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General · 23rd December 2007
Carrie Saxifrage
My family has always been guided by environmental principles. But in the past two years, we’ve been driven by the facts of global warming. And we’ve reduced our emissions from driving, flying and all home energy use by 70% of what they were three years ago. Our lives don’t look radically different. But we feel better. We feel more aligned with what we know needs to happen for a stable future.

There’s more to it than that, though. Voluntary deprivation is just not that appealing to us. Reducing emissions required us to create different conditions in our lives, ones in which forgoing some habitual fossil fuel use felt like a natural consequence of positive choices rather than a deprivation.

These positive choices were shaped by the idea of living in alignment with human nature as it has evolved for tens or hundreds of thousands of years. Habitual fossil fuel use took away some basic connections that support human fulfillment. By returning to some of the age-old authentic pleasures, our lives have become richer even as our emissions have become less.

Our big, beautiful, fairly cool house is no cave. But we walk a lot, eat a high proportion of local foods, live in rich natural surroundings, enjoy small community life and make an effort to become personally engaged in the arts. Those are all things that humans have always done. They are deep in our genes. And they do not require fossil fuel.

While my family is highly motivated by the vision of a smooth transition to the “decarbonized” future, we have other reasons to be glad of the changes in our lives. By reclaiming some of the work and activities that, throughout evolution, humans were directly engaged in, we’re gaining inner and outer connections that, in our deepest nature, we expect and need.


We humans have always walked. It’s a calling card of our lineage. Presently the average person in the United States walks barely 350 yards a day. We are divorced from a fundamental purpose of our physical design, and more than half of us are obese or significantly overweight.

Increasingly, I find cars waste my time. I’m confined to an uncomfortable position amid surroundings that are grey and biologically bleak. I get annoyed at foreseeable situations and total strangers. I find our Prius necessary for passengers, loads and long distances, but I never drive on short trips by myself. If I’m not combining the functions of exercise, pleasure and transportation, I’m wasting time.

So, I walk a lot more. I live a pleasant 2.5 km from work, along a pedestrian path. My body is happy in the movement of walking. As I walk, I replay events, make plans, steam up, cool down and shift priorities. I notice my surroundings in brief snapshots: mushroom, icicle, mist. When I see someone, we greet each other in friendly terms. I share this montage of movement, thought and surroundings with my ancestors. It feels good in a deep, natural way.


For my family, food is one of our definitive relationships with the earth and it’s one of love. My husband and I like to balance computer time with being outside, doing physical labour in the garden and orchard. We like doing it together, when possible. Sometimes we hire friends. At my husband’s 20th university reunion, classmates asked why he looked so fit and young. “I spend hours hacking at blackberries in the orchard,” was not the answer they expected.

The best gardening is the potato co-op at Linnaea Farm, where we work with twenty other families to grow the winter’s potatoes. The work bees are food, exercise, community, food security, nature and fun all packed together. We eat just-dug potatoes in celebration at the final work bee, families gathered under the alder trees, burning our fingers on fries just off the grill.

We feel honoured to buy seafood at the government dock from a local fisher who takes pride in his troll caught wild salmon and who, with his partner, works to protect the wild salmon. We’re grateful to farmers we know who grass feed their meat animals and give them natural lives. We consume as many eggs as our neighbours can provide us with. We pick mushrooms, berries and clams. Our orchard trees have grown from whips into magical producers of massive amounts of fruit. We talk endlessly about food, conversations that cover politics, science, and personal welfare.

And our food is simply great. We take pictures of our counter tops full of prawns, matsutake, chestnuts and apples, as if the day’s abundance is a friend we don’t want to forget. Once, when a city friend took a bite of something we created out of home grown food, she closed her eyes at the intensity of flavour and gave us her highest praise: “You could sell this.” But we can’t sell it. Our food is full of the creative expression of a family, a season, a piece of land, community relationships, and a part of the ocean. It’s not shippable and there is no way money could compensate for the time and care that went into it. It is hospitality, not commodity.

And we aren’t even very devoted gardeners. In the spring, we clear the beds, start the transplants, and water and weed with some regularity. We think, “This year will be different, we’ll stay on top.” But in the summer, it’s too hot to work, or we have visitors or we’re too busy. We manage a couple of big weedings and try to water every few days, but it gets pretty messy out there. Nonetheless, what a lot of food grows! We eat daily from the garden throughout the year (our son is built largely of kale), and most of the food in most of our dinners is local. A couple of years ago, when we got serious about local food, we expanded the garden for more potatoes and shelling beans. We grow nearly all of our fruit. We still buy dairy products, coffee, bulk grains, oils, wine, scotch, beer and an embarrassing amount of chocolate. But my guess is that, in our distracted way, we manage to grow over a third of our own food, and another quarter is local. And, because we’re feeding our connection with our land, family and community at the same time, it’s a double harvest.

A Rich Biological Setting

We humans evolved in nature, its sights, sounds and smells. It directly provided for our needs. Biophilia is a love of nature that is rooted in our biology. Being in nature promotes health. The sound of the dawn chorus reminds us of the joy in other creatures’ lives. Looking at the stars keeps us aware that we’re specks in deep time and vast space. In the suburbs and cities we’re surrounded by human-made objects make us think we are the center of a universal plan. We’re surrounded by stressful noise and sights even though natural beauty makes us healthy and gives us joy.

I grew up surrounded with human-made sights and sounds. Human-made beauty and landscapes were sometimes very pleasing and often drably repetitive. The speed of cars and airplanes kept me from seriously considering nature. Nature and the environment were mental compartments, like social studies or math. Then, when I was 14, I went on a three week wilderness course. I learned, for the first time, that I belonged to the natural world. I had my first-ever feelings of deep peace, strength and happiness. I knew I would ultimately live near wilderness, if I could.

Simple natural beauty, such as lichen on granite, brings me peace. Returning from a city trip, I walk through the forest, smelling tree air that expands me like water expands a dry sponge. A flicker eats our apples, ravens visit our compost, eagles check up on us, siskins nibble cones in the cedar tree, winter wrens live under the deck, chickadees work the alders and towhees pone the mock orange. Each season has its sounds: frogs, bats, crickets, birds. We love the creatures around us. We try to be careful of their needs. Their lives bring us joy.

Living in Cohesive Groups

Our ancestors evolved in small social groups that encouraged individual autonomy and were egalitarian, at least for men. One principle that creates successful groups across all biological scales, from bacteria to humans, is the ability to detect and punish individuals who bully and cheat others in the group. Like the world representatives at the Bali Climate Change Conference shouting down the US representatives, humans have the ability to gang up on each other to force behaviour that supports the group interest.

Shared beliefs enhanced group cooperation, an excellent evolutionary strategy. Shared beliefs have created diverse cultures that have been well adapted to many different circumstances. Part of being human is the ability to evolve rapidly through our cultures to meet rapidly changing circumstances. For other creatures, evolution is a slow genetic process not a potentially fast cultural one.

I don’t want to go back in our and embrace all our past beliefs, given that there is almost no evidence that egalitarianism was extended to women until very recently, part way, and in only a few cultures. But I’m glad that I found a small, fairly like-minded, community to live in that by and large works intentionally to cooperate.

Living as an adult in several cities, I was connected by demographics, not land, so I only knew others of the same age, income and educational levels. In contrast, living a small community with a strong land ethic satisfies my desire for a cohesive yet autonomous group. The community is linked by love of the same place, not by demographics. Our family has friends of all ages, income and education levels. We hike, garden, camp, forage, dance, make crafts and, especially, eat together. Children of all ages play together, and everyone helps raise them. My friendships feel woven into my values and daily activities. We feel very connected in a variety of ways to many people beyond our immediate social circle.

Maybe small community relationships become so strong is because people stick to one locale and become known in their many facets. The builder of our house is our closest neighbour, works with me in the volunteer fire department and is a parent at the school where I work. The woman I rent movies from belongs to the computer geek group with my husband and makes the great jewelry I buy for gifts. Every relationship has several dimensions, and these increase over time. Politeness is valued because the person we disagree with in one context can easily become our closest ally in another. We argue with each other at community meetings but when externalities threaten, we rise together like an angry bee hive.

Our community self-regulates, like hunter-gatherer society lite: people understand that their actions have consequences for people they know and that reputations rise and fall with the ability to be a good neighbour and contribute to the community as a whole. There are no full time police here, and few people want them because we enjoy our autonomy. Like the small societies in which we evolved, the community polices itself through “gossip” and social pressure when people who are more powerful by reason of age, gender or position appear to put less powerful community members at risk.

Staying close to home for work, service, and fun provides me with a strong identity in a specific place. The community value of good neighbourliness parallels more ancient means by which groups encouraged altruism. It hits a deeper mark for me than the prohibition of criminal activity. My life feels strongly woven into the lives of others, yet I feel more self-reliant than I did in the city. Life in the individualistic megalopolis didn’t provide me with what I most deeply need: a sense of belonging, knowing that I am someone and I have a place.

Dancing and Making Music

Humans are social in the same way that bee hives and termite colonies are social. We cooperate within groups so we can compete more effectively with other groups. Culture ties our social bonds and throughout human history, art has enabled societies to communicate effectively and meet a wide range of circumstances. Humans have always participated in dance, music, visual art and storytelling directly, not at a technological distance. These arts were necessary communication channels for group action, like the foraging dance in a bee hive.

For nearly all of human existence, people have danced in groups because it creates a sense of unity. When I go to dances with local musicians at the community hall, I can almost feel the switch flip. One moment, I’m moving my body with my eyes closed, lost in my own thoughts. The next, I’m part of a many armed animal, and the musicians are its voice. It’s freaky and irrational and I love it more than just about anything else. But I didn’t understand what was happening until I read about evolution: we humans are deeply wired to synchronize our thoughts and feelings through making music and dancing together. That’s why it’s so satisfying.

Connecting With Art

In the smaller groups with which we evolved, people naturally participated directly in art and storytelling because there was no technology to mass produce culture or transport it to a global marketplace. Celebrity and fame of a few displaces countless would-be local artists, stealing the limelight from more particular messages about land, community and local styles of self-expression. Many of us express ourselves with consumer preferences and personal style, shopping as a creative outlet.

I’m fortunate to live in an art-rich community. A close friend has recorded our families’ shared adventures in etchings and watercolours. Another friend has spent decades watching the sea, rendering his feeling for its underlying cohesion on large canvases and enabling us to live with his luminous conception of the Inner Coast waters on our wall. Another friend’s art bursts off the canvas in bright, singing organic shapes. Our family sits at the table to paint and draw cards for birthdays and hand craft gifts when we can. Our son’s school art holds a place of honor. When friends gave us a hand bound book with photos, paintings and poems from a camping trip to deep wilderness that we had shared, we were touched to the point of being stunned. It was the most personal gift we have ever received, and the most beautiful. Like the mycelium that increases the nutrient uptake of tree roots, our art further connects us to our friends, our land and our family. It’s an extension of our community and ourselves. It reflects our lives and loves.

Local Story-Telling

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Now, at 48, as I contemplate how little I know about writing and how difficult it is to get published and achieve commercial success, I wonder what motivates my desire to write. I’ve always enjoyed telling stories to children. Is a rapt face enough success to satisfy this narrative desire? How about the casual compliment on an article that I’ve written for the local paper? In fact, I find these things very satisfying. Perhaps it is enough to be heard by those I know, in having a meaningful voice within my own community. That is, after all the actual size of storytelling for most of human evolution.

The Transition

There are lots of reasons to think that coping with the coming change will not be as bad as we think. We’re just not very good at imagining futures that are significantly different from our present. And we don’t entirely realize that, if we begin retooling our transportation, appliances and energy sources right away, our future could be quite similar in most ways to what it is now. Whether we will experience a graceful shift or a violent disruption is all in the timing of our action.

Perhaps part of our failure to make personal and political changes is because we allow ourselves undue dread. People consistently overestimate how awful they will feel as the result of a significant negative event. In fact, we have amazing psychological immune systems that can turn the most disquieting of events into the best thing that ever happened. It’s the proverbial seed of opportunity within the crisis.

So maybe, given that fossil fuels emissions are now shown to be the worst thing that has ever happened to humans, finding other energy solutions and learning to do without a few things will just not be so bad. There’s lots of great technology and social knowledge that will save us from going back into the dark ages. We’ll re-establish the physical engagement in life that our bodies need. Some of us will choose the security of living where we can obtain local food and products, places that are close to nature. Consumer satisfactions will pale once we’re engaged in more activities that form strong social bonds and encourage our creative expression.

The trick to taking a step into a future that is different from our past is to accept that the need for change is inescapable. Climate chaos is here. The longer we equivocate, the more uncertainty we force ourselves to live with, the more guilt and anxiety we must bear, the unhappier we will be. Once we accept the need to change, it’s much easier to adjust our view to find the situation’s positive aspects. That’s human nature too. I know, because I find myself doing it already.

Our Reductions

My family started it’s reductions by using a carbon calculator on the web to estimate our yearly emissions. We were then able to reduce our direct emissions by 70% over three years in the following ways:

* 45% by not flying except in family emergencies;
* 10% by driving less, and relying on an electric bike, regular bike and walking;
* 10% by changing from a Subaru Legacy to a Prius;
* 5% by reducing our home power use by one-third (via line drying our clothes, more energy efficient appliances, turning the heat down, only using our hot-tub in the cold months and becoming more aware of moment to moment hydro demands by using a Blueline Innovations power monitor.)

We fill our fun buckets by exploring our area, playing soccer, swimming, and back-packing. We’re buying a small sail boat to explore local waters. We want to keep our family connections strong, and are willing to spend more transportation time doing it, such as the month long car trip to see relatives we’re planning for the spring. We intend to explore bike/train combinations and container ship travel in the future and to enjoy the adventure of getting to places in new ways.

The embodied energy and initial cost of some of our purchases are already paying themselves off through reduced energy consumption. We don’t know how to track our indirect emission reductions through such things as greater reliance on local food and products, but we know they’re going down as a result of our new habits. Our next efforts will probably involve small scale solar generation at our home and further reduction of driving through use of electric bikes and trailers to increase our non-car capacity for distances and loads. Already, our family is very close to its goal of one ton of direct emissions per family member per year. Ultimately, we want to meet the International Panel on Climate Change recommendation for avoiding worst consequences, a 90% reduction by 2050.

BC has one of the most ambitious goals in the world: a 33% reduction in twelve years. Citizens of BC will have four times as long to make half the changes our family has made. That’s more than enough time to cultivate less carbon-intensive satisfactions and to switch over to more efficient technologies in an economical way. For a controlled transition, the important thing is to start now.

References and Recommendations:

What Is Progress? By George Monbiot,

Averting Our Eyes by Dr. James E. Hansen

Evolution for Everyone by David Sloan Wilson

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Better Off by Eric Brende

Field Notes of a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert

Heat by George Monbiot