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Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution
Pshaw! What are neighbors for but to help each other out?
—Mrs. Scott, Little House on the Priarie
The jungleEvery animal has unique attributes for thriving in the wilderness. The deer has speed and agility. The bear has powerful limbs and a keen sense of smell. The hawk has mighty wings and sharp eye- sight. I used to think that humanity’s unique attribute was a big brain. We survive by our wits and our technology, after all. But this is only part of the picture. Our brain is merely a prerequisite for the actual attribute that allows us to thrive: community. Imagine being deep in the jungle by yourself, naked, with no tools. Even with your big brain, you probably wouldn’t survive. To thrive and be happy would be even more difficult. Your big brain isn’t enough by itself. With tools and gear, you’d fare better. But then, in a sense, you’d no longer be alone. Tools and gear represent community condensed into material form. They were designed and perfected by many humans exchanging information, learning from one an- other’s mistakes, building on one another’s innovations over time. And with skills you’d fare even better. Like your tools, the skills are a form of community, condensed into knowledge and neuromuscular technique. They were also developed by a community of humans, refined over time, and passed down. Now imagine you’re part of a tribe. It’s night. You hear millions of insects chirping, the sounds of night birds, the lion’s roar. You feel safe among your close friends and relatives in the clearing. A child cries in a nearby dwelling and is comforted. Your survival depends on this community. In community, you learned how to find good food, how to make a snug dwelling, how to use plants to stay healthy. You don’t take your community for granted. Gifts are exchanged freely, smiles and laughter are the norm, and there are many celebrations. These things keep the community strong. They’re expressions of gratitude. We are community animals. Without community we’re like blind hawks. I’m concerned that our communities have atrophied and been largely replaced by some corporate facsimile.
Simple, place-appropriate livingHenry Thoreau, writer and naturalist, was fascinated by the indigenous people who had inhabited his region before the white colonists. Inspired by them, he experimented with simple living, seeking to free himself from the economic fetters of contemporary society. Thoreau was impressed that Penobscot lodges were “con- structed in a day or two at most” and were nonetheless “as warm as the best English houses.” By contrast, Thoreau noted, it took “from ten to fifteen years of the laborer’s life” to pay off the cost of an average house in his day.1 Thoreau concluded that his contemporaries led a more difficult life than the indigenous people who preceded them. These original people had the advantage of a mature community intimately adapted to their specific bioregion. Like many—perhaps all—indigenous peoples, the Penobscot passed down their place- appropriate knowledge and skills from generation to generation. By contrast, our modern way of life literally steamrolls over bioregional differences: US subdivisions are strikingly similar, from Houston to Anchorage. We’ve lost the bioregional knowledge of our elders. Instead, we depend on globalized commerce. And if anything, we’ve become still more economically fettered than Thoreau’s contemporaries: instead of 10 or 15 years, we typically need 30 years to pay off the cost of an average house in the US. Fabricated suburbs are a luxury of the age of fossil fuels, in that fossil fuels provide the power to steamroll bioregional particulars. Instead of building place-appropriate dwellings, we crank up the AC or the heater as desired. Instead of building human- scaled, integrated communities, we drive heavy metal and plastic boxes called “cars” long distances on congested “freeways.” And, of course, we ship in food from afar, food with no connection to the local ecology. As we transition away from fossil fuels, we’d do well to learn from the place-adapted communities that preceded us—at least to the extent possible, considering that we’ve so thoroughly erased them. Strong communities adapted to place help people live well and live efficiently, because living adapted to place simply takes less effort and energy. If you think about it, something’s out of whack when it takes 30 years to pay off a simple dwelling. A biodiversity of cultures gives us the building blocks we need to imagine and create a new story. Unfortunately, as Donella Meadows wrote, “People appreciate the evolutionary potential of cultures even less than they understand the potential of every ge- netic variation in ground squirrels.”2
Asking and givingLow-energy living requires me to ask for help from others. There’s a lot to get done, so on a more-or-less daily basis, I ask for favors (and also let a lot of things remain undone). For example:
- A friend and I had planned to meet at our shared community garden plot, but it turned out that I didn’t have the time or the energy to bike up there. I asked him to bring me some grapefruit from the tree in the garden. He ended up staying for dinner, and we played some music afterwards.
- We have a network of friends with kids with whom we swap babysitting duties.
- I asked a friend who’s a mosaic artist if she’d teach the boys and me how to mosaic the perimeters of broken concrete raised beds in our front yard. She ended up staying for dinner, as well.
- I found that I had no seeds to start zucchini when the time was ripe, so I asked my neighbor for some.
Community awareness, within biking distanceSome of you may think that interacting with neighbors in this way is the most natural thing in the world, even silly to write about. But community doesn’t seem to happen automatically in 21st-century America. I lived most of my life without this kind of interaction. I found that I had to practice basic community, and that it only gradually began to feel natural. As is typical in the US, in my neighborhood, people aren’t outside much, and they watch a lot of television. To engage with existing community structures, I first had to find them—I had to develop a sense of community awareness. This involved gradually getting to know a lot of like-minded people within an easy bike ride, becoming aware of what their interests are and how they interact with the community, and developing a sense of what the community needs. As I got to know people and establish trust, they’d introduce me to their friends. In this way, I gradually tied into existing net- works. I’ve become one thread in a fabric, one node in a network. I’m linked to other nodes—the people in the community who trust and respect me, and whom I trust and respect—and I influence them as they influence me. Together we decide where to invest our time and energy. It’s an organic, inexact structure. In an earlier phase of my experiments in community, I tried connecting with people via Facebook. But I found this unsatisfying.3 I personally prefer face-to-face interaction.
Community networksNatural systems, from the soil to our brains to human communities, draw their power from networks. When there’s a crisis, our network pulls us through. When there’s no crisis, our network lets us thrive. The depth and redundancy in the network translates to resilience. Below, I list a few that have been especially important for me, along my own path.
Citizens’ Climate LobbyCitizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) is a grassroots organization of volunteers working toward the carbon fee and dividend described in Chapter 14. Our local chapter has 30 or 40 active members. These folks were my antidote to feeling crazy for being concerned about global warming, several years ago when it seemed like no one else cared.
Backyard produce exchangeAltadena is a small unincorporated community nestled against the San Gabriel Mountains in northeastern Los Angeles. Many Altadenans grow fruits, vegetables, and herbs in our yards. Back- yard chickens and bees are commonplace; there are even backyard goats. A group of us meets every few weeks at a local park to exchange excess homegrown food. If my lemon tree is producing more than my family can eat, I’ll fill a bag with fruit, head to the crop swap, and come home with a grocery bag full of homegrown food that others had in excess. We call ourselves RIPE (residential in-season produce ex- change). Crop swapping is a miracle of gifting in which everyone trades something of little value (excess produce) for something of much greater value (a variety of homegrown food, vegetable starts, etc.). In other words, crop swapping leverages community to create value, tangibly—another example of an asymmetric economy. We also use a mailing list to share gardening knowledge, organize bare root fruit tree orders, offer unwanted stuff, and so on. I recently surveyed RIPE members to find which fruit trees have been successful and which haven’t, collated this data, and then shared this with the group. This Great Altadena Fruit Project harnessed local knowledge in a useful way. I’ve also used RIPE as an in-person knowledge exchange. I learned how to prune by organizing a moneyless pruning class at my house (an experienced pruner volunteered to teach it). I also designed a simple laundry-to-landscape greywater system,4 and I turned my installation into another moneyless class. I benefited from the help, and my helpers gained knowledge and experience.
Sangha (spiritual community)I find it essential to have a spiritual community, connection to people on a similar spiritual path. This community, or sangha, inspires me and practices with me. It helps me keep my practice strong. Once per week, Sharon and I invite local meditators to our house for a group sit. This is a great way for us to charge up our vipassana batteries. We also attend and help to organize “Awakin Circles,” informal gatherings that start with an hour of receptive silence (from any or no tradition), continue with a circle of sharing and deep listening, and end with a simple vegetarian meal.5 We experience that all are our friends, and none are our enemies. It’s really extraordinary to see this transformation happening in real time. Serving at meditation centers (cooking, cleaning, and washing dishes for the meditators) also connects me with my sangha. There is help and love everywhere, if only we are able to sense it. Trees are a part of my sangha, and sunlight and rain, and the plants in my garden, and the bugs in the soil, and certain places in the mountains. I find refuge in these things.
Community gardenEven though I have a garden at my house, I enjoy being a member of the community garden, which is a mile away up the hill. There’s great gardening energy there, with dozens of experienced gardeners with whom to trade ideas, produce, and plants. Gardening is a strangely effective community builder. I think we humans might instinctively associate gardening and community.
Transition TownsI have a dozen friends who meet regularly under the aegis of the Transition Towns movement, an international network of local groups exploring resilient alternatives to fossil-fueled industrial life.6 This group of passionate activists and doers, Transition Pasadena, organizes events with the intention of building local community. Whereas CCL is sharply focused, Transition Pasadena covers a broad spectrum, pushing for such things as free food gardens, bicycle infrastructure, local art, a StyrofoamTM ban, and linking up mulch-providing tree trimmers with mulch-needing homeowners. My favorite Transition Pasadena project, though, is the repair café: people bring in their broken things and volunteer tinkers and tailors mend them for free.
Church communitiesHaving reduced my own carbon emissions, I’m now interested in helping to pioneer similar reductions within a group. Three church communities in my neighborhood have expressed interest in reducing their emissions together, in community (two are Unitarian Universalist, and the third is Episcopal). Church groups around the world, called to actively protect creation for future generations, could be a powerful force for grassroots climate action. They can begin by quantifiably transitioning away from fossil fuels. From what I’ve seen so far, this can be done with a spirit of creativity, subversiveness, sacredness, and fun.
Community solarInstead of putting solar panels on my roof, I decided to do what I could to push for solar panels for all of Los Angeles County. This way I’ll be able to get 100% renewably generated electricity for cheaper than rooftop solar—while simultaneously helping to do the same for ten million other people. The mechanism behind this is called community choice aggregation (CCA). In California and a few other US states, communities are legally able to band together to form an alternative electric utility.7 In doing so, they can choose exactly how their electricity is generated. The existing utility company is required to deliver the electricity to residents (and can charge a fair delivery fee). By installing local renewable generation, CCAs also invest in their own communities, creating local jobs and infrastructure. They also support residential rooftop solar by buying excess rooftop generation at a fair price. California’s Marin and Sonoma counties have already formed successful CCAs, which provide cleaner electricity at lower cost.8 With luck, the Los Angeles County CCA will join them soon. CCA is the way forward to 100% renewable electricity, and Cali- fornia is demonstrating this to the world.
SoccerMy family has a great time with good old youth soccer. Soccer gives my kids confidence, teaches them social skills, keeps them fit, binds them together as brothers, and brings them closer to their friends. They love it. All they need is a soccer ball and they’ll play together blissfully for hours. And I love coaching, a great way for a parent to bond with a child. Soccer unites and builds community. It brings joy and connection to people of all ages, all religions, and all ideologies, even in the poorest of places and the direst of circumstances.9
Thousands of othersThere are thousands of other community networks within easy biking distance of my house. There are wonderful school groups, church groups, neighborhood groups, sports groups, city councils, new parent groups, death cafés, meetups, dances, house concerts, block parties, festivals . . . a whole biosphere of human community! The same is true where you live—but if you’re interested in some network and a group doesn’t exist in your area, consider starting it. Starting a group is a wonderful opportunity to serve others.
Race, privilege, and environmental equalityInterestingly, the community garden is racially diverse—whites are the minority there—but CCL membership is nearly 100% white, as is the international Transition Towns movement. The climate movement must find ways to appeal to a wide base that cuts across racial and social demographics. When this critical mass is achieved, climate action will become inevitable. White people in the US, as a group, suffer far less exposure to environmental degradation than other racial groups. For example, people of color breathe air that is on average 40% more polluted.10 Why, then, is the mainstream environmental movement so thoroughly white? One reason, perhaps, is that most of the resources in the environmental movement are controlled by Big Green NGOs, which are run like corporations with white chief executives compensated like corporate leaders. Many of these NGOs and their insider leaders aren’t interested in rocking the boat; they defanged themselves decades ago in favor of replicating dominant institutional structures, of aligning with corporate power instead of resisting.11 (Corporations, for their part, say thanks for the greenwash.) But there are deeper reasons: privilege and positionality. First, privilege. Black and Hispanic households in the US have on average only 1/10 the wealth of whites—a staggering disparity.12 To these households, the usual “solutions” pushed by climate activists are out of reach: solar panels, solar hot water heaters, electric cars, shopping at farmers’ markets. Just having the mental space to think about climate is a form of privilege, in the sense that doing so requires ample physical and psychological security, a degree of freedom from more immediate concerns like making rent. To many working-class people, including whites, thinking about climate change is for rich white people who live relatively high up on the hierarchy of needs. Even many of my suggestions in this book, while not requiring money, nonetheless depend on other forms of privilege. Meditation requires carving out time away from one’s job (or job search) and dependents. Deep composting requires continuous access to a patch of ground. Vegetarianism requires access to a variety of high-quality fruits and vegetables. Pulling good food out of dumpsters can lead to confrontations with police, which might be riskier for some than it is for me. Perhaps the only two of my changes that don’t require privilege are quitting planes and bicycling. Second, positionality. Consider how the issue of inclusivity is usually framed: how can we (privileged whites) get non-whites to join our movement? Implicit in this question is that the movement is a white movement, operating from a white perspective. Why would people of color want to join such a movement? Why would working-class whites want to join? I have no simple answers to these questions—I doubt there is a simple answer—but I intuit that progress here will be critical for progress on climate. We (and here again, I’m talking to my white brothers and sisters) need to reach out to people who aren’t like us, spend time with them, listen to and serve them—and win their trust. Instead of asking people of color to join us, we need to join them. We need to boldly but humbly go into their communities, give talks there, grow gardens there, route marches there. We need to invest our time and infrastructure there, fight for bike lanes and community gardens to go in there first, and bring in jobs and clean energy with community choice aggregation there. We need to let them experience how climate action improves their lives. Once they’re in, we all win. Money and gift My formal communities—my town, state, nation, and work- place—feel somewhat impersonal to me. To a large extent, we have replaced the messiness of local personal community with a pseudo-community that runs on money and legal contracts (which ultimately are backed by violence). I can understand why: we need protection from bad actors, and constant bartering would be inconvenient. Still, I can’t help feeling we’ve paid a high price for our efficient, legalistic, and impersonal society—which is, quite legally, destroying the biosphere. Is there a middle path here, too? If there is, I suspect we’ll find it through gift: helping others, and delighting them, while genuinely expecting nothing in return. Paradoxically, I find that I get back far more when I give freely. To receive something freely—gratis—leads to true gratitude; to give something freely, to true grace. The biosphere runs on grace.13 While the money economy emphasizes separation, the gift economy emphasizes connection. Even if gift transactions represent only a tiny sliver of the community’s economy, they could catalyze a crucial shift in our mindset.
It takes peacemakers to build and maintain community. Before we can be effective peacemakers, we must have peace ourselves. The ego is a barrier to community. Our egos make us feel we need to be right, and to put ourselves above others. Any time a dis- agreement grows into a fight, with feelings of jealousy, anger, or hatred, the root cause is always ego. Left unchecked, these fights can turn into feuds capable of tearing apart the community.
Unless the community consists entirely of experienced meditators—and even when meditating correctly it can take a lifetime to dissolve the ego—negativity will arise. We therefore need to make peace.
I’ve found that the best thing to do when I feel negativity to-
ward someone (for example, when I feel slighted, or angry) is to generate loving-kindness toward the other (metta) and to try seeing from his or her point of view. This action is usually enough. Many times, the negativity was only in my mind. Seeing from the other’s point of view dissolves the negativity.
If this isn’t enough, the next step is to talk with the person. This takes courage. Again, before talking to the person, and while talking to the person, I try to feel metta. While talking, I try to see the other person’s point of view. If anger or other negativity starts to come up, I try to follow my breath. This can help me pause be- fore I respond. Reacting mindlessly usually makes the situation worse. People are good at sensing egos; if I respond from my ego, the problem will only get worse.
When I was younger, I used to have enemies. Nothing was more important to me than being right. Sometimes I would nurture enmity for years at a time. This made me a slave to my ego. A few years ago, after many years of meditating, one day I noticed that I had no enemies, and hadn’t for some time. All people are my friends. I now see that holding on to the need to be right made me miserable. Letting go of being right is a relief.
Good listening is like a pressure-relief valve for community. It lets people know they belong. It also provides the foundation upon which communities solve their problems.
When I listen to someone properly, there’s nothing in the world more important than that person. My mind doesn’t wander. I don’t think about what I should say next while they talk so that I can sound smart. If I really listen, I don’t need to talk. And if I do talk, when it’s time for me to talk, it’s with metta for the person I’m talking to.
Do I listen like this all the time? Unfortunately, I don’t. But when I do, the connection is wonderful. This is a difficult practice, but the rewards are great. I find it helpful to maintain awareness of my body during conversation through breath or sensation.
The opportunity to help someone is a precious thing. When you have this opportunity, jump on it. Conversely, be open to asking for help. If you ask for help, your needs will be met—and you’ll give someone else an opportunity to help.
Leading and supporting
I used to need to be the leader. Instead of looking to contribute to the community and make it successful, I was just making my ego bigger.
Now, I look for supporting roles instead, and these feel good to me. I can see how much other members of the community have to offer. I can see their good qualities, and appreciate them, and feel sympathetic joy—joy in the success of others. This leads to a sense of harmony and connection.
When it is time for a leadership role, the leadership role will come. In my experience, at least, it is counterproductive to push for it. When it does come, it must be accepted with humility. The best leaders seek to serve. When the community is happy, the leader’s reward is sympathetic joy.
I haven’t seen much in the way of effective protest over the course of my life. Marches come and marches go; they’re fun and they bring us together, remind us that we’re not alone, but nothing changes.
When you study the unimaginably vast, cold void of space, it becomes harder to take the Earth for granted. Every patch of ground on this life-giving planet is sacred. Our native American brothers and sisters came from cultures that knew this, and many of them still re-member. From their communities, a new template for protest is emerging: non-violence rooted in the love of a place, non-violence with a solid spiritual foundation. Protest needs a place. Protest needs community. It doesn’t happen on social media. Pro- test is only as strong as the community that it builds—the soil out of which change can grow.
How can we talk to our children about our predicament? I’ve never sat down with my boys and said, “So, kids, time for you to know about global warming.” Instead, I try to live a life that’s in- formed by my knowledge and acceptance of global warming, a life that’s consistent with my values. If my boys ask me something, I answer as honestly as I can. I certainly never go out of my way to scare them, but I don’t lie to them, either.
In industrial society, have we forgotten how to celebrate? Our modern holidays focus on consuming—sensual pleasure. But real celebration isn’t about sensual pleasure. It’s about losing one’s sense of self and gaining a sense of something larger. This sense of something larger defies words, so we may as well call it community. When I get this feeling of community, it often seems to involve people playing music and dancing. To be absorbed in this music and dance, to see everyone smiling and also absorbed, to me this is celebration. And for the music to be live is important; so much of our art and music today has been colonized, commodified.
What thrills me is culture that comes as gift, as relationship. Celebration is sacred, and the sacred is critically important. Celebration connects me somehow to humans long since dead, and humans who will be born far in the future. This makes death seem less terrifying. As for the people celebrating with me, in the present moment, I realize we’re all in the same boat, with death hanging over us, doing our best to make sense of this strange life.
In this way, celebration creates compassion.
It’s not enough to change our own lives. It’s not even enough to engage with the community. We must also be storytellers. Stories bind communities. They teach us, inspire us, and give us a way of making meaning out of the chaos of life. They direct our actions in powerful ways. Stories capture our imaginations, and global warming is the result of the greatest failure of imagination the world has ever seen.
Every one of us can tell this new story of living aligned with the biosphere, each other, and ourselves. This is the story of leaving fossil fuels far behind. This is the story of connection, of seeing ourselves within the biosphere and not above it.
How you tell it is up to you, whether through speech, song, poetry, or comedy; whether through teaching children, or running for office. But I can promise that no matter how you choose to tell the story, your first step will be to live it.
- Henry David Thoreau. Walden. Internet Bookmobile, 2004, Chap- ter 1, “Economy,” pp. 25 and 26. [online]. eldritchpress.org/walden5 .pdf.
- Meadows. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.”
- The concept of “online community” seemed promising at first, and in 2009 or thereabouts, I started a “350 Los Angeles” Facebook group. 350.org is an organization of climate activists that takes its name from the CO2 atmospheric concentration deemed to be the maximum safe level by climate scientist James Hansen (350 parts per million). While Facebook activism might work well for some people, my own experi- ence of “350 Los Angeles” on Facebook turned out to be pointless and disempowering: I’d post diatribes that disappeared into the internet void and organize events to which no one showed up.
- A PVC pipe receives my washing machine drain hose; the hose empties into a long narrow trench between my avocado and orange trees that’s filled with wood chip mulch (used only with sodium-free detergents).
- These circles were pioneered by my friend Nipun Mehta and have grown into an organic network of gift economy: Awakin. [online]. awakin.org.
- For links to groups, see: Transition Network. [online]. transition network.org.
- For details about projects in California, see: Clean Power Exchange. [online]. cleanpowerexchange.org/.
- Sonoma Clean Power [online]. sonomacleanpower.org/; Marin Clean Energy [online]. mcecleanenergy.org/.
- See the incredible short film: Ben C. Solomon and Tommy Tren- chard. “Erison and the ebola soccer survivors,” New York Times, 2015. [online]. nytimes.com/video/world/africa/100000003815213/erison -and-the-ebola-soccer-survivors.html.
- Lara P. Clark et al. “National Patterns in Environmental Injustice and Inequality: Outdoor NO2 Air Pollution in the United States.” PLoS ONE 9(4) (2014). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094431.
- For example: Heather Clancy. “TNC’s Mark Tercek: Protect, transform and inspire.” GreenBiz, July 9, 2015. [online]. greenbiz.com /article/tncs-mark-tercek-protect-transform-and-inspire.
- Tami Luhby. “The black-white economic divide in 5 charts.” CNN Money, November 25, 2015. [online]. money.cnn.com/2015/11/24 /news/economy/blacks-whites-inequality/index.html.
- I am grateful to Daniel Suelo for teaching me about grace.