Climate Change Made Me Quit My Job

This is the first post in what may be the most important series that I’ll do, about my quest to make a living fighting climate change rather than contributing to it. It’s only just begun, the outcome is uncertain, and I’m going to report on it, including all all my moronic missteps. Or maybe not quite all, because that would take a lot of space and this isn’t

To begin at the beginning, here’s how my decision came to be:

14 months ago, my partner and I read a book called Radical Simplicity, about low-impact living. There were references to climate change in it, and it led me to wonder where research on the subject stood. When I started reading I was shocked. The research was more certain and more ominous than it had been the last time I’d looked into the matter a decade before, and I’d heard nothing about it.

After I finished flipping my lid, I resolved to reduce my carbon footprint, if only because I didn’t know what else to do. I’m happy to gloat that my footprint is now less than half of the average American’s. I drive less, fly less, use less electricity, buy less stuff, etc. It’s been unexpectedly pleasant. For one, life is quieter and less rushed. I feel more human than I have since I was a child. For two, I’ve saved sackfuls of money.  For three, reducing my footprint has turned out to be an unexpectedly effective sort of activism.

Just when I was feeling smug, I had another epiphany. About 6 months ago I was standing on the plant floor of a major biomedical device manufacturer (I work for a research center which develops new biomedical devices), and 4 things struck me all in a flash:

  1. It looked like craft night for the Transformers.
  2. A sickening amount of energy goes into making biomedical devices.
  3. I support this high-energy activity in my professional life, and share responsibility for it.
  4. My carbon footprint calculations didn’t include this.

With Gandhi’s imperative: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world” reverberating in my head as though issuing from some tremendous church bell, the realization hurt. How stupid of me. The facts were so dumbly obvious that I suspect I was repressing the idea up till then, like a mother who thinks her ugly baby is beautiful.

If I thought the devices made at that plant were part of some optimal plan to ensure human health, then I would’ve looked the other way. But I don’t. I won’t bore you with why, but suffice it to say, my job suddenly felt wrong. I was convinced that Climate Change is the greatest threat humanity faces, and I was still contributing heavily to it via a job that was, at best, of marginal benefit to society. Arrrrgh.

This is a good moment to point out that, before I became aware of the urgency of the Climate Change problem, I’d never been an activist, or even close. An idealist yes, but a fake, since I put my own life above the common good. I talk like a revolutionary and live like the privileged upper-class white male academic that I am. I don’t even vote.

I say this so you’ll understand how terrified I was by the thought that then began to form in me: that I must quit my job, and find a new one fighting climate change. Although I’d changed my life to reduce my footprint, the effort hadn’t involved risk. There’s no danger in turning your heat down and buying less stuff. Quitting a job in the middle of a world recession, to pursue work for which one has no training, is another matter.

So I resisted the idea for months. To the person I had been all my life, it seemed idiotic. My parents certainly thought so. But to the person I was becoming, it seemed the only choice.

I was spending most of my waking hours thinking about and studying climate change, and paying less attention to my job. Even in the middle of important presentations, I would barely know what I was saying, while most of me, my soul, would dwell on the great problem before us.  It was unfair to my employer and co-workers, particularly since I held a critical position in the organization for which I worked.

I shouldn’t speak in the past tense, because I still hold that position. But that’s about to change.

In early January, I gave my employer notice. My work will end in late February, and from there I’ll spend some time with my family, and then I’ll start meeting with as many people as I can in the areas I’ve decided to pursue (much more on that in future posts).

Driving me is not only the desire to work with my whole conscience, but also to coax others into following the same path. One of my friends has sworn that if I successfully make the transition, he’ll follow me in. If that happens, I’ll do everything in my power to help him do so. I hope to squeeze the same commitment out of a few others before this is over.

It’s an all-in bet. If I fail, I’ll try again, until I don’t fail.

In the meantime, I’ve started this blog so I don’t explode.  More to come…

-From the Sea

Posted January 27, 2011 in Climate Change Made Me Quit My Job | 8 Comments on Climate Change Made Me Quit My Job


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  1. R P says:

    Wow. I’m impressed. I’m recently having a few thoughts of improving my lifestyle as well. Although, I’ll admit I’m not as dedicated to the craft as you are. My beliefs are definitely more moderate. If you’re interested, my blog is

    More than anything, I just wanted to say that it takes balls to make a decision like that and I’m sure you’ll be rewarded for the courage.

  2. Nick B. says:

    Thank you!

    I like your stuff too. Horizontal spreading = cool concept. I’m ever looking for new ways to communicate my beliefs, and that concept will be useful. I also note that we’re exactly the same age.

    I also hope my balls are rewarded.

  3. R P says:

    Doing something your passionate about always has rewards, and a few pitfalls as well.

    My thoughts around big industry are more that we need to change them from within and show hwo being better stewards to the climate can save money in some ways and attract customers in others. Businesses don’t have a conscience, they just need to see that the path still has a profit. I feel a longer post coming on.

  4. joyce says:

    Hope you find your path! Thanks for sending the link. You have courage. You could start up a volunteer program like I did!

    Try not to burn out–I don’t see how Joe Romm does it. Just keeping up with the science wore me out. Watching people react when they “get it” is heart wrenching as well. It’s strange how differently people handle the same information.

  5. Nick B. says:

    I know! I am amazed most by those who are able to just shrug it off, with a sort of “what comes will come” attitude. It seems like such a lost opportunity to respond like that. But who am I to say?

    Thanks for the note of support.

  6. Robert says:

    “I’m happy to gloat that my footprint is now less than half of the average American’s. I drive less, fly less, use less electricity,”

    I live in the UK and we use about half of the average American…

    I haven’t flown for over a decade since I read that you could easily double your annual carbon footprint by one return longhaul flight.

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