A personal, tangible connection to the environment is crucial if we want to do more than intellectualize about climate change.

The death of Steve Jobs last week is sparking much discussion on his colossal legacy.

“Jobs did something that few people accomplish even once: he reinvented entire industries,” wrote Time. “He did it with ones that were new, like PCs, and he did it with ones that were old, like music.”

To Boyd Cohen at Fast Company, his death begged the question, “what if Steve Jobs had applied his talents” to climate change? “He would not try to scare people with the doom and gloom of climate change,” Boyd writes. “If Steve Jobs wanted to change the dialogue and collective consciousness about this challenge, he would have done it in a way that inspires optimism and excitement about the convenient solutions that will make our lives better.”

For example, Boyd thinks that had Jobs been mayor of a sprawling city like Los Angeles, he would have used his talents to radically innovate public transit, “making it cooler than using your own car.” It’s a nice fantasy, but selling people products is easier than selling solutions to hard problems. The Economist, in its tribute, noted that Jobs “stood out” in large part because he “was able to make people love what had previously been impersonal, functional gadgets.” It is fair to assume, though, that straphangers and bus riders with iPods, iPhones, or iPads may find their commutes more tolerable these days.


But maybe there is something to learn from the delight that people now take in their gadgets, one activist twittered: “Steve Jobs turned tech into an emotional experience. Also key to increasing engagement on sustainability.”

This unauthorized variation on Apple’s official bite-of-apple logo went viral online after Steve Jobs’ death.

Others echo this sentiment but don’t offer much guidance on how to make people passionate about the nuts and bolts of sustainability. Oddly, no one seems to mention the modest success of the New Urbanism movement, which combines a Steve Jobs-like design aesthetic with a sustainability ethos. Critics have rightly pointed out that New Urbanism is no antidote to sprawl, but it’s still admirable that a group of urban planners has created a new market for densely compacted, attractively designed walkable neighborhoods that are not in the middle of cities.

Still, how does one make an ecological ethic count for more than membership in a green group or participation in annual Earth Day celebrations? Perhaps the experience of novelist Jonathan Franzen is instructive, who, in this New York Times op-ed (which is adapted from a Kenyon College commencement speech he gave last spring), described his journey from desensitized environmentalist to passionate conservationist:

“When I was in college, and for many years after, I liked the natural world. Didn’t love it, but definitely liked it. It can be very pretty, nature. And since I was looking for things to find wrong with the world, I naturally gravitated to environmentalism, because there were certainly plenty of things wrong with the environment. And the more I looked at what was wrong — an exploding world population, exploding levels of resource consumption, rising global temperatures, the trashing of the oceans, the logging of our last old-growth forests — the angrier I became.”

And the more helpless he felt. Too much doom and gloom can be counterproductive, Franzen discovered:

“Finally, in the mid-1990s, I made a conscious decision to stop worrying about the environment. There was nothing meaningful that I personally could do to save the planet, and I wanted to get on with devoting myself to the things I loved. I still tried to keep my carbon footprint small, but that was as far as I could go without falling back into rage and despair.”

But then, a different kind of passion came over Franzen:

“It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds … Now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it — was considerably worse, in fact — but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of animals I loved.”

That this kind of attachment — an emotional one in addition to the intellectual — can foster a more tangible engagement with sustainability seems clear from the lesson Franzen learned:

“When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them,” he wrote.

“And who knows what might happen to you then?”

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.