This is Season 3 Episode 2 of Grist’s Temperature Check podcast, featuring first person stories of crucial pivot points on the path to climate action. Listen to the full series: Apple Podcasts | Stitcher | Spotify

“Now, the great challenge of our time is climate change. And so it really feels like I need to be putting my shoulder to pushing that boulder in some practical way. And being an electrician feels like a useful way to enlist in pushing that problem in the right direction. It’s not making a huge difference, but it is making a difference. And it’s a difference that I can see and measure every day. And that’s just incredibly satisfying.” 

– Nate Johnson

Episode transcript

Nate Johnson was a longtime journalist for us here at Grist. He started out covering the intersection of food production and the environment and eventually moved on to covering pretty much everything related to the climate crisis. But last year, he decided to make a big change. He went from writing about the need to electrify everything to doing that work himself. This is his story. 

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My name is Nathanael Johnson – Nate Johnson – and I am 44, and I am an electrician. 

I was always an environmentalist. I kind of had environmentalism fed to me with my mother’s milk. My family would go off backpacking for a couple of weeks in Yosemite every summer, and mom took me to go mark trees to try and save them from a development when I was like six or something. I was reading Ranger Rick as a kid and trying to figure out how to save beautiful places very early on. So when I started journalism, I was really compelled by the stories that had to do with nature and with how we can live more sustainably and peacefully on the planet.

My first job out of college was at a small town newspaper called the Times News in Idaho. And I was in the Burley bureau, this tiny little town of Burley, Idaho. And in some ways, it was sort of a miserable job. It was long hours, I didn’t really know what I was doing, I was constantly making mistakes, my editor was a bit of a tyrant. I was this young, single man in a town populated entirely by Mormons, where everybody was married by the time they graduated from high school. But there was just something about the experience of digging into a controversy. These are very mellow controversies — someone wants to build a gravel pit out by their house, and they say there’s not the legal authority to do that. And I could call up the different authorities and figure out who was right and who was wrong. And I’d write it up and I’d go to bed that night and the next morning there would be my story, bringing truth to the masses on my doorstep. And there was just something magical about it. And I fell in love with journalism. 

When I was working in Burley, Idaho, at the small town newspaper, that was really an agricultural area. And for a while really my focus was on the environmental aspects of food production.

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In 2013, I got a job at Grist. They were looking for a food writer who was interested in writing about the nexus between food production and the environment. And after a while, it became clear that if we couldn’t get the climate factors right, then nothing else really would matter. And so I asked my editors if I could move to a more general beat. So I began covering energy and climate change, and development, and sort of every aspect of climate change. 

It felt like I was part of this global community of smart, engaged people who were trying to figure out the fate of humanity on the planet – how we could do this project of communally living together. And I would go to conferences and I’d meet these people and I’d call them up and talk to them and quote them in stories, and they’d fight with each other. And it was just sort of exciting to feel like I was part of that group doing important work. 

During this period, I was really excited about journalism. I was waking up in the middle of the night to write. I was staying up late. I was getting up early to take calls and interview people on the other side of the world, and it was very exciting. I told people that journalism was the best job in the world. I really was kind of addicted to this feeling of digging into things and finding out new facts that could change my mind. It was incredibly exciting to feel like I was discovering new sides of myself and just like my brain was getting bigger.

So over the course of the years, as I continued writing, I started writing the same stories over and over again. And after a while it started to feel less important and more like I was churning out copy that some people might use and be informed by, but if it was newspaper it would be more useful as wrapping for the fish that you bought at the market. 

So during the pandemic, I was watching the news and watching the numbers of people who died, and feeling like I wanted to do something useful with myself. And it wasn’t clear to me that what I was doing was useful. And it just started to become harder to justify the sense that I was doing something important. So during this time, I got in touch with my doctor and I said, “How can I, like, help in some way? Can I volunteer for vaccine trials?” I got myself on organ donor lists and that sort of thing.

And I started also just kind of tinkering around in my backyard. I had this shed that was rotting and I started working on it. And there was just something materially different about that work. I was kind of escaping the abstract work of writing to go tear off rotten wood from the shed and put up new siding. And I could just actually see things getting done bit by bit, as opposed to working really hard putting words together and then sending them off into the void and wondering if it made any difference at all. 

I finished that and I was looking for other things to do. And I live in this part of the country where most of the electrical wiring is done in this really old-fashioned way and it’s slightly unsafe. And I started to look at that and see if I could rectify it myself. And I was watching YouTube videos and figuring out how to replace these electrical outlets and ground some of my ungrounded electrical wires. And it was just a lot of fun. It really felt like I was solving these abstract problems. In the same way that journalism used to be kind of exciting for me – I had to figure out what was going on in places that I couldn’t see and, kind of ,do the mental gymnastics to solve the abstract logic problem. And then when I got it and everything worked, you know, and the lights came on, it was just incredibly satisfying.

And so I didn’t always solve the problems. Well, there was one time where I really messed things up and I took wires apart and then put them back together in a way that left the lights off and I couldn’t figure out what I’d done wrong. And so I called an electrical company and they sent over this woman who figured out what I’d done wrong and had me, kind of, help her troubleshoot and get it back together. And I was just like, she just seems so cool. And, you know, I was just asking her, like, “This just seems like an incredibly neat job. Do you love your job?” She’s like, “Yeah, it’s really great.” It was kind of like the admiration that I felt for other professions when I was reporting on them, when I’d go and hang out with people who were working in forestry or who were conservation biologists hiking through the wilderness. And I’d say this is so cool, you know, I’d love to be able to do this. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized maybe I actually could become an electrician. This is something that’s literally in my own backyard. 

And I started thinking seriously about, you know, what’s going to make me happier? Do I need to look for a different journalism job somewhere? Could I write a different book? And I’d kind of done all of that. I’d written two books, and the idea of writing another just made me tremble. And I didn’t really want to get, you know, the high profile job at the New York Times and go through the process of being the low man on the totem pole and having to hustle and make mistakes and prove my worth all over again. And it really felt like I wanted something new and different. And so the fact that I was playing around with carpentry and seeing that as a possibility for a career and then playing around a little bit with electricity, it just was this kind of like off ramp that was incredibly appealing. 

Initially, I was thinking about carpentry and my friend’s wife is an architect and she’s like, “Well, if you’re interested in this sort of thing, you shouldn’t be a carpenter, you should be an electrician. Because in our projects we have an incredibly hard time finding electricians.” 

The idea that I could continue the work that I’d been doing as a journalist in the climate space, but just do it with my hands instead of my words, was a real component of my interest in electricity. There was this sense that for years I’d been talking to people and writing down this imperative to electrify everything, and going to these endless conferences and hearing the same things over and over again and debating them and writing about them. And so the idea of simply setting all that talk aside and just getting down to business and actually literally slipping on the gloves and getting my hands dirty electrifying one thing at a time was exciting. That felt incredibly satisfying as compared to simply talking and planning.

I was talking with my wife about feeling a little down about work, and I saw that there was a class that I could take at the local community college on basic electricity concepts, and I said, “I think I’ll just sign up for this. Is that alright if I go a couple of evenings a week?” And she said, “Absolutely, by all means.” And so I started taking this basic electricity class, and a couple of weeks in, one of the teacher’s aides came around with a form and said, “Who needs their trainee card?” I said, “What’s a trainee card?” Oh, so you can – you get this card from the state because you’re enrolled in this program and you can start working for an electrician. And I was like, okay. I took the form kind of gingerly and filled it out and, oh, what the heck, I’ll just send this in. And then got this official card in the mail. And when I opened it, it was a little bit terrifying. It was like, now I could actually do this. I could actually begin work as someone with very little experience and become essentially an apprentice – an electrical trainee. And this is the way that the training program is set up. It’s meant that you’re taking classes at the same time that you’re getting practical work experience. But for the first time, it seemed real like, oh, I could actually maybe … maybe I could try this. 

I called around to a couple of electrical companies in the area to see if anybody was looking for trainees, and mostly people weren’t. But one of the other parents at the bus stop where I take my kids had previously worked with a guy who had gone off to become an electrician. And he mentioned, “You know, my friend John has said maybe it’s time for him to get a helper. He’s really getting tired of crawling under houses and feeling like he’s too old for this stuff.” And so I called him. I left him a message and he called me right back and said, “Oh, that’s interesting. Why don’t you come out and try a day or two just doing some basic work for me?” And so I started – I did a day and it was tremendous fun. And then I started taking a day off from work every week and going out with him and kind of seeing what it was like. And just twisting wires together and pounding cable into the sides of crawl spaces with staples, and getting a sense for what the work was really like. And so this is John Cazden, who became my mentor and eventual boss. 

We went to a house just a couple of blocks away from where I live, and there’s this lovely woman who lives there who wanted some new recessed lights in her ceiling. And so John said, “All right, well, your job and I’m sorry about this, it’s going to be miserable, but if it’s okay, I want you to crawl up into the attic and put these recessed light cans in. I’m going to drill holes from the bottom. You put the cans and string the wires from one to the other.” And I said, “Oh, no, this is what I signed up for. No problem.”

I go up there and the entire attic is full of blown-in insulation. And if you don’t know what blown-in insulation is, it’s basically dust. It’s ground up newspaper and probably all sorts of things. And they throw in some kind of bromine compound to keep it from combusting. And I’m wearing my respirator and this stuff is getting all over every part of my body. And as the day goes on, you know, this taking quite a while. It starts to warm up. Attics get a lot hotter than the rest of the house. And so the temperature is rising from 80 to 90 to perhaps 100 degrees. And I am sweating. And the brominated blown-in insulation is sticking to every part of my moist body and I’m having to squeeze in – you know, the corners of the attic come down where the roof slopes down, and I’m having to squeeze into these corners to get to the lights at the edge of the room. And there’s roofing nails that are sticking through from the top. And I kind of have to turn my head sideways in between the roofing nails and the joist to be able to reach my hand far enough to find the wires that John’s pushing up from below. 

It was so miserable, but at the same time it kind of felt like – I don’t know if you’ve experienced, you know, when you’re climbing a mountain or off on some adventure and it just sucks for part of the time you’re working so hard, but that’s part of the adventure. Suffering is part of what makes you feel good when you’re finished. And so we came down and all of this mess and dirt transformed into these beautiful lights. And there was the moment of truth where John went over to the switch and flipped it and all the lights turned on and he looked at me and he said, “You know, it still gets me every time that happens.” And I just knew that this was something that I could do, that I’d kind of seen the worst of it, and I was still into it.

I think people miss the fact that every job has suffering in it. Even if you’re sitting at a desk. You don’t notice the physical suffering until you’re 30 years into it and your back starts to hurt every morning. And with this, yeah, I hurt when I turned my head the wrong way and gouged myself on a roofing nail. But my body felt really good. I was using my body in a way that I hadn’t in years. And the back problems that I had started to go away. I really got a lot stronger. And I went from being a guy that went to sleep at one or two every night and woke up at nine or ten if I could sleep in, to someone who fell asleep around nine and woke up at five or six. And it’s strange and fun to be middle aged and suddenly feel like you can radically change your life. 

The next step was really to quit my job. That is the kind of big final “alright I’m actually doing this.” I’m going to talk with my editor, I’m going to talk with my boss and tell them that I want to be an electrician, not a journalist. Which, you know, it just felt so wrong and weird to officially say that even though I kind of figured out that maybe that was the best thing for me. Me and my wife talked about it and I said, “I think I should maybe try this. If I did this, when should I do this? I keep taking classes for longer, get closer to the level where I could make more money.” And she looked at me, said, “If you’re going to do this, just the sooner the better. Why not?” And so I talked to my editor and said, “Can we have a chat?” And I was kind of sweating bullets, to be honest. I was … am I actually going to say this? It felt like, you know, I was making a move that I couldn’t come back from. But, you know, I talked to my editor and she said, “I sort of was expecting this.” Because I’d been posting videos of myself doing work on the home. And I hadn’t hidden the fact that I was working a day a week with this electrician from anybody. And she said, “Great. Everybody here is pretty excited for this thing that you’re doing. Go for it.” 

I felt kind of naked and scared after I’d had that conversation. Like I’d just signed up for a … like an expedition to Mars. And so, yeah, it was frightening. 

I felt like, okay, I exist on social media as a journalist and I have to tell the people who are following me that I’m doing this. And so after I kind of made it official at work, I wrote this series of tweets explaining what I was doing and why. And one of the things I said in that tweet thread is that if I was at the right age during World War II, I probably would have enlisted. And now the great challenge of our time isn’t Nazi Germany, it’s climate change. And so it really feels like I need to be putting my shoulder to pushing that boulder in some practical way. And being an electrician feels like a useful way to enlist in pushing that problem in the right direction. It’s not making a huge difference, but it is making a difference. And it’s a difference that I can see and measure every day. 

And it was this very strange experience, because Twitter is a largely negative space. It’s good for getting negative feedback and there’s some value to that. But this series of tweets that I sent out explaining why I was becoming an electrician, the feedback was 100% positive. People were just excited by this idea. In some ways it was a nice affirmation, because I’d been part of this global community of wonks and experts trying to figure out what to do about climate change. And in announcing this, the fact that people were interested in it, it made me feel like there was a place for me in this new incarnation. Even if I wouldn’t be as involved in that community, there was still this understanding and acceptance from that community. 

The work that I’m doing, it really feels like you’re solving the problem in front of your face. And that’s looking at someone’s electrical system and figuring out how they can swap out their gas stove for an electric induction range. And I think where it’s connected to climate change for me is that it feels … if I wasn’t doing that, if I was simply helping people to build bigger and more luxury houses and put in giant plasma screen TVs and hot tubs, I wouldn’t want to keep doing it. But a lot of the work that I’m doing is helping people electrify, and it just helps keep things exciting. And so even if I’m doing this work and I’m just solving that problem in front of my face and the outcome is, you know, I’m looking at this family’s service and it’s really going to cost them thousands and thousands of dollars to add that new electric stove, and the right solution for them is to keep the gas stove, what’s satisfying is helping them come to the right decision. You want the money to go to the most solvable, affordable problems. In a weird way, the moral aspect of it is largely removed, but I think if it weren’t there in the background, it wouldn’t feel good and sustainable over the long term. 

So at this point, I’m a little over a year into my career as an electrician, and so I’m still a trainee. It’s about a two and a half, three-year process to become fully certified, working full time.

So a typical day is: I wake up around six and I get my kids off to school and I jump in my van. That’s a big new thing. I just bought a van from a retiring electrician, and I have all my gear stored in these racks along the van. And I’ll zip off to the first job of the morning. And that can vary from tearing into someone’s walls to remove the old unsafe wiring, to the end of the job where all the drywall has been put up and everything is smooth and nice and you’re just installing the beautiful switches and light fixtures and making everything gleam, to running new big thick cables to install a heat pump that will replace a gas burning furnace, or installing a new service up to the utility lines where you’re putting in the big pieces of steel mast and pulling the even thicker cables running down to that main electrical panel. So it’s spending a day solving small problems with my hands and becoming starving by 11:30 and ravenously wolfing down some lunch and then going back to it and then wrapping up around 4:30 to 5:30 and picking up my kids and falling into a deep, dreamless sleep in the night. 

The initial realization I had was just that my boss couldn’t respond to all the requests for service that were coming in and people were getting frustrated because, you know, “this is the second time I’ve called and your voicemail is full” and that sort of thing. And I was just hustling, trying to finish one job. And he’s like, “All right, well, after you do that, can you head over to this other person’s house who needs help? And don’t forget, we started work on that other house and we haven’t been back there in two months.” And I’m starting to feel like really there’s just not enough hands to do this. And so there’s definitely a real lack of electricians. 

You know, I’d sort of realize this as a homeowner trying to find an electrician and wondering why I wasn’t getting calls back. But it really hit home when I was actually doing the work that this is a real crisis and it’s driving up the cost of the climate transition by a lot, because there’s simply not enough workers to do this very labor intensive work

And then when I was trying to actually become one of those workers and take classes, I became aware of the fact that this sort of escalator to allow new workers to come into the business was broken. That they were cutting classes at the community college rather than adding classes. And that it was very difficult to, for instance, get into the union that provides a really top notch training program. That all of the methods that you might use to grow the workforce of electricians were kind of operating at this baseline, life sustaining level rather than ramping up. 

So maybe my favorite thing to do as an electrician is to fish wires through walls. And so yesterday, for instance, I was putting new wires into existing outlets. And the ideal thing is to have this tiny little metal box in the wall that has a half inch hole in it and push a wire through that hole and then go down into the crawlspace basement and figure out where that outlet is and drill a hole through the bottom of the floor and then push a wire from one end and push another wire up from the other end and hook them together in the wall where you can’t see them and pull them out. And it just feels every time the wire comes out from one side to the other, it feels like this minor miracle. 

I went from writing stories saying that there’s this technological solution out there: We need to get every house off of fossil fuels. Here are the ways to do it. The solutions exist. We can move from fossil fuel heating to heat pumps running on electricity. We can move from water heaters that burn gas to water heaters that run on clean electricity. And that’s something that I do now. It’s very concrete. It’s simply running the wires and twisting them together and attaching them to the appliances, which run a little more efficiently and a lot more cleanly. 

The expertise that I built up, you know, working in journalism for 20 years is often useful when people are asking, okay, well, you know, I’ve read that my stove is going to kill me and I really want to contribute to this process of electrification. Let’s put in a new stove. And I can say, well, you know, let’s contextualize the risks of those fumes that you’re getting from your stove and look at the different energy users. And, you know, actually, if you really want to help, the best thing to do is to put in a new water heater in terms of the biggest energy use. And sometimes people want to know more information. They want to know: if I’m switching to electric, does that really matter? The electricity has to come from somewhere. Is that really cleaner? It’s much more efficient, right. If I’m just burning the fossil fuels here than if we’re burning the fossil fuels in a gas plant and then turning it into electricity and transmitting it and having losses along the way. I’ve written that story several times. You know, I can help them figure that out. It’s fun. I like having that information at my fingertips. 

I really don’t know if I will ever write about this. Maybe if I were to write something, it would just be to help people understand, you know, the things that I’ve learned in changing careers. I’d just like people to, first of all, just understand the practicalities of, like, what does it take to become an electrician? And just to, like, let people know that it can be incredibly rewarding to take some risks with careers. I think it’s really worth doing to see, you know, take a year or two and see if there’s something out there that’s more rewarding, whether from a financial or a fulfillment perspective. We tend to be really conservative about our careers and there’s a lot to be gained, I think, from experimentation and adventure. 

When I said I had the best job in the world about journalism, it was because I felt like I was on this daily adventure. And that really is how I feel about my job now. I get to go learn new things every day. The context makes the problems different every single time, because it’s so complicated once you get back into those walls. There’s always something unexpected. And the tools that we have to solve them, the little bits and pieces, are basically oversize Legos. You know, I get to reach into my box of Legos and build solutions every day, which is just like my childhood dream come true.

You know, are there times that it sucks? Absolutely. You know, there’s still moments where I’m face to face with dried, mummified rats. And I think, what am I doing with my life? But I think that, you know, we come face to face with different versions of dried, mummified rats no matter what career we’re in. So I’m old enough now to sort of have that in context and realize that. Is it the best job in the world for me? I think it is.

More reading on this topic:

Grist editors: Jess Stahl, Claire Thompson, Josh Kimelman | Design: Mia Torres | Production: Reasonable Volume | Producer: Christine Fennessy | Associate producer: Summer Thomad | Editors: Elise Hu, Rachel Swaby | Sound engineer: Mark Bush