Not your usual science: a Future Ecologies Podcast Review
February 1, 2021
Review By Milena Droumeva
Future Ecologies is not your typical science podcast. Strongly reminiscent of Radiolab (2002–), the renowned WNYC series from the “golden age” of podcasting (Barry 2015), Future Ecologies investigates “the shape of our world,” or the ways we relate to the environment and our planet. An independent podcast, supported by a seed fund from the Vancouver Foundation, and ongoingly by volunteer labour form the creators, Future Ecologies features hosts Adam Higgins, Mendel Skulski, and associate producers Simone Miller, Andrej Kozlowski, and Fern Yip as they take us on a curated journey of ecology science through specific case studies of species, technologies, and geographic communities. But Future Ecologies is no Radiolab, aside from the “vernacular, narrative-driven, tightly mixed and host-led” brand of journalism (McHugh, 2016). Rather than whimsically exploring science esoterica – arguably the quality that made Radiolab so successful – Future Ecologies takes a sustained ethical and decolonial approach to the study of natural ecology in its full cultural, social, and political implications. So much so, that the hosts and producers routinely engage with questions of decoloniality as part of advancing the podcast. In fact, their very first episode is called “Decolonize This Podcast” and features guest T’uy’t’tanat Cease Wyss, a healer, artist, and Indigenous storyteller, who offers us the very frames through which we must understand the world with spiritual and scientific rigour. In her words, “if you really want to remediate and restore … you have go and allow [the environment] to know you.” Certainly, a fresh relationality! Given that the hosts present as white and male this kind of gesturing to decolonization comes with a hefty responsibility. And short of having direct Indigenous leadership, Future Ecologies lives up to this responsibility by continuously returning to critique colonization and resource extraction capitalism as well as to credit Indigenous ways of knowing and doing.
Season 1 begins with the ecological repercussions of settler economies in North America on the heels of Indigenous genocide. From there, the podcast tells a number of stories about habitat and climate shifts as a result of economic policy, migration, and expansion patterns across the Pacific Northwest. Each story focuses on a single case, whether forest fires, the last Manzanita bush, jellyfish, or dams, in order to trace the effects of human interference on the environment. Together, these cases demonstrate the complex and compounded effects of the set of conditions we call climate change. In the course of exploring various topics the podcast raises important ethical questions: Do we create “conservation-dependent species” as part of efforts and legislation to reverse extinction or does that prevent the emergence of natural diversity? Do we create alternative uses and markets for invasive species like jellyfish or does that play into capitalist determinism – mending a problem created by extractionist economies with a capitalist solution that is likely to bring about other ecosystem shifts? In other words, what does ecological restoration look like when approached with an ethical, decolonial, long-term vision? In the two-part series on dams, Future Ecologies traces the history of dam creation in North America as a narrative of conquest of taming nature to provide for thousands – the results being a devastating blow to the salmon population and all its surrounding ecosystems. The podcast demonstrates how the lack of understanding of the unique migration patterns of salmon led to decades of damage that now have to be reversed, partially through “storying” the technology of dams in a different way: as intrusive obstacles to the ebbs and flows of local ecosystems and local cosmologies.
Future Ecologies is refreshingly West Coast and British Columbia-based; however, at the same time, it hosts key experts to comment on environmental phenomena all over the world. In keeping with the polished, well-researched aesthetic of NPR podcasts we’ve come to know and love, Future Ecologies can also be seen as part of the emerging genre of scholarly podcasting (Below the Radar 2020). In addition to a substantive bibliography of academic sources for each episode, the podcast features research notes, credits, and full transcripts. The hosts certainly experiment with formatting options, including more and less formal elements such as banter, point-of-view storytelling, sonic poetry, sound art, and even ASMR. According to both Barry (2015) and McHugh (2016), podcasting differs from radio in that it produces captive localized audiences who are actively seeking the content presented rather than passively “listening in” (Lacey 2013) to a media stream. This is where the podcast format has me concerned about accessibility to a younger, less patient audience.
The similarities to Radiolab, I would argue, actually detract from Future Ecologies’ mission: the banter and sound-effect gimmicks feel strained at times and, most important, the length of each episode almost entirely precludes Gen Z listenership. While the complexity of each topic undoubtedly deserves an hour, those who need this message the most would benefit from a more compact format. After all, the future citizens and designers of our world have to internalize that science and technology are political entities that continue to frame and enclose the environment. And they have to understand that resistance has to come from within a relational model, from a place that enables a richer understanding of the natural world.
Below the Radar. 2020. Podcasting as scholarship – with guest Hannah McGregor. 8
Berry, R. 2015. “A Golden Age of Podcasting? Evaluating Serial in the Context of Podcast
Histories.” Journal of Radio and Audio Media 22, no. 2: 170–78.
Lacey, K. 2013. Listening Publics. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
McHugh, S. 2016. “How Podcasting Is Changing the Audio Storytelling Genre.” The Radio
Journal: International Studies in Broadcast and Audio Media 14, no. 1: 65–82.
Radiolab. 2002–. USA: Jad Abumbrad and Robert Krulwich, WNYC Studios. www.radiolab.org.
Future Ecologies, 2021