Being the Change
Being the Change, Peter Kalmus, Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2017.
REVIEWED by Michael Polanyi
AS SOMEONE WHO lives comfortably in a developed country, I struggle, as I’m sure others do, with how to live a meaningful and joyful life in a world that requires a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid uncontrolled planetary warming.
I have done some of the easier things to reduce my emissions: changing light bulbs, weatherproofing windows, purchasing high efficiency appliances, and even giving up meat and going car-free since our Toyota Matrix died two years ago.
But my emissions are still four or five times higher than a globally sustainable per capita level of about two tonnes per year.
And I love to travel.
My partner and I fly 3500 kilometers every year or so to visit parents. And once every two or three years we have flown to Europe or the Caribbean.
I feel surrounded by people going on or coming back from exciting trips – to Latin America, India and South East Asia.
I don’t want to miss out.
And why should I give up flying when others continue to fly?
Yet I know that the carbon emissions from just one long-distance return flight exceed my annual share of sustainable global emissions.
It was with this struggle in mind that I came upon climate scientist Peter Kalmus’ book, Being the Change.
“[A] low-carbon, low-consumption lifestyle can be one filled with joy, peace and fulfillment.”
Kalmus writes of his growing awareness of the climate crisis, and his understanding of the urgent need to reduce individual and collective fossil fuel use. He documents, with insight and humour, the ups and downs of his family’s path to reducing their emissions to about 10 per cent of the American average.
The book is an excellent primer on the causes, consequences and potential solutions to climate change. It provides practical tools to help each of us assess our carbon emissions, and to identify where we have the most potential to reduce them.
But the book’s most important and provocative message, I believe, is that a low-carbon, low-consumption lifestyle can be one filled with joy, peace and fulfillment.
Kalmus and his family certainly had to give some things up – like seeing their relatives each Christmas. But they also gained skills and discovered new joys, such as beekeeping, fruit growing, building furniture, and helping and relying on others. Along the way, they found a deeper sense of connection and community.
He experienced great pleasure in his new activities, in part, because they were consistent with his deep desire not to harm others or the planet.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for Kalmus was letting go of his default mentality – which so many of us share – of always wanting more, of feeling that one’s happiness was dependent on one’s next trip or concert or purchase.
In the end, what made it possible for him to undertake and sustain his life transition was a consistent attention to his inner self and a regular practice of meditation. Meditation helped him see his own “wanting of more” clearly and to let it go. He became more present to himself and the beauty of people, places and actions around him.
Kalmus recognizes that his privileges, such as wealth and leisure time, made his life changes easier. He also recognizes that individual action is not sufficient. Rather, collective, political action is imperative to win the policy changes that will engender a wider transition to a fossil-free society (such as ending fossil fuel subsidies and pricing carbon).
But Kalmus’ exploration of the inner work, the social support, and the sense of joy that people need to sustain the difficult project of individual and collective action is welcome.
A friend of mine recently told me that, as important as the environmental issues are to him, the experience of joy, friendship and community is critical to sustaining his environmental activism.
In Being the Change, Kalmus offers us a sense of hope that in living more lightly on this planet, we may find a renewed sense of community, commitment and compassion.
In the final section of his book, he writes:
“Learning to live respectfully within the biosphere is a sacred task. Learning to get along with each other is a sacred task. And learning how to be happy in our own minds, to be joyful on this Earth in the short time we’re here, is a sacred task. These three sacred tasks are beautifully interconnected.”
May we undertake these sacred tasks together.
Being the Change: A New Kind of Climate Documentary
For the more visually inclined, US filmmakers Mary Grandelis and Dave Davis have made a 60-minute documentary based on the Being the Change book.
The film includes interviews with Peter Kalmus and his partner Sharon Kallis, as well as others in their community: a co-worker from CalTech, the owner of a vegan café, a meditation teacher, and other climate activists. There is even a surprise appearance by Mike Farrell of MASH fame.
The film makes real the actions Kalmus and members of his community have taken to reduce their carbon emissions, build human connections, share their skills and resources, and have fun together. They do this by meditating in the early morning, retrieving food from supermarket dumpsters, giving away fruit from their backyard trees, and hosting a “repair café” (where people help fix everything from old cameras to bike and clothes).
Throughout the film, Kalmus reflects on his struggle to find a way to live with integrity and compassion in a world on the precipice of a climate disaster. He sums it up by saying this: “My tears poured down as I mourned the world, mourned my boys’ future, mourned how avoidable it all was. Then I accepted the reality. Whatever you do, do it in the spirit of love, gracefully, and with a smile.”
Michael Polanyi works as a community worker in Toronto and is involved in advocacy on various social and environmental issues.
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