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Volcanologist Jess Phoenix Talks Science, Politics and Star Trek Values

Volcanologist Jess Phoenix Talks Science, Politics and Star Trek Values

If our country, our planet,is going to survive, we need to start looking for connections. Jess Phoenix taught me that. Now it’s my job to share her lessons with you, and yours to share with others. Each one teaches one – that’s how we grow together.

Maybe you’ve heard about Jess already. She’s the volcanologist from California’s 25th District who famously vowed to bring “Star Trek values” to Congress. By that she means taking Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a peaceful, conscientious, development-focused society and working toward our best possible future.

“Live long and prosper is a great motto!” Jess declared with a laugh when she and I sat down at The Explorers Club in New York City during her campaign tour. “Seeing a future where people of different races and species are living together, working not to fight wars but to explore the universe – that’s where we should be going. If that’s not our ideal, why are we doing anything? We should be working toward a good end. Then there’s the Vulcan motto, which is ‘Infinite diversities, infinite combinations,’ and that to me is so scientific and natural. It makes me think of everything from microbes to stars. That is what we have, this limitless universe in front of us and we don’t know how long time will go on for. [We need] that kind of openness to exploring the world.”

Jess practices what she preaches in every respect. As a geologist, she has traversed six continents going deep into the heart of active volcanoes, piloted a submersible to the bottom of the ocean, hosted investigative programs on The Discovery Channel, and founded a nonprofit called Blueprint Earth (among so much else – see her Twitter and Reddit AMA for the laundry list of her experiences).

The now five-year-old Blueprint Earth brings students and scientists across various fields together to catalogue environments and discover connections between all life forms on our planet. It’s a culmination of everything Jess believes in: education, evidence-based research, and celebrating the extraordinary beauty of Earth with your fellow inhabitants. She calls the combination a theory of “Planetary Renaissance,” or recognizing our world as a series of interlinked systems that all require respect and representation.

Even before I studied her philosophy, I was hooked on Jess’s story. Not long after the 2016 presidential election, I saw her posting in a Seven Sisters Facebook group (I’m a Barnard graduate, she from Smith) about being galvanized to run for office and flip her district from red to blue. She faced a huge challenge: As the only district in Los Angeles County that’s been Republican-led since 1983, the 25th’s current House Congressman is Steve Knight, a hardline conservative who’s consistently backed the Trump administration’s anti-science and anti-environment policies. But Jess’s positive message, unusually diverse knowledge base, and rational, egalitarian approach to major issues made her a candidate to watch.

People around the country agreed. In rapid succession she started appearing on CBS, CNN, and PBS; receiving celebrity endorsements from the likes of Patton Oswalt and Joss Whedon (plus a slew of Star Trek alumni including Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis, Wil Wheaton and Tim Russ); and garnering numerous civilian supporters. By the June 2018 primaries, Jess had over 7,000 individual donors, the most out of any candidate in her district.

This is significant because of an important statistic: In any given election, only .58% of Americans donate to political campaigns. Less than 1% of our country’s population dictates who gets on the ballot, yet Phoenix managed to convince nearly 10% of her district to pledge financial contributions toward her grassroots crusade. For over a year she spent time getting to know her prospective constituents, hosting Spanish-language meet-and-greets in the area’s predominantly Latinx neighborhoods, visiting schools (where she was already a familiar face thanks to Blueprint Earth’s reachout programs), and actively listening to stories from those who saw her as a much-needed force of good in politics.

“We have to get everybody involved,” Jess asserted when we met. “It’s about spreading the word and engaging the people who thought their voices didn’t matter. Actually, it really does! The House of Representatives is supposed to be the people’s house, with all different backgrounds: Scientists and lawyers and businesspeople, but also sanitation workers, janitors, nurses, kindergarten teachers. We need a true representation of America, and to make sure that includes immigrants, people from underrepresented groups and with disabilities… We don’t have nearly enough access and opportunity for people who are not ‘normal,’ which is terrible, but that’s the truth… I want to see true democracy – a system where people are engaged and they care and are working to uphold their ideals.”

Not only was Jess’s campaign creative and authentic, but she also shed light on the growing number of STEM professionals running for public office. Groups such as the PAC 314 Action have emerged to bolster a movement by the scientific community to bring more evidence-based policy to federal, state, and local governments. Through science, we can find effective long-term solutions to issues like climate change and the opioid epidemic. Since 2016, 314 Action has endorsed over 60 scientists in political races and offers training to those in the STEM community seeking to become candidates.

According to Jess, the scientific method bridges party divides: “People disagree so much on policy and how you get there. You can cut through all that by saying, ‘Fundamentally, we want clean air, clean water, clean soil, and opportunity for our kids.’ If you tell people those are the objectives, how do we get there? I want to get there using evidence and facts. Let’s make sure that whatever we’re doing, there’s data to support it. Even people who may be middle-of-the-road or leaning more conservative will see we have the same goals.”

Those goals ultimately boil down to having a strong, healthy society full of people employed in the most advanced, environmentally-friendly trades. As Phoenix says, “The Fossil Fuel Age isn’t ending because we’re running out of fossil fuels (although it is a finite resource). It’s because we’re finding better ways of doing things. So it’s adapt or die. We have to adapt, and humans are really good at doing that as a species.”

At the Explorers Club, she expanded on this statement, confiding that she doesn’t know “any Republicans who actually think that climate science is wrong. On Trump’s application to build a seawall and protect one of his golf courses in the UK, the reason is listed as ‘Seawall Rise Due to Climate Change.’ It’s right there. He knows it. Follow the money. It’s the big fossil fuel companies that are pulling the strings, and it’s corrupted the [political] system. Until we can elect people that are willing to push back and not be beholden to these big donors and shadowy pacts, it’s going to be business as usual. We’re really hurting our country.”

Living in the danger zones of southern California, where many communities are still recovering from the 2016 and 2017 wildfires, Phoenix has seen environmental wreckage up close. She helped evacuate animals from the forest areas beset by the deadliest blazes both years, and she understands the fallout that occurs when the government doesn’t support measures to combat climate change – everyone suffers. (Her district’s incumbent Knight voted against allocating tax write-offs to people affected by the ecological disasters.)

Jess’s signature plan was to grow her district as a global hub for green tech research and development, advocating for funds to be invested in the next generations of sustainable energy. She pointed out that wind turbines harm a lot of wildlife because birds and bats fly into blades, but new funnel designs, which can control the speed of the fuel source, would harness energy in a more efficient way while simultaneously eliminating the danger. Noting her area’s history in the aerospace industry, she added, “We have a lot of manufacturing as a tradition, and knowledge workers who could design and innovate. If we want to tackle these problems, we need federal incentives for more people to go and develop this stuff.”

But another situation, equally pressing, yearns for resolution. An outspoken advocate for common-sense gun reform – which includes limiting magazine capacities, strengthening background checks, and creating a functional nationwide gun database – Phoenix has a personal stake in the issue. She went to high school in Colorado and knew students who were killed in the 1999 Columbine shootings. Funding for the Center for Disease Control to study the effects of gun violence, she states, is crucial.

“In America we have this unique problem. [Gun violence] is an epidemic, and that’s why I think it’s key to get scientists to work on the problem. You cannot find the solution to something if you can’t measure it, and right now Congress isn’t funding the studies. If the people in the gun lobby have nothing to worry about, they would be okay with this. But they’re scared. They know we have a problem. The way we regulate guns in our society isn’t common sense, it’s not smart, and we can do a lot better.”

Preventively fixing the future entails Jess’s two favorite things, connection and curiosity. Last year at the March for Science, she proclaimed that “society is sick and ignorance is the disease, but curiosity is the cure.” We need to examine the world around us and take in the bigger picture. Jess subscribes to a Native American perspective that spans past, present, and future; one should always be conscious of seven generations at a time. Watch what your generation is doing, study what came before you, and understand how each choice you make will impact the three generations following yours.

A poet at heart (by her own admission, she switched from humanities to science in college so she could find more connections), Jess truly believes there’s a spiritual component to saving our planet as well. Our Earth is a living, sentient entity that needs humanity to coexist harmoniously with its plants, animals, and elements.

“We are in a very vibrant place,” she remarked to me. “As humans we have an obligation to adapt to what the planet requires of us, otherwise we’re pretty much done for… If humans are accelerating climate change, we’re contributing to habitat destructions for different species; we’re acidifying the oceans… If we want to keep it all going, to solve problems and protect the environment from overpopulation and human encroachment, then we need to understand how everything is connected. People connect to authenticity in each other and the world around them, and you don’t get more authentic than nature itself. It’s raw, it’s wild, it’s beautiful. It existed before us; it’ll exist after us. And so I think that we can be good stewards of this place that we’re so lucky to call home.”

Sadly, Phoenix’s bid for Congress was defeated in the June primaries, where the Republican Knight and Democrat Katie Hill got the top two slots on the ballot. There’s still a chance to flip the 25th, if the liberal factions unite, but the obstacles are daunting.

Frankly Jess’s loss doesn’t make sense. She embraced bipartisan efforts on her platform, encouraged underrepresented groups to vote and donate, gained endorsements from some of the coolest public personalities around (if you don’t think Chad L. Coleman, Felicia Day, and Tara Strong are awesome, you’re quite mistaken), and utilized mainstream and social media to terrific effect. What we can assume is that people just weren’t ready to listen.

Our country has developed a habit of ignoring the people it needs, which leaves us, unfortunately, with the ones it deserves. I deeply, deeply admire Jess Phoenix and hope she’ll consider running again. She remains active on social media, espousing the same values with which she campaigned. With enough time, maybe her teachings will begin to take root.

“Connection,” she once explained in a TedTalk, “is the heart of everything we do.” If we can ascertain those bonds, elect the people that recognize them, and do our part to honor the Earth and ourselves, we might have a good shot. May we work together in this Planetary Renaissance – and help humanity rise from the ashes.