PKG Fellowships 2020: Matthew Kearney, Part I

For as long as I can remember I have felt at home in nature. As a kid, I spent countless weekends hiking and camping, exploring the woods for hours as I tried to uncover its many secrets. I cared deeply about animals and remember being extremely saddened the first time I discovered that so many were becoming endangered and extinct. The first magazine I started reading as a kid was national geographic, and I would pour over the pages for hours, fascinated by the amount of biodiversity in the world. In the 6th grade I learned about climate change for the first time – a child’s suppressed introduction – but nevertheless I felt a strong compulsion to do something.

This impulse to do something would revisit me time and time again over the next years, and I would go online to discover what I could do. To my great disappointment, however, all I would find were articles telling me to turn off the water while I brushed my teeth, to take shorter showers, to recycle more. And I tried these things, but at the end of the day it felt like I wasn’t really making a difference, like I was trying to move the ocean one drop at a time. In fact, it wasn’t until last year that I discovered there were easy things I could do that would have 100-1000 times the impact of those simple solutions I had found as a kid, eating vegan and flying less being top among them.

But this inevitably led to the questions: Why was it so hard for me to find these high impact solutions? Do others also struggle with feeling helpless because their actions aren’t making a difference? And most importantly, are there other actions I could be taking that are even more impactful?

After struggling with these questions for years, I teamed up with a friend of mine from MIT, Einat Gavish, to find answers. What has developed since is a project we call Effective Environmentalism, named after Effective Altruism which seeks to figure out the best ways that people can do good. The idea is simple: Tell people how they can have the biggest impact on climate change. But more than this, we also know from experience that it can be difficult to implement and research solutions on your own, even if you know where to start, so we are also providing people the resources to carry out these actions and connecting them to a community of people to support and guide them.

Since we started a few months ago, we have reached out to countless community and national organizations, experts, mentors, and people from all walks of life to hear their thoughts on climate change and our project. What we have discovered is that more than anything, we need systemic change in our politics, our economy, and our individual lifestyles. Often people champion this change as “radical,” and in some senses it is.

Radical in the sense that we need to shift our priorities from our current happiness to the future of our prosperity as a species. Radical in the sense that we cannot delay any longer in the actions needed, and we must race to implement them to halt the current destruction. Radical in the sense that on the way we will need to question some of the established institutions of our society, taking a good long look at poverty and inequality, at corporate interests and the interests of those who have yet to be born, and at the haphazard and frankly gluttonous way we consume as a society. There will be no easy answers here, no silver bullets, no “minimal effort required.” We will have to do this swiftly, passionately, and as a united world if we even stand a chance at fixing our mess.

There is no room to leave people out or squabble over things that are established as fact. At the same time though, we need to be forgiving and understanding. Like it or not, we all contribute to climate change and pointing fingers has never been and never will be a productive way to a solution. Like it or not, people have other concerns than climate change, some even more pressing such as “Where will I get my next meal? Or how can I keep my loved ones safe and give them good lives?” At times it may even seem that some of these conflict with the goal of fixing climate change, and we will need open ears for the plight of our fellow humans as well as creative solutions to move past these seeming conflicts to real resolutions that address all of our needs.

At the end of the day, our systems need to change. But the good news is that our systems are just made up of and controlled by us, the people, and if we make up our mind to change them, then we can begin to make radical progress.

Stay tuned for more information soon on how you can make a real impact!

Tags: Climate Change, Environment, PKG Fellowships, PKG Fellowships Summer 2020

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