The west is burning, Houston is drowning, and Florida is right now evacuating 5.6 million people from Hurricane Irma’s path. In the wake of major climate disasters, the drumbeat of which is becoming faster and louder, I find it more challenging than usual to think about climate. The path ahead seems less clear. Emotions swirl in me like so much smoke from heat-and-drought-induced wildfires. Collective inaction feels at once less explicable and more inevitable.
Yet there’s an underlying truth that gains clarity with each day’s accumulating load of carbon dioxide: burning fossil fuel causes harm. Death and devastation. At this late date, there’s no rational way around this fact.
Why is it still socially acceptable to burn fossil fuel?
One of my personal principles is to not harm others. So the scientist in me is curious to understand how the stuff has become woven into the fabric of modern life, to quantify how my own daily actions translate to emissions, and to playfully experiment with changing them. Since 2010, I’ve cut my own emissions to under one-tenth the U.S. average. Doing so was surprisingly easy: as I took one step after another, I discovered that life did not become less satisfying. If anything, I prefer living without all the fossil fuel.
The spiritual seeker in me is curious about how to live well. As I progress through life, I’m finding that I increasingly prefer simplicity and honest connection to mindless convenience and the high speeds of a fossil-fueled life. I enjoy slowing down.
Most of my emissions came from flying.
The first change I made was bicycling the six miles to work. In making this change, I viscerally reconnected to a childhood joy: using my own body to fly over the streets. It’s just as John F. Kennedy said, “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike.” I became vegetarian, causing me to feel healthier and more energetic. I began growing food and trading with neighbors, finding that homegrown food tastes better and that growing it connects me to the land and to my community.
Most of my emissions came from flying. My last flight, to a scientific meeting, was in 2012. As we took off, I thought of my two young children and realized I didn’t want to be on that plane. It wasn’t about missing them, and it wasn’t about guilt about their generation. It was an increasingly clear-eyed awareness that plane travel’s benefit to my career wasn’t worth the harm it was causing. I began traveling by alternative means—in trains, on boats, in an old bio-fueled car. I find slow travel to be at once more adventurous and more conducive to reflection.
These changes have been satisfying in and of themselves. They’ve also helped align my outer life with my inner principles, which in my experience is the key to happiness. But there’s an even better reason to get fossil fuels out of our lives. It’s about loving deeply. Loving all those suffering people in Houston and Florida, loving our children, loving every being on this planet without a voice. In light of our shared climate predicament, a life beyond fossil fuel brings deep meaning. It’s the obvious path at this critical juncture, beckoning to us. Why not start down it? We need not wait for anyone else.
Some dismiss personal reduction as pointless. Some argue that it distracts from much-needed collective change.
There’s a deep connection between individual and collective action.
I believe there’s a deep connection between individual and collective action, that collective action is comprised of our individual actions — both informed by and informing culture. And it’s certainly possible to reduce our own emissions while at the same time doing everything we can to demand systems-level change. For example, through ending fossil fuel subsidies and putting a steadily increasing price on carbon.
Perhaps one reason there has been so little collective action on climate is that so few of us have been willing to take on this transition in our own lives. If we find it difficult or irrelevant to use less fossil fuel ourselves, how effective can we be in pushing for broader systems-level change? If we want cultural shift, we need individuals to lead the way. We need many individuals showing what’s possible, shifting the normal, telling a new story with their actions. Those of us situated to do this with relative ease have a moral responsibility to do so. Sooner or later, our social norms will reflect this.
Such a shift in norms would surely accelerate the transition to a carbon-free society. I suspect this shift will continue to build, gradually, powered by many individual realizations and many individual voices speaking out. Meanwhile, climate disasters will increase in both frequency and severity in the coming years.
How many more disasters will it take?
Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech (speaking on his own behalf) and a contributing editor for YES! Magazine.