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Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution
PART I: PREDICAMENT
Chapter 1. Waking Up
I knew that burning fossil fuels was causing irreversible harm to our planet’s life-support systems. And yet I continued to burn.
When I first heard of global warming1 in sixth grade— the only time it was mentioned during my school years— it seemed like science fiction, not something that would ever concern me. I didn’t think about it again for nearly two decades.
I began learning the basic science of global warming in 2006 when my first son, Braird, was born. Fatherhood jolted me out of a selfish careerism. Suddenly my life wasn’t just about me, and my perspective shifted to a longer time scale. At the time, I was working on my PhD in physics at Columbia University in New York City. As my eyes were opened, I had a strong emotional response: how could we continue burning fossil fuels at an accelerating pace when this severely damages the biosphere for future generations? It seemed insane. At the same time, I was immersed in our industrial civilization, which dictates that burning fossil fuels is the only sane thing to do— that someone who refuses to burn fossil fuels is ludicrous, a Luddite.
I became obsessed with finding some way to rectify this deep inconsistency. I longed to know how all of the people around me— family members, colleagues, strangers on the street— were dealing with this glaring disconnect without any apparent difficulty. Did they know about global warming? Had they made peace with it somehow, or did they simply not think about it? I felt afraid of the future, lost. I had so much emotional static that I struggled to connect with people.
Like a splinter in my psyche, this disconnect required me to do something. But what?
I first tried converting people with facts. The people around me were acting as though there wasn’t a problem: perhaps they simply didn’t know. If I could only communicate with greater clarity, people would “get it.” I felt like I had the truth, that my job was to wake everyone up.
Like most attempts to convert, though, mine were sanctimonious and alienating. It was impossible for anyone to listen to me, or for me to listen to anyone else. (My wife, Sharon, had to put up with a lot; it’s not easy being married to someone who wants to convert you.) This led to even more disconnection. Alone with my angst, at a loss for what to do, I was panicking.
I now realize that few people respond to facts. I also realize that I can’t respond meaningfully to our predicament with my intellect alone. I also doubt that even our society’s collective intellect, our best scientists and brightest policymakers working within their delineated roles, will be enough. While intellect certainly plays a role, it’s a rather small one. Our dire ecological crisis calls us to go deeper.
A few years passed before I began to develop a more coherent response. In 2008, our second child, Zane, was born, and we left New York so I could take an astrophysics job at the California Institute of Technology. But before leaving New York, I was offered a job in atmospheric science at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), which at the time was led by James Hansen. Had I accepted it, I’d have worked to improve the representation of clouds in the GISS global climate model. But I didn’t feel ready for such a big career change, and my ongoing work of searching for gravitational waves— ripples in the fabric of spacetime— was incredibly exciting. So, after much soul searching, I accepted the Caltech job and continued my work of sifting through LIGO data for scientific gold. Sharon and I moved to Altadena, a suburb northeast of Los Angeles in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains where parrots roam the skies and orange trees abound. I felt like I’d landed in paradise.
We chose a house because of the magnificent avocado tree in the backyard. I bonded with this tree. I began to think of it as a friend, and I still do. This relationship with a tree began to change me: I began to understand plants as beings.2
After a year of renting, we bought the house. For the first time in my life, I owned a tiny patch of land. I decided to cancel the mow-and-blow landscaping service and tend my own yard. The land seemed alien; I didn’t know what any of the plants were called or how to take care of them. But I did know that I love to eat tomatoes, so I planted some tomato plants. I enjoyed their company so much— their smell and their just-perceptible daily growth, their being-ness— that I felt called to plant other little beings. I dismantled a small deck by my back fence that we never used, took a sledgehammer to the underlying concrete (quite a joyous task, it turned out), and turned the scrap lumber into six raised beds. I’d caught the gardening bug. Before long I ripped out the grass of my front lawn to make space for other, more interesting and useful plants.
This, then, is how I started to use my hands: the land drew me in. The land was like a painter’s canvas, full of possibility and potential. I could plant things on it. Choosing what to grow, and how, required a new kind of wisdom from me, something essentially human. It asked for more than intellect. It asked for connection and for humility, and it offered simple gifts. I fell in love with the land.
I could see a path stretching far into the distance, and I’ve come to understand that learning how to tend the land takes a lifetime.
Around this time, in 2010, I began to meditate seriously. Sharon and I had started meditating back in New York, but we simply weren’t able to maintain our practice while caring for babies. But one morning, after four years of diapers and inadequate sleep, I remembered how important meditation had been. So I went to a ten-day meditation retreat and started practicing again. This is how I started to know myself more deeply. My eyes opened to what was right in front of them. A few months later, Sharon went on her own retreat, and we began siting together daily.
I began observing my daily life and changing it to be more aligned with what I knew. When faced with some daily task— commuting to work, planning a trip, eating, showering, whatever— I began perceiving how it connects to our industrial system’s preferred way of doing things, how it affects other beings and too often harms them. I began searching for alternative ways of doing things. This exploration often blossomed into adventure: unpredictable, fun, and satisfying.
As my scientific interest in global warming increased, it eventually occurred to me that I’d be happier studying it full-time. So I finally left the beautiful, giddy world of astrophysics. This was a sacrifice, and it meant siting on the sidelines during humanity’s first detection of gravitational waves— an endeavor to which I’ve given nearly a decade of my life. But I simply could no longer concentrate on astrophysics; it felt like fiddling while Rome burned. I’m now an Earth scientist studying the role of clouds in a warming world. I’ve also reduced my personal CO2 emissions from about twenty tonnes per year (near the US average) to under two tonnes per year. Overall, this hasn’t been a sacrifice. It has made me happier.
Head, hands, and heart
The path I’m on has three parts. One is intellectual understanding: the head. The head allows me to prioritize. It helps me navigate to my goals, although I find it’s not always good at choosing those goals. One of the lessons I’ve learned is that I’m limited, in time, energy, and ability; if I’m to make any progress, I need to choose my path wisely. This means asking the right questions, gathering information about reality as it is (which is often different than how it appears to be, or how I want it to be), and drawing conclusions objectively. The head is a scientist.
Another part of my path is practical action: the hands. As we’ll see, society’s business-as-usual trajectory is carrying us toward disaster. If we wish to avoid disaster, we must take action. Since I can’t change the entire global trajectory single-handedly, I perform practical and local actions, changing myself and how I live right here and right now. Direct practical action is empowering; it brings measurable, tangible change. It’s fun, and therefore I can sustain it easily. It also provides its own guidance. Time and again I’ve found that only by taking a step— making some actual change— is the next step revealed. I find that all the planning and intellectualizing in the world can’t substitute for just doing something. There’s wisdom in doing.
A third part of my path is seeing from the heart. This third part is what connects me to myself, to other people, and to nature. Without it, action can become compulsive, joyless. Connection brings purpose and meaning to thought and action.
I have a specific and concrete practice for this third part: I meditate by observing my body and mind in a particular way. Meditation allows me to be joyful (most of the time) even while studying global warming every day at work. Meditation helps me connect to the sea of everyday miracles around me— the plants growing, the sun shining, my older son lovingly putting his arm around his brother’s shoulders. I find great strength in this awareness.
These three parts support and balance one another. In shaping a response to our predicament, each part is important.
Aligning with the biosphere
The changes I’ve been making to my own life are simple, but they go far beyond recycling or green consumerism. I came to see that the business-as-usual ways of industrial society are bankrupt. So I actively replace those parts of my everyday life that feel unsatisfying with new ways of living that I do find satisfying.
Such changes don’t require sacrifice so much as exchange, swapping daily actions that aren’t satisfying for ones that are. In this way, my everyday life has gradually come into harmony with my beliefs. My experience has been that congruence between outer and inner life is the key to happiness. I’m no good at fooling myself.
I also came to see how deeply I’d been influenced by the subconscious whisper of culture, how little I questioned my everyday actions, and how completely I accepted the illusion that the way things are is the only way they could be. My old mindset was separation; my emerging mindset is connection. I’m learning that acceptance and detached observation of my own mind is the basis of compassion. I’m learning how to become sustainable, internally.
We could coin a word for this path of inner and outer change: becycling, beyond recycling. Becycling entails restoring cyclical natural processes at the local scale. It requires getting busy instead of passively hoping that “they will think of something.” It means accepting responsibility for your own everyday actions and changing those that harm other beings in our planet’s biosphere. It means actually being the change.
My path is straightforward: if fossil fuels cause global warming, and I don’t want global warming, then I should reduce my fossil
Similarly, if I don’t like conflict, killing, and wars, then I should reduce my own addiction to anger and negativity. This seems obvious to me now, but it didn’t always. My need to be right used to be blindingly strong, and fear and defensiveness led me to react to anger with more anger, to negativity with more negativity. If we say we want a world without wars, then we shouldn’t add hostility to the world ourselves! Yet wherever I go I see people arguing, fighting, and spreading negativity.
In our society, this kind of straightforwardness is often dismissed as idealistic, impractical, and out of reach. But my own direct experience says that it is possible to drastically reduce my fossil fuel use, and that it is possible to come out of conflict and negativity. What’s more, the personal rewards for doing both are tremendous: a less stressful, more satisfying life.
These two seemingly disparate things— reducing my own fossil fuel use and increasing my ability to love— are actually intimately interconnected. As I learn how to love more, it becomes increasingly clear that I am connected to everything. How, then, can I voluntarily harm the rest of the life on this planet? How can I harm the children who will be born 100 years from now? When someone else suffers, I also suffer. There is no separation between me and the rest of the life on this planet.
To be clear: I’m not saying that selfless love is the near-term answer to global warming. Unfortunately, there are many who, for whatever reason, will never strive to love selflessly; there’s no time to wait for them. And even for those who do so strive, it’s a long path. This is why we also need sensible policies and technologies that result in cheaper alternatives to fossil fuels.
But for those who are ready to walk on the straightforward path, the path of love, it’s certainly worth doing. It may even help to hasten the sensible collective action we desperately need.
Why walk on this path?
I’m aware that the changes I’m making to my daily life will not solve global warming or stave off global economic collapse. How could they? We’re rapidly approaching eight billion people on the planet3, and I am only one of them.
However, my actions do make me happier, and that’s reason enough to do them. I also suspect that, for most of us, individual and local-scale actions are the most skillful means to effect global-scale change. This is a paradox of scale. Our individual actions don’t make much of an immediate difference in the global response to our predicament, but they are pieces in a vast puzzle. As more pieces get added, more people will get excited by the emerging picture and begin to add their own pieces.
The prevailing mindset in our industrial society is to search for a silver bullet solution, some brilliant techno-fix that allows us to avoid personal change (which is assumed to be undesirable). After decades of searching by the world’s brightest minds, however, it seems likely that there is no such silver bullet. Personal change will therefore likely be necessary. Here are the reasons I’m an early adopter of personal change:
In my experience, cutting back on burning fossil fuels became possible— easy, even— when I began to realize that I enjoy my life more when I live mindfully and burn less. I realized that I don’t want to burn so much, and I don’t need to burn so much. And I genuinely enjoy the changes I’ve made, such as biking and gardening.
Back when I was concerned about global warming but still burning lots of fossil fuels, I was suffering from cognitive dissonance, living inconsistently. This made me feel depressed and confused. Now I live in a more consistent way, which is empowering. It’s the key to connecting with others: my life is my calling card.
I want to help others, not harm them
Burning fossil fuels warms the planet, which harms others. It’s that simple. Although the processes involved are distributed globally, accrue over decades, and are statistical in nature— and therefore difficult for our brains to connect directly back to our individual actions— the harm is nonetheless real.
Burning fossil fuels should be unacceptable socially, the way physical assault is unacceptable. The harm it does is less immediate, but just as real.4 We need to start speaking this truth— burning fossil fuels harms others— so that society can begin realizing it.
It leads to connection and gratitude
Living with less fossil fuels leads to more connection with the land and with my community. It leads to increased awareness that food, water, fuel, and friends are precious. This connection and gratitude makes me happy.
Small actions lead to larger actions
We need to use our unique talents and interests to make a difference, and changing ourselves can reveal how to do this. Small actions gradually led me to two major actions that might have some impact beyond my local community: becoming an Earth scientist and writing this book. These efforts of mine may have larger impact, or they may not. Either way I’ll keep making simple changes to my life, while simultaneously looking for opportunities to catalyze collective change.
I’ve known passionate environmentalists who dreamt of “saving the planet” but who weren’t willing to begin changing themselves. But how can we reasonably expect to contribute meaningfully in the larger arena if we can’t be bothered to make small changes to our daily lives? If I want to contribute to a change in the narrative, I must begin with myself.
It demonstrates a new story
Few people in the US realize that it’s possible to live without fossil fuels. This is a huge failure of imagination. By changing ourselves, we demonstrate what’s possible. We explore the new story, and we tell it.
Cynicism and inaction at the national level is nothing more than the collective expression of cynicism and inaction of individuals. When enough of us change ourselves, large-scale change is bound to happen. And when it comes to global warming, our actions speak louder than our words.
Meaningful work is a great joy. And what could be more meaningful than exploring a new way for humanity to live, in harmony with the biosphere?
As Gandhi wrote: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change toward him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”5
Limits, patience, and grief When I say that I can’t save the world, and that I’m aware I have limits, climate activists often misunderstand. They say that I need to stay optimistic, and that I won’t inspire anyone by talking about my limits. When they tell me this, I realize that they’re operating from one story, and I’m operating from another.
I know that I can change the world; indeed, I am changing the world. What I can’t do is save it.
That I have limits is a fact, and I accept it. I don’t expect my changes to have a big impact. (I don’t expect anything, actually.) If what I do has impact, I know this impact arises only from an existing resonance, a resonance that grows through interacting with many other people in turn. We are like water molecules in a wave: we simultaneously transmit the wave and are moved by it. No one water molecule causes the wave, but together an enormous number of water molecules carry the wave. It’s all of us together, carried by a resonance, that will effect great change.
In other words, I operate from the story of the wave, not the story of the hero.
Sometimes, when I say we need to be patient, activists tell me that the situation is urgent and we have no time for patience. When they say this, I realize they don’t know what to do, and that they’re panicking. I know because I used to feel that way myself. But in my daily life, patience helps me get tasks done more quickly, not less quickly. Why would responding to global warming be any different? Patience is usually the fastest way to get somewhere worth going to.
I’m aware of how serious our predicament is. I’ve gone through a process of grief. My grief was deep and intense. It felt like I was part of the ocean, like I was connected to everything. Every now and then this grief comes back to remind me why I do what I do. It purifies and clarifies. I doubt that anyone who understands the seriousness of global warming can avoid this grief.
However, this grief is very far from despair. Grief comes from love, while despair comes from fear. I don’t despair; instead I feel joy. It’s true that we’ve lost a lot— a lot of wondrous species, a lot of beautiful places, a lot of opportunities— and that we’ll lose even more. But even through this loss, we can experience how much there is to love, how much there is left to save. Our grief and love can lead us to move forward with more creativity and more joy than we ever thought possible.
I have no blind hope that “they will think of something,” and yet I still feel optimistic in my own way. My particular optimism comes from the direct experience of connection.
Lifting the illusion
It used to be difficult for me to imagine living in another way, to imagine this land around me in Southern California without freeways, parking lots, or gas stations; to imagine the world without the constant noise of cars, helicopters, planes, and leaf blowers. These seemed like permanent fixtures. I took the conveniences of modern industrial life for granted— the frozen foods aisle, the cheap airplane fights, the internet, the constant distractions. I was attached to them; I wanted more of them. I kept hoping that more would make me happy. More stuff, more money, more clickbait, more convenience. After all, that’s what our culture of industrial civilization—petroculture— constantly whispers to our subconscious: more of this and you will finally be happy.
Now, as I ride my bicycle on the overpass over the freeway, the traffic below looks impermanent. The way our society lives now feels ephemeral to me.
While I used to see the future as more, I now see it as less. Far from feeling scary to me, less feels right. I’ve learned that wanting more actually gets in the way of happiness. The feeling of “more and then I’ll finally be happy” is an illusion.
I now see the imminent transformation of all that’s around me not as an end but as a beginning. This shift in my way of thinking has grown over time out of many moments of simple connection to nature and to other people. Even on a warmer planet, even after today’s global industrial civilization is no more than legend, there will still be mountains and sunsets, forests to walk in and oceans to sail, and good people to enjoy it all with.
But there’s lots of work to do to prepare for the coming storms. Happily, the work is fun.
- I will use the term global warming to refer to the increase in the average global temperature of recent decades and to the many changes to the Earth system caused by this warming, such as changes in precipitation. Strictly speaking, climate change is a more general phenomenon, of which today’s global warming is but one example. The Earth has experienced many changes in climate over its 4.5 billions years of existence.
- You can get this sense of plants as beings by standing silently by a
beautiful tree, or by standing in front of a Van Gogh painting of trees, or by other means.
- If you’re reading this after 2023, the human population has likely surpassed eight billion.
- I know that not many people see this yet, and I know I’m therefore taking a risk in saying it so clearly. But I know it to be true.
- Mohandas Gandhi. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 13 (1913), Ch. 153, page 241. [online]. gandhiserve.org/cwmg/VOL013.PDF. Emphasis mine.