A review by Steve Schaefer
Climate change is no longer theoretical—it’s here. Every time I read another online story, listen to another podcast, or suffer through a week of record-breaking 105-degree temperatures, I wonder what to do about it. What can one person do? What should we all be doing?
Peter Kalmus has a suggestion—be the change. An atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory with a Ph.D. in physics from Columbia, he understands what’s causing the climate crisis. But he also believes that it’s not only what you do, but who you are that gets things moving for you, your community, and the whole world.
Kalmus combines vegetarian eating, composting, bike riding, and raising a family in suburban California with a meditation practice that helps him disconnect from many of the ideas and beliefs that have led to rising temperatures and climate disruption. And he claims he’s never been happier.
His 300-page book, Being the Change—Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution (New Society Publishers, 2017), is dense with clearly explained data and personal stories, and with sixty pages of notes, it’s well researched. Let’s take a look, chapter by chapter.
Kalmus begins by describing his three-part path. His head studies and understands problems, his hands work in his garden, and his daily meditation brings a greater connection to nature. He has found that giving up many of the activities and attitudes he thought were necessary have made him happier—lighter—while reducing his carbon footprint by about 90 percent.
Kalmus calls our world a biosphere, because it puts human beings in the middle of it, not separate, living in “the environment.” He explores what we mean by “green” and “sustainable.” He would rather use “low energy” than “green,” since it’s our fossil fuel burning that’s causing so much of the problem. He advocates mindfulness – awareness of how we are all part of the world and the problem—he says it’s more effective than trying to “save the world.”
Global Warming: The Science
As a scientist, Kalmus can clearly explain the process of global warming. He is surprised by how fast the changes are occurring. This is the one chapter with graphs. The author lays out the greenhouse effect and the sources of human-caused warming, tracing its rise over the last 150 years of industrial fuel-burning, and shows us the accelerated warming over the last 40 years.
Global Warming: The Outlook
Then, Kalmus shows how climate change affects the weather, pushing mass extinctions, and acidifies the ocean; all of these lead to fires, floods, and rising seas. There are the inevitable consequences of those events—mass migrations, civil unrest, suffering. But despite this gloomy picture, Kalmus still retains some optimism, because there are actions we can take, and we are starting to do them. It will take worldwide collective action — even more than the “World War II” example, which was actually half the world fighting the other half.
Growth Always Ends
Part of our problem is too much growth, says Kalmus, and making continuous growth our goal. He states, “Sooner or later, everything that physically grows must stop.” Unchecked, unceasing growth can become exponential, out of control. And we have the “population bomb” to deal with too as we move toward eight billion human beings on this planet. Food and water scarcity loom. Soils are overworked.
Kalmus suggests we learn to live without growth. Although we must deal with global warming now, “humanity must somehow move into a stable and harmonious long-term relationship with the biosphere.” And we can start by seeing ourselves as part of a “vast, complex, and beautiful tapestry of life.”
Kalmus believes that the worldview we have created keeps us from understanding the depth and urgency of what we have to do now. He says that the myth of progress has become “a civil religion,” in which we believe that technology will save us. He colorfully describes playing “Star Trek” as a child, and how, as in Star Trek, we hope and expect that in a few hundred years things will be much better. But the scale of our technology, once so wonderful, is now affecting the Earth in powerful and destructive ways.
In the middle of discussing our modern myths, Kalmus bring up the idea of confirmation bias, where we tend to look for evidence that supports our beliefs and ignore evidence that contradicts it. This explains the levels of climate denial that most of us, to varying degrees, exhibit. We are taking our fragile biosphere for granted.
Kalmus hopes we can replace the myths of progress and separation from nature with something new. “The new story will be helping each other wake up, and being happy right here, right now.”
A Mammal in the Biosphere
In the second half of the book, Kalmus looks at what we can do to pioneer the transformation into a post-fossil-fuel world. He shares his experience, noting that it will be different for each person. His recommended “trailheads in the wilderness” include riding a bike, growing a plant, repairing something, getting rid of stuff, joining a community group, and spending time in a wild area. There’s a whole chapter on his biking experiences—he rides his to work. Then, he talks about leaving fossil fuel, which he admits he hasn’t done one hundred percent, but he lives what he calls a “normal suburban life” with a vast reduction in emissions.
Leaving Fossil Fuel
Sometimes a car is necessary in Altadena, California. Kalmus’ vehicle of choice is Maeby, a 1984 Mercedes-Benz that runs on waste vegetable oil. This produces some adventures, as it takes a lot more maintenance and hunting for fuel than a regular car, but it reduces his fossil fuel burning substantially. He writes eloquently on reducing waste and “stuff” — the things we buy all the time that we don’t really need.
There’s a massive waste of food today. He has taken up, unbelievably, “freeganism,” or “dumpster diving.” A lot of perfectly healthy food is thrown away by supermarkets as it passes its point of perfection, and it can be eaten safely if you know what you’re doing. I don’t think I’m up for that yet.
When you’re trying to lower your carbon footprint, it helps to stop flying in airplanes and to limit your driving in standard gasoline cars. Kalmus prefers to travel by bicycle, which works for where he lives and works. For longer trips, he uses Maeby.
Kalmus has taken the train and has sailed in a sailboat — and even ridden aboard a container ship. He believes that traveling slowly while being aware of everything around you is much more rewarding than dashing around.
Change through Meditation
Kalmus meditates a couple of hours a day, and this has changed the way he lives. As he says, it’s a practice, not a religion, and he heartily recommends meditating to change your relationship to yourself and with the world around you. He describes how he and his wife became meditators, and stresses that there are many kinds—you just have to find what works for you. And it’s good for your brain, too.
Reconnecting with Mother Earth
Most of us neither grow our own food nor even know where it comes from. But Kalmus grows his and has learned a lot about plants and himself in the process. He also uses a composting toilet, which produces “humanure” that he feeds to his fruit trees. This doesn’t sound like much fun to a modern person, but if done properly, it creates no terrible odors and gives a whole new meaning to recycling. And what did we do before indoor plumbing, anyway?
Although Kalmus is a vegetarian, his kids are not, and they have a flock of chickens to provide eggs and meat. He also keeps bees. He claims that watching the complex life of the bees is the beekeeper’s greatest reward—not the honey.
Part of living in a different, more sustainable way is to learn to opt out of the normal way of life around you. Kalmus calls modern life the “industrial-commercial” system, and it‘s part of what’s causing so much trouble on the planet. There are multiple ways to do this, starting with breaking the attachment to having more and more stuff, to repairing what you do own (like folks used to). Every aspect of living can use less energy and fewer materials. Kalmus has found that as he gives up what he used to think was essential, he is happier, lighter, and consumes much less. His vegetarianism aligns with his beliefs and eliminates a lot of packaging and unwholesome food.
Beyond this, opting out can mean leaving your big bank, or finding a job that aligns with your personal principles, or turning off the TV and spending more time with your family. It’s up to you.
Whatever we may do as individuals, “we also need collective action on a large scale if we hope to quickly reduce global carbon emissions and avoid increasingly catastrophic warming,” Kalmus states. While this sounds like the various agreements you’re heard about, including the Paris Agreement of 2015, Kalmus proposes something more—a carbon fee and dividend. This sets a price on carbon and returns the collected funds to the people as a dividend—not to the government. It’s not a tax. So, it might cost you more up front but pays you back at the end—while motivating emitters to stop. There are other proposed carbon pricing methods, and Kalmus explores them, too. “A carbon fee may be our best chance for a livable planet. To get it, we citizens need to demand it,” he says.
There’s no question that any progress we make requires us to work together. Kalmus talks about asymmetric economy, which he says means, “When we receive help, we’re grateful, it’s of great value; and when we give help, it’s rather easy to do.” There are various groups and networks working together on climate issues, and you can join them and participate.
In the end, the climate crisis is not just about science. “Let’s work to build a world where everyone puts others above self and where we live aligned with the biosphere,” Kalmus says as he closes the book. He describes three sacred tasks we need to learn: to live respectfully within the biosphere, to get along with each other, and to be happy in our own minds. Reading this book and doing even a little bit of what the author describes and recommends could help you do that.