Each year, the judges of the John Maddox Prize are struck by the breadth and diversity of the nominations received and never more so than this year. The judges were particularly struck by the work of commended shortlisted nominee, Tisha Schuller, and the efforts that she has undertaken to communicate and engage people on the subject of where our energy comes from, and to promote sound science in the face of some fraught public debates. Read a guest blog about Tisha’s experiences below.
Call off the Wedding
By Tisha Schuller
“Call off the wedding, Tisha.” These are not the words you want to hear, metaphorical or otherwise, the month before you plan to publish your first book. I especially did not want to hear them from one of my most admired colleagues.
In the end, however, the conversation was a gift.
This painful exchange happened in a lovely restaurant with a crisp glass of wine in my hand enjoying elegantly arranged courses with names I couldn’t pronounce. Months earlier I had shared a near-final copy of my book with the intention of seeking advice on the publishing process. Now over dinner arranged to discuss another topic, I found myself the recipient of a carefully worded intervention. His intentions were good, and I set my heartbreak and defensiveness aside to understand why he felt that publishing my book could possibly mean the end of my career.
I can only paraphrase.
The book is too vulnerable, and in it, I am too vulnerable. It reads like a diary or a therapy session that went on for too long. The good bits are short, pithy, and sweet. I don’t need to explain how energy works, or how I came to the conclusions that took me from a traditional environmental activist to the face of the oil and gas industry as the CEO of the industry’s association in Colorado. I should write a new book, completely from scratch, that is more intellectual and less personal.
I had to take this critique seriously, and I did. I called off the publishing plans and wallowed in self-pity for a few days. Once I screwed up my courage, I devised a plan to send the book to two trusted colleagues who would not spare my feelings and get their advice on whether or not I should proceed with publishing. One particularly tough colleague put the onus back on me: “I understand why you wrote the book. But why are you publishing it? What is its purpose?”
I thought I was done soul searching once I finished writing that damn book. It had taken more than two years to weave together the stories from both my personal and professional life that had given me a new environmental world view and an appreciation for the role of oil and gas in our energy mix. But here I was again, and it took me weeks to unravel my complex feelings about this book. I was terrified to publish it and happily flirted with shelving it on a thumb drive that I would lose in a large Tupperware bin full of once-important papers. I took two months to soul search.
Ultimately, I decided to publish.
I decided to share my story because it is so relevant to finding our way through – and out of – the current morass. So many conversations about energy and the environment are bogged down by the political polarisation of our times. One mention of climate or fracking and we retreat into our political trench and volley familiar tropes with the religious ferocity of true believers.
I want to help others transcend these tribal behaviors – to change the nature of the conversations we are having. To do this with my story, a reader will have to trust me. To trust me, the reader will have to know me. And to allow a stranger to know me, I will have to be really vulnerable.
To paraphrase the Irish poet David Whyte, courage requires that we consciously engage the things we feel deeply and then live through the consequence of those choices.
So I told my story of crossing divides with all the bravery, serious missteps, self-doubts, instances of hilarity, and lessons learned that the journey entailed. I did so in the hope that it would encourage others to chart their own course. It doesn’t matter the topic, civil society requires our participation. Your role can be tiny or grand; it only requires that you choose to participate in trust-building, relationship-creating, hate-transcending conversations.
So, take heart and start wherever you are.
Tisha Schuller published Accidentally Adamant in 2018. She was commended in the recent announcement of the 2018 John Maddox prize recognising scientists for their courage in promoting science and evidence on matters of public interest, despite smears and threats. Tisha founded Adamantine Energy to provide thought leadership to transform energy policy and politics across the country and around the world. She consults private clients from Fortune 500 energy companies to non-profit environmental organisations in energy policy, business strategy, politics, and community engagement. She also serves as the Strategic Advisor for Stanford University’s Natural Gas Initiative (NGI) and is a non-resident Fellow at the Center for Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. Tisha serves on the National Petroleum Council, an advisory board to the U.S. Secretary of Energy.