This week, I had the privilege to participate in the 10th Biannual Rosenberg International Water Forum in San Jose to discuss a path forward to achieve sustainable groundwater management. The message from the forum was clear - global groundwater depletion is increasing at an exorbitant rate, and the need to act was decades ago. Nevertheless, we are where we are, and radical changes in how we produce and consume food and energy are necessary to reduce water demand with our global population. We cannot sustainably manage water in an unsustainable world.
The special report released this week by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sends a clear message that we must keep global warming to 1.5 deg C to prevent irreversible damage to coral reefs, islands from disappearing from sea level rise, and extreme weather events like wildfires and hurricanes. These impacts not only have an impact on our way of life as we know it, but also create a financial burden on our society. For example, California wildfires in 2018 so far have cost $845 million. To steer our society clear from the climate disaster trajectory that we are on, we need to cut carbon emissions by 50% in 10 years (by 2030) and become carbon neutral by 2050. This will require rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.
While there are clearly big systemic and complicated changes that need to be made such as reducing our global population, increasing renewable energy and public transportation, and improving management practices and technologies - we often discount the impact of our everyday personal choices. But the reality is that if we really want to cut our carbon emissions by 50% in 10 years, we can’t wait for these big systemic changes to happen. We need to act now.
If we want to get climate change under control in the next 10 years and protect our water/food supplies and natural ecosystems, we are going to have to do more than change our lightbulbs and drive hybrid cars. What we ultimately need to do is drastically change our consumption habits. Convenience is probably one of the biggest culprits of climate change, since it drives consumerism, such as single-use plastics in take-away dinners, choosing to fly somewhere instead of carpooling, and internet shopping with same-day delivery. This study looked at the environmental impact from a consumer perspective in 43 different countries and found that consumers are responsible for more than 60% of the global greenhouse gas emissions and up to 80% of water use. This means we need to and eat a healthier, plant-based diet, declutter our lives, and buy less stuff.
I’ll be the first to admit - I’ve lived a very privileged life that is completely unsustainable for all 7.7 billion of us on Earth to replicate. For my work and personal enjoyment, I’ve travelled extensively by plane to cross continents, eaten scallops and shrimp in Antarctica, and commuted long distances by car to work. And while I’ve dedicated my scientific career to advancing sustainability, I’ve managed to justify my choices to accomplish the greater good and advance my personal career. Over the past couple years, my family and I have worked hard to live a more sustainable lifestyle - becoming a single car household (100% electric), eating food in season, moving to a city where we can commute by bike and recreate on the weekends, telecommuting to meetings, taking public transit instead of driving, and opting for local vacations (“staycations”) instead of flying further away. Despite all this, I still find myself consuming more than I should. And, left wondering why is this so hard!?
I answered my question after reading Goodbye, things, an incredibly honest and self-reflecting book that explains how a regular stressed out guy who constantly compared himself to others decided to say goodbye to all the things he didn’t absolutely need. In return, his minimalist lifestyle allowed him more time to pursue experiences to live a more enriched and fulfilled life. Minimalism at it’s core is about distilling life to what matters and living more with less. I found this book incredibly insightful, and realized the problem is that as social creatures, humans have an intrinsic desire to seek approval, acceptance, and respect from others. These are the things that ultimately perpetuate our desire to buy a new shiny BMW, live in a big house, and fly to exotic places that can demonstrate to others how great we are. In a way - climate change is happening because of our intrinsic desire to feel important. The irony with all of this, is that scientific research has shown that money and things don’t make us happy.
As my family and I continue to redesign our life to be carbon neutral, I’ve realized that I need to be more honest with myself about what’s motivating my consumption habits. While we certainly haven’t figured it all out yet, these changes cannot be done overnight - habits need to be formed, household systems developed, and life priorities set. What is important is that we continue to take steps in our personal lives to reduce our impact. Every little bit helps.
Zero Waste Living - Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot… in that order. Video:
Green Kitchen Stories - a fantastic, creative, and delicious vegetarian food blog that are family-friendly and easy to prepare.
101 Cookbooks - a California-based vegetarian food blog that makes simple meals extra special with small touches.
Naturally Ella - great for new folks looking to incorporate plant-based meals into their diet.
The One Thing - By far, the best book I’ve read on productivity & time management.
Design your life - A design-thinking approach to craft a life of meaning and fulfillment.
Goodbye, things - An incredibly honest & self-reflective book on why our things own us.
Headspace - an app that contains a wide variety of 10 min guided meditations to help you slow down
Becoming Minimalist - A blog about adopting a minimalist life.
The Minimalists - This duo have blog, podcast series, and movie on minimalism. Watch the trailer: