economically and also for our wellbeing, in terms of our health and natural environment and all of the species that depend on them.
Now, there is a lot of land surface across the globe, but there is a lot of land surface that actually isn't really accessible by humans and is covered by ice; a lot of that land surface is currently used for agriculture, there are ways that we can probably improve upon how we use those agricultural lands; then there's a lot of land that has a lot of trees on it already, like within the tropics or arboreal regions of the globe. I think it's important to recognize that probably the best use of this landscape is for us to be able to strategically plan for a balance, so studies like this that say, "Hey, we can't plant however billions more trees" aren't necessarily giving the message that we should be strategically planning for a balanced use of our landscape.
So, I'm hesitant to just drop in and say, "This is the solution," there is no one solution, just like a diverse economic portfolio is good for you making money or planning your retirement out, we need a diverse portfolio for planning for our future, for the ecologic systems on Earth. So, no one solution is going to work, it's a combination of a lot of things.
Quinn: Sure. Thank you for that, by the way. I think people get frustrated and put their head in the sand a little bit when I hear that, but I also think it's important to say. It's like when people say, "Talk about agriculture," and I'm like, "Cool, do you want me to talk about runoff? Do you want me to talk about soil? Do you want me to talk about fertilizer? Do you want me to talk about antibiotics and animals?" That's why we've talked about the ocean 40 different ways, and land, and air, and things like that, because it's complicated, and it should be, but we need to start addressing these things and help people really understand both on the local level and also just the great ecosystem contextual level. Go ahead.
Dr. Iara Lacher: This actually taps into something very important for me, which is a message I'd like to deliver through the podcast-
Dr. Iara Lacher: Is that in a way I'm kind of talking to myself or people who think like me, who are very concerned, have a lot of empathy and compassion, and want to do something to improve our world. I get worried about these messages of "Here's the solution, and you can do it, and just do this and everything will be fine," or these maybe too optimistic visions of what the future could hold, they have to be balanced also. Working in the environmental field is a very depressing world, so we need those signals of hope and optimism in order to keep going, and I want to deliver that as well, but it has to be based in realism.
And I think that the real solution for moving forward, for really keeping climate change at bay, and preventing the extinction of hundreds of species across our globe, and really promoting equality and access to resources for all humans, needs to be based in some form of reality, which it's going to be really, really hard, it is going to require individuals to step up more than they probably realize, it's going to require that in form of your daily practice, whatever you do on day-to-day with energy use or resource use or consumerism, but also contacting your representatives and voting.
And there is hope because we see that the systems on this Earth are incredibly resilient. Life wants to live, we just need to find a way in order to let it do so. So, that's kind of what I'm hoping I can deliver, to some degree, to somebody listening in, whenever you're listening in to this podcast.
Quinn: Yeah, mostly texting and driving, to be clear.
Quinn: So, if they're also planting a tree, we've sent the entirely wrong message.
Quinn: Don't do it while you drive. So, Iara, you are working at a really interesting place, which is this nexus of science, with the Smithsonian, and policy, and quite literally, and I feel like I'm using literally correct, as opposed to most versions of it, at the grassroots level, and it's really cool because it's almost like this form of community organizing, right? I mean, you said in an email to me that "It's time," and I really love this, "that science gets off the shelf and we put it to use," and you are so perfectly situated to do that because you are a scientist.
Most people, even our nerdy listeners, maybe not the nerdiest, but a lot of our listeners, even the Congress people that are listening, or business people, but most of them will read or will have read the IPCC report, whichever one, about the oceans or the lands, from their mainstream news sources, from their Washington Post and such, and many of them, if not most of them, are probably urban or urban-adjacent, and we've talked about that, they don't really have this connection to the soil that our grandparents did in the generations before to their food, to their distribution, to our forests.
So, paint a little picture for us about how you, Iara, are stepping up, and working with actual humans to get science off the shelf in into the hands of consumers and land owners.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Sure. Well, step one is realizing that, as a scientist, I don't necessarily have, although I was probably better prepared than many people, all the skills necessary to be able to communicate effectively with people, and it's not just communicating your message as a scientist to people, like, "Hey, here's the research I did, here's the results I found. Now, isn't that great? Go do something with it."
But meeting them at their level, and that's not a level of intelligence, that's not what I mean by that, I mean meet them at the level of what are their needs, what is relevant to what they are doing on a daily basis, how does their world operate, and really being able to at least begin to understand and listen to what you hear when they tell you "Here is what I need, here is how my world works. What you have right now is great, I understand it, but I don't think I can use it for this purpose, what I really need is there's this pressing issue happening right now, and there are all these competing factors, and so how do I take this information and really even promote it in my world?"
So, I think going out to the community, communicating with the stakeholders in the region, which may be county, government planners, policymakers, community leaders who are really entrenched in trying to make a difference in the world, these conveners of people of minds, really getting the message from the individual. So, where I live here, in northwestern Virginia, where our project is based, it's a really diverse mix of land uses across the landscape.
So, we've got intense development pressure coming from the Washington/Baltimore metropolitan area, we've got a mix of forests, we've got a couple of really, really beautiful protected areas, they're publicly owned; we have a lot of agriculture, this used to be the bread basket for the country when it was founded, before it was even founded. And we have a lot of really deep cultural and historic aspects to this landscape as well, and I think you have to be aware that there are people who will intrinsically value the environment, and some of those people may work in government and may work in planning but don't necessarily have the tools to be able to promote those ideas; and then you have farmers who have been here for generations who don't feel like they have a voice, and they don't feel like people are listening to them.
And I think you can't join the party as simply a scientist, you have to be willing to plead ignorance because I am ignorant to what is really going on in the lives of different people here, and listen to the message, and take it honestly, and try your best to integrate it into the science itself and the process of the science you are working on. So, from the very beginning, from developing the questions of importance to the audience, to what is the ultimate goal; if you don't think about these things from the start, your product will not end up being relevant and useful to the people you may fully intend to have made it useful for. So, there's that piece.
I got a little jaded after a while because we weren't seeing a lot of rapid progress, and so I started breaking away from the academic system a bit, and that actually, in a way, brought a little bit more credibility than I realized it would bring, and in the development of this nursery, I now think that it's actually a two-way benefit, where the job I have benefits the nursery through the connections I have, and then the nursery gives a lot of street cred because I'm a farmer now-
Quinn: You're walking the walk.
Dr. Iara Lacher: I mean it's really small scale, I am not trying to claim that I am ... because people have been here farming for sustenance for hundreds of years, but-
Quinn: For sure, but it's still beyond what most folks have done.
Brian: Yeah, you deserve the credit.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yeah, but I think people see now that I care, and I care about developing the community that I am living in too, that I own it, I own this as my home as well, not just doing this to then produce something and leave. So, I think it's patience, it's trying to recognize where you are naïve and where you are wrong, trying your best to learn, identifying the skills that you have and the ones that you don't, and what can you work on and what do you need to find additional help for-
Quinn: But I love all of that because, like you said, "I'm ignorant," I mean that's basically how Brian and I feel every day talking to all of you people, the smartest people in the world, which is just we're nerdy about this, but we're still ... that's why we call them conversations instead of interviews because we're trying to stand in for all of our listeners who are interested in this stuff but don't have the access or the ability to ask the questions and really engage in this, but they care about it.
But that is also science, which the act of science is getting things wrong until you stumble on something, it is the scientific method, which is no one's trying to prove a hypothesis correct, you're trying to defeat it, and I think that's where most people who are just shouting into the ether about how scientists lead them astray or scientists think they know everything, it's like, no, it's the opposite. What's that great quote, is it Asimov, who's like, "It's not about "Eureka!"" it's about, you do an experiment, it's like, "That's funny," and all of a sudden we have fucking penicillin.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yeah, I love that story.
Quinn: Yeah, but at the same time, you compare that sense of humbleness and ignorance before science, but also before, like you said, people who have been farming for sustenance for hundreds of years, that mindset is so important to employ, and I think about the people out here who live on the west side of Los Angeles and who put their kids in private schools and don't vaccinate them because they've made a bunch of money doing whatever the fuck they do that they are smarter than their doctors and the scientists.
And there is a complete opposite of that sense of a need for humbleness and ignorance, and clearly they're not scientists or they wouldn't appreciate that, and how difficult it is, and how whatever Edison had, I told me kid the other day, he was like, "I've tried five times," I was like, "Let me tell you about the fucking light bulb, 40,000 light bulbs." But it is so helpful, and especially like you said, you're on a small scale, but to go into your community and say, "I want to try, too" requires that, because you would have got your ass kicked if you hadn't, right?
Dr. Iara Lacher: I think most people are good people, I think most people can also read people really well; I think you can tell who is genuine and who is not, so I think that's something that's really important, that no matter what you're doing in life, that whatever it is, you succeed so long as it is truly you, I believe that anyway.
Brian: I want to believe that.
Quinn: We're working on it over here.
Brian: We're working on it.
Quinn: Thank you for this therapy session.
Brian: Yah. Iara, I love this question, and I didn't come up with it, so that's why I can say that, but I feel like we should ask everybody it, I love it. Can you just take us through a typical day for you, or maybe a few days if maybe one day isn't as exciting?
Quinn: Like a week, I think is what they call a bunch of days in a row.
Brian: A few days in a row, a week, yeah. Maybe take us through a-
Quinn: That's the word for it.
Brian: Typical, maybe a little exciting week for you so we can all, I don't know, just sort of grasp what it's like to be you?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Sure. I had a really exciting week last week, so-
Brian: Oh my God, that's amazing.
Quinn: Let's do it.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yeah. I mean, it's a combination of lots of things. Right now, as project lead for the Changing Landscapes Initiative, I manage a few people, so I've got a lab manager that does work, he's our spatial analyst, he's been with me for about four years, I have a GIS, or a special analyst intern, that rotates every six months or so, and then we have a outreach and communications coordinator, which these positions, aside from the lab manager, are fairly new within the past year, and I've really, because of that, been able to promote our project and really gain some traction on the ground, which is really exciting.
So, it's a lot of meetings. I think at this level, I started out in this field wanting to spend time outside, I do a lot less of that now than I ever did before, and so I spend a lot of time writing, thinking about what are the big questions, how can we advance a field of conservation. For me, particularly, it's about landscapes and analytical methods that may allow us to answer broad sweeping questions in a relatively rapid amount of time because the world is changing very, very fast, and we don't have perfect data, so how can we use imperfect data to get close enough to an answer where we can move forward and be effective in strategic planning.
So, there's big picture kind of thinking, which is, I think, the most fun part of my job. And then meetings with people, budgeting, all this fun sciency running-a-lab kind of stuff. But then we have opportunity to give talks at events and promote conservation and strategic planning, and I just went to a meeting this past Saturday where I met with people in Richmond, and it was a really good meeting where there was a lot of concern for diversity, in many forms, of humanity, and how important it is to think about that when planning for our future.
Someone who, I don't remember who it was, I think it was superintendent of the park, the river park there, James River, I think, that goes through Richmond, made a statement that was very obvious, but I felt a little annoyed that it had to be made in this way, because it's like calling it out in a way that if it existed in the world, it wouldn't necessarily require you to call it out in the way they did, but he said, "In two decades, we'll have a majority-minority country, population in the United States, and if we don't get those kids and those people out enjoying nature, the people who want to protect nature are the people that have experience in it, and therefore we could lose these systems, we could lose the political will in order to protect the systems if we don't get them out." So, that was really inspiring and very obvious, really important, I think, to have a meeting focused on that.
And then I talk to policymakers and planners and conservationists, and you get these great ideas for what people need and how you can use your work in order to help them achieve their mission or their goals. And then the other thing is I have some field components to my research, which I design but I don't necessarily participate in anymore, and one of those we're working on right now is on the protection of native North American orchids. There are over 200 species of native orchids in North America, over half of which are threatened or endangered in some part of their native range-
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yeah. And we have started a study to try to understand if native orchids can be used as an early indicator or canary-in-the-coalmine for changes in forest health-
Quinn: Like coral reefs.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yeah, like coral reefs.
Quinn: We had a whole great conversation about how they were exactly the canary-in-the-coalmine, and it turns out it's not going great.
Dr. Iara Lacher: No, I know, it's pretty sad. But it's one of those projects that I'm a plant person, I get to work with orchids again, I get to work with nerdy plant people outside, which is really awesome, and that project involves citizen scientists and private land owners, so we really get a human component, a education component to the project, which I think is also really important for its success. And people care about orchids, I think people are surprised that there aren't any orchids, or that there are native orchids, and so it's this charismatic species that can help us really promote the importance of forest conservation, versus just protection of species.
And there's a lot of mentoring that I do through my job. If it's an employee of mine, I mean I consider myself a mentor no matter what stage I am in my career or they are in their career, so that's really fun and very important to take it very seriously, try to make time for it in my busy schedule. And then pretty much my nights and weekends are taken up by running this nursery. So, my life is pretty full, but all of it, I think, adds to the quality of my life, and I think, like I said before, it feeds back on itself.
Brian: Right. That's so great. I know, imagine if you were like, "Well, didn't do much this week."
Quinn: Yeah, it doesn't sound like how she spends her time.
Brian: There's so many orchids, I'm just looking up orchids now.
Quinn: Oh, boy, Brian's going to just be quite, googling orchids for the rest of the conversation.
Brian: The names of these orchids are just so fun, twayblade.
Dr. Iara Lacher: That's a good one, the flowers are really cool.
Brian: They're gorgeous. What about Oklahoma grasspinks, you like those?
Dr. Iara Lacher: I don't think I know that one off the top of my head.
Brian: I mean, I'm just reading off-
Brian: Iara, talk to us about your biggest obstacles. You're obviously working so hard to push science and policy and on-the-ground efforts forward on what sounds like every front-
Quinn: I think she's doing everything.
Brian: You're just doing all the things. But I can't imagine that it's easy, it's a hell of a thing you're trying to do and that we have to do, so, yeah, just talk to us about your obstacles. Are they policy-based, or I don't know, I guess people-based?
Quinn: You want to call out some names?
Dr. Iara Lacher: No, not on this, no.
Quinn: You sure, how far into that Bloody Mary are you?
Brian: Whatever you want. That's right.
Quinn: Let's do this thing.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Right. Well, aside from funding, which I think is pretty much every scientist, one of their major obstacles, it would be operating in a system that is not necessarily designed for promoting the real integration of science into policy. There's the academic world, the Smithsonian has an academic institution, like many universities, publications really are the name of the game. So, it's really hard to have ... When most of your job and your time is taken up by having these meetings, and communicating with policymakers, and producing materials that are not for publication in a scientific journal but rather for a website or a glossy two-pager that's an overview of your project so that you can hand them out at meetings, or other tools to try to explore how can I better communicate science in a way that's more accessible to people.
So, we're exploring, right now, the use of data visualizations to communicate the outputs of these land use change models on our landscape because it turns out maps are not the most effective communication tool to most of the public, or even people in planning. So, I think it's the system, I hate ... it's almost like it's a horror movie, "the system," but it is really probably the singular biggest obstacle for people who are working in science in the academic realm is trying to maintain the requirements for your job, which are based on an old suite of policies that date back probably hundreds of years, and then balance that with the work that's really required in order to integrate the needs of people into your work, and to then communicate it effectively.
So, the best way I can think of to move forward with that is to really just I dig my heels in and I try my best to figure out where it is that my ethics lie and integrity lies, and try to hammer that into the minds of my interns and the people that I mentor, and just realize that if one day what I deem to be really important for the work that I'm doing is not going to be appreciated or could cost me my job, which is not going to happen because I have a very supportive boss, but that then so be it, that I will find another way.
Quinn: I'm into it.
Dr. Iara Lacher: I think that's it.
Quinn: I'm into it. So, give us an example of something that's, I don't want to say standing in your way, but slowing you down or that you got to figure out, in the past couple weeks or so. I'm trying to help listeners really understand the fight you guys are fighting.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Okay, well, I mean I mentioned we have to write a lot of papers, we have to write grants, we have to raise money, but that's maybe a bit disconnected. I think in terms of the next level, when you are able to overcome that obstacle and move forward, like I was saying before, what are the needs of people, how do you find out what those needs are when somebody's going to communicate them honestly to you, and I don't want to just hear the "Yeah, this is a great project," or "This sounds wonderful," I want to hear "What's the gross stuff? What's the hard stuff? What's the stuff that is not working for you?" I want to hear that, I want an honest conversation, otherwise we can't move forward with something effectively.
So, I think building that relationship, gaining that credibility to be able to have those conversations with people so that you can have that information you can tie into your science from the start, I think that's really important. So, I develop models, how disconnected can you be, I develop models about how the world changes, and I have formed relationships, statistical relationships about drivers of change, which are what are the underlying socioeconomic drivers for why development happens where it does, or why agriculture happens where it does, and then how probable is a particular land use transition. That's how I used to talk.
And so reaching beyond that and being able to say, "Okay, no, from the beginning, what are the questions that matter to you?" And then me, as a scientist, doing the hard work of saying, "Okay, there's the qualitative information, how can I tie this into a number that means something, that I'm not just pulling it out of my butt?" So, that's forming the relationships to get the real honest answers, and then trying to understand and work through a system of tying that information back into science from the very beginning of the process, and that means developing the questions, identifying the data so that at the end, your product is relevant and useful to people. That's been a four-year trip for us, here.
And I have been pretty adamant and try to use my resources to the best of my ability, which were fairly limited at the beginning, but I think, at this point, we're now seeing some signs of success, and that if you just keep repeating yourself, that you say, "No, this is important, this is the way it has to work, I feel this," that eventually you can get there. And so now we're seeing our work being integrated into county comprehensive planning and, granted, a plan is not an outcome, but it's a start. So, that's a really, really big win for us.
Quinn: First of all, thank you, that all sounds so awesome and empowered, it also somewhat sounds like Thanos' speech from Avengers, which is he's gaining power and making progress, and everyone's like, "Yeah, I get it, I get it, I'm on board with it." We're going to digress, is most of that ... like, you just said you're starting to see your efforts integrated into things like county planning, which is awesome, are those generally incoming calls, or are those outgoing calls, are they cold calls? How does a connection like that happen right now? And how would it optimally happen, as we head towards action?
Dr. Iara Lacher: I think it's the responsibility of, unfortunately, scientists have a lot on their plates, I get that, but it is our responsibility-
Quinn: What do you mean?
Dr. Iara Lacher: To, at the very least, understand how important it is, and if you don't have the capacity to do it yourself, to find help, in some form. I understand how difficult that can be as well, but it's cold calling, it's getting your hands dirty, it's jumping in and failing miserably and learning through the process, and just being willing to be pretty vulnerable with the process, and then you garner the support, and we've garnered some support thus far.
The ideal would be that the tools exist to guide scientists through this process, bare minimum, and then above that, that people who are involved in making decisions that determine how we operate on a daily basis as in individuals feel comfortable and know how to contact us for the information as well. So, it becomes a two-way street, versus this feels like running around like a chicken with my head cut off, trying to figure out what the answer is and where to go, and how do I do this, and who do I talk to and do they care, and how do I know they care, it's pretty hard.
But I think science transparency is probably a key to this, and better communication through the general media about what we do on a daily basis, and that if I get, which I've never gotten, a multi-million grant, if I were to get one, that it isn't going in my pocket and I'm not buying a fancy car, that money, we stretch it as far as we possibly can in order to achieve the outcomes that we need, in terms of our research.
Quinn: This might be entirely uninformed and too simplistic, but I think about, and this isn't quite that, but they're on their way and they're doing amazing stuff, what Project Drawdown has done, but are there, within your work and the outreach and, like you said, running around like a chicken with your head cut off, so if I'm a county commissioner or a planner, if I'm on county planning committee, are there templates out there? Are there brainstorming packages?
Are there things out there, blueprints, that are repeatable for a lot of these folks, at least to get them started, at least to get the conversation started, or "Hey, this who you reach out to, these are the things to consider, this is where it applies to you," obviously things change by county and region, and which side of the Mississippi you're on, but I'm curious, do things like that exist, or is it all pretty ad hoc?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Right, yes, pretty ad hoc, most of it. Some tools like that do exist. The fear, I think, is that for a misinterpretation of what scientific data is, so I think, for myself as well, I wouldn't necessarily be providing public access to our models. The models of land use, they take pixels, which are interpretations of data, and then they predict them into the future. So, a pixel representing development, a model is a oversimplification of a world, so the fear is that it would be interpreted as a prediction versus an understanding of a system.
So, scenario planning is the framework I use for the research I do at the Smithsonian, and there are tools people have produced, I think there's one in the Bay area of California that is pretty nice, where you can log on to those website and then look at what is the future scenario that has some particular characteristics and look at the potential impacts of that on your region's water or economy. But planning happens at a scale that is a much finer resolution, in terms of spatially and also topically, so really it requires a one-on-one or a closer, at least, relationship between planners and the scientific community in order to really apply this work in planning.
So, county planners are looking at what's happening in the neighborhood, what's going to happen to the stream, this riverside, what about the view shed here that my residents care about and are worried about being marred by a new solar facility or cell tower or something. And so the only way is, like I was saying at the beginning, it's not easy, it requires a change in how we all think, and I think transparency and communication are the key. So, I'd love to produce, were trying to find a way to produce tools; I think the tools we produce as well are going to be fairly general, so it would be good for understanding generally ... like, you see those sea level rise tools, or emissions tools from climate change, "what could happen if ..." and you can't zoom into your house and say it will flood or not, but it gives you a sense, it gives you a sense of what would happen.
Quinn: Right. I mean, some places, if they've seen flooding in the past couple years can probably look at it and be like, "This is going to get worse," but for others who might be a few miles inland or not quite near a major river or something like that, they've probably got some questions, but we're just always trying to help people. There's just so many people who go, "Can you just tell me what I need to pay attention to or what I need to do?", and they have a variety of roles; they could work in a sanitation department, managing county recycling programs that are just like, "Wait, China doesn't take our shit anymore?", or flooding.
There's just so many different people in our audience who I think so many are doing amazing work and so many are just going like, "I don't know where to start." So, on that note though, and getting a little closer to consumers or our listeners who might not be planners, so obviously one of the major uses of land is for food, but according to so much research and our diets, we're growing and/or raising a lot of the wrong food on our farmlands. And so the problem is is, going forward, we need to produce more food for more citizens using less land, because it turns out we need a lot of that land back to do different things.
And what that probably means when you start to think about health as well is, and literally the health of the soil and our own health, is a vastly different diet. So, there is a report that says if Americans switch to, and, again, these are just so across the board, but I do think the illustrative picture that if, I think it said Americans switch to a "nutritionally equivalent" diet, demand for cropland would fall something like 30%, and diet-related emissions would fall like 30-40%, which is a lot, obviously. I mean, that's very simplified, but I'm curious how your work supports a move towards a more plant-based diet for at least Americans.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Well, I mean the land use planning work I do is not specifically towards that, but those stats, I don't know the exact numbers, but I think eating a more plant-based diet is a good thing all the way around, better for your health, better for the environment, emissions, etc. One thing I think that is probably important to point out that I can speak to with our research is that it's not only about the total amount of land that's used for a particular use, it's how it's used, and you kind of touched upon that at a more local scale, like how we use the land for soil conservation, but also where.
So, it's the total amount and the configuration of land use that matters. So, if we can [inaudible 00:42:43] strategic planning can really help, the need for land for agriculture will increase. So, where can we use this land, how can we plan so that we maintain the connectivity of systems that support biodiversity and function so that we can produce services like clean air, clean water, pollination, etc.? It's thinking about landscape as habitat, versus separating ourselves completely from it. Agriculture can be used by some pollinators, so they pollinate our crops, but it's also useful to some pollinators, they are a species of animal that use agricultural lands to move across a landscape or for food, there are small mammals, insects, etc.
So, we really need to stop the mindset of thinking as if there is a divide of good and bad on a landscape, not the development is good for us necessarily, but there's a way we can use this landscape so that a forest can maintain its size and its connectivity, or we don't break apart access to agriculture for humans; we need to be able to see our farms as well, so can we maintain access, that's an equity question, or us to understand where our food comes from, or access to recreation in these forests. So, configuration matters.
Local land management practices are also very, very important, but I think that that's also a big ask, at the scale at which we need to be making change and how quickly we need to be acting. So, this is where research on what are the big sweeping questions we can ask, how can we change our general land use practices so that we can conserve the most resources in the places they are most valuable and most accessible is really what we need to be thinking about in terms of landscape scale conservation, and that's agriculture, development, forestry, etc.
Brian: That's a pretty good segue, speaking of action, let's get into action, as far as what our listeners can do to take action. We always want to provide very specific steps that everybody can take to support you and your mission with their voice, both their voice and their dollar, so let's get into that. Starting with their voice, Iara, what are the big and actionable specific questions that we can all be asking of our representatives to support you and what you're trying to do and what you are doing?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Have you consulted science in your decision making process?
Brian: I mean, that should be like the number one fucking question-
Quinn: No, it sounds insane and we all laugh at it, but that is so ... from a city council level, ask, put them on the spot.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yep.
Brian: It seems so simple and obvious.
Dr. Iara Lacher: There are people, like me, there are many people like me that think about land use planning. So, the resources are out there. Hey, for everybody in northwestern Virginia, I have resources for you, come find me. So, the resources exist, I think being really transparent and present. I have gone to a few planning meetings, and unless there is a pressing issue, like the development of a pipeline, or the comprehensive plan where they feel like perhaps government isn't considering their needs over those of large companies, people don't seem to show up. I think that showing up is probably going to make a very significant impact. So, instead of just commenting on Facebook about complaints, being present, showing up, having your face be seen is really, really important.
Quinn: So, when their city council representative basically refuses to answer them, specific to you and your efforts, where are resources where they could then tell them, "Well, why don't you go to blank to start to do some research?" Or how could they arm themselves when they go to a meeting, a county planner's meeting or whatever it might be? Where are specific places they can go to start to go Matrix-style, I know kung fu?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Well, it's going to be different depending on the region-
Quinn: For sure, but ...
Dr. Iara Lacher: If you're in northwestern Virginia, look up the Changing Landscapes Initiative, and send us an email. And I think there are probably resources like that in other places. But, unfortunately, this field of science, where there aren't a lot of people that are doing research in the way that I'm doing research, where we are trying to produce information for the use of planners, to this degree. I know it's really scary, and we need to be more transparent in order to allow people to find us, is step one, and then if you're a public citizen listening to this podcast, scientists like me, doing research and policy, want to hear from people.
I mean, we need to make time for it, but I would not be afraid of saying, "Hey, I am a citizen, and I live here, and I was just doing some research online and I found this article about you," or "I read about your orchid surveys," or "I read that you do land use work," or "I found a paper and I want to know is this real?", or "Is there access to information that I can bring to my county representatives or something?" I would not turn you away, and I know there are many scientists that would not turn you away, so reaching out from both sides, and unfortunately it's just really not as accessible as I'd like it to be.
Quinn: Sure, well, that costs money and takes time.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yeah, but there are also other people that are not in pure science field who are working on your lands, so this is the Parks Service, this is the Forest Service, these are state parks, these are city parks, these are your soil water conservation districts, there are extension agents that are partners with the university that are available for these land grant based and universities across the country, their job is to be the bridge between science and the public and planners. So, I think it requires a bit of an internet search, but that's where I would start.
Quinn: Okay. No, that's helpful, which is, again, honesty, and ignorance, saying, "It doesn't quite exist yet, but we're trying, and these are places to at least start to Google search."
Brian: Anybody can Google search.
Quinn: Can they?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yeah.
Brian: Well, most people, right. And, Dr., what about their dollar? Obviously, you talked about how funding is and can be difficult for most science endeavors, so how can our listeners help you specifically?
Dr. Iara Lacher: I would say that, from the very small scale, when you're going to a park, pay for access to the park, those fees are important for the maintenance of park systems; these park managers are operating on very little, and that goes actually primarily towards increasing your access to those parks. I would say anything that's involved in increasing access to youth or those who typically have less access to the outdoors would be a really great use of your money, so programs that are designed to bring people and connect them to the environment, whether that's a gardening program in your school that introduces kids to how to grow a tomato or what is a pollinator are really important uses of your dollar on a very small scale.
I would say when you're planting your own garden, plant native. It's only a few dollars to go purchase a few native plants for your region, you can find native nurseries online; most of the time, there are fare accessible, and these nurseries are open by appointment. One of the goals of what we're trying to do is increase that access for plant material, but if you think about it like this, most of the land in the United States is privately owned, so how can we use that land to the best of our ability? Don't dismay, if you only have a 10x10 foot plot in your backyard, one person can make a difference to help people perceive the landscape, planting native will bring in wildlife, will change the way that people view what land is.
When I see, for the first time, somebody's eyes light up because they've made that connection between growing something, and humans want to be connected to this Earth, it's transformative, and you can never go back from that. So, one person plus one person plus one person equals a community, and communities across the globe can fight for change. So, these are really small things that can really have true impact on your world, so making change where you are in your own backyard, I think is there where to start.
Brian: Love that.
Quinn: I love it.
Brian: Yes. All right, let's ... I don't know, let's start wrapping it up, we've kept you for so long, and we are so grateful that you came on today and chatted with us. You can't leave yet, because we have a lightning round, Quinn, are we still calling it a lightning round? I like to ask every time, even though it's ... Here's the deal, Iara-
Quinn: Look, Brian, my to-do list is-
Brian: It's always about the to-do list.
Quinn: Look, I've got to figure it out. Hey, you actually mentioned that there's a number of mentorship and internship things going on, are they specifically to your program or just other awesome programs that are out there across the Smithsonian, or anything else where you would encourage people to get involved?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yes. Smithsonian does have an Office of Fellowships and Internships, I think it's on a running ... there's no deadline basically, you apply and they try to find places to fit you. So, if you're interested in ecology or conservation, the Conservation Biology Institute is located here in Front Royal, and also the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. We have institutes in various locations across the globe, so don't be shy, I think there's this funny thing where if you feel like you're not quite smart enough or good enough for a position, other people feel the same, so you may actually be very likely to get a position.
Quinn: Awesome. Let's do it.
Dr. Iara Lacher: So, there's that. There are lots of opportunities for internships, and people are constantly looking for support, paid and unpaid, ideally find paid.
Quinn: Is the Smithsonian stuff, and I might just be, the theme here is ignorance, is it exclusively D.C.-based, or is there extensions of it around the country, the world?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yes, there are multiple locations. We have several in North America, and across the globe there are field stations.
Quinn: Awesome. That's very helpful. You learn something new every day, Brian.
Brian: Every single day.
Quinn: I told you.
Brian: Okay, well-
Quinn: I told you she's going to be great.
Quinn: Awesome. All right, last few questions, look, I don't know if it's a lightning round, there's got to be-
Brian: It's not.
Quinn: A different name for this thing. Iara, when was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change and the power to do something meaningful?
Dr. Iara Lacher: I moved away from my home when I was 18 and drove up to Seattle with a couple of band mates.
Quinn: Cool. Amazing.
Dr. Iara Lacher: I was all set to go to college and then decided I wasn't quite ready, so I attended the WTO riots in Seattle in 1999. And that opened my mind up completely, that there are people so passionate about making other people's lives better, that was my real ah-ha moment, I think.
Quinn: Taking a step back, what instrument did you play?
Dr. Iara Lacher: I play keyboards and I'm a vocalist.
Brian: And you were heading up to Seattle, you said?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yeah.
Brian: When was this?
Dr. Iara Lacher: This was 1999.
Brian: Yeah, so we're talking grunge. That was such an epic era of music.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yeah. I played prog rock.
Brian: All about it.
Quinn: Found our episode title right there.
Brian: Where is your music, how do we listen to it?
Quinn: From Prog Rock to Compost, How to Fix Your Soil.
Dr. Iara Lacher: No.
Quinn: Yeah, that's what you think, lady.
Brian: That's so awesome.
Quinn: This is amazing. So, wait, what happened to your musical ... why did you get into dirt, what happened to playing music, man?
Dr. Iara Lacher: I still play occasionally, pretty busy now.
Quinn: Enough. You got to have a hobby though, you can't just be saving the world every day.
Brian: We'll get into that.
Quinn: You didn't include your keyboards in your weekly assessment when Brian said, "What do you do?"
Brian: That's true.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yeah, it's true, I don't. I still sing, I performed at a friend's wedding a few months ago, but I've put it aside for now, it's not the ideal. But I played in Seattle for a few years, had several bands, until basically I moved out here, out East. It's been tons of fun, and band mates are your brothers and sisters, and playing music and reading someone's music as you're actively in it with them is a completely different language. And if you've been there, you know what I'm talking about.
Quinn: Are you saying that if we fix climate change you'll go back to playing in a band?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Hell yeah.
Brian: I know.
Quinn: Put that on your-
Brian: We're trying.
Quinn: I told you, man. I'm sorry, he's got a lot on his plate.
Brian: I have high hopes.
Quinn: This is fantastic news. All right, well, maybe we should get her to do our keyboard outro for us.
Brian: Yes, that'd be so cool.
Quinn: That sounds amazing. All right, Iara, who is someone in your life that has positively impacted your work in the past six months?
Dr. Iara Lacher: This is pretty cheesy, but my husband is my biggest fan.
Quinn: Husbands love a good shoutout, to be clear.
Brian: Yeah, that's so amazing.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yeah.
Quinn: So, tell us why he's great.
Dr. Iara Lacher: He works his ass off for me to make the things that I want to happen happen, to make them a reality. So, nobody in my life has ever had as much faith in me as he does.
Quinn: Man, that's so cool.
Brian: Yeah, that's real nice.
Quinn: That's real nice.
Brian: It doesn't get better than that.
Quinn: I love it.
Brian: I hope that I know the answer to this question, because in my head I'd imagine you just fucking pounding away at the keyboard-
Quinn: What happens when we assume, Brian?
Brian: What do you do when you feel overwhelmed, Iara?
Quinn: What's your self-care?
Brian: What's your self-care, your Iara time?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Well, sometimes it is listening to death metal in the car with the windows rolled up.
Quinn: Give us a go-to track. Is it new stuff, is it old stuff?
Dr. Iara Lacher: I'm so stuck in the era of late '90s/early '00s.
Quinn: Let's go.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Tool, I listen to Tool a lot.
Brian: Amazing, did you listen to their new album?
Dr. Iara Lacher: No, I have not.
Brian: Well, you'll have to check it out.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yeah, I will.
Quinn: Brian's disappointed with every music choice I play in the office.
Brian: No, I'm not, I love your music choices. Tool's great.
Quinn: There is some great Tool.
Brian: Iara, do you watch television?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yes, I do, I love TV.
Quinn: What kind of question is that?
Brian: Well, some people don't watch TV, what are you talking about? I don't need your constant judgment.
Quinn: I let you write one question.
Brian: Have you seen Dead to Me, with Christina Applegate?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Dead to Me?
Brian: It's a Netflix show, and one of her things is to just get in her car when she's not doing well and just rock out to heavy metal.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Wait, is this the one with the two girlfriends?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yes, I know that show. Yes.
Brian: Pretty great, that's just what I thought.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Yes, I totally felt that.
Brian: That's a great answer. Music always helps. Awesome. And then, here's one, if you could Amazon Prime one book to Donald Trump, what would it be, assuming somebody will read it to him and it will have an impact?
Quinn: A lot of assumptions there.
Brian: I know, and we just talked about what assuming does.
Dr. Iara Lacher: I think Rachel Carson, Silent Spring.
Brian: It's so good.
Quinn: Yeah, we've got that at least one other time.
Brian: I think so, yeah. Hell yeah.
Quinn: Yeah, that's a good one. Awesome. Again, we've kept you long enough, last question, anything, a few lines, anything you want to say to speak truth to power to the people out there, that you haven't said?
Dr. Iara Lacher: There are a lot of people who are trying very, very hard to change the way that systems that don't work for us, change them in a way that will work for us. So, if you are a young scientist or you're a member of the public, or you are wondering, "Is there anybody out there that understands that how things have been going is not working?" Yes, there are, there are people like me; you may not hear from us very often, but we're there working in the sidelines to try to make change happen for all of you. So, there are a lot of people who care very intensely and very deeply and who are not going to give up.
Quinn: That's so good. That's so good.
Brian: That's so helpful and necessary.
Quinn: Thank you for that. We really appreciate it. Where can our loyal fans follow you on the internet?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Well, there's only one of me, I think, with my name, so I think that's going to put you directly towards my Twitter account. You can find our nursery at SevenBends.org, and then if you want to learn about the work I'm doing at Smithsonian, it's Changing Landscapes Initiative at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Quinn: Rock and roll. Brian, you got any other questions you want to ask that you didn't tell me about?
Brian: I mean, probably.
Quinn: Okay. Listen, this has been great, Iara, thank you so much-
Brian: I guess I'll save them for later.
Quinn: For your time, for all that you're doing out there. On the grander level, and obviously digging in the dirt as well, both are pretty vital, but we believe in you, you're going to do, we're going to do it.
Brian: Thank you for the question that I think everybody should ask themselves before they do anything ever: have you consulted science?
Brian: Just the best.
Quinn: Pretty helpful. Well, listen, enjoy the rest of ... is there any of that Bloody left?
Dr. Iara Lacher: Just a tiny bit.
Quinn: Yeah. It might be time for a second one. You got the whole day off.
Brian: I'm ready.
Dr. Iara Lacher: I'm going to the backyard to start gardening right after.
Brian: I was just going to say-
Quinn: Yeah, there we go.
Brian: Good, I hope you have fun in the garden.
Quinn: Who knows what's going in the ground? She's going to wake up in the morning and be like, "What are these peppers?"
Brian: You got any yellow fringed orchids out there, any downy rattlesnake plantains?
Brian: Any crane-fly?
Quinn: Listen, it's been so great, enjoy the rest of your day, I got to go deal with this guy.
Dr. Iara Lacher: All right.
Quinn: Thank you, again.
Brian: Thank you, Dr., very much.
Quinn: And we'll talk to you soon.
Dr. Iara Lacher: Thank you, both, I appreciate the work you two are doing through this podcast to connect people.
Quinn: Well, literally the very least we can do.
Brian: Yeah, the very least. Thank you for being you.
Quinn: All right, take care, thank you.
Thanks to our incredible guest today, and thanks to all of you for tuning in, we hope this episode has made your commute, or awesome workout, or dish-washing, or fucking dog-walking late at night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at ImportantNotImportant.com, it is all the news most vital to our survival as a species.
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Brian: And you can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website, ImportantNotImportant.com
Quinn: Thanks to the very awesome Tim [Blaine 01:02:56] for our jamming music, to all of you for listening and, finally, most importantly, to our moms for making us. Have a great day.
Brian: Thanks, guys.