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As Serious as a Heart Attack

tl;dr: quitting smoking is way harder than making changes toward living sustainably


I recently had a cardiac incident that required me to go from the ER to the hospital. As a result, my status as a current smoker, which I have held for the past 30 years, is no more. I have not had a cigarette since this past Sunday, and the transition is proving to be quite challenging. However, the physicians who are treating me are rather insistent that my smoking days need to be over, and immediately. Why am I sharing this information with you? The answer is because while I knew that smoking was harmful for my health, I did not do anything about it until I had to go to the hospital. Many people require a drastic and severe incident to take the first steps to quitting a harmful behavior, and I apparently am no wiser or different than those folks.


When it comes to sustainability, the concern is that many of us will require a serious event like a heart attack to change our actions. For the past five decades, scientists have been sounding the alarm. I would suggest that as a planet, we have been having the global equivalent of a heart attack many times a year. In spite of these warnings, we continue on without placing a higher priority on adjusting our actions. With record high temperatures, horribly damaging tropical storms, cities on the precipice of completely running out of water, rising sea levels, and a myriad of other events, we are still woefully behind on our climate reduction and sustainability goals. We had ambitious goals of massive reductions by 2050, but 2022 is almost over, and we are running out of time. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to change, just like the 30 years that I spent smoking are making quitting that much more difficult.


Actually, comparisons like this one are part of the problem. The myth is that conservation practices reduce quality of life. I’ll be completely honest. I loved smoking. I miss it. I am continuously regretting my decision to go cold turkey because I just want to experience that final cigarette and appreciate what I am giving up. There has been no sustainability change that I have made that comes remotely close to the difficulty and sacrifice involved with quitting smoking. Not even close. Yet, many of us act like the slightest change toward living more sustainably is enormously detrimental to our quality of life.


Earlier this year, my wife asked me why we were using paper towels if we are trying to live more sustainable lives. I did not have a good answer for her, and so we have transitioned to really only using paper towels for things like nuking bacon in the microwave, and I’ve drastically reduced my bacon consumption, so we haven’t bought a roll of paper towels this year. Our remaining supply of about five rolls will probably last us for years to come. At no point have I wistfully longed to use a paper towel. In fact, we have some pride in not using them when we normally would have. Quitting paper towels has been a rewarding experience for us, and we are better off for using washable cloth towels.


There are some habits that are slightly less convenient now, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Pouring ground coffee into our reusable Keurig pods so that we aren’t buying plastic pods takes a little more time and effort. That’s all it is, just a little more time and effort. Hopefully if you are reading this, you are skeptical that doing this even qualifies as inconvenience, because it sounds pretty pathetic even typing it. I don’t fantasize about sneaking to the grocery store and buying a normal box of k-cups so that I don’t have to use our reusable ones. However, as I am writing this, I am visualizing how satisfying it would be to run to the gas station and pick up a pack of smokes and a lighter. Quitting smoking is far more difficult than living a life that takes consumption and conservation into consideration.


In an ideal world, we would listen to climatologists like we listen to our physicians. Unfortunately, I am proof positive that many of us don’t do a very good job of taking medical advice until that jarring moment occurs where we realize perhaps we should actually take positive steps so that we don’t repeat trips to the hospital and cause our loved ones to fear for our health and safety. There are different levels of cardiac issues, and if we wait for the most severe one to occur, we might not like the results. The worst one is a STEMI heart attack, more commonly known as the widow maker. Why is it called that? Because you die. People might scoff that the climate equivalent of a widow maker doesn’t exist, because mankind is just too smart to have that happen. We have plenty of time to get our acts together. Just like I had plenty of time to eventually quit smoking.


What would be the equivalent of a widow maker regarding climate change? We already have identified it. It is called RCP 8.5. RCP stands for Representative Concentration Pathways, and 8.5 is the concentration of carbon that delivers warming of 8.5 watts per square meter globally. Essentially, this is a temperature increase of 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit for us stubborn Americans who refuse to use Celsius. That is a titanic increase. It is almost unfathomable to experience that in time periods of a millennia or longer. Yet, we’ve calculated it, because it’s not fantasy. Yes, the only way that this could happen is if everyone literally did nothing, but unfortunately, that is actually possible. It doesn’t have to become a reality. If it does, life becomes impossible or challenging for almost every living entity on the planet. It really is game over. Heart attack city.


I’ve been shamed into changing my health behavior due to a medical scare. Change is difficult, annoying, and uncertainty abounds. I am here to tell you that a lot of the changes that we need to do are nowhere near as difficult as they might seem, and the result is that we will save ourselves a lot of money, time, and stress by dealing it with it now, while we can, instead of when it is too late. We need to do something about this, and I am as serious as a heart attack.

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