A few months ago I watched the young Swedish climate change activist Greta’s Thunberg’s TED talk. I was moved by her message regarding the urgency of political action required to mitigate climate change. I hope that the march that she has inspired in Washington tomorrow will increase awareness of the immediate choices humanity is facing. Los Altos Investments generously offered to me a wall outside their construction site in the heart of downtown Los Altos to paint a mural of Greta and I hope that it will spark dialog about climate change in my community. I included a quote of hers, “The one thing we need more than hope is action.” Along Greta’s shoulder I wrote: “How can you be part of the solution?”
Climate change is truly an overwhelming and depressing subject, which is probably the reason that until recently I have avoided the topic completely. We humans, we Americans included, need to make dramatic shifts in our energy, food, city planning and transportation systems in the next ten years just to limit global warming to 3 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything above that, the earth has no sea ice in the summer, and coral reefs mostly disappear. Unfortunately, doing nothing is not a good option for us.
Yeah…so… this might not be my most inspiring newsletter. Maybe time for a pretty picture to cheer things up about now.
The world map on a butterfly wing, painted in Hua Quan Village, Jianxi, China
I majored in Economics at university, so I am pretty much an expert in how to solve this problem. I won’t offer any specific solutions at this point except to suggest that maybe we need to integrate the value of the human race being alive to enjoy their sexy supply and demand curves in our economic modeling. We might want to include the value of some trees and animals too, since everyone seems to think they are such an important part of this natural system we are vaguely associated with, but prefer to ignore.
The only way that I can even peek at this man-made crisis is with serious self-compassion. I enter into my climate change activism humbly acknowledging I am part of the problem both specifically and broadly speaking. Humans exactly like me are making shortsighted, greedy, and just plain unenlightened choices like burning the Amazon and subsidizing coal. We are just doing what humans do: trying to get the best meal, the best job, the best mate, the best neighbors, and the best vacation available to us. We cannot guilt trip and shame our fellow humans into behaving in ways that are counter to their basic instincts. But with just a few nudges, we love to do the right thing. As soon as they started charging me 10 cents per bag at the grocery store I inexplicably stopped leaving my reusable bags in the trunk of my car. We need to create rules that encourage good choices. I am a working mom, and on Friday night dinner out I don’t want to figure out whether any coral reefs were destroyed when they dragged over the fishing nets for my shrimp tacos or if the menus were made from old-growth forests. Neither one should be on offer. Give me a menu that shows the true cost of choosing a sustainably produced hamburger vs. a veggie burger on the menu and I can make a good choice within that. Our supply systems need an upgrade and I need a night off from resolving the entire food chain of my meal.
I have compassion for the humans that came before us, that they created the best systems they could think up coming from their humble beginnings. I’m sure I would have voted for beef and dairy subsidies in 1935 too. But there are many more of us now, and our technology so powerful, that we have new problems (with dire consequences) that our forbearers could not have imagined. At this moment, we need to evolve our systems (energy, food, transport, etc.) to reflect the changing realities of our technology and environment. It’s a monumental challenge opportunity.
Individuals are just not good at rationally calculating the impact of every choice every time they make a decision, for seven generations out. We need systems to do some of that heavy lifting for us. Humans are predictably irrational, but still proven experts at maximizing happiness within choices on offer. If a 5% tax were added to all airplane tickets for carbon offset people would freak out for sure. “Freak out” because it’ feels like injustice in the very short term, relative to the norm a week ago. Inconvenience does tend to spur innovation, so we may eventually end up with a new mix of alternative fuel jets, staycations, and hang gliding. Short-term pain to ensure the viability of future generations seems like a reasonable tradeoff, to me. We could call it an investment, or a life-saving intervention. Then leave it to individuals to do what we do best: figure out how to live good lives within the revised set of options available to us.
This stuff is hard. Hard to look at, hard to talk about. But denial is not going to solve the issues, improving the political system to be more efficient and set better policy based on science is our best shot. If we agree on the threat we face, we are more likely to cooperate. Since virtually nobody is dying to hear my armchair policy opinions, let me get to the point, which is this: What do you think? How can you use your specialty, your company, your writing, your armchair economics, and your love of political rallies or polar bears, to find a way to engage as part of the solution?
And don’t forget self-compassion, I think it is a super-power that will enable us to take action and stick with the effort, embracing the inevitability of making mistakes along the way. I am terrified of entering a debate on the science of climate change or viability of different technological solutions. I can’t become an expert in all the issues. Even if I don’t understand the entire elephant, that does not mean I can’t contribute something make the circus a success.
The next ten years are critical; please don’t wait until your retirement. Would you be willing to share 10% of your time and talents to be part of the solution now? Roshi Joan Halifax says, “The antidote to despair is to do the next best thing, together.” What is the next best thing you are called to do, so that you can be part of the solution?