We know it’s not nice. We try not to do it. But sometimes someone else’s conversation is so compelling, we just can’t help but tune in a bit and pretend we’re not paying attention. We are, though. We can’t help it.
On the flight back from Boston last month—somehow, I was among the fortunate few who experienced no travel delays—I settled in to read my novel. I usually bring earplugs in case there are toddlers on board, but this time I was lucky to be among a group of quiet travelers. Seated next to me, a young woman busied herself with what appeared to be scientific papers (I couldn’t help but sneak a glance, always curious about what others are reading); the title, something like “How climate change will affect our food choices,” was followed by an abstract. I thought it looked interesting, but so did my book.
Other than a quiet “excuse me,” she didn’t say a word throughout the flight. When we landed, however, the young man in the window seat started the conversation.
They chatted a bit about hometowns, and then he asked about her reading. It caught his eye because he’s a young environmental scientist, interested in energy consumption and savings. She’s a young nutritionist, interested in energy consumption and savings. Coming from two different angles, they shared a goal: Teaming seemingly disparate sciences to work together to ensure a stable future.
I know, I know. Well-intentioned, starry-eyed youngsters fighting the good fight. But their comments were insightful and creative, and I really did learn a lot just by leaning in. He’s studying ways to grow and provide various kinds of biomass to help fuel small power plants. His emphasis? To ensure that providers— growers—not only can supply enough fodder to make this work, but that the demand can be sufficient to support small, independent growers.
She’s studying the effects of a plant-based diet on the environment. Her emphasis? To determine whether the production of nutritious foods can done in such a way that the production practices actually improve the ecosystem. She, too, was interested in supporting smaller, independent suppliers.
Much of this made sense in a rarified, ivory-tower way, but it also sounded like they were on to something. Locavore movement meets sound science?
It gets better. When we reached the gate and passengers filled the aisle, I had the opportunity to ask if either of them works with a horticulturist. (I apologized first for eavesdropping.) She jumped on the question: “Of course! There’s no reason why we can’t incorporate landscapes into food production, and vice versa,” she said. “I think the possibilities are so exciting! As long as we can prove the economies and viability of … .”
Holy cow. The rest of her enthusiastic response was drowned out by announcements from the cockpit, but the sentiment was easy to discern. Here’s an earnest young nutritionist — from Rutgers, it so happened — who’s looking beyond her specific field to make the connections that will serve her generation, and the next, and the next … and is pursuing a scientific solution.
So what’s the payoff for having eavesdropped? Peace of mind. We hear too much of the wacko, pseudoscience-y stuff. But I now know of at least two young researchers who are determined to feed us and keep us warm—and to do it responsibly and beautifully.
It was worth leaning in.