Author Archives: Alice Goldsmith

Peter Kalmus

 

Once I turned onto Peter Kalmus’ street, it was easy to spot his home. With waist-high arugula and white sage instead of a suburban lawn, some would call his front yard an overgrown mess. However, anyone trying to cut his carbon emissions to one tenth, eat a local vegetarian diet, and promote a healthy ecosystem would call the yard a great success.

Kalmus is an Earth scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech, in Pasadena, California, who decided a few years ago to try to cut his greenhouse gas emissions dramatically. By ceasing to fly, cycling as much as possible, and changing his diet (among other things) he’s now responsible for 2 tons of emissions each year; the American average is about 20 tons1 each year.

I had the pleasure of visiting Kalmus in his home in Altadena, a suburb of LA at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, to talk about his lifestyle, his work, and the surprising joys of using less energy. We settled into conversation under his giant avocado tree (yes, I got to keep a few) after we made some hand-cranked ground coffee (yes, I too thought it was heavy-handed but it was also delicious).

The interview below has been condensed.

If you could design a course for first-year university students that had to deal with manmade climate change, what would it look like?

I would call it “The Anthropocene, or Our Ecological Predicament” —what does it mean to be a human right now? I am really interested in what I can do as one person, and there are almost 7.5 billion people right now. So what can one person do given this huge global predicament? It seems we don’t have the power to do anything about it as an individual. So how can we respond to that in a way that’s both effective and allows us to be as happy as we can be given all this depressing stuff.

And your classes?

Class One: What we know and what we don’t know

How hot will it be in 2050 and 2150? What are the certainties for those, because those are predictions? How long will the CO2 stay in the atmosphere? When will it come out? And then: when will biodiversity recover, because we are in the sixth mass extinction right now and a major driver of that is global warming?

Class Two: The science behind meditation and how meditation affects the brain

Not actually giving students directions to meditate, but letting them know how it works. I’ve been meditating for a very long time, and it’s totally non-religious. So anyone can practice. That’s one of the things I really like about it. In the West, we tend to look out so much—we’re looking at our gadgets, we’re emailing people, we’re watching TV—it’s all this external activity. It seems that we are terrified to stop and be still. So maybe after the third class, we would take some time to focus on the breath. And students would see that it’s really hard to do after 5 or 10 seconds, the brain starts to wander away…so it sounds so easy but it’s so hard. And for some people I think it can be a terrifying thing. I think it’s a really important response to this predicament that we are in.

Class Three: Composting

Something that is important to me is composting—I call it aggressive composting or composting everything. Every scrap of organic waste I generate. This could be a challenging one for a lot of the students. When I say everything, I mean everything.2

So the first three classes deal with science, our inner lives, and concrete practical action: three important kinds of truth. We need all three right now.

Class Four: TV screens and the physiology of addiction

So I’d have to do some research, but I think iPhones are physically addicting. In this country and other countries it’s outstanding how much time people spend in front of a screen3, and what does that do to our ability to interact with each other and have conversations with one another? What does having this constant barrage of advertisement do to our worldview? Does it make us more dependent on corporations? Does it blind us to other ways we can see this world? There’s no global warming in these ads. There’s no serious economic inequality in these ads. People are smiling and they just have this one little problem that gets solved by some product, and then their lives are perfect. It’s interesting to think about that ad culture.

Class Five: Techno-optimism and the myth of progress

We think science and technology can solve any problem that comes our way. I think with global warming and the psychological predicament, it’s possible that the majority of people think that we’re gonna solve this with technology. That we are going to throw more technology at these problems and solve it that way. There’s a sense that this techno-optimism allows people to not have to change themselves. To rescind their responsibility from this. “They” will save us. Who are these “they”?

Class Six: Global warming policy

I’d definitely want to examine a revenue-neutral carbon fee that I think is probably the best policy step we can make as a nation and consortium of nations. Any time coal comes out of the ground, oil, or fossil fuel comes into port—there’d be a tax on that depending on how much CO2 or methane is produced from processing and burning it. This fee would increase over time. So any product that needed fossil fuel to get made, certainly gasoline, natural gas, plastic, even food products that are fossil fuel intensive—all of these would get more expensive, over time. So there’d be a market based incentive both for corporations and individuals to find alternatives.

Which is different from a carbon tax?

Yes, a tax means that the government keeps the money, and a fee means the money goes back to the people. So households would get money back each year. And if you’re doing everything you can [to avoid using fossil fuels] you are saving money, and that’s money that can be spent.

Class Seven: How we are trapped by the need for economic growth

Politicians are all about growth. And the way that our system is set up if we don’t have that four percent growth, things get really bleak. Economists will say that we can keep growing forever, and they have theories of how we can decouple growth from fossil fuels. I have yet to be convinced of that. It just seems our whole system is based on fossil fuels.

That implies we need to shrink to some kind of steady state economy. I think it would have to depend on other things to pull it off. We’d have to figure out how to stop growing our population. The second thing we’d have to do is switch from a profit-based system to a benefit-based system. For a lot of humans, what gives their lives meaning is to amass as much wealth as possible, hoarding as much as possible, and making these bank accounts that can be passed on to children. The difference between the richest few people and the average person is such a wide gulf. It’s just not clear what one individual needs ten billion dollars for.

When the money grows, the ego grows with it; people become slaves to the money they hoard, and it disconnects you from other people. There’s a segmentation of society, and this ties into meditation too because there’s a certain fundamental form of suffering that we don’t talk about—wanting. If you want something it implies that you aren’t happy with what you have in that moment, that somehow you feel incomplete.

Class Eight: How to live with one tenth of the fossil fuel

Four or five years ago, I realized I had been worried about global warming for a very long time but I hadn’t changed anything about myself. I’d be running around saying “We’ve got to do something about this,” and “Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?” and realized that I hadn’t done anything myself. So I sat down and thought—I drive, I eat foods, I fly on airplanes, I use natural gas and electricity, and so forth…how much greenhouse emissions are emitted each year I do those things?

It took some research but I figured it out and I basically made a pie chart. 75% of my emissions in 2010 were for flying. At that time I was still doing astrophysics and I was a post-doc. You’re trying to become a professor so you fly to give talks at conferences and various meetings, and so I started to realize, whoa, 75% of my emissions, and I’ve got these little kids. They’re going to say, when they’re grown up and say global warming is really bad and we didn’t mitigate—it’s really hot everywhere, the weather is crazy, there are mass extinctions, agriculture is strained, there’s sea level rise and migration away from coastal cities, and all of this bad stuff we hear about—what if that happened and its 2050?—and my kids say “Dad, it’s bad, why didn’t you do anything?” And that’s when I started to think of global warming as more of a moral issue.

We know enough to say that burning fossil fuels causes harm. On a time scale of humans, it’s essentially permanent harm. It harms humans, it harms people who haven’t been born yet, it harms people living on the other side of the world, people living in Kenya. No one can escape it. And it hurts nonhumans as well. So I can’t avoid the implication that we have a moral reason to not burn this stuff anymore. We have to stop burning it.

I started biking more. Biking was the first thing I started doing. It was an eye opening experience for me. I felt 20 years younger and alive. It was fun. I started growing some food—I think it’s just a miracle that food grows on trees.

The point I’m trying to make is that I started doing all these things to move away from fossil fuels and lo and behold I liked these changes and they made me happier. So I kept doing them. And I saved money, too. I started experimenting with veganism and composting, and now I emit less than one tenth of what I emitted in 2010. It’s actually pretty easy to reduce down to about a ton or two per year, but given how our society is set up, it gets harder to go past that.

Chickens in the yard at the Kalmus residence in Altadena, CA.

Chickens in the yard at the Kalmus residence in Altadena, CA.

There’s so much greenhouse gas going in the air so that reducing my emissions from 20 tons per year to nearly zero isn’t enough to have any impact. Which you could think of as really depressing. But there are a few reasons why I think it’s really good. I just like it better—but the other really big reason it’s worth it to me to make these changes is because it starts to tell a new story. It tells people that it’s possible to live with a lot less fossil fuels and it’s not bleak. People assume you have to make all these sacrifices, but that’s not quite right. You have to change, and you gain things. 

The third thing is there’s something really important in this life about aligning our actions with our core principles. I think that misalignment leads to unhappiness. It just eats away at the back of your mind that you’re doing stuff that goes against the grain of your beliefs. And if you change your own actions it doesn’t magically make everything around you better, but it’s just nicer to fix that cognitive dissonance.

I don’t want anyone to feel guilty. There’s way too much guilt in environmentalism right now, and I don’t think it’s helping us make change. When someone is feeling guilty, there’s this unpleasant sensation. So they just want this unpleasant sensation to go away. They aren’t really looking to live in a sustainable way, they’re just looking to move away from feeling guilty. So in the 90s it was all about recycling. Recycling was the thing you could do to not feel guilty. Then you could get in these planes and emit all these fossil fuels and life was good because you were doing that talismanic thing. Guilt leads to superficial changes and prevents deeper awareness.

Class Nine: The shortcomings of mainstream environmentalism

What does the term “green” mean? No one has actually sat down to define that, and corporations have co-opted it. So much of mainstream environmentalism is about guilt; it’s about fear.

What we need is a new environmentalism…even the word environmentalism implies a duality between the human world and the natural world, so there’s this duality between economics and jobs which always comes up every time environmentalism comes up. I’m looking for something new which is more about: how can humanity live in a way that’s aligned with the biosphere?

Class Ten: Exponential growth

The human brain isn’t very good at understanding the exponential function. Global warming feels like it’s accelerating to me—and maybe that’s just our awareness. But there’s been this exponential growth in our emissions and exponential growth, the famous hockey stick in the air, as we recently reached 400 parts per million, so that was growing exponentially until recently. Each day we are making more humans than we’ve ever made in the past. I’d like to explore these trends in resource usages and trends in global warming—are they actually exponential? What does that mean mathematically? What does that mean in terms of doubling? Are there already too many humans on the planet?

Class Eleven: Humans and nonhumans

I think there’s a trend in the humanities that part of the predicament is speciesism: we put humans above all other types of species. We see ourselves as special and we see it as our duty to conquer everyone. Should animals have legal rights? There’s a lot more science being done that addresses this question. I think scientists are starting to recognize that animals have emotions that are quite similar to our own. They have friends, they can experience love for their offspring, they can experience love for their mates. I think for a long time doing this kind of science was kind of taboo, but I think it’s changing. [Carl Safina’s book “What Animals Think and Feel” explores this question — Ed]

We can also talk about some things that have been beaten to death, like factory farms. I think a lot of people buy meat in shrink wrap packages and they aren’t really aware it came from a living being. There’s also a disturbing trend in diseases—viruses and bacterias. When you keep animals in bad conditions, viruses can evolve rapidly and we’re seeing new viruses.

Class Twelve: Limits to academia

There are things you can’t teach in a classroom. Gardening, raising chickens. Maybe living without fossil fuels. I like living with one-tenth the fossil fuels, but until people actually go out and try it, I don’t think they’ll believe me. So there’s really a limit to how knowledge can be transferred. 

And global warming is by it’s nature extremely trans-disciplinary. It doesn’t fit neatly into any one of our current academic disciplines.

Class Thirteen: Economics of corporatocracy

Money in politics paralyzes government and blocks action on issues like global warming. And the for-profit worldview doesn’t really work in a future steady-state economy. We need to get money out of politics. 

Class Fourteen: Envisioning a truly sustainable humanity

A sustainable humanity is a humanity that is happy living in the moment, doesn’t want a lot of things it doesn’t have, doesn’t see shopping as a way of happiness; maybe it’s a utopian future where there’s no war anymore, and people place others’ needs before their own.

You cite owning land in Altadena as one of the reasons you were able to fully connect with the idea of “be-cycling,” a deeper approach to sustainable living. As most of the country (and soon the world) is urban—how can we translate the power of growing one’s own food into something that urban communities can both see, feel, and do?

For one thing—community gardens. There is a community garden here in Altadena and I’ve been on the waiting list for five years. I finally got a plot.

I think there should be ten times as many community gardens. I think all the vacant lots should be turned into gardens. I think there should be municipal programs that convert land into community gardens. I think there should be policies that favor low income and apartment dwellers to get first dibs on community garden plots. I’d love to see an end to lack of supply. There should not be anyone who wants to garden and is unable to garden. 

The worst parts of myself keep saying: well, he has a career, he has a family, he owns a house in the beautiful suburbs—he is in the perfect position to undertake this. I want to travel the world and road trip and eat whatever I want, and then I’ll settle down. What would you say to that?

That really ties into the moral part. You can’t stop burning fossil fuels cold turkey. So there has to be some slack time and you have to do what you can. It’s such a hard question. I’ve been thinking about the morality part because it’s not only about not burning fossil fuels, but about doing everything you can to move away from that system. But it seems unsatisfying to say that. It seems like a cop out. But it took me a long time, many years, to get to this point. And I only reduced by a factor of one tenth. I do have a lot of privilege. I was fortunate in my career that I was able to move from Caltech to JPL, which I just happen to live a few miles away from.

Everything I do saves me money. So there are people who go about this a different way—buy solar panels and electric cars and such. And that’s a privilege. But the way I’ve gone about it is a way that everyone can go about it.

All I can talk about is my experience. Everyone is going to have his or her own path. Flying is the toughest. If you fly more than 10,000 miles a year, chances are very good that flying will be your largest source of emissions.

What we want now out of travel experiences are cheap, convenient and fast trips. Instead, we could substitute other values, such as adventure and greater depth of travel experience. I think a lot of people would sign up for ocean travel if we had more vacation days. 

Italian workers have four weeks of paid vacation, by law, and ten additional paid holidays, and when you tell them about the US, they can’t believe it. We put profit too high up. We are willing to run in this rat race with no vacation time, barely any maternal or paternal leave, we put our kids in daycare…the whole system is interconnected and it needs to change.

We need to make a world that’s fun to live in and good for humans—not good for corporations. There’s nothing wrong with being successful but we need to redefine success. We have to rethink productivity and what corporations are for—are they to amass as much wealth in one place as possible and rule the world? Or are corporations there to help us live happier lives?

Arugula and white sage grow in the front yard.

Arugula and white sage grow in the front yard.

What do you miss from your old life?

Let me reframe that: what would I keep doing if global warming suddenly disappeared? I’d keep biking—I love biking. I’d keep gardening. I’d keep having chickens. I’d keep having bees. I’d keep doing science. I might eventually go back to astrophysics, at least part time. I used to search for gravitational waves, and I also used to enjoy thinking about cosmology. I ended up becoming an Earth scientist because I couldn’t stop thinking about global warming so I had to study it full time.

I’d probably fly from time to time. But that one I’d have to think about because I have gained a lot by giving up flying. One of the things that was really surprising about giving up flying is that I think my relationship with my parents is closer now [because our time is more precious together].

What will it take to convince people of human made climate change?

If I could answer that we’d probably not have global warming right now. But I think the way things are going to go the effects of climate change are going to be more and more severe and start affecting more and more people directly and then people will have friends or relatives who are directly affected. So once people feel it directly and start having economic losses and even losses of life or knowing people who that’s happened to then they will quickly believe it and demand that politicians do something.

But then again, George Marshall claims that it’s actually the opposite, that when people experience climate-related disasters they’re actually less likely to believe in global warming.4 They get caught up in the immediacy of rebuilding, and they need to pretend that the disaster was a one-time thing, not part of a global, increasing trend, something that might happen in the future with increasing frequency.

So maybe what it will take will be a lot of us telling this new story through how we live, and gradually shifting the culture.

Do you think it’ll be too late?

In some senses, it’s already too late. The thing about global warming is that it’s not an on-or-off thing. It’s a ‘how bad is it ultimately going to get’ sort of thing. No matter how quickly we ramp down our emissions, it’s going to be bad. If we wait another 10 years to ramp down our emissions it’s probably going to be pretty awful. If we wait twenty years, it’s going to be truly horrendous.

You have two kids—ever feel bad for them?

It’s not clear to me that I’d be doing all this if I didn’t have kids.

When my kids were born, it was a big kick out of my own selfishness. You can’t put into words how having kids, some bell goes off in your head, and everything changes. I went through this process of grieving about global warming and this ecological predicament and all of this stuff that we’re losing, in my opinion, needlessly. After going through that process of grieving, that’s when I went into overdrive and thought I can do nothing and feel terrible about this or I can do everything I can possibly do which might not be enough but at least it’s everything I can possibly do. But frankly, yes, it’s a little bit frightening to me the world they might grow up in. I don’t know what it’s going to look like.

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During our three-hour chat, I was surprised by how Kalmus could deliver such dramatic news about our planet with an air of serenity. I suppose it has to do with his moral alignment, his meditation practice, and his endless supply of avocados.

By the end of our talk, Kalmus was late to pick up his kids. So he put on his helmet, grabbed his bike, and rode off into the Altadena sunset.


Peter Kalmus received both his undergraduate degree, from Harvard, and doctorate, from Columbia, in physics. His personal website is becycling.life; his opinions are his own, and not necessarily those of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or Caltech. An article he wrote about his decision to stop flying is in Yes Magazine, and his forthcoming book, Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, will be released by New Society Publishers in spring 2017. 

Interview and photographs by Alice Goldsmith

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1 – Per capita emissions are measured both for CO2 and for greenhouse gases collectively (methane and other gases also contribute to global warming). A Google search for ‘per capita emissions’ often returns the CO2 measurement, but the total GHG measurement will be higher; for 2012, the US per capita GHG estimate is 19.98 tons, per the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research.

In addition, US states vary widely, and individual and household emissions are often a function of wealth matched with lifestyle; affluent suburbs in the US tend to have the largest household carbon footprints. The Cool Climate project at UC Berkeley created an interactive map of the United States showing household emissions by Zip Code, as well as a more detailed emissions map for the Bay Area. The Cool Climate maps attempt to factor in embodied emissions from products made overseas, as well as travel.

Peter Kalmus adds: “The truth is that we probably only know a per capita measurement to within a few tons, probably in the range of 17-23 tons after including international shipping, air travel, and offshoring of manufactured products.” As an example of ‘offshoring emissions,’ our computers and phones are typically made in China, and the emissions from their manufacture are counted on the Chinese side, though the products end up in the US.

2 – Kalmus composts everything organic, except paper and fabric. “Paper gets recycled, fabric donated or turned into rags and eventually thrown in the landfill. I tried composting cotton fabric but it just goes too slowly.”

3 – Regarding addiction, mobile devices, and social media: “We Are Hopelessly Hooked”, Jacob Weisberg, The New York Review of Books, 2/25/16; “They’ve Got You, Wherever You are”, Jacob Weisberg, The New York Review of Books, 10/27/16. Political polarization can become inherent in a social media business plan. See: “Facebook’s Attack on Democracy”, Quentin Hardy, The New York Times, 8/26/16; “Hyperpartisan Facebook pages…”, Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed News, 10/20/16.  In contrast, open governance on a site can make the content more accurate, and less polarizing. See: “Wikipedia is fixing one of the internet’s biggest flaws”, Jeff Guo, Washington Post, 10/25/16

4 – George Marshall “Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change,”  reviewed in Washington Post, 8/21/14

David Hyde Pierce

I absolutely think it is good if only to make peo­ple aware of things they may not have been think­ing about. That’s the first step toward any type of progress.

What would make the city better?

One thing that has already happened, because I’ve always made this walk even when I was a young guy in the early days, is that they’ve recently done this huge renovation of Lincoln Center, the Juilliard School, and the Lincoln Center campus. A lot of what they’ve done is make it greener—literally. I don’t know about systems and things like that, but literally more plantings. Made it more welcoming and more friendly.

The same thing has happened along the West Side Highway since I’ve been here.  You can now run on a path from the tip of Manhattan up to the George Washington Bridge, and they continue to work on that and improve it and make it more beautiful, more accessible. And I think that’s great for two reasons. One—it makes people feel better, because nature is more accessible in the city. But it also ties people in more with natural cycle of the city, which makes people more aware that nature exists. You’re in this sort of concrete jungle, you forget that there are natural systems, the air we breathe, the plants here and all that. Unless you specifically go to say Central Park for a big shot of nature, you can be pretty isolated. These things that they’ve done—Lincoln Center and alongside the West Side Highway—I think make everyone a little more aware of how nature is a vital part of all our lives.

What would you do for the city if you had unlimited funding or technology?

You know, I’m not a big person for revolution. I believe in change happening at a pace that allows it to meaningful. So much that I’ve seen going on in the city in the past couple years has seemed to be going in the right direction. The thoughts that come into my head: would I make the buses more efficient? Yes. Try to upgrade the energy efficiency and make a smaller carbon footprint for the subway system.  Yes, of course. Things like that. All things which, over time, have been happening.

I think the High Line park downtown—what a great thing to use for the people who live down there and the people who come to visit. In the same way I was talking about Lincoln Center and the West Side Highway. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, but it reminds people that you can’t live without sustaining the natural world that even a big city lives in. If I had all this money and technology, I think I would just be doing more of what seems is already being done about more energy efficient transportation and more green spaces.

One of the great things that NYC already does which the rest of the country is trying to do is getting people to buy locally. Well the great thing about NYC is that in any small town to go to the store you got to get in the car and drive 20 minutes. We have little bodegas everywhere and you can’t help but shop locally. More and more those stores are being filled with local produce. I think that’s a great trend that I would encourage.

Green to me is a growth that is closer to the earth, that has its roots in our agri­cul­tural past, and some­thing that is the most pro­gres­sive and for­ward think­ing phi­los­o­phy…

What does green mean to you?

I think different things depending on the context. I see green used to entice people to buy things just like a muscle magazine would say “6 pack abs” and similarly may have nothing to do with that. People want green and so they do whatever, paint their offices green…

What I think it should mean is: Green is the color of growth, healthy growth. Black and char and grey, the colors of the city, can be the colors of unhealthy growth. Green for me I guess would mean going back to our roots, figuratively and literally, that even though we built up these huge cities, these man-made creations, you can get the illusion, either consciously or unconsciously that you’ve divorced yourself from nature.

Certainly a lot of the business people who don’t believe in global warming, not because they fundamentally think it’s wrong, but it can’t be right if they are going to accomplish what they want to accomplish in their business right now. So green to me is a different kind of growth. Green to me is a growth that is closer to the earth, that has its roots in our agricultural past, and something that is the most progressive and forward thinking philosophy because it takes into account the consequences of what we do for not just us and for not just the bottom line but for our children and children’s children and sustainability of the planet, without which none of the other businesses are going to do very well.

What is an example of that kind of green in the city?

I think the ridiculous example of them putting chairs in Times Square—you know about this? They closed off Times Square and for the last year or so—and it’s an experiment, they’re thinking they may make a bigger thing out of it. It’s a gigantic paved area, there’s literally no virtual green of any kind and people bring folding chairs like you’re going to the beach and it’s absurd and I think it’s fantastic. And though there isn’t a green thing to be found in that urban landscape, it is the most green thing to me. In the midst of the most neon, high traffic, heart of Manhattan, they’ve cleared out the cars and created this space where people can sit and they absorb the sun and get their vitamin D. It’s so crazy, and because it’s so crazy and so the opposite of beautiful Central Park which you would think of as the ultimate green space in NY, to me there is something philosophically green about it.

Are you proud to live in NY?

You know what? I am proud to live in New York. I’m really proud of the city and I’ve always been proud of this city. At any given place of real estate, you have so many types of people, none of which have to like each other, many who don’t. But almost all have found a way to live with each other and have gotten along because they have no choice. And I think that is no truer in New York than it is in the rest of the world; it’s just that NY had to figure that out sooner in order to continue to exist. That’s probably what makes me proudest to live in NY. Second would be the…I would say the diversity again. NY is not a one business town. So when you go out in NY and happen to hear the conversations around you, they’ll be about anything and everything. You’ll have doctors talking, you’ll have scientists talking, great artists talking, dance students from Juilliard. Other cities I’ve been to that can be the case but it’s less the case again because they don’t have the density of brilliance that NY has.

What question would you ask someone in 2030?

Well, for me, that question would be “did they find a cure for Alzheimers yet?” By 2030 the numbers of people with that disease will be very high so that’s a concern of mine.

The real lead­ers now and in the future will be the peo­ple who can inspire us to that understanding—that what we do right now is not just about right now but it does have rip­ples and con­se­quences for a very long time.

What is your hope for the future?

It would be wonderful to find they had found a cure or a way to slow down Alzheimers. Only because it’s a disease that has such far reaching effects that it is hugely expensive so it will have a great effect on how money is spent in this country and the cost of health care and what happens with Medicaid. It will have a huge effect not only on those who are sick but the people who take care of them and their health. People would be free to live freer lives. I’m sure there are other diseases to use to view the future, but that one is very personal to me.

I guess I would like for the trajectory of the world to be one of respect and understanding without eliminating the differences that make the world brighter. If there was a way to make that New York idea, everyone living together on the same streets and worshipping where they worship and somehow miraculously allowing each other to follow their own dreams and their own passions… If that somehow spread throughout the world, that would give me the most satisfaction.

Do you think your actions of today affect the future?

I think they absolutely do and I think they have to. The real leaders now and in the future will be the people who can inspire us to that understanding—that what we do right now is not just about right now but it does have ripples and consequences for a very long time. I think they already have. It’s like the people who say “I believe in God, because if he doesn’t exist no harm done and if he does exist, I made a wise choice.” Same thing for the environment. I suppose it’s possible that the things we do today don’t affect the environment in future in which case too bad, we wasted our time. But if they do that’s a responsibility we don’t dare to shake.

What is important about making the City Atlas?

I absolutely think it is good if only to make people aware of things they may not have been thinking about. That’s the first step toward any type of progress. I think in some ways in the day to day life of New Yorkers, the environment as a concept is pretty low on their list unless it has a direct effect on them like snow clearing during a blizzard or things like that. But I also believe that any New Yorker if you talked to them would say that they do care about the air quality and that they do care about the greenness of the city and when the trees bloom or the ginkgo trees stink or any of that happens in a city. But sometimes if it hasn’t been brought to your attention, you may fail to notice how important it is and how much you do care about it. And so on just that level alone I think this is an important project.

About David Hyde Pierce:

David Hyde Pierce is an Emmy and Tony-award winning actor (“Frasier,” “Spamalot,” “Curtains”), and has recently added directing to his resumé.

His current plans include directing a revival of “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the Williamstown Theater Festival in the summer of 2012; as described in the New York Times, this revival will cast against type.

“What if a family of ‘Guys and Dolls’-style gangsters moved to ‘Downton Abbey’-style London in order to escape certain, shall we say, entanglements? What if two of these wise guys fell hard for two tough dolls? And what if the formidable dame who runs the aforementioned criminal family developed an appetite for cucumber sandwiches?”

“There’s a whole group of people who love ‘Guys and Dolls,’ and there’s a whole group of people who love ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’” Mr. Pierce said. “And this is our chance to alienate all of them.”
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photos: Maureen Drennan (top), Jessica Bruah (inset)

Interviews with New Yorkers and visitors

During the making of this photo essay, someone told us that “the people make the city.” With that idea in mind, the City Atlas plans to include ongoing interviews with New Yorkers and visitors, in all five boroughs — to find out what people think about the future of New York and their role in it. We want to build an unfiltered channel to share what people are thinking. Opinions expressed here belong to the people we interview, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the producers of the City Atlas.

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