This week I had the honor and pleasure of attending an authors’ reception at the Bolinas-Stinson School. My daughter and her classmates, now in sixth grade, wrote and illustrated books, which were then published, on various aspects of climate change. They shared, in direct and clear language, facets of our collective predicament. Deforestation, coral reef loss, degradation of the ocean, heating of the biosphere, habitat loss for creatures great and small. Each reading came with a request to make changes in our behavior so that we may all have a chance.
The truth I don’t yet discuss with my children or see honestly described in the press is exactly how grim a future we are on track to experience. We humans, with our entrenched culture of consumption, our assumptions about that which we are entitled to, and our burgeoning global middle class, are behaving as though we are exempt from the laws of nature that govern all other life.
In ecological terms, we are in “overshoot,” using far more resources that our one Earth can sustain. This state never goes well for populations, and while the great boon of fossil fuels has allowed us to imagine we are exempt from the great rebalancing that nature enacts on out-of-control species, we aren’t. It is only a matter of time.
What do we do with this time? With this precious moment in which we humans, gifted with self-awareness, can realize the implications of our behavior? Are we aligned with the energy of what the spiritual ecologist Joanna Macy has called the Great Turning, or what the prescient science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson calls the Dithering—the time in which we knew something needed to be done but we did not act?
What kind of action would be adequate to turn this tide? Can tides even be turned? Yes, by other forces of nature. The United States’ carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 13 percent in 2020 due to the pandemic’s constraints on our behavior.
The enormity of the challenge requires action at every level. We must quickly transcend political tribalism and see this as a great collective challenge. I hope this is possible.
In the meantime, I am rededicating myself to what can be done in my life, with my children, with my work. Knowing what an ecologically ruinous venture capitalism has been, I am starting there.
I am rejecting the notion that I am a consumer, pondering what I buy and why I buy it. When I have reason to buy something, I am researching what can be repaired, and which products will last the longest. Or is it something I can borrow? Do I have useful items to lend?
In so many instances, I realize the ways in which not buying something will enrich my experience—through less clutter and stuff to move and by modeling restraint for my children. Fewer heart-pangs at the garbage can triggered by throwing away plastic wrappers. I watch my mental habits, my impulsive thoughts after exposure to advertising. I’ve deactivated my credit card.
It’s not just stuff that we consume to our collective peril. Our ravenous consumption of animals is consuming precious resources, as most animals raised for consumption are done so in an inhumane, crowded, sentience-denying way. Even consciously raised, grass-fed cattle on a carbon-sequestering rotationally grazed farm require a lot of water, and dairy cows even more so.
A few statistics on the true costs of eating meat: 30 percent of non-ice covered land on the planet is dedicated to livestock production, and 33 percent of arable land is used to grow feed for livestock. As many fifth graders can tell you, the Amazon rainforest—the lungs of our planet—is being razed to support our global taste for beef. If we stopped eating it, the economic incentive to destroy this unrecoverable ecosystem would be dampened.
We stopped eating red meat in our household a long time ago, and we are now turning our resolve toward cheese. Astonishingly, cheese production generates the third-highest food-related greenhouse emissions, behind lamb and beef, due to cows’ production of the potent gas methane. Happily, minimizing cheese and abstaining from eating meat, especially red meat, is right in line with personal health goals.
As my daughter’s book highlighted, climate change and deforestation are destroying critical habitat for so many of our fellow inhabitants on Earth. This year, only an estimated 3 percent of the ecosystems remain intact or undisturbed. Only 3 percent of the land mammals on this planet, measured by biomass, are wild. The remaining 97 percent are humans, our pets and our livestock, especially pigs and cattle. Our population continues to grow while biodiversity plummets and extinction rates soar.
The realities are heartbreaking: polar bears swimming exhausting distances in search of ice, monarch butterflies dwindling to a shadow of their former population, scores of plant and animal species going extinct before we’ve had the privilege of even knowing they exist. It is good to know this is happening, good to feel our feelings about it and be moved to some sort of action.
But what action is sufficient? If we were all to become vegetarians, our greenhouse gas emissions would fall by an estimated 44 percent; if we went vegan, emissions would fall by 55 percent. Impressive, yet even that radical action cannot avert the disaster that awaits if our Earth warms beyond the 2 degrees Celsius that is considered to be the tipping point.
We are on a collision course with disaster. As it happened, while my daughter and her friends were sharing their books, young people and their allies around the world were engaging in Uproot the System climate demonstrations, walking out of school to reflect the truth to those in power: This is an emergency, and we need our leaders to respond as though it is. Without legislation to restrain the fossil fuel industry, the sad truth is we will be unable to avert disaster.
If it had not been for the authors’ reception, my daughters, with my support, likely would have participated in Friday’s demonstration as we did two years ago. This is, of course, with a full appreciation of the importance of education.
My girls know another truth about our path forward—that the education of all girls, women’s self-determination and ability to decide whether to bear children and how many times, and their leadership at every level is critical. There can be no disruption of entrenched systems without this. Women know what needs to change.
I remain hopeful but not particularly optimistic. Our spectacular flailing in the face of Covid does not bode well for the significant challenges ahead. So what do I teach my children, knowing they will be living through a time of hardship and great change? What am I pushing myself to learn?
We are learning to tend the garden, to eat what we grow, to weave ourselves into natural cycles, to observe and learn from the natural world. We are nurturing a loving, tending relationship with all life. We are committing ourselves to simplicity and the joys that arise from making things by hand, reading together, creating art and learning to play a musical instrument. We are choosing one day a month to enjoy an electricity fast, turning off the power and enjoying the way it brings us closer over candlelit dinners and earlier bedtimes. We enjoy foraging days, in which we eat only that which we grew or found growing in nature.
We are learning, as beautifully put in Gary Snyder’s “For the Children,” to “stay together, learn the flowers, go light.”
Anna O’Malley is an integrative family and community medicine physician at the Coastal Health Alliance. She founded and directs the Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine in the Commonweal Garden.