The addiction we never even think about.
We're helplessly, hopelessly hooked. Virtually all of us have an insatiable thirst for some of the most fantastically addictive products humanity has ever invented.
These are products we rarely think about in terms of being addicted, because everyone uses them, and we largely take them for granted. They are products which fuel our busy lifestyles, yet which ironically now threaten them.
The products are fossil fuels, and this is the story of one man doing his utmost to cut them from his life.
Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist with NASA's jet propulsion lab. We profiled him in our climate change podcast Breaking The Ice a little earlier this year. As we said then, despite his line of work, Kalmus is unlikely ever to take a jet anywhere ever again.
Kalmus started giving up fossil fuels a few years ago now. Through a mixture of dietary, transport and other lifestyle changes, he's cut down to about 10 percent of the fossil fuel he once consumed.
The really amazing thing about cutting back?
If Peter Kalmus is any guide, it might just make you a whole lot happier.
Kalmus is living a much more satisfying life without fossil fuels than he ever dreamed. He's incredibly upbeat in person, and that attitude shines through in his new book Being The Change: Live Well And Spark A Climate Revolution.
The book's title says it all. Peter Kalmus really is being the change. He's being the internal change, living his best life by farming bees in his backyard, cycling to work, and skipping exhausting work trips interstate and abroad. And he's living the external change, doing his bit for the climate system, and through it, the earth.
For Kalmus, personal and global transformation are intertwined: As he writes in the intro to Being The Change:
"Global warming touches every aspect of our lives. It connects gardening to population growth, bicycling to flying in a plane. Most of all, global warming challenges us to rethink humanity's place in the web of life on this beautiful planet -- to reimagine what it means to be human. Global warming is, perhaps first and foremost, a failure of humanity's collective imagination."
And as he told us in the podcast:
"Increasingly I sense that people are gaining an awareness that the social media, the flying around and the career pressure, all the running around and the rat race and the speed that life has taken on, that somehow we've been misled, that something isn't quite right.
"We're consuming more than ever and yet life seems less satisfying than ever. So all I'm saying is if we look inside ourselves a little bit more instead of consuming, maybe slow down a little bit instead of speeding up. And that plays into using less fossil fuels, which are kind of there to make us zoom around really fast."
This really is a book like no other.
Climate science literature is often too dense, difficult or depressing. As Kalmus points out, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report was a whopping 4,852 pages. Who's going to read that?
Kalmus makes it easy for us. He sums up the science in 34 pages. His stated goal is to "give the context necessary for a basic understanding of the global warming that's happening at this moment, but not to overwhelm you with more than that".
And he pulls it off. For example, his description of the greenhouse effect is simple enough for anyone to understand:
"Greenhouse gases like CO2 act like a blanket warming the planet. We need this blanket. Without it the Earth's average surface temperature would be −18°C (0°F) and there could be no life as we know it. So the greenhouse effect per se is not a bad thing.
The problem is that by burning fossil fuels into the atmosphere we're causing the blanket to become warmer. By 2014 we'd already in creased the atmospheric CO2 fraction by 43% over pre-industrial levels, and this increase is accelerating exponentially."
The climate section is about 10 percent of the book. The rest is mostly about Kalmus' personal transformation. It's often pretty funny stuff. Wait till you read about Kalmus family holidays with their beaten up old car which runs on veggie fuel. It's not quite the Griswolds, but it's close.
It's not preachy or narcissistic. Phew.
Personal transformation books are often trite exercises in ego-driven vanity. Being The Change is not that. It's one guy's journey, written honestly, openly, with gallons of facts underpinning it all.
Kalmus has an easy, optimistic style which makes you want to hang out with him.
Not all of us are going to give up flying overnight like he did. We'll likely still be racing around tomorrow living our fossil fuel-charged lives. But who knows? Maybe we'll be inspired to make a small change or two. And that, says Kalmus, is the thing he hopes for.
As he writes:
"I'm aware that the changes I'm making to my daily life will not solve global warming or stave off global economic collapse. How could they? We're rapidly approaching eight billion people on the planet, and I am only one of them.
However, my actions do make me happier, and that's reason enough to do them. I also suspect that for most of us, individual and local-scale actions are the most skillful means to effect global-scale change.
This is a paradox of scale. Our individual actions don't make much of an immediate difference in the global response to our predicament, but they are pieces in a vast puzzle. As more pieces get added, more people will get excited by the emerging picture and begin to add their own pieces.
The prevailing mindset in our industrial society is to search for a silver bullet solution, some brilliant techno-fix that allows us to avoid personal change (which is assumed to be undesirable). After decades of searching by the world's brightest minds, however, it seems likely that there is no such silver bullet. Personal change will therefore likely be necessary."
And as Kalmus has shown, personal change is so much more than "necessary". It can be enjoyable too.