Bill Nye could probably trademark the phrase “Change the world!” He says it several times throughout our conversation, and he’s definitely used it before: it was the key objective in the first staff memo for his ’90s PBS show Bill Nye the Science Guy. What’s more, he really means it.
While millions of kids were zoning out to his zany explainers on air pressure and moon cycles, he was trying to influence public policy. “We just had a Reagan administration that took solar panels off the roof of the White House because they believed it was unaesthetic hippie energy,” says the engineer-turned-TV host. “I was very concerned about the future of the US. That’s why I sought to influence kids.”
Well, the world has indeed changed since Nye’s show ended in 1998, but not necessarily for the better. As President Trump questions the validity of manmade climate change and touts “alternative facts,” an anti-science movement is bourgeoning in the US. And so, Nye has returned — only, this time he’s here to teach adults. In recent years, he’s become somewhat of a science warrior, willing to debate anyone on TV who expresses scepticism about evolution and global warming. On his new Netflix talk show, Bill Nye Saves the World, he tackles a range of topics — from the environment to sex to alternative medicine — in an effort to refute anti-scientific claims espoused by politicians, religious leaders, or titans of industry. In other words, he’s trying to change the world again. And his timing couldn’t be better.
SHARP: Hey Bill!
BILL NYE: Hello! Can I just say, writ large: I love Canada! Love going there, love Shreddies. We can’t get Shreddies in the US.
Whoa. You guys don’t have Shreddies?
I know, I know. You wonder why things are so screwed up in the States? Well that’s part of it right there. No Shreddies. Whenever I’m in Canada, I buy Shreddies and bring them back. The people at customs are quite familiar with this. I wrote to Kraft asking them to sell Shreddies here. The response kills me! It’s so Canadian: ‘We’re sorry, so sorry, very sorry’ — like four sorries in three sentences!
They should be sorry. You need your fibre.
Let me look in the pantry here. Oh gosh. I’m down. I’ve got a quarter of a box left. Well, this evening a colleague from Montreal is coming. She almost always brings several boxes. But if there are no Shreddies, my world continues to spin.
Speaking of which, your new show’s called Bill Nye Saves the World. What are you saving the world from?
From ourselves. The biggest threat to humankind right now is climate change. And it’s not because the world hasn’t been warmer, or that there wasn’t once more carbon dioxide. It’s the speed at which it’s happening. That’s the problem. You know, half the people in the world live on seacoasts. So, as the ocean gets bigger — which happens as it gets warmer — people are going to have to leave or to make enormous investments to maintain current harbours and commerce. In the developed world, we’ve got a shot at that. But in the developing world, people are just going to migrate somewhere else. There’s going to be lots of hardship. Quality of life is going to go way down because we can’t move people around fast enough.
“I believe that if we had a national service, where everybody had to work for the common good for a year or two, everybody would be working together and they’d be compelled to share common interests.”
Another migrant crisis? Sounds messy.
Well, to Canada’s benefit, the best places to raise wheat and so on are moving north. So Saskatchewan, Manitoba, these places are going to be even more productive. But Canadians need to know: the tar sands are about the worst thing on earth. One study I saw said if you don’t consider the tar sands, Canadians are among the world’s lowest carbon footprint people in the developed world. But then, if you include the tar sands, a Canadian is the world’s worst climate citizen. So, we just authorized more pipelines to be built that are just going to enable more fossil fuels and it’s going to be nothing but trouble.
What would you like to tell Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?
Shut down the tar sands as soon as you can. Much of Alberta’s economy relies on them, but the opportunities Canada has in wind and solar are enormous. You could be energy independent, renewably, right now. You’ve got enormous wind resources in the middle of the country and off the Maritimes. And so, we’ve all got to work. Of course, here in the US, I would love it if we got to work. Change the world, people!
It must be frustrating trying to get people to work in this era of alternative facts.
Have you heard the phrase “cognitive dissonance?” It’s a psychology model, a theory that’s been tested. You have a worldview, then you are confronted with evidence that contradicts your worldview, and this creates dissonance. It creates unrest in your mind. So you either change your worldview, which is quite difficult as it’s something you’ve held your whole life, or you dismiss the evidence. And where do you get evidence? From authorities. So you discredit them. This leads to conspiracy theories. The anti-science movement is working very hard to create this worldview among their followers that climate change is a hoax and there’s a conspiracy of scientists making billions of dollars from government grants. It’s really troubling.
But apparently, the best way to get somebody out of his or her dissonant state is to be a partner in the investigation. Why does your worldview conflict with this? Let us investigate together! Tests have shown that after a couple of years, people can change their worldview. The frustration in the scientific community is, “Why don’t you change your worldview right now, man? Here’s the evidence!” It just takes people a long time. We hope in the next couple of years we can turn this around.
Predictions are hard, especially about the future. Sorry, that’s an old Neils Bohr quote. I just think a lot of people are going to get fired. When I think back about Richard Nixon, it took over a year for him to be under huge pressure. This was a time in the US of just extraordinary political events: Malcolm X was shot, Martin Luther King was shot, the Vietnam war was massively unpopular, and then Nixon was caught cheating. And so he quit, but it took over a year. So I think you can expect that sort of timeline, a year and a half. There will be big changes.
Should I look into buying an apocalypse bunker?
Oh, no, no! Let’s change the world. You’ve got to be optimistic. If you’re not, you won’t get anything done. One thing I will say about both our governments, Canada and the US, is change is built in. Adaptation and evolution and fitting into the current public sentiment are built into the governments and this gives us a huge advantage. Whereas if you have a monarch who’s got ultimate control and can proclaim this and that, you don’t have that flexibility. So standby! Things are going to change.
But never has the public sentiment in America been so divided. Do you really think these two Americas can come together in the name of change?
Yeah! The example I give everybody is World War II. There was a lot of conflict in the US at the time, but once the US and Canada were compelled to participate in this war globally, everybody got together! From all different religious denominations, from all different backgrounds, especially from all different economic backgrounds. They said, “We’re going to win this war. We’ve got to get this done!” In Canada, as much as the Quebecois still get all riled up, when push comes to shove, everybody is a Canadian, right? The same is inherent in the US.
Although, during WWII they didn’t have Facebook filter bubbles that sheltered people from opposing viewpoints.
One of my proposals in my upcoming book, Everything All at Once, is a national service. One of the consequences of the resolution of the Cold War, and the winding down of the Vietnam War, is now in the US our military service is voluntary. This has led to further stratification of our society. The people fighting the war generally either have a family history being in the military, or they’re from a different economic stratum. So I believe that if we had a national service, where everybody had to work for the common good for a year or two, everybody would be working together and they’d be compelled to share common interests. So we’ll see. This is one of Bill’s big ideas. But Bill, you know, people think he’s nuts.
People think Bill is brilliant! You should run for president. It would be a landslide.
Traditionally, my whole life, and throughout the 240-year history of the US, we used to only hire people to be president who had experience in government. So now, this idea where we’ll get somebody who knows nothing about it to try to run things has lead to some conflicts, some issues! It’s very popular right now in the US to say this guy President Trump is a narcissist. Well, at some level, you’ve got to be a narcissist to think you can run a whole country. You’ve got to believe in yourself on a level that’s extraordinary. But you just want the narcissist to be a little more experienced in running a government. I think that’s a lesson learned here. I have no experience running a government.
For shame! I’d love to see the president rock a bowtie for once.
Yes! A bowtie actually is quite practical. If you’re a waiter, it doesn’t end up on the tray of food, it doesn’t slip into the soup. And in the laboratory, it doesn’t flop into your flask the way a straight tie does. I think I have over 500 of them. I say to everybody: if it’s my birthday, give me a tie. The stereotype of just giving your father a tie? I’m in, man!
Bill Nye Saves the World premieres April 21 on Netflix.