Words by Gaby Caplan; Photos provided by Thomas Kostigen
We sat down with Thomas Kostigen, climate change activist and New York Times bestselling author, to discuss how we can help.
It doesn’t matter to future generations whether or not we solve climate change. Future generations won’t exist if we don’t. Our choice. That’s a grim way of saying that it’s hard to stay optimistic when we see the environment being trampled upon by corporations, government and we lazy, plastic-straw using hipsters.
Thomas M. Kostigen injects hope into the sometimes cynical, sometimes fanciful conversation around climate change. His groundbreaking book, You Are Here sheds light on one of the most obvious missing links in the chain of cause and effect related to climate change. Namely, how we as individuals are connected to our planet’s changing and tenuous climate landscape.
The direct relationship between our actions and the earth’s health is ignored too often. The seemingly insignificant things we do every day have the power to redirect the course of our ongoing battle for the planet’s wellbeing. Think of Kostigen’s book like a CPR manual for resuscitating the earth, one human at a time.
CONVICTS recently caught up with Kostigen. He spoke to us about the ways we can heal our home, redirect the discussion around environmentalism and maintain hope in the face of seemingly impossible odds.
Hey Thomas. So, to start, can you tell us why you became a writer?
Well, I struggled when I was in 8th grade over whether I wanted to be a writer or an artist. Then I realized I was crap at drawing so I went full time into becoming a writer. I come from a massive family. I’m one of nine siblings so there was always this concern about not wasting things and efficiency i.e. turning lights off etc. My poor father was paying the utility bills for all of us, so conservational instincts were ingrained in our childhood. Growing up, I spent a great deal of time in Cape Cod which led me to develop a deep appreciation of the environment. That organic appreciation of nature went a long way towards the critical thought I developed with regards to environmentalism.
How does You Are Here differ from your previous works?
I’m actually on my tenth book now. My last work, The Green Book, was fortuitous because it came out of a documentary trip that I went on in Africa. I decided that I needed to do something that was tactically useful for people in their everyday lives. I decided that providing people with environmentalist tips would be a great way to get people to change their habits. I wrote The Green Book, which came out just after An Inconvenient Truth was released, so everybody was scratching their heads wondering what they could do. The Green Book had the answers. So that became an international bestseller.
What was your next step?
From there, I looked at the needs of people who wanted to take action and realized there wasn’t a face to the environmental movement. We weren’t looking at the faces of people who were suffering or being impacted by climate change. We talk a lot about recycling and turning down our thermostats and not letting our cars idle but we don’t put a human face to these issues. I decided to take a look at the ways our daily habits affect people, places and things all over the world.
What was your research process for the book?
I went to the jungles, the arctic, the desert, the middle of the Pacific Ocean in order to uncover the things we are doing to the environment. Whether it was the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or destroying the palm oil plants in Indonesia and Malaysia, I examined the way those things have a boomerang effect on us here in the developed world. It was that proverbial butterfly effect that I investigated in You Are Here.
How does the environmental movement differ from other social justice movements?
There are a couple of different points to unpack in that question. One is the direct association between climate change and energy. The sustainability movement is about much more than the carbon emissions we can’t see and often regard as concerns for some time in the ‘future’. It’s hard to put a face on things you can’t see, feel or touch. You can touch its effects and feel its propositions, but you can’t put a face to it.
The other point is that environmental issues involve a great deal of critical thinking to fully understand. When you are discussing gender equality for example, it’s a binary thing to get your brain around (good/bad, male/female). It’s pretty clear. Climate change, on the other hand, involves many different sciences and verticals within those sciences, so it’s hard to get your brain around all of that. When you talk about waste, or water, or energy, or soil or even oceans, it’s not confined the way other issues are. Therefore, for people to take action it’s not as exact or simple as other social justice movements.
What makes you hopeful about the future with regards to climate change?
TONS! There are tons of things to be hopeful about. I spent the last two years traveling around the world, looking at all of the innovations, technologies, inventors and all of the capital being moved into the environmentalist marketplace that will really Effect (with a big E) our environment for the better.
Could you give us some examples?
When you have BlackRock, the biggest asset management company in the world with $7 trillion of assets, and their CEO, Larry Fink, says that “you must consider the environment in all of your investment practices, because we are and your company must adhere to environmental protocols because we will be looking for that” that’s a big deal. That’s a really big statement for the world! Coupled with that, next generation of millennials are looking at environmental considerations in a very sophisticated manner and changing their consumption patterns which will wake companies up to these issues.
What is your take on the recent spur of environmental protests and AOC’s Green New Deal proposition?
It’s a great addition to the political discourse because it brings the issue front and centre. Is a Green New Deal ever going to happen the way it was proposed? No. Even the people who put it together know that. But if you start the discussion way off to the right, you can bring the pendulum back to the middle. It’s the same thing that goes on with any type of movement – you have to swing far to one side which bring things back to the centre. These issues are getting so much attention now. Many politicians are making it a centerpiece of their presidential campaigns. In the last decade, environmentalism has become a focus for society. All of this is good! If we talk about it in a rational way then we can practice actions that have a meaningful effect and are meaningful.
What would you say to someone who thinks that climate change is a hoax?
I would urge them to research the science behind it and ask themselves why they think that climate change is a hoax when the evidence is presented to them by more than 2,000 of the world’s leading scientists. Still, I wouldn’t just do away with their concerns. That’s a big problem in the messaging and communications side of these issues. We say, “Ugh! You just don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re uneducated.”
But really, we should listen to why they believe climate change is a hoax. If you look at the climate change movement it’s similar to a religion of faith. Some things you can’t see, but what’s the downside of believing in something positive?
Having a rational conversation with someone is important because you can change their mind. They may not be able to see carbon emissions, but if you talk to them about pollution coming from exhaust pipes, they will agree with you that pollution is bad. Then you equate pollution with children’s health and show them the health costs. That’s a way we can educate people in a simple way instead of talking over their heads. If you engage in conversation, people come around very quickly.
What drives your work?
Certainly curiosity. As a journalist, you are always asking “What’s new?” Sometimes you go down these alleys and discover there is a whole city behind one of the walls. That becomes a great story. If you know your subject matter and hear something new about it, you feel a need to go down that trail and find out more about it. For example: “What is carbon capture?” “What is water reuse?” “What are laser based weather modifications?” What are all these ‘new’ things?
What new climate-related technologies are you most excited about?
Carbon capture is a fascinating way to quickly reduce temperatures and clean up some of the pollution floating around. These days, I am most excited about the water sector. There is so much going on with water reuse, meaning taking sewage water and turning it into tap water. With water scarcity occurring almost everywhere on the globe (if not now then by 2025) it’s a big issue affecting everyone and it’s something that we can all relate to. The technologies that are being put to use in that sphere are fascinating.
I can see us solving the water scarcity problem in the next decade. It’s about access and it’s about reuse. We now have the technologies to address both of those issues. Once everybody on the planet has access to water, air and food we build foundations in a positive way for ourselves with the earth in mind.
What is your rebuttal to people who say: even if we adopt new practices, that won’t make a difference because developing countries are not following suit?
The biggest carbon emitters are the US and China. The top of the list includes a lot more of the developed world than the developing world. So if you just want to take it at face value, there is the beginning of the truth thesis
Another issue often put forward is the theory that developed countries have benefited off natural resources of the developing world and now we are taking away their ability to enjoy these resources through our mitigation efforts. This common argument is, to my mind, a bit futile. What we are saying to these developing nations is that ‘you can install landlines Africa, you can have as many VCRs as you want!’
We’re talking about legacy resources and old technologies. The future is in renewables. Look at mobile phones: the developing world have leap frogged over the rest of technology we dealt with and pioneered. Similarly, they can benefit from our progress in developing this technology in renewables and environmentally friendly energy. They will benefit from this far greater than doubling down investments in Blockbuster Video.
How can we change the conversation and discourse around climate change to make it seem less grim?
Focus on the opportunities. The future lies in a positive planet for us all. We have already made incredible strides over the last decade. We’re talking about environmentalism, this wasn’t part of the conversation a decade ago. Now we have issues that we are starting to act on and protocols to live by so we can put into programs and plans into practice that will cause real change. This gives me hope for the future.
We are already reaping some of the benefits. In the US, we are seeing many more people at a local level getting involved in the environmental movement. We’ve already started on this path. We are already aware and have made real headway. Success stories need to be celebrated more. We need to have more stories like Tesla. Another one is the fashion industry which has adopted a fair trade model. Now people look for those labels when they purchase their clothing. Patterns change and that’s cause for hope! Through these changes we find templates that we can use to inspire people.
When you’re in the thick of all of these problems and it feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, how do you step away from your work and brighten your head space?
It’s really important for any writer who lives in their head or for anyone constantly thinking critically about heavy issues. I run or do yoga or something physical every single day to get out of my head space. Increasingly, meditation is helping me too! Those things keep you somewhat sane. And then copious amounts of alcohol…so there ya go!
Thanks for the chat Thomas. Best of luck with everything.
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