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John Green reviews Canada Geese (a bird species that was not too long ago on the brink of extinction) and Diet Dr Pepper (a zero-calorie soda popularized by a man named Foots). Thanks to Audible for sponsoring today's episode. http://audible.com/anthro

 (00:00) to (02:00)


Hello, and welcome to the Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. My name’s John Green, and here in our first episode I’ll be reviewing Canadian geese and Diet Dr Pepper.

[intro music]

But first, a quick thank you to our sponsor today, audible.com. You can get a free audiobook right now if you sign up for Audible at audible.com/anthro.

Okay, let’s begin with the Canadian Goose, also known as the Canada Goose if you are one of those pedantic people who likes to point out that geese have no nationality. You probably know the bird in question: the brown-bodied, black-necked, honking waterfowl, ubiquitous in suburban North America and now also in Europe and New Zealand. With a song like a dying balloon and a penchant for attacking humans, the Canada goose is hard to love. But then again, so are most of us.

These days, the world contains between four and five million Canada geese, although from where I’m sitting in Indianapolis, that estimate seems low, as there appear to be four or five million just in my backyard. Regardless, their numbers are growing. But they were once exceptionally rare. In fact, the subspecies you’re most likely to see in parks and by retention ponds, the giant Canada goose, was believed to be extinct early in the 20th century due to year-round, unrestricted hunting. Canada geese were particularly susceptible to so-called “live decoys.” Hunters would capture geese and render them flightless. And then the call of these captured geese would attract flocks of wild ones, which could then be shot.

But in 1935, live decoys were made illegal, and geese populations began to recover, very slowly at first and then spectacularly. In 1955, only 20 Canada geese spent part of their year in Ohio. Today, there over 130,000 geese in Ohio. Non-native populations of geese from New Zealand to Scandinavia have also exploded. In Britain, the goose population has risen by a factor of at least 20 in the last 60 years.

 (02:00) to (04:00)


This success is partly down to those laws protecting the birds, but mostly because in the past several decades, humans have rendered lots of land perfect for geese. Heavily landscaped suburbs, riverside parks, and golf courses with water features are absolutely ideal living conditions for them. Geese also enjoy rural fields near rivers and lakes, but the ratio of city geese to country geese in the United States is actually quite similar to the human ratio. At any given time, about 80% of American humans are in or near urban areas. For Canada geese, it’s about 75%.


And the Anthropocene is also changing the way geese live. Between their idyllic suburban lives and climate change, less and less of the population is even bothering to migrate these days. Flocks of geese in their famous V formations can travel up to 1,500 miles per day with a tail wind. They’ve been known to fly from North America to Europe. But every year, more geese either shorten their migrations or don’t migrate at all.

And in this respect, they also reflect humans in the United States. 20% of Americans moved between 1955 and 1956. between 2015 and 2016, just over 11% did. Like geese, Americans are becoming more likely to die near where they were born with each passing year. In fact, the more you look at it, the more connections you find. Like us, they usually mate for life, although sometimes unhappily. Like us, the success of their species has affected their habitats. A single Canada Goose can produce up to 100 pounds of excrement per year, which has led to unsafe e. coli levels in lakes and ponds. And like us, they have few natural predators. If they die by violence, it is almost always human violence. Just like us.


But even though Canada geese are perfectly adapted to the human-dominated planet, they seem to feel nothing but disdain for actual humans.

 (04:00) to (06:00)


Geese honk and strut and bite to keep people away, even though they’re thriving because of our artificial lakes and manicured lawns. In turn, many of us have come to resent geese as a pest animal. I know I do. But they also allow me to feel like there’s still some proper nature in my highly sanitized, biologically monotonous suburban life. Even if geese have become mundane, there’s still something awe-inspiring about seeing them fly overhead in perfect formation. More than pigeons or mice or rats, geese still feel wild to me.


So for me at least, it’s a kind of symbiotic relationship in which neither party really much likes the other.

Speaking of which: Just before graduating from college, I fell in love with a girl, and one day we were driving in her ancient blue hatchback to pick up some groceries, and she asked me what my biggest fear was, and I said abandonment.

I was worried this girl would eventually break up with me, and I wanted her to comfort me, to tell me that I need not fear being alone, because she would always be there and et cetera. But she wasn't the sort of person to make false promises, and while I don’t wish to generalize, most promises featuring the word "always" are unkeepable. I mean, everything ends, or at least everything humans have thus far observed ends. Anyway, after I said abandonment, she just nodded, and then I filled the awkward silence by asking her what her biggest fear was.

“Geese,” she said.

And who can blame her? I mean it was a flock of Canada geese that flew a suicide mission into the engines of US Airways Flight 1549 in 2009, forcing captain Sully Sullenburger to splash-land the aircraft on New York’s Hudson River. In 2014, a Canadian cyclist spent a week in the hospital after being attacked by a Canada goose.

You can do something about abandonment. You can construct a stronger independent self, for instance, or build a broader network of meaningful relationships so your psychological well-being isn’t wholly reliant upon one person. But you, as an individual, can’t do much about the Canada goose.

 (06:00) to (08:00)


And that seems to me one of the great weirdnesses of the Anthropocene. Collectively, we have unprecedented power. For better or worse, land has become ours. It is ours to cultivate, to shape, even ours to protect. We are so much the dominant creature on this planet that we essentially decide which species live and which die, which grow like the Canada goose and which decline like its cousin the spoon-billed sandpiper.

Since the Columbian exchange began in 1492, we’ve changed the temperature of the planet and reshaped its biosphere on a scale not seen in millions of years. Our species is shaping every aspect of life on Earth. But as an individual, I don’t feel that power. I can’t decide whether a species lives or dies. I can’t even get my kids to eat breakfast. In the daily grind of a human life, there’s a lawn to mow, soccer practices to drive to, a mortgage to pay.

And so I go on living the way I feel like people always have, the way that feels like the right way, and feels at times like the only way. I mow the lawn, as if lawns are natural, when in fact we didn’t invent the suburban American lawn until 160 years ago. And I drive to soccer practice, even though that was also impossible 160 years ago, not only because there were no cars, but also because soccer hadn’t been invented. And I pay the mortgage, even though mortgages as we understand them today weren’t widely available until the 1930s. All of this and so much more happened in the last one thousandth of human history. So much of what feels to me inevitably, inescapably human to me is in fact very, very new, including the everywhereness of the Canada goose.

So yeah, as both a species and a symbol, I feel deeply unsettled about the Canada goose. In a way, it’s become my biggest fear. The goose isn’t to blame of course, but still: I can only give it three stars.

 (08:00) to (10:00)


[music]

After the break, we’ll discuss the strange and beautiful story of Diet Dr Pepper. But first, I want to thank our sponsor, audible.com, which allows you to listen to books digitally. This is advantageous insofar as it reduces the number of trees cut down for paper production, and more trees means fewer open fields, which means fewer Canada geese. Audible has a huge selection of books you can choose from, including my novels The Fault in Our Stars and Turtles All the Way Down, both narrated by the brilliant Kate Rudd. You can get a free audiobook right now at audible.com/anthro. That’s audible.com/anthro. Thanks to audible, and now back to the show.

[music]

The story of Dr Pepper begins in 1885, in Waco, Texas. A pharmacist named Charles Alderton combined 23 flavors to create a new kind of carbonated drink. This was one year, by the way, before the first appearance of Coca-Cola. Notably, Alderton sold the recipe for Dr Pepper after a few years because he wanted to pursue his passion, pharmaceutical chemistry. He worked at the drug company Eli Lilly before going back to his hometown to head up the laboratory at the Waco Drug Company.

Alderton’s soda probably would’ve remained a Texas-only phenomenon, disappearing like so many other soda flavors—the opera bouquet, the swizzle fizz, the almond sponge—had it not been for the dogged determination of one Woodrow Wilson Clements, who preferred to be called Foots, a nickname he picked up in high school due to his oddly shaped toes. Foots started out as a Dr Pepper salesman in 1935, when he was 20. He retired 51 years later as CEO of a soft drink company worth over $400 million. Today the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, which owns 7-Up, RC Cola, and four different root beer brands, is valued at over $17 billion. Almost all of their products are some form of sweetened water.

 (10:00) to (12:00)


Foots Clements succeeded because he understood precisely what made Dr Pepper significant. “I’ve always maintained,” he said, “you cannot tell anyone what Dr Pepper tastes like because it’s so different. It’s not an apple; it’s not an orange; it’s not a strawberry; it’s not a root beer; it’s not even a cola.” Cola, after all, is derived from kola nuts and vanilla, two real-world flavors. Sprite has that lemon-lime taste. Purple soda is ostensibly grape flavored. But Dr Pepper has no natural-world analogue. In fact, U.S. trademark courts have tackled this issue, categorizing Dr Pepper and its knockoffs as “pepper sodas,” even though they contain no pepper, and the “pepper” in Dr Pepper refers not to the spice but either to someone’s actual name or else to pep, the feeling that Dr Pepper supposedly fills you with. It’s the only category of soda not named for what it tastes like, which to my mind is precisely why Dr Pepper marks such an interesting and important moment in human history. It was an artificial drink that didn’t taste like anything. It wasn’t like an orange but better, or like a lime but sweet. In an interview, Charles Alderton once said that he wanted to create a soda that tasted like the soda fountain in Waco smelled—all those artificial flavors swirling together in the air. Dr Pepper is, in its very conception, unnatural. The creation of a chemist.

But right, so Foots Clements was the head of the company in 1962 when the first Diet Dr Pepper was released, once again beating Coca-Cola, which debuted its Diet Coke in 1963. The so-called Dietetic Dr Pepper was initially a failure. The name led many to conclude it was only for diabetics, and also apparently it tasted pretty bad. But Diet Dr Pepper became a huge success when reformulated in 1991 with a new artificial sweetener, aspartame, and a brand new advertising slogan: Diet Dr Pepper: It tastes more like regular Dr Pepper. Which it really does.

 (12:00) to (14:00)


Coke and Diet Coke are barely recognizable as relatives. If Coke is a golden eagle, Diet Coke is a hummingbird. But Dr Pepper and Diet Dr Pepper taste like each other, which is especially interesting since, as Foots pointed out, neither of them tastes like anything else.

Now, many people find the artificiality of Diet Dr Pepper revolting. You often hear people say, “There are so many chemicals in it.” Of course, there are also lots of chemicals in wine and in coffee and in air. But the underlying concern, I think, is that Diet Dr Pepper is just so profoundly artificial. But that’s why I love it. Diet Dr Pepper allows me to enjoy a relatively safe taste that was literally engineered for me. When I drink it, I think of the kids at that soda fountain in Waco, Texas, most of whom rarely knew the pleasures of an ice-cold drink of any kind, and how totally enjoyable those first Dr Peppers must’ve been.

I mean, look what humans can do. They can make ice-cold, sugary sweet, zero-calorie soda that tastes like everything and also like nothing.

Obviously, I don't labor under the delusion that Diet Dr Pepper is good for me, but, in moderation, it also probably isn’t bad for me. It’s certainly healthier than regular Dr Pepper. The evidence that sugar-sweetened drinks are unhealthy is at this point overwhelming. In fact, just as you can construct Foots Clements as a hero of American industry, you can also see him as a man who became very rich by giving people diabetes.

And I know there’s an extremely pervasive belief that artificial sweeteners cause cancer, but the data just doesn't support it, and now we have many decades of information to work with. Diet Dr Pepper probably doesn’t help you lose weight, and drinking too much of it can be bad for your teeth and may increase other health risks. 

 (14:00) to (16:00)


But as Dr. Aaron Carroll puts it in his book The Bad Food Bible, “There’s a potential—and, likely, very real—harm from consuming added sugar. There is likely none from artificial sweeteners.”

And yet I’ll confess that I feel as if I’m committing a sin whenever I drink Diet Dr Pepper. I mean, nothing that sweet can be truly virtuous. But it’s an exceptionally minor vice, and for whatever reason, I’ve always felt like I need a vice. I don’t know whether this feeling is universal, but I have some way-down vibrating part of my subconscious that needs to self-destruct, at least a little bit.

In my teens and early 20s, I smoked cigarettes compulsively, thirty or forty a day. The pleasure of smoking for me wasn’t about a buzz; the pleasure came from the jolt of giving in to an unhealthy physical craving, which over time increased my physical cravings, which in turn increased the pleasure I experienced when giving in to them. I haven’t smoked in more than fifteen years now, but I don’t think I ever quite escaped that cycle. There remains this yearning within my subconscious that cries out for a sacrifice, and so I offer up the faintest shadow of a proper vice I can find in the form of Diet Dr Pepper, the soda that tastes more like the Anthropocene than any other.

After going through dozens of slogans through the decades—Dr Pepper billed itself as "tasting like liquid sunshine", as the "Pepper picker-upper", as the "most original soft drink ever"—these days their slogan is more to the point. They call it "the one you crave". I give it four and a half stars.

[music]

Thanks for listening to this episode of the Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me and produced and edited by Rosianna Halse Rojas and Stan Muller. And thanks against to audible.com for sponsoring today’s episode.

If you want to help our podcast, please consider leaving a review for it on iTunes or wherever you write your podcast reviews. And if you’d like to suggest a topic for review, please do so. You can find us on Twitter or Facebook, or email us at anthropocenereviewed @ gmail.com.

 (16:00) to (16:46)


My favorite fact that didn’t make it into this episode: Foots Clements was such a staunch capitalist that the official Dr Pepper Museum is literally named the Dr Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute. Thank you again for listening. We’ll leave you today with the call of the semi-wild.

[sound of geese]