Alex Yasbek thought he was doing everything he could to prevent climate change. He went vegan, rode his bike to work, “was into solar before it was legal.” But, then, four years ago, he started working as an environmental program manager for the City of Watsonville and he realized two things: his own privilege and how the systems we have created make it too hard to make environmentally friendly choices, particularly for front-line communities, like those in Watsonville. And the pace of change is too slow to match the impact. “Real climate action is going to require entirely new systems and ways of living,” he writes. From food to banking to fossil fuels, he says it’s time for a radical rethink.
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I lived it.
I am the guy who went vegan for environmental reasons. I was riding my bike to work before there were bike lanes on Soquel. I was into solar before it was legal. I recycled back when it wasn’t easy. I brought my reusable bags to the grocery store long before it was cool. I composted, planted trees, picked up trash and made my own biodiesel. I repaired things when they broke. I bought an electric car that somebody else had made from a kit.
Naturally, I became an environmental engineer. I really thought if everyone lived like I did, there would be no climate change.
About four years ago, I was working in the engineering department at the City of Watsonville when I was asked if I would like to work on the city’s climate action plan. I jumped at the opportunity. I was finally working on exactly what I had always wanted to work on.
This was it. I was changing the world.
And so, I would ask Watsonville residents the obvious questions. Why don’t you have solar panels on your roof? Why don’t you purchase an electric car? Why don’t you get a heat pump hot water heater? Why don’t you come to our council meetings? Why don’t you ride your bike to school?
The answers I got made me realize just how privileged and out of touch I was.
“I don’t own my home.”
“I don’t have the capital to buy a new electric car and then wait four months for the rebate.”
“If my landlord makes improvements to my unit, he will kick me out and rent it to somebody else for more money.”
“I work two jobs, I don’t have time to come to a public meeting.”
“There is no safe route for me to bike. I don’t want to die.”
The other message I got is that most residents are acutely aware of climate change and what is causing it, and that they are a front-line community already experiencing its impacts.
But the choices available to them are limited. Watsonville residents, in general, do what is most affordable, or what is easiest — or what is the only choice.
The most recent example of this is the flooding experienced by residents of Pajaro. Erratic and extreme weather is a hallmark of climate change. But what if every resident had bought an electric car, gone vegan and completely removed fossil fuels from their lives? Would their community still have flooded? I am certain the answer is yes.
— Alex Yasbek
And that is when I realized the system we have created is one where the wrong choices — the environmentally destructive choices — are the cheap, easy, obvious choices. Often the only choices.
Individual action is important (and you should do what you can). But real climate action is going to require entirely new systems and ways of living.
The most recent example of this is the flooding experienced by residents of Pajaro. Erratic and extreme weather is a hallmark of climate change. But what if every resident had bought an electric car, gone vegan and completely removed fossil fuels from their lives? Would their community still have flooded?
I am certain the answer is yes.
It is easy to point to the levee and say it should have been fixed sooner. I am also certain that had the process to fix it progressed normally, it would have been delayed by challenges from environmental groups or budget issues or some other reason.
Again, the systems we have are not conducive to climate action.
Our pace of change is too slow and we struggle to grasp just how powerful and overwhelming climate impacts can be. The scale at which we plan for and respond to these impacts is not the same scale at which they are disrupting our infrastructure and communities.
I would like to think that my personal actions will help lessen climate change for my grandchildren, but what is needed now are entirely new ways of approaching the problems and entirely new systems in all aspects of our lives, including energy production, transportation, governance, emergency planning and community-building.
There are already some good system changes happening–- our community created Central Coast Community Energy (3CE) to manage all of our electricity procurement for the Central Coast. This is an important shift away from an investor-owned utility (Pacific Gas & Electric), where profits go to investors. Now, instead, profits are returned to the community as clean-energy investments. California has seen a profound shift to clean electricity thanks in a large part to community organizations like 3CE.
But these steps are not enough.
Climate change is going to affect every aspect of our lives and so we need to be thinking broadly. The challenge now is to create shifts like 3CE, but for other systems such as banking and health care. Banking and health care as climate issues?
Let’s make the environmentally friendly option the cheap option, let’s make the good choices the easy choices, let’s make protecting our communities the only choice.
At this point you might be thinking, sure, but what can I do to fight climate change? The answer that makes the most sense to me is this: Do your best to create new systems that make the right choices easy and accessible, but also be open to the idea that “fighting climate change” might not be the right mindset.
Maybe the fight is actually within ourselves. Will we even be able to create the systems we need with the competitive, aggressive mindsets that are the norm in our culture?
New systems need to emerge from a place of kindness. Be kind to the people you love. Be kind to animals, be kind to plants. Be kind to rivers and the ocean. Be kind to the forest. And equally important, be kind to the people you don’t like.
Adjusting to climate change is going to require adapting to a whole lot of new things, and we will need more kindness than we are asked to give in our current society.
Alex Yasbek is an environmental projects manager with the City of Watsonville who works on implementing the city’s climate action plan. Alex appreciates the technical and pragmatic solutions to climate change challenges, but is also deeply fascinated with how we arrived at this point in history and where we might go from here as a species.