“So, yes, I definitely did some biking in high school and there were some really nice rides in western Massachusetts where I grew up. But really, what got me into long-distance cycling was between– Before that, my junior college I was living with a friend up in Portland, Oregon and he said, “Hey let’s bike to school.” And that was down in the Bay Area. And I said, “Yeah, that sounds great.” And so we did a nine-day trip down to Oregon and California coast and this is back in 2000… and it was just incredible.
And it was just like so much of a– it was just an incredible way to travel and see things. And on that trip, I met someone who, there’s a lot of people who actually bike on the coast. It’s a very popular route for a long-distance bike tourists and it’s a great first bike tour if you’re interested in doing something like that. I met someone who was on a trip who had actually had biked the whole length of the Americas.”
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JESSE: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I’m your host Jesse Funk. My guest today is a cyclist and a data scientist. He has his master’s in Earth System Science from Stanford. He’s a Director of Research and Innovation at Global Fishing Watch, we’re definitely getting to that. And he’s the author of The Bicycle Diaries. Welcome to the show, David Kroodsma.
DAVID: Thank you.
JESSE: David, did I get your last name right? That’s the one thing I forgot to ask you about before we got going.
DAVID: You said it completely correct, Kroodsma.
JESSE: Okay. I was like, got through your read through and I was like that’s what I didn’t ask him before we got going was clarified on the last lame. I was like, I’ll take a shot at it. So, let’s talk cycling. It’s one of those things where… So, I cycle just because I’m a triathlete. I don’t know that I would’ve really gotten into like road racing or anything. So, I have some familiarity with the culture and kind of being in the US, it’s a part of every kid’s childhood, right? We all have bikes at some point, but not– very few of us decide to take a 20 plus thousand-mile journey across the continent. So, how did you get into cycling? Did you start as a kid? Where did that journey start?
DAVID: So, yes, I definitely did some biking in high school and there were some really nice rides in western Massachusetts where I grew up. But really, what got me into long-distance cycling was between– Before that, my junior college I was living with a friend up in Portland, Oregon and he said, “Hey let’s bike to school.” And that was down in the Bay Area. And I said, “Yeah, that sounds great.” And so we did a nine-day trip down to Oregon and California coast and this is back in 2000… and it was just incredible. And it was just like so much of a– it was just an incredible way to travel and see things.
And on that trip, I met someone who, there’s a lot of people who actually bike on the coast. It’s a very popular route for a long-distance bike tourists and it’s a great first bike tour if you’re interested in doing something like that. I met someone who was on a trip who had actually had biked the whole length of the Americas. And he told us about that trip and it was immediately that that idea was in my head and I knew it was something I have to do.
JESSE: So, I mean, why does that moment impact you so much? Because I mean, I know there are plenty of people that say they see something and they go, “I’d love to do that. That’d be awesome.” But the follow-through, I’m sure you know the follow through on that kind of like idea is pretty small. Like you’ve probably met people that have talked to you about your journey and said that’s really cool, I’d love to do that but they don’t actually do it. So, how did that germinate?
DAVID: Yeah, I think it was an idea and I didn’t think I would do it that soon. I thought I would have to go have a full career first or do other things. But it was this idea that kind of just stuck with me and I just knew I wanted to do it and it kept on coming back to it. And it just seemed like the most exciting thing to do. And the thing about it is it’s incredibly cheap.
Like, it doesn’t cost a… So, if you don’t– The whole cost of biking for a year and a half to the tip of South America is like less than a new car, a nice new car, right, or a medium nice car is what it actually cost. And so the true cost of it is taking time off of your career to do that, right so that’s the actual cost. It’s not the opportunity cost, the other things you can do. So, I think all you need is time, and almost anyone can do it.
JESSE: How do you get over that fear of like you mentioned the kind of opportunity cost of your career, putting that on hold? I’ve spoken to a few people now that have kind of made, I’ll say journeys or trips across various terrain and all seem to say it was worth it. But, at least in my own mind if I think about, okay, I’m going to do this, there’s this like fear or trepidation or anxiety about like, I’m really missing out on something else. Did you experience that or like how would you suggest getting over that?
DAVID: It’s actually very interesting. I’ve done this twice in my life. So, I did this trip from here, from California to Argentina when I was in my 20s. And then my wife and I, we took off 10 months in our 30s to do a trip across Asia from Turkey to Istanbul. And it’s very interesting that both the response to my friends and the feeling of the trip was very different at those different stages in life.
In my 20s, it just felt like we had– There was no like it was okay to take a year away from my career because it wasn’t like there was a clear next thing I was doing. I thought about going to grad school to get a Ph.D. And in some sense, there was a kind of that more academic route which would be a little harder to take that year off, but there wasn’t like a clear thing and all our friends were like super excited about that trip.
We went across Asia 10 years later, it felt very much like oh my gosh we gotta be working, we got to be having a family, and our peers who were in their 30s were less, they seemed less envious which I thought was kind of interesting. I think people had other things they were doing with their lives.
So, I think there is very much a state of life there, but I also think there is something [??? 07:14] to be said for not– I think we do get to set on the like, this is my track, this is what I have to do. And really, what’s the point of being here if you’re just trying to follow that track?
JESSE: And so, I mean is that the big summation of the journey basically like don’t be afraid to make that leap for something you want to do? Because if you only stay in your own lane like what’s the point?
DAVID: I don’t know. I mean I think this is different for every person too. I don’t want to be overly prescriptive. I think some of us have extra, or maybe even unhealthy need for a new adventure, right. Like there’s some people who are probably happier than I am and just not traveling and doing that. But I think for some of us, I think that the fear of it should not be the barrier.
I will add that I think that there are, for these types of trips, it’s important to go on… There’s a lot of like the bike travel thing is also something worth saying there’s a lot of skill to it, in terms of how you do it and a lot of familiarity from like fixing tires to knowing where to stay. And it was really important before I did that bike trip to Argentina that I’ve been on a lot of bike tours first.
So, my friend and I did that bike trip down the coast and we did a bunch of new ones. Then I actually biked across the country with my dad in 2003, which was a great preparation for it. So, I think there’s kind of like building the skills, but the funny thing is I never been on a trip by myself until I went out my front door and started biking to Argentina. And suddenly on the first day, I was like, “Oh wow, I’ve never done this by myself. I hope I like traveling by myself [??? 08:59] next year and a half.”
JESSE: There’s something like, that’s another, it’s a fear but I feel like people that biking or not biking, whatever your mode of travel is, I feel like people that take that leap to go somewhere by themselves have a completely different experience than if you go with somebody else, loved one or not just, it’s your agenda. Right? It’s what you want to do for the day.
DAVID: Well, I think for the bike touring, the thing about bike touring is there’s a lot of things I love about it. Part of it is the athletic endeavor, right. Like I just, I love exercising all day, I feel good. I just like doing it. But then it’s also, it’s really the element of kind of like seeing the world is kind of a broad way of saying it but it’s really just understanding places. It’s like you physically get the experience of what every mile of road is like and internalize the contours of the landscape.
So, it’s like when you bike for a day across a landscape, you really understand what the hills are like, you really get a sense of what the vegetation is like. And yeah, sure you’d be better if you’re doing your walking but then you wouldn’t be able to cover that– it’s harder to cover something on a continental scale. But then the other really passing part of it is the cultural, okay. Because you’re in this weird space on a bike, you’re [??? 10:24] not in the wilderness, you’re in places where there’s roads.
And so you’re seeing people and civilization the whole way you go. And when you’re by yourself, you have very different interactions with people who is along the road than when you’re with a group. And I think this is really important. I found this because on my trip I actually spent [??? 10:44] a chance and a lot of time with, I spent a week here, two weeks there biking with other people. I had friends join me for parts and others. And when I had a friend with me, it was much harder to be invited into stranger’s homes, right?
It’s much easier for people to invite a single person, and I met fewer people. And the trip was more about my interactions with the person I was traveling with than my interactions with the rest of the world. So, I think for the bike touring there was a nice– it was really nice traveling alone for that reason. I learned more. My Spanish got better. And I wasn’t as lonely as I would have thought I would be.
JESSE: I did a modicum of solo travel a few years ago, and that was kind of my overwhelming experience was that everybody was friendly and inviting. I was invited over to dinner, essentially, new friends but strangers’ house. That kind of thing. Whereas, yeah when I’ve traveled with other people, I don’t know if it’s– I’m not sure why you find that difference.
Is it a matter of does other people, are they like, well, I can’t accommodate more people or is it, oh, they’ve already got somebody and thinking like, oh, there’s a solo traveler like they need help or I want to help them; do you have any thoughts on why that happens?
DAVID: Yeah. I think it’s all of those reasons. I will take a step back from that solo verse and just say cycling in general, I think it’s really easy for people to help you. And that’s what makes it so good because there’s this like unique combination of you’re both very– you’re non-threatening, you’re very vulnerable. And people are both sympathetic towards you and envious, right. So, they both feel bad for you because you’re tired and they wish, they’re on that journey seeing what you’re seeing.
And if you’re alone, you’re much more kind of easy to approach, and easy to interact with than if you’re a group. I actually think a couple traveling together is very similar to traveling alone because you’re a very tangible unit, as opposed to that people understand whereas you got like two or three guys, then I think it’s actually harder. I found a couple was pretty good still for meeting groups [??? 13:03] be invited in.
Yeah, I think– and that’s one of the things I love about bike touring is that cultural element of meeting people and seeing what the world is like. And I can get into that like I can go on and on about this getting invited into people’s homes because it’s real. And I think that cycling uniquely allows that because you end up in places where people aren’t that used to seeing tourists [??? 13:31] and you have that like sympathy and envy and wanting to help you thing. And over the course of these travels, I got invited into dozens and dozens of people’s houses and even slept in them.
And it’s a way, when you just spend a few hours in someone’s home, you understand what their life is like almost so much better than you could go into work with them every day for a year or otherwise ways. And so it’s just like a window into how so many people live across several continents. And I just think that’s incredible.
JESSE: It really kind of gives you a new perspective, but I also think about there’s the admonition. I don’t know if you had the slogan when you were growing up, I think you’re a couple years older than me but the whole like Stranger Danger idea where it’s like don’t talk to strangers and that’s what we tell kids. But then, really as you grew up and if you take a solo journey, talking to strangers is not the entire point but a large point at least for me, and meeting people you don’t know.
Like how are you going to have these experiences and get invited into people’s houses without talking to strangers? So, it’s like this kind of odd dichotomy of growing up being told not to do this and then going and doing that exact thing as you get older.
DAVID: So, I think the danger thing is very interesting. You have to be careful. There are very dangerous people and places, but the vast majority is very safe. And so there’s this art of trying to be smart about where you need to be careful, careful people or not. The biggest danger on a bike trip is getting hit by a car far and away, right.
But after that, especially in places in Latin America and especially Central America, there are some very dangerous places that are armed and there are people, and you need to be on the lookout for that. And so first, there’s talking to other bike tourists that have been to different places. And then there’s– always get local knowledge. Everyone will tell you the next town over the hill is dangerous.
Only when they start saying where you are, their town is dangerous, then you start listening. So, if they’re saying the place where they live is dangerous. So, it’s really, only believe people about where they live. And it’s really interesting how everyone’s experience is so local. And I live in Oakland and I don’t– There are some very dangerous parts of Oakland, but I just don’t spend time there so I can’t– and that says much problems out of Oakland if anything, especially right now.
But my point is I don’t actually have that experience. I couldn’t actually tell you avoid this street or avoid that one. You’d want to actually talk to someone from that side of town. And so everyone’s knowledge is very local and it’s very hard to get actual knowledge.
So, think about Colombia. I wanted to bike Columbia back in 2006, and everyone’s been like don’t bike Columbia, don’t bike Columbia. Well, Columbia is the size of Texas and California combined. I was like I’m sure there’s very safe parts of it and very dangerous parts of it. I need to find out which is which. And just [16:45] because I bet you there’s parts of Colombia that are safer than all the rest of my journey.
And that’s true. There are parts and I was able to get in contact with people that work for this– I actually sent lots and lots of emails to try to find people who knew which parts to avoid. And so you want to, whenever someone has specific advice about, “Oh, go here, don’t go here, go there, then that demonstrates that knowledge. Everyone will say, don’t go there, it’s dangerous and that usually is not helpful advice.
JESSE: So, I want to back up a little bit. What does the logistics look like when you’re setting out on this journey? Is it just a matter of like, I got my pack back, I’ve got my bike, I’m gonna head out the door? Or is there more like this is my path, these are where I can stop, this is where I’m going to get food? How much, like how regimented is your journey I guess?
DAVID: That’s a good question. And there’s a lot of system to it, in terms of knowing the right level of detail to plan. And this knowledge is interesting. It’s something I’ve basically built up from doing lots of bike touring. It’s hard to explain like exactly oh you do this, you carry that. But generally, the way I like to do it is I plan out, okay seven days, eight days I want to be at this city.
And I usually plan out like a few months ahead where I was going to be and roughly. And so like I look at the map okay, it’s this distance, in seven or eight days I want to be here. But I don’t plan where I’m going to stay each day in between. Except that I make sure that it looks like reasonable places I could stay.
So, if I’m going to go through cities, you need to be able to find a good hotel or find someone who you can stay with. There’s a really great network now for bike touring called Warm Showers, which is like couchsurfing but just for cyclists so it’s, I think much better. [??? 18:41] Yeah, really. And so that’s a good way. So, you have to email them ahead so you can have places to stay there. In Latin America and [??? 18:50] I can say is, I often found I could say at fire stations.
I just show up and ask…fire station. And in the countryside, you can either find a place to hide a tent. Or you can make friends with someone and they’ll let you in their yard or in their house and oftentimes you’ll have this weird density of housing. Like I only like camp if I know no one can see me because then it’s probably quite safe.
That means like only maybe one person or two people will stumble upon me. But if a random person stumbles upon you, the odds that they’ll try to do something nefarious is quite low. But if they can see you then news can get around. So, you try to stay hidden. So, the countryside, you either try to hide or you try to make friends and ask someone. And the way that works is you approach someone on the road and you ask, “Hey, is there somewhere I can camp safely?”
And what happens is usually they’ll say, oh, you can go over there, you can go over there. And then you just keep asking people until someone says, oh, you can camp in my yard. And then you’ll be safe. if you’re in someone’s yard because they’ll be [??? 19:48], and about half the time they invite you in and half the time…but you have to– So, that’s the key. And it’s really, the trick is you got to be all self-contained.
So, basically an hour before sunset you need to be able to look at the map, and think about where you’ll end up, and see if that’s reasonable, then you need to fill up a water bladder so that you can camp anywhere so I fill up like six liters of water in a bladder, maybe 10 depending on where I am, and to make sure that I can cook and I have my dinner and my breakfast and I have everything I need. So, if someone asks me to camp in their yard, all I’ll need is a bathroom and I won’t need to use their house for anything.
So, just to be able to make sure I’m totally self-sufficient. And so there’s tricks like that and then there’s just the being able to decide oh, I think I’ll camp back there, I’ll camp back here and then being able to understand what types of people would let, what types of interactions and landscapes will let you– people will let you camp in their yards.
JESSE: I mean, it seems like there’s a lot of, I’ll say skills but just ways to think about staying safe, having a successful positive journey, like is these things you picked up kind of on those previous smaller trips with your friends, with your dad, that kind of stuff before heading off on the [??? 21:09]?
DAVID: Yeah, I think that’s it. And there’s also, I mean there’s a lot of intelligence about what kind of equipment to carry for this too. Like a really lightweight tent, what stove to carry and then being able to fix your bike, because everything will break down at some point.
So, being everything from fixing tires to chain, to that you know it’s like my chain broke in some random remote road in Colombia, that like I knew I was only supposed to be on during the day because at night, you have to worry about the paramilitaries [??? 21:40] I was able to do that. There is a lot of knowledge, but most of the time it’s not as high stakes as I just described and you can’t learn it by doing.
JESSE: So, thinking about that though, you’re talking about your Spanish getting better. Did you have any basis in that or was that just like I’m bringing a dictionary and I’m gonna learn on the fly?
DAVID: I had taken it in high school, so I had basic Spanish, but it wasn’t very good. But yeah, I spent a lot of work as I was traveling talking to people and reading. My Spanish deteriorated a lot since then so I’m not– [??? 22:21] pretty fluent by another trip, but right now I have not. But yeah, it was interesting to crossing Asia.
Crossing Latin America was really fantastic because everyone speaks Spanish and when they don’t speak Spanish they speak Portuguese, which you can almost understand with Spanish. And in three weeks, I could get– after just being there three weeks of Spanish I could suddenly understand a lot of Portuguese and read it well and that was fantastic.
And then Asia was exhausting because every few– it felt like every day the language changed. I have no idea how many languages there are in like India and China. There’s no one like… On the other hand, I found you do see some things are common. You find out what languages are common across a large area. So, I like to know basic phrases in Turkish, Russian, and Chinese like very simple things like counting and like how much is that. And those are, there are these kind of other universal languages are not universal but widely used languages that are useful across wide areas.
JESSE: I’m not really sure what to say. It’s just imagining the journey and kind of like the vulnerability. I mean when you set out, did you intend to make a book out of it or was that like an after…? Like you got back and somebody was like you should really write this down?
DAVID: So, the book was really, it really came about, I think I was not planning to do it when I started. But to me, the experience was just so incredible and I felt like I had learned so much. And I really felt like there was some really interesting insight was [??? 24:09] climate change which I’ve been studying and looking into how it related to places I’ve visited. …a story to tell and so that’s why I felt like I had to write a book.
And it’s really, I mean the trip was just so incredible. It was like, partially driven by this desire just to share that and to explain what it was like to travel by yourself, just come to understand two continents on your wheels and meet people and see what the world is like.
JESSE: So, how do you tie that into, I guess talks with climate change? On the previous episode before you, I spoke with Pavel and he does, I think he refers to as his climate run where he goes to kind of far-flung places on the planet like he did a run in Antarctica. And then he comes and does, I’ll say [??? 25:00] speaking about climate change and then how it relates to the places that he’s gone and that kind of stuff. So, how do you kind of bring your journey back around to that conversation?
DAVID: So, just even take a step back. I think part of the same thing that drove me to go on these long bike tours is the same things that pervade interest to study global environmental change, which is really just this fascination with the earth and humans place on it, and how we interact with it.
Like I think there was really a deep intellectual fascination about that that started that more so than a concern about human impact. Because I just think it’s really, and I think it’s super interesting how we’re changing the world, how we interact with it. And the bicycle, it’s like you’re taking this transect of the world. You’re just going across it and you’re just seeing place after place and what it’s like there. Okay.
And so I think when we look at impacts of climate change, we look at how things are doing it’s all very academic, it’s all very like these glaciers will melt this much or we’ll lose this rain forest might be lost or sea-level rise will rise like this. And so the idea is you do this, transect like that across the continent and just ask any question like what does climate change mean for this place?
And I think that provides a [??? 26:15] perspective, like going to this coastline in Venezuela just hanging out with people that live right next to the water and just seeing what their life is like and then saying okay well what does it mean for sea-level rise to rise by foot here. Or going to ecosystems to the tops of mountains in Colombia, and I tried my best to meet with experts there.
There’s [??? 26:35] Professor in Colombia, take me on a tour at the top of the…ecosystem in Colombia, which is the top of these mountains and it’s absolutely fantastic. And then getting some experience like what it means for that place.
And so there’s a – experience that makes it a lot more personal, also puts it in context, you realize it’s not the most important thing ever, even though you realize is both more important than you think and also often not the most important thing in these parts of the world and so that’s a nice… So, like there’s this huge issues of poverty like we have to address energy access to people the same time we solve climate change.
And it really made that very personal and immediate, in a way, I felt to be asking those questions and doing so. And so that’s what I want to [??? 27:21] the book. And that’s what I wanted to communicate like look this is a real thing that’s gonna affect the real world, and here’s how it relates to people and places.
JESSE: I think that’s one of the toughest ideas in communicating like the urgency or importance of climate change is what you touched on is where it may or may not be the most important thing on a micro-scale. So, you’ll have clusters of people that go well, it doesn’t affect me som so what? Whereas like you and people that have done stuff like you and seeing this kind of… Sorry, didn’t turn my ringer off.
They have seen this kind of like transectional cut of an entire continent it gives you a unique perspective to see just I don’t want to say that changing cultures, changing climate, and gives you like an internal sense of it. I guess I think about, I should step back and say there’s one thing to say, okay, let’s take a look at the numbers, we know the numbers, right. But it’s a different thing to I’ll say feel the numbers. Do you know what I mean?
DAVID: Yeah, and that’s exactly… So, right, the real challenge is that this bike tour is great for me feeling the numbers, right? Like I go there, I felt it. Like okay, how do I get…I wrote a book. And that if you read that book, you get a sense of it. But really what you should do is you should go out and bike across Latin America yourself. So, it’s hard. It’s really just trying to communicate that wonder of the world and our connection to it.
JESSE: Yeah, so I’m a little fuzzy on the timeline here. Did you take the trip before or after doing your masters at Stanford?
DAVID: So, I did my master’s and then I worked in the lab of my advisor for a few years before the trip. So, I’ve been doing all this work beforehand and that’s what kind of motivated me to do it. And then I came back and worked for a long time in work climate advocacy and policy.
JESSE: Okay, okay. So, then now you’re working at Global Fishing Watch. So, instead of me explaining it, I’ll let you explain kind of what’s the mission or purpose of Global Fishing Watch.
DAVID: You asked me to? Sorry.
JESSE: Yeah, yeah you go ahead and– [crosstalk] I was like I read about it but I was… You explain it.
DAVID: Yeah. So, Global Fishing Watch, our goal is to monitor all the world’s fishing activity using big data and satellites. And in the way I came to this position was actually working over a decade ago, on increasingly doing more data science.
I studied physics and have a strong technical background. And doing more data science and realizing you know, that seeing all of this, there’s all these new satellites that are being watched. They can monitor the earth really well. And there’s this avalanche of new data coming in, and realizing that there’s a huge opportunity to do environmental data science, that would help out how we manage the world’s resources.
And just seeing it as a field that really growing and I wanted to be a part of and it was the right kind of the right aptitude and abilities for it. And so that’s where I started focusing my work. And then got connected with after my wife and I did our trip across Asia, came back and got connected with The Sky Truth, which is an organization that uses satellite data to do be an environmental watchdog.
And so they looked at oil spills and other things and this Global Fishing Watch was the most exciting project that they had. And that’s why I started working on this and I work closely with researchers to do science. And that was just really exciting being able to do science. And the thing that’s so exciting about it is that our data for the oceans has been, and especially for fishing has historically been very poor. Which means there’s a huge opportunity to improve it, and do so.
And so it’s basically, this you know direct opportunity to work on how we improve management of two-thirds of the world’s service using data, and science. And so that has been incredibly fulfilling. It’s not, it’s focused on climate changes as my previous work has been. But I think it’s also extremely impactful and high value and a great application of the new kind of big data, first monitoring things. And again, it’s the same thing trying to understand at scale how humans interact with the planet is the thing that really [??? 32:25].
JESSE: Yeah, I mean, but at the same time when we’re collecting data about fish, in this case, climate change in our effect in other ways can affect that. It’s tough to say even though you guys are monitoring on a global scale, it’s also within a niche, right? It’s not like you’re trying to track all the complexity of the entire system in one model.
So, it’s like, you can still take, theoretically, can still take the data that you guys are collecting and hook it up with other data that say, are these correlated, is there any causation? Obviously, causation is much harder to prove than just correlation. So, I wouldn’t, even though you say it’s not as related, I would still argue in your favor that it is pretty related.
DAVID: Yeah. And fundamentally, we’re tracking our people. We’re tracking our fishing vessels. And that’s what we’re looking at, how are people interacting with the planet and it is that same fundamental question of like how are we doing it and how should we do it. And what are the impacts of how we’re doing it? And I think that’s one of the biggest questions for humanity at large is how do we– Because now we’ve managed the planet.
There’s seven, [??? 33:49] to be a billion of us taking up a huge fraction of the world’s resources. How do we do that in an equitable fair way that it also preserves it for the future generations and leaves enough nature intact for whatever we think is the right amount of nature to be left intact. And those questions really have to be answered through some type of international operation. It can’t be each one for themselves.
JESSE: Yeah. See, I was just getting ready to ask you, I’ll call it the dumb person question but I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. But just like the question is basically, well, if I don’t eat fish why do I care what you do? You know, and it’s about that like stewardship, right?
DAVID: [??? 24:32] what other people eat a lot of fish. And hundreds of millions are employed by it. And it’s two-thirds of the world surface that is taken up by the oceans. I mean it’s part of the world we live in. And you can see this and we live in a global economy whether we like it or not, and that’s what we have to do.
JESSE: Yeah, that’s one thing I think kind of the cat’s out of the bag or like the genie is out of the bottle as far as global commerce goes. But at the same time– I’ll get back on track here in a second. But at the same time I kind of think about that in terms of like we’ve had global commerce for hundreds of years, right? Just maybe not as fast as we do it now.
So, anyway, now I’m trying to think what you’re saying. Oh, this is a little outside your scope, but you’re mentioning part of it is figuring out in terms of how much nature, should we preserve versus what humanity can take over. I’m paraphrasing, obviously. Do you have thoughts on how we determined that?
DAVID: It’s a hard question that’s– So, I thought about– the first thing we do is think about like it’s useful to think about the current scale of human impact on the planet because it’s really hard to think of what our baselines are. Most of… Oh, my gosh, I’m gonna get the numbers wrong. But a significant portion of the plant matter of the planet is somehow used directly or indirectly for humans.
That’s like crops or land is grazed for animals that we eat, or we cut down forests. It’s a significant portion. It’s lower in the ocean, but it’s still high basically to the fish we extract. And then you can look at how much biomass and things have changed.
So, there’s been incredible extinctions, much more so on land than in the ocean, that have wiped out the like mammoths and there’s all these extinctions that happen from prehistoric man hunting [??? 36:49] thousand years ago. And then more recently overall, the biomass of land mammals has decreased by a factor of seven. And there’s more biomass in cows and [??? 37:00] animals than wild animals. The biomass of fish in the ocean is probably of non-deepwater fish.
Things we think of fish has probably dropped by about half because of fishing and human activity. So, we’ve really dramatically changed the world and if we want to support civilization which I think we do, we’re going to have to leave it largely incredibly changed.
And the question is how much, but I think we all find a lot of value out of leaving parts of it as kind of natural and wild as it can be. And that’s kind of where it’s pushed right now is for [??? 37:34] protected areas in the ocean and protected areas on land. Part of it is to protect biodiversity and services for humans. Part of it is to like just preserve nature for its own sake.
And I think there’s an interesting question, right now living in the ocean is how much do we set aside, and where should that be? And there’s a strong and there seems to be a consensus that we should be setting aside somewhere between 10 and 30%, sometimes maybe more, [??? 38:01] less of the ocean for nature. And so now there’s a lot now the discussion is over which parts of the ocean and why.
JESSE: And then who gets claims to it, who can use it. Like, it goes even deeper than that. While I was speaking with Pavel about climate change, we were talking about the approach to changing our habits as individuals and as cultures across the globe, thinking about we can make– And I’ve spoken with another person, kind of indirectly working in climate change, she does research and nano plastics and their effect on the ocean. And we spoke about kind of individual responsibility. So, thinking about that, what I spoke with Pavel about was the difference between taking an approach in changing our behavior to sustain what we’re doing.
So, sustainability versus the idea of changing our behaviors so that actually has a positive impact. And instead of decline, we actually get things going back the other direction. So, like right now, you mentioned the reduction in biomass, both on land and in the oceans.
So, instead of just saying, okay, this is our floor, let’s just try to stay here, like what can we do to actually grow the biomass and make it increase. So, I’m kind of curious, what you’ve experienced or your thoughts on our need to change behaviors, what behaviors can we change? Is it more important to make a stop before changing directions or can we just make a sharp turn and kind of go in a positive direction from here?
DAVID: So, there’s some good news from the ocean, where a lot of fisheries are actually recovering. The oceans are very big and you hear bad stories about how fisheries are doing and that’s not the right story. The right story is hard to tell and the right story is that there’s lots and lots of different fisheries and some are well managed and some are poorly managed.
And some of the ones that are well managed have been historically overfished but people have figured out what to do and so they’re fishing at a lower level. And now the biomass is increasing in those places. And so we know that’s possible, a more interesting question is do we want to be extracting the maximum amount of fishes we can? Or do we want to have a surplus of fish for natural state or having more?
Because when you’re fishing at your… The sustainably fished fishery has about half the bio fish biomass in it as a wild fishery. And the reason for that is that you’re taking fish out as soon as they’re ready to be eaten more or less. When you have a herd of cattle you don’t let them live to be nine years, you take them when they’re two to harvest. And it’s not exactly the same idea that you wouldn’t.
So, the structure of the population looks different. It’s not a why, it’s farmed in some sense, although it is also wild. And so the question is, is that what we want? I don’t know. I think a lot of places that is what we want because we want to produce a lot of food for people because that’s what [??? 41:35] civilization. But in some places, it’s a hard balance and I think that it’s really hard to figure out what we should actually be fishing for in the ocean for those, and it really comes down to values.
JESSE: Yeah. Well, and that’s the tough part, right is that we have even if we say just let’s confine our debate to the US; we have conflicting values in terms of what we should eat, how much we should eat it. I recall having this conversation with a friend in college. So, I was a college athlete. I ran, which means I have higher protein needs than just average Joe going to class not working out. But she was very adamant that I only needed 30 grams of protein a day or whatever the average person should need.
So, it’s like not only was there a kind of clash of values because she was a vegetarian, but also like there’s education, what do I want to say, a dichotomy. But a split in education there where it’s like, I know I need more because of the demands I’m placing on myself. So, it’s like, how do you go to consensus, even in a relatively homogenous culture as the US compared to the US versus the inhabits of China versus India, where there’s conflicting cultural and like socio-economic values?
DAVID: Well, it’s hard. I mean you gotta– [crosstalk]
JESSE: Come on, David. Give me the answers.
DAVID: I think you got to– I want to throw another thing there which for the fishing I think is tricky is the economic which is that you have lots of fishermen and fisherwomen who the maximum employment, like if your job is to maximize jobs, then it’s actually overfishing. It puts the ecosystem in a bad place. But you have more people have jobs and so you fix the ecosystem, people lose their job. And that’s a real problem and that’s something that we should care about and it’s hard.
But in terms of what to do, I think that there are some social norms I think would be changing. I think technology is going to have to be a bigger role. I think we’re seeing this with meatless meat. It’s actually quite good in a lot of cases, and I think the technology for that will increase. And so then you’ll be able to produce more meat with fewer inputs.
JESSE: So, as our hour is kind of winding down, there’s a question I’m asking everybody this season or this year of the show, we’ll jump back into sport. And basically I’m asking everybody what do you think the purpose of sport is?
DAVID: So, I think there’s two purposes of sport. So, one thing we didn’t get into is I played Ultimate Frisbee in college and I was actually a co-captain of the 2002 National Championship team at Stanford. Which was an incredible experience, it’s a whole nother discussion. But there’s this competition element of it which is fun and it’s fun to win and it’s fun to try to win. And even if you don’t win it’s still fun. It’s fun to strive and try to be better and compete, and that’s really fun.
And then there’s this other element of it which is just the exercise element, which is I think a lot of the bike touring I’m doing too it’s just kind of to use your body and feel alive and just like it makes you feel very good. So, I don’t think you can summarize the ‘what the purpose of sport’ into one thing. I think there’s lots of purposes. And I think that you’ll find that it’s different for the different activities, and depending on the goals.
JESSE: David if people kinda want to see what you’re up to, maybe see the research with Global Fishing Watch, where can they kind of keep up with you and what’s going on?
DAVID: So, GlobalFishingWatch.org, you can go to us there. We’ll have that, there’s an interactive map, you can look on there. There’s also a page I run a research program, there you can see tons of papers we’ve been publishing, and we have an exciting one coming up very soon showing some widespread illegal fishing that I can’t talk about until it’s released. I will give you that teaser to check in soon.
And so that’s the best place to do [??? 46:13] I also have a website RideForClimate.com. That hasn’t been updated too much recently but that’s where the information about the book is that you can get from any seller, online seller.
JESSE: Sounds good. Well, hopefully, we’ll see kind of what you’re up to with the illegal fishing here soon. So, [??? 46:33] check that out. You said GlobalFishingWatch.org, correct?
DAVID: That’s correct.
JESSE: All right. Thanks for spending time with me today, David.
DAVID: All right. Thank you, Jesse.