Given the pandemic, you’ll be forgiven if you’ve briefly forgotten about the other apocalyptic catastrophe that’s been dominating our anxieties. But climate change is still a continuing threat, and Kendra Pierre-Louis covers the fallout from it in every episode of her hit podcast, How to Save a Planet.
What interests me most about Kendra’s approach to this immense topic is how she examines the systems that affect us all, pushing back against the idea that traditional ideals of personal responsibility and rugged individualism can be applied to climate change. I spoke with Kendra about the affects that each of us can have on the climate, where we should focus our energy, and how she gets things done.
I often wonder how much we can do as individuals at home to combat climate change. How useful are those smaller decisions, like recycling and switching to high-efficiency lightbulbs?
So there’s this idea that individuals can’t move the needle on climate change. Baked into that belief is this idea that we can single handedly cut our carbon dioxide emissions to zero. First, absent death or completely escaping U.S. society, that’s not possible.
It’s also answering the wrong question. Why are we grounding our understanding of personal responsibility as consumption? Our consumption is baked into systems. The majority of people who live in NYC don’t drive, or drive rarely, not because they are paragons of climate virtue but because driving in New York City is hellish and mass transit is cheap and accessible. It’s the system that helps them lower their carbon emissions. So how are you changing the system?
We talk a lot about this on How to Save a Planet. Personal responsibility is not about what you consume, because those choices are so baked into wealth and access and broader systems. Take lightbulbs. Because of federal laws we’re all using more efficient lightbulbs than we were a decade ago. Compact fluorescent or LEDs have become the norm. But even if you buy an incandescent light bulb, it’s true they are not as energy efficient as the other bulbs. But they are still 30-40% more efficient than they were a decade ago. And that’s because of policy.
Your dishwasher, your laundry machines, your refrigerator — all use less water and energy than a generation ago. And that’s because of policy. And when you average that out across a country, that has a much bigger impact than, like, wearing your underwear twice or something facile in the name of Mother Earth.
So personal responsibility to me is not about focusing on swapping out your lightbulbs. Yes, do that; but how are you using your talents? It is great to compost and set your thermostat low when you’re not home, but if your day job is helping fossil fuel companies find more oil, you are still helping bring humanity to a dangerous place. That cancels out whatever you do about your personal consumption. If you’re a journalist but you’re amplifying climate misinformation in the name of “objectivity,” first of all, please stop. But also, start there and not with your toilet bowl.
True personal responsibility is about connecting to society. If nothing else, we should have learned that from COVID. Remember the Maine wedding that killed seven people — none of whom attended the wedding? It’s all connected. So ask yourself: what is your community doing to lower its carbon footprint? How can you hold your lawmakers accountable? Should you run for office yourself? What levers can you pull to make broader changes to live within planetary limits? That’s what we try to emphasise at How to Save a Planet.
I don’t mean to imply that there is no truth to the idea that many of us do need to live differently. The average home size in the U.S. grew even as family size shrunk, so we are devoting a tremendous number of resources to heating and cooling unoccupied spaces. Pre-pandemic, we threw out a third of the food that we brought home. That all has harmful climate impacts. But de-carbonizing your life will take all your time and attention, [which] could be better used elsewhere.
So what should we do as individuals?
Pick a couple of targets that you can automate and then focus on the other stuff. For me, I try to reduce my food waste. It’s about climate, but it’s also about honouring my privilege. So many people are food insecure, and we use so much water and fertiliser and labour to produce food. The least I can do is respect that and eat the food I buy. But spending days mourning a head of lettuce that froze at the back of my fridge is not a good use of my time or energy. Reporting on climate change matters more.
What’s your work setup like?
I live in chaos. I moved in the fall after having a clarifying pandemic moment this summer where I realised that things were not going to be changing any time soon, and the only way that I was going to survive [is if] I could be closer to nature and around as few people as possible. So I did that, and my COVID set-up is a one-bedroom apartment in New England where I’ve carved out a corner of my living room with desk that has an external monitor, a bookshelf, really cute plants, a tankless inkjet printer, and a CD-ROM drive that is very old and which I own simply because it has not died.
And yet, I spend a solid 80% of my time working from a prone position on my couch underneath a blanket that I was convinced to buy because of an Instagram ad. I mostly use the desk setup when I am cutting audio or on an external video chat where I need to look “professional.”
In terms of equipment, my work computer is a MacBook Pro, which I use under duress because I am PC for life. To cut audio we use ProTools; for auto transcription we use Descript, which I like more than Trint but not as much as Temi.
For my to do list I have a kind of ridiculous day planner, which I ignore, and I use Sunsama, which I love, because I like having my personal and professional calendar in one place. It connects to Trello, which I use as a complete data dump for story ideas I’m not ready to share with other people.
For interviews, if it’s a background call I use my own cell phone, which is a two-year old Android; I record using a pickup monitor connected to an eight-year old TASCAM recorder. For recording on the show, we are doing very little field reporting right now because of COVID, so usually we use [Google Meet] or Zoom with the source, who records themselves, usually using a recording app on their cell phone. If I’m actually in the interview, not just reporting, I record my side using a shotgun mic connected to a Zoom H5.
When I’m cutting audio I use my work headphones, which are the Sony MDR-7506 Headphones. They are corded, and if I’m honest, they hurt my head, so most of the time I wear a pair of Bose Quiet Comfort 35s that were a splurge purchase from when I was working in an open office and wanted large headphones to signal that I was busy working and should be left alone. Three days later we were told to work from home, which kind of made the whole purchase pointless, but it wasn’t like I was going to go back to the store and return them in the middle of a pandemic.
You travelled a ton prior to the pandemic, and I’m curious what you might have previously learned from working away from home.
I genuinely think that my preferred work style is laying on a couch, but I can basically work anywhere and have chicken-pecked large portions of entire stories on my phone when the mood has struck. That’s partly how I wrote this essay for Sierra about almost dying in Myanmar. I started on my phone basically as soon as I realised I was OK, because it needed to get out. The rest of it I wrote out by hand because I find [doing so] to be more intimate and easier when I’m trying to write about hard things.
I think your ability to get things done comes from the inside mostly, and that environments can support or hinder that — but you can be in the “perfect” work environment and get nothing done because you aren’t in the headspace to get something done, and vice versa.
I think the pandemic has emphasised that. For me, the biggest lesson in working with others is moving from text reporting to audio. In text, it’s a pretty linear relationship — you write something, your editor edits; rinse and repeat. In audio, at least the Gimlet way, it’s more collaborative the whole way through. I might write a rough draft of a script on my own, but after that it’s all hands on deck, with lots of people weighing in at every stage — it’s more iterative. It’s taught me a lot about communicating, because you are also juggling that many more schedules.
Speaking of communication, there are so many ways to do it now, but they all come with downsides — lately, that means everything from “Zoom fatigue” to books about how to stop relying on email. What’s your preferred method of communication?
When I’m trying to get work done, that either means writing or cutting audio, and the only way I can do either is to cut out all distractions, so I pretty much close out of every communications device.
So you don’t need the perfect work environment, but you do need the motivation (or discipline, regardless of motivation) to get things done — what do you do to build motivation to work when you’re not particularly inspired?
I think people who engage in “knowledge” work can be somewhat pretentious about what they are doing instead of accepting that on some level we’re all just making widgets.
I’ve been lucky to work from home during the pandemic, which is a privilege, but that also means I’ve basically been getting things delivered to my home. And I imagine the UPS woman has days when she does not feel especially motivated to deliver my farm box or whatever. But she does it. Maybe she spends more time organising the boxes to make the day palatable, and maybe I spend more time tackling emails to avoid writing a script or cutting audio on a day when I would rather watch movies, but I do it because it’s my job. And I find that the fear of being fired for not doing the basic tasks that comprise my job and winding up completely destitute is a great motivator.
What’s some good work advice that you’ve gotten?
Protect your byline. Don’t put your name on anything you would be ashamed to have your name on. And stop working with editors who force that choice on you.
Who else would you be curious to know how they work?
Would love to see how someone like Clint Smith, Elizabeth Kolbert, Jesmyn Ward, or Jonny Sun structures their time.
This article was edited for length and clarity.