'BASELINE' in Vox, NPR and Kottke

And our new strategy for filming during Covid-19

Hey everyone!

John here from the BASELINE series. I know your minds are likely elsewhere right now, but I’m excited to share a few links and give you a Covid-era update.

Kottke is still doing Kottke

Despite this film not existing yet, we are somehow all over the media this week:

Kottke (what up Web 1.0!) had a great description of BASELINE:

Taking a page from The Up Series, director John Sutter is making a series of films that revisit four geographic locations every 5 years until 2050 in order to document the effects in those areas due to climate change. The name of the series is Baseline and it’s a reference to the concept of shifting baselines, which the trailer above defines as “a phenomenon of lowered expectations in which each generation regards a progressively poorer natural world as normal”. The four areas the films will focus on are Alaska, Utah, Puerto Rico, and the Marshall Islands.

A friend messaged me after I posted the Kottke link saying that his homepage used to be Kottke.org. I’ve been obsessed, too. And I’m going to start reading again. (For those unfamiliar, Kottke is like THE original tech-culture blogger. Think 1998-original.)

So, anyway, all that was kinda fun.

Kids are helping us make this film

Now, the update: Partly because of Covid and mainly because it feels right, we’re starting to ask kids in these four locations to help us make this film.

It’s been wild and fun so far. We’ve sent cameras to a few young people in Utah as a pilot, and plan to send them to the other locations. (The iPhone SE 2020 isn’t super expensive as phones go, and they shoot 4K video with an adjustable frame rate.)

I’ll report back on how this is going soon. But I also wanted to say a quick thank you to other creators who are working in this space, which MIT broadly has dubbed “co-creation.” (Check out a report MIT’s Co-Creation Studio). Also take a look at the work of Pam Sporn, who’s been making films with high school students in New York for decades. And Paloma Martinez, whose short film “Crisanto Street” has been an inspiration to me as we’re trying to figure out this new mode of filmmaking.

Again, more on this soon. Meantime, have you seen interesting examples of “co-created” films? (Looking at you, iReport alums!) If so, please send ‘em my way.

I’ll leave you with a closing thought from John Lewis. These words have been bringing me comfort this weekend. He’s such an inspiration during this dark time. (I’m proud to have been repped by him while I was living in Atlanta). Rest in power.


'BASELINE' - the TEDx edition

and other scary but non-pandemic things to think about

Hey everyone —

John Sutter here from the BASELINE series. It’s been a while! I hope this finds you safe and healthy and surviving this terribly difficult time. It’s a little weird to think about updating you on this climate change film amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Everything is on hold right now, and the world’s attention rightly is elsewhere. But I do have a couple bits of news that I’d like to share with this core, supportive group. (Warning: This is a much more me-heavy newsletter than usual. My apologies!…)

1) ‘TEDx: Climate beyond a human lifetime’ is now online / is probably the new ‘Tiger King’ …

Pre-pandemic, I gave a talk about BASELINE — and about the concept of “shifting baseline syndrome” — on a v large/ v intimidating TEDx stage in Dallas.

I was, you know, terrified. And I’ve been told I glanced down at the safety-blanket computer monitors a LITTLE too much. But I’d love for you to take a look and spread the word. It posted online this week. And it’s my first time doing something like this.

Here’s the talk:

And here’s what the theater looked like during the tech check 😳

You can find other 2020 TEDxSMU talks here. They’re all wonderful, but I think this newsletter crew would be super into Alicia Eggert’s talk on “making time tangible.” (It involves her saving toenail clippings and collecting her bf’s bellybutton lint.) And Camille Seaman’s talk about photographing Antarctica, year after year.

2) I’m hosting a climate podcast for Foreign Policy magazine, and the first episode is out now…

One other bit of me-news to share: I’m hosting a new podcast for Foreign Policy about solutions to the climate crisis. It’s called “Heat of the Moment,” and I’ve had that damn song stuck in my head the whole time I’ve been recording these interviews and voice-overs. (“Heeeeeat of the Moment….”) Anyway. There are 12 episodes. The gist is that I interview someone interesting/important in the climate space — Joseph Stiglitz, Katharine Hayhoe, Varshini Prakash, Christiana Figueres, among others — and then FP commissions field-reported stories that go with that theme.

Here’s the first episode. They come out week-by-week.


If you do take a watch/listen, let me know what you think. I’m pretty new at both of these things — podcasting, and giving talks to large auditoriums full of velvety chairs. I’d value the feedback. (If you dig the TEDx talk, btw, you can go here, click “share” and then click the “TED recommends” button to flag it to Big TED).

3) Climate + Covid-19 = a lot

Phew. If you, like me, have been thinking a lot about the (sometimes overblown but still interesting) intersections between Covid and climate change, here are a couple op-eds I’ve written recently for CNN that are sort of my way of working through it:

Emily Atkin (you should subscribe to “HEATED” if you don’t already) has been digging into these connections in a short-run podcast that’s worth a listen, too.

Also: When you’re finished with “Tiger King,” read this, and thank Rachel Nuwer for some really important context… Then check out “The Hottest August,” which is a super fascinating/creative documentary by Brett Story … kind of a poetic look at anxiety and future-dread in one month — August 2017 — in New York City. (No, that August wasn’t TECHNICALLY the hottest, but, you know, whatever…). Follow that link and you can “rent” it from a theater and stream the film online this week. It’s also airing on PBS on April 20. So, a little pre-Earth Day viewing perhaps.

One last note concerning Earth Day: I’m working on a couple CNN pieces about the 50th anniversary of that event, and, more broadly, the state of environmentalism over that critical half-century. Have any thoughts? Please shoot me a note. Big wins that are overlooked? Conversations that feel like they’re on repeat, decade after decade? This group so often informs my writing in helpful ways. So, THANK YOU. In advance.

Again, hope everyone is safe and healthy out there.

More soon.


The 1,000-year camera...

...and other ways to fight chronic 'short-termism'

Hey everyone —

John here from the BASELINE project.

Before we get rolling, I wanted to say a quick “thank you” on this Giving Tuesday for your attention to and ongoing support of this project, which is visiting four locations on the frontlines of the climate crisis, every five years, until 2050. And a request: If you’re thinking about year-end donations, please consider BASELINE. Donations through our fiscal sponsor, UnionDocs, are tax-deductible in the US. And they’ll go toward what I believe is the critical cause of us creating a climate documentary on an unprecedented timeframe, something just a little bit closer to Earth Time. This is a life’s-work sort of project for me. I truly do appreciate any support you’re able to offer. Also, if this is not the right time for you, totally cool. Maybe forward this email to a friend, encourage people to sign up for the newsletter, or retweet one of these guys?

We’re already 30% of the way to our goal. (Thank you!)

BASELINE + HEATED + an (almost)-unwinnable game!

One other bit of housekeeping: Check out this conversation about BASELINE and other rad climate storytelling projects hosted by the Nieman Foundation. Featuring yours truly, Emily Atkin (subscribe to HEATED if you don’t already, it’s a newsletter for people who are pissed about the climate crisis) and Rosanna Xia from the LA Times. (Rosanna’s mondo feature on sea level rise in California is a true must-read… and that’s not even to mention the badass game the paper developed that helps you weigh all of the non-good options facing you as a town on the California coast).

I’m at the top, in the Mr Rogers sweater. Followed by Rosanna and Emily. Then Q&A.

OK, now three quick notes on projects I know you’ll love. Because they deal with the climate crisis and environmental change and humans, all on impressive timescales.

And then I have one more favor to ask re: an upcoming interview.

Walking the path of human migration

First project you’ll love: Paul Salopek’s “Out of Eden Walk.”

Many of you probably have read about Paul’s effort, with support from National Geographic, to walk the ENTIRE path of human migration out of the Horn of Africa, into Asia, across the Bering Strait, to Alaska to… who knows. It’s freaking wild.

Here’s the map:


I mentioned this to a friend recently to which the friend replied: What, I’ve never heard of that? (You know who you are). So on the off chance you, too, are not following Paul’s incredible journey, please checkout his Instagram and Twitter and make it a habit. The trek is wonderful and beautiful and sad and historically rich. You won’t be sorry. Plus, I love that Paul popularized the term “slow journalism” in reference to the deliberate and thoughtful process of taking in material, processing it, and telling a BIG story.

Here’s how he described it in a 2015 interview:

"Slow journalism allows me to make hidden connections that you miss when you travel too fast," he said. "The world is complicated, and we require more than just short bits of information."

It’s obvious that BASELINE takes inspiration from this work. Paul was the first Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard. And I cooked up this idea for the BASELINE series on that fellowship earlier this year, too. (If you’ve got a big idea you need a few weeks/months to workshop, I highly highly recommend that program).

A manifesto against ‘short-termism’

Second, please take a moment to read this wonderful essay on “short-termism,” which Richard Fisher, who is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, calls “civilization’s greatest threat” and “one of the most dangerous traits of our generation.”

This is just the top of it:

Modern society is suffering from “temporal exhaustion”, the sociologist Elise Boulding once said. “If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future,” she wrote in 1978. We can only guess her reaction to the relentless, Twitter-fuelled politics of 2019. No wonder wicked problems like climate change or inequality feel so hard to tackle right now.

That's why researchers, artists, technologists and philosophers are converging on the idea that short-termism may be the greatest threat our species is facing this century. They include philosophers arguing the moral case for prioritising our distant descendants; researchers mapping out the long-term path of Homo sapiens; artists creating cultural works that wrestle with time, legacy and the sublime; and Silicon Valley engineers building a giant clock that will tick for 10,000 years.

3. Also: A 1,000-year camera

Then there’s this: A 1,000-year camera by the artist/philosopher Jonathon Keats.

From Vice News:

Keats’ placed his Millennium Cameras at four locations around Lake Tahoe. Each camera is made of copper and is only 2.75 inches long and 2.25 inches in diameter. Inside the camera is a sheet of 24-karat gold pierced by a small hole. As light passes through this small hole, it causes a reaction with the rose-colored pigment inside the camera, which causes the color to fade where the light is the brightest. This will slowly imprint an image on the pigment over the next 1,000 years.

I’m obsessed with this idea because it forces people to think on Earth Time, which is very difficult to do. I chatted with Keats briefly last week, on my way to family Thanksgiving. We’re going to do an e-mail Q&A about his project. And that’s where the other favor comes in: What do you want to know from Keats about his “Millennium Camera”? What other projects — artistic, journalistic, scientific, otherwise — have you seen documenting long timescales? If you send me some questions and ideas, I’ll include the best of them in a future newsletter.

Thanks for following along, and for being part of this!

More soon.


This newsletter is written by John D. Sutter, director of the BASELINE documentary series. Sutter is a National Geographic Explorer and CNN climate analyst. Follow him on Instagram, and consider making a tax-deductible donation to the projectEmail him with tips.

5:30p tomorrow | BASELINE at Harvard

Meaning: tomorrow! I'd love to see you there ...

Hey everyone—

I’m writing to invite you to the first public talk about the BASELINE series, tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. on Harvard’s campus in Cambridge, Mass. (For those of you not in-around Boston, keep reading! There’s a preview below…)

Here are the details, courtesy of the Harvard Center for the Environment, which is co-hosting the discussion with Nieman and C-CHANGE.

Note the photo of me back when I had hair. Ahem …

There will be a follow-up panel with Naomi Oreskes (“Merchants of Doubt”) and Dan Schrag, director of the Harvard Center for the Environment. We’ll talk about how “shifting baseline syndrome” messes with the way all of us are processing and talking about the climate crisis. Come say hello if you make it! And if you’re not in the area, please consider sharing the invite on FB/Twitter, or telling a friend.

I’ll share a video of the talk with this group soon.

‘We’re living in this 10% world’

A little mini-preview just for you newsletter subscribers: I’ll be showing part of a video interview that Edythe McNamee and I conducted earlier this year with Loren McClenachan, a historical ecologist at Colby College, in Maine.

McClenachan has spent months and months digging up archival evidence of environmental changes that are largely going unnoticed, because they happen slowly enough they don’t really-truly trigger our oh-s*** alarm sensors. One of the best visual examples: She collected archival photos of “trophy fish” caught on one dock in Key West, Florida, over about 50 years. At the start, in the 1950s, the trophy fish were taller than humans. By the 2000s, when she visited, they were circa forearm-size.

The first shrunk by about 90%, according to McClenachan.

What happened? Overfishing, regulatory change, a host of things. The critical point for our purposes is that the fishermen were smiling just as big in the 1950s as they are later, when their trophy catches are decidedly less trophy-ish. They, like us with regards to climate, fail to fully grasp these sweeping, longterm changes.

“We’re living in this 10% world,” she said.

I found this work incredibly sad-inspiring. Instead of wallowing, though, it’s one reason I’m digging into archives for visual evidence of change in the four BASELINE communities, which I’ll be revisiting every five years between now and 2050. I have to hope that seeing these changes more clearly can help us address them.

Hope to see you tomorrow, and thank you for your support!

More soon.


This newsletter is written by John D. Sutter, director of the BASELINE documentary series. Sutter is a National Geographic Explorer and CNN climate analyst. Follow him on Instagram, and consider making a tax-deductible donation to the project. Email him with tips.

Fighting 'now-now-right-now bias'

"BASELINE" is in Nieman Reports this week.

Hey everyone — John here from the “BASELINE” project.

Two quick bits of good news to share with you today.

Check us out in Nieman Reports

First, “BASELINE” was featured this week in Nieman Reports. (!!)

Here’s an excerpt:

Storytellers, like scientists, tend to work on Human Time. We think in daily (minute-ly?) deadlines, weekly meetings, annual performance reviews. Journalists are particularly guilty of a now-now-right-now bias. Out of necessity, we’ve been conditioned to think second to second, tweet to tweet. Decades, centuries, millennia—the timescales of our planet—they usually don’t land with urgency in our in-boxes…

In light of the climate crisis, however, this blind spot could have planet-ending consequences.

Take a read. You’ll meet a sweet researcher, John O’Keefe, who has been taking notes about the same trees at Harvard Forest, in Massachusetts, for nearly 30 years. (If you really fall in love with him, as I definitely have, also check out this book, “Witness Tree,” as well as said tree’s Twitter feed).


Second, “BASELINE” now has a crowdfunding page online through UNIONDOCS, our fiscal sponsor. We have some initial funding from the National Geographic Society, but we are raising funds for 2020 production costs. Consider making a tax-deductible donation through that page. Or share it with a friend. Anything helps. And I PROMISE not to turn this newsletter into an eternal NPR pledge drive.

Thanks, and more soon!


PS: Photo at top by Edythe McNamee, “BASELINE” director of photography.

PPS: A few of you guessed it. The first location in the series is Shishmaref, Alaska, which is a place I wrote about for CNN in 2009 and 2016, and I place I really-truly love. (There’s a tease for another one of the locations at the top of this email…)

Here’s one little scene from our first shoot in Alaska, earlier this year:

This newsletter is written by John D. Sutter, director of the “BASELINE” series. Sutter is a National Geographic Explorer and CNN climate analyst. Follow him on Instagram, and consider making a tax-deductible donation to the “BASELINE” series.

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