In Depth

Bill Nye, ‘Stuff’ Guy

Science Icon’s New Series Explains ‘How Come’

You know Bill Nye. He’s the Science Guy, and now he’s also the guy explaining how the things we do, the food we eat, the products we use and all that kind of stuff happens. The name of the show is, in fact, “Stuff Happens,” and it’s a brand of how-to and how-come environmental journalism wrapped in an infotainment half-hour that really works.

The Planet Green show has been airing on the cable net since last June and the response has been extremely positive. One reviewer, Melissa Camacho on Commonsensemedia.org, said the show “succeeds in demonstrating how our everyday actions can have unintended—and far-reaching—consequences on the planet, all in a very non-threatening way.”

For environmental reporters and journalists looking for a way to take complicated issues and making them understandable and even entertaining, Bill Nye is someone to emulate. The Emmy Award-winning host’s angle in “Stuff Happens” is to be instructive, but not preachy. “This is the ‘Science Guy’ approach here,” said Mr. Nye. “It’s what we do. Most of the stuff happened by accident. People did not intend to destroy eco-systems when they started feeding pigs anchovies, but they did.”

The idea for “Stuff Happens” started with a book called “Stuff: The Extraordinary Life of Everyday Things.” “Discovery had some executives at the time that wanted to do a television series based on that book—you know, how you buy a cup of Starbuck’s Coffee and the coffee comes from Africa, the paper comes from trees in North Carolina and the paper is made from the trees with sulfur that’s mined in Canada,” said Mr. Nye. “It’s a global reach for things that seem ordinary everyday. It turns out that there are huge environmental effects, environmental impacts from the choices you make as a consumer.”

Environment No. 1

According to Mr. Nye, as important as other issues are—the financial crisis, the problems overseas with our military, and a huge population in jail—the environment is No. 1. “Of everything that’s going on right now, the biggest problem of all is climate change. That is the most serious thing going on right now, and people are just now starting to accept that idea. The trouble with it is that it’s such an enormous problem that it doesn’t seem real. It’s too incredible to most of us at first. We all share the air. Our science stories may not be as interesting as our environmental stories, but it’s all important, and the environment is vital for everyone.”

Watching “Stuff Happens” is not unlike a really good educational film, the kind you might remember seeing in school. That may be where this show winds up eventually. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. First we have to get people to find Planet Green on their cable box or their satellite dish. We’ll start with that,” said Mr. Nye.

Extensive Research

Research for “Stuff Happens” is extensive, with each episode covering a specific topic, like “The Kitchen,” “Breakfast,” “Pets” and “The Attic.” “We had a team of writers, but when push came to shove there were just three of us, which is fine. There are so many books and so much information on the Web that we can find,” said Mr. Nye. “The other thing that’s a big problem whenever you want to make a television show is what to leave out. Our job is to narrow things down.”

In one episode, called “The Bathroom,” Mr. Nye presents the benefits of an environmentally smart toilet bowl, explains why people shouldn’t flush unused pharmaceuticals down the drain and traces how toothpaste has endangered great apes across the globe. “Orangutan habitats were destroyed when they tried to make toothpaste,” said Mr. Nye. “That wasn’t the idea. In fact, palm oil seemed like a very cool, natural product. What’s not to love? Still, what about the effect on the orangutans.”

While a book was the inspiration for “Stuff Happens,” Mr. Nye and his team rely on research when writing every episode. His advice to other environmental journalists is simple. “Go to the right sources. The stuff in the intergovernmental panel on climate change is accurate, while the stuff from people who have an agenda associated with evangelical Christianity may not be as accurate,” said Mr. Nye. “My advice is to consider the source. You can’t trust Wikipedia for everything.”