Dear Umbra,

Although I have always been one to conserve, recycle, etc., it is only in the last year that I have realized the extent of the catastrophe coming upon us in terms of climate change. I am 40-something, live in a city, own an older home with a sizeable mortgage that requires my husband and me to work, two kids, two cars, etc. I’ve done all the usual stuff: changed the light bulbs, we’ve each started biking to work when we don’t have to pick up our kids, and I’ve gotten politically active, writing emails and organizing my first event for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Part of me feels such panic, though, and thinks we should sell the house before it becomes unlivable due to power and water shortages and economic meltdown, and join a sustainable community off the grid with water catchment, etc., and devote myself to environmental activism. But I like my job, my friends, my neighborhood and don’t really feel like starting over and am not sure I’ve got what it takes to live self-sufficiently. So does it make more sense to stay here and try to change things from within, even while living more wastefully, or should we get out while we still can?

Laura Brown
Oakland, Calif.

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Dearest Laura,

Just about every progressive person grapples with some version of this question at one point or another. Shall I take part in this pitiful, wasteful culture while doing my best to change myself and others around me, or should I move beyond this culture into something better and more sustainable?

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Don’t give up the fight.

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Good question.

Ultimately, it’s something you (and your family) are going to have to work out on your own. But since you asked, I am happy to offer some tidbits of advice.

First, let me say there’s room on the environmental spectrum for us all, and an infinite number of ways to contribute — whether you’re making sure you and your friends are taking the most effective personal eco-actions, or supporting the efforts of green groups that sue polluters, or engaging in carefully considered eco-vandalism, or running a giganto corporation, or living on a commune off the grid.

One observation I can offer is this: it sounds like you think you can only truly devote yourself to activism while living in some sort of eco-topia. But be assured that this is the easiest kind of activism — the converting-the-already-converted kind — and also the least useful. The more difficult, and more useful, kind is working to alter the attitudes and lives of the as-yet un-green, very few of whom you’ll encounter in your eco-haven.

It also sounds like self-sufficient farm or commune living might not be your thing. Remember: you don’t need to suffer to be green. If where you are is where you’re inclined to stay, I say stay. There are plenty of ways to contribute there. You are already working with my beloved UCS, and other opportunities abound. Try getting rid of one (or both) of your cars, or lobbying for clean-energy projects in your area. Go to a baseball game, and tell the Oakland A’s you love their smart composting program. Do whatever you can to help make others aware of the changes that are coming, and how they can help. Take a deep breath. There’s still time.

If the gloomy forecasts still make you panic, there are things you can do to prepare for the worst: You should be buying local — it’s good to support farmers and the local economy now, and if our oily economy does go down the drain, then it might be your only food source. Since you live on the coast, you might want to think about other areas of the country where you could imagine living. I suppose you could brush up on your survival skills. Be sure to teach your children well. And think about befriending some off-the-gridders who might let you join their community when or if industrial society collapses. If it doesn’t collapse, then you get a bonus: friends are still friends, after all. No matter how they use their power.