Alizé Carrère is a National Geographic Explorer researching and documenting climate change adaptation in practice. Raised in a treehouse in Ithaca, New York, her childhood primed her for a unique perspective on what it means to innovate and adapt in response to environmental change. She completed her a B.A. at McGill University in Environmental Sciences and International Development and an M.Sc. in Bioresource Engineering also at McGill. During this time, she lived in the Middle East working on water resource management and electronic waste between Israel and Palestine.
In 2012, Alizé received support from National Geographic to conduct research in Madagascar, where she spent several months uncovering an unlikely agricultural adaptation in response to severe deforestation. She continues to spearhead research on innovative adaptations to climate change, and is working with a film team on a web series that highlights the remarkable resilience of the human species. The first episode, documenting community adaptations to sea level rise in Bangladesh, won Best Short Film at the New York Wild Film Festival and the Norman Vaughan Indomitable Spirit Award at Telluride Mountainfilm Festival.
This fall, Alizé will be moving to Miami to pursue her PhD at University of Miami’s Abbess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy.
1. Starting big. What drives you?
I’m driven by gaining perspective in life. I wrote something about this some time ago, and ended up using it on the homepage of my website. I find it exhilarating when I learn something new that broadens my horizons or stretches my mind in a way I didn’t think possible. That’s why I love to travel. The more data points you have in life, on different people, cultures, places or ideas, the harder it becomes to judge and shut out the world around you. It builds empathy and makes you challenge assumptions. It’s also a lot of fun.
I’m getting ready to pursue my PhD this fall because there’s something about being a student, or being in the pursuit of knowledge, that’s central to this idea. I think we should all spend more time in the position of the learner, not the learned. The desire for greater perspective, and subsequently sharing what I’ve seen or learned, is what drives me personally and professionally. Some of the people who have the greatest perspective on earth are astronauts. There’s extensive literature out there on the feeling they get when they look back at earth from space and see how fragile and alone we are. It’s called the overview effect. We can’t all go to space of course, but I’m interested in the ways in which we can access that feeling from here on earth. I don’t have the answer, but I suspect it involves a lot of what I’ve described above – travel, conversation, being willing to learn, connecting with others. I really believe the world would be much more empathetic and collaborative place.
2. What is the most incredible place you've visited? Why?
I get this question a lot, and the answer changes every time! I don’t think there’s one place alone that can take that title for me, because I find that much of what makes an incredible place is the mind set you’re in, the people you’re with, or what it represents for you at that particular moment in your life. But speaking strictly in terms of geography or landscape, two places come to mind. Internationally, South Georgia island. There was nothing like arriving along the shores of a remote island in Antarctic waters with hundreds of thousands of King penguins and Elephant seals and Fur seals to greet you (none of whom are afraid of you, I might add). Domestically, White Sands National Monument in New Mexico is still my absolute favorite. I camped there overnight during a lightning storm with a friend one summer, and it felt like we were sleeping on the surface of the moon. It was spectacular.
3. What would you consider your biggest accomplishment? Biggest failure? From both experiences, what did you learn?
My biggest accomplishment would have to be the adaptation project I’ve been working on for the last 5 years of my life. I got interested in human adaptations to climate change about 6 years ago, and I started to collect stories of people around the world who were developing interesting solutions to live with it. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with those stories, but I found them deeply inspiring in the midst of all the environmental doom and gloom. I have since led several field expeditions to research those stories, and I’m turning the project into a digital series. I’m now looking at designing an accompanying educational curriculum so that it can be used as a tool in classrooms. I knew nothing about film, media, educational models or public speaking when I started, but I believed in the project so much that I pushed into all of those spaces with a great deal of curiosity and ambition. It’s taken a while to come together, and the process hasn’t been perfect of course, but I’m proud of what it’s become (and still becoming, it’s very much a work in progress). People often ask how I got into filmmaking, or media, or education, and they’re surprised when I say that I just jumped into it.
As far as failure goes, I’m not sure there’s much in my life I’d classify as an outright failure - that feels like a strong word. There have definitely been road bumps along the way, and I have arguably learned more from those situations than from my successes. When things go wrong it forces you to critically look at the situation and ask yourself, where did this derail? What could I have done differently? How could this be mitigated in the future? We don’t do that when things pan out well, and yet it’s a highly valuable exercise for personal or professional growth. It pushes you to be more self-aware.
4. What advice do you have for young people interested in your field? What common advice should they ignore?
My strongest piece of advice to young people, in my field or not, is to build personal connections, to follow up and to follow through with others, and to pick up the phone and call someone instead of sending an email (or even better, make an in-person visit). These sound like basic reminders, but all three seem like increasingly uncommon practices in the digital age in which we live. So when you do actually do these things, you stand out from the masses. Some of the most valuable people in my life became mentors because I was pleasantly persistent about staying in touch, and I made an effort to build a personal relationship. Of course, there are also major benefits to the digital and hyper connected world we live in. You can reach out to virtually anyone on email or social media, because we’re all on those platforms now. Don’t be afraid to send a message to someone you don’t know if you want to collaborate, learn more, or ask for an informational interview. You’d be surprised at what kinds of responses you might get back. I make a point to respond to any direct message on my social media accounts from young people I don’t know, because I remember how excited I’d get when someone would write me back when I was starting out. We all know we’re on our phones and Twitters and Instagrams multiple times a day, so I think you’re just an asshole if you don’t. Take advantage of that new reality! You have nothing to lose.
5. What can you not travel without?
Chapstick and noise canceling headphones. Airplanes are loud places these days.
Bonus Question: Lions or Elephants, and why?
Elephants, all the way. I’ll never forget the first time I came in close contact with an elephant. I was at an elephant sanctuary in Jaipur, India and got to spend the entire day with a female elephant who was 12 months pregnant (only halfway through their gestation!). She was rescued from the circus after having been badly abused. She was blind in one eye. As I was walking up to her I felt an overwhelming nervousness – my palms got clammy, my heart started racing. But not because I was afraid! In that moment I felt like I was in the presence of a creature so wise and intelligent that I just felt like an incredibly inferior mammal. It was as if I was hoping for her acceptance or approval. God knows our species has done atrocious things to hers. It all sounds silly as I write it, but that’s the only way I can describe the feeling. When you look into an elephant’s eye you just know someone’s home, except that the occupant feels like a 105-year old shaman who understands the world and everyone’s place in it. I had never felt something that profound before, face-to-face with another animal.