Jeff Goodell

Author and Contributing Writer, Rolling Stone

    “As a journalist, it’s my job to bring readers to the fight. I can go to a place like the Okavango Delta and use my skills to show what is there, what we can fight for, what we can save."

    When environmental writer Jeff Goodell started to cover climate change two decades ago, he might as well have told people he was reporting on the sex life of porcupines, he says.

    “Even 10 years ago they’d respond like, ‘that’s funny, that’s cute, you must be having a good time with that,’” he says. “Now climate is the center of every conversation. It’s business, politics, conservation, science, public health, disease. Everything is being shaped by this question of energy, climate, how we are sustaining ourselves. It is the story of our time.”

    That conversation has taken best-selling author Goodell around the world, from covering the last of the 19th century coal barons in West Virginia to hiking a glacier with President Barack Obama in Alaska; from interviewing the top minds in science and philosophy to spending time in remote corners of the Earth with people who have dedicated their lives to safeguarding our planet. His adventures in environmental reporting have led to the publication of six books, with his seventh coming out in just a few months. His work is regularly published in Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine.

    Goodell hadn’t set out to be an environmental reporter. His bio on his website features an eclectic list of jobs: “blackjack dealer, glazier, janitor, bartender, professional motorcycle racer, editor at a Russian literary journal, and a technical writer at Apple Computer.” In 1989, he started to cover crime and politics as a reporter in New York. But when President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney started to campaign on the comeback of fossil fuels, he got a call from an editor at The New York Times Magazine asking if he wanted to chase the story in West Virginia.

    “I paused and thought, ‘Coal? What are you talking about, coal?’ I’d never seen coal,” Goodell says. “I knew nothing about coal. I thought it was some Charles Dickens idea and didn’t know that at that time half of our electricity came from coal. Of course, being the intrepid reporter that I am, I said ‘yes, that’s a brilliant idea’ anyhow.”

    He spent about three weeks in West Virginia reporting on a story that ended up on the cover of the magazine.

    “There is this notion that mining and drilling brings prosperity to a place, but in my reporting I have seen that it doesn’t work out that way,” Goodell says. “If fossil fuels were to bring prosperity to any place, it’d be West Virginia. With the amount of fossil fuel that has been pulled out of the ground there, the people of West Virginia should be dancing on gold-paved streets. And yet it is one of the states in the nation with the lowest social health indicators. The state has very little to show for 150 years of resource extraction.”

    After that first coal story, he says, he was hooked on environmental reporting and never looked back. Goodell’s most recent—and related—feature story for Rolling Stone took him to the cradle of humanity, one of the most important and fragile wild lands on our planet, the Okavango River Basin. There, Goodell journeyed to both Namibia and Botswana to investigate the financial and day-to-day operations of ReconAfrica, a Canadian company that has started exploratory drilling for oil in Namibia’s Kavango region and that has, along the way, broken Namibian laws, seemingly failed to put environmental safeguards in place, and continues to threaten the livelihoods and health of the local communities that live there.

    The story appealed to him, Goodell says, because what is happening there is at the nexus of so many global environmental and social issues, including energy, standards of living, job creation, the stabilization of political regimes, climate reparations and loss and damage, and the critical importance of biodiversity to ecosystem and planetary health.

    Goodell with elephants.

    Between dodging angry hippos with their jaws agape, reveling in the exquisite beauty of a reed frog, and coming face-to-face with ReconAfrica’s employees, Goodell says the trip exceeded his wildest understanding.

    “The Okavango Delta had this sense of life in all of its profundity and complexity,” Goodell says. “This is our ancestral home. This is where humans came from and where we got our sense of the wild. I felt that connection, that sense of home.

    As a journalist, I’m not motivated by outrage because I’ve seen so much and that’s just too simple of an emotion. But to think that ReconAfrica wants to drill here, that was one of the moments I felt real outrage. You’ve got to be f*@$*% kidding.”

    In July of this year, Goodell’s next book The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet will be published by Little, Brown. He describes it as a story about all of life and how life is moving outside of the envelope of temperature that allows it to exist: not too hot, not too cold. The book explores the profound consequences of what this increase in heat does to our bodies and to every living thing, from mosquitoes and elephants to food crops and coral reefs.

    And for young reporters who are interested in following Goodell’s path as environmental writers, Goodells says to just go for it.

    “We are still at the beginning of the beginning of telling the climate and biodiversity story,” Goodell says. “There’s so much opportunity to explore how we are living on this planet, how we are going to sustain ourselves, and how we shape our world and it shapes us.”