Bill Nye is pumped.
Kinetic energy has always been his hallmark— he’s even employed it while explaining what the term even means—but now it’s practically exploding out of him.
He’s straightening his bowtie and smoothing his crisp shirt amid an impassioned aria about science and technology and clean water and renewable energy and access to information and soon he’s just stamping his feet like a drum roll, the feeling no longer containable, shouting emphatically: “Let’s go!”
He seems almost incapable of waiting for a question to finish before launching into one of his next speeches, hearing a buzzword like “alternative medicine” and firing off, raring to go.
Bill Nye is excited. He’s always been. Now, though, he has a mission. He is going to save the world.
“How hard can it be?” he asks, grinning knowingly.
There is a mountain of snow outside the Madison Square-adjacent hotel where The Science Guy himself and I are sitting—the marvel of meeting up in the midst of such a snow storm inspires an ode to the presence of science in our everyday lives from Nye—and talking about his new Netflix series, Bill Nye Saves the World, which starts this Friday.
It might seem implausible to say that Saves the World finds the millennial educational hero more unhinged than usual, but it’s true.
The series is structured in that each episode covers a single science topic, though setting this series apart from Bill Nye the Science Guy, the PBS kids’ series that ran on PBS from 1993 to 1998, is that each topic is politically controversial: climate change, alternative medicine, artificial intelligence, and gender and sexuality, for example.
There is education and there is mythbusting, with expert panelists in conversation and a series of filmed segments featuring special correspondents like supermodel Karlie Kloss and YouTuber Derek Muller. (The series might be for “grown-up kids,” as Nye says, but it is certainly still courting the millennial demographic; Tyler, the Creator performs the Save the World theme song.)
It’s when Nye lets loose on these topics that you begin to believe in his world-saving abilities. His gasket-blowing passion is a veritable superpower as he takes on climate change deniers—“Did you think I was going to get a new TV show and not talk about climate change!”—and vents his own frustrations: “I would love to shut up about climate change!”
More amazing, though, is that underlying all of this, Bill Nye is actually making a case for optimism.
He’s battling on behalf of science during an administration that he acknowledges is rigging the fight—proposed budget cuts threaten to cripple the Environmental Protection Agency, for example—but still, his rallying cry through our entire conversation is that we can do this.
“Let’s get to work!” he says, over and over, to the point that I left the interview feeling as if I was wearing spandex and a cape.
With Bill Nye Saves the World premiering Friday, we talked with Nye about enlisting millennials in his fight, how to convince science deniers they’re wrong, and why, despite what all signs might point to, we’re not actually doomed.
You’re saving the world.
How hard can it be? It’s 30 minutes. We’ll get it done.
When you make that the title of the show, it’s certainly a lofty goal.
Make no small plans! But you have to be optimistic. If you don’t think you can change things then you won’t.
I think people have a hard time wrapping their heads around optimism given what’s going on today.
You mean politically.
This too will pass.
But how do you get people to be optimistic?
The process of science is how we got here. It’s how we have electronic recording machines and paper and spiral-bound notebook and textiles and food to eat and a way to get up and down town on a snowy day. It’s all through our understanding of natural laws that led to technology that we all exploit. I strongly believe the process of science will enable us to raise the standard of living for billions of people around the world, so we have clean water, reliable renewably produced electricity, and access to information for everybody in the world. Let’s go! [Stamps feet in excitement.]
An undercurrent of every topic you cover in the first few episodes is optimism. But another undercurrent is fear. There’s a fear of A.I. There’s a fear of alternative medicine…
Well fear of alternative medicine I think is a result of people who don’t appreciate the process of science. There’s a mistrust of authority, which is very popular right now, which might be akin to fear.
How do you get people past that?
Watch the show! Binge watch the show! Turn it up loud! [Laughs] Seriously, I believe that on some level. The show is consistent with that, that if you can understand the world around you it will enable you to make informed decisions that will make your life better.
You reach out to the “grown up kids around the world” in your opening statement. Is the approach different at all reaching out to “grown up kids” versus young kids when you were doing your old show?
It’s much more complicated, the things we’re talking about. Not that magnetism and cellular biology aren’t complicated, but these have ethical questions and questions of fairness wrapped in them. Especially climate change and vaccinations. These really affect people all over the world.
This gives you the platform to, as you say in the episode, grab people by the throat and yell at them that climate change is real.
The climate change denial thing is unique, to be able to live in denial where the evidence is overwhelming. But apparently it has to do with something generally described as cognitive dissonance. Where you have a world view and then you’re confronted with evidence that’s inconsistent with that, so in your brain you must resolve this dissonance, this conflict. And you do it either by changing the world view, which is hard, or denying the evidence. So that’s where people start. And not just with climate change, with anything. “Oh I don’t look fat in the mirror. That’s just this mirror. A different mirror, I’d look thinner.” But this is…
It’s certainly more serious.
It’s more serious. So in the case of climate change, I think the people who are in denial about it will age out. There are very few millennial aged people who aren’t concerned about climate change. There are a few, but very few. So as the electorate ages, climate change will be taken very seriously. But the problem, just objectively, is that when you put in another four, eight, or 12 years of greenhouse gases, that’s not going to away. The effect of that extra gas will be troublesome for centuries. So let’s get to work, people!
You say “I would love to shut up about climate change.”
I just thought that was funny.
It was! How much does that frustration light a fire under you and motivate you?
Well I am frustrated about climate change! But I’m also optimistic. I think in the example of the current administration here in the United States, I don’t think it’s sustainable. I don’t think the executive branch can maintain this attitude much longer, and they will be overwhelmed by concerned citizens.
You have these segments with rapper Desiigner and Karlie Kloss where they play out a scenario in which they can’t eat sushi or get coffee anymore because of the effects of climate change on those products. Is that something you find most effective in driving the point home to people who don’t understand the impact of climate change?
We’ll see if it works! So far people have been in denial about it. “I’m not using more pesticides than I did last year because the climate’s warmer and the pests are able to show up sooner and persist later. No! Everything’s fine!” But after a while those facts, we strongly believe, will catch up with us.
What would change if the U.S. became the global leader that, as you say, it isn’t right now?
That’s what I would like. I’m from the U.S. I got my engineer degree and my first 20 years of employment in engineering. I would like the U.S. to be the leader in renewable electricity, clean water, and access to the internet for everybody. The state of West Virginia—gorgeous—has all these coal mines, but also it has a 70 percent penetration of the internet. There are some developing world countries that have more internet than that. It’s a solvable problem. We can do this! Let’s go! [Starts clapping hands]
That was really effective, in my opinion. Explaining that it’s almost implausible that U.S., the power that it is, isn’t a global leader in this fight.
Well here’s what’s happened, though, just in the first weeks of the current administration: people’s awareness of politics has gone way up. Participation of people in political movements has greatly increased. Elections matter, as the president said recently.
Any time someone talks about climate change, it inherently becomes controversial because of how polarizing the issue is.
Well, here in the U.S. it is.
Do you feel a freedom to confront that controversy because you’re more removed from The Science Guy of the ‘90s?
I don’t think so. I’ve always brought it up. On the kids show, it was made 25 years ago. We didn’t go into climate change with the same overt message that I have now. You guys got a couple of decades without doing anything about this. On The Science Guy show, on the atmosphere show or the climate show, it was storms and extreme weathers, and we talked about climate change.
What do you think is especially effective about receiving this information from Bill Nye, the guy we used to watch and trust in science class, 20 years later?
Well you’re a grown up I and hope you evaluate the information that’s presented to you in a more thoughtful, deeper way. The show hasn’t aired yet! Or computer’d yet, or net’d yet. Maybe it won’t be effective at all. But maybe it will save the world!