My guest today Asmeret Asefaw Berhe is a leading soil scientist and President Biden’s nominee to be the director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. If confirmed, she will manage a $7 billion research budget.
ASEFAW BERHE: If you were to think about where the large global reservoirs of carbon are — beyond fossil fuel deposits, and the ocean — the next largest reservoir of carbon on the earth system is in soil.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
I got interested in soil science a few weeks back and I started doing a little bit of reading. And I stumbled onto Asmeret and her amazing story. Born and raised in civil-war ravaged Eritrea, she became a leading scientist and is poised to take over one of the most important jobs in science. I knew right away I needed to have her on this show.
LEVITT: Have you heard of a man named Sadhguru? He’s an Indian guru who’s currently riding a motorcycle across Europe and the Middle East to bring attention to soil degradation.
ASEFAW BERHE: I’ve seen some social media posts, and I also saw recently the interview he did with Trevor Noah.
LEVITT: Believe it or not, the idea for having you on this podcast came because his publicist somehow got in my inbox of my email. At first, I thought it was a joke, but then he was on Trevor Noah and I said, “Whoa, he must be doing something serious, but it’s not very scientific. I better learn something about the science.” And then I found you because you’re the first name that comes up if you look into soil science.
ASEFAW BERHE: I don’t know a whole lot about what he’s doing, to be honest with you, but I thought it was interesting that he’s trying to appeal to the hearts and minds of people to think carefully about the land. For many people, soil is a spiritual entity. One that makes our lives possible. So, one that we should respect. And without knowing a whole lot about what he’s doing, it seems like that’s where he’s coming from. I’m a scientist, and I love studying soils, and I will talk soil with anybody who listens to me. But there’s a limited number of people I can reach that way. So, I feel like in many ways, his effort to reach a wider public that normally we don’t reach, is admirable. The situation with soil health is reaching critical levels right now, globally. Close to half of the world’s soils that we’re using are now classified as degraded. We can’t go on like this because we need soil to actually support human lives and as well as the lives of all living things on land. We need a lot more people to be engaged in this conversation about how do we treat soil right. And so, if he can reach the kind of people that we’re not able to reach, more power to him. I’m all about that.
LEVITT: He’s the Greta Thunberg of soil science right now.
ASEFAW BERHE: Oh, that’s a pretty good comparison.
LEVITT: So, let me ask you what a soil scientist actually does. I have this image in my mind of big bags of soil and people’s hands dirty — something like a gardener. But is that accurate? Or is soil science more of a theoretical science?
ASEFAW BERHE: It’s definitely a mix. We’re soil scientists, so we’re not afraid to get dirty. We dig pits around the world, or collect our soils using corers and augers. But once we bring it into the lab, a lot of the work that I do is very similar to a chemistry lab in some ways. I’m a soil biogeochemist. So, we do, for example, gas chromatography. That’s how we determine how much CO2 is being released into the atmosphere. We do spectroscopy. It means we study the interaction of light from different portions of the electromagnetic spectrum with the soil. I’m married to a soil physicist who, in addition to studying what’s happening, basically, in terms of the arrangement of the pore spaces in soil, how that affects water flow, vapor flow, air flow dynamics. But at the same time, soil physicists engage a lot more kind of theoretical work. But then of course there are other soil scientists who study the life at that scale. Trying to understand the microbial life in soil and their activity and their function. Sometimes I tell my friends in the chemistry department that I’m an environmental organic chemist for all essential purposes, but my version of chemistry is a lot more fun, and it goes outside to play.
LEVITT: I’m hoping that you will teach me a lot about soil today because honestly, I know very little. Maybe we can just begin with the basics. What is the scientific definition of soil?
ASEFAW BERHE: So, from a scientific standpoint, the definition of soil is that loose, unconsolidated material that is on planetary surfaces. And is made up from a combination of broken-down pieces of rocks minerals derived from the weathering processes that break down rocks; and the residues of formerly living organisms — plants and animals that used to live on the surface of land, and then when they die, their residue get incorporated into soil. And living plant roots and microbes that call the soil home. So, it’s this material that we call “soil” from a scientific definition standpoint.
LEVITT: So, from the perspective of the Earth, is there a lot of soil or not so much soil?
ASEFAW BERHE: If you think about the depth of the Earth from the surface to the middle of the core, and then compare the amount of soil that we have to that, soil is just like a thin veil that’s covering the Earth’s surface. Because in most places we’re talking about an average of about six foot of soil that covers the ground surface. But you have kilometers’ worth of rock and magma inside the Earth’s interior.
LEVITT: One of your research interests is in the role that soil plays in climate change. And we hear a lot about the role that plants and trees play, obviously, in absorbing carbon from the air. But when you refer to soil and climate change, you’re talking about something very different, right?
ASEFAW BERHE: So, the way you can think about the role of soils in climate change is: if you were to think about where the large global reservoirs of carbon are, beyond fossil fuel deposits, sedimentary deposits, and the ocean, the next largest reservoir of carbon on the earth system is in soil. And the amount of carbon that’s stored in soil is twice more than the carbon that’s in the atmosphere and all of the world’s vegetation combined.
LEVITT: Whoa. Okay. Wait, let me stop and think about that. So, you said the amount of carbon in soil is twice what is in the vegetation? The trees, the rainforest, and in the air?
ASEFAW BERHE: Combined and then twice over. And remember that the carbon that’s in soil is regularly exchanging carbon with the atmosphere. So, plants that are growing in soil take out CO2 from the atmosphere every time they photosynthesize. And every time those plants or animals, higher organisms that consume the plant biomass, die, their residue returns into the soil and brings the carbon back into soil. And then once that carbon is in soil, there are active microbial communities that break down the residue. And that breaking down of the residue — the process that we call decomposition — is an important ecosystem process because it’s the process by which older nutrients that plants took up from soil when they were growing up — that’s the process that releases those nutrients in the soil so that the next generation of plants and animals and microbes can grow in soil. But that process breaks down the sugars and other organic compounds that are in the biomass of plants and animals. Some of the products are greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide, and to a lesser concentrations, methane and nitrous oxide. So, there’s this constant cycling of carbon that is happening between the atmosphere and the soil system.
LEVITT: I’m sure that human activity has dramatically affected the planet’s soil. Could you describe some of the most important human impacts that we’ve seen with soil?
ASEFAW BERHE: The largest impact human communities have had on soil starts at the time when we started settled agricultural practices. Because what happens then is we start tilling the land and extracting resources from the land. And especially in intensive agricultural cultivation systems, the physical stability of the land is destroyed when we over-till it and physically mix it to make it easier for crops to grow. And that then makes soil vulnerable for loss of nutrients. So, it becomes less fertile. It loses carbon and organic matter that are also critical for plant growth and supporting life and soil in general, but that physical disturbance also renders soil vulnerable to erosion. And in fact, because of agriculture, the rate of soil erosion in particular by wind and water has increased by up to two to three orders of magnitude in different parts of the world. So, we’re talking about significant increase in the rate at which soil is being lost from land — in particular agricultural lands — because of the way we manage it and how vulnerable that management makes soil for erosional loss. The rate at which these change and the rate at which the degradation has been happening has been particularly fast in the last 200 years since the Industrial Revolution.
LEVITT: So, that’s a little bit of a puzzle for an economist. I can see why in a world where there’s empty space, and I can burn through the land and ruin it and then move on to a new patch of land, I wouldn’t take care of it. But in a world in which I own my farmland, every bit that I degrade it is my own asset that I’m losing. So, is it ignorance that is leading farmers to not understand the practices and how damaging they are? Or is it that farmers are just shortsighted? That they say, “Look, I’m going to maximize what I get today. I know that I’m ruining the land, but it’s still somehow cost-effective for me to do those destructive practices.”
ASEFAW BERHE: I don’t think it’s ignorance at all, I think it’s the cost and how the market situation plays out. They’re trying to find the cheapest possible way to produce food that they could sell and that can also feed their communities. Because we don’t necessarily realize the actual cost of the degradation, and because — relatively speaking, until now — supplements in the form of fertilizers and irrigation water have been relatively cheap compared to the cost of the degradation, farmers in particular, in large-scale agricultural systems, have basically calculated in terms of how they’re going to manage their soils to maximize profit. And mechanized agricultural systems are cheap, relatively speaking. And they also take less time and energy to manage soils in agricultural systems if you have all sorts of mechanized tools that you could use to till the land, to harvest, and then compensate for the loss of productivity of the soil that you have through application of irrigation, water, and other supplements and chemicals in general. And it’s been cheaper to run agriculture like that globally, than it is to practice what we call “best-management practices,” or “climate-smart land management practices” that disturb the soil less.
LEVITT: You talked exactly like an economist. You said, “The reason the big industrial farmers in the U.S. are doing what they’re doing is because it’s profit maximizing.” And then you said, “But they’re not doing best practices,” but in some sense, I think that’s a definitional thing. Right? So, the economist would say that they are doing best practices given the constraints they’re operating under. But, obviously, there are different meanings of the word “best.”
ASEFAW BERHE: So, best from the perspective of the health of the soil system and the ecosystem.
LEVITT: Right, exactly. But I know when I think about agriculture, I have in mind these big industrial farms in the U.S. where the people running them are highly informed about the state of the art. I imagine that the situation in, let’s just say Africa, where you have much smaller farmers, in much more of a subsistence way of life. And there, I could imagine that the constraints are really binding. The constraints are hunger and poverty. And you could really imagine that the practices could be really shortsighted because of the constraints of not having the capital, say, to make long-term investments that might be useful — that you could get caught in a trap. Is there any truth to that? That there are practices that if we could just expand the budget constraint of subsistence farmers in Africa, that they could do better both for themselves and for the soil?
ASEFAW BERHE: Yeah. At some level, I think this is the reality for most poor farmers anywhere in the world. Farmers who don’t have the large industrial backing. But, generally speaking, I think the case in Africa is a little different because we’re dealing with soils that have been cultivated for the longest time than anywhere else in the world. There is that time element that enhanced their degradation, if you will. They’ve been harvested for so long and mined for so long. But add to that the climatic pressures where in many parts of Africa, people are now dealing with extreme climate fluctuations, and rather strong drought influence in how they cultivate. The immediate economic pressures are so hard that whatever they produce, they tend to take it away from the soil, which doesn’t help with the health of the soil system because the soil needs to be replenished. All the nutrients that we take out from the soil that plants pick up when they’re undergoing photosynthesis and producing their biomass — we have to figure out a way where that’s going to be returned into soil because soil cannot form those nutrients at a fast pace. The rate of the weathering that makes these nutrients available is not on pace with the rate at which we’re extracting the nutrients from soil. Which makes it hard to keep a system sustainable if we’re taking away more than we’re actually returning.
LEVITT: So, we’re talking abstractly about soil degradation. Is there a sense of how fast it’s happening? Is there a sense of how much the soil has degraded in terms of reduced yield?
ASEFAW BERHE: Generally speaking, when soils become degraded the actual definition of degradation is that their productive capacity is diminished, meaning their ability to support the rate of production that they used to have is diminished. In many parts of the world, there’s at least 50 percent loss of productivity in many of the highly degraded soils. All the land that we know has been in cultivation intensively for long periods of time — take the central part of the U.S., for example, or many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, many parts of Europe — all of these are lands where, without the additional supplement of irrigation and fertilizers, the actual inherent productive capacity of land had been diminished by up to half. And so, if plants can’t grow at a fast rate, they can’t take out CO2 from the atmosphere, and then bring it ultimately into the soil. And because the soil system stores so much carbon, then any small change in the rate at which carbon is being taken up or released from soil with respect to the atmosphere makes a huge difference for our climate system.
LEVITT: And from that perspective, I know that as more carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere, the oceans have done a pretty good job of taking a lot of that carbon out and lessening the short-run impact of what humans have done in greenhouse gasses. And so, is it the case also with the soil that as we put more carbon dioxide into the air, the soils have — with a positive feedback loop — helped pull some of that emission out?
ASEFAW BERHE: Yes. Soils and the oceans operate very similarly in this way. Only about half of that carbon actually stays in the atmosphere and contributes to the global climate change challenge that we’re trying to address right now. The other half is taken up by natural ecosystems, both in the ocean and on land, through processes that we call “carbon sequestration.” And so, if you think about the rate of sequestration in the ocean and the land, there’s a little bit more of that extra carbon that’s taken up by land than is in the ocean right now. So, in many ways, I like to tell folks that the natural ecosystems are bailing us out at this point. But those natural ecosystems are experiencing degradation. So, it’s not entirely clear that they could continue to bail us out. If the soil is degraded, its ability to support plant productivity is compromised. And if the oceans experience so much acidification, for example, again, the health of that ocean system’s also getting compromised. So, the chemistry dictates that we might have to worry about further and further degradation of both these natural ecosystems, because it could affect how much of the excess atmospheric CO2 we’re releasing, they can keep taking out.
LEVITT: Right. So, if these feedback loops break down or even reverse, then the borrowed time that we’ve been living on because the soil and the oceans have been so generous in soaking up carbon dioxide the last 200 years, suddenly that would change. And the one you hear about all the time as a lay person is the thawing of the permafrost. Why is there so much carbon stored in the permafrost, and how does thawing change the game so much?
ASEFAW BERHE: There’s so much carbon in permafrost soils, which are typically found in high-latitude ecosystems, where it’s significantly colder than anywhere else for most of the year. But remember the fact that there is a short growing season for plants in these ecosystems. As soon as the climate turns cold and also the environment becomes dark for a good part of the year, the plants stop growing and the residue gets deposited in soil. But the microbes that are responsible for effectively breaking down residue in soil can’t be effective under these extreme cold conditions. And then the residue just accumulates. And forms carbon-rich soils. And when that happens then, you have continuous accumulation of carbon — over hundreds and thousands of years, and even millions of years. But now the environment’s getting warmer. And if the environment’s getting warmer, you’re seeing thawing and also draining of the permafrost. But at the same time, you’ve also made oxygen easily accessible for these aerobic microorganisms. Most of them needed oxygen to be able to be effective. So, now they actively decompose, and they have so much carbon that built up over long periods of time that they can decompose. So, the fear is that an unchecked warming in many of these Arctic ecosystems can lead to hundreds of billions of metric tons of carbon to be released into the atmosphere, over the coming century or so. And if that happens, we have an even bigger problem to worry about. Not just a release of some of this carbon, but also the fact that all of that carbon leaving soil and going to the atmosphere means it causes further warming, which causes even further thawing and draining of permafrost that could keep causing significant amount of greenhouse gasses to be released into the atmosphere and cause even more warming.
LEVITT: So, that’s a feedback loop that’s going in the wrong direction rather than the right track then.
ASEFAW BERHE: Exactly.
LEVITT: This is probably completely impractical. But if the problem is that these microbes are going to have a feast on thousands of years of carbon, would we ever consider trying to kill all the microbes? And just sterilize this area? The environmentalist probably wouldn’t see that as one of the leading strategies for fighting climate change. But would it be possible if we put our mind to it? Could we keep the microbes from going wild in these areas?
ASEFAW BERHE: So, yes, you guessed right. As an environmental scientist, I think it would be a terrible idea to kill all the microbes because most microbes are actually beneficial in the environment. So, we do not want to stop all the activity of microbes —
LEVITT: Oh, there’d be a few. We’d leave about as many as there were before it thawed. Just don’t want them to have a big party.
ASEFAW BERHE: But there are many ecological reasons why you don’t want to do that, because if you want that environment to be healthy and to, again, support plant productivity and support life in general, overall, you want that soil to be healthy. And soil — where we’re basically poisoning or irradiating microbes — is not healthy. But it’s an interesting challenge, right? Because the only really important way we could stop this is by slowing down the pace of warming and the amount of extreme temperatures that we’re seeing.
LEVITT: Easier said than done. We have not shown a lot of ability to do that. I was looking at the I.P.C.C. climate report a few weeks back, and I was really surprised to see that most of the existing climate models don’t even have the permafrost built into them. It’s outside of most of the models. And so, the I.P.C.C. more or less is just guessing when they try to factor in how big the effect of the permafrost is. Isn’t that surprising?
ASEFAW BERHE: It’s not necessarily that they’re guessing, but some of the processes that folks are trying to model are extremely complex. These are some of the hardest models to run because there’s a number of variables, but they also have to consider how every part of the world is connected to the other, at a system level. We have to settle for simplifying some of the processes so that we can get a better handle of what’s likely to happen at the largest system. But every year, modelers are figuring out ways they can incorporate more and more complex phenomena into the earth system models. I’m not trying to deny that we have missing gaps in our understanding of permafrost responses. But I think our estimates are getting better in many ways. So, I guess as a scientist, that’s the part I look towards.
LEVITT: So, we just talked a lot about permafrost, but more generally, the soil around the planet. Is there a scientific consensus as to whether over the next, say, 50 years that the soil will continue to absorb large amounts of the greenhouse gasses?
ASEFAW BERHE: There’s a lot of hope and potential for that — the soil could actually continue to take up more carbon. So, for example, agriculture has been one of the most important variables that has influenced soil carbon storage. In the last 12,000 years since we’ve been doing agriculture, we’ve released about 120 billion metric tons of carbon that was in the top two meters of soil into the atmosphere. And the rate of loss has been considerably faster since the industrial revolution. So, there’s a global effort to think about how can we help store more carbon in soil by changing the management practices to allow the soil system to recover some of this lost carbon. There’s one effort that started in France, is now adopted globally called the four per mil initiative, which set an aspirational goal for the global soils to take up additional 0.4 percent carbon every year. And the idea here is that at the max level of this storage potential, soils can take up somewhere close to three billion metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere. Again, I want to emphasize that this is a theoretical potential, that depends on large-scale change in how we manage soil. And it requires that we reduce tillage in soil. We reduce the amount of fertilizers that we put in soil. We definitely reduce deforestation and put back trees whenever possible. We change our management style — in agricultural systems in particular — from one that relies on shallow-rooted annual plants to deeper-rooted perennial plants, grasses, and other plants that are known to be able to add additional carbon to soil at a relatively fast pace.
LEVITT: So, what you just described were efforts within the framework of agricultural lands to try to store more carbon as we go about producing food. Are there possible approaches whereby we might alter the chemistry of what’s going on to find ways, perhaps not on farmland, but on other lands, to sequester carbon much more efficiently in soil?
ASEFAW BERHE: Yeah, there are a number of practices that folks are working on that are able to enhance the rate at which soil can take up carbon to increase the rate of “carbon sequestration” — is the technical term that they use. And this include, for example, applying rock dust to soil. Rock dust that’s able to chemically absorb some CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in soil in forms that cannot be returned to the atmosphere fast. There are efforts to enhance the rate of plant productivity and associated carbon sequestration by applying things like compost and even human waste. So, compost, not just from, like, manure, but also from human municipal waste operations. There are a number of efforts that use biochar, for example. And also, there are many efforts to actually draw down CO2 from the atmosphere through engineered approaches. Deposit it and bury it deep underground under supercooled conditions in caves and mines and other things. So, there’s a number of things we’re doing to enhance the rate at which this happens, because we can’t just rely on reducing the emissions of fossil fuels. I want to be clear about the fact that the first thing we have to do is reduce the emissions of CO2 that we keep releasing into the atmosphere. And, at the same time, we have to be able to take some of that CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere and store it in ways that it’s not going to come back into the atmosphere very fast.
LEVITT: Let me ask you a kind of a crazier question. I had Jennifer Doudna on the podcast not too long ago, and she invented CRISPR. Are there research efforts trying to genetically modify plants to do a better job of absorbing carbon?
ASEFAW BERHE: Yeah, this is another very active area of research. In fact, I’m collaborating with a group of plant scientists and geneticists who are actively working on figuring out ways that we can make cultivated crops enhance their rooting systems but also reinforce their roots with compounds that are slightly harder for microbes to decompose. So, slow down the rate of breakdown of that carbon in soil to help with that condition.
LEVITT: I suppose tinkering with the microbes — maybe it’s a crazy idea, but it sounds like it might have a lot of leverage. Who knows about the unintended consequences.
ASEFAW BERHE: Yeah, there are folks who work on modifications to the microbial community by either tinkering with the nutrient availability, water availability, and even figuring out how we can bring in beneficial microbes that might help stabilize soil and store carbon in association with the minerals in forms that wouldn’t be easy for microbes to decompose. So, for example, adding fungi, which have the hyphae that is able to entangle minerals and organic matter together, creating stable aggregates that could store carbon in soil longer. Our challenge in many ways is to figure out how we can scale some of these technologies out of the lab, and figure out their potential to also be applied at even larger global scales.
LEVITT: Yeah. One of the points that John Doerr made when I had him on the show was that if we’re trying to pull carbon out of the atmosphere at some kind of scale, we’re talking about something on the order of magnitude of the current oil and gas and coal industry. It is a massive endeavor we’re talking about. And one that ultimately will require governments to play a really important role in. And I think some of the European governments have been more active, but the U.S. government, it seems, is the one that’s lagging and has to get its act together.
ASEFAW BERHE: I think what that recent I.P.C.C. report has made super clear is the fact that we’re running out of time.
At the end of this episode, we’re going to play a preview of the newest show from the Freakonomics Radio Network. And I make a guest appearance!
LEVITT: He has big, long legs, kind of reminds me of Scooby Doo a little bit.
It’s a show about dogs. And it’s hosted by Alexandra Horowitz who studies dog cognition.
HOROWITZ: For each episode, I’ve invited an interesting person, and their dog, on a walk.
So, stick around after the show. But first, the second half of my conversation with Asmeret Asefaw Berhe where we talk about the Eritrean civil war. Right after this short break.
* * *
LEVEY: Hey, Steve.
LEVITT: Hello, Morgan.
LEVEY: So, our listener Sean wrote in. He’s a physics teacher and his school district has a policy. All students get a chance to retake any test. The idea being that it encourages students to work towards mastery. So, if they don’t understand something the first time around, they have another chance to study, master the subject, and take a test. So, Sean offers a second test to students during their lunch break, a week after the original test. However, Sean says that many students don’t really take the first test seriously. They don’t study and they just wing it because they know they have a second chance to do better. Sean wants to know if there’s a better way to approach the retake so that students try harder the first time around and he’s not left with grading a bunch of extra tests. Do you think there’s a way to improve performance on the initial test?
LEVITT: Okay. I’m certainly sympathetic to Sean. So, he’s required to have this test and this retest, but maybe Sean could just mention offhandedly in class that he’s made the retest a whole lot harder than the initial test. And it doesn’t even necessarily have to be true. I think he’ll have a better chance getting the students to try hard if he gives them a reason to try hard. And harder retest would be exactly that kind of reason. Now, in some ways it violates the spirit of the rules that the school district has put in place. But the school district didn’t allow the retest with the idea that students would slack off. But of course, that’s human nature. We know they will. So, that might be the easiest path for Sean to get what he needs while still meeting the needs of the students as well.
LEVEY: What about almost doing the opposite? Well, maybe not that you made the first test easier than the second test, but you offered extra credit on the first test and you weren’t going to offer extra credit on the second test?
LEVITT: Oh, that’s better than my idea. So, what you’re saying is make the two tests equally hard, but only on the first test give extra credit questions. So, students know that — given that they’re going to put in the effort anyway, if they put it in on the first test they’re going to do better than if they put it on the second test. It’s the same idea as mine, but it’s better because mine is kinda mean-spirited, right? Mine is like, oh, if you don’t study, now, I’m going to punish you later. But yours is friendly. Sure, you get multiple tries. And on top of that, we’re even going to give you extra credit on the first try. So, I think that’s probably a safer and a better path for Sean than the one I suggested.
LEVEY: Well, good luck, Sean. And if you do implement either of our ideas, please write to us and let us know how it goes. We also want to thank you all for the great feedback you gave us over the last week — we’re digging through and will report back soon. If you have a question for us, our email address is email@example.com. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. It’s an acronym for our show. Steve and I read every email that is sent, and we look forward to reading yours.
* * *
I’d like to make the rest of my conversation with Asmeret a little more personal. She was born and raised in what is now the country of Eritrea, but at the time was a breakaway region of Ethiopia fighting a civil war for its independence. I’m so curious to learn about the path that led her to the top of her scientific field.
LEVITT: So, I have to admit you are the first person from Eritrea that I’ve ever met. And I know embarrassingly little about Eritrea. I do know there was a decades-long war for independence from Ethiopia. Did you literally grow up in a war zone?
ASEFAW BERHE: Yeah, so, I was born at a time, right before the last emperor of Ethiopia was overthrown. And that was also the time when the 30-year-long, armed struggle to free Eritrea from Ethiopian occupation was happening. So, literally, everything about my life — until age 16 — happened when there was an active war raging in the country.
LEVITT: And you grew up in the capital city, Asmara. Were there gunshots going off, or was that insulated from the fighting more generally?
ASEFAW BERHE: So, generally speaking, the fighting would happen in the countryside and a little bit further out of the city. And the city was under Ethiopian occupation. But from time to time, there would be all sorts of situations happening. Bombings in the city were not uncommon. And then, as we got closer to ’91, the war started getting closer because the independence fighters starting taking over more and more, area from the Ethiopian army. And so, the war kept getting closer to us. And that was at the time when I was finishing high school, actually. I finished high school less than two months before Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia. Especially last two years where the war got very close, life got tricky. Thankfully, that war was over in 1991, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it.
LEVITT: Did Eritrea have historical ties to Ethiopia? Or was the combined country just an artifact of colonial boundaries and politics?
ASEFAW BERHE: Eritrea was a former Italian colony for a long period of time, and multiple other colonial regimes before that. What happened, though, was when Italy got defeated in World War II, during the negotiations in the U.N., Eritrea, as one of Italy’s colonies, was given to England in a trusteeship. Because the U.N. decided that Eritrea cannot administer itself. This was against the will of the Eritrean people without any kind of consent. And so, that happened for 10 years, and afterwards, the British handed over the country to Ethiopia for a trial period and a federation that was supposed to only be temporary. But in 1961, the then-emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, decided that he’s going to merge Eritrea with Ethiopia and make Eritrea the 14th province of Ethiopia. And so, that’s when this launched into an armed struggle to liberate Eritrea from Ethiopia. And that war went on from 1961 to 1991. And then Eritrea became independent since then.
LEVITT: I think I remember reading after the end of the fighting, there was a referendum in Eritrea to decide whether to stay with Ethiopia or to break away. And the reason I remember it is because I think the vote was something like 98 or 99 percent to break with Ethiopia. And what’s so striking about that is, has there ever been an issue on which everybody agreed?
ASEFAW BERHE: Yeah, no, you’re right. In fact, that was a very, important part of Eritrean history and my family history. My dad was a lawyer by trade And he was one of the people who oversaw that whole referendum. And so, we had an up-close seat to observe what was going on. There were 30 years worth of heartache and 30 years worth of torture and suffering of people under the hands of an occupier that they never wanted to be merged with in the first place. So, I think in many ways, it’s not surprising that people united to express their vote and their voice against Ethiopian occupation or any merger with Ethiopia, because of the history, right? That 30-year prior was so hard for the people. And it basically stripped the country of any kind of development prospects. And as a result, it wasn’t hard to imagine at that time that people coming out of that situation would vote to just not be associated with a regime that caused them so much heartache.
LEVITT: So, in some sense, you’re saying it was the fighting that brought the unity. Because Eritrean is not an ethnicity, right?
ASEFAW BERHE: No. There are nine ethnic groups in Eritrea.
LEVITT: Which makes the agreement even more remarkable. That groups that probably had individual differences before the struggle began managed to really come together.
ASEFAW BERHE: When you read the historical texts and listen to what elders tell us, before the forced occupation, there were groups of Eritreans who were interested in merger with Ethiopia — through federation or other ways. But, obviously, almost all of that disappeared over the 30 years because of the shared suffering that the community experienced.
LEVITT: So, I had a cab driver a few weeks ago who had grown up in rural Libya. And to my great amazement, he had spoken Italian in the home with his grandparents. You didn’t speak Italian in Eritrea, did you?
ASEFAW BERHE: So, not me, but my parents and their generation, they speak Italian. They were rather young when Italy was defeated, but there’s still remnants of the influence of Italian colonization in Eritrean culture. In many ways, including the fact that we still eat excellent Italian cuisine in Eritrean places.
LEVITT: So, you came to the U.S. for graduate school. Had you been to the U.S. before?
ASEFAW BERHE: No. That was the first.
LEVITT: Was there a big culture shock when you got here?
ASEFAW BERHE: A little bit, but you know, in many ways, I knew what to expect, though, thanks to Hollywood, right? But obviously, living and watching it on T.V. is different.
LEVITT: What did you watch? I’m wondering what your model of America was based on T.V.?
ASEFAW BERHE: Oh, you will laugh about this. But one of the shows that we watched when I was younger was Dynasty.
LEVITT: Oh, yeah?
ASEFAW BERHE: So, I had a very interesting image of what Denver, Colorado, is about. And we loved listening to American music. We grew up with Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton and all of this kind of stuff.
LEVITT: So, I’ve known people who grew up in Africa who found the American concept of race, and the emphasis of race, unexpected when they arrived. Was that your experience or no?
ASEFAW BERHE: I mean, it’s different, right? My experience of what being Black means in the U.S. versus being Black in Africa is a very different thing. I grew up surrounded by everybody who looks like me and the unique ones were people who didn’t look like me. And so, it was a bit of a shock to come here and figure out that even in some of the most diverse parts of the country — that there’s this weird under-representation of certain groups. One of the things that, to this day, have shocked me is — I went to graduate school in the Bay Area in California, and in my first semester in my Ph.D. program, I was walking in the hallway where the department office was. And they used to put pictures of all the graduate students. I don’t know, something like 250 or so graduate students. And something in my brain registered that I was the only Black face in all of this list. And here I am, right next to Oakland, California. That was a very hard reality to reconcile. It stopped me in my tracks. Trying to get me to understand how in the world is this possible? How am I the only Black face, coming from halfway across the world, when there are all of these Black people that I know live in my neighborhood and everywhere else in the Bay Area?
LEVITT: Yeah. So, you’re Black, you’re female. You were born and raised, educated in Africa. All of these make you stand out in the sciences in the U.S. Have you felt welcomed? Felt hostility? Maybe both?
ASEFAW BERHE: The reality is that I’ve felt both. Thankfully, with most people, it’s pretty welcoming. Most people just mind their own business. But, obviously, every once in a while, it becomes a challenge. For all the things that you stated: I’m Black, I’m female, and I’m from Africa. This has meant that, under multiple circumstances, I encounter people who have made quick presumptions about what that means about my intelligence, capability, where I belong and don’t belong, and they have not been afraid to tell me and tell everyone around them about it either, including in public settings.
LEVITT: I’m curious — what do you do in a setting like that?
ASEFAW BERHE: What happened to me, and I think happens to most people — the first reaction is shock. You just can’t believe your ears. You’re wondering: “Did I just hear that right? Did I do something to instigate that? What is going on?” It takes time to process that. And in many cases, when this is happening, there’s also an important power difference that we have to consider. Where the people doing and saying these things have a lot more power and privilege in the systems that we’re operating in than the victims or the targets of that kind of action. And there have been multiple situations where I’ve pretended like I didn’t hear it, and tried to find a distraction at that point, because there was no way I was going to survive in that environment if I actually addressed it right there and said, “That’s wrong. You should not speak to me like that.” I’m at a different place in my career right now. I can do that, and I can say that. But I was fortunate in many cases to have been in the presence of others who realized that that’s wrong. And intervened in productive ways. And also, to make sure I know that the rest of the folks don’t think like that, which helps. It’s hard to give advice to people in terms of how to react other than to say, document it. And see if you can find somebody else with authority to deal with this kind of situation. But in many cases, I have to be conscious of the fact that the targets of these kinds of actions are not empowered to actually stand up for themselves in any kind of direct way.
LEVITT: Yeah, I’ve come to believe that academics is especially bad along
these dimensions because there’s so much autonomy. We are all, in some sense, our own bosses. Unlike in a business setting, where everyone in the business is, in some sense, part of the same team and at least is supposed to be working towards the same goals — a lot of bad behavior — bullying, craziness — is tolerated in academics because you have a lot of onlookers and nobody really in charge of policing the bad behavior.
ASEFAW BERHE: Yeah. I think you got it exactly right. So, one, we have these very dated master-apprenticeship type of models and how we work, where one person at the top has a lot of power over many students and early-career folks, which makes it really hard for the students and the other early-career scholars then to actually do or say anything if the person misbehaves. And we have very bad record on addressing issues of harassment and discrimination and bullying. In many cases, we kind of give people slap of the wrist, if you will, and move on. It’s only recently that we gotten very serious about realizing that harassment and discrimination and bullying actually should be considered academic misconduct because they prevent people from doing their work. We haven’t done a good job of disincentivizing bad behavior. We also haven’t done a good job of building fundamental expectations of how we treat one another. And unfortunately, that’s because of what we had tolerate historically, what we haven’t addressed historically, things that we don’t even openly talk about in many cases. It would have been unthinkable to come into a radio show like yours and talk about these issues 10, maybe even five years before today.
LEVITT: You mentioned before that your husband is also a soil scientist. So, would your children be soil experts if I ran into them on the street?
ASEFAW BEHRE: Yes, for sure. There’s always active conversations about soil in our household. Probably some of the early experiments they’ve done, even for themselves, had to do with soils. I mean, these two kids had no chance. They grew up in an environment where we’re constantly talking about soil science.
LEVITT: So, your husband is also Eritrean. And my wife is German, and she really struggles with the idea that our kids are growing up American. Does it bother you at all that your kids will likely see themselves as Americans rather than Eritreans?
ASEFAW BEHRE: I don’t know that it bothers me, but I would really like them to know both. At least know both pretty well. There’s a lot of really wonderful things in the Eritrean culture that I don’t want them to lose, even though they’re born and raised here. But we do our best, trying to make sure that they know and understand the culture.
LEVITT: And you also make sure they watch a lot of “Dynasty” and listen to Kenny Rogers, because those are important parts of Eritrean culture.
ASEFAW BEHRE: They’re not into that at all. But they know this, they know, especially with country music, that we grew up with that.
My only regret about our conversation is that we weren’t able to talk about the directorship at the Office of Science for which she’s nominated. It turns out nominees aren’t supposed to discuss either the confirmation process or their future job once confirmed. Of course, there’s nothing to stop me from talking about the process. Asmeret was nominated for her Department of Energy position in April of 2021. And she’s still not confirmed, more than a year later. And there isn’t even really any controversy surrounding her nomination. This is simply not how our government should function. It’s an embarrassment. If you want to learn more about Sadhguru, the motorcycle-riding yogi who’s trying to save the soil. Check out his web page. www.consciousplanet.org. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week. And don’t forget, after the credits, we’re going to play a preview of Off Leash, the newest podcast from the Freakonomics Radio Network. It covers everything you’ve ever wanted to know about your favorite pet.
People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. We had help on this episode from Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Gabriel Roth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Eleanor Osborne, Mary Diduch, Ryan Kelley, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
* * *
ASEFAW BERHE: Eritrea’s pretty close, but the correct way to say it is Eritrea.
LEVITT: Oh, well, okay.
- Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, professor of soil biogeochemistry at U.C. Merced.
- “U.N. Says Up to 40% of World’s Land Now Degraded,” by Fiona Harvey (The Guardian, 2022).
- “Will Fungi Solve the Carbon Dilemma?” by S. Emilia Hannula and Elly Morriën (Geoderma, 2022).
- “Sixth Assessment Report,” (I.P.C.C., 2022).
- “Scientists From Historically Excluded Groups Face a Hostile Obstacle Course,” by Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Rebecca T. Barnes, Meredith G. Hastings, Allison Mattheis, Blair Schneider, Billy M. Williams, and Erika Marín-Spiotta (Nature Geoscience, 2022).
- “How Microbes in Permafrost Could Trigger a Massive Carbon Bomb,” by Monique Brouillette (Nature, 2021).
- “How Adding Rock Dust to Soil Could Help Get Carbon into the Ground,” by Susan Cosier (Yale Environment 360, 2021).
- “Permafrost Carbon Feedbacks Threaten Global Climate Goals,” by Susan M. Natali John P. Holdren, Brendan M. Rogers, Rachael Treharne, Philip B. Duffy, Rafe Pomerance and Erin MacDonald (PNAS, 2021).
- “A Climate Change Solution That’s Right Under Our Feet,” by Asmeret Asefaw Berhe (TED, 2019).
- “Eritrea: The Independence Struggle and the Struggles of Independence,” by Terrence Lyons (Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2019).
- “Direct Air Carbon Capture and Sequestration: How It Works and How It Could Contribute to Climate-Change Mitigation,” by Ajay Gambhir and Massimo Tavoni (One Earth, 2019).
- “Soil and Human Security in the 21st Century,” by Ronald Amundson, Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Jan W. Hopmans, Carolyn Olsona, Ester Szteinand, and Donald L. Sparks (Science, 2015).
- “What Are Soils?” by Brian A. Needelman (Nature Education Knowledge, 2013).
- “Impact of Biochar Enriched with Dairy Manure Effluent on Carbon and Nitrogen Dynamics,” by Deoyani V. Sarkhot, Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, and Teamrat A. Ghezzehei (Journal of Environmental Quality, 2012).
- “Molecular Investigations Into a Globally Important Carbon Pool: Permafrost-Protected Carbon in Alaskan Soils,” by Mark P Waldrop, Richard Allen White III, Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, J. W. Harden, Vladimir E. Romanovsky, and K. P. Wickland (Global Change Biology, 2010).
- “Soil Erosion and Agricultural Sustainability,” by David R. Montgomery (PNAS, 2007).
- “A History of African Soil: Perceptions, Use and Abuse,” by Kate B. Showers (Soils and Societies: Perspectives From Environmental History, 2006).
- “Sadhguru – Saving Soil to Grow Better Crops,” by The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (2022).
- “We Can Play God Now,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “What Makes John Doerr Think He Can Save the Planet?” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “How Stupid Is Our Obsession With Lawns? (Replay),” by Freakonomics Radio (2021).
- Conscious Planet.
- The “4 per 1000” Initiative.