A scientist reckons with order agony


BELFAST, Maine — How does it really feel to be a order scientist in 2023?

Let’s poised the scene. Loads of picnickers are sprawled throughout a garden speckled with colourful blankets. Yachts bob within the bay. Guitars blare, kids combat and dancers twirl throughout a live performance garden within the blonde shine of a demise summer time evening.

It’s a picture-perfect August night for the beach the city of Belfast’s “Summer Nights” live performance form.

Off to the aspect, Peter Kalmus sits isolated. His sights are closed. His ft are tucked underneath his frame. He’s catching an occasional side-eye from onlookers.

“When I’m meditating, I don’t feel anxious,” Kalmus then says, explaining that he strives for 2 hours of meditation a occasion to store his order nervousness at bay. Another way, “it’s completely overwhelming.”

Many people steer clear of pondering too deeply concerning the worst situations of order alternate. He’s fixated on them.

Kalmus, 49, thinks civilization is at the trail to fracture indisposed, the Biden management is clueless on order, and that he would possibly get fired from his activity at NASA if he’s arrested for a 3rd age protesting what he perspectives as downright insanity: the continuing significance of fossil fuels.

Kalmus visited the seaside town of Belfast, Maine, in July and August, to visit the Possibility Alliance homestead as he looked for inspiration on how to best live with the effects climate change. (Evan Bush / NBC News)




Kalmus visited the beach the city of Belfast, Maine, in July and August, to talk over with the Chance Alliance abode as he appeared for inspiration on the way to absolute best reside with the results order alternate. (Evan Bush / NBC Information)

“It’s kind of weird and lonely,” he stated. “People don’t want to talk about this stuff at parties.”

Kalmus, whose strident tweets achieve some 340,000 fans on X, is at the forefront of a gaggle of scientists who’re more and more dissatisfied and rising satisfied that extra radical motion is had to get up political leaders. He has been on a 15-year quest to halt order alternate and has already orientated maximum the whole lot in his era to attenuate his personal order footprint and maximize what he can do to push crowd to switch.

Not anything has been enough quantity.

And so this summer time, as terminating warmth and mist battered many American communities, Kalmus visited Maine looking for one thing other. He was once having a look now not for order answers, however for fresh techniques to resist order alternate’s harms — and in addition to form ease with the agony that regularly feels inescapable for individuals who reckon with international warming day by day.

climate scientist exercise bicycle environmentalist (Evan Bush / NBC News)
That seek introduced him to an extraordinary crowd referred to as the Chance Alliance, a abode the place a petite staff of population is attempting to determine the way to reside in a global headed for a breakdown (as they see it).

Its leaders eschew capitalism, develop a lot of their very own meals, and reside with out electrical energy. They’ve devoted their lives to protest, residing off the land as merely as imaginable, and are making ready their crowd for ecological crisis and to host order refugees.

Past on his operating bliss in Maine, Kalmus invited NBC Information for a snip talk over with to the crowd to peer the disaster in the course of the sights of American citizens taking it as significantly as any individual.

The Possibility Alliance is an 11-acre homestead that operates without power, running water or a sewer system. The Hughes family, which operates the alliance, only pays one monthly bill for landline phone service. (Evan Bush / NBC News)
The Possibility Alliance is an 11-acre homestead that operates without power, running water or a sewer system. The Hughes family, which operates the alliance, only pays one monthly bill for landline phone service. (Evan Bush / NBC News)


About a decade ago, Kalmus ditched a promising academic career in astrophysics to study the physics of climate change instead.

He made other changes too. He stopped flying, became a vegetarian and ditched gasoline-powered cars (he drives a Tesla), cutting his personal emissions by about 90%, according to his math.

It wasn’t a political statement, but a detoxification.

“Burning fossil fuels started to feel more and more disgusting,” he said.

Ethan Hughes, who operates the Possibility Alliance, rejects globalization and thinks capitalism is a ruinous symptom of “greed and separation.” He’s trying to build a gift economy in Belfast, in which neighbors share resources and services with no expectation of repayment. “I’m trying to role-model post-petrol,” Hughes said. (Evan Bush / NBC News)
Ethan Hughes, who operates the Possibility Alliance, rejects globalization and thinks capitalism is a ruinous symptom of “greed and separation.” He’s trying to build a gift economy in Belfast, in which neighbors share resources and services with no expectation of repayment. “I’m trying to role-model post-petrol,” Hughes said. (Evan Bush / NBC News)

Kalmus, now a married father of two teenagers, is introspective, earnest and narrowly focused on climate change in both his personal and professional life. Tall with an athletic build, a neat beard and a tangle of messy hair that has a skunklike streak of white, he can sometimes come off like an overgrown teenager: He’s the smartest person in the room, brimming with idealism and still indignant — with a zeal many adults can no longer muster — about how life’s most annoying systems work (like the U.S. medical system, a symptom of what he calls the “capitalist death cult”).

The changes he made weren’t enough. Kalmus wrote a book on climate change and chained himself to a Chase bank in protest of fossil fuel financing. Twice, he’s been arrested during climate protests.

His social media posts often evoke heartbreak.

“We’re in the process of losing basically everything,” he wrote recently on X.

Is anyone listening?

climate scientist natural farming (Evan Bush / NBC News)
climate scientist natural farming (Evan Bush / NBC News)

Not his suburban neighbors in North Carolina, who continue to drive emissions-belching SUVs to big-box stores. Perhaps not even some in the science community, like those who kicked him out of the American Geophysical Union’s annual fall meeting last year after he unfurled a banner and protested on the major science conference’s biggest stage.

He has grown increasingly frustrated with President Joe Biden, who signed the Inflation Reduction Act as his signature climate bill. Kalmus thinks it does too little to shut out the fossil fuel industry.

(Rhodium Group, a nonpartisan think tank, estimates greenhouse gas emissions will drop 32%-42% below 2005 levels by 2030, well short of Biden’s own benchmark for progress. The inflation bill is responsible for about a quarter of that projected decrease.)

“He brags about how he thinks we should consider him a climate champion because he reentered the Paris accord. That Paris Agreement will take us to about 3 degrees Celsius of global heating,” Kalmus said. “I don’t think we’ll have a civilization at 3 degrees Celsius.”

(A 2022 United Nations report estimated global temperatures would rise between 2.1 and 2.9 degrees Celsius by 2100 if countries held to their climate commitments. Many countries remain off that pace.)

Climate change is weighing on scientists, but also everyday Americans.

A 2022 poll found almost two-thirds of Americans say they have been affected by extreme weather they believe was at least partially due to climate change.

About 27% of Americans say they are “very worried” about climate change; another 27% just avoid the subject as best they can. One in 10 reported feeling symptoms of anxiety or depression over climate change.

No place is safe

To Kalmus, the best answer he’s found has been to channel his frustrations into protest and civil disobedience, finding community and purpose at the Mountain Valley Pipeline protests and on the streets of New York City during its Climate Week. Outside of meditation, speaking his mind at these events has been the best antidote to his climate despair.

When he earned his first arrest, by chaining himself to a bank in Los Angeles last year, he finally felt acknowledged.

climate scientist arrest (Courtesy Brian Emerson/Climate Ad Project)
climate scientist arrest (Courtesy Brian Emerson/Climate Ad Project)

“It was a good combination of risk and sort of communicating emotional truth. So I was able to dig really deep, and say exactly how I felt in the moment,” he said.

His outburst went viral. His employer, NASA, sent him a letter expressing concern over his two arrests, he says.

(“I’m speaking on my own behalf and that has to be super clear,” he said in an interview. “Not as a NASA climate scientist. That’s really important for retaining my job.”)

He worries a third arrest could cost him.

“Do I keep doing science? Or do I, you know, keep engaging in risky activism and maybe lose that job?” Kalmus said.

Meanwhile, Kalmus has grown frustrated that more scientists aren’t agitating at protests and willing to face arrest. And his view of our climate predicament has grown increasingly dark.

“It feels like it’s worse than I thought it would be in 2023,” Kalmus said, pointing to record-low Antarctic sea ice and record-high sea surface and land temperatures as signs that Earth systems could be shifting more quickly than the scientific community can grasp.

In recent years, climate change has begun to sting Kalmus’ personal life.

In summer 2020, he sickened himself hiking in a California heat wave, then watched a wildfire burn a few miles from his California home, spewing smoke that left his voice raspy and his head aching. The searing temperatures killed a dogwood tree in his front yard. His productivity slowed — he couldn’t focus on science.

Kalmus had dreamed of making a life in the Pacific Northwest, which he felt might be buffered from the worst of climate change. That same year, a heat wave — considered nearly impossible if not for the influence of climate change — seared the region for three days, killing hundreds of people, buckling roadways and sending overheated baby birds jumping from their nests and to their deaths.

“That’s when I realized that no place was safe,” Kalmus said. His family relocated to North Carolina, for his wife Sharon’s work, but the experience planted a seed:

If he couldn’t stop climate change and he couldn’t avoid it, could he at least find a better way to survive it?

Life at the homestead

Kalmus knew what would not work.

“I very quickly eliminated the idea of being a prepper — you know, hoarding beans and ammunition,” he said.

But he found himself daydreaming of a simpler life, where he could keep bees, grow vegetables and press cider to drink on a Friday night and live closer to the land.

Visiting the Possibility Alliance, a sprawling 11-acre homestead filled with fruit trees, goats, chickens and a garden, allowed him to scratch an itch he’d entertained for much of his adult life.

The Hughes family, which operates the homestead, and its guests live largely without electricity or modern technology.

The family of four doesn’t fly because of climate concerns and also doesn’t own a car. Their main use of fossil fuels is to take passenger trains to climate protests.

They try to eschew capitalism and have built, instead, a “present financial system” where resources are shared and skills are traded among neighbors in this tiny corner of Maine. They grow much of their own food, hold trainings for climate protesters and plan to host refugees as climate disasters worsen.

Nights are illuminated by candlelight. Neighbors drop by without notice.

“We’ve created what existed 100 years ago,” Ethan Hughes said.

On a steamy August morning, Kalmus found himself huddled around a faded picnic table at the center of the homestead in Belfast, Maine, sipping his coffee with a rare breed — people as alarmed by climate change as him.

climate scientist environmental (Evan Bush / NBC News)
climate scientist environmental (Evan Bush / NBC News)

Ethan, the charismatic, folksy co-founder of the Possibility Alliance, started the day off with a poem about a deer in the forest and then began to outline daily chores — chopping wood, building a new deck, caring for goats.

Soon, talk turned to climate change and Kalmus’ grief began to flow as he shared findings from unpublished research on his projections of heat in moderate emissions scenarios through the year 2300.

“Even in the coolest time of day, people will be dying if they don’t have air conditioning,” Kalmus told the group.

“Everything is already spinning out of control,” said Sarah Wilcox-Hughes, dismayed.

Kalmus opened up to the table. He’d been procrastinating for months on finishing the research and he was running into his “psychological limitations.” He felt he was letting the planet down.

“Anyone want to rub Peter’s shoulders as he writes?” Ethan said.

Later, Kalmus relayed a recent, gloomy conversation with a fellow scientist.

“The Amazon is probably past its tipping point,” Kalmus said. “And I can’t believe that it happened during my lifetime.”

Peter Kalmus sits with his son Zane on a porch swing at the Possibility Alliance. (Evan Bush / NBC News)
Peter Kalmus sits with his son Zane on a porch swing at the Possibility Alliance. (Evan Bush / NBC News)

Crickets trilled. Roosters crowed. A tear dripped down Ethan’s cheek.

“Let’s dedicate our work today to the Amazon,” Ethan said, outlining for the group how the work planned would sequester carbon and show people they could live without fossil fuels and that they could take meaningful action against climate change, even as world governments failed them.

(Estimates of when the Amazon could “tip” and transition to savannah vary. Timothy Lenton, a University of Exeter professor who studies climate tipping points and the Amazon’s resilience, said most estimates suggest the Amazon could cross a threshold as soon as 2 degrees C of warming.)

Life at the Possibility Alliance carried on. Will Foley, who hitchhiked from Florida to stay at the homestead, swung a scythe to clear brush. Frankie Williams and Max Kurke, recent college graduates living at the alliance as summer apprentices, piled wood while wearing oversize sun hats. Ethan corralled goats for “mob grazing,” a process he says helps sequester carbon.

Kalmus, trailed by a reporter, buzzed around the homestead like a giddy kid, hiking back and forth to a home in an eco-village near the Possibility Alliance where he was living and working on his research. He tramped down a forest trail in bare feet, paused work for a midday dip in a shady stream and never changed his T-shirt.

He ground his coffee with a mortar and pestle, thumbed through a book of Enneagram personality types on the porch with his son Zane and listened to Ethan’s stories about sailing across the Atlantic in a cargo ship to avoid the carbon emissions of flying.

“I feel met by Peter,” Sarah Wilcox-Hughes said of Kalmus. “I don’t feel like there are many people prioritizing the needs of the planet as he is and we are.”

Kalmus found life in Belfast, and at the Possibility Alliance, slower, richer and more connected to the natural world.

During his time in Belfast, Kalmus strummed a mandolin in a Celtic folk music group that meets at the eco-village, along with his son Zane, Wilcox-Hughes and her daughter, Etta. He picked berries and ate fresh goat cheese and helped Ethan load hay into a neighbor’s barn.

climate scientist music group (Evan Bush / NBC News)
climate scientist music group (Evan Bush / NBC News)

He spoke at the local library about climate change. He shared art, food and labor with neighbors. He saw how a community was sprouting up around the Possibility Alliance — people willing to sacrifice the conveniences of a modern life built on fossil fuels.

He felt safer here and more energized to work.

It wasn’t about the place, but the people, he realized.

People at the center

Maine, like anywhere else, isn’t immune to climate change. But here, at least, he had people who understood his angst, who could share music and joy, who were willing to make their own sacrifices, and who were trying to prepare their community in the way they thought was best.

Months later, after returning “kicking and screaming” to the “quote-unquote real world,”  Kalmus was planning a return trip to the Possibility Alliance over the winter holidays.

He was still mulling why the Possibility Alliance’s “low energy” lifestyle had felt so meaningful and what was missing from modern life.

Ethan Hughes his goats out to

“Everything is too fast,” Kalmus stated. “It’s obvious to a lot of people, but it’s a new revelation to me. There’s nothing more important in life than relationships.”

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