Living slightly larger


At the beginning of 2024, after three months of car-free life and seven total months of commuting exclusively by transit, I finally gave up on my car-free aspirations. I was exhausted, frustrated, and burnt out. So I brought my car back to San Francisco, and I’ve been driving all over the place these past three months—up and down the peninsula, snowshoeing in Tahoe, hiking at Point Reyes, skiing at Yosemite. Honestly, it’s been a relief. I feel like I have my mobility back.

Around the beginning of the year, too, I took my first-ever personal flight since January 2021. I had set a goal to avoid all flying as much as possible because of the large carbon emissions associated with flights; I hadn’t expected to go nearly two years without flying, so I was pretty proud of this streak. But this, too, is an ideal that I want to hold less strictly this year. In a week, I’ll be flying to Dallas to see the total solar eclipse. In May, we plan to spend a week visiting the East Coast.

I tried to be car-free and flight-free because I care a lot about living within sustainable limits. When I was starting my career a few years ago, I wanted to use my newfound freedom to live according to my values. I knew that my individual actions were small, but I still believed that they might have some impact, even if only as an example among my friends. I saw my choices as contributing to our collective societal direction, all of us linked inextricably to ecosystems in crisis, the world burning around us.

My climate-consciousness was also closely coupled with frugality. I started with no savings and a non-tech income, but I was determined to be self-reliant and build a financial safety net for myself. It was a practical need, but it also became almost a moral cause for me. Frugality was a pillar of my character, a key part of how I saw myself. I budgeted carefully and I mulled over every purchase, because each one seemed to mean something about how true I was to my virtues. I wasn’t total in my austerity—I allowed myself occasional major purchases, a used bike here or a used car there—but these, too, were carefully considered.

I sought a life that was almost ascetic, slightly austere. I wanted to demonstrate how small a footprint I really needed, how far I could go; how far everyone could go if only they tried.

This was satisfying for some time, but I am changing now because I don’t think adhering to these ideals continues to feel fulfilling to me.

It would be one thing if my actions had clear and significant impact, but I don’t think that’s the case. My friends continue to travel and buy things, as they are entitled to, as do all the people in the world who were unaware of my personal crusade. Our ecosystems continue to collapse.

Flying into Southern California a few months ago, I had a bird’s eye view of the world for the first time in years. I was confronted with the sprawl of the Inland Empire, stretching as far as the eye could see, and it suddenly seemed truly endless and immutable. We had built so much, over so many decades and at such great cost. How, I wondered, could I hope to see it change?

A few of the Murakami novels I’ve been reading recently are set in the 1960s against a backdrop of student protests. As Murakami writes it, the rebellions are flimsy and the students don’t really believe in what they’re saying. The students make a lot of noise, disrupting classes and saying a lot of big words about taking down the system—but after they are shut down, they meekly return to class and work hard towards moving up within the same systems they had apparently hated so passionately. It makes me wonder if giving up on lofty ideals is just a part of growing up.

Still, I hang on to a hope that I’m not simply giving up. Maybe being realistic and putting my impact into perspective can be a first step towards enacting more thoughtful and measurable changes. I think there’s a balance to be found, where I can be less idealistic without being resigned.

My smaller lifestyle served me well, but it’s time to try leaving it behind, at least for a bit. I feel now that continuing my self-imposed limits would just limit my personal growth. I wonder: what new perspectives and experiences have I already chosen to avoid?

I’d like to try worrying less so that I can live a more fulfilling and interesting life, even if it feels selfish; to do things less perfectly so that I can do more things.