If you realize you have enough, you are truly rich.
Tao te Ching
Of all the places I might go on my spring break as pandemic restrictions began to lift earlier this year, I chose Joshua Tree National Park. I craved the austere beauty of the desert in a way I couldn’t explain, but when I arrived in that wide-open wild landscape of dry sand and iconic rock formations, I realized that the book I was reading, The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here, must have sent me to the desert to look for role models of how to use less.
Who would have guessed that a science book would turn out to be the perfect reading for Lent? A spiritual text is a more obvious choice, Abandonment to Divine Providence say, or Prayer in the Cave of the Heart, but The Story of More by Hope Jahren had been waiting on my to-be-read pile for months. I loved her funny, poignant memoir Lab Girl and was curious what a smart botanist with a good sense of humor would have to say about climate change.
For a book loaded with statistics, The Story of More is surprisingly easy to read, partly thanks to Jahren’s casual, engaging style, partly to how relevant and vivid her statistics are. Instead of stating coal and oil use in tons and gallons, for example, she paints a picture: “Since 1969, the nations of the globe have burned enough coal to fill a grave the size of Texas and a volume of oil large enough to fill Lake Pontchartrain three times over.” Or she simply puts things in perspective: “waste of edible food has increased such that it now equals the amount of food needed to adequately feed all of the undernourished people on Earth.” Statistics like these break by heart.
So maybe I should have said that her book is readable instead of easy to read because in fact, reading it was hard, hard in all kinds of ways – painful to acknowledge the species that have gone extinct, frightening to consider devastating heat waves and crop failures, uncomfortable above all, to recognize our greed and waste and that we might need to change. When I say our and we, by the way, I mean those of us who live in the 36 countries of the OECD (including North America, Europe, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan). We’re the ones using the most energy and throwing food away.
Step by step Jahren takes us through population growth, the ways we grow (and waste) food, and how we make and use energy – not to make us feel guilty, but to explain how we got to climate change. She writes clearly, and even if the book is disturbing to read, it’s easy to understand. Ultimately, it’s hopeful because Jahren has ideas, just as her subtitle promises, for where to go from here. She sums them up in a simple motto: use less, share more. That motto is what made this book the perfect read for a season of fasting and almsgiving and maybe subconsciously what sent me to Joshua Tree looking for inspiration.
There, where the Mojave meets the Colorado Desert, plants and animals have evolved to survive in hot sun with little water. In contrast, as a human being I needed to slather on sunscreen, wear a shade hat, and drink at least a gallon of water a day. So how do desert flora and fauna do it? The Joshua tree, according to Blue Planet Biomes, turns its spiky leaves upwards to catch any moisture in the air and stores the water in its fibrous limbs and trunk; it also has an extra root system for storing surplus water. Human beings don’t have eons to evolve our physiology to that degree, but maybe our ingenuity can save us.
Consider the tobacco moth caterpillar that naturalist Bernd Heinrich describes in his essay “Reading Tree Leaves.” In the Mojave this caterpillar grabs tight with its rear legs to the stem that attaches a jimsonweed leaf to the plant’s stalk, reaches its forelegs out to the tip of the leaf, and nibbles away at the edge while using the remainder of the leaf for shade, its own little green umbrella.
Climate change can feel so overwhelming that it’s paralyzing. At the end of her book Jahren suggests that the reader choose just one issue to focus on, one that tugs at your heart or that you worry about when you can’t sleep at three in the morning. Maybe it’s world hunger or ocean pollution, national parks or green energy. Pick an issue that matters enough to you that you’re willing to make a sacrifice for it and start by learning more about it. That’s exactly what I plan to do in future blog posts.
Which environmental issue is calling to you for action? Please reply in the comments!
Ann Thomas is a freeelance writer and illustrator living in Portland, Oregon.