creativity

How my life and career prepared me to work on climate change

When people ask me, “what do you do?” my response is always, “have you got a minute?” If they say yes, I say, “I’m a digital product developer / business leader / journalist / author / biomimicry scientist / public historian / tour guide, and I kicked cancer’s ass during a pandemic. Now I’m bundling up all of that experience together to fight climate change and protect the planet. Do you have any questions?”

Some of the most important research on climate change has yet to be done: What happens in a worst-case scenario? This week, an international team of scientists led by the University of Cambridge (where I will start my graduate studies in Sustainability Leadership in September) published a paper about the urgent need to do this work. As I read the piece and considered my experience, I realized my life and career have primed me to be a part of this endeavor.

Cancer during COVID-19
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. You think taking precautions to protect yourself and others from COVID is inconvenient? You think changing your lifestyle so we curb climate change in inconvenient? Trying getting cancer. Now that’s inconvenient. 

Cancer upends every facet of life to battle it. And even if you do everything right, there’s no guarantee you’ll be cancer-free. Having to face that demon and my own mortality (several times thanks to a life-threatening chemo allergy I had and never knew about) changed me. Then to find out that my cancer had a strong environmental component added insult to injury. It also lit a fire under me to change my life and dedicate my career to healing this injured planet. 

Nothing teaches you how to live like having your life on the line. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Since I had to go through it, and have emerged on the other side cancer-free, I’m determined to use what I learned to help make this world a better place for all beings.

Hope for the best; expect the worst
I’ve lived my entire life by this philosophy. At times, it’s exhausting but the tremendous upside is that I’m often prepared and rarely surprised. This thinking gave me a stiff upper lip as I’m not someone who runs from conflict or difficulty. I’m incapable of deluding myself or anyone else with any kind of pollyanna scenarios. Just give me the facts. Tell me what I could be up against and I’ll take it from there. I’ve mastered pro-con list making and I love a good SWOT analysis. Difficulty doesn’t depress me. I can sit with suffering and not be consumed by it. I’m not afraid of the future; I’m here to shape it. 

Product development
All product development, regardless of the product, service, or system being built is anchored in two principles: what problem are you trying to solve and who are you trying to solve it for? I don’t fall in love with anything I build or any idea I have. A long time ago, I fell in love with serving others and making the world a better place. My ego and my fear of rejection hover near zero. Being a product developer requires me to be measured and methodical, to care about the grand vision and every tiny detail. Strategy and tactics are two sides of the same coin and they serve each other. I like both of them equally. 

Business and leadership
I’d love to tell you that well-meaning governments, NGOs, and nonprofits are going to save the planet and humankind from destruction. They aren’t because they aren’t the problem. Business, and how we conduct business, is the problem. Because business is the problem it’s also the solution. 

Business is responsible for climate change because of the way it operates. Change the operations and you see progress toward solving the challenge. It’s not easy work. There are a lot of stakeholders with conflicting interests and priorities. Then you add the whammy of many people in the world being down on business and capitalism, and rightly so. Given all that, it’s easy to see why some businesses toss up their hands with a “I can’t do anything right so I’m just going to soldier on as I always have.” 

Except they can’t. Business and businesses will have to change and evolve. It’s not a choice anymore. Destroy the planet and every business, every person perishes. So business colleagues: buck up, roll up those sleeves, humble yourself, and get to work to make your business sustainable. I’ll be in the trenches with you and I’ll help you.  

Scientific studies in biomimicry and sustainability
Biomimicry begins and ends with the mindset of looking at a problem and asking, “how would nature solve this?” It’s a fascinating, hopeful, and wonderful way to live and work. I feel fortunate to be a biomimicry scientist. I’m excited to begin my studies at Cambridge to extend my work in biomimicry and business through sustainability leadership and bring them together to build a better world. 

Digital media
I’m often asked, “do you make your whole living in biomimicry?” No. I don’t. I have an MBA from the Darden School at the University of Virginia and I’ve worked for years to become a storyteller in a variety of mediums. I make the majority of my income working as a product developer for a media company and from my writing. I also produce and host a podcast about joy called JoyProject, used to manage Broadway shows and national theater tours, and hope to get back to producing and hosting storytelling shows, in-person and on screens large and small.

Science is what I do because I love it and it’s a force for good in the world. With my studies at Cambridge, I’m hoping to work with energy companies to end the production of fossil fuels. You can read more about my career plans here

Being a journalist and a fantasy and science fiction author
Writers make stuff up and write it down. We love playing out scenarios and asking questions like, “What if…?”, “And then what happened?”, and “How did we end up here?”. We research. We interview people. We observe. We dig through historical documents and archives. We create characters and we put them into impossible situations. This is the kind of thinking and acumen the climate change movement needs. 

Public historian and tour guide
Science was my first love. History was my second. I was a history and economics major in college at the University of Pennsylvania. I majored in history because everything has a history. It felt to me like I could do anything if I was a historian. I can happily spend countless hours reading and uncovering history, talking to people about history, showing people history, and imagining what once was, why it impacts what is, and how it will shape what’s yet to be. 

I’ve never been a person who easily fit into a box of any kind. I had no interest in that. When I was interviewing for my first job out of business school, a man interviewing me commented that my resume looked like I had done a lot of exploring. He didn’t mean this as a compliment; he was criticizing me because he thought I lacked focus. I didn’t. My focus just happened to be on anything and everything that interested me, and a lot interests me. 

I got the job, but that guy who called me an explorer was never approved of me. That’s okay. He just couldn’t see what I knew to be true—the solutions to worldwide problems need worldwide views. They need lots of different types of experience to create something that’s never been done before. Turns out all my exploring gave me exactly everything I needed to make the world a better place, and that’s what I will do. 

creativity

JoyProject Podcast: The Joy of Water Skiing with Kate McGormley

Let Kate McGormley describe the rush and unbridled joy she experiences every time she goes water skiing, a sport she’s done every year since she was 6 years old. An advocate for mental health and the power of kindness, she takes us through how she got into the sport, the mechanics of getting up on skis, and how being outside on the water helps her appreciate her body, her health, and the goodness that always exists in the world. Her infectious laugh is something that will brighten your day and may just convince you to give water skiing a try!

At the end of the podcast, I share something that brought me joy this week related to the episode. Given Kate’s focus on the joy of the outdoors, please check out the latest Fix Solutions Lab publication—The Joy Issue. Fix is a storytelling team at Grist, a nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future. Fix was founded on a simple premise: promising solutions to the climate crisis exist — they just haven’t yet gained sufficient momentum to tip the scales.

The Joy Issue has stories about using joy as a tool for climate change activism. It’s the perfect blend of so many things I love that create the foundation for my life and career—top-notching writing and storytelling, joy, curiosity, and protecting our beautiful planet.

Topics discussed in this episode:
– When Kate started water skiing
– How she got started water skiing
– The mechanics of water skiing
– How water skiing make her grateful for so many things

Links to resources:
– Kate on Instagram – @kathryn.mcgormley
– Kate on Facebook – @Kate McGormley
– Kate’s blog – KindnessMatters365
– The Joy Issue by Fix at Grist – The Joy Issue
– Christa on Twitter – @christanyc
– Christa on Instagram – @christarosenyc
– Christa on Facebook – @AuthorChrista 
– Christa on Medium – @christaavampato
– Christa on TikTok – @christanyc
– Christa’s website – ChristaAvampato.com

About Kate:
Kate McGormley is a higher education professional living in Indianapolis with her husband and two sons.  Kate is a champion for mental health advocacy and kindness. She spent 2013 doing a kindness act each day with her young sons and blogging about it at KindnessMatters365. She spends most of her time with family and friends, but also loves serving on the board of her local Habitat for Humanity and occasionally pounding some nails.  Her greatest obsession in life is her English Bulldog, Mack!

creativity

How being a writer will help me get my dream job working with fossil fuel companies

In September, I’m starting a Master’s program at University of Cambridge in Sustainability Leadership. It’s my intention to use that degree as a springboard to work with fossil fuel companies — and convince them that it’s in their best and most profitable interest to stop producing fossil fuel and invest everything they’ve got in clean renewable energy. 

I’ve talked to a few people about this dream. Most laugh at me. Some think I’m wasting my time and talents on this dream. Some think I’ll never be able to do it. 

Here’s why it’s worth trying: 89% of CO2 emissions come from fossil fuels and industry

We could do everything else right when it comes to slowing down or, dare we imagine, to reversing climate change and it won’t matter if we don’t quickly and massively reduce and eventually eliminate fossil fuel production.

What Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. got wrong about the SCOTUS majority opinion on the EPA
The SCOTUS majority ruling in West Virginia v. EPA removed the ability of the EPA to limit emissions by power plants. The majority opinion is a travesty for many reasons. It also happens to be false, or at least incomplete. “There is little reason to think Congress assigned such decisions to the Agency,” Roberts wrote. “A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself.”

That last bit about Congress isn’t entirely true. The energy industry could make the choice to limit, or eliminate, its emissions.

I know some of you are laughing at that idea. You know what’s even more laughable? Imagining that Congress will get its act together to make it happen.

I understand why people hate on and rail against capitalism. However, it’s the economic paradigm that powers the world. We barely have time to get for-profit businesses to change their behaviors before the planet faces irreversible damage that will compromise life on this planet. We absolutely don’t have time to reinvent and adopt a new world economy before that happens.

Yes, capitalism is deeply flawed and yes, I wish humans were neurologically wired to act in the best interests of the greater community rather than themselves. I can’t change either of those facts and neither can you, not in time to protect the planet.

We have to work with what we have right now. We don’t have time to lament over human selfishness. We have to use it to our advantage; that’s exactly how nature would solve climate change and it’s exactly what we need to do. Now. It’s what I plan to do by working with fossil fuel companies. 

What fossil fuel companies care about
Fossil fuel companies don’t produce fossil fuel because they love it. There is precious little to love about dirty fuel that’s poisoning the planet and poisoning us. Fossil fuel companies love two things: money and power. Their long-term profits and power aren’t in fossil fuel. It’s in renewables for one simple reason — they’re cheaper to produce and are, as the name implies, limitless. Imagine the economics of a business built on inexpensive, infinite raw materials that produces a final product that protects the health of every living being? You don’t have to imagine it. It’s here. It’s renewable energy. 

What West Virginia cares about
Why did West Virginia bring this case against the EPA? Jobs. Plain and simple. Money and income. West Virginia and other fossil fuel producing states have no particular attachment to fossil fuel except history and a large number of jobs. 

If they could preserve jobs, or better yet increase the number of them and the income those jobs generate, they’d do it. With renewables, they can retrain people, preserve their beautiful land, water, and wildlife, protect workers, increase tax revenue, and promote the health of all beings. But they can’t do it alone. We have to work with them. We have to support them. 

The power of legacy
Legacy is a powerful motivator. As Hamilton says, “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” In addition to money and power, fossil fuel companies and those who head them care about legacy and how they will be remembered. In 2019, BP spent millions on an advertising campaign about its low-carbon energy and cleaner natural gas when 96% of its annual expenditure is on oil and gas. This was greenwashing to the extreme, and BP isn’t alone. Greenwashing is a fossil fuel industry problem

Saudi Aramco, Chevron, Drax, Equinor, ExxonMobil, INEOS, RWE, and Shell have all done it. The advertising campaign they all need, rooted in truth, that will send their stock prices soaring, generate priceless innovative partnerships, and cause the best and brightest talent around the world to work for and with them is this: “We will reduce the production of fossil fuel by at least 50% by 2030 and completely replace it with renewable energy by the year 2050.”

I’ve been to Saudi Arabia, met with some of the highest officials in Saudi government, and traveled to the Empty Quarter. Saudi Arabia and its neighbors have the geographic space and wealth to be the largest renewable suppliers in the world. Forget greening the desert there. Create the solar fuel farms we need on land that has very little life to disturb. 

Fossil fuel companies are fiercely competitive. Once one company does this, the rest of them will scramble to do the same. There’s a first mover advantage here. With this kind of decision, they will rewrite the history of this planet and forever be remembered as the company that protected and saved life on Earth in its darkest hour. Now that is a legacy.

Why I’m built for this work
I’ve worked inside a number of large multinational matrix for-profit companies. Many are populated with enormous egos and deep pockets. 

Bureaucracy doesn’t grind me down; it sharpens my resolve. 

I love finding out what makes people tick and what they care about most. Then I show them how my projects help them in their pursuits of what matters to them. I learned this skill as a fundraiser and as a product developer who had to internally lobby for project funding. My mentors were the best of the best at this. They showed me how it’s done, and done well.

Being a writer will help
While building a successful business career working with a variety of startups, nonprofits, and Fortune 500 companies, I also honed my communications and storytelling skills by building a strong portfolio as a writer, author, journalist, editor, interviewer, public speaker, and podcaster. 

This shift from fossil fuels to clean renewables is as much about storytelling as it is about science and business. 

Being a writer means I’m constantly inventing characters with motives. I build worlds with words. Now I will use my words to paint the picture of what a clean, sustainable, and healthy world looks, feels, sounds, smells, and tastes like. 

While the climate change movement has done an excellent job of describing the grim future we’ll face if we don’t shift away from fossil fuels, they haven’t shown us the alternative of a happy, joyful future on this planet. We need to long for that alternative so much that we’re willing to change and endure the transition, which may be painful, expensive, and inconvenient.

My cancer was environmentally-driven
During the COVID-19 pandemic prior to vaccines, I was diagnosed with and treated for early stage breast cancer. My doctors believe my cancer was driven, at least in part, by environmental factors. We can’t prove this definitively, but when we triangulate all the data we know about my case it becomes clear that the environment was at least a major contributor. 

Nothing motivates and activates like nearly dying. My health, your health, and the health of the planet are inextricably linked. And they’re worth fighting for. I’m fighting for all of us, and that means I have to work with fossil fuel companies. 

In the words of the late great Babe Ruth, it’s tough to beat someone who never gives up, and I won’t give up until we get this done. 

Change is an inside job
While change can be driven by outside pressure, I’ve seen change happen quicker and more extensively when pursued on the inside of an organization. Sometimes to get things done, we’ve got to go into the belly of the beast. We have to walk right into the lion’s den armed with the undaunted courage and willful determination to sit with the lion, understand their perspective, and then show them how you can all move forward together for everyone’s benefit. 

I know it’s going to be a steep climb. I know there is a chance it may not work. There is a chance I’ll come home empty-handed with nothing to show for my effort and time. 

There’s also a chance that it could work. There’s a chance that this could be the most meaningful, valuable thing I ever do with my life that will make the world a better place for all beings. And so with that hope and that goal, I’m going to give it my best shot.

Allowing climate change to progress unabated is akin to burning down our own house and wondering why we have no place to live. Nothing survives — not a company, a government, nor a living being — if the planet perishes. With that in mind, there is no work more important than getting fossil fuel companies to stop producing fossil fuel. This work is what matters most.

creativity

Joy Today: Making our coasts resilient to climate change

I’m studying sustainable coastal resilience strategies in the face of climate change and rising sea levels. Seawalls don’t provide sufficient protection, harm wildlife, pollute waterways, and are difficult and expensive to maintain. Artificial walls don’t work in nature. What works is building longer buffet tables and larger homes that make accommodations for all stakeholders—coral reefs, mangroves, oyster beds, and salt marshes. This idea is much more than a metaphor or allegory. Seawalls are a cautionary tale of what happens when we exclude beings who have all the same rights that we do to survive and thrive. Sustainable solutions have successfully played out over the course of 3.8 billion years of natural history’s R&D lab. We would be wise to follow its example.