The Future We Choose – Surviving the Climate Crisis

A review by Steve Schaefer

The year 2020 was a difficult one. But now, it’s 2021, and I’m ready to renew my commitment to ensuring a safe, healthy, and happy future for my children, grandchildren, and everyone else who will be living in the second half of the 21st century, after I’m gone.

Clear, actionable prose helps you take action.

Reading an inspiring book is a great way to light the fire of climate action in your belly. So, I pulled The Future We Choose—Surviving the Climate Crisis off my bookshelf. Its two authors, Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac have excellent climate credentials—they were the architects of the 2015 Paris Agreement. They are also cofounders of Global Optimism, an organization focused on bringing about environmental and social change.

I ordered the book last year when it came out, but for some reason, I only got through the first two parts before putting it aside. I got distracted and disturbed by the COVID-19 lockdown and six months of job searching, among other things. But with the U.S. about to re-enter the Paris Agreement under our new, climate-action-focused president, it seemed like an appropriate book to read right now. The book’s 210 pages went by fast, as the message is expertly written in clear, actionable prose.

Two Scenarios for 2050

Part 1 of the book, Two Worlds, offers a brief introduction and two views of life in 2050—one if we don’t act and one if we do. They are jarringly different scenarios, and of course, we want the second option. Chapter 1 opens the book with a brief review of the now familiar basic science of climate change. Chapter 2 presents a dystopian tale of rising temperatures and oceans, more powerful storms, mass dislocation, droughts, political unrest, and the other scary topics that Al Gore clearly laid out in his An Inconvenient Truth slideshow. Chapter 3 offers the alternative future, where we had the right vision and  took action, keeping the earth a good place for people to live. In a way, it follows Mr. Gore’s slideshow’s template—education—emotion—action.

Three Mindsets for Success

In Part 2, Three Mindsets, the authors lay out three ways of thinking we need to practice in order to be good citizens of the earth and do what’s necessary to succeed. The introduction begins with a warning that we too often start “doing” before first reflecting on “being”— knowing who we are and what we personally bring to the task and what other people can do. The authors quote Gandhi, who said we want to be the change we want to see. It reminds me of ideas I heard in my college philosophy classes. It’s certainly important to be centered, grounded, and know what our goals are.

They also say that we need to make a total shift in our thinking. Part of why we’ve done so much damage to the planet is that we don’t see and feel how we are intimately connected to all of nature in everything we do, from the air we breathe to the food we eat to the materials we take from the earth and the waste we leave behind. We need to move to an attitude of connection and stewardship, away from one of exploitation and disposal.

The three mindsets are:

  • Stubborn Optimism
  • Endless Abundance
  • Radical Regeneration

Stubborn Optimism

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale and the complexity of the climate crisis, but the authors urge us to not feel helpless. By recognizing our thought patterns, we can start to transform them, and move towards optimism. Optimism, in their definition, means an intention to see beyond the immediate horizon, have comfort in the uncertainty of the outcome, and make a commitment to keeping this mindset.

We want to focus on positive thoughts, while also clearly seeing the real issues, remembering that another future is possible, but not promised. We can use the power of hope to create a new reality.

“Optimism is about having steadfast confidence in our ability to solve big challenges. It is about making the choice to tenaciously work to make the current reality better.”

Endless Abundance

Picturing the world as a zero-sum game gives us a perception of scarcity, even when there isn’t any. This leads to competition and self-centeredness, which historically has been very damaging to the planet. However, with a rapidly expanding population and reduced resources, the earth is now approaching actual scarcity, so collaboration is now our only option.

“The practice of abundance starts by shifting our minds away from perceived scarcity to what we can collectively make abundant.”

Radical Regeneration

Regeneration here means two things. In one sense, our planet can no longer support one-directional growth, with continued extraction without restoration. One example of a solution is rewilding, where areas of the planet are allowed to return to their natural state. The other meaning of regeneration applies to us. The authors suggest meditation and mindfulness to stay personally grounded through the challenges of climate action. Also, time spent in the natural world is restorative, especially with so many of us inside suffering from “nature deficit disorder.”

Ten Actions to Take

In Part 3 Figueres and Rivett-Carnac lay out ten actions we all should take. They believe that while having the right mindset is crucial to success, we have to manifest it in our actions as well. It’s also important to reject the cycle of blame and retribution we get when looking at the past and embrace the shared endeavor while “transforming our priorities to an everyone-everywhere mission.”

“The time for doing what we can is past. Each of us must now do what’s necessary.”

Here are the ten actions.

Action 1: Let Go of the Old World

Fossil fuels have built our society, and brought a lot of people out of poverty, but it’s time to move on. We have to avoid nostalgia for the good old days and focus on where we’re going, not where we’ve been. It’s time to challenge our assumptions.

Action 2: Face Your Grief but Hold a Vision of the Future

With an uncertain future, we need to muster as much courage as we can. We need a vision, not simply goals, while keeping our eyes on what’s to come. It helps to believe that the world is worth saving and that a regenerative future is possible.

Action 3: Defend the Truth

In the internet age, there is plenty of disinformation and lies out there. We have to beware of “confirmation bias,” where we see truth in things that reinforce our existing beliefs. We should verify sources and learn to distinguish between real science and pseudoscience. We can make a positive impact by interacting with and listening to climate deniers to learn where they are coming from and find ways to communicate with them.

Action 4: See Yourself as a Citizen, not a Consumer

It’s crucial to resist the rampant and unsustainable consumerism of today, where “the good life” means constantly consuming new things. When you do buy things, be a good consumer and support companies that make their products sustainably. Even better, work to dematerialize.

Action 5: Move Beyond Fossil Fuels

This is a favorite of mine, as an EV advocate. Beyond moving to electric cars, the authors suggest making an energy audit of your home and systematically reducing your carbon footprint. And we can all demand 100 percent renewable energy from our utilities. We need to make the transition in a planned and measured way to keep the economy intact, but we must do it now.

Action 6: Reforest the Earth

Trees are natural, non-tech CO2 absorbers, and they are cheap and safe. By letting nature flourish we can undo a lot of damage. Trees help cool cities, too, where temperatures are already heading upward. Scary: 80 percent of the deforestation of the rainforest in Brazil is for raising beef cattle. Going to a more plant-based diet has a big impact. We can boycott products from companies that are contributing to deforestation.

Action 7: Invest in a Clean Economy

We need to move more in harmony with nature, repurpose used resources, and minimize waste. The book proposes moving away from using the GDP as a measurement of success—it’s based on extract, use, and discard. Places like Costa Rica and New Zealand are moving away from this model.

“We need to reorient our underlying sense of value toward quality of life.”

Action 8: Use Technology Responsibly

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a powerful tool and has exponential potential if deployed and governed well. It’s important, however, to apply the technology to a society that’s already moving in the right direction. Using AI to extract coal faster obviously isn’t the way. Redesigning energy grids and preventing methane leaks from pipes are good uses of technology. Find out what your government and local community are doing.

Action 9: Build Gender Equality

It turns out that women are better leaders during a crisis. They are more open and sensitive to a wider range of views and are better collaborators. Opening up educational opportunities to women worldwide leads to smaller, healthier families, which is crucial for limiting a growing world population. Project Drawdown has made this point clearly, as well. We need all the deep listening, empathy and collective wisdom we can get.

Action 10: Engage in Politics

We need stable political systems to be responsible to the planet’s changing needs and citizens’ evolving desires. Sadly, corporate interests have captured our democracies. Although climate change action is a higher priority for more people now, it needs to become the top priority. Peaceful civil resistance and civil disobedience are the moral choice and historically have proven to be very effective. It only takes a small number of people (3.5% of the population, according to the authors) to move change in a society.

The Conclusion

The book winds down by making two points, and then proposing an action plan. The points are:

  • We still have a choice—and every action matters
  • We can make the right choices about our own destiny

The action plan is a checklist called, “What You Can Do Now.” It proposes actions for right now and far into the future:

  • right now
  • today or tomorrow
  • this week
  • this month
  • this year
  • by 2030
  • by 2050

Thinking about these categories and planning what you will do helps you understand that your actions today matter, and that you need to be thinking long term, too. By 2050, those of us who are still around will know if our actions were successful.

Next: I’m going to fill in my What You Can Do checklist.

Figueres, Christiana and Rivett-Carnac, Tom. The Future We Choose—Surviving the Climate Crisis. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020.

On This Spaceship Earth, We Are All Crew

By Steve Schaefer

blue marble

A week ago, Tim Rumage, a planetary ethicist and naturalist and co-founder of This Spaceship Earth, spoke to an attentive online audience from Climate Reality Bay Area Chapter about Climate Change and how we are all complicit in it. He made a point of stressing that it’s not just our actions, but our thinking that has gotten us into trouble.

“We don’t think about the effects of what we do,” Rumage started with. He used an example of how during our current pandemic, the air has gotten significantly cleaner, not from the actions (or lack of actions) of any one person or country’s part, but by all of us. “The damage is cumulative–all of us,” he stated.

“We need to think in terms of how the planet functions, not just me, city, country,” he said. The name of his organization, This Spaceship Earth, comes from the fact that the Earth, as far as we know, is the only place where human life exists, and we are an island, with limited resources. We are all responsible for taking care of it, making us all “crew” and not “passengers.”

Rumage talked about how in earlier times, people thought of the Earth as a vast, unlimited place and if you ran out, you just moved on. We need to make the mental adjustments–political and psychological–from thinking of the world as unlimited to instead to envisioning it as a closed sphere.

TSE-crew-Tim

Rumage says we confuse “exchangeable” with “interchangeble.” The products we make are not equivalent to the natural versions, from our food to our fuels to everything else. We are also out of balance, using up more resources than can be replenished. Earth Overshoot Day, which falls on August 22nd this year, “marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year,” according to the Earth Overshoot Day website.

That’s certainly not a good long-term strategy for survival.

Continuing with the theme of our thinking being the problem, Rumage said that we suffer from siloed thinking–not looking at the big picture. “We have a mental disconnect with our life support system,” he said. “We are a part of the environment and not apart from it.”

It’s well worth visiting the website to learn more about Tim Rumage and his team, and to find out how you can develop “crew consciousness” on This Spaceship Earth. And you’re welcome to join the Bay Area Climate Reality Chapter. It’s based on Al Gore’s environmental message and training–but you don’t need to be trained yet to be a member, and it doesn’t cost anything. If you want to take the first worldwide Climate Reality Leadership Online Training, it’s coming up starting on July 18th.

An old 1960’s slogan was, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Today, you need to be a crew member, not a passenger. 

 

 

Experiences of Nature: Origins of My Climate Concerns

By Steve Schaefer

Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite

Where did my concern about climate change come from? As a Climate Reality Leader, I need to know and share my reasons for taking action.

I initially thought that my awareness started with the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, near the end of my senior year of high school. However, with more thought, I realized that I didn’t really do much on Earth Day. I wore a black armband, which someone distributed, and, to my shame, removed it when threatened by a bully.

It was really in the 1970’s that the events and resources that grew out of that first teach-in awoke my planetary conscience. I learned about recycling and witnessed smog in San Francisco firsthand. I sat in shock and wonder on a rock in the center of San Francisco and viewed and assessed the massive layer of civilization that spread across everything except the distant hills and Mount Diablo.

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View from Corona Heights in San Francisco

I heard about Silent Spring (I think I read it but can’t remember now) and The Population Bomb and saw TV reports of rivers that caught fire in Ohio. I tried natural foods and made recipes using my copy of Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet. I hugged trees and took long walks in Golden Gate Park (green, but not a wilderness).

Thinking about it, though, I wondered where my emotional start really came from. I thought about my encounters with nature as a child and a teenager, where I felt how human civilization was imposed on the planet, and how we were no longer living “naturally.”

In my first six years in Kenmore, a suburb of Buffalo, New York, I went to the park and saw trees and flowers in people’s yards, but I didn’t feel much connection to them. They were nice. I remember the tall trees I walked under on the way to my first-grade class in 1959, and the little flying seeds that fluttered down. I liked my grandparents’ grassy back yard, with the trees and flowers that grew there. I was more interested in my father’s sports cars.

shiprock

Then, we moved to Shiprock, New Mexico in 1960, in the middle of the school year. We plopped down in the desert, in a small town on the Navajo reservation. My father, a dentist, had joined the Public Health Service for an adventure and took my mother, my brothers, and me along.

It was very different from Buffalo. We lived in a small, one-story government-provided box, next to the new hospital where my dad looked after the Navajo people’s teeth. Our yard was dirt when we moved in and became an inappropriate lawn later; the surroundings were high desert. It was flat, and the famous landmark, the Shiprock, was visible through our front window.

Although we transplanted our suburban sensibilities there, with an air conditioner, Kool Aid, roller skates, and, eventually TV, we sometimes took trips in our car out into the desert and hiked around in our jeans, boots, and cowboy hats. We even had a horse for a while. I saw cactus, dry washes, hills, distant mountains, and desert wildlife, such as prairie dogs. And I heard silence.

Although I was just a kid, I remember the vastness, and the sense that we were a part of, but living apart from, the sand, rocks, and hardy desert vegetation. I don’t know how we would live out there without our modern conveniences, but apparently someone could.

Hogan

Hogan – from 1962 – when I was there!

We occasionally saw a traditional Hogan—a home made from wood and mud that the native people lived in before we rounded them up and put them in government housing. Some of the Navajos, including my friend Chester, lived across the street in Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) apartments that were not as nice as our very modest home. We didn’t study it in school, but I had a vague notion that people like the Navajos had once lived on the land. It wasn’t until I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and took a Native American Anthropology class in college that I understood what had really happened.

In any case, within our hermetically-sealed house with its single window-mounted air conditioner we were protected from the heat, wind and dust—and bitter winter cold. There were also spectacular storms, with powerful lightning and thunder, and dramatic clouds and sunsets. It wasn’t much like Buffalo at all.

I grew carrots in the side yard of our house. I remember impatiently pulling them up when they were small, and they tasted great.

After two-and-a-half years in Shiprock, we were transferred back to civilization—Staten Island, New York. It was like Kenmore again, with streets, stores, buses, noise, and all the rest. I fell right back into the Midcentury American lifestyle, collecting baseball cards and picking up returnable glass bottles from the side of the road to claim deposit money at the corner store, where I bought gum.

We moved to Connecticut and lived there for two years. My main experiences of nature there were poison ivy (I went marching obliviously through the woods behind my house) and snow, in which I delivered the morning newspaper for one winter. I also enjoyed the beach in the summertime, but it was mostly the adjacent pool, tasty popcorn and candy, and amusement park rides that attracted me, not the sand or the waters of the Long Island Sound.

We were lucky to move to California in 1965, just after I turned 12. My next real experiences of nature came from joining the Boy Scouts in 1966. As a member of Troop 162, I got to camp and hike in the beautiful state and national parks. We had occasional weekend camp-outs, but the big thing was our annual summer camp. A few dads would drive us up to the woods and we would occupy a campground with members of other scout troops, doing crafts and sports, being gross, and taking day hikes. In the second year I went, I was selected to take a weeklong hiking and camping trip with a small group far away from camp and out in the open spaces.

It was a memorable adventure. We loaded up our packs with food and hiked 10 miles out. We camped that first night, and resumed our trip the next day, hiking another 10 miles and eventually arriving at a beautiful meadow. We lived there for four days, doing our own cooking and not seeing a single road, car, TV, or sign of modern life. I have photos of it somewhere.

We lived on our Bernard’s freeze-dried rations, canned meat, and pilot biscuits. We cooked over campfires and earned merit badges. The sky was black at night, and I could see why they called it the “Milky Way,” as countless stars spread across the darkness as we lay in our sleeping bags. That summer, there were abundant meteor showers, too, adding to the thrill.

Milky Way

On the last day, packs empty, we hiked the entire 20 miles back to camp, arriving tired but strong and healthy. As a suburban kid who stayed inside reading and listening to the radio, I had never done this before, and I felt powerful.

After a few days hanging around camp, we drove back to my suburban home in Concord. I stared at the linoleum and glass and plastic in my house. I felt the difference between the natural world and the artificial one that was “natural” to me. I knew something was out of whack.

Since then, I have lived in cities and in suburbs, and taken a hike or two. I have also read a lot and watched the gap between the natural world and the growing human construction grow. Now, billions of human beings and the civilization we’ve developed are changing the earth. Because most of us don’t feel a real connection to nature, we can blithely continue in our daily lives without giving it much thought. But we have to act if we want it to last.

I am taking action because I remember the desert of New Mexico and the California wilderness, and I want an inhabitable planet for my grandchildren.

The Great Pivot, by Justine Burt

A book review by Steve Schaefer

The Great PIvot cover

There are many books, videos, and news stories out on global warming and climate change. Some are filled with scary predictions and are good at shocking us into action. But the best kind are the ones that try to paint a picture of ways we can take action to make a difference. The Great Pivot is one of the latter category.

The current carbon-based business model is becoming unsustainable. So, dealing with the huge tasks before us means not only deciding what to do but who’s going to do it. The Green New Deal, which is the subject of the last chapter (and is throughout the book in spirit) says that people want and need meaningful work. So why not get two for one?

That’s what the 30 pivots in The Great Pivot are meant to do. Burt’s carefully developed ideas show how we can scale up efforts to build a sustainable future. This means both creating meaningful jobs for workers and generating more sustainability project opportunities for investors.

Burt begins by addressing the employment situation today. The low official percentages don’t reflect the 37 million people ages 25-64 who are out of the labor force. With outsourcing, automation, and the gig economy, it’s tough out there. Today, the middle class is disrupted by changes in the work place and rising costs, and wages have been stagnant. We can rebuild the economic safety net with new sustainability jobs.

The author proposes five categories for job creation and devotes an entire chapter to each. They all have the goal of stabilizing the climate:

  • Advanced energy communities
  • Low-carbon mobility systems
  • A circular economy
  • Reduced food waste
  • A healthy natural world

Starting with Zero Net Energy, the first few pivots involve electrifying single-family homes and then spreading to multi-unit dwellings and commercial spaces. Existing technology can make all spaces more pleasant and energy efficient.

Twenty-eight percent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and Burt spends significant time discussing low carbon mobility. Besides moving to electric cars, we also need to develop clean mass transit, safe bicycling options, walkable communities, mobility-as-a service options, and build out the EV charging infrastructure. All of these are pivots that require people to do them.

The circular economy is a worthy goal to get us to our goal of climate stability. Instead of the current take-make-waste economy, a circular economy reuses and recycles. There are many jobs in waste prevention and building deconstruction (instead of demolition). How about a tool lending library combined with a repair café and maker space to reuse things rather than replace them?

It’s pathetic that 40 percent of food grown and raised in the U.S. is thrown out, for various reasons. Wasted food has a large impact on the climate. Jobs to prevent, recover, or recycle food waste make for excellent pivots. Many of these jobs do not require higher education—just training—so they would be available to many people who need meaningful work and steady pay.

Restoring nature is a valuable and meaningful form of employment that would help the planet recover. Ways of sequestering more carbon in the soil can improve agricultural yields while reducing carbon in the atmosphere. There is good work in restoring forests, waterways, and wildlife. How about creating furniture or other useful items from drought-stressed trees? Then we could leave healthy trees in place to do their job of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.

Besides these actions, we can start looking at the economy differently. We need to disrupt business as usual. For example, we should decouple growth from the traditional measurement of using gross domestic product (GDP). Burt proposes four goals:

  • Shift from fossil fuels to renewables
  • Create a circular flow of materials
  • Dematerialize by shifting to digital products and services
  • Radically reduce waste

It’s fine to get people working, but investors can make a big impact too, by funding the projects we need as part of the overall process of transforming our economy. Burt discusses bootstrapping, crowdfunding, direct public offerings, private equity, and other ways to get investors involved in the right way.

The book ends by discussing meaningful work and relating it to the goals of the Green New Deal, including leaving no person behind. We have many ways to move forward, and the 30 pivots are a great place to start. We need to do it now.

 

The Great Pivot by Justine Burt

MP Publishing, 2019

When Nature’s Not Natural

IMG_9943

Last Sunday, I took a walk in Lake Chabot Regional Park, near my home. My goal was to enjoy some scenic beauty, smell some greenery, admire some trees, and frankly, to accumulate plenty of steps to reach my 11,000 daily goal on my Fitbit.

It was a beautiful September morning, warm but not yet hot. As usual, there were more people near the entrance than once I got a half mile in. The usual shady spots, dry creeks, and golden dry California grass were all there, ready to enjoy. But I started to notice something. I was trying to absorb the natural environment, hear the birds and bugs, and feel the majestic beauty of the taller trees, but there was a lot more going on.

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I heard two people approaching, talking loudly about something. Then, a squealing child, running free. Bicyclists whizzed by. Runners with earbuds chugged along, seemingly oblivious. I saw what I believe was a trainer with a panting, sweating customer in tow. One man had a portable radio playing in his pocket.

In the distance, I saw paddleboats and the little restaurant that sells bait for fishing along with sandwiches, candy bars, and snacks. An airplane flew by overhead.

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Suddenly, I got an idea about why it’s so hard to get people aware that we have a climate problem. We don’t live in the natural environment!

Although the noisy people and zooming cyclists were a little annoying, I immediately realized that they were just like me–using nature for recreation. I wanted views and quiet, but some folks were making sure that their five-mile run wasn’t interrupted by cars or crosswalks. The families just wanted to get the kids outside for an outing. The 10-foot-wide paved path was lots better for the bike riders than dodging cars.

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Nature is where we have recreation, but it’s not where we spend our days, so why worry about it? Our world is made up of computers, cars, buildings and TV, along with cell phones and all the other mass-produced soft and hard goods we love. Our entire culture is man-made. No wonder we can’t relate to a damaged planet–it doesn’t seem relevant.

Even the “nature” I celebrated is a man-made lake, the result of dam built in 1874-75 to create a reservoir. The area didn’t become a recreational area until parts were opened up in the 1960s. It’s hardly wild, but compared to my street, it is.

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As I hoofed it back home and checked periodically at the slim device on my wrist, I was left wondering at how we’re going to sound the climate change alarm if nobody is listening.