“Being the Change”: daily practices of a happy, good community

In his new book, NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus explores the daily practices that build healthy, happy, and resilient communities.

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It can be hard to find hope in climate change mitigation. But that’s exactly what NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus does in Being the Change. While he’s not your typical government scientist—he commutes by bicycle, meditates, grows and exchanges food—he does approach his life and global warming with the solution-driven focus of one. To Kalmus, individual actions matter: His family cut their climate impact to one-tenth the national average. He finds hope in the data—cutting out some things, like flying in airplanes, really does add up—but he also finds it outside the charts and graphs. Ultimately, cutting his personal carbon emissions makes him happier and more fulfilled. -Shannan Stoll

Every animal has unique attributes for thriving in the wilderness. The deer has speed and agility. The bear has powerful limbs and a keen sense of smell. The hawk has mighty wings and sharp eyesight.

I used to think that humanity’s unique attribute was a big brain. We survive by our wits and our technology, after all. But this is only part of the picture. Our brain is merely a prerequisite for the actual attribute that allows us to thrive: community.

Imagine being deep in the jungle by yourself, naked, with no tools. Even with your big brain, you probably wouldn’t survive. To thrive and be happy would be even more difficult. Your big brain isn’t enough by itself.

With tools and gear, you’d fare better. But then, in a sense, you’d no longer be alone. Tools and gear represent community condensed into material form. They were designed and perfected by many humans exchanging information, learning from one another’s mistakes, building on one another’s innovations over time. And with skills you’d fare even better. Like your tools, the skills are a form of community, condensed into knowledge and neuromuscular technique. They were also developed by a community of humans, refined over time, and passed down.

Now imagine you’re part of a tribe. It’s night. You hear millions of insects chirping, the sounds of night birds, the lion’s roar. You feel safe among your close friends and relatives in the clearing. A child cries in a nearby dwelling and is comforted. Your survival depends on this community. In community, you learned how to find good food, how to make a snug dwelling, how to use plants to stay healthy. You don’t take your community for granted. Gifts are exchanged freely, smiles and laughter are the norm, and there are many celebrations. These things keep the community strong. They’re expressions of gratitude.

We are community animals. Without community we’re like blind hawks. I’m concerned that our communities have atrophied and been largely replaced by some corporate facsimile.

Simple, place-appropriate living

Henry Thoreau, writer and naturalist, was fascinated by the indigenous people who had inhabited his region before the white colonists. Inspired by them, he experimented with simple living, seeking to free himself from the economic fetters of contemporary society. Thoreau was impressed that Penobscot lodges were “constructed in a day or two at most” and were nonetheless “as warm as the best English houses.” By contrast, Thoreau noted, it took “from ten to fifteen years of the laborer’s life” to pay off the cost of an average house in his day.

Thoreau concluded that his contemporaries led a more difficult life than the indigenous people who preceded them. These original people had the advantage of a mature community intimately adapted to their specific bioregion. Like many—perhaps all—indigenous peoples, the Penobscot passed down their place-appropriate knowledge and skills from generation to generation. By contrast, our modern way of life literally steamrolls over bioregional differences: U.S. subdivisions are strikingly similar, from Houston to Anchorage. We’ve lost the bioregional knowledge of our elders. Instead, we depend on globalized commerce. And if anything, we’ve become still more economically fettered than Thoreau’s contemporaries: instead of 10 or 15 years, we typically need 30 years to pay off the cost of an average house in the US.

Fabricated suburbs are a luxury of the age of fossil fuels, in that fossil fuels provide the power to steamroll bioregional particulars. Instead of building place-appropriate dwellings, we crank up the AC or the heater as desired. Instead of building human-scaled, integrated communities, we drive heavy metal and plastic boxes called “cars” long distances on congested “freeways.” And, of course, we ship in food from afar, food with no connection to the local ecology.

As we transition away from fossil fuels, we’d do well to learn from the place-adapted communities that preceded us—at least to the extent possible, considering that we’ve so thoroughly erased them. Strong communities adapted to place help people live well and live efficiently, because living adapted to place simply takes less effort and energy. If you think about it, something’s out of whack when it takes 30 years to pay off a simple dwelling.

A biodiversity of cultures gives us the building blocks we need to imagine and create a new story. Unfortunately, as Donella Meadows wrote, “People appreciate the evolutionary potential of cultures even less than they understand the potential of genetic variation in ground squirrels.”

Asking and giving

Low-energy living requires me to ask for help from others. There’s a lot to get done, so on a more-or-less daily basis, I ask for favors (and also let a lot of things remain undone). For example:

  • A friend and I had planned to meet at our shared community garden plot, but it turned out that I didn’t have the time or the energy to bike up there. I asked him to bring me some grapefruit from the tree in the garden. He ended up staying for dinner, and we played some music afterwards.
  • We have a network of friends with kids with whom we swap babysitting duties.
  • I asked a friend who’s a mosaic artist if she’d teach the boys and me how to mosaic the perimeters of broken concrete raised beds in our front yard. She ended up staying for dinner, as well.
  • I found that I had no seeds to start zucchini when the time was ripe, so I asked my neighbor for some.

My friends also ask me for favors, and I’m eager to help when I can. I’m actually glad when they ask me for help. Interestingly, it feels like everyone comes out ahead. The total benefit that occurs within the community is greater than the sum of the parts. A practical explanation for this is that we tend to seek help when we are in need, and we tend to give help when we have plenty to spare. So when we receive help, we’re grateful, it’s of great value; and when we give help, it’s rather easy to do. I call this asymmetric economy. This is how the biosphere works: a bird eats a berry, poops out a seed, a new berry bush grows somewhere else. But there’s also a human reason why asymmetric economy works: when we help someone with an open spirit, we become at least as happy as the person we help.

Seeking help, giving freely, and saying no (when it’s necessary to say no) are three daily practices of community.

Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution by Peter Kalmus, New Society Publishers, August 2017.