“What can we do to make a difference?” The Thinker
The questions come after talks, on twitter, in the days’ incoming tide of email—sometimes even in old-fashioned letters that arrive in envelopes. The most common one by far is also the simplest: What can I do? I bet I’ve been asked it 10,000 times by now and—like a climate scientist predicting the temperature—I’m pretty sure I’m erring on the low side.
It’s the right question or almost: It implies an eagerness to act and action is what we need. But my answer to it has changed over the years, as the science of global warming has shifted. I find, in fact, that I’m now saying almost the opposite of what I said three decades ago.
Then—when I was 27 and writing the first book on climate change—I
was fairly self-obsessed (perhaps age appropriately). And it looked like we had some time: No climate scientist in the late 1980s thought that by 2016 we’d already be seeing massive Arctic ice melt. So it made sense for everyone to think about the changes they could make in their own lives that, over time, would add up to significant change. In The End of Nature, I described how my wife and I had tried to “prune and snip our desires,” how instead of taking long vacation trips by car we rode our bikes in the road, how we grew more of our own food, how we “tried not to think about how much we’d like a baby.”
Some of these changes we’ve maintained—we still ride our bikes, and I haven’t been on a vacation in a very long time. Some we modified—thank God we decided to have a child, who turned out to be the joy of our life. And some I’ve abandoned: I’ve spent much of the last decade in frenetic travel, much of it on airplanes. That’s because, over time, it became clear to me that there’s a problem with the question “What can I do.”