“BILL! BILL! BILL! BILL!”
Those who attended middle school science classes from the 90s onward may fondly remember the days when teachers would forgo class, instead rolling out a television with a familiar, bow-tie wearing, figure on the screen. They could join in with their classmates in chanting along with the show’s theme song — to their teacher’s encouragement or dismay.
But this time, Bill Nye, perhaps most popularly known as “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” wasn’t on TV. The audience cheered Nye’s name for him live and in person at the University of Wisconsin’s very own Kohl Center as he retold stories from his early life and career.
“I went to the first Earth Day on my Schwinn bicycle. I went to the National Mall and locked it to a flagpole by the Washington Monument … if you try that today, after they killed you, your bike would be stolen,” Nye recalled. “The whole thing back then was do less, drive less. You know, be a hippie, live off the grid. But that turns out not to be what people want. People want to live the way we live in the developed world. So the idea now is not to do less but to do more with less.”
Nye made his appearance at UW as a part of the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Distinguished Lecture Series talk and Q&A, “Let’s Talk Climate Change” moderated by Dean Paul Robbins of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, on Monday night. 2,800 tickets were distributed to students and the wider public for the sold-out event, which was originally scheduled to take place on April 21, 2020 but postponed due to COVID-19.
At the time that doors opened to the venue, the line stretched from the gate past the LaBahn Arena.
A comedian, author and inventor, Nye is known for looking at all topics from a scientific point of view. His talk reflected a new mission that he has taken on in recent years — reaching the people he spoke to as children and reminding them of the dangerous reality of climate change.
“We are living in interesting times. That's a Chinese proverb meaning … it's probably gonna suck,” Nye said. “What you want to do is present good information commonly, over and over. So my strategies have changed a little bit … you don’t make the point the same way.”
Best known as the host of the Emmy-award winning television show "Bill Nye the Science Guy" on PBS from 1993 to 1998, Nye found success in children’s science education combining learning with fast-paced humor. Six seasons and 100 episodes later, the eccentric entertainer is one of the most beloved science figures in modern history.
Nye later returned in “Bill Nye Saves the World,” a 2017 Netflix series that explores specific problems, scientific solutions and, of course, how to save the world.
For the WUD event, he offered wisdom and his thoughts on current events, punctuated with the occasional “Dude!” Nye stated his love for electric cars, LED lights, vaccines and his distaste for the Ford Pinto. When questioned about his 2014 debate with young Earth creationist Ken Ham, Nye reflected on the apparent futility of the arrangement.
“Ken Ham, near as I can tell, really believes the earth is 6,000 years old. He's not just kidding. He has a huge business and he's gotten money from people who have gotten wealthy in the coal industry,” Nye said.
He also referenced a question submitted by a Nashville journalist at the debate to Ham, asking what, if anything, would change his mind about the age of the earth.
“Ken Ham said nothing. Nothing, no evidence will change his mind. Like, dude? What do you mean?” Nye recalled. “So I presented trees in Sweden that are 10,000 years old … Like dude, there’s a tree that’s 10,000 years old! Are you high?”
Towards the end of the talk, Nye fielded questions from the audience, ranging from inquiries about nuclear technology to the “one thing” that needs to be done to reverse climate change.
“What I encourage everybody to do is let go of the idea of ‘what's the one thing that exists’ exactly. And by that, I mean, we have to do everything all at once,” Nye explained.
Developing solar and wind energy, pushing for regulations on non-renewable resources and modernizing the electrical grid were some points of advice Nye offered to UW students.
Nye reiterated his earlier idea that recycling plastics, especially bottles, was key, and that he was “kooky” for recycling. Nye pointed to a Coca-Cola bottle he saw recently that was labeled as being made of 100% re-melted plastic, which seemed to allude to an advertisement he did this month with the beverage corporation — one of the world’s largest plastic polluters.
Nye also took a query from a future-educator in the audience, who expressed concern about teaching climate change, which is often seen as controversial in conservatives school districts.
“What does everybody love? Dinosaurs and space. So start talking about climate change in terms of comparative planetology. You can see we're putting out carbon dioxide faster than ever. It’s the speed … there used to be more carbon dioxide. Ancient dinosaurs had 1,000 parts per million. But it's the speed,” he said. “When it comes to climate change, we're talking about science. Just stick to the science. It's a long road. And thank you for fighting the fight.”
Another member of the audience asked Nye his opinion on the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association’s controversial investments in fossil fuels that the UW indirectly profits off of. Student-led advocacy groups, the UW-Madison Faculty Senate and the university’s own student government have continuously called for WFAA to divest from the fossil fuel industry over the past two years.
“We have mixed feelings about the fossil fuel industry, and the fossil fuel industry has worked notoriously very hard to get us used to the idea of scientific uncertainty plus or minus 2% is the same as plus or minus 100% when it comes to climate change. But you know, there are documents that Exxon — before it was Exxon Mobil — and scientists in the summer of 1977 said ‘Hey, if we keep all the production of carbon dioxide going, we’re going to be harming the world.’ Their predictions are really strikingly accurate,” Nye said. “I thought everybody was on board. It was going to be that natural gas would take us for a couple of decades till we transition to renewable energy, but there's just too much money. So let's get this done.”
With thunderous applause from the audience, he concluded, “Divesting is a first step.”
Nye ended his time at the Kohl Center by reminding the audience that the “big picture idea” was to raise the standard of living for everyone, especially women, adding that we are already equipped with the science to do so. Through renewable electricity and the power of the internet to educate, not only can climate change be reversed, but the quality of life can be raised everywhere.
“We are all the same. We are all humans. We are all, ultimately, from the same tribe. Barely 100,000 years ago, we were all one species. So let us all work together. With those things, we can, dare I say it, change the world!”
Addison Lathers is the Editor in Chief of The Daily Cardinal. She has covered city and campus news and held two editor positions. Follow her on Twitter at @addisonlathers.