What I Should Have Called My New Book About the Climate
The New York Times is right: We need climate self-care more than climate diets
This weekend The New York Times published a smart, thoughtful review of The Climate Diet, a book I have out this spring from Penguin Press. Over the years I’ve trained myself to let criticism of my work stand for itself. Having written my fair share of reviews of environmental books I understand that it’s a surprisingly tough job and the last thing a reviewer needs after drafting a time-consuming essay is an extended dialogue with an author. All that said, this reviewer raised such a salient point that I felt I should offer up a reply.
I used that title as a way of pointing out that Americans are “climate obese” adding far more emissions per capita than the citizens of other large economic powers. But the reviewer quite rightly pointed out that people don’t necessarily like the word “diet” or the concept of dieting. What we really need, she wrote, is some way of framing climate-friendly lifestyle changes not necessarily as painful or depriving, but rather as nurturing of ourselves and the planet. Why not Climate Self-Care or Climate Wellness she suggested.
And you know what? I agree.
It’s of course too late to retitle. But there are plenty of things in The Climate Diet that can be done while also enhancing your quality of life. So, I thought I’d highlight a few suggestions I made in the book that speak to this climate self-care/wellness idea. Actions you can take that will make both you and the planet healthier. In the process these things might even make you happier. So here goes:
Shrimp is by far the most consumed seafood in America but in the form most Americans eat it (farmed, imported) it can have a carbon footprint somewhere between beef and pork. This is not only because the carbon cost of production and transport of shrimp is high but also because mangrove forests, some of the most potent carbon sinks on the planet, are often cleared to make way for shrimp farms. Farmed oysters (and clams and mussels too) are a much better choice than shrimp with a carbon foot print similar to that of vegetarian sources of protein. On top of it oysters have much lower cholesterol and saturated fat, higher omega-3 fatty acid content and many fewer calories. A dozen oysters has about as many calories as one large banana.
Go to the library
Reading on your computer adds up in terms of carbon over time — about 1,500 pounds of emissions per year for a computer that’s run 24/7. Yes, we need our computers for a lot of our work, but for our reading it turns out everyone would be better off if they went old school and got a book from the library. Not only is that library book not contributing any further emissions to the atmosphere (it’s already been printed) but it can be extremely good for you. A 2016 study published in Social Science and Medicine found that book readers lived an average of 23 months longer than nonreaders. “People who report as little as a half-hour a day of book reading had a significant survival advantage over those who did not read,” said the senior author, Becca R. Levy, a professor of epidemiology at Yale. “And the survival advantage remained after adjusting for wealth, education, cognitive ability and many other variables.”
Walk away the carbon (and the high blood pressure)
A daily, three-mile driving errand adds about a half ton of carbon to the atmosphere over the course of a year. Replacing that driving errand with a walk or bike ride is therefore an immediate benefit to the climate. But it will also contribute significantly to your health. According to the Mayo Clinic, running or walking regularly for 30 minutes will reduce your blood pressure by four to nine points. The importance of this can’t be understated. The Global Burden of Disease Study, the most comprehensive international analysis of epidemiological data ever completed concluded that the #1 risk factor for death in the world is high blood pressure.
Kill the gas
When you cook on a gas stove, only about 40 percent of the energy from the flame gets to your food. Since gas ranges are responsible for the majority of the toxic nitrogen oxides that end up trapped in your home, switching to electric also has significant health benefits. Induction electric stovetops, which conduct 80 to 90 percent of cooking energy into your food, can cost under $150 for a simple plug‑in, two- burner model.
Cut the cheese
It’s not uncommon for people to switch to a vegetarian diet for health and climate reasons but continue to eat cheese. This is a mistake on both fronts. Cheese can be more emissions intensive than pork, costing the planet around a dozen kilos of emissions per kilo of food eaten. True, not as bad as beef but nearly twice the emissions cost of eating chicken. On top of being a huge source of carbon, cheese is also one of the largest bearers of saturated fat in the American diet, a set of molecules strongly associated with heart disease, the single largest killer of Americans ever year. To put things into perspective, COVID killed around 500,000 Americans last year. Heart disease took 800,000.
Cut the card
While you’re busy cutting things, think about cutting up your Chase credit card. Chase is by far the largest fossil fuel financer in the world, according to a report by the environmental organization Rain Forest Action Network, increasing their lending to oil and gas 30% since the Paris climate accords. By directly questioning Chase and other large underwriters of the fossil fuel industry you can raise awareness and effect change within financial institutions. Getting rid of credit cards can also be good for your health. A 2013 study from Northwestern University found that individuals with high debt-to-asset ratio to had diastolic blood pressure readings 1.3% higher than those with much lower debt. And, as I’ve said before, blood pressure is the single greatest risk factor we have control of in our lives.
Yes, there are of course many other things we need to do to address climate change. At 16 tons of carbon emissions per person per year Americans lead the industrialized world in responsibility for global warming.
Americans do need to go on a climate diet. But to start, let’s as The New York Times suggest, call it a climate self-care regime. Whatever we call it, it will make things better for everyone.