Peter Kalmus: Being the Change: How I Dramatically Cut Fossil Fuels and Increased My Joy
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Oct 14, 2017
Guest: Peter Kalmus Moderator: Rahul Brown Host: Deven Shah
Welcome to Awakin calls! Every Saturday, we host conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life, speakers whose personal journeys awaken and inspire our innate spirit of service. Thank you for coming together to plant seeds for a more compassionate society.
Deven: Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening. My name is Deven and I'm really excited to be your host for our global weekly Awakin call today. Welcome and thank you for joining us.
Every story is the beginning of a conversation. Whether it's within ourselves or with others, across time and culture, stories have been agents of personal transformation, in part because they have the power to change our hearts and minds. The purpose of our weekly call is to share stories from incredible changemakers from around the globe. Through thoughtfully guided conversations with them, our special guest speakers share their personal story and inspire us through their actions, their experiences, and their insights. Our hope is that these conversations will plant the seeds for a more compassionate and service-oriented society while serving to foster our own inner transformation. Behind each of these calls is an entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers whose invisible work allows us to hold this beautiful space. We are thankful to them and to all of our listeners for helping co-create this space.
Today we are grateful to have a remarkable guest speaker with us, Peter Kalmus, whose personal journey is not only inspiring but had a tremendous impact on many people around the world. Thank you again for joining us for today's call let us go ahead and start with a minute of silence to anchor ourselves into this space.
Welcome again to our weekly Awakin call - today in conversation with Peter Kalmus. So here is how the call works. In a few minutes our moderator, Rahul Brown, will engage in a deep dialogue with our speaker Peter Kalmus. By the top of the hour we're going to roll into a Q. and A. session in a circle of sharing and that's the point where we will invite all of your reflections and questions. I've opened up the cue right now so if at any point you would like to be part of the circle of sharing and asking questions, you can hit *6 on your phone and you'll be prompted when it's your turn to speak. Again, that question will happen at the top of the hour. You can also e-mail us at email@example.com with any of your questions and we will do our best to have everyone's questions answered.
So we have the great pleasure of having Rahul as our moderator today.
Our theme today is about the climate change and what we could do about it. Our guest speaker today is a long time meditator. A really insightful question which is food for thought, Rahul, as we go along and the question is, It's great to be mindful but that mindfulness must also lead to emitting less carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, radiating processes in the air don't care how mindful we are, they only care how much carbon dioxide and other green gasses we emit.
How have personal practices led to greater consciousness in your relationship to the earth and nature? And, when I first thought of this, Rahul, the very first thought that came to me was the call that we had with Elizabeth Sahtouris, I think probably about a year and a half ago. And she had developed such a beautiful context for us to connect with people and the whole ecosystem around us. And she had a couple of beautiful thoughts in there and one was we create our reality; that humanity has created messy scary situations of fear; choose to lead the life in the most positive way so you can be a positive force to balance the negativity. Another thought that she had was that we need to bring down the cosmic love; bring it not only to the heart; bring it down to the toes, fully embodied. It is there and all around; it is a matter of connecting with it instead of fear. Don't look up to NGOs for compassion, bring compassion using our own physical bodies.
And, Rahul, when I think of compassion, I could think of so many ways that I could start making small changes here and there. What are your thoughts on today's theme?
Rahul: Thank you for that, Deven. You know, I really feel like this is a time when we need to see activists get spiritual, and spiritual people be getting active, as Pancho likes to say. You know, last week, I was at a conference in London called "Extinction and Lifestock" and it was a rather monumental occasion where we had the conservationists getting together in the same conference with the animal welfare people finally coming to agreement on this idea that we sort of need to end factory farming, if we want to be on a livable planet. I found it very hopeful and at the same time I'm sitting in the audience thinking about how I basically flew to another continent to attend, and that half of the people in the audience were from some other place than London, also flown in. I was thinking about this poem that Ross Coggins wrote in 1976 called "The Development Set" about how all of these people who are sort of well-meaning folks trying to solve the problems of poverty in development, basically fly from fancy capital to fancy capital, and are in these great conferences with fantastic food, and he wonders why problems keep getting pushed off; everyone's intellectualizing and no one is actually putting these things into practice, and I think that what Peter seems to represent is this deep alignment of his understanding and his life.
And you know, we had our moments at this conference, where we actually did bring that together; so I was there with Ari who many folks in this ecosystem know as well -- Ari hosted a meditation session on the second morning of this conference. And, we were able to bring this remarkable tool of mindfulness to people who I think can lose sight of that, in the fight towards creating a better world. To me, it really does come down to integrating the activism with the spirituality because that is where the alignment and integrity come from.
Deven: So well said. It's like be the change you wish to see in the world. Rahul as we get going here, couple of really beautiful reflections that came through.
One is from Linda. This is her share - "Back in March I started a few times a day being mindful of the natural world out my window writing this in an email blog. Asking others to pay attention. I witnessed the births of five baby geese, the spinning of a web by a spider about the size of an eyelash and I'm learning trees. I also wrote the head of a local grocery chain challenging him to stop using plastic bags."
Another one is from David Doane. I will read this now. "I'm very conscious of our being part of the earth and nature. I don't put enough of that consciousness into personal practices. I sincerely commend you for doing so. I drive a car that gets forty-five miles per diesel gallon. I help support environment-friendly action. I sign in support of ProEarth and nature petitions and laws. I cut my grass less often. I attend programs on our connection to the earth and cosmos to hopefully raise the consciousness of others. My practices raise my consciousness. And that last line really resonated with me, like you try to make the change and then change is transforming you from inside, so well captured in that one line - my practices raise my consciousness.
For all of our listeners, I know Rahul for a long, long time. He's one of our founding members for Awakin calls, a long-time volunteer with ServiceSpace, and every time that I hear from Rahul, there's something so insightful, so simple and yet so profound that comes to light. How fortunate we are to have Rahul as our moderator for today's call. So Rahul, if you would please introduce our speaker to all of our listeners and if you would please guide us in conversation with Peter right now.
Rahul: Thanks, Deven. So, Peter Kalmus is a Ph D. physicist who became a climate scientist and then took the remarkable step of reorganizing his life around his understanding of the forces, both inner and outer, that contribute to climate change. In a world where climate experts and scientists zip from high-profile summits to fancy conferences spreading the urgency and alarm around the most significant disruption to occur on Earth in the last million years, Peter advocates and practices slow travel on foot, bikes, trains and cars powered by waste vegetable oil. Yet even more remarkably he points out that while our problems appear to be technological, their roots are actually spiritual. His new book, Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, traces his journey in aligning head, heart and hands, as he discovers the science, lifestyle changes and meditation plus community building, not only eradicated his cognitive dissonance about how to live in our current era of climate disruption but also awaken the deeper joy and gratitude for daily life and the preciousness of being alive. And I'm absolutely delighted to be in conversation with you today, Peter, thank you so much for joining us.
Peter: It's an honor and a joy to be here, Rahul, and thanks Deven!
Rahul: So, Peter, you know, I have never before read a book that had gratitude for our own Sam Bower and Pancho Ramos Stierle in the foreword, and then quotes and thoughts from Ramakrishna, S.N. Goenka, Thich Nhat Hahn and Genesis sprinkled all throughout the book. You know, I was just fascinated by what your journey has been. So, maybe we can start there, you know, if you'd be open to sharing a little bit about how you came into this very unique perspective around climate, and the way to bring about your own personal alignment with that understanding.
Peter: Right, so, when I was a kid, I remember in sixth grade, my first awareness of global warming began. It was mentioned in a class you know by my sixth grade teacher, and I felt like this was something kind of from science fiction, it was something that was going to happen, sort of, in the infinite distant future, you know hundred years later, two hundred years later, so I wasn't worried about it. It didn't seem like the adults were worried about it, so I wasn't worried about it. And I kind of forgot about it and then you know I grew up obviously in the U.S., in the suburbs of Chicago. I remember driving on the freeways or sitting on the cars like when my parents were driving on the freeways and having this sort of sense that something wasn't right about that, it was ugly, it was noisy, it smelled bad, things were moving really fast. So as a kid, I remember feeling something wasn't right about this fossil fuel, suburban way of living.
I remember walking at night one time and it was dusk and it was beautiful but no one else was out and all of the houses that I passed, there was a window and there was blue lights flickering out of the window, and the different windows were synched up, as if different houses were watching the same station. I didn't think it was right but I couldn't, at that time I didn't have the sort of mental equipment to describe to myself what was wrong, and then I got caught up in the turmoil of capitalistic competition. I moved to New York and I got a job as a Software Engineer on Wall Street, married my wife Sharon, and was trying to make money basically and have fun in Manhattan. Eventually, I realized, if I were on my deathbed, you know, would I feel like I lived a good life, if I'd been writing software for Wall Street, and helping rich people get richer?
And also, I started getting really bored, so I went back to graduate school. I studied physics as a undergraduate so I went and got working on my Ph.D. because I wanted to be part of something greater than myself, science, so I wanted to contribute to the knowledge of humanity basically, and be part of that adventure. It was a great decision, you know, I really enjoyed being back in physics and learning about general relativity, and I started working for the LIGO Collaboration which is gravitational waves and a couple of years ago they made their first detection, and three of the leaders of the collaboration were awarded the Nobel Prize just a few days ago.
And halfway through my Ph.D., Al Gore's movie came out and I saw that, and it was kind of like a bucket of cold water on my face to be honest, because I hadn't been thinking about global warming much, and around the same time, Jim Hansen gave a physics colloquium at Columbia. So every week, we would gather in this lecture hall and there'd be a talk, often from a visiting scientist, and this time it was Jim Hansen who probably walked up the street from the Goddard Institute of Space Studies which is a few blocks away from Columbia and he talked about radiative forcing.
So, you know, as we add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, there's an energy imbalance, where the same amount of solar radiation is coming in, so short-wave radiation from the sun but less long-wave radiation from the earth. So, any hot object is emitting energy and infrared radiation, and you know, there has to be an energy balance on the earth, otherwise the temperature will change, and then as the temperature of the planet gets warmer, it emits more infrared radiation, until it's back into balance, back into energy balance. And I was sitting there listening to Dr Hansen, I am at the edge of my seat, thinking like this is huge, this is huge news and everyone's kind of like taking it in very calmly, but I was sort of jumping around inside my brain and saying you know, we have to do something about this.
And around that same time, my first son was born. So I've got two sons and I realized what I was doing on this planet was far bigger than me and far bigger than my career, and my career wasn't that important. And I started thinking much further into the future. What kind of a planet are we leaving for our kids and this became not just an intellectual exercise, but it came out of a place of deep love because you know, I had up till that point, I had never felt anything like what I felt after my son was born. So that put me into, kind of, a much... it made me feel less kind of selfish in terms of my goals and what I was here for.
So, after I got my Ph.D., I came to California and I kept working at LIGO but I found that I was thinking about global warming more and more, and reading more papers, scientific papers on climate change and getting very distracted from gravitational waves, to the point where I started feeling like to do astrophysics right now is almost like fiddling while Rome burns, so I decided I had to shift, and this would help with that cognitive dissonance.
I was focused on climate change anyway and so I had to actually kind of throw my intellectual weight into that arena and try to do what I could there. So I switched careers and became an atmospheric scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and I should say I'm speaking on my own behalf here, obviously. And around the same time, this is the last bit of the story I guess. This was sort of 2006 when I heard Jim Hansen and when my first son was born. I was running around in a paddock basically saying, "We've got to stop burning fossil fuels. This is huge and why isn't anyone, why wouldn't anyone care about this?" The fate of the planet is in our hands and we have to stop burning the stuff that we're putting in the atmosphere and yet no one is changing at all, either individually or at the collective level. I didn't see any change happening. And I was kind of in a blind state of panic and it was sort of alienating my friends, because it was preachy and ineffective to be running around saying, "We've got to stop burning fossil fuels." Sort of like Chicken Little, right? The sky is falling.
So, when I moved to California, I started gardening. In Manhattan, I had a tiny apartment and I was really disconnected from the earth. And in California, I've got this tiny yard. I had some fruit trees in the backyard and I had an Avocado tree in the backyard and I had a lemon tree. I had space to plant more trees. So I got kind of really interested into gardening. What is this soil? What is this Earth? What are these plants? How do I keep them happy?
I started seeing the plants as beings and somehow that helped me realize that I had to change how I was living. If I was worried about global warming, then and it seemed so obvious in retrospect, that I had to stop burning so much fossil fuel myself. So I shifted my focus from running around and shaking people by the lapels and sort of screaming at them that they had to stop burning fossil fuels, and sort of quieted down and figured out how I could reduce fossil fuels myself. Throughout this whole time, from a few years before my son was born, so about the time I started Graduate school, I started doing Vipassana meditation. And that's how I, you know, met Pancho and through Pancho I met Sam.
I think that is kind of like the engine that allowed me to not be satisfied with a dissonance. If I have a principle, if I feel like burning fossil fuels harms others, and I don't want to harm others, well then, I should do something about that. I have to actually change the way I live. What am I doing in this moment right now, which is contributing to that problem and how can I change that action? How can I get I my food in a less harmful way? How can I travel through Altadina in a less harmful way? How can I do my science in a less harmful way without emitting all this fossil fuel, without eating that factory-farm meat and without contributing? So we each have a chance to put a tiny drop into one of two buckets, right? The bucket that makes the system, the prevailing sort of mainstream system that's broken and that's killing the planet. We can make that system stronger by putting our little drop in that bucket, or we can decide to put our drop in the other bucket, which is the story -- how can we live better in a world without fossil fuels?
Rahul: Sure. That's beautiful -- thank you for taking us through that broad arc. I knew that I asked you a very deep question that had many facets to it.
You know, I'm curious about how you think about this dimension of personal change and systemic change, particularly in our current political environment in United States, which isn't a very favorable to a scientific-based understanding of climate and any sort of action around it. We have this sort of motif in ServiceSpace where we talk about creating circles which really end up being spaces for inner transformation. And yet it seems that these circles are sort of encased within triangles, which may be a metaphor or motif for a hierarchical system that has created the world that we see around us. How do you think about this interplay between our ability to, and our need to, sort of, become aware and be in step with the momentum of inner transformation and its capacity to impact the broader systems, which have created the world we live in?
Peter: So I think I actually get some pushback from climate activists. They'll say that you're focusing too much on individual change and we have to blame the corporations and we have to hold them accountable and we have to change really quickly at a systems level. My response to that is, I am one mammal walking around in the biosphere, interacting with other mammals, talking to people. I've got two hands and I've got two feet and I've got one voice. I'm doing everything I can to change the collective system but, I feel like sometimes these activists who say that, I don't get a sense very often that they have a plan.
How do you want to change the collective system? You don't have a magic wand, right? If I had a magic wand, I could easily change the collective system. But that's the problem of agency, right? That's the problem of being an individual in a collective global society. We're up to seven and a half billion people now. That's a lot of people. So, this is what's so tough about the global warming problem. It's easy to feel overwhelmed and it's easy to feel hopeless.
I guess I always just come back to my own body and in this particular moment, what can I do to make this problem better? I can write a book for example and I can have conversations like this. I can write articles. I like writing, so that's one of the ways that I choose to kind of push for the collective change. I think that you know it's a political problem but maybe even more so, it's a cultural problem. How do cultures shift? I think cultures essentially are accumulation or a collection of sort of all of our individual decisions and our individual mindsets. How we think about how to live in this world and how to interact with each other. Right now, we have a fossil fuel culture and it's hard to imagine living without fossil fuels, at least in the United States. Everyone's driving around. Everyone's flying around. We've lived with fossil fuels, you know, with frozen foods, with shrink-wrapped meat, with natural gas and electricity from coal and gas. We've lived with this stuff our whole lives. It's hard to imagine living in a different way.
That's what I discovered by reducing my own use of fossil fuel by a factor of ten, sort of, step by step over a period of many years, just by saying, "OK. So here's something I’m doing today. I'm driving this car and it's emitting this much fossil fuel. And for this trip I could actually be riding a bike. Then that means I'm eating this food and burning those calories to ride on this bike. And the food that I'm eating is emitting this much fossil fuel. So how can I get my food in a different way?" Slowly, slowly, just by thinking about it in any given moment, how my action was contributing to global warming, and how I could change it, I started living in a different way, that to an outsider, probably doesn't look that different. I still coach soccer. I still work at J.P.L. You know, I still drive in the Los Angeles area. So I could go much further and people have gone much further.
I guess I realized that by using a tenth of the fossil fuel, I could still participate in the things that I've been participating in that I thought were important. I felt happier or felt like I was living more according to my principles. It felt meaningful because this is such an urgent problem facing humanity. So from my point of view, what could be more meaningful than sort of working out, exploring, pioneering a new way of living with less fossil fuel? Maybe it's a new, old way of living. I thought that, that was a message worth sharing. So that's what caused me to write the book. I urge everyone to use their own talents and their own networks and their own sort of web of experience and their life and their own talents to tell the story in their own way. I don't think that we can tell this story, unless we're living it too.
So whether you're a long writer, artist or a writer, a scientist or a lawyer or maybe a policymaker, a politician, whatever it is, and however you interact with the collective, you can tell a new story through that platform. We all have a platform. We all have a channel. We all interact with other people. But to be able to tell that story, I think requires authentically living it first. I think that's the piece of the climate puzzle that's not happening right now. So the culture is not shifting. And the policy makers will follow us. They will follow the culture. So if the culture stays a fossil-fuel culture we're not going to see the change at the collective level. And that's what I keep trying to tell the activists. It's not either/or. You can reduce your own fossil-fuel use yourself, and then you'll be able to tell the story in a much more compelling way, which will start shifting the culture and allow the collective change to happen.
Rahul: Interesting. You know, the excuse that I think that traditional folks in the climate space have is that their use of fossil fuels, in a way, allows them to scale the reach of their message. This is why people fly from Paris to Rio, to San Francisco, giving talks, etc. Have they been receptive to this idea which I think you're sharing around, sort of, a different theory of change, one around authentically living one's understanding, so that you can allow that culture to shift?
Peter: Well there are some activists and scientists, climate activists, authors who have really big platforms; people like Bill McGiven, Naomi Kline, Michael Mann. They are doing fantastic work, and I am grateful for their work. I often wonder, what would happen if one of them decided to reduce his or her own fossil fuel use by a factor of 10, and to make it known that they were doing this. To stop flying, and saying, "You know what, I'd love to come to that conference, but I don't want to do the flight. So if we can do a phone call or video conferencing, then I'll attend." These are people that are really well known. They already have this network of face-to-face interactions under their belt. I'm not sure how much their mission would be impacted if they stopped flying around. And I kind of wonder if it would be a huge boost to their message. So this is kind of an open experiment.
There are a few climate scientists who don't fly any more and who try to reduce their own emissions. You would think that every climate scientist would do that, because we're on the front lines. We see the earth system changing before anyone else does. That's one thing that scientists love about doing science, is that you get a result and you have a little piece of knowledge before any of those seven and a half billion other people have it. And then you publish it and that's how science is built -- the cutting-edge of human knowledge. That's how it moves forward. But you would think that that front row seat would have a lot of influence on climate scientists and cause us to stop burning fossil fuels. But I think there is so much cognitive dissonance built into the default structure of the human mind, that it's very easy for humans to have intellectual knowledge and then to live in a way that's not in accordance, to live irrationally. And the climate scientists I think are doing that just as much as any other human. Maybe not quite as much other humans, but I think they rationalize and say, "well we need to fly around to do this work, therefore it's worth it."
But there are a few. I have a website called noflyclimatesci.org and I'm trying to collect anecdotes from climate scientists and from other academics who either have stopped flying or are trying to fly less. One thing I should say, is that in 2010, when I was reducing my emissions, the first thing I did was to quantify them, to estimate from seven areas of my life what emissions were arising from those seven areas; from the stuff that I buy, from the food that I eat, electricity, natural gas, flying, driving and then throwing things away -- waste. So flying was three quarters of my emissions. In 2010, I was flying to conferences and collaboration meetings. Maybe it was physically around fifty thousand miles a year, and that was three quarters of my emissions. And that's very common, I think, for scientists and other academics, so that's sort of a leverage point, you know. If we want to start shifting the culture, you know, I think the scientific community will become a much stronger lever in shifting the culture, if we started walking the walk a little bit more. The public would say, you know, they're actually concerned enough about this to be making these changes. Otherwise, the public might say well the scientists know the most about this problem and they don't seem concerned, they're not changing, so it's probably not that bad. So...I would love to see more thought leaders on climate start actually walking the walk. I don't know how effective that will be, but I think it's an experiment that hasn't been done yet and you know I'm hopeful that it could have some sort of impact.
Rahul: What do you think about the thought that we may have some kind of a technological fix that can get us out of this extreme climate danger? You know there's that famous quote by Buckminster Fuller that said that the way that we sort of change the status quo is to invent a new status quo that makes the current system obsolete. And you know there's, there's some sort of hopeful things on the horizon, which I think technology is always great at sort of giving us some hope or a horizon. For instance, around travel, the notion of a kind of virtual reality or blended, augmentated reality is one that potentially can eliminate a lot of that. And then around say food, right? Meat has a huge disproportionate impact on our climate emissions than plant-based foods, and we sort of have , we are in the dawn of this era of plant-based meat and clean meat, which is basically cellulosic meat that is grown in a lab with a small number of stem cell, at a fraction of the resource and without killing any animals. So how do you, what do you think about this notion that we can invent our way out of climate catastrophe?
Peter: That's a great question. So I think that we have to understand that climate change is actually a symptom. Climate change isn't actually the root problem -- it's just the most urgent symptom of the root problem, which is in our minds. It's how we think about our place on this earth. So recently, I've come more and more to think that you know, we're not, as a society, we're not happy, you know. We're, we're running around, we’re stressed-out, people are taking anti-depressants, people are self-medicating and abusing substances. You know, we're not connecting with each other. We're all, we're on our devices all the time. I think there's a...this unhappiness, this disease in our society, I think it's closely related to the the symptom that we're seeing of global warming, which is the most urgent symptom right now. The thing that you know, the thing that's going to cause the most suffering maybe in the short term.
A technological fix won't get to the root of this problem. It can kick the can down the road a little bit, and it can maybe reduce our emissions. But you know we have to go deeper. Something else will come up. I mean the population is still growing, habitat loss is continuing apace. We are only half as many wild animals alive now as there were thirty years ago, when I was a kid. The Sixth Extinction Event is ongoing; the rate of extinctions right now is a thousand times beyond the back-on rate and it's accelerating. And global warming is some, you know, kind of...there's a race between global warming and habitat loss. In terms of, you know, it's extinguishing a lot of the beautiful, amazing species on this planet, and global warming is getting stronger and stronger in that race...So, I was thinking the other day, I was riding my bike and and thinking -- What is happiness, and what gives rise to happiness? And three things popped into my mind.
The first one was gratitude. I think that there have been a lot of human cultures on this planet and most of them couldn't just go to the supermarket and you know buy food and bring it home and then sort of eat it, in front of the television, so it was a little harder to get food. And because of that, I think gratitude was woven into their culture and they were very grateful for their food, they were grateful for each other and the support from their communities. And this was part of their worldview, I guess you could call it their religion -- Thanksgiving was a real thing for them. And I was thinking that without gratitude, I can't be happy -- this is what I was thinking when I was riding my bike. And then the second thing that I was thinking was, I can't be happy if I'm not living in a way that's aligned with my deeper principles, because I just can't fool myself. And the last thing was breath. You know, at the time, I was on my bike and I was kind of working hard, and using my body, and and took a breath and just felt like, “Wow! You know. What an amazing planet that I can be on the surface of this rock like, kind of, whizzing through space and breathe in this beautiful breath of fresh air!” So you know where am I going with this?
Well, technology -- we tend to not want to change, and I'm not sure why that's such a strong part of being human is this kind of resisting change because change is the reality -- we're constantly changing. But, you know, I find that by kind of observing reality and then thinking about what's causing me to suffer and how can I change is actually a wonderful opportunity for kind of reducing that suffering and then becoming happier. But resistance to change is causing us to, sort of, seek a technological fix, a ‘techno-fix’ for this problem. I also think that in our society, a lot of our meaning -- we don't really...religion isn't a big part of our society anymore, and the human mind needs to feel like it's part of something bigger, it needs meaning. So I think the sense of progress, of human progress and technological progress, and you know these ideas that come from science fiction, sort of, a substitute for that that sense of meaning. If we're not, if we're not having progress, then I think, you know, people feel like maybe life is less meaningful. So they want that, they want that techno fix for all these reasons.
In terms of the global warming symptom, I think we have to work with the technologies that we have. We can’t count on something that's not even, that doesn't even exist now to save us, because it's, you know, climate change is here and now, we don't have decades left to fool around with, hoping for the ‘techno-fix’. So basically renewables is what we have -- that's the main thing, and if we just to stick in practical terms, if we meet renewables halfway...say for example, if we, if we had policies that caused us to use half the electricity in the United States, we would only need to build a quarter of the renewables to completely decarbonise our electric grid. And building a quarter, you know, that's huge, right? To only have to build a quarter, instead of four times as much! So in terms of just dealing with the carbon, I really hope that we start learning how to meet the renewable energy technology halfway, by using less.
Rahul: What stood out to me was that -- I really loved your answer around how you define happiness, and gratitude and alignment with our inner principles and understanding, and then breath which I thought was remarkable. So you know, like, I want to drive a little deeper at your understanding of the root of this problem. The way I heard you express it was that, it's our unhappiness that's at the root of the climate change problem, and climate change is simply a symptom of that unhappiness.
I wonder if there are perhaps, sort of, other routes? You know, it's not like a single route, but that perhaps, this idea of ‘speciesism’, you know, the idea that humans are some exceptional and separate part...exceptional beings, not part of nature, and therefore you know, we don't even have an intellectual feeling of our interconnection with other life, much less a visceral feeling. But I think that one strand of my question is -- are there, are there multiple routes to this problem in your thinking, there at the root? And, if indeed, it is sort of our unhappiness -- it feels like this question, well happiness is sort of an age old problem, it's a timeless problem that isn't new to the modern era, we may have sort of exacerbated it in some ways through greater disconnection, but that, it's something that, you know, like the Buddha said, suffering is there, right -- it's just part of our existence. So what's, you know, how do we address it -- if it is something that's always there?
Peter: Yeah, great, great question. Yeah, where to begin. So maybe a better word for something so deeply at the root of our predicament, instead of unhappiness, might be ‘wanting’.
Rahul: Say that again? What was that word?
Peter: Wanting, so desire, wanting things. But I think they're sort of synonymous. If you think about what Desire is, what wanting is, it's a, it's a dissatisfaction with the present moment, with what you have now, if you're not satisfied. You know, these words, they come with a lot of baggage you know. So you can say you're not happy, but someone might, someone thinks about happiness is sort of like a superficial thing. But, anyway. However you want to say it -- dissatisfaction, unhappiness. The suffering. This wanting means that something's wrong now, and you're not in the present moment, but instead you're thinking about the future, and you're hoping that if something can come in and fill this lack that you're feeling, then you'll be happy. So it's always like pushing off this happiness into the future and kind of by definition not being present right now.
You know, so I think that this is a, this is why I love Vipassana meditation so much -- it's a path that helps me, you know, learn to to stop wanting so much, all the time. And to be more satisfied with what I have, right here and right now and what's right in front of me, and to be more present with that. That comes, you know, that is the teachings of the Buddha. It comes from sitting and experiencing change in the framework of your own mind and your own body. So there's probably a lot of meditators on the call right now, and I probably don’t have to go that in-depth with this, but once you experience change, kind of, at the atomic level in your matter, and you can feel that there's really not any solidity in your body, and you can feel the, experience the thoughts coming and going, and sort of, go to a place that's beyond those thoughts. And start to realize that this whole concept of self really is an illusion, and that's not just some, kind of, like you know thing that the Buddha said, or things that you know mystical people say, but it's actually just a, just a sort of, you know, very kind of earthy reality. It's not something that's mystical.
It's just the fact that, you know, there's no solidity and that this notion of ‘self’ is an illusion. Then your attachment to that notion of self decreases, because it doesn't make sense to be attached to something that isn't really there, and that kind of opens your, kind of, whole being in a certain way, to breaking down that sense of separateness, that sense that you're different from other people, that it's a zero sum game, that you are in competition. It starts breaking down the fear of death, which is so rabid in our society and causes all this hoarding, and all this fear and people you know going on buying guns, and being afraid and wanting to put up walls and so forth. I think a lot of that comes from a fear of death.
So, that's a very good path that works for me. I think there's other paths too, to start to experience that kind of breakdown of this sense of solidity and dissolution of the ego. Some people find it by being in nature. I remember when I was a teenager, I had a really, kind of, profound experience when I was building trail in the Sangre de Cristo mountains as part of the trail crew with the Boy Scouts. We'd been building trail day after day, I'd been sledging at these rocks to break it, break the rocks down to make a trail go through the wilderness. Late at night, I got up out of my tent because I had to pee and there was a beautiful moon. Light was filtering through the trees and I walked out half a mile to the trail that I'd been working on that day and I just laid there and looked up to the stars and had the same sort of sense of dissolution and being a small part of something much bigger in a very good way [laughs].
I think there are multiple paths and I think if everyone could experience this sort of dissolution maybe we wouldn't have the problems that we have. But it's a slow path, it's a lifelong path. I think it takes, even to be attracted to that, to be willing to sit and meditate instead of moving around fast all the time and distracting ourselves. There's a lot of people who wouldn't want to start down that path. Not saying that this is a solution to climate change but, you know, we all have our time here on this planet and we can choose how to spend it. I guess I'm kind of an idealist because there's nothing...as someone who’s been trained in Physics, there's no laws in Physics that says we have to have wars on this planet or that we have to have factory-farming or that we have to have global warming. Or even that, we have to fight within our families. We could live harmoniously if we did that sort of spiritual work. So at least I've decided, as long as I'm here, I'm going to try to go down that path.
I know these answers are sorta long and I hope that's okay because you are asking such good questions. So you raise this question of speciesism, I think that's right on the money too. I think that's another path towards this dissolution of the self. Somehow, this single culture, global warming is not really the fault of humans. It's the fault of one human culture which decided that it had the right to conquer the dominion over all that crawls on the land and all that swims in the seas. That all the plants are here to serve this one species, us. And that there's something really special about us. That's such a destructive mentality, that's the mentality of separation. And there's been lots of cultures on this planet and there are lots of cultures on this planet now that don't have that world view. And do see humanity as one thread in this larger web of life.
I think that's a beautiful worldview to me. To me, it's so much more comforting to feel like one thread in the web of life, it's such a beautiful thing -- this web of life. And to set ourselves apart from it, and disconnect from it and disconnect from our food sources, we're missing out. I mean, to have a worldview of being in the web of life is to be like a child in this wonderland of miracles. I remember what it was like being a kid and looking at ants closely and looking at other insects and looking at rocks and looking at roots under the soil. You know, as adults we don't tend to do that in this culture. And also speaking as a physicist, it's just a miracle that we have this rock which is coated with this amazing abundance of life. This psychedelic explosion of plants and animals and bacteria and mushroom and fungi. It's amazing -- to not walk on this earth with that sense of wonder is such a sad thing. I think a lot of that comes from the disconnection, comes from the speciesism. To be the conqueror is to suffer, I think.
Rahul: Beautifully said.
Deven: Wow! Rahul, if I may interject before your next question. To all of our callers, if you would like to share a thought or ask a question, when you press *6 on your phone it'll get you on the queue. I see there's one caller on the queue. You're welcome to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or when you complete the form on today's live streaming interface, the questions will come to us immediately.
Rahul: Peter, you were asking if your long answers were okay and I just love them, so no need to abbreviate. I sort of feel like I could be in conversation for hours. I certainly hope to continue our conversation after this call at a future date. And again I certainly have so many questions I could ask.
Peter: We can have a lightening round now maybe [chuckles].
Rahul: Ok, sure. One question, you shared about how becoming a father really increased your urgency around doing this work and diving into the climate world, shifting from Physics, because of that deep love that you felt. I would love to hear your thoughts on that phenomenon, for the people out there who care about the issue but are not yet parents. Especially given this idea that if, in a way, if our kids - you know I have two kids myself, so this was very much on my mind also when I was bringing them into the world, but just this idea that we're bringing children into a very dire reality, the potential for a very dire reality which is unfolding around us at this very moment around us. And, in a way, the impact of a kid in the west, is just many orders of magnitude more than a kid in the places where population may be growing more broadly. And yet, much like it did this for you, having a child made climate action much more urgent for me as well. So what do you say about that paradox between the urgency informed by a love of this being and the resource impact of this new being as well.
Peter: Yeah, so having two kids now, I would say that somehow I see all the, in some sense, not to sound too corny -- all of the plants and animals on this planet and all the other children are, kind of, my children now too, in a sense. I try to speak for the beings that don't have a voice. So the kids that don't exist, the kids that are very young now and of course the other non-human beings on this planet. Yeah, it's a tough problem.
I think that maybe one of the key missing ingredients in activism right now is love. I think a lot of activism comes out of the sense of anger or the sense of fear or the sense of panic. I think it might be more effective out of a sense of deep love. I had to go through this process of grief, when I fully understood the implications of global warming. When I started to fully understand them, it kind of hit me like the loss of a dear loved one. Because of this love for all of the beings on this planet, I cried a lot. It still hits me sometimes. I was doing a book event, it was the first book event I did. And I was reading a passage about the lost of species on this planet and I actually started crying during...you know what, there's 60 people in the audience and I had to take a moment. So it can hit me in unexpected times.
I called my congressional representatives office once to talk about a California bill that was for the climate. I started explaining how we need to do this for our kids and I started crying, when I was on the phone with this representative, which was a huge surprise for me because this was such a business-like call. I think that a lot of activists that I respect the most have gone through a similar sense of grief. I have talked to Ethan Hughes at the Possibility Alliance and Chris Moore-Backman who has a wonderful book out called The Gandhian Iceberg. They have experienced this kind of grief. Grief comes from a place of love. It is a sense of loss of something you love dearly. It is a very different emotion than despair.
Grief is a constructive emotion that makes love grow exponentially in your heart. So as soon as the tears stop, it makes you want to start working as hard as you can to save what’s left. I think for me it really took having kids for me to get that emotional maturity. It’s not clear to me how people can do that without having kids. I am sure it’s possible. I am sure a lot of listeners without kids have gone through that stage of grief, but for me, it was having kids that really pushed me into that and forced me to deal with it.
Rahul: Sure. Deven, would you like to go to Aryae’s question?
Deven: Yes, Peter. If I may, so we have Aryae in the queue; so for all callers, when you call in, if you could tell us your name and where are calling from.
Aryae: Hi Peter. This is Aryae in Half-Moon Bay. I am really feeling inspired. Thank you Rahul and thank you Deven. Here is my question, Peter. Awhile ago, some of us in ServiceSpace were having a conversation about the issue you were talking about earlier. On the one hand there is systematic action, and on the other hand are the small, doable actions that ordinary people can take,. The idea that was getting envisioned was what if a few people could get together and create a website or app which would give any ordinary person a personal dashboard with choices about what can I do, as an ordinary person, to reduce my carbon footprint?
Like maybe if I am a meat eater, I can cut down on the number of meat meals I eat, or maybe I’ll take a bike to work one day a week or maybe I’ll change the light bulbs in my house. You know, various small steps I could take. And what if people like you who are climate scientists could be involved in creating algorithms that would say, if a hundred million people would do the same thing, what would the impact be on the planet? This would allow ordinary people everywhere to figure out what personal choices they would make and maybe collect the data to provide feedback loops. This could encourage a lot of people to do that, so by changing yourself, you are changing the world. I am wondering if you have come across any projects like this, and what your thoughts about it would be?
Peter: I think it sounds like a great idea and I would be willing to collaborate on something like that and do the experiments. I think of all of these things as experiments and you don’t know how effective they are going to be, until you try them. I would encourage you to contact me offline and we can discuss it further.
I think that my own path required, kind of, taking personal responsibility. Back in 2010, I tried going online and using the existing carbon calculators and didn’t find that satisfying. I answered all the questions and it would send me back like a bunch of suggestions. Somehow it didn't speak to me personally, though I think it might work for some people. What did work for me was doing the research myself and figuring out...I walk through this in my book and go into lots of details to explain where the emissions come from. Like a gallon of gasoline burning emits this much carbon dioxide, but there is approximately 20% more overhead from just getting it out of the ground -- and that is growing. Going into this research and then tailoring this to my own life was helpful for me.
I think an app would be really useful for helping track things over time and people could tie it into people’s utility bills. They could every couple of months, they could see how much gas they are burning or how much they are flying. An app could plot a graph for them to touch off some kind of a conversation with their friends and colleagues. I do think of my actual emissions reduction by becoming vegetarian, biking more and composting. Composting which reduces the amount of waste that turns into methane, which happens when the food waste goes into the landfill. There are dozens of little things like this. Some of them are bigger and some of them are smaller. Some of the things that really reduced my emissions a lot wouldn’t reduce someone else's and vise versa. I think it is kind of like a game over the course of years as I decrease. It was a lot of fun. If an app brought that aspect out, it could be very useful.
Aryae: Yes, thank you. I am thinking that not everybody can be a Peter or a Pancho and reduce your carbon by 90%. If I’m just a lone person by myself and I am going to take a little step, and maybe I feel like I am not doing very much and it’s not going to have an impact. But if technology could help me to see how I could have an impact if lots of people do it, and to see what all of us are doing. Maybe then I can feel part of something larger and it might motivate me to get started. To start taking small steps and then make bigger steps.
Peter: That's right, and one thing I love about it too is that if pulls in this notion of quantifying our actions. This is a huge missing piece in the mainstream environmental movement. There are all of these online articles about 10 things you can do for the climate, and 15 ways to reduce your footprint. They’re just kind of a grab bag. Some of things are significant, but some of them are so minor as to be insignificant. You’re not selecting between the bigger things and the small things, and not quantifying causes and noise to be added to the discussion and causes confusion. What you're suggesting would make it very clear to someone -- that this thing I just did was huge and cut out 15% of my footprint, or this thing I did didn’t even show up, because it was such a small thing. So yes, I think you're right. Ethan Hughes says, and I totally agree with him, that if any atom is moving in the right direction instead of the wrong direction, that is a good thing.
Aryae: Thanks Peter. I will follow up offline.
Deven: Every small bit counts and I love the thought that if there is a way to quantify that I did this much for my environment today, that will be awesome. Thank you, Aryae for your question and very sharp thought around that as well. Let me get to our next caller right now. Please share your name and where you are calling from.
Kozo: Good morning. This is Kozo from Cupertino. Thank you Peter, Rahul, and Deven. Peter, you remind me of one of my favorite childhood characters, the Lorax--you know, “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.” It’s beautiful to see an embodiment of that.
Peter: I feel like that sometimes!
Kozo: Yes, like nobody is listening. When I first came across your work and I read about the air travel, it was like one of the best things I had ever heard and one of the worst things I had heard. I was like, why did I have to hear this because my family lives in Hawaii and I might never see them again. I shared this with so many people in my circle, whether it’s parents of kids who my kids play with, or family members, or close personal friends. I told them that same story that three quarters of your carbon footprint is just from taking a flight to Hawaii. It’s amazing how many people were like, wow, it’s three quarters, really? That’s amazing. Then the next day they’d be like, “Hey Kozo, I am flying to Japan. I have a double layover that’s a thousand dollars less, should I take that or should I take the faster flight?
In fact, I was late to this call this morning because my wife flew to New York at 4 o'clock in the morning and I had to drive her there, I slept through the beginning of this call and I am just surprised by the people who hear it and say "Oh, 3 quarters of carbon footprint but I am still going to fly to Turkey tomorrow.”
I am sure you come across with the carbon scientist who are flying to these events across the world and I am wondering how do you see that fitting into the larger picture? Is it that it is just going to take a few small individuals to make a large change. You know, the market needs model or is it that people can be apathetic so long until they start seeing the traumatic events that are happening now. And I am just curious about what that vision of the larger picture is in relation to that apathy?
Peter: I think it is both of those things and I think that the apathy comes from not being able to kind of decipher the connections between the flights and these disasters that are happening and causing suffering, like the fires right now in Santa Rosa. The way it worked for me is, it took me a couple of years to ramp down my flying. I remember, my last flight was to a collaboration meeting in Rome. And I was sitting on the plane and I felt like I don't want to be here because I know the harm and I don't want to cause the harm and going to hangout with my friends, my scientific friends in Rome and give this little update on my work wasn't worth the damage that I was doing.
So, as a culture we need to start recognizing that burning fossil fuels actually causes harm. That getting on that plane is not too different from running up to a stranger on the street and punching him in the face and it's not socially acceptable but somehow burning fossil fuels is socially acceptable. And then, it does increase the likelihood of having fires and catastrophic flooding. We had those kind of events before climate change but now the suffering and the amount of people that are affected is much greater because the likelihood and the severity of those events is increasing. For me, the cause and effect was pretty clear and I just realized that I don't feel good and I don't want to be on this flight. That was kind of a key thing for me and so again it's that cognitive dissonance somehow isn't tunneled through then people are probably going to keep flying. But as more of a stop doing it and speaking out about the damage it is doing, helps other people tunnel through that cognitive dissonance because I think the cognitive dissonance comes from the cultural normalization. Like we see everyone else doing it so, it must be okay. So, as more and more people say no it's not okay and I am not doing it anymore then it becomes... oh oh I guess there is alternatives and I guess this is harmful and we think twice. A lot of my personal friends who were very close to me, I was surprised by this, I didn't actually think writing this book and speaking out because almost all the people who are in direct contact with me will start changing and start reducing and think twice about taking that flight.
So, they haven't stopped flying but they are flying less and they are being more mindful and I remember it took me two years to ramp down my flying. So, it is not something people are going to do overnight.
And the final piece, the third piece is that, I do think we need a price on carbon emissions. I think that it is a tragedy of our market system right now that burning fossil fuels is causing this huge harm across the globe when you could put cost to that harm I guess. And that harm is not the new norm because it is going to keep getting worse and worse until we stop burning the fossil fuels and yet we are not paying for that "dubious privilege" to use the atmosphere as an open sewer and to emit that carbon dioxide which is causing all this harm. So, we need to make that more expensive and that will cause people who still have the cognitive dissonance and the institutions that send people on business trips, that push academics to fly for all these institutional sort of reasons, to start to decrease because flying will just get more expensive.
Kozo: One of the things that allowed me to get over the cognitive dissonance and to act immediately is that my family is from Hawaii and you know the Hawaii state motto is "Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono" which means 'the life of the land or the life of that which sustains us will not survive if we are not Pono, if we aren't in alignment, if we aren't righteous or good. So there is a direct responsibility if you are from Hawaii to save the land, and it is about what you do, about you being Pono or righteous. And I am wondering, if you have seen this happening or if you have explored this at all, if indigenous wisdom is offering a solutions to climate change that technology is not ?
Peter: Thank you so much for that follow up question, I strongly feel that's true. I am actually reading a book right now called 'Braiding Sweetgrass' which is by someone who is also an indigenous person from the Potawatomi tribe and it's amazing how these indigenous people, all these other cultures which I mentioned briefly early on the call, they have been saying this consistently from the beginning and our culture hasn't been listening and they are all saying the same thing.
They are all saying that this is our mother, this land gives us life, the land owns us and we don't own the land and we need to have gratitude for it otherwise these gifts go away. I still have a lot of learning to do about this subject but it seems that one thing is, we get so many gifts from the land, the air that we breathe, the food that we eat and not only that but the fact that we are not responsible for our own bodies. I am always blown away by that, that billions of years of evolution led to the plants that cause us to exist in our ancestry and going back not just to humans but even to before humans.
So, the biosphere is really our mother. The earth is really, literally our mother and all of these gifts, the gift of life itself that come from this dear mother. Our job or what we give in return is maybe simply gratitude and that's missing in our culture. We have replaced that with the love of money. With this desire for hoarding and taking as much as we can and your people in Hawaii and these other indigenous people, the sense of gratitude means in practice only taking what you need and feeling grateful for it and sharing with others, not just humans but other than humans too.
One thing that's challenging is, when you say, these kind of ideas to this dominant sort of industrial culture of separation, people immediately say "oh you want us to live like cavemen. You want us to go back in time." And that's that myth of progress, technological progress as a source of meaning in our lives that I was mentioning earlier. We have to shatter that mindset and there is no going back. Everything is going forward. Time goes in one direction. But I hope that we learn. Our culture has very little wisdom. These other cultures had their own technology but I think they had more wisdom. Some of our technological innovation from this particular culture are good but I would like to see us have more wisdom on how we decide which one's we are going to keep and how we are going to decide.
Kozo: Real quick, in relation to Braiding Sweetgrass, I have a very similar moment, Peter, where I read my sons, my sons are 10 and 7, I read them that story of Skywoman and Turtle Island, and I started crying while I was reading it to them when the muskrat brings up the last bit of mud. That made them really engaged, like this is a really important story. And I encourage everyone who is out there, if you have children, get Braiding Sweetgrass and just read them the first chapter. Read them the Skywoman story because that shifts the fundamental shift on how we view the land as opposed to the Adam and Eve story.
Peter: So glad you raised that point. I cried at certain points to, especially when she was trying to learn the language and there were seven elders in the teepee. They were the last people on the planet who spoke that language, and they were telling jokes in the language and laughing to each other and trying to explain the jokes in English. But just the loss of a language, the loss of a culture, maybe the first time I actually cried at that notion which is in some sense to me even more horrifying than the loss of any individual.
Deven: How insightful? Peter, we have one more share that came over email. Mish says, "Hello Peter. What do you say to those who deny climate change? I'm at a loss when I find myself engaged in conversation with one. I don't have children, and do find myself in tears often at the current state of our planet. Like many, I am in deep grief and feeling helpless right now and am in need of encouragement. Dealing with daily discouragement and disbelief over environmental results Trump is doing. How do you anchor? Thank you for who you are." Mish from Brooklyn New York.
Peter: What a great question. I think there are sort of two kinds of climate deniers. There are those who are sort of denying in good faith. Their tribe or the people they listen to are deniers, so they are deniers too. But they are not denying in a cynical way. So the other kind are people who stand to gain from not acting on climate change.
So people in the oil industry, politicians that take money from the oil industry, and so forth. So there are two different kinds. The first kind if you are interacting with them is to listen a lot, and to explain when they are ready to listen. Not to hit them over the head.
So my father was a climate denier and over the course of ten years of maybe talking to him maybe an hour a week, he is now a huge advocate for action on climate. That is the level of how much work it takes to change the mind of that first kind of denier.
The second kind if they are not discussing in good states and they are just trying to spread lies and spread misinformation, I think it is important for scientists, for example, to put the correct information out there as much as possible, because otherwise there is a vacuum and they step into it and they cause so much confusion. Because they cause the first kind of climate deniers to exist. But you are not going change their minds. I don't see how you can do that. So to try to engage with them directly is probably playing into their game and is possibly counter-productive. And I would suggest, not spending your limited time and energy trying to persuade them that climate change is real.
I'll say one last thing which is the way I try to spend my energy mostly is a third class of not exactly climate deniers, they are sort of the NPR intellectuals that drive Priuses. Before I went through my process of grief and had my first kid, I was sort like that. I thought I was doing my part, recycling. I think there is a lot of space trying to get those people whose hearts are in the right space but whose hands aren't really doing too much and maybe who haven't gone very far down the spiritual path. Discussions with them might be the most fruitful of all because there are so few people that are kind of walking the walk and really pushing hard for action. And the potential for getting more of those kinds of really strong voices and really strong actors lies in that large pool of apathetic progressives. So I think that is a great place to spend one's time and energy.
Deven: I know there are more questions from our callers. If any of our callers or volunteers would like to ask you a question, can we use your email address to send you the questions.
Peter: Absolutely. Listeners can contact me directly. There is a contact form on the book's webpage. So you can go to BeingtheChangebook.com. I have a personal website that you can find by googling me and it also has a contact form. I encourage listeners to contact me directly or through Service Space. I'd love to continue the conversation. I really enjoyed this.
Deven: How can we help you as the Service Space community with your work or purpose?
Peter: Great question. A bit of a surprise. So I spent five years writing this book and I don't want to make any profits from it. Any profits I want to donate to groups that work towards connecting individual action towards collective action, bridging that gap and increasing people's personal agency. Groups like Citizens Climate Lobby and Our Children's Trust. So I don't want to make any money, but it is hard to get the word out for the book. So spread the word for the book. Get the book. If you like it, try to get other people to get it. Get the word out there, because I poured my heart and soul into it. That is sort of like having a conversation with me.
The other thing, if you have ideas for how to use your own wisdom and your individual talents to cause people to get it to the level that they sort of feel this emotionally, not just intellectually and actually start reducing their emissions, then do that. Take the initiative. Find your own path. Write your own book. Run for office. Do all those things that are your calling. Find your calling. And do everything you can, because this is the urgent crisis for humanity. And we can make a better world. We can make a world where we think differently. And we connect with each other better. We fight less, and we are happier.
Deven: How inspiring. Thank you.
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