Chicken little forecast

Still Chugging Along

Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

World Energy, Student Loans, and Iran

Featuring Reza Aslan

Is the world’s energy situation as bad as we think? What’s going on with student debt relief? And why aren’t we paying more attention to Iran? We’re joined by Reza Aslan, leading expert in world religions, writer, and professor, to talk about the current, and former, Iranian struggles for freedom.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

[Audio Clip]

Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are having, in our season three, a series of conversations with people who are looking at the world through a different lens than the daily deluge of dystopian data. And that is all in the service of the sensibility that we bring to the world. The lens through which we view the world intimately shapes what we think about what’s going on and what we think is possible. And if we are all collectively mired in that despair or doomscrolling or Armageddon, it becomes harder and harder to see our way to a future that we want to create and not the future that we fear we are constructing. And today we’re gonna talk with somebody who has certainly been in the mix and been in the fray and had his own jousting with ideas he dislikes and people that he dislikes as well. But his most recent book is I think a bit of a step back and a look at the way the world might have been. Iran has been much in the news because of the protests there, this time led initially and largely by women protesting the kind of repressive social mores and sclerotic regime. And Reza Aslan, who we’ll talk to today, has been in the fray for the past 20 plus years. I’ve known him for a long time. He’s written a lot about Islam. He’s written a lot about relations between the United States and the Middle East, as well as a whole series of other things. And his most recent book where he looks at a time where at least one American worked with a series of Iranian revolutionaries to maybe change the arc of history at the beginning of the 20th century, which is obviously quite relevant at the beginning of the 21st. And then after we talk to Reza, Emma and I will look at some of the news of the week that may have gotten less attention that we think should have gotten more attention. Right, Emma?

Emma Varvaloucas (EV): That’s right.

ZK: So tell us about Reza.

EV: So Reza Aslan is a leading expert in world religions. He’s a writer, professor, and an Emmy and Peabody-nominated producer. He’s the winner of the prestigious James Joyce Award. And as Zachary mentioned, he’s the author of three internationally bestselling books, including the #1 New York Times Bestseller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. His producing credits include the HBO series, The Leftovers. He’s the co-host of the podcast Metaphysical Milkshake. And as Zachary mentioned, we’re gonna be talking to him a little bit about his new book and some other things today, which is called an American Martyr in Persia, which looks at the life of Howard Baskerville. He died fighting Iran’s constitutional revolution in the early 20th century.

ZK: So let’s talk to Reza, shall we?

EV: Reza, welcome to the podcast.

Reza Aslan (RA): Thank you. Thanks for having me.

EV: And we’re looking forward to reading your new book. Definitely, it’s coming out at a very interesting time when Iran is very much so in the news. I wonder, actually, if you could just give us a brief look at how you see what’s going on in Iran now, the uprisings that are going on. Is there something different here? Is there something particular that you are paying attention to that maybe others might not have heard in the media or elsewhere and just, yeah, give us your thoughts.

RA: Yeah, I mean, I can say with confidence, I’ve never seen anything like this. I lived through a revolution in Iran in ’79, and I’ve been watching Iran over the last four and a half decades, where we’ve seen countless uprisings and demonstrations, not just sort of the the big massive ones that we remember from 2009 and 2019, but even actually in the last six or eight months, there had been pretty large scale protests that were taking place across Iran. Factory workers, farm workers, retirees, schoolchildren, people would come out to protests the government’s handling of the deteriorating economic condition. But the death of the Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa Jina Amini a little more than a month ago now has lit a kind of fuse in that country that I’ve never seen before. Partly it has to do with the fact that Gen Z, who is really leading this revolution, seems to have a completely different relationship with the government. They’re not interested in any kind of conversations about reform or changes. They are united in the call for the end of this regime. Partly, it has to do with the fact that this is clearly a feminist uprising. It’s being led by women, sparked by women, and, you know, women, despite what I think a lot of outsiders think about Iran, which of course has, like, you know, disgusting gender inequality, women have always been at the forefront of the major movements in Iran, the major revolutions in Iran going back more than a century. And partly I just think that it’s this feeling of utter desperation. You know, when you talk to the people on the streets in Iran, they are willing to see this to the very, very end. They don’t see any kind of hope, as I say, or compromise. They really and truly believe that this fight either ends with the end of the regime or with their deaths, and they’re willing to go that far. And at the same time, the regime itself is absolutely uncompromising in its response. So we have these two forces, neither of which are willing to give an inch, and both of them seem to be really hunkering down, you know, for a long, long conflict. And that’s really how these revolutions go. I always remind people that the 1979 revolution started in 1977. You know, we’re barely two months into this conflict, and I think it’s gonna get much, much worse. But I do, at the same time, feel more optimistic and more hopeful than ever, that this regime will finally fall and that Iran will finally be free.

Audio Clip: Protests have been sweeping across Iran since September when a 22-year-old died in the custody of the country’s morality police. Now demonstrators are calling for regime change, posing one of the biggest challenges to the republic’s clerical leadership since the Iranian revolution in 1979.

ZK: You know, we talked about this a little bit in one of our earlier episodes about Russia. The thing about authoritarian regimes, right, is that they seem absolutely inviable and permanent until the moment that they disintegrate.

RA: Right.

ZK: Right? And I think the challenge of Iran over the past 10 years is there have been each of these kind of moments where you thought something was gonna give around the time of the Arab Spring with [inaudible]. You know, there’s been a whole false starts that the regime has done very well. I mean, if you’re part of the regime, they’ve done a good job for stalling change,-

RA: Mm-hmm.

ZK: -right? And I think that’s kind of an open question. I’m fascinated that you chose the topic you chose, and part of it is, I’m acutely aware of kind of your own career arc and certainly this book about Howard Baskerville and 1907 and 1909 in Iran is– you know, it’s less overtly polemical than some of what you’ve done over the past decade plus. I’m just curious what the genesis was. Is this a story you’ve wanted to tell and other things interceded, and now is the time to tell it? In the normal arc of your own life, are you sort of also taking a step back and looking at what could have been, and not just what is? So where did this come from?

RA: Yeah, it’s a lot of those things. Yeah. This is a story that I’ve known pretty much all my life and a story that I’ve wanted to tell. It was difficult because it’s been 115 years, and there really wasn’t that much information about Howard Baskerville. You know, basically what people, people knew about him, what few people who had ever written about him has all pretty much been the same. He was a 22-year-old Christian missionary from Nebraska. He went to Iran, back then it was known as Persia, in 1907 in order to teach and preach the gospel and he ended up fighting and dying in Iran’s first revolution against the Shah. And that’s pretty much it [laughs]. And so even when I took on the task of writing this book, I have to be honest, I was very nervous about how little information there was. I thought, am I writing a pamphlet? Is that what’s happening here?

EV: [Laughs].

RA: But I really did get lucky in that I found a treasure trove of information in Persian sources and in Russian sources. The Russians obviously had a very important role to play in Iran at the time, and then also in the Presbyterian historical archives. And for the first time, you know, this historical character who had been really only known by these few actions that he took at the end of his life became a three-dimensional person. And I was able to really place him in this incredibly dramatic time and place, the first Democratic revolution in the Middle East. And the story that came out of it, I think the thing that was most surprising is how resonant it is with today at a time, not just in which we have, you know, young Iranians on the street yet again clamoring for the same rights that Baskerville died trying to defend, you know, a century ago, but also in the fact that, you know, we’re at a time in which democracy is in retreat around the world, where the very idea of democracy promotion will get you laughed out of the room, [laughs], you know, we’re not all that fond of democracy in the United States anymore, let alone, you know, democracy elsewhere. And yet, here’s this 22-year-old kid, right, who, a century ago, had a belief in the idea of democracy, the notion that people should be free to have a say in the decisions that rule their lives, that he was willing to die for it and die for someone else’s democracy. Right? Not even for his own. It was such an inspiring story, and it always has been an inspiring story. But now more than ever, I just think about where we are in the world and what Howard Baskerville says about, you know, the current situation in which we find ourselves.

ZK: You talk in the book about there’s a statue of Baskerville in Tabriz today, right?

RA: Yeah. Yeah. There’s a tomb and kinda this beautiful golden bust of him.

ZK: What was touching about that was you have this kind of mutual animosity society between the regime in Iran and the right, and to some degree a lot of the American foreign policy establishment, the Iranians demonized the United States as the great Satan and, you know, death to America, not death to Americans per se, but death to America as a–

RA: Mm-hmm.

ZK: And we kind of make Iran into this existential, oh my God, they’re gonna, you know, use nuclear weapons or whatever it is, or they’re a theocracy, which they are. And yet, even with the revolution, you have this American in Tabriz, I mean, a historical figure that’s still honored. And I think it’s a way of pointing to there’s this kind of top-line narrative, you know, we all hate each other, [laughs], and then there’s this lived reality, which is much more embracive and accepting and complicated.

RA: Yeah. I mean, look, anyone who’s been to Iran will tell you that it’s probably the most pro-American population, certainly in the Middle East, maybe even the world. Partly that has to do with the fact that the government, the Iranian government, which the people almost universally loathe, you know, sees America as its primary opponent. And so as a result of that, Iranians have come to love [laughs] American culture and music and TV and movies and books and all of those things. Certainly, you know, they’re very clear-eyed about American foreign policy and the disaster that it has brought, not just in the wider Middle East, but specifically in Iran, but they have the ability to make the distinction between the government and the people in a way that we in America aren’t as good at, I would have to say. But even in the run up to the 1979 revolution, it was fascinating that there were all these calls by Iranian revolutionaries and activists for a new generation of Baskervilles. You would hear this all the time, where are the Baskervilles of today? Even then, you know, 70 years after his death, there was still this legacy that represented what America is supposed to stand for, right, the values and the morals that it kind of ascribes to itself but rarely puts in play when it comes to foreign policy. Now, I will say, I do think it is important to note that really since 1979, his memory has pretty much faded in Iran. I mean, I’d say it’s difficult to find anyone under the age of 50 who knows who Howard Baskerville is. My friends in Iran tell me that there’s like a chain of very popular coffee shops in Tehran called Baskerville. But I can’t imagine anybody who is in there sipping lattes knows anything about the person who this coffee shop is named after.

EV: Oh, it must strike them as like a– you know, how did this name come about? You know, –

RA: Right.

EV: -someone sitting in there one day, huh? [laughs].

RA: Yeah, Baskerville, that sounds interesting. So, you know, his name is still there, and certainly in Tabriz, obviously, the city in which he’s buried and the city in which he lived, there’s a fonder memory of him. That was one of my goals, was to resurrect his memory in Iran to remind Iranians of what America actually can be when we actually, you know, put our ideas and our beliefs into practice. And then also to remind, and also to sort of– I mean, you know, he’s been forgotten in Iran, but he was never remembered in America to begin with. And that’s the other thing too, is to make sure that Americans understood who this kid was and why his story needs to be told.

EV: Yeah, Reza, exactly on that point, can you give us just, you know, a brief history lesson here? ‘Cause I imagine a lot of people listening– I mean, so, you know, especially if you’re Iranian you don’t even know, maybe, but especially people–

RA: [Laughs].

EV: For people listening, what was going on in Persia at the time that Baskerville was there?

RA: So in 1905, a band of young revolutionaries poured out into the streets of Tehran. They were backed by business interests and by the clerical establishment. And they demanded a constitution, a document that would outline the rights and privileges of all citizens in the country, and the creation of a parliament, an elected body that would have the ability to pass legislation and to curb the unchecked authority of the Shah. It took a couple of years of, you know, strikes and protests and bloodshed, but they finally achieved both those goals. The Shah of Iran allowed for an elected parliament and for a constitution, a very progressive document, in fact. But then the Shah died, and his son, who was [inaudible] at, you know, the idea that what he viewed as his God-given authority could be curbed, declared war on the Constitutionalists. And the revolution descended into a civil war, one that the Shah, with his Russian-trained, Russian-armed, Russian-funded, and Russian-commanded military easily began to win. And in fact, by the end of 1907, the beginning of 1908, the Shah had regained control of every city in Iran except for Tabriz, which became the kind of last bastion of the revolutionaries, where the revolutionaries made their last stand. And this was when, you know, suddenly this 22-year-old Christian missionary from Nebraska showed up [laughs], and he had been sent there by the Presbyterian Church to teach English and history, and obviously to preach the gospel. And he almost immediately became immersed in this revolutionary movement. And it’s not hard to figure out why he did. I mean, you know, this was an incredibly exciting moment. This was at the time, the most robust anti-imperialist revolution. And in fact, it had drawn in revolutionaries from all over the world that were Russians, and Georgians, and Armenians, and Turks, Jews, and Christians, and Zoroastrians, and Baháʼís, and Buddhists. It was this incredible multi-religious, multiethnic, multinational revolutionary force that had come together to fight for the freedom of Iran against the Shah. And it took a while. And, you know, he was repeatedly told by the school where he taught and the church that sent him there and the US government, that he was to have nothing to do with this fight, but the devastation of the city, the suffering of the people, the oppression of this Shah began to just weigh on him. And in 1909, after about a year and a half of being there and trying his best to kind of put his head down and ignore what was going on, he quit his teaching job, gave up his missionary post, ultimately abandoned his American citizenship, and joined the revolution, and ended up dying in a fight to free the city from the Shah’s blockade and bring food to the city. But his death really galvanized the revolutionaries. It became kind of an international embarrassment that allowed the revolutionaries the opportunity to actually break through the siege and march on Tehran and send the Shah into exile and reestablish the constitution, rebuild the parliament, hold new elections. And one of the very first acts of that parliament was to declare this, you know, young Christian missionary from the Midwest to be a national hero, a martyr in the cause of Iranian freedom. And, you know, Iran, for a very brief time, a constitutional monarchy. And then the first World War happened. The devastation of that conflict and the post-war chaos and economic destruction would pave the way for a military coup, which then resulted in a new Iranian dynasty, the Pahlavi dynasty, which, for people who are familiar with modern Iran, that’s the dynasty that was ultimately overthrown in 1979 that led to the Islamic Republic that we now know.

ZK: So, can I get a little historical wonky question in a moment, which is-

RA: Yeah.

EV: [Laughs]

ZK: -you know, from like 1900 to about 1920, there’s a series of constitutional movements throughout countries that are either controlled by European countries or threatened by them. So you have that in Turkey, you have it with the– you know, with the young Turks, or the young Ottomans before the young Turks,-

RA: Mm-hmm.

ZK: -you have it in Egypt with the Wafd party, you have it in Vietnam or what was then Indochina–

RA: China, Mexico, you forgot Russia, even, [laughs] you know, Russia,-

ZK: Right. Russia-

RA: -everywhere.

ZK: -prior to the 1917 revolution,-

RA: Yeah.

ZK: -almost all of which end badly, right? I don’t think a single-

RA: Yeah.

ZK: -one of those becomes a constitutional democracy or even something anywhere close. They’re usually repressed, they’re some version of what happened in Iran. What do you think explains that? Like why was there this sort of interrupted, you know, path that seemed very promising in a lot of the world, and then by the 1920s is been violently set back?

RA: Well, the easy answer is the war to end all wars [laughs]. Like, that’s the easy answer, right? I mean, I think sometimes we forget the earth-shattering devastation of that war and what it left behind in, you know, large parts of the globe, and the instability that arose out of that, you know, that global conflict. But the longer and more complex answer, the more wonky answer, if you will, is that constitutionalism, which was a very new idea at the time, was very hard to kind of define in any kind of, you know, universal way, right? It meant different things to different people. For some, it meant popular sovereignty and elected, you know, bodies that could make legislation. But for others, it meant freedom from foreign interference. For others, it meant, you know, upward economic mobility. For some, it meant just, you know, equitable taxation. And on the one hand, the fact that it was such a malleable term was part of its strength, right? It could mean many things to different people, and so people were able to kind of unite together across cultural lines, across political lines, economic lines, and unite under a common cause: constitutionalism. On the other hand, [laughs], when you actually achieve that goal, then suddenly all of these disparate groups with different ideas about what was to come out of this revolutionary fight all get a voice. And the result is, as we’ve come to realize when it comes to, you know, democratic societies, gridlock, [laughs], you know, you’re just kind of frozen in place. And when you think about the response that was necessary in the post-war period, gridlock was the last thing that people needed. This was certainly the case in Iran. You know, there was a humanitarian crisis that was taking place in that country, and one in which the parliament, with its infighting and its, you know, political fractures, just simply couldn’t respond to, and that paved the way for a strong man to come in and basically get rid of the elected body and return the country back to autocracy. So I think it’s a combination of both, but it’s really hard to ignore what World War I did to populations around the world.

ZK: I think that’s a great point. And then it raises the question a hundred and, you know, three years later, right after the end of World War I, history rhymes. You know, it doesn’t repeat itself in trying to find the perfect pattern to apply to the present as a fool’s errand. But does that legacy of the past make you more concerned about our arc in the present? You know, it’s nice to think, and I certainly am a card-carrying member of those who think the following, that history is kind of a back and forth contest between our incredible ability to create and our unbelievable capacity to destroy, but at least we’re having the conversation, which means-

RA: [Laughs].

ZK: -the creative part of it’s narrowly inched out the destructive part of it. But, you know, past performance is-

RA: [inaudible].

ZK: -no guarantee of the future.

RA: Yeah.

ZK: So like where does this make you stand? Or does it not, you know, per se, make you stand anywhere different than you did? Does it make you more hopeful, less hopeful, about the same?

RA: I mean, look, it is, when you look at the history that we just discussed, and you look at the present moment, a moment of existential crisis, [laughs], right? And you try to think about the way in which democratic societies have responded to this crisis. And you see, you know, what’s happening in the United States with two thirds of Americans now saying that American democracy is under immediate threat of total disintegration. Yeah, it’s very hard to be positive. It’s very hard not to be afraid that we are, as you rightly say, about to approach one of these moments of contraction, if you will. And that’s certainly happening around the world. It’s not just here in the United States. You know, the pollsters tell us that democracy is in a situation that it hasn’t been since before the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the same time, I do think that– and maybe it’s misplaced, but I have a sense of hope in this younger generation that seems sort of unconcerned with the conflicts and, you know, the divides that, you know, our generation [laughs] has been so obsessed with that has led to, you know, the situation in which we’re in now. And this is especially true when it comes to the climate catastrophe that we’re all facing. I just feel like when I look at this younger generation, Gen Z, and when I see the way that they have responded to a planet on fire, and, you know, civilization on the brink, it gives me some hope that perhaps they can kind of save us all. Right? Like we’ve basically done a good job of getting them to the point of you know, extinction, and maybe, maybe their determination can kind of bring us out of it. It’s the same hope that I was talking about, about Iran, right? It’s that, yeah, there’s been four generations of failed attempts to change this regime, to reform it. I was part of that fight, you know, in the early 2000s, trying to reform the Islamic Republic. And this generation has made it absolutely abundantly clear they are not interested in reform. They don’t care about reform. They don’t want more rights. That’s not what this fight is for. This fight is for burning the entire thing down and starting all over again. And, you know, we may think that that’s unlikely, but I have to say, it’s inspiring in a way that I think all of the struggles and attempts of my generation to make changes, to make life a little bit better, to improve the situation slightly, you know, make the situation for Iranians just a little more free, that that has been a complete disaster. So, yeah, maybe it is time to burn the whole thing down and start over again.

EV: Yeah. No compromises from Gen Z.

RA: Mm-hmm.

EV: I don’t know, I just can’t get over this. Maybe one day I will, but for now, I’m still stuck on this, that the first time that I heard the news about the protests in Iran was on TikTok. And there’s this weird sense, like it wasn’t in, you know, on NBC or something. And then there’s this weird sense of like, oh yeah, you guys are on TikTok too, you know.

RA: [Laughs] yeah.

EV: And for me, it just brings up this whole conversation we’ve been having about Baskerville who did something pretty unusual in that he had one identity that was sort of given to him, and he went and sort of chose to pick up other people’s identity and incorporate that into his. And I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about those kinds of issues of identity, of belonging to two places at once. You know, people end up doing that in all kinds of different ways, and I know you have personal experience with that. So-

RA: Yeah.

EV: -I would just love to hear your thoughts on that.

RA: Yeah. In fact, you know, there’s this kind of incredible moment at the end of his life where the American consul general in Tabriz tries one last time, right? They’ve been trying for a while now, but one last time to dissuade him from joining this revolution. And he meets him kind of in the training field where, you know, they’re all preparing for battle. And he says to Baskerville, in no uncertain terms, this is not your fight. These are not your people. This is not your country. You need to desist from your activities, get back on a ship, and go home. And Baskerville kind of looks at this multi-faith, multi-religious, multi-national coalition of revolutionaries, all of them ready to die for the freedom of this country. And he says, the only difference between me and these people is the place of my birth. And that is not a very big difference. And it’s astonishing to me, that insight, you know, more than a century ago, that nationality, ethnicity, you know, culture, religion, language, these are just these false divides, right? They’re these sort of external identities that we use to create in-groups and out-groups. And that the fact of the matter is that underneath all of those things, those sort of fabricated identities, we all pretty much want the same thing, right? We wanna be free and prosperous, and we have the same aspirations and the same dreams, that there isn’t that much that separates us. And to your point, I think that that’s kind of really what’s been remarkable about the response of the rest of the world to the conflict in Iran. The media has done an absolutely awful job of covering what is now, I think, hard to deny a fourth revolution taking place in Iran. And, you know, they’ve got their own issues and reasons why, but it has been now because of social media, Instagram, TikTok, a little bit, you know, of Twitter that we know what’s going on. That’s how I know what’s going on. That’s how I follow, you know, the events. I’m not turning on the news to figure out what’s going on ’cause it’s not there. And I think what we’re witnessing now and what the sort of this bond is, the reason that we are so kind of glued to these dramatic images is because underneath the different culture and different religion and different nationality, we recognize this desperation that we are sensing, especially from Iranian women, right? Iran isn’t the only country in the world that uses women’s bodies, you know, as a canvas to kind of paint their own sense of morality on it. We mean, certainly we’re doing that here in the United States, and when you strip away all those, you know, identity markers, it’s really hard not to see yourself, you know, in the young men and women on the streets of Iran fighting for, you know, their most basic rights. You know, what I was saying earlier, that little did I know how resonant [laughs], you know, Baskerville’s story would be right now. That to me is kind of the biggest part of it, is that ability to strip yourself of the prejudice of your nationality and the bigotry of your creeds, as the Tabrizi said, and to just recognize the humanity that binds us all together.

ZK: That’s a great note to end the conversation on, or at least to end this particular chapter of this particular conversation, given that clearly, we’re gonna keep having it, and none of us know how this current wave is going to crest or endor what its endpoint’s gonna be. Hopefully, this fourth time will be the time when things actually do change, but right now, we’re in that who knows moment. I do wanna thank you for the book and the message, and you’ve had a fascinating career arc to date. I’m sure it will be equally so over the next X number of years. And I look forward to continuing the conversations with you as that happens.

RA: Thank you, guys. Thanks for the time. I really enjoyed it.

EV: Thank you.

ZK: Wow. That was a intense, and in many ways I found, moving conversation. You know, there’s something about that reflection on stalled moments in the past and potential moments in the present. And truly, we may be looking back at this conversation and this moment as yet another, if not tragic, then total failed attempt to change a really problematic regime. But it was, I think, moving to hear him talk about what he had learned from an earlier moment in 1907 to 1909 and where that stands now.

EV: Yeah. I mean, the message, you know, out from underneath all of the history, is so powerful, and I’m so happy that he shared that particular quote from Baskerville, “The only difference between me and these people is the place of my birth, and that is not a big difference.” because, you know, reading the book, it made me tear up, running it down, you know, made me tear up, saying it again now, and I’m like starting to tear up, and [laughs] maybe I’m a sap, but I think it just, those simple things are so powerful.

ZK: No, you should never stop being that sap that kind of–

EV: [Laughs].

ZK: Seriously, that sort of emotional empathetic reaction to something deep and profound is vital. Like, without that, you’re in that, you know, sea of cynicism. It’s only when that can really affect you emotionally in a good way, you know, not the outrage part, but the empathy part, that we can see our common humanity and navigate our way forward accordingly.

EV: Yeah, with an open heart. But also, I’m not crying. You’re crying. [laughs]

ZK: [laughs]. All right. Let’s turn to the news of the week. We’ll go-

EV: All right.

ZK: -from looking back at the past to plunging ourselves into the present.

EV: The good old present. Let’s go. Okay. So I have I think a really good first one. It has to do with climate change and the environment. Everyone’s just kind of used to pretty disastrous news around that. But the International Energy Agency just came out with new numbers for 2022 and the rise in carbon dioxide emissions. 2021 saw a 2 billion ton rise in carbon dioxide emissions and we were expecting even more than that in 2022, but we are actually are only going up 300 million tons 2022. We only went up 300 million as opposed to 2 billion the year before.

ZK: Yeah, I mean, I’m not gonna pretend offhand to know exactly what those tons mean in lay terms-

EV: Mm-hmm.

ZK: -even though I feel like I should know exactly what they mean in lay terms. But I do get, I think, that one-seventh of the expected amount is probably a good thing.

EV: Yes. But even the rise that we had in 2022 was a lot to do with the Ukrainian war and the, you know, crisis in Europe having to revert to coal and natural gas, so it would’ve been even lower if not for, you know, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

ZK: So now we can just blame climate change on Putin, right?

EV: Indeed.

ZK: Like a grab bag.

EV: [Laughs].

ZK: Anything bad that is going on in the world, shall henceforth be the responsibility of Vladimir Putin.

EV: [Laughs] I’m down for that.

ZK: So be it resolved. No, seriously, I think one thing that a lot of people have been missing, including in, what should we call it, the climate activist community, and we’re soon gonna come up on the the COP Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in the coming weeks, the next global climate conclave, of which there have been a series over the past 10 plus years, last time in Edinburgh. And there’s always been a tension in that world of if you take the foot off the pedal of urgency and point out progress, maybe people will then relax and not dedicate the energy they need to, to changing the way we utilize resources or don’t utilize resources. And that being said, I think it’s also really important to note where change and progress has been made and not simply focus relentlessly on all the work that remains to be done and what the, you know, incredibly deleterious consequences might be if that work isn’t done.

EV: Right. And to know that all this, you know, stuff that we’ve done pretty recently to try to go after climate change is actually working.

ZK: Right.

EV: The other, you know, big number from the International Energy Agency was that we’re hitting a new record of solar and wind production. I have a feeling that we’re gonna be hitting “new records” of solar and wind production for quite a few years because it’s just ramping up. But they estimated that the ramp up of solar and wind production avoided– and again, a number, but if you can compare the numbers against one another, you’ll see the point. It avoided 600 million tons of carbon emissions. So we went up 300 million tons and we avoided an additional 600 million from the ramp up of solar and wind. So there are things happening out there.

ZK: Absolutely. And you know, as someone like Andy McAfee, who’s a member of The Progress Network has pointed out, the more affluent societies become, oddly the– there’s sort of a– energy intensive resource consumption rises really steeply when you go from sort of low middle income to upper middle income. But once you reach that upper middle income, it starts leveling off and decreasing. So while it’s certainly true that Europe and the United States in particular are responsible for a massive amount of climate emissions as affluent societies, you know, relative to Sub-Saharan Africa or parts of Asia, once you reach that sort of plateau of development, your energy intensiveness and your resource intensiveness, as you become more digital, as you become more urban, as all these things happen, it actually starts to decrease.

EV: And a lot of people don’t know, including many countries in Europe and the US, that carbon emissions have been dropping for like 20 years.

ZK: Right.

EV: The reason why globally the carbon emissions keep going up is because that there are these developing economies that are trying to play catch up here and are building, building, building, you know, including places like China and India and those really big major players.

ZK: Which continually say to the, you know, the developed countries, hey, wait a minute, you can’t tell us that we don’t get to-

EV: Right.

ZK: -share in the same level of kind of material affluence that you have just because you’ve already expended the planet’s carbon budget.

EV: Okay, so let’s leave the climate for now and go to something that is sort of– it’s kind of funny to say close to my heart, but it’s close to my heart as a birth control taking woman now living in Europe where you can get birth control over the counter. I think a lot of people will know that the US is sort of an outlier in that, that you need to get a prescription for birth control. And certainly now with the rollback of Roe v. Wade it’s becoming even more [inaudible] to take that step to have birth control over the counter, and we might have it for the first time soon. FDA advisors are meeting in the middle of November to make a recommendation if this one particular birth control pill will be prescription or over the counter.

Audio Clip: Opill is a non-estrogen contraceptive women can take once a day to prevent pregnancy. Right now, it must be prescribed, but Perrigo has submitted the drug for over the counter approval. Now, if approved, Opill will be the first daily birth control pill available over the counter. Perrigo said the FDA postponed the meeting so it could review additional information related to the potential move.

ZK: The downside of that upside is it takes the FDA forever to move on these things. There was a recent item in the news, I think you mentioned it at one point, of over the counter hearing aids finally being offered-

EV: Mm.

ZK: -given that you needed a prescription and they would cost, you know, $5,000, $7,000 and you’d have to go get tuned up. And now the technology is there to just kind of buy them and set them up on your computer by yourself. But it took the FDA five years from the time that this bipartisan bill was passed, partly by Elizabeth Warren, but also with huge Republican support, between the time that bill was passed and the time the FDA actually authorized it in August of 2022. So part of this is a call for quicker action on the part of the FDA. I don’t know where they are with the over-the-counter birth control.

EV: Yeah. I think that they’re expecting a decision in 2023, and I think that has to do with the fact that the pill is supposed to be coming to market then. So they’re moving faster than usual. But it’s also, [laughs] like you said, kind of who knows what’s gonna happen between now and then. And of course, there’s the additional special USA hurdle that even if the FDA advises and decides that they can do this over the counter, federal law doesn’t require insurance to cover-

ZK: Right.

EV: -birth control over the counter. Yeah.

ZK: Right. A whole other–

EV: Only 13 states do.

ZK: A whole other issue.

EV: Mm-hmm.

ZK: Same thing with the hearing aids.

EV: Mm.

ZK: So, you know, that’s sort of a step forward, but with the asterisks of we still have an incredibly challenging bureaucracy that doesn’t move nearly as quickly as the need of humans. We’ll leave a lot of people on the lurch in the midterm. Things are clearly moving in the right direction.

EV: Moving on, let’s talk about, you know, something that’s fresh, hotly debated, and that I don’t think we’ve talked about yet, which is student loans. So of course right now, you know, the whole Biden program for $10,000 of relief for Pell grantees is on hold because of a, you know, court challenge.

Audio Clip: This morning, the financial future of millions of borrowers in limbo.

The President’s going to do everything that he can to make sure that we get this done.

The Justice Department filing a response last night trying to reverse an Appeals Court’s temporary stay, which halted President Biden’s plan to slash student loan debt. The court sided with six Republican-led states who argue the president is overstepping his authority.

It is a temporary court order, as you all know, and I’ve talked about this earlier, the Eighth Circuit’s temporary order does not prevent bars from applying for student debt relief at so people should go there, again, and we encourage eligible borrowers to join the millions of Americans who have already applied.

EV: But there is a sort of a strange success story that I saw that I really appreciated, which is that the website that the government set up to apply for this student loan relief was really simple and really good. So, you know, this New York Times article had the comparison that the first day that Obamacare was launched, there were six people who successfully got through that process on the Obamacare website, and that’s in contrast to the 22 million people that successfully negotiated the student loan website on the first week that it was open.

ZK: So I will say, as appealing as a lot of the student loan relief is, I mean, there is a lot of legitimate questions that could be asked about it. You know, meaning-

EV: Yep.

ZK: -what about students who paid back their loans? You know, they’re not getting credits for the money they spent. What about people who didn’t go to college ’cause they didn’t wanna incur those loans because they didn’t assume that they were gonna be forgiven? I just think in the rush to celebrate this as a needed relief of a lot of really ridiculous debt burdens, it was done, I think more for electoral gain than really carefully crafted policy.

EV: Yeah. So I probably should have caveated this whole thing, which was let’s celebrate the successful technology of the thing and not necessarily be for or against the student loan program itself. I am sympathetic to the view that, like, I’m not even sure if the program is legal, and I am also sympathetic to the view that I think it casts too wide of a net. Like I know people who are gonna get– well, if the relief goes through, I know people who are gonna get it and it’s gonna be super helpful to them. I also know people who are like, yes, you know, gimme that cash and like they really don’t need it. My biggest bugaboo about this whole thing is that I don’t really think it’s gonna fix, you know, the college system in the States, which is really the thing that needs to be fixed.

ZK: Absolutely.

EV: There is one, you know, sort of little story around this, which I think that everybody can get behind, which is that they amended a little bit the rules around the public service loan forgiveness program. This is another student loan news, but definitely one that’s gotten submerged in other bigger news. It used to be a really sort of intense qualifications. You know, if you made a payment that was a few cents short or a few days late, they would basically knock you outta the program, even let’s say if you had cancer, and this is a program where if you’re a nonprofit or a government worker, if you pay for 10 years your student loans, the government will release you from your remaining loan balance at the end. So apparently, it was like a very easy program to mess up if you’re, part of it and they’ve made some adjustments now, which means that more people are gonna be able to get what they’re supposed to be getting out of that.

ZK: That would be good, you know, particularly for professional degrees for public service, right? So if you go to a law school which give very little financial aid, that’s where you often see these egregious debt balances, although, again, if you’re gonna go into corporate law, you’re likely to be able to manage that debt load. If you’re gonna become a public defender, you can’t. And so it’s differentiating between if you’ve got $150,000 in law school loans and you wanna be a public servant with that legal aid, aid for immigrant, you know, you name it, it doesn’t add up unless you have money on the side. So, again, distinguishing between need, I think that’s what we alluded to before with the program. It’s a very broad brush. There’s a lot of specific areas that need remediation. That doesn’t mean the entire thing needs loan forgiveness, but again, controversial. I’m sure a lot of people disagree and it’s worth continuing that particular conversation.

EV: Yep. And people can let us know if you wanna hear that conversation. Our inbox is open. So we have one more little piece of news just to follow up on our marijuana beat since [laughs] we’ve been hitting it a couple times and–

ZK: We’ve been hitting it, huh? Yeah [laughs].

EV: [Laughs] We’ve been hitting or we’ve been talking, you know, here and there. Germany is planning to legalize recreational cannabis in 2024, which would make them– only Malta so far in the EU has totally legalized it. This plan from Germany goes further even than the Netherlands. And to be honest, I wasn’t expecting that from Germany. So there you go.

ZK: And how does that compare to state legalization in the US, about the same? Meaning Germany will be nationally equivalent to Colorado?

EV: Yes. I believe that that’s the case. I have to look at the specifics. I know, for example, that Germany will allow three at-home cannabis plants per adult, for instance. I don’t know what you’re allowed to do in Colorado, you know, for cannabis plants.

ZK: But I think more important, which we talked about with Senator Hertzberg, the banking part, meaning making it a legal business, which it still is not-

EV: Yes.

ZK: -at a federal level in the United States. And that creates all sorts of problems for distribution. You can’t sell across state boundaries, you can’t use banks. I mean it’s, it’s legal-ish in the United States.

EV: Yes. So Germany it’s gonna be full-fledged legal business and they’re also maybe looking into laws around regulating the intensity of the THC for under 21 year olds. So that was the other thing that we had brought up as a-

ZK: Oh.

EV: -potential caveat before.

ZK: That’s good.

EV: Yeah. So the Germans are on it.

ZK: Das smoke.

EV: [Laughs] Das smoke. So that’s all for today.

ZK: On that high note, [laughs]-

EV: [Laughs].

ZK: -we–

EV: The puns. The puns.

ZK: Oh, they’re just coming fast and loose. We will, I hope, join you all next week or rather we will join, but I hope you join us next week and listen to some of the episodes you may not have and check out the What Could Go Right? newsletter, which is part of The Progress Network and is weekly and is free. But you have to go onto and sign up for it. And check out our new TikTok.

EV: Progressntwrk, so network without the vowels.

ZK: Yeah. So we are Progress Network without the vowels, well Progress has the vowels, Network doesn’t. And you can see Emma do her TikToks.

EV: That’s right. [laughs]. For better or for worse.

ZK: [Laughs]. Thank you all. We’ll talk to you next week.

EV: Thank you. What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Our editor is Jordan Aaron. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to sign up for the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit


Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas


Progress and Backlash

Featuring Fareed Zakaria

When we hear the word ‘revolution,’ we often think of the bloody conflicts of the past. But what constitutes a modern-day revolution within our current economic system and forms of government? Both parties within American politics have seen cultural revolutions and shifting value sets with each decade. Zachary and Emma discuss these changes with CNN host, journalist, and author Fareed Zakaria. His latest book, ‘Age of Revolutions,’ explores past and present conflicts that define the polarized and unstable age in which we live.

The Social Media Generation

Featuring Jonathan Haidt

Is social media safe for children? How old do kids need to be to have smartphones? Is Gen Z's mental health declining because of TikTok? Zachary and Emma speak with Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author of "The Anxious Generation." Social media's effect on brain development, TV Parental Guidelines and the internet's lack thereof, and the influence of video games on young men are discussed here today.

Red, White, and Due: Talking Taxes

Featuring Vanessa Williamson

Why do people hate taxes but seem proud to pay them? When did taxation in the US become such a lightning rod issue? And are American feelings about taxes unique? Today Zachary and Emma talk to Vanessa Williamson, senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. The discussion weaves through taxation, redistribution, and political participation.