Seeds of individual action
I started paying attention to climate change and climate action during the last major California drought. But at the time, the Paris Agreement was just signed, the Dakota Access Pipeline was just called off. There was a euphoria among everyone I talked to about the success at Standing Rock and how all of these events were ushering in an era of global recognition that something dramatic needed to happen, accompanied by the will to do so.
A month later, all that changed. The night of the 2016 election, I remember staying up until dawn looking for what I could do as an individual. What can I do to make a difference? What actually needs to happen? It was clear I could no longer leave it up to someone else. Making a few donations wasn’t going to be enough.
Alongside my exploration of external actions, I committed to an investigation of an entirely new and very dark internal landscape. My inner life felt overwhelmed by fear, anger, anxiety, guilt, hatred, and most potently, despair. I feel very fortunate to have been in a position professionally and personally where I could reach out to, spend time with, and in some cases pay for professional counseling to help me navigate this space. Already finding myself in Zen communities, I also chose to deepen my relationship with the practices and rich perspectives of this spiritual tradition. I also read voraciously any book I could find on this topic of how to deal emotionally with the realities of climate change. Without this period of internal investigation, I would likely not have moved forward.
The first few tentative steps my husband and I took in the way of external actions involved removing fossil fuels from our lives, as much as possible. We gained an understanding of embodied energy and how to measure the cost of replacing cars and heating systems against their lifetime expected emissions. Sri dove very deep into energy systems. And transitioned his career from computer storage to something that allowed him to participate meaningfully in discussions around how to move towards renewable energy and greater energy efficiency, generally, in the computing space.
I went in a completely different direction. I headed out looking at local politics, local action, and strengthening my own nature connection. I wanted any response I took to come from a place of love and the embodied wisdom that arises for all of us from time in nature. The other thing that differed about my trajectory was I had studied nonviolence in college and reached back out for guidance from writings by Gandhi. This led me down a path of finding an organization called the Metta Center for Nonviolence, which has a very holistic vision of action in service to our time (explore their site).
Many people echo this vision, in which climate change is tied to a complex web of interrelated issues; merely one part of a multi-prong transition that is happening and needs to happen. Joanna Macy refers to it as the Great Turning. I’ve also heard it called the New Story. Proponents of this larger perspective might say, the problem is not just CO2 in the atmosphere and how to get it out of there, though that needs to happen. Rather, they’d say, we’re less likely to succeed without other ill effects unless we also start replacing punitive justice with restorative justice, our growth economy with a more sustainable needs based one, and tightly controlled power with diversity among decision makers, etc. Over time, Metta and the community around their work has become an important home for me. The material they offer helped get me out from under my sense of despair and helped me begin to see untapped sources of personal power in myself and others.
Metta Center Roadmap (source)
All of these explorations have significantly deepened my relationships, my commitments, my appreciation for life and sense of purpose. What I feel now is a strong desire to start consolidating my efforts, so that I can make space for the qualities and behaviors I want to role model. Like making room for laughter, for processing grief daily, for continuing to learn about what’s going on and how our understanding of things like nonviolence and the power of constructive program are developing. On so many levels, I see how Sri and I have transitioned our life and our focus to be ready to act as new possibilities for regenerative ways of life emerge.
One area that has remained largely resistant to change is my profession. For a good year, I tried transitioning to the green building industry. I was inspired by the Living Building Challenge, which I still consider to be the most inspiring example of a transition from conventional to creative and regenerative ways of life. While the LEED generation of green building standards said, let’s do less harm, the Living Building Challenge said, we can do better than that. We want every single act of building to improve the world along a variety of different measures including justice, equity, as well as sustainability. In addition, they included requirements around beauty and biophilia. The writers of this standard argued, we care for what we love and when we have the opportunity to connect with nature, we rediscover a core joy we find in seeing life thrive.
This attempt to transition my career failed. My excuse: it’s just not that simple mid-career. I’m not a student, still undecided about what I’m going to major in. And there’s not dozens of student services at my fingertips, trying to help me connect with networks and resources to succeed in any field. I have a home, I have a family, I have certain expectations to work in a mature work environment, none of which I had earlier in my career. And I have a collection of skills that I’ve gathered over the particular path my career has taken, which are largely concentrated in the area of technology.
It’s still a mystery to me what might happen next professionally. But I’m more convinced now, that if I continue participating meaningfully in service and climate action, my next professional move will bring me closer to this side of my life. One thing I try to remember is that I chose technology for a reason: it allows me to interact with people working on all fronts of social change. As a web developer and now web project manager, I’ve gotten to work with human rights organizations, environmental researchers, and everything in between. That perfectly suits my spirit because what moves me is really everything. I cannot see myself having been someone only committed to open space. While I believe open spaces are essential, I also care about what’s going on in the energy space and the community choice energy space. I also really care about climate justice, how we’re designing for resilience and rebuilding communities after natural disasters.
I want to return to this idea of climate action being so much bigger than one’s profession because I got stuck here for quite some time. Now, I see all of the following questions as part of my response: how am I in my neighborhood? How am I in the larger community of the Bay Area? How am I in relation to the nonprofit organizations working in these areas? Am I an active participant? Am I friends with the people who work there? What are the qualities of my relationships? How do I answer people when they say, how are you doing? How do I respond when someone complains about smoke in the air from fires? Am I furthering people’s fear or providing them in subtle ways with the tools they need to get started or continue along their own path? Am I creating a culture of love at home? Am I balancing civic participation with the richness of experience that comes from a carefully and collaboratively cooked meal? Or am I perpetuating a culture that overemphasizes work product, fast pace, and productivity?
In my head, I keep replaying a story told by Jon Young of the 8 Shields Institute. He was sharing how earlier in his career, he received a bit of feedback from one of his mentors, Gilbert Walking Bull. This mentor pointed out, you’re all so unhappy. You need to realize the kids are watching you. And they’re seeing that you’re miserable thinking that you’re going to save the world and you’re going to save the children. You have to find within yourself the capacity to laugh. You have to hold onto your happiness. You have to make this work a source of joy because that’s what going to inspire them to follow your example.
This story reminds me to focus on how am I living in the world and not just what am I spending my time doing. It has also helped me to be a little more patient. This is really a multi-generational project. And I feel honored at this time to participate in it with an increasing number of people.
And now a list of the things we’ve tried.
At first I made them because they’re quick wins. Now, I make them because they’re another way to express my relatedness with people and the planet. Along those lines, I consider any one consumer choice far less important than whether it moves me and those around me in the direction of love and a spirit of stewardship.
Installed solar panels on our house.
Installed heat pump heating and cooling, to get away from natural gas.
Installed electric water heater, same as above.
Leased electric cars, after confirming the embodied energy of a new car is less than the expected harm from emissions over a conventional car’s lifetime.
Installed dual pane windows, to reduce the need for heating and cooling.
Treated termite infestation with non-toxic orange concentrate instead of the more common compounds which are cancerous to workers who have to handle them every day and are a greenhouse causing gas.
Began purchasing and eating only local and seasonal produce, no more tomatoes in winter. We also purchase organic and fair trade food when possible.
Began purchasing energy from our Community Choice Energy provider, Peninsula Clean Energy, through their 100% renewable plans. Sri also weighed in at Silicon Valley Clean Energy board meetings, when they were figuring out their rate plans.
Started investigating the supply chain of companies we purchased clothes and products from. And looking for chains of custody or certifications on materials.
Relatedly, began choosing clothes that would allow me to have a smaller closet. For example, a core component of Eileen Fischer’s mission is to design clothes that allow people to purchase fewer of them. Her company is also employer owned.
We’re working with an advisor to helps us divest retirement funds from fossil fuels and natural gas.
Chose to significantly reduce flying for work and vacations, we’re primarily vacationing where we can drive to on electric miles.
Measure water usage when showering.
I removed meat from my diet and make efforts to find plant based sources of protein.
Began prioritizing products that were manufactured closer to home, including a recent bed frame and mattress manufactured in LA.
Estimate carbon footprint every year and purchase carbon credits to more than count for what of our lifestyle is still not carbon neutral or negative.
Donate to organizations furthering research, policy and climate action.
Participated in Community Advocates Leadership Academy, a 9-month program hosted by the Committee for Green Foothills and Acterra on participating in local politics.
Volunteer as an EV Ambassador, a program through Acterra that encourages electric vehicle adoption.
Attend our town’s Environmental and Sustainability Committee meetings.
Participated in California Naturalist certification program, a 10-week program hosted by the UC system and Grassroots Ecology.
Environmental Stewards Program Participant, a 10-month program hosted by the Sierra Club’s Loma Prieta Chapter.
Participated in MidPen’s Sudden Oak Death collection efforts in Bear Creek, a park to be open in the next few years.
Also collected samples in our town of symptomatic Bay Laurel leaves for Matteo Garbelotto’s efforts to track Sudden Oak Death along the California coast.
Volunteered with Our City Forest, an urban forestry nonprofit in San Jose.
Visited EcoHouse, a model home in Berkeley.
Sri volunteers with SunWork to install solar on homes.
Participated in Women’s Environmental Network event on forming an environmental vision for one’s work and life.
Participate in local emergency preparedness efforts and training, because natural disasters are already increasing in frequency and force.
Helped friends with their efforts to begin composting.
Grew our own vegetables and fruits in Sunnyvale; where we live now is too shady for this, but I still grow our greens.
Replaced the lawn in Sunnyvale with native vegetation also known to support pollinators.
Occasionally, review the plastics in our recycle bin and see if we can eliminate any. We now bake bread and make nut butter and yogurt as part of this effort, and turns out it’s super fun. I never felt love for the consistency of yogurt until I started making it.
Reuse gray water whenever possible.
Education and inner work
One Earth Sangha, an online buddhist community that offers trainings for environmental activists on how to handle the emotional side of this work. I volunteered with them for about 8 months, supporting their web related needs.
8 Shields, an online community that offers trainings in nature connection, connection modeling, mentorship, what they call culture repair, community building and facilitation. I’m in the middle of one 9-months program on community building and one 6-month program on nature connection.
Metta Center for Nonviolence, a nonprofit based in Petaluma that offers training the history and practice of nonviolence. I took a 9-month course with them and now volunteer by passing along research I find on compassion, cooperation, empathy, etc.
Strozzi Institute, a business that offers training in embodied leadership. Their coursework is inspired by Aikido practices and grounded in the work of a partner organization called Generative Somatics that offers training specifically for those working in social and environmental justice. I was given registration to one of these workshops as thanks for helping rebuild the website of an associated Aikido community.
Responding to the Cries of the World, a course I took offered by the San Francisco Zen Center based on Joanna Macy’s work.
Finding Ease: A Zen and Mindfulness Approach to Anxiety, another course offered by the San Francisco Zen Center based on Lee Lipp’s work.
Winter Practice Period: Offered by the San Francisco Zen Center; participated as a remote and commuter student.
Stanford’s Help Center, I met with therapists a number of times to better understand anxiety and worry when they became debilitating and disconnecting.
Whitney Hess, a career coach I worked with to help begin peeling the onion of how to better align my career with my aspirations to be of service to causes I care about, while still meeting my needs for working in mature work cultures.
I start my day sitting outside for several minutes, watching squirrels harvest acorns or the sun come up. This is what 8 Shields refers to as a core routine for developing attributes of connection and they are so right. It’s so much fun.
Dokusan, the Zen practice of meeting with a teacher one-on-one. A career coach I worked with earlier in my career happens to also be a zen priest, so I reached back out to her for help understanding fear, grief, etc.
Living Compassion New Years Retreat on fear, a Zen community outside Murphys.
From my time working at the web consultancy, Giant Rabbit LLC.
Leave No Trace
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)
Trust for Public Land Climate Smart Cities
Putah Creek Council
Center for Sustainable Energy
Alliance for Climate Education
American Prairie Reserve
Center for Ecoliteracy
Edible Schoolyard Project
Truckee River Watershed Council
Books I’d recommend
In order of recommendation.
Coming Back to Life, Joanna Macy. Powerful frame, language and exercises for moving through this space with life-affirming principles as your north star.
Transformational Resilience, Bob Doppelt. Best book I’ve come across for thinking about and personally preparing for a less stable future.
Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown. An absolute gift, not only for her stories and strategies, but also just the powerful spirit of birthing new realities and futurism that she brings to change work.
Pursuing Sustainability, Pamela Matson. Fantastic focus on wellbeing. I also appreciate it is so much more matter of fact than most books on climate change, rooting its research and tone in stories of similar transformations from the past.
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. I love this book. The narratives always pivot on a radical act of kindness made possible by someone stepping beyond current social definitions of who or what should be considered “other.”
Cosmos the TV Show, Carl Sagan. Wonder boxed up in a set of DVD’s.
The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich. Really helpful exploration of what it means and what one experiences after affirming life in the face of death.
Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl. Powerful exploration of what it means to carry a desire to work with purpose in life.
Walk Out Walk On, Margaret Wheatley. Stories of communities re-inventing themselves along Living Building lines. The most powerful pages for me were on the transition from hero activist to host.
Mindfully Green, Stephanie Kaza. Sri bought this book for me. It was the very first book I ever picked up on environmentalism.
Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken. It’s been a while since I read this, but Paul Hawken is a very often referenced writer and this is a very often referenced work.
Drawdown, Paul Hawken. I first learned about Living Buildings in this book. What I love about it is the team who compiled this thought really big and included many things generally considered outside the field of environmentalism.
Ever the Land, about a tribe’s reconciliation with the New Zealand government and efforts to build a Living Building as a community center to support educational and economic upward movement for their people. There’s a lot of good language in here about resilience and relationships to place.
The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, Union of Concerned Scientists. I believe this was the second book I read on environmentalism. What I still love about it is that a lot of consumer choices don’t matter. And they do a good job of explaining the importance of focusing on what does.
Friends I’ve made
we have to evolve something akin to legs, equivalent to the capacity to walk and make fire. the something, the capacity, is to truly measure success by the depth and authenticity of relationships. - adrienne maree brown
If nothing else, perhaps my participation in these things has simply supported the work of others. And with that alone I would be so happy. I’m perhaps most grateful for the relationships with old and new friends that have deepened or started as a result of these explorations. The creativity and determination they bring to their work supports and inspires my own. And the joy that comes from their company suggests I’m on the right path for me. Because at the lower levels of felt sense, I can say without a doubt I feel more alive and more in love with life than before I started asking myself and others: what to do about climate change.