In his new book Being the Change, climate scientist Peter Kalmus shows why, on the cusp of climate catastrophe, we are neither choiceless nor powerless.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
When the wildfires were still raging in California, my 12-year-old daughter and I rode Amtrak north from Oakland to Sacramento. Nearing Berkeley, we caught our first glimpse of the gray-brown wall of smoke issuing in from Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Butte, and Solano counties. After riding 10 or so miles further on, the illusion of the wall suddenly dissipated, and we found ourselves speeding along in a fog of fine ash, our train blanketed in its opaque haze.
Gazing into the smoke, my daughter seated beside me, I considered the stark difference our awareness of global warming created between my childhood and hers. And I felt a deep anxiety stir in my belly.
“At first, we didn’t know what we were doing. It was reasonable for us to start burning fossil fuels.”
What happens to a child’s psyche, I asked myself, as she gradually absorbs the knowledge that our planet is warming at a terrifying rate and to an unimaginably dangerous degree, then quietly observes the adults in her life, particularly those most responsible for caring for and protecting her, doing the very things that are causing the emergency? What happens as she observes the mundane spectrum of everyday life in the United States amid climate chaos: as dad pulls the car up to the pump, as mom comes home from the airport after a business trip, as the family sits down to another meat and factory farm-based dinner, iPhones at the ready and the thermostat cranked to 70?
I turned my gaze from the smoke and looked again at the book in my lap, Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, by climate scientist Peter Kalmus. The page I had been reading would eventually lead to here: “Few people respond to facts… While intellect certainly plays a role, it’s a rather small one. Our dire ecological crisis calls us to go deeper.”
In his famous meditation on children, Kahlil Gibran likens parents to the bows of the divine archer, from which children, like arrows, are sent forth into the mystery of their own souls and futures. The beloved bow, Gibran attests, sends the arrow swift and far, by bending to the archer’s strength, while at the same time remaining stable. Such flexible stability is what I long to achieve as a parent—a certain rootedness and strength of purpose, mediated by gentleness. It’s what I believe I need if I’m going to accompany my daughter as she learns to face the coming storms—and fires—with her eyes and heart open.
So it is that I’m gravitating toward the solace and instruction of other dads these days, the more humble and down-to-earth the better. Kalmus, father of two young sons, is one such dad.
“At first, we didn’t know what we were doing. It was reasonable for us to start burning fossil fuels,” Kalmus says early on in Being the Change. “However, now we do know what we’re doing.”
When it comes to social change, how we live our lives is of paramount importance.
It’s an exquisitely sane point of departure for the author’s first book, which reads as an openhearted letter to anyone deeply concerned about global warming and at all cognizant of how quickly the climate change clock is ticking. Being the Change details Kalmus’ process of bringing his daily life into alignment with his conscience—a process that carries some very welcome side effects: namely, a carbon footprint weighing in at one-tenth the U.S. average, greater happiness, and deepened connections with loved ones and life itself.
As a climate expert utterly in the know about humanity’s devastating impact on the health of the biosphere (see Chapter 3), and with as clear a picture as can be had about where our civilization’s carbon addiction is leading (see Chapter 4), Kalmus eventually proves no match for the cognitive dissonance he experiences because of his own outsized carbon footprint. His chosen response is refreshingly straightforward: “If fossil fuels cause global warming, and I don’t want global warming,” he writes, “then I should reduce my fossil fuel use.”
Although there’s zero evidence that Gandhi ever wrote or uttered the most popular phrase attributed to him—“Be the change you wish to see in the world”—the sentiment is distinctly Gandhian. Finding congruence between our deepest convictions and our outward behavior, according to this adage, is the true measure of our genuine happiness, and of our contribution to the world. It’s an old and simple idea: When it comes to social change, how we live our lives is of paramount importance. In India, Gandhi captured the heart of a massive social movement with his own rendering of this basic philosophy. “Nobility of soul,” he summarized in a letter to his cousin, “consists in realizing that you are yourself India. In your emancipation is the emancipation of India. All else is make believe.”
Burning fossil fuel causes harm.
What makes Being the Change important is not Kalmus’ restatement of this age-old tenet, but his plainspoken description of putting it into concrete practice. He offers thorough, humbly stated guidance on establishing new daily practices which, step by step, can break a person free from the carbon-heavy status quo. What’s more, through his inspiring and often funny anecdotes about his homespun experiments aimed at paring down—things like bicycling , growing food, meditating, embracing a vegetarian diet, and renouncing air travel—Kalmus illustrates that overcoming our addiction to fossil fuels isn’t a path of puritanical self-mortification. Rather, low-energy living (low-energy being Kalmus’ corrective for green, because of its insidious consumerist implications) can be a deeply satisfying adventure, calling for equal parts creativity and fun.
Boiled down, the path Kalmus advocates is based on two simple and, if we’re open to them, life-changing premises.
The first is that burning fossil fuel causes harm. According to Kalmus, this harm will last for around 100,000 years—10 million years if we count reduced biodiversity (and why shouldn’t we?). The reason he has taken what to many people looks like radical steps to avoid burning fossil fuel is that he doesn't like causing harm. This connection is obvious intellectually, but most people, and society, have not taken this in deeply enough to change their actions to any significant degree. Kalmus, the dad, however, feels this connection in his gut. “Burning fossil fuels should be unacceptable socially,” he says, “the way physical assault is unacceptable. The harm it does is less immediate, but just as real.” Who could argue that future generations—likely our own children and grandchildren—as they suffer the consequences of our negligence, will see this as plainly as we see the immorality of chattel slavery today.
The second basic premise of Being the Change is that burning less fossil fuel makes for a happier life. Despite every message to the contrary trumpeted by our consumption-driven society, this appears to be the normal experience of those following similar paths, not the exception.
On these two premises rests a path of radical personal transformation with deep implications for the collective. “Using less energy at the global scale would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and serve as a bridge to a future without fossil fuels,” Kalmus says. “Using less energy in our individual lives,” he further (and to my mind most importantly) asserts, “would equip us with the mindset, skills, and the systems we’ll need in this post-fossil-fuel world.”
Returning my gaze to the smoke, it occurred to me: As soon as the wildfires ran their deadly course, clean up, then construction, would immediately follow. The set would be quickly and efficiently reconstructed according to the same basic blueprint used before. And the reconstruction would undoubtedly be touted as evidence of inspiring community-resiliency, and probably of a certain American spirit, rugged and purportedly unique to us.
What if our children saw us respond to this crisis with maturity, sanity, and integrity?
It occurred to me also, holding Being the Change in my hands on that smoke-immersed train with my beloved child beside me, that Peter Kalmus has provided us with a different blueprint, and he’s shown through his own experimentation that we have the capacity to choose it, and to use it. On the cusp of climate catastrophe, we are neither choiceless nor powerless.
At bottom, I read Being the Change as the testament of a father trying to do right by his kids—a testament that leaves me with a much different set of questions about the psychic wellness of our children: In the face of the climate emergency, what would it do to their psyches to see us, their parents and other adult caregivers, pouring our hearts into the work of personal and societal transformation, on behalf of people we will never meet? On behalf of all other living beings, the rivers and trees and soil? What if our children saw us respond to this crisis with maturity, sanity, and integrity? With the flexible stability of Gibran’s bow? What would it do to them, for them, if we came into resonance with our own souls?
Chris Moore-Backman wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Chris is author of The Gandhian Iceberg: A Nonviolence Manifesto for the Age of the Great Turning and producer of Bringing Down the New Jim Crow, a radio documentary series.