December 17, 2020

Answering Your Tree-Mail (and Nuclear) Questions

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

We love listener mail! You've sent us some amazing notes. Some made us laugh, some made us cry, and some made us say – hey, that’s a great question! We should answer it. So that’s what we did. This week, we dig into some of your questions about trees. What’s up with that tree-planting search engine? Who were the original tree-huggers? And we top it off with some answers to your questions about our episode on nuclear power.

Want more tree content? Listen to our episode 20 Million Trees.

Calls to Action

  • Plant a tree! Find the right kind of tree for where you live on the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder, and learn how to plant it and take care of it here. If you plant a tree, please hug it and send us a picture.
  • Give Ecosia a try – maybe try a search for Chipko or baseload energy.
  • Check out these organizations that are planting trees in India: SankalpTaru’s Project Protect Himalayas, the Sustainable Green Initiative, and Grow-Trees.

If you want to learn more about Chipko, check out these documentaries!

If you take an action we recommend in one of our episodes, do us a favor and tell us about it! We’d love to hear how it went and what it felt like. Record a short voice memo on your phone and send it to us at We might use it in an upcoming episode.

Where to Listen


Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: This is How to Save a Planet. I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.

Alex Blumberg: And I'm Alex Blumberg. And this is the podcast about what we need to do to address the climate crisis, and how we make those things happen. Today we're doing something that we do from time to time. We're hearing from our listeners.

Ayana: You all send us some really great emails. Some of them are extremely thorough.

Alex: And some of them are like loving corrections to throwaway jokes we make.

Ayana: [laughs]

Alex: There was this episode we did about nuclear power, and we played this newsreel from the '50s about a cartoon turtle doing duck and cover. And we sort of made a little bit of fun about this duck and cover and how it wasn't really gonna protect you from a nuclear accident. And then a couple of people wrote in and were like, "Well, actually ..."

Ayana: Actually ...

Alex: If you're outside of the blast zone, and basically the big risk there is, like, things falling on your head, and so then it does make sense to get under your desk and so ...

Ayana: Yeah, and you have five seconds between seeing the blast to cover, so if you don't just stare outside the window, you actually could protect yourself a bit.

Alex: It's really amazing the level of expertise that is out there amongst our listeners. And this week we're gonna be responding to a couple of emails that we got from our listeners. And to set up this episode, allow me to present a dad joke.

Ayana: [laughs]

Alex: Ayana, do you know what month it is?

Ayana: It is December. I feel like that's not the right answer. [laughs]

Alex: Wrong. It's Treecember!

Ayana: Alex! [laughs] Treecember? Every month is Treecember on this podcast.

Alex: [laughs] Our producers went digging into listener mail, they're bringing us two stories about trees, about planting them.

Ayana: Hugging them.

Alex: Saving them. And what it all has to do with your browser tabs. Plus, we're following up on your most common questions from our recent episode on nuclear power. That is all coming up after this quick break.

Ayana: Wait, I want to say after the break! It's my favorite thing to say.

Alex: Be my guest.

Ayana: All of this coming up after a break.


Ayana: All right. Here with our first piece of listener mail is producer Anna Ladd.

Alex: Anna Ladd!

Anna Ladd: Hello, I'm back.

Alex: Hello.

Ayana: Hi.

Anna: So in case you forgot, we did an episode about this YouTuber, Mr. Beast, who got his audience to raise $20 million to plant 20 million trees in under two months.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Ayana: Mm-hmm.

Alex: I remember it well.

Ayana: And I believe you described that episode when you shared it on your personal Instagram as "A wildly chaotic, what are the kids doing these days story."

Alex: [laughs]

Anna: I would say that's accurate.

Ayana: It struck me as accurate which is why it was worth repeating. Accurate and amusing.

Anna: And in that episode, we concluded that though we cannot tree plant our way out of the climate crisis, more trees is better than fewer trees.

Ayana: Yep.

Anna: So after that episode, one of our listeners wrote in about this other tree planting project, and she wanted to know our take on it. So I gave her a call.

Anisa: My name is Anisa George. I'm 38 years old, and I live in South Philly. I have a question about planting trees. There's a search engine called Ecosia I use, which supposedly plants trees for me. I think it's about one tree every 75 new searches.

Anna: Ecosia actually says they plant one tree about every 45 searches, so in an little over a year of using Ecosia, Anisa's being told that she's planted around 115 trees.

Anisa: They claim to run their search engine on solar power and to be a carbon-negative company. How real is this? If it's a hundred percent real, why are we not all using Ecosia?

Alex: Wow!

Ayana: I've heard of this because I've been asked this question a bunch, and I always just ignore it because I assume it's not actually doing anything. [laughs]

Alex: Is it Ecozia or Ecozha? I would have pronounced it Ecozha.

Anna: So I asked them, and they told me that Americans say Ecozha and Europeans say Ecozia. So I will be saying Ecozha from here on out, but you can use whichever you'd like.

Alex: If we want to—if we want to seem fancy, we can say Ecozia. And I'm on the search engine website right now. There's a search bar. And then right under the search bar is a little counter, and at the time we're recording this, the counter says 111,321,310, 11, 12.

Ayana: 13, 14, 15, 16.

Alex: Trees planted by Ecosia users.

Anna: And then let me show you my screen. So if you look in the top right corner where it says 189, that's how many searches I've made since I downloaded this, like, six days ago.

Alex: Okay.

Anna: Which means that in the last six days, by looking up ways to decorate my Animal Crossing island and reading 90 Day Fiance cast gossip, I have theoretically planted four trees.

Ayana: [laughs]

Ayana: Should I be watching 90 Day Fiance?

Anna: Yes.

Ayana: Is this a good show?

Anna: By Gimlet standards of a good story, there's stakes, there's turns, there's a narrative arc.

Alex: Yeah.

Ayana: Wait. Alex, you watch this show too?

Alex: Yeah.

Ayana: Is this a climate parable? Should we be covering this in a future episode?

Anna: I mean, maybe, One of the characters, Russ, had an engineering job in the oil industry, and he met his now-wife Paola on a work trip to Colombia, so you could say fossil fuels brought them together.

Alex: There's climate context. Anyway, the point here is that there's something really wonderful about this idea of using Ecosia, which is that you can, just by doing what you'd be doing anyway—in this case, searching for 90 Day Fiance gossip—you can be having this positive effect of planting a tree.

Anna: Right. So they run using Bing technology, but then on top of that there's some fun little Ecosia features, like when you search for companies they've identified as environmentally friendly, you get, like, a little leaf icon next to it.

Alex: Oh yeah. I see that.

Anna: And then when you search for a fossil fuel company, so here I've searched Exxon, you get a little smokestack.

Alex: Oh, okay.

Ayana: Wow!

Anna: Other than that, it pretty much just works like Bing.

Alex: Okay.

Anna: So Anisa's question was is this real, or is this too good to be true? So I called Ecosia to figure out how all of this works. Like, how do my 45 searches turn into a tree? I talked to Ecosia's CMO Hannah Wickes. And the first thing I asked her was, how do you make money?

Hanna Wickes: We use the advertising revenues we make to plant trees around the world. So rather than keeping the money or passing it on to shareholders, we use it to fund tree planting. 80 percent of our profits go straight into tree planting. The other 20 percent for us is kind of a buffer fund to make sure that we can meet commitments if things get a bit rocky, like they have with COVID. But also that we can do green investments.

Anna: They publish a monthly financial report, so you can see, like, how much money they made, how many trees that financed, and then where in the world those trees went.

Ayana: Oh, that's cool. There's a map of where the tree planting is happening. Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya. And so it says that for this September, it's €1.4 million, and 3.4 million trees financed. So that's a lot of trees in one month.

Alex: I love the idea of getting your trees financed. I mean, you can put a tree in your yard, but how are you gonna finance it? I don't know.

Ayana: Get a 30-year mortgage on that tree planting.

Alex: [laughs]

Anna: My next questions for Ecosia were about the trees. So once they've made the money, how do they decide where the trees go? Who's planting them? And what are they doing to make sure those trees survive?

Ayana: Great.

Anna: So it's not like Ecosia employees are out there in the fields, digging holes and planting trees themselves. They've planted trees in over 9,000 locations, and they work with a local tree-planting organizations in those areas to help determine, like, what kind of trees would best work for that area and that community.

Ayana: It's not big tree plantation monoculture stuff.

Alex: Right. Which, we should probably explain what we mean by big tree plantation monoculture stuff.

Ayana: Oh, this is not just like what everyone talks about over breakfast every day?

Alex: [laughs] Not everyone.

Ayana: Not everyone, okay.

Anna: So monoculture is basically when you try to, like, build a forest from scratch, but it's just the trees. So you pick a big plot of land, and then you plant all of one kind of tree somewhere.

Ayana: And it's, like, just in, like, straight rows often. It's like a tree plantation.

Anna: It looks kind of like you would imagine like a corn farm to look, but it's trees. So if you have only one kind of tree, it becomes really susceptible to disease and pests. An example of this is this tree-planting project in China that was launched in 1978. Their goal was to plant 35 million hectares of trees by 2050, which is about the size of Germany.

Ayana: Pretty big.

Anna: One phase of that project was called the Great Green Wall. And because they wanted people to see progress on the Great Green Wall, they planted all of these super quick growing poplar trees.

Ayana: Ah.

Anna: And the poplar trees all started dying because they were being attacked by beetles. And the more they planted, the more beetles there were. It was a whole mess. And they had to cut down millions of infected trees.

Alex: The beetles were like, "I love it! These people just keep planting food for us! This is amazing!"

Ayana: And this is a problem in agriculture in general, right? Is that, like, when you plant a monoculture, it's all just a huge field of one thing. So if something attacks it, if there's some disease or insect infestation, the problem can spread really fast across that whole crop.

Alex: Right.

Anna: And not only do they attract pests, they also just don't absorb as much carbon as an actual biodiverse forest.

Alex: And so Ecosia, you're saying, is not doing it the Great Green Wall way?

Anna: Right. They're working with local tree planters and they're, like, actually having sort of community expertise where they're planting the trees, even at this scale where they've planted hundreds of millions of trees.

Ayana: This sounds like the better way.

Anna: I would go on the record and say so.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Anna: And then, as far as the tree tracker itself, which right now says 111,319,686 and counting. It's, like, ticking up as we watch it. I figured that was a rolling estimate based on how many searches people were making, but it's not. The trees in the counter are trees that have already been contracted out to their planting partners. So here's Hannah from Ecosia talking about how that works.

Hanna Wickes: We work with local partners on the ground. So they have to send back planting proofs to us, so photos, geotag locations of the trees. We've created an app for our tree-planting partners to use so they can upload all of the locations as soon as they're back on WiFi from being out in the field. One thing that we do to keep the trees safe, and also to make sure we're not over-promising to our users, is we always buffer. We're going to lose some trees. Like, we plant in Burkina Faso, it's basically desert conditions. We always estimate for that loss as well, and then we adjust our tree counter based on the data we're getting back from partners.

Alex: Wow!

Anna: They also say they're a carbon negative company, which means that they're running their own servers on solar, and then they're offsetting the energy that their users use making searches by selling solar back to the grid, and then also by planting trees, and then some.

Ayana: This is actually really cool.

Anna: I also asked them about privacy and whether they sell user data, and they don't. So when you're using Ecosia, you won't get those, like, super weird targeted ads.

Ayana: I use Firefox and Duck Duck Go, because I'm one of these people that's like, you don't need—no one needs to know. Like, this whole monetization of everyone's online data I think is really creepy. So I avoid it, but if they are Firefox, Duck Duck Go-like, I could be convinced to give them a shot.

Anna: They really covered all their bases. Like, I had a lot of cynical questions for them, and they're like, "No, we thought of that."

Alex: Hmm. I have a cynical question from the complete other side, which is like, I'm one of those people who uses the Google search bar with abandon. And, like, if it happens to send me a sponsored—you know, if it knows I'm looking for a printer and it sends me a link, maybe I'll click on it. So the question I have is sort of like, I know that the groups that do that have, like—they've made a lot of money targeting ads and can sort of like can actually charge a premium, I think, for more targeted data. Why aren't they doing that? How serious are they if they're not maximizing profits to plant more trees? More profits means more trees, right?

Anna: It would mean that, but they said they're forgoing the third-party advertising dollars for the sake of privacy.

Ayana: Alex, you with your zero-sum mentality. We can plant trees and have privacy at the same time.

Alex: Not as quickly. [laughs] So it seems like this is real. They actually make money, and they are planting the trees and they give you a map of where they're planting them.

Anna: Yes. And then there's the second half of Anisa's question which was, if this is real, why aren't we all using it? When she asked that, it made me think about the psychology of climate action and, like, what motivates people to do things. Like, if people see the little tree counter go up on their screen, does that make them want to do more climate action things because they're seeing it every day? They're thinking about it. It makes them feel good to have planted a tree. Or will they be like, "Hmm. I'm doing my part. Like, I've planted my little trees," And then not do anything else?

Ayana: Hmm.

Anna: So I called a psychologist, Dr. Jiaying Zhao, or J.Z. for short. And she studies the psychology of human behavior as it relates to climate action. Like, what motivates people to do stuff and what are the barriers? And I asked her about this thing I was worried about, that people will use Ecosia and think they've done enough and just stop there. And she said there's actually a name for this.

Jiaying Zhao: So this is something that we call a negative spillover effect or licensing effect. So I've done something good or morally good. Now I feel like I have some credits to do something bad, or I can slack off. So if I've reduced my driving by, I don't know, a hundred miles this week, let's say, that I feel morally licensed to eat two more hamburgers.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Anna: But she says that she doesn't think that this would happen with Ecosia. The licensing effect is something that you see when someone has done something hard or something that feels like a sacrifice, and then they want to give themselves a reward. And this is not that. This is downloading a browser extension. So not only does she not think the licensing effect is happening here, she actually thinks that the opposite might be happening. That using Ecosia and seeing the little tree counter go up might make its users excited to do more.

Jiaying Zhao: I think if we can see the savings, carbon savings, in a meaningful and visual and intuitive way, then we're more motivated to keep doing what we're doing.

Alex: Hmm.

Anna: And when I talked with Hannah from Ecosia about this, she said that they know from user surveys that over half their users are doing at least one other climate action. So it seems like this is something that attracts the kind of person who's already doing something, and then they use Ecosia along with it.

Ayana: It's additive.

Anna: Yes.

Alex: Cool!

Anna: I mean, I'm gonna keep using it.

Alex: But I also—like, when I search for things, I don't go to a site anymore. Like, I don't go to the Google homepage. I just type in the search bar.

Anna: Oh, so this is—I downloaded the extension, so now when I type in my search bar, it uses Ecosia.

Alex: Oh, it uses Ecosia. So you can just do that.

Anna: Yes.

Alex: Huh.

Ayana: Alex is warming up to this idea.

Alex: I'm—add to Chrome. Here we go. Checking. Add extension. I'm officially using it.

Ayana: Look at you go!

Alex: I downloaded the—I have the plugin.

Ayana: Yeah, it is now, like, what happens when I search in my browser search bar. Done.

Alex: Wait a minute. Are we saying that, like, there's sort of no downside to using Ecosia? Is that what we've concluded? That it's just basically ...

Ayana: Unequivocally good?

Alex: Yeah.

Ayana: I feel like not everything has to be hard and fraught. Sometimes there are good people doing good things, and you get to just believe them. And that was a nice reminder.

Alex: [laughs] Exactly! That is such a—that is a great takeaway.

Ayana: It's nice that this one is real.

Alex: I'm gonna search something. What should I search? 90 Day Fiance updates. Have you learned that—have you learned that Azan has reached an emotional breaking point? And do you know about Larissa's plans for a baby with Eric?

Ayana: Coming up, the etymology of the word "tree-hugger," a movement that changed the way India thought about its forests, and how many acres of solar panels we'd need if we want to get all our energy from the sun. That's coming up after the break.


Alex: Welcome back. As we said on today's episode we're talking all about trees and we are responding to your emails. And here to dig into our next listener email is our producer Felix Poon.

Ayana: Welcome Felix Poon to How to Save a Planet.

Alex: Woo!

Felix Poon: Thanks! It's really great to be here with you guys.

Alex: This is your debut, right?

Felix: It is my debut.

Ayana: Now people know what your voice sounds like, as opposed to just me saying your name in the credits.

Alex: Whatever you do, don't blow it. All right, let's go!

Felix: [laughs] No pressure, great. All right.

Alex: I'm just joking. [laughs]

Alex: So Felix, what are we talking about today?

Felix: Yeah. So I've got something from a listener. His name is Jolin Warren, he's from Edinburgh, Scotland. And he told us that he had listened to our episode on Black Lives Matter and the climate, and it reminded him of an interesting story he'd heard about the term "tree-hugger."

Ayana: Mm-hmm.

Felix: And so, first Alex and Ayana, when I say the word "tree-hugger," what comes to mind for you?

Ayana: Two things. That it's kind of a turn of phrase to dismiss environmentalists as, oh, the tree-huggers.

Alex: Right.

Ayana: But the second thing is that I literally hug trees, and it's the most calming thing I think you can do. I find it to be really grounding. I think people should literally hug trees more often, gently.

Alex: [laughs] Wait is it more—because, you know, hugging a person is pretty calming too.

Ayana: So I've heard, yeah. In the before times.

Alex: [laughs] If you like trees, let me recommend people.

Ayana: Maybe. Maybe in 2021. TBD.

Alex: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

Felix: Okay, so when you guys think of a tree-hugger, is there a certain image of who comes to mind for you?

Alex: Oh yeah. Like, hippie environmentalists.

Ayana: I was gonna say something very un-PC. I was just gonna be like, you know, white kids with dreads.

Alex: [laughs] I think of, if I had to sort of imagine, like, sort of my stereotypical tree-hugger in my mind, yeah, it would also be white, maybe just like Patagonia, you know, somebody who's, like, outdoors-y.

Felix: Yeah. And our listener Jolin, he said that's the image he thinks of too. But listening to our Black Lives Matter episode, it reminded him of a group of people who aren't given as much attention for tree-hugging as they deserve, especially because the very term tree-hugger, he says it comes from this group of people.

Jolin Warren: As I understand it, the origins of it come from the Chipko movement in India, women in India who were protecting tribal lands from essentially resource extraction from sort of wealthy people that wanted to come and cut down the trees in the village to use for profit. And so they chained themselves to trees to prevent that from happening.

Ayana: Ah, so the origin of the term tree-hugger, is not about hippie, stereotypically white American environmentalists, but from women activists in India? That would be so typical.

Alex: [laughs]

Ayana: Just the erasure.

Felix: Yeah, that's what our listener was saying. But it's probably not true.

Ayana: Apocrypha! Lore!

Felix: I did some digging into this, and the use of the term "tree-hugger" in the US, it goes at least as far back as 1965, which predates the Chipko movement in India. There was this newspaper article that described a group of activists who tried to stop a road construction project from cutting down trees, hundreds of trees actually, in Chicago.

Alex: Oh, and they described them as tree-huggers.

Felix: Right.

Alex: Well, this has been a confusingly short segment then on our podcast. [laughs]

Felix: Yup, it's been fun. See ya later!

Ayana: Wait. There's gotta be more, there's gotta be more.

Felix: Yeah. So even though this term didn't originate from this movement in India, as I dug into it, I realized that the women in this movement, who didn't have much power or influence at the time in their society, they ended up having a huge impact on environmentalism in India.

Ayana: Well, now I'm really excited!

Alex: Well, tell us that story!

Felix: So the movement the listener told us about in India, it took place in the 1970s, and it was called the Chipko movement. And Chipko means "to embrace" in Hindi.

Alex: Oh!

Felix: And so since that was kind of the main method of protest that these activists used, it became known as the Chipko movement.

Ayana: Maybe I'll rebrand myself to a tree embracer. That sounds much better.

Alex: [laughs]

Felix: So the Chipko movement, it started in a northern state of India that's called Uttar Pradesh. And in the Himalayan foothills of this state, the people living there are subsistence farmers, so they relied heavily on the surrounding wilderness. Like, they'd go into the forests to get wood for fire and for making farm equipment. They'd get the grass from the fields to feed their animals. And then they would also collect things like fresh water, and wild fruit. And they'd make this trip to get stuff almost every day. But then, the government started selling the trees in the forest that they relied on to the highest bidders. And over time, more and more of the forest was cut down. And that meant these women, because they're the ones who go into the forest to get these things, they had to go further and further.

Felix: I watched this documentary about this activist, Sudesha Devi. And she talked about how she felt watching these trees disappear. Parts of her interviews were voiced over in English and used as narration in the documentary.

Sudesha Devi: I remember as a girl how close the forests were to our village. Every year, as the contractors cut down the trees, we had to walk further and further to collect firewood and grass. The whole day would pass in walking there and back. Not only was there no fuel or fodder left, but every year there were floods, landslides, and even very old water springs dried up.

Felix: So people like Sudesha and other people in this region, they were getting more and more upset. But what really set things off was this one moment. See, the way it worked was the government's forest department, they had this system where they were auctioning off the rights to cut down trees. And in 1973, the forest department denied a local group permission to cut down just 10 trees that this group wanted to use to make farm equipment.

Alex: This is a group of local farmers from the area?

Felix: Exactly, yeah.

Alex: Okay.

Felix: But then the forest department approved a sporting goods company to come in and cut down hundreds of trees.

Alex: Oh, wow!

Ayana: That seems a little bit out of wack.

Felix: Yeah. And the guy who wanted to cut down those 10 trees, his name was Chandi Prasad Bhatt, and he was inspired by Ghandi's brand of non-violent protest, and so he decided to protest this.

Alex: And what did he do?

Felix: He and the rest of the villagers said they would hug the trees even if axes split open their stomachs.

Ayana: Yikes! Did they actually embrace the trees? Or did they block roads and sort of lay down in front of them?

Felix: It was more the latter. So they would threaten to embrace the trees.

Ayana: [laughs] I love that as a threat!

Alex: Wait. Why was hugging trees a threat?

Ayana: They were saying if you try to come cut the tree down, we will embrace it and you'll have to cut through us, our bodies.

Alex: Got it.

Ayana: But it never actually quite got to that point.

Felix: Right. And it was actually enough for the forest department to back down, and the sporting goods company didn't get to cut down a single tree. And so this action is kind of credited as the start of Chipko, but what really made it spread was the activism of women on the front lines to carry this movement forward.

Felix: So, like, there was this one confrontation in 1974 where a group of women occupied a bridge. And they talked about what that was like for them in this other documentary I found on YouTube, it's called On the Fence.

Woman: The forest guys were shouting at us. "We'll put you in jail. Why are you talking?" We women laid down, didn't let the forest guys go ahead. They said, "What do you think? We'll strip you naked and send you." That's how they cursed us.

Felix: But then they forced the lumbermen to leave.

Woman: Go on you lumbermen! Go! Leave the jungle forest. Leave the ax! Save the forest! That's the song we sang. Come sisters come, we'll save the forest. We'll grab and bring the ax and saw. We'll save our forests.

Ayana: I'm a sucker for a protest song.

Alex: Yeah. A group of women with axes and songs chasing away the lumbermen.

Felix: Yeah, singing was a pretty big part of this movement.

Alex: And who are these lumbermen?

Felix: So the people being chased away in this clip, they're the people that are hired by these companies that paid the government for access to cut down the trees. They're basically hired labor or migrant labor, essentially from outside regions.

Alex: Gotcha.

Felix: And the reason this movement came to be led by women was because women were literally closer to the forest than men, because most men would leave their villages to go look for paid work elsewhere.

Ayana: Ah!

Felix: And that would leave the women back in these villages to have to take care of the farms, their homes, and their children. And, you know, to do that, they needed to go into the forest to get those resources, you know, the firewood, the grass and the clean water. So to them, the forests represented a very practical thing.

Ayana: Mm-hmm.

Felix: And, you know, this was a nonviolent movement, so they never wanted to hurt the lumbermen and get revenge on them. But according to Sudesha, they did find other ways of chasing the lumbermen away. Here's Sudesha in the documentary.

Sudesha Devi: Whenever someone in the village is possessed by a bad spirit, we exorcise them by beating the bad spirit out of them. The contractors had possessed our forests, so we made an effigy of them and chased them away.

Alex: So—okay, so you can see them. So there was this huge sort of effigy of, I guess that's a lumberman. And they're sort of beating it.

Ayana: Yeah, it's this big crowd of people, they're carrying this effigy across the bridge. It kinda looks like a scarecrow, but much bigger.

Alex: And they're on the side of the bridge and—whoa!

Ayana: Whoa! They're throwing him off the bridge into a river.

Alex: There he goes, floating down the river.

Felix: And what's fascinating is that one of the reasons why the women were so ready to form such an organized resistance to this logging was because they had already organized themselves before the Chipko movement. So before Chipko, they'd joined together to get alcohol banned. They were mostly upset that their husbands were spending money on alcohol, and some of them said that alcohol was the reason for domestic abuse at home.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Ayana: Yeah.

Felix: So they went and protested at liquor stores, along with students and other activist groups. And they were successful. They got alcohol banned in several districts. So they had this foundation already of organizing protests.

Ayana: I'm gonna take away your booze and I'm gonna hug these trees, and try and stop me.

Felix: Yeah.

Alex: [laughs] It's interesting that in this part of the world, the environmental movement grew out of this temperance movement.

Ayana: Well, I think more so than, like, one growing out of the other, it points to just the importance of having these strong social networks, right? These sort of social infrastructure in place that can be used to address any number of social problems. It's something we've certainly seen in the US when it came to, you know, mobilizing voter turnout for the election.

Alex: Yeah.

Ayana: A lot of groups got involved in that work who weren't normally get out the vote organizations, but who had the structure of reaching people. So I think for me, that's actually a very interesting lesson for the climate movement, is how can we collaborate and tap into these existing social structures where people are already connected and collaborating towards making their community better in other ways.

Alex: Yeah. In ways that people might not even associate with, like, an environmental or a climate cause.

Ayana: Yeah.

Felix: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And I think for these women, they may not have identified with kind of the bigger environmental cause. For them, these issues like, you know, getting bans on alcohol and stopping deforestation was more of a practical matter.

Ayana: Mm-hmm.

Alex: Yeah. So how did it end? Did all this protest, the effigies, the tree-hugging, was it successful?

Ayana: Yeah, did it work?

Felix: Yeah. So the actions and protests like this, they continued and they spread throughout the region. And so the newspapers started picking it up, and then the cities all across the country started hearing about it, and that's when Chipko started to win some pretty serious victories. In 1976, for example, the government passed a law protecting certain tree species from being cut down.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Felix: And then in that same year, they passed a constitutional amendment that would require development projects, if they had large-scale deforestation in them, they had to get approval first before they could move forward.

Alex: Got it.

Felix: And then the big one came in 1980, where the government issued a total ban on all logging above a thousand meters in the Himalayas.

Ayana: Mm.

Felix: And so for this region, that basically meant a total ban all across the region.

Alex: Wow!

Felix: So no trees could be cut by law.

Alex: Hmm.

Ayana: By anyone.

Felix: By anyone, yeah. And that's a good point, because actually some of the local small industry was not so happy about that. Because they're like ...

Ayana: Yeah, I'm sure.

Felix: Yeah. I just wanted to cut, like, 10 trees and I can't do that. But the ban lasted 15 years, which doesn't sound like a lot of time, right? Especially in tree years.

Ayana: [laughs]

Alex: Yeah, exactly.

Felix: But what I learned was that the legacy of the Chipko movement, it kind of goes beyond these more obvious political victories. Chipko put forestry on the political agenda in India. It's partly credited for getting an entirely new ministry created in 1980 called the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Alex: Oh, wow!

Ayana: That is a big deal!

Alex: Yeah. So sort of like the creation of, like, the EPA here or something like that. There was this whole new government organ that was created to sort of care about the forests.

Felix: Well, it was more like the combination of the EPA and the Forest Service. Like, they did care about the forests, but their main purpose was more general in that they were conserving India's natural resources against kind of unfettered economic development. And then in 2014, they changed their name to the Ministry of Environments, Forests and Climate Change, so they're now pretty focused on addressing global warming as well.

Alex: Got it. And this ministry grew out of the Chipko movement you're saying?

Felix: Yeah, it's partly credited as one of the reasons they created this new department.

Alex: Wow.

Ayana: Look at that. Turns out activism does matter.

Felix: Yeah, totally. And I was also curious to see if forest coverage in India improved. Like, was there an uptick in tree coverage? And what I found actually is that, you know, we do have UN data that goes as far back as 1880. And so from 1880 to 1970, the data shows that India had this steady decline of forest coverage. But then around 1980, the data turns around. So it's literally if you look at the graph, it's this V-shaped recovery that starts around 1980, and India starts a net gain of forest coverage. And what I found was that this recovery was likely driven by two policy initiatives: the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, which came as kind of the culmination of Chipko, alongside the creation of that new ministry, the Ministry of Environments and Forests. And then the National Forest Policy of 1988, which was about conserving existing forests and increasing tree cover through massive programs to plant trees where there weren't trees before. And so, according to the UN data, India had the fifth-largest gain in forest coverage in the world from 1990 to 2000, and then it had the third-largest gain from 2000 to 2010.

Alex: Wow, so the gains are actually accelerating?

Felix: Well, I wouldn't call them accelerating. Like, it's been a straight line up on the graph. It's not really like an exponential curve.

Alex: Right.

Felix: But yes, it is—tree coverage has been getting better.

Ayana: So a linear increase?

Felix: Yeah.

Ayana: We really focus so much on exponential growth, but linear growth counts too.

Alex: No shade to linear growth.

Ayana: No shade. Zero shade. Except for the shade all these trees are providing.

Felix: [laughs]

Alex: Nicely done. Nicely done.

Ayana: You thought you had a monopoly on dad jokes, Alex? You were wrong.

Alex: I do not. I've known for a while.

Ayana: Watch out. Coming for ya.

Felix: And one last thing I want to mention here before I go. I know we started by saying Chipko was not the origin of the term "tree-hugger," but it turns out there's an earlier example in India that began way back in 1730, where hundreds of people in a community known as the Bishnoi sacrificed their lives to save their forest. Also again, led primarily by women who hugged the trees and succeeded in protecting their forest. And this reportedly happened on September 11th, so the Indian government has declared September 11th as the National Forest Martyrs Day.

Ayana: National Forest Martyrs Day.

Alex: Huh. So tree-hugging in India goes all the way back to the 1700s at least.

Felix: Yeah.

Ayana: Ah, so the idea goes far back, but the term is relatively new. So we could start calling it tree embracing, right?

Alex: Well, you like those fancy words.

Ayana: I do. There's a lot of them in this episode.

Alex: Why say hug when you can say embrace? What's the fanciest word you know, by the way? If you had to impress somebody with the word, what's the most impressive word?

Ayana: A climate-related word or, like, any word?

Alex: No, no. Just any word.

Ayana: Okay. So here's a very short story. When I was in middle school and high school, I always learned best by listening. So I was very into audio books as a kid.

Alex: So you got the audio book of the Merriam-Webster dictionary?

Ayana: Close. A 12-volume cassette tape vocabulary lessons.

Alex: Oh my God! I was joking. But you actually ...

Ayana: And I loved it. It was like, they would read you five or ten words and their definitions, and then there'd be a story, and there'd be a blank and they'd go ding, and you'd have to guess which word went in the blank in the story, you know, by context and what you knew of the definitions. And so I developed this sort of Pavlovian response when I would hear any of these words. I would hear "ding" in my head, and then I would say the word out loud. And so I was in English class in 11th grade, and I was trying to be cool and, like, sit in the back and wear oversized clothing. You know, it was the '90s.

Alex: Sounds like the '90s, yes.

Ayana: And the teacher says, "Does anyone know what 'prestidigitation' means?" And I literally raised my hand simultaneously while saying "ding!"

Alex: [laughs]

Ayana: Sleight of hand, dexterity at tricks. And everyone turns around and I was like, oh God, what have I done! So that's the word I always think of now is 'prestidigitation.'

Felix: Oh my God.

Alex: Slight of hand. What is it?

Ayana: Dexterity at tricks.

Alex: Oh my God. That is amazing. That's a ...

Ayana: Aren't glad you asked?

Alex: That's one of my favorite detours we've ever taken on this podcast. Anyway ...

Ayana: You're welcome.

Alex: Anyway. Wait, wait. How did we get on this—oh, right. I was saying how fancy you are, and Ayana you wanted to be a tree embracer.

Ayana: I do. I stand by that. Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, tree embracer and prestidigitator. [laughs]

Alex: Pretty soon, your introduction is gonna be the whole podcast.

Ayana: [laughs] You just need a middle name, Alex. Stop being jealous of my middle name. Thank you so much, Felix, for digging into this.

Alex: Yeah. Thanks so much.

Felix: Yeah. Happy to share it. And thank you.


Alex: So Ayana, we're at the final third of today's episode.

Ayana: Best things come in threes.

Alex: Best things come in threes. And in this last segment, we are going to be answering some other listener questions, specifically questions people had about our episode on nuclear power. To help us answer is the world-renowned Kendra Pierre-Louis.

Ayana: Kendra Pierre-Louis!

Kendra: Hello everyone. I definitely do not think I am—I don't even think I'm locally-renowned.

Ayana: Oh, are you kidding me?

Alex: The How to Save a Planet Slack channel renowned, Kendra Pierre-Louis.

Kendra: So today we're gonna talk—we had a lot of questions about the nuclear episode.

Ayana: I think that's an understatement. Like, it was the most emails we have ever gotten, and probably, like, the largest average word count per email as well.

Alex: Yes.

Ayana: People had a lot of feedback.

Kendra: Some of the questions that we got are what I call big questions. These are questions about nuclear safety, around new nuclear technology.

Ayana: How to deal with nuclear waste.

Kendra: Exactly. And they deserve kind of a deep dive in an episode all of their own, which we hope to eventually get to. But then there's this other kind of question that's pretty straightforward to answer that are best summed up in this voice memo that we received from a listener named Quinn. And I'll just play it for you.

Quinn: Hey, I just listened to your episode, Should We Go Nuclear?, and I've got some feedback. While I do feel hesitant about nuclear power, there's so much more to talk about here. I'm thinking of three things in particular. First, I'm curious to know whether the absurd cost overruns you described have been seen in other countries? Second, land use feels like an important issue with nuclear that wasn't covered before. Nuclear energy tends to have a tiny footprint compared to solar and wind. And finally, energy from nuclear plants is consistent, but the energy from wind and solar is intermittent. I would love to hear some discussion on that. Thanks.

Ayana: This is a very thoughtful, very well organized, very clear voice memo.

Alex: Yeah.

Ayana: This person did their homework. And then sent homework to us.

Kendra: [laughs]

Ayana: And Kendra, did you do our homework?

Kendra: Luckily, I always do my homework. My first breakdown in school was in second grade when I forgot my homework at school.

Ayana: Oh, tiny Kendra!

Kendra: Anyway.

Ayana: All right. Number one.

Kendra: Yeah. So the first question is around whether other countries experienced cost overruns related to nuclear power.

Ayana: Yeah.

Kendra: And, you know, I have to tell you, I'm really sorry, but the answer really casts doubt on American exceptionalism in that this is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Apparently everyone has cost overruns with nuclear. A really good example is there's a nuclear reactor called the EDF Flamanville 3 EPR nuclear reactor in Normandy in Northern France.

Ayana: Say that three times fast.

Alex: And again, France is the country with, like, over 75 percent of its power from nuclear, right?

Kendra: Yeah. And so this is a new nuclear facility on a location that already has two nuclear reactors. This is going to be the third, which is the 3 EPR at the end. And construction began in 2007 with a budget of about €3.3-billion, which I converted and is about $4.2-billion.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Kendra: But now it won't be done until 2023 at the earliest. And it will cost more than three and a half times as much. It's about $15.1-billion.

Alex: Wow!

Ayana: That's a lot of billions.

Kendra: Yeah.

Alex: Wow!

Kendra: And there's a similar reactor based on the same design being built in Finland, and construction on that project began around the same time and was slated to finish around 2009, 2010, but now it looks like it won't be generating electricity until 2022.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Kendra: And wait. The same reactor design was built in China, which has a reputation for building nuclear reactors quickly, in as little as five years. And they started construction in 2009, and it was supposed to take a little bit less than four years, but it ended up taking closer to nine years. And more time means more money.

Ayana: So I've heard.

Kendra: So we're not special. Everybody has problems.

Alex: Right. But, I mean, like, those are just, like—those are just individual examples. Like, those are representative, though, I'm assuming, of just sort of the overall trends, right?

Kendra: Yes. Everyone tends to run over in general for reasons that are not completely clear. Asian countries tend to run over less, but they still run over.

Alex: So nuclear, nobody is fast at nuclear. That's my takeaway.

Kendra: Or nuclear tends to take longer than people plan for it to take.

Alex: Gotcha.

Ayana: But is that different from wind and solar? Does that often go over time?

Kendra: They can take longer, but the delay is not as severe. So you're not finding once you break ground that your project is still 10 years later than you expect it to be.

Ayana: Once they actually get their permits and, like, get going.

Kendra: And everything gets their ducks in a row, and they may be a year late. But now that we're talking—or even two years late, but in comparison, that's practically timely. [laughs]

Alex: Right. That's early, in nuclear years.

Ayana: Okay.

Alex: All right. What was Quinn's next question?

Kendra: It was about land, which is ...

Ayana: Ah, yes.

Kendra: You know, renewables use a lot of land compared to nuclear. And that is true. Like, they do use a lot of land, but it may be less land than you think. For simplicity's sake, I'm just going to focus on solar. And research out of MIT found that if we wanted to generate all of our electricity from solar, it would take about 13,000 square miles, which is about 20 percent bigger than the entire state of Hawaii. Or 0.4 percent of the total land mass in the United States.

Alex: 0.4 percent.

Ayana: And of course the question is, like, how would those solar panels be distributed across the country?

Kendra: Right. Good question. They also found that if you concentrate that solar into the sunniest regions, you would actually need less. You would need only about 4,600 square miles, which is about the size of Sydney, Australia.

Alex: Oh!

Ayana: That's okay.

Alex: So we can just cover up Sydney.

Kendra: Right. Sure.

Ayana: And build a really long cable.

Kendra: A very long cable. But, you know, obviously doing that raises questions about transmission lines and all sorts of issues when you have that much solar, or any form of electrical supply concentrated into a single plot. But the thing I want to point out to you is, you know, Alex's favorite expression, which is "compared to what?"

Alex: Yes! Because, like, you could do this. You could be like, it's only 46 square miles, 4,600? What was it again?

Kendra: 4,600 square miles if you concentrated only in the sunniest regions.

Alex: What does that number mean? We have to compare it to something.

Kendra: Yes. In the United States, we use about 3,500 square miles, or about 1,100 square miles less than the solar estimate for golf courses.

Alex: Whoa. So we could just dedicate the same amount of land to solar that we dedicate to golf and be nearly there.

Kendra: Yes. [laughs] Of course, that number is much larger than the footprint of nuclear. According to energy industry data, an equivalent amount of nuclear energy would take between 61 square miles and 102 square miles, compared to the 4,600 square miles that we would need for all solar.

Alex: Uh-huh.

Kendra: And of course, that number ignores sort of this other thing, which is that, you know, we're not going to go all solar. We'll have wind and we'll have hydro, but also that in many cases, the land can serve multiple uses with renewable at the same time.

Ayana: Mm-hmm. Yep.

Kendra: And more and more people are looking into the agricultural uses of marrying solar panels with farming, either in Arizona with growing chili peppers and lettuce, be under sort of the shade of the awnings so that would allow you to grow it longer into the growing season. And anecdotally, it seems to be more productive. And then in other places, they're marrying it with grazing of sheep because the solar panels need the grass underneath them to be mowed. But it's really hard to mow underneath a solar panel for obvious reasons, but it's really easy to get a sheep in there.

Alex: Right. It's hard if you're a person. It's not hard if you're a sheep.

Kendra: Yeah. And sheep preferred, because goats are jerks that climb on things.

Alex: [laughs] Goats get up there and block the sun. Wow. So we have lots of options. We can put them over sheep pasture. We can put them over old golf courses.

Kendra: And, you know, New York City has intermittently off and on been doing a really big push for rooftop solar. So there are flexibility with that because of just the way the structure of renewable energy is, is that it's not single use. It's multiple use for that same land.

Alex: So to answer Quinn's question here, to power by renewables it is a bigger footprint than if we were just to power everything with nuclear. But it's not as big as—it's definitely not the size footprint that I thought that would be. Like, 13,000 square miles.

Ayana: If we were to power the entire US with solar.

Kendra: Yeah. And then, you know, Quinn's final question was essentially that, you know, wind and solar, it's not always sunny. It's not always windy.

Alex: Right. We don't want to have a situation where you plug something in or you turn on the lights and they don't go on because it's not a sunny day or it's not a windy day.

Ayana: Mm-hmm.

Kendra: Yeah. And what our listener Quinn is getting at is this idea called baseload energy. And it's this idea that the grid should sort of provide a minimum amount of energy at all times, so over a specific period, usually a week. And it's this idea that even if it's cloudy, or even if the wind isn't blowing, the grid still has the capacity to provide enough energy to meet our base level needs.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Kendra: And experts say the existing amount of nuclear power that we have is enough to provide that minimum baseload energy need.

Ayana: Ah. That's a big deal!

Kendra: It is a really big deal. And you've probably heard a lot about, like, battery technology, is we need better battery technologies. Part of that push is to allow us to store more and more energy so that when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, we can store as much of it as possible so during these down periods we have this backload of battery power to rely on.

Alex: So it sounds like the existing nuclear can provide much or all of the baseload we need right now. In addition to that, there's new battery technology that's coming online as we speak, which will further add to our baseload capacity. This sounds like good news.

Kendra: Yeah, But—this is less of a but and more of an and I guess, increasingly some people are thinking that baseload is kind of the wrong way to think about energy anyway. There was a 2017 NRDC report that says that even though we think of baseload plants as sort of this perennial source of energy, that because of power outages or because of service needs, that no energy source actually provides electricity 24/7, 365 days a year.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Kendra: And that what we increasingly need to be thinking about is less baseload and more about grid flexibility.

Ayana: Aha! Yeah.

Kendra: We need to rethink the grid. Being able to balance the grid in real time. So, like, the sun might not be shining in New York, but maybe it's super sunny in Massachusetts. So can you shift that energy from Massachusetts to New York? And so if we have more connectivity and more flexibility ...

Ayana: Is it all of the above? Like, connectivity, flexibility and storage?

Kendra: Yes.

Alex: Yeah.

Ayana: It's usually all of the above, isn't it? It's like, yeah, solar and wind and existing nuclear, and and and ...

Alex: Yes. All right!

Ayana: Thank you, Kendra.

Alex: Thank you, Kendra.

Kendra: Thank you for having me.

Ayana: And thanks for everyone who wrote in with great questions about the nuclear episode, and with information and resources to share.

Alex: We'll definitely come back to the topic of nuclear. We will definitely come back to the topic of the grid.

Ayana: I can't wait to do an episode on the grid. I know that's like maybe the nerdiest thing I've said in a little bit, but it's so interesting.

Alex: Same, Hard same.

Ayana: So Alex?

Alex: Yes?

Ayana: It's quite an episode, a little hodgepodge grab bag. Should we give folks some gentle suggestions of actions they could take based on all these fun facts we now know?

Alex: That's a good suggestion.

Ayana: And they're so easy this week.

Alex: If you want, you could give Ecosia a try.

Ayana: You could search Chipko, baseload energy.

Alex: Put 90 Day Fiance, or whatever reality show gossip you desire.

Ayana: The options are endless.

Alex: All of it will plant a tree. If you want to give it a try, go to, Download the plug-in and you will be ready to go. And of course, there are other ways to get involved as well.

Ayana: Yeah, if trees are your jam, if you have a bit of soil you can plant a tree, although probably not right now, because for most of our listeners, it's currently winter, which is not necessarily the ideal time to plant a tree. And actually to make sure, Alex, that I didn't give any bad advice, I emailed my mom who's a farmer and has a whole bunch of fruit trees. And I asked her this question of when is the best time to plant a tree, and she wrote me back an email that I thought would be easiest just to read to you.

Alex: Oh great! Advice from Ayana's mom.

Ayana: Yeah. New segment, here we go! "Plant trees in early spring, before they break dormancy, before leafing, as soon as soil is no longer frozen. In warmer climates or where winter isn't as harsh, planting is okay after the heat of summer season is over and the young plantlings will have cooler weather ahead. The idea is to give the young tree time to establish growth in its root system before the sun and warmth start up photosynthesis. Roots first, then above-ground growth. Foundations matter. Nature is logical."

Alex: Oh! Look at that literate flourish there at the end of her email about tree planting.

Ayana: Yeah, she's a retired English teacher.

Alex: If you don't have a mom whom you can email for these sorts of answers, you can also check out the National Wildlife Federation's plant finder to choose which trees you want to plant in the spring. That's And then once you've found the tree of your dreams, you still need to know how do you plant it, how do you take care of it. And for that you can go to And of course, we've put those links in our show notes and also in our newsletter.

Alex: And there's also organizations out there that are running local tree-planting projects in India. And we've put links to some of those organizations in the show notes and in our newsletter, if you want to check those out there. We have also included links to the documentaries about the Chipko movement that we heard clips of in today's episode.

Ayana: And speaking of our newsletter, you can head to to sign up for that.

Alex: That's right. Okay. So that's it.

Ayana: And since it's Felix Poon's first episode on the air, Felix, would you like to read the credits?

Felix: I would love to read the credits!

Ayana: Take it away.

Felix: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. You can follow us @how2saveaplanet—with the number 2—on Twitter and Instagram, and email us at

Felix: How to Save a Planet is hosted by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg. Our reporters and producers are Anna Ladd, Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz, and me, Felix Poon. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Sound design and mixing is by Peter Leonard. Original theme music is by Emma Munger. Our fact checker is Sarah Craig.

Felix: Special thanks to Professor Haripriya Rangan, Sunandita Mehrotra, Srishti Lakhera, and Ayana's mom, Louise Maher-Johnson.

Felix: Thanks for listening, see you next week!

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