How One American Family Has Moved Away From Fossil Fuels

©. New Society Publishers

"Being the Change" is proof that weaning oneself off fossil fuels is not only possible, but also joyful and fun for a young suburban family.

“Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution” is a book I desperately needed to read. For the past couple years, my despair for the future of our planet has been growing. The more I read about the state of the planet, the more depressed I become. Though I try to live as consciously as possible, my attempts at composting, preserving food, and riding my bicycle seem laughable in the face of problems like tar sands, fracking, and ocean plastic pollution.

This book, however, has shown me that it is worthwhile to keep fighting, and that the littlest actions can be powerful. Written by Peter Kalmus, an atmospheric scientist from Altadena, California, “Being the Change” is the story of his family’s transition to life on one-tenth of the fossil fuels used by the average American family. The story is remarkable. He writes:

“My path is straightforward: if fossil fuels cause global warming, and I don’t want global warming, then I should reduce my fossil fuel use.”

And so he does. He and his wife Sharon and their two young sons reduce their CO2 emissions to a fraction of what they were by riding bikes, growing and swapping food with neighbors, raising backyard chickens, dumpster-diving weekly, conserving electricity, buying few things, becoming vegetarian, renouncing air travel, even composting human waste, and, when they need to, driving an ancient Mercedes-Benz that has been switched over to run on waste vegetable oil.

Adding credibility to the book is Kalmus’ own scientific background. With a Ph.D. in physics from Columbia University and current employed by Caltech/Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he is well qualified to explain concepts like the greenhouse effect and greenhouse gases, Earth feedback systems, and the carbon cycle. He explains the impacts of global warming thus far, including increased heat waves, ocean acidification, destructive weather, drought and fires, biodiversity loss, rising sea levels, and human migration, and the conditions we can expect to see in coming years.

Not only a scientist, Kalmus is also a philosopher. He takes his meditation practice very seriously, sitting for two hours daily, and believes that everyone should meditate. It helps one to cope with the grief brought on by understanding the severity of climate change, he says, but is also effective at improving relationships and building community, which is crucial to fighting climate change at a grassroots level.

Kalmus is not afraid to delve into some very sticky topics. Two stood out for me: the need for global population control and our addiction to air travel. These are things that nobody wants to talk about because they are so sensitive and uncomfortable. Even Naomi Klein tiptoed around them in “This Changes Everything,” much to my disappointment.

As you can probably tell from his lifestyle choices, Kalmus believes that returning to a more land-based, local-focused way of living is more effective than waiting for ‘magical’ technological fixes to save us all. Waxing philosophical, he writes:

“Progress has become a civil religion – a non-theistic belief system that provides the physiological benefits of religion, in this case by making technology sacred. We speak of technology saving us, and we have blind faith that it will. Some of us imagine ... that our salvation lies in leaving a dead Earth to colonize other planets. Is this a technological conceptualization of heaven? There’s a striking similarity between the iconic image of a fiery rocket rising into the heavens and the ascension of Christ.”

Rather than waiting for “them” – whoever they may be – to save us with fabulous technological inventions, it is smarter to focus on what we can do, here and now, to change our little corner of the world. How can we start living today in a way that’s not at odds with the wellbeing of our Earth?

This message is particularly relevant as the United States announces its exit from the Paris Climate Accord. Kalmus reminds us that government support, while helpful, is not necessary, nor has it ever really been there:

“If we keep trying what we’ve already tried – more empty diplomatic promises – we’ll keep failing. Perhaps we should try something new.”

The tone of authenticity kept me reading eagerly till the end. It is refreshing and empowering to read about real-life solutions, rather than the guilt-ridden, doom-and-gloom tales that dominate much of the environmental movement. Kalmus is positive, by contrast, bursting with practical strategies. He writes with joy, infectious curiosity, and a hopeful enthusiasm that’s hard to resist.

It was so hard to resist, in fact, that as soon as I finished the book, I called up the local hardware store to order materials for my backyard chicken coop.

"Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution" by Peter Kalmus will be published August 2017 by New Society Publishers. Available for pre-order now.