Environmental historian Jon Christensen is a recent Los Angeles transplant from Northern California and an adjunct assistant professor and Pritzker fellow in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Department of History at UCLA; he is also a longtime science writer and journalist. Before moderating a conversation about whether we should adapt to climate change, he sat down in the Zócalo green room to talk about his pets (he can just barely count them all on his fingers) and what Frank Ocean can tell us about the environment (a lot, actually).
If you could be anyone in history, who would you be?
Oh dear. As a historian, this is a really difficult question, because we think that we should be able to understand people in the past on their own terms. We think the past is a foreign country, and people did things differently there, and it’s really important to understand that difference. So we really kind of refrain from thinking of trying to inhabit that.
Did you have any nicknames as a kid?
No, I didn’t. Not that I would want to appear online.
What do you wish Southern Californians understood about the northern part of the state?
I think Southern Californians actually understand a lot about the northern part of the state, and it’s really Northern Californians who need to understand more about Southern California, and how cool and diverse and strange and beautiful it is. Northern Californians have an attitude about Southern California that keeps them from discovering what’s here.
What’s the last board game you played?
Chutes and Ladders with my kids, I think. A long time ago.
What music have you listened to today?
I’m a huge fan of Morning Becomes Eclectic on KCRW with Jason Bentley, so I often have it on in the morning, and it’s just whatever new music he’s playing. Recently, I played Frank Ocean’s “Sweet Life” as an introduction to a class. I told my students, if you listen to this song, it’s actually about the environment. It’s a cultural response to the environment. He says, “Why see the world when you’ve got the beach?”
What’s your favorite movie snack?
Popcorn. [Buttered?] No. Not anymore.
What does the world of academia have in common with the world of journalism?
I believe that we share the fundamental values of seeking knowledge and understanding in ways that are open to conversation and dispute, but that are about fairness, honesty, transparency of sources—so that you can trace arguments and knowledge. And these are what I would call the practices of objectivity, even if we know that everybody has a perspective. We share those. And so we have a lot in common.
What should you do to lower your carbon footprint?
Do you have any pets?
I should fact check this one. We have five birds and three turtles. … Six birds, now. Six birds and three turtles.
What’s your favorite plant or flower?
Right now it’s the palm tree outside my office window.