Climate change charts and statistics might seem out of place in a book championing the value of meditation, yoga, slow travel, community, and organic gardening, but Peter Kalmus presents them all as part of a natural continuum in his new book “Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution.” The Altadena resident, who started out studying gravitational waves as an astrophysicist before becoming an earth scientist, credits meditation with helping him perceive how daily tasks connected with the “industrial system’s preferred way of doing things.” He and his wife and two children consequently learned how to use less energy, and now tend chickens, an extensive garden and more than two dozen fruit trees on their 1/20-acre plot in Altadena. We have a responsibility, he writes, to teach kids how to grow food: “Gardening should be right up there with reading, writing and arithmetic in our schools: a basic literacy of food, plants, and soil.”
We also have a responsibility to stop burning fossil fuels to protect our precious biosphere, a point he substantiates throughout the book with scientific data. Along the way he also touches on biodiversity, food security, factory farming, the biophysical limits of agricultural growth, the sixth mass extinction, freeganism, community choice aggregation, and the connection between human population growth and agriculture supercharged by fossil fuels.
Kalmus works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but the outside-the-box thinking he presents in “Being the Change” is his own. (He takes pains to emphasize that he is not speaking on behalf of his employers.) In a way, “Being the Change” is an answer to his own call for scientists to be better storytellers. Few people, as he writes in the first chapter, respond to facts, and he realized that the “collective intellect [of] our best scientists and brightest policy makers” isn’t enough either: “Our dire ecological crisis calls us to go deeper.” It’s time, he believes, for scientists to determine when it’s appropriate to speak as scientists, and when they need to speak up as human beings.
“I think that there’s a false caution among scientists, a ‘scientific reticence’ — Jim Hansen’s phrase,” he says during a phone interview. “We’re the ones on the front lines. We’re the ones who see what’s happening directly, and understand the implications. So if we don’t explain that clearly, in a way that the general public finds emotionally compelling, who else is going to do that?”
Embracing the term “alarmist” (“I think it’s time for scientists to take that term back, because I want to sound the alarm”), Kalmus passionately advocates individual change in the form of reducing individual emissions. That, he believes, will start to “gradually change this cultural norm that the only way to live one’s life is by burning a lot of fossil fuels.”
“I think global warming is a massive failure of imagination,” he explains. “We’ve done a terrible job of imagining alternative ways of living, even though there’s a lot of examples from the past and from the present, for example indigenous peoples. The way we live in this culture, with our Walmarts and gas stations and expressways and airplanes, is not the only way to live. I think more and more people are starting to realize it’s probably not even the most satisfying way to live.”
Voluntary emissions reduction is “an important piece of the puzzle,” he says, but not a solution. Putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gas emissions, he suggests, would offset the enormous cost of “using the atmosphere as an open sewer” to children as well as “nonhumans” who are “going extinct because of global warming.”
“There’s a huge cost that right now isn’t being explicitly factored into the cost of fossil fuel, into a gallon of gasoline or into an airplane ticket, and that’s an excruciatingly clear market failure,” he says. “I don’t see enough people advocating for what I think is a really obvious solution right now.”
“Being the Change” is front-loaded with about a hundred pages of scientific data that’s not recommended for bedtime reading. The tone becomes more conversational as Kalmus slams sham “green advertising,” intelligently discusses regeneration vs. sustainability and why renewable electricity gives him hope (“By 2016, one quarter of global electricity was generated renewably”), and tracks his choices as he adjusted his lifestyle to more honestly reflect his beliefs. A holiday trip from Altadena to Chicago in “Maeby,” a 1984 diesel Mercedes-Benz fueled by waste vegetable oil (WVO), provides laughs along with insights into the challenges of using alternative fuels. Such accounts may not persuade readers to hit up their local bistros for French-fried fuel — but many will pay attention when Kalmus shows how his family saves money with low-energy living, and sets out guidelines for “connecting your daily actions to your emissions.”
Skeptics might misinterpret some of Kalmus’ ideas as an idealistic call to get back to the land and off the grid. That would be a serious mischaracterization of his ideas.
“We rely on technology to survive; that’s how we interact with the natural world,” he says. “But I think we can start being more selective about which technologies we decide to embrace.”
“Electricity is almost a miraculous thing in terms of what it can do, and it’s incredibly cheap for what it is. At our household, we use a tiny fraction of what a typical household of four in America uses, just in terms of electricity. And we’re not wearing hair shirts and we’re not trying that hard. We just use less. I think it would be pretty easy for the nation as a whole to use half as much electricity if that was a policy goal. Because we already have a lot of hydropower and other carbon-free energy sources, we’d have to build one quarter as much renewable infrastructure — wind, solar, battery storage — we’d need to build a quarter as much to get to 100 percent carbon-free electricity in this country if we used half as much electricity. So it’s kind of a middle path. I think we need all the pieces of the puzzle, but one piece that hasn’t been getting as much attention is using less energy, and thinking about how we live and what makes us happy. It’s not always burning more and going faster and flying around more and driving around more and living in bigger houses.”
Peter Kalmus discusses “Being the Change” at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 9. Free admission; those wishing to get books signed will be asked to purchase at least one copy at Vroman’s. Info: (626) 449-5320. newsociety.com, vromansbookstore.com