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How One Boston Doctor And Her Family Confront Climate Change06:31
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Elizabeth Pinsky unlocks her son Ben's bicycle before heading home for the day. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Elizabeth Pinsky unlocks her son Ben's bicycle before heading home for the day. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The image — of a child and an animal skeleton in a drought-stricken landscape —popped open just below a headline about the rapidly advancing effects of climate change. The story — about a United Nations report — described a world at risk for crises triggered by drought, flooding and extreme heat by 2040.

Before reading that report in October 2018, climate change was a big, distant, looming threat for Dr. Elizabeth Pinsky, but not something to tackle or even think about every day. But in the weeks that followed, Pinsky began waking in the night, picturing a scorched earth.

"My children are going to be searching for water in a post-apocalyptic wasteland," Pinsky says, describing the darkest moments in her dreams. "Not just, my kids don’t have the future that I want for them. My kids don’t have a future."

In the light of day, Pinsky, a pediatrician and child psychiatrist, gave herself some therapeutic advice: Do something. Now every daily action and decision for Pinsky and her family includes this question: What will help save the Earth?

"We can't turn away from this at all anymore," Pinsky says. "It needs to be something that is part of the like drumbeat of our lives and what we're doing."

Here's a glimpse of one afternoon guided by the drumbeat of climate change. The goal: to be car-free.

Elizabeth Pinsky walks alongside her son, Ben, while he rides his bicycle home in Somerville. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Elizabeth Pinsky walks alongside her son, Ben, while he rides his bicycle home in Somerville. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Shortly before 2 p.m., Pinsky takes the Red Line from her office at Massachusetts General Hospital to a stop about a half-mile from the school her son, Ben, attends in Somerville. Ben, who’s just turned 6, races to his mom for a hug and then takes off on a purple and white two-wheeler. Pinsky scurries to keep up.

Home is about 30 minutes on foot. Just before dinner, Pinsky typically takes another walk to pick up 3-year-old Margaret from day care. Many daily activities take a little longer in this climate change-focused life.

On the way home, Pinsky might stop at one of the secondhand stores where she’s started buying the family's clothes, books and toys. She patches Ben and Margaret's pants now instead of tossing them, and proudly displays an uneven seam in the gray slacks she's wearing.

"I kind of fixed them," Pinsky says, laughing. "I can't wear a short shirt with these pants because then you'll see that they're very inexpertly patched."

"Consume less" is one of Pinsky’s mantras. "Waste less" is another. Along this route Pinsky's found stores where she can refill jars of oil, vinegar, beans, rice and nuts to avoid plastic packaging.

"Davis Square is the reason why we’re able to do a lot of this stuff," Pinsky says, "meaning live mostly on our feet — whether it’s by bike or walking."

Ben rides his bike ahead of his mom on the sidewalk along College Avenue in Somerville. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Ben rides his bike ahead of his mom on the sidewalk along College Avenue in Somerville. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

As Ben pedals the final yards home, Pinsky wonders if her kind, thoughtful son will feel like he can bring a child into the world. Ben will turn 27 in 2040.

"Now that we know it’s the very near future and it’s, like, the bulk of our kids' lives, it just feels very different," Pinsky says.

Pinsky is speaking as a parent, and as a physician.

"If I’m going to say, ‘I’m a doctor,’ my job is to make children and families, physically and emotionally healthier," Pinsky says. "There is no greater threat than this."

Back in October, when Pinsky and her wife, Sara Cable, read the U.N. report and decided to make using less carbon a daily priority, they looked online for guidance about how to have the “biggest impact.”

(Seth Wynes/Kimberly Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters, 2017)
(Seth Wynes/Kimberly Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters, 2017)

This one caught their attention. By one assessment, having one less child has at least four times the impact of living car-free.

Pinsky already had two kids. She envies her neighbors, most of whom have electric cars, but says that's not in the budget right now. She pays a bit more for all green electricity. And the family tries to avoid air travel.

"But it's not healthy or sustainable to be on the despairing side of things all the time," Pinsky says.

So with some trepidation, Pinsky and Cable planned a trip to Disney World. Along with their four round-trip tickets, Pinsky bought $100 in carbon offsets, "to try to take that piece of the anxiety related to the trip away."

And Pinsky says it worked, mostly.

Elizabeth Pinsky checks the delivery from Walden Local, a meat share that uses locally grown and pasture-raised animals. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Elizabeth Pinsky checks the delivery from Walden Local, a meat share that uses locally grown and pasture-raised animals. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Becoming vegan to avoid the resources used to raise cattle, in particular, is not going so well. Pinsky has two reasonably devoted carnivores.

"I mean if I told Ben, we were not going to have chicken anymore, it would not go well," Pinsky says.

But today, Ben climbs onto a kitchen stool, ready to make one of the few, new non-meat dishes he and Margaret will eat, at least when covered in ketchup: tofu dippers.

Ben and Margaret help with dinner by breading the tofu dippers. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Ben and Margaret help with dinner by breading the tofu dippers. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Ben shakes a bag filled with breadcrumbs as he helps his prepare tofu dippers for dinner. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Ben shakes a bag filled with breadcrumbs as he helps his prepare tofu dippers for dinner. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The brother and sister rub oil on strips of tofu, drop them into a reusable green plastic bag filled with cornmeal, and shake. On this afternoon, Ben claims tofu dippers are his favorite meal.

"For real," Ben says as Pinsky laughs, "it actually is."

After dinner, the tofu dippers Margaret and Ben don’t eat will go into a compost bin that gets picked up weekly or down to the worm bin in the basement. Hundreds of red wigglers turn the family’s food scraps into fertilizer.

"They’re really stinky," says Margaret.

And Margaret’s pretty sure she knows why the worm bin stinks.

"There were pirates in there," Margaret says nodding vigorously.  "They're pirates' worms."

Ben drops a load of cubed cantaloupe peels into the worm composter in the basement. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Ben drops a load of cubed cantaloupe peels into the worm composter in the basement. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Actually, Margaret’s worms come from a long line of Somerville’s best, via a “free stuff” website.

"I think there’s like probably one genome of worms in Somerville," says Cable. "They’re gonna do an experiment in 10 years and the worms are gonna like have two heads or something."

Cable summarizes the biggest challenge of the family’s waste less life in one word: plastics. But she says thinking about the outcome of every container you buy, every action you take, is overwhelming, too.

"It’s hard to keep thinking about that. It’s scary," Cable says. "So just holding that in our minds is one of the most important things we do, I think."

Elizabeth Pinsky peels potatoes allowing the peels to fall into a compost bin. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Elizabeth Pinsky peels potatoes allowing the peels to fall into a compost bin. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The biggest emotional challenge for Cable is thinking about the outcome of every container she buys, every action she takes.

"Shoving your face in all that depressing news and not trying to hide from it, that's been the hardest thing," Cable says. "And I think it's one of the most important things we do."

But Pinsky worries, does all this come off as too preachy?

"God, I just sound insufferable," she says. "How do you talk about these things without sounding like a total a------? God, I mean really, how?"

Cable and Pinsky say they know that carbon offsets and buying green electricity or local, grass-fed beef are luxuries many can’t afford. And Pinsky acknowledges that washing her clothes in cold water or using dryer balls to reduce drying time are all irrelevant given the scope of climate change. But she sleeps better now — she’s doing something.

"Working this into our lives and into our decision-making and into the things that we talk to our friends and our family about helps a lot with the feelings of hopelessness and fear," Pinsky says.

And Pinsky’s banking on a ripple effect. One more coworker who switches from paper cups to reusable mugs. One more person who calls their congressional representative or shows up a rally. One more mom or dad biking with their kids to school and work. It’s how Pinsky copes, for now.

This segment aired on May 21, 2019.

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Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.

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