One day this spring, when apple blossoms and wisteria splashed pink, white and purple all over Atlanta, I woke up to read that the seas were suffocating because of global warming and it might be too late to save them. I sipped my tea from a cup ironically inscribed with the word “courage” and pictured legions of marine creatures floating open-mouthed to the surface of the ocean.
That reminded me of a Reuters article declaring that a child born today may live to see the end of humanity—a few broken survivors surveying a panoptic devastation. And that made me recall the environmental journalist Chris Mooney’s call to arms in the Washington Post, which declared that the damage we’ve done to Earth has no parallel in 66 million years.
“It kind of wrecks my day to read these headlines,” said Earth scientist Peter Kalmus of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, when I called him to ask whether terrifying warnings do us any good. Speaking on his own behalf, not NASA’s or JPL, he went on: “I get this sinking sensation in my stomach.”
I was glad to hear it, because most news about climate change makes me deflate in despair. Since I can’t un-suffocate the oceans, my reaction is to shutter my attention and focus on the now. But lately, I’ve been talking to scientists, environmental writers and activists about whether the time has come for a shift in the way we talk about the climate. After all, in March, Gallup reported that 65% of Americans now believe global warming is caused primarily by human activities. A majority of Americans now concede the truth. I don’t see the dire headlines moving us to action. Inspiring examples might go farther.
Some might argue that the public should keep being screamed at until we stop being such carbon hogs. But there are drawbacks to such tactics. Back in 2009, the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University (CRED) put out a guide on how to communicate about climate change. The guide urges educators and scientists to avoid overusing emotional appeals and accentuating worst-case scenarios, noting that they may backfire. We all have a limited emotional capacity for worry. When we’ve reached our limit, we become numb to the latest news—and wind up doing nothing much to help the environment.
Kalmus thinks the best way to get people to change is to demonstrate the deep and abiding pleasure of eco-friendly actions. “We keep forgetting that we are animals,” he says. He contends that cutting your carbon footprint brings you into closer communion with simple animal joy. That may inspire you to keep on cutting carbon usage, and show others how to do it in turn.
Kalmus has experienced the surprising upside of low-carbon living firsthand. He no longer flies planes to conferences, as he described in an article for Yes Magazine in February. He also bikes to work, grows his own garden, camps with his family under the stars on the annual drive to see relatives, and by various other changes described in a book forthcoming from New Society Publishers next year, now emits about 1 ton of carbon dioxide per year, down from 19 tons per year, which is about the U.S. average. “What surprised me,” he said on the phone, “is how much happier I am. I’ve discovered that the rewards of living with less fossil fuel are huge.”
Kalmus says he feels real physical joy when he rides his bike on the way to the office. “I see the neighborhood where I live. It isn’t just the space between A and B,” he says. “I smile at people and they smile back. I’m healthier.” Meanwhile, gardening on his one-tenth of an acre has introduced him to the universal pleasure of using his hands to dig in soil, surrounded by fruit trees and wildflowers, caressed by the wafting hints of sage and mint.
But persuading people to change the way we live is not all about pleasure. It’s also about understanding ourselves as a collective as well as individuals.
In the fall of 1999, I attended a lecture by the late biologist Lynn Margulis in New York City. She stood at the podium in a packed hall and displayed a slide of bright yellow slime mold from her lab, growing over the edges of its petri dish. Slime mold is essentially an enormous single cell with thousands of nuclei. Individual cells fuse under conditions of stress, in order to better survive. As long as slime mold has nutrients, she told us, it will keep growing, over the edge of the dish and even onto the table itself. It will grow heedlessly until it dies.
Then she flashed another picture on the projection screen, one that looked like the slime mold. “This is millenachteluchte,” she said—a thousand lights at night. We were looking at a photo of the lights of civilization, she said, which covered the bulk of habitable land on earth. Like the slime mold, she suggested, we would find it hard to rein ourselves in. “I had three children,” she said, “and I want my children to have children.”
This is not to say that we are slime, or that we are no better than slime mold (which is actually a pretty remarkable organism). It is to suggest that we can better understand our own perplexing behavior by examining patterns across all of life—and understanding what directs and delivers life, how it survives and adapts.
“I believe in living green,” climate activist Bill McKibben wrote me, “but I truly believe we’re up against a structural and systemic crisis that is going to take joint action—political action—to solve.”
McKibben is a necessary and great voice for our times. But I also want Kalmus’s joy. I want to be able to face facts without being undone by them.
“Don’t underestimate individual change,” Kalmus says. We all know by now that 400,000 people pre-ordered a $30,000 electric car, Tesla, that is at least two years away. Is that not a wave—and one started by individuals, not a government?
Once you go looking for stories about people creating positive change, there is no shortage of inspiration available. The Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit co-founded by journalists David Bornstein, Tina Rosenberg, and Courtney Martin, encourages and curates news reporting focused on solutions to global problems. On the website you can search global stories by beat, including climate change. A quick search there landed me at a story about trees planted in a tiny Indian town, creating lush greenery and enough water to stop deaths from dehydration. Next, I read about the news that the third-largest pension fund in the US just invested 2 billion in companies with small carbon footprints, paving the way for other investors to go green while making profits.
Most people I speak with want to leave a positive legacy behind. The trick is for the media, governments and other leaders to help show us how, not hammer us into well-informed futility.
When I read about Sweden’s remarkable initiatives—its goal to be fossil fuel free by 2040, its plan to transform Stockholm into a walkable city—I think the country has found a way to inspire its citizens to tap into their collective humanity and work for lasting change. Today, in May, honeysuckle perfumes my world. I’ll walk in the park and stop and pinch off a blossom, tug on the inner stem, and lick the nectar that pearls out, cool as from underground springs. Then I’ll take a look at Kalmus’s personal emissions calculator, and figure out just where I can cut some carbon.