While author Hope Jahren’s words on the enormity of the challenges we face in combatting climate change were stark, the central message to last week’s One Book One Northwestern keynote address was of empowerment and action.
Jahren spoke from her home in Oslo to a virtual audience of students, faculty, staff and members of the public about her book, “The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where We Go from Here,” which explores the consequences of population growth and human habits of consumption on the planet and the actions that we all can take to fight back.
An award-winning scientist, a professor at the University of Oslo and bestselling author, Jahren has been pursuing independent research in paleobiology since 1996. What she hears from students and the public again and again is fear.
“Should I be afraid of climate change? Is it going to be terrible? Is it going to ruin the Earth? How should I feel about this? How much fear is warranted? Am I being manipulated by fear?” she said of the most common questions.
In her book and her public talks, Jahren breaks climate change down to key trends over the last 50 years to give people actionable information and an alternative to what can be immobilizing fear:
- Population has doubled from 4 billion to 8 billion, even as birth rates on average have been cut in half
- Food production has not only kept pace, but surpassed population growth
- Grain production has tripled over the same period, even though the amount of land used for farming has held steady
- But 40% of that grain is fed to animals destined for our dinner tables
- The amount of meat we produce has also tripled
- Energy consumption in the form of electricity has increased five times
- Most of the energy the world uses still comes from fossil fuels
- Emissions have doubled
- CO2 in the atmosphere has gone up 30%
- Sea level has gone up 5 inches
“More energy, more food, more people, more everything has really been the story of the last 50 years,” Jahren said. “Now that we know how we got here and we have some idea about the magnitude of the numbers, is it possible to tell a different story over the next 50 years?”
Jahren cautioned students to be skeptical of anyone who tells them what they do doesn’t matter.
“The sooner we start thinking about ourselves as kind of where the buck stops, the better,” she said. “I don’t see a solution that doesn’t involve people, on a person-by-person basis, scrutinizing their energy use and beginning to make choices about what they really need.”
Jahren pointed to the pandemic and the world’s response as evidence that humankind is capable of massive change; in the way we shop, work, educate our children and much more.
“2020 was a fascinating year. A lot of terrible things happened, and we were all terrified. But something really fascinating happened in that people changed their use of resources almost overnight,” she said. “I had no idea our behaviors could change that much over a matter of months. We did learn that about ourselves.”
The keynote event is part of a series of events hosted by the One Book program over the course of the academic year.