Degrees Episode 12: Pete Muller

A National Geographic photographer captures the emotional impacts of climate change

To view the images Pete and Yesh discuss, scroll down to the “Dig Deeper” dropdown menu.

Pete Muller’s job is to face one of the most crucial challenges of today: how to effectively communicate about climate change. Having become obsessed with the loneliness and longing born from the impacts of a changing planet, he began exploring how to use his camera to make the invisible become visible– and to tell the story of climate change from a human perspective.

Pete speaks eloquently, not just about the fascinating people and places he’s encountered. but about the “truth” of photojournalism, the power of ideas, and the value of having our ideas challenged so we can grow.

Join Pete and Yesh for an Instagram Live event!

When: Thursday, February 11 – 12:30 pm ET

Where: EDF’s Instagram page

 Correction for our listeners: we inadvertently identified Glenn & Jill Albrecht as driving 20 miles out of their way to avoid viewing strip mines. This is incorrect; it is John & Denise Lamb who make this drive.

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Pete Muller
Show Notes

Correction for our listeners: we inadvertently identified Glenn & Jill Albrecht as driving 20 miles out of their way to avoid viewing strip mines. This is incorrect; it is John & Denise Lamb who make this drive.

03:35 – Pete talks about the origins of his Nat Geo feature that would make conversations about climate change more, more humanistic and more relatable.

05:11 – The concept of “solastalgia”: the feeling of loss and longing the comes from the world you knew as it disappears. It’s feeling homesickness while you’re still at home, illustrated by a husband and wife living amidst strip mines in Australia.

13:32 – More about “solastalgia”, this time viewed through the eyes of people who lived through the Camp fire of 2018 in northern California.

16:55 – Pete talks about how the trauma of the Camp fires made the local population in Paradise, California more resilient to the impacts of the COVID pandemic.

20:45 – Pete talks about how even successful Nat Geo photographers experience fears of failure!

22:27 – Pete discusses whether the situations he observes has taken a toll on him, and the empathy he has for his subjects.

25:40 – The importance of trying to “make the invisible visible”: “we can’t fix what we can’t see.”

27:00 – On the strengths and weaknesses of photojournalism’s capabilities of conveying the “truth”.

30:53 – Yesh asks “what makes great photography?”

32:37 – Pete’s advice for aspiring artists and communicators who want to advance conversations about climate change (spoiler alert: it’s all about ideas).

34:53 – On the power of being an open and active listener and observer.

37:17 – Pete talks about the profound importance of storytelling in fighting climate change.

Dig Deeper

To see the images that Yesh and Pete discuss (and more!) click through the carousel.

To learn more about Pete and see more of his beautiful work:

TRANSFORMATION OF PLACE – The Mount Thorley Warkworth coal mine is one of several “super pit clusters” in Australia’s Hunter Valley.
THE LIBRARY – Glenn Albrecht and his wife, Jill, sit for a photo in their Hunter Valley home. Glenn coined the term “solastalgia” in the early 2000s to describe residents’ emotional turmoil as coal mining exploded in the region. The word spread via the internet as a way to describe losing something beloved because of environmental change.
DUST – Denise Lamb’s hand covered in coal dust outside her home in Bulga, New South Wales. “I should really work on some art projects because that would help with my depression,” she laments. “But my easel is outside and covered in black coal dust. When I look at it, it just makes me want to cry.” It might seem like a small thing to someone else, she adds in tone meant to preempt criticism, but the cumulative impact takes a toll. One factor might be tolerable, she says, but together they create considerable emotional distress. This is the situation for many residents in the Upper Hunter Valley, particularly those who do not benefit from the temporary economic boon that mining creates. Each day, those residents confront the chronic transformation of their beloved place and a swirling, hard-to-describe discomfort that it creates within them.
DON AND DEBBIE – Muller made this portrait of Don Criswell playing the piano for his wife, Debbie, in their house, one of the few in Paradise to survive. Before the fire, Don performed up to five nights a week in Paradise. “It went to zero in one moment,” he says. The Criswells are thankful their home didn’t burn, but the Paradise they knew has disappeared. In their house, says Debbie, “we can sort of pretend everything is OK. But then you drive up the road and remember that the place where it was is gone.”
CARLY – Carly Ingersol, the High School psychologist in Paradise, California stands outside her home in the wake of the Camp Fire. All her neighbors homes burned. “All of us are feeling different feelings but we’re all feeling that sense of loss of community, of peace. That solace. If we can define it, what it is that we’re missing, then maybe we can work on ways and strategies and interventions to try to get some of that back.”
CALIFORNIA BLUE SKY – Gwen Nordgren sits for a portrait by the pool next to the charred ruins of her former home in Paradise, California. Two months after the fire, Nordgren allowed Muller to accompany her to view the property, which she had sold to another family before the fire. The pool holds a special place in her thoughts. “I would go in the pool in the morning by myself,” Nordgren says. “I’d get into my bathing suit and get into this gorgeous pool, and I just felt like a queen. I’d look up at this beautiful California blue sky.”
DAVE – “I’ve got this red, Paradise dirt in my blood, in my mouth, in my nose, on my clothes,” says Dave Clemmons. He lost everything in the fire and now lives in a dilapidated trailer on the side of a highway outside of Paradise. “After the fire, I went to my father’s house that got burned to the ground. I was standing in the driveway and I looked down at the dirt and the leaves and the twigs and I saw the dirt, the ground, that I remember as a kid. There is just something about that place. That patch of dirt. If I got on an airplane and went away for 50 years and came back to that one spot it will feel like home. I think that one little spot will always feel like home. It’s indescribable. I’m trying very hard and I just cannot.”
HONEY RUN – A mobile home community along the Honey Run Road in Paradise, California, was one of many neighborhoods destroyed by the so-called Camp fire in 2018. The state’s deadliest, most destructive fire on record, it killed 86 people, displaced tens of thousands in the region, and burned almost all of Paradise
THE COX FAMILY – “You can’t describe it [the feeling] as loss, or homesickness or depression because none of those really cover it all,” Kayla Cox explains from the steps of her mobile home in Paradise, California. She’s lived there with her husband Justin and daughter, Amberly, since wildfire destroyed their house, along with 90 percent of the town, in 2018. “The feeling is like a recipe,” she says. “You can list all the ingredients but you can’t name what all those ingredients make. That’s one of the hardest parts.” We talk as night falls over the charred remains of the stage on which her life unfolded. Amberly plays in the driveway. During pauses in our conversation, her tiny voice is the only sound in the neighborhood.
CONFRONTATION – Stanislav Vykvytke harpoons a walrus south of the village of Lorino, Russia. In the past Chukchi hunters took dogsleds across the sea ice, but now the ice is too thin. “That’s why we started using boats in the wintertime,” he says. Hunting is central to Chukchi identity. “Hunting is a dynasty,” Eduard Ryphyrgin says. “Older men in the family teach the younger men in an uninterrupted chain.”
AROUND THE TABLE – Inna Tynelina (at left) feeds her family whale meat and soup made from vegetables imported into the village. Marine mammals account for most of the diet of coastal Chukchi communities, where more than half of the people live solely on what can be harvested from the sea. “It is the meat that gives us the energy for our lives,” says Teyu Nelia Vasilievna, a local cook. “The food in these shops is very expensive … We cannot survive without our hunters.”
PABLITOS – Huddling around candles before dawn, men from Peru’s Quispicanchi nation celebrate Qoyllur Riti below a glacier. Pilgrims believe the glaciers hold healing properties. But because the ice has receded so dramatically, cutting pieces of it is now banned. “We used the ice as medicine,” says Norberto Vega, who organizes the pilgrimage. “Just by passing the ice over [your body] made you feel better, and that links with faith.”
ASCENT – Quechua pilgrims make their way to sanctuary grounds in the Peruvian Andes to celebrate Qoyllur Riti, an annual festival that marks the beginning of the Andean New Year and the start of the harvest season. The glaciers at the center of the festival has receded dramatically in recent years.
TRACES – Isle de Jean Charles, off the southeast coast of Louisiana, has lost nearly 98 percent of its land mass over the last 50 years. Residents once farmed and hunted on the island. “If we lose any more, we’re in the water,” says Albert Naquin, chief of the Biloxi Chitimacha Choctaw Native American community that lives on the Island.
5 GENERATIONS – Chantel Camerdale, seated at table, talks with her father, Boyo, as her grandmother Denecia sits in the foreground inside the family home on Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. Chantel’s three children are seen throughout the portrait. A fifth generation of the family is represented in the photos on the wall. Chantel and Boyo are heavily involved in efforts to relocate the community from the Island to the mainland as a result of massive land loss in recent decades. The island and its remaining residents are often battered by increasingly destructive storm surges coming in from the Gulf Coast.

 

 

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