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The Day I Quit Smoking and What it Taught Me About Climate Change

People who did not know me in the 1980's have a hard time believing I was a smoker. But, I was. One plus packs per day for many years. By the time I quit, I had been a smoker for all of my adult life and for much of my youth. I had all of the signs of being a smoker, too, easily winded, chest pains, smelly clothing, overflowing ash trays in the home and car...

Intellectually, I knew all of the negative consequences I suffered from smoking. On top of the list mentioned above, it also cost me a small fortune and offered no meaningful benefit in return. Though I understood all of that, I kept smoking.

I kept smoking because I was addicted to it. I was addicted to nicotine as well as the behaviors involved in smoking. I knew I was addicted because I had tried to stop several times. I tried weaning off. I tried going cold-turkey. Nothing worked. I was hooked.

How hooked was I? I was "dig through the ash trays to smoke old butts if I ran out" hooked. I was "empty out old butts to try to roll a decent cigarette" hooked. I was "years of trying to quit but still smoking" hooked.

For those uninitiated to nicotine addiction, consider this: it is the third most addictive drug, coming in just behind heroin and cocaine. Once it gets hold of you, it is hard to get free of it. 70% of smokers say they want to quit. Yet, each year, only 3% of smokers do so successfully, as the story I am about to tell you drives home. Stick with me. This will get to climate change quickly.

The Day I Quit

One afternoon in 1990 I had the strong, strange and sudden urge to go to the drug store, which was odd for several reasons, most notably because I don't tend to like to shop; I don't shop at the drug store; plus, I'm am not prone to those sorts of impulses. After unsuccessfully trying to shake off the unexplainable urge, I gave in and drove up to the local strip mall and ended up strolling around in the drug store to see if anything caught my attention.

At first, nothing did.

After a few minutes, I felt really silly and decided to leave. Then, rounding a corner at the end of an isle I nearly ran into a giant display that caught me off guard. It was a huge close-out sale of one of those "as seen on TV" stop smoking gimmicks, which I generally consider to be worthless scams. But a little voice inside my head said, "maybe this is why you were supposed to come here."

I took one off the display and headed to the checkout line, which was moving very slowly.

An elderly woman was in line ahead of me carrying an oxygen tank. She looked terrible. Her breathing was loud, shallow and labored. As we waited in line, she would periodically cough, almost to the point of choking. I could not decide which was more concerning, her wheezing and coughing or the fact that she was so weak and frail that should could barely manage the oxygen tank she was hauling around with her. I wondered whether she was going to make it out of the store alive.

When it was finally her turn to approach the counter she was consumed by a particularly violent fit of coughing, after which she pulled out a handkerchief and I was horrified to watch her spit out a giant ball of black phlegm into it. I will never forget what happened next.

She gathered herself together, put the handkerchief away and in a deep and gravally yet muffled voice - the kind you hear from long-term smokers - asked the clerk for a carton of Camel straight cigarettes.

Boom. My mind was blown. Even in her state, she was still smoking.

I knew then and there that I needed to be done with cigarettes. I opened the package to the smoke-ending product as soon as I got home. I immediately got the strong sense of "made for TV gimmick." The package contained only 3 items: a tiny booklet with microscopic print, an audio cassette tape and a foil envelope with about a dozen little pills (little, white tablets) that I was certain were placebos.

The booklet explained that the pills were a special supplement that was supposed to lessen the cravings for nicotine. I tried one. It did nothing so I threw the others away. The cassette tape was to be listened to in order to calm nerves when having a craving. I thought it was dumb and threw it out.

In the whole package, I only found one thing that was useful. Inside the little booklet was a fairly detailed explanation of the biochemical process going on in the body when a nicotine craving is happening. It said it was, in effect, a chain reaction that had a life-cycle of about 2 minutes. In other words: an intense craving for a cigarette would last only about 2 minutes. It also said that another craving may come right after that one. But, that craving, too, would only last about 2 minutes. The trick to quitting smoking, it said, was noticing the cravings when they appeared, and then simply distracting the mind from them for 2 minutes.

I still have no idea whether anything printed in the booklet was true or not. I do know that distracting my mind from the cravings worked. The memory of watching the woman hack up a black tar ball from her lungs made an easy image for my mind hold in place of a craving when one came along. I have been cigarette-free ever since. But, it still was not easy, particularly in the first weeks. My addicted mind was constantly trying to trick me into smoking again, with not-so-subtle messages like, "what harm could one - just one - cigarette do?"

Having tried and failed to quit before, I knew the tricks the mind could play to get me to start smoking. I knew there was no such thing as "just one." "Just one" meant buying a whole pack. "Just one" meant that shortly afterward would be "just another one" and so on. The addicted mind is cunning and sneaky and cannot be trusted.

Dirty ashtray
Dirty ashtrays and the stench of smoke permeat the lives of nicotine addicts.

By not listening to my own story-telling mind, by not giving in to the cravings of my body, I was able to quit. The dirty ashtrays and the stench of smoke that had permeated every bit of my life dissipated. Over the weeks, months and years my body healed, my lungs cleared. The smell of cigarette smoke came to be a noxious odor that causes my sinuses to recoil. It wasn't until after I quit that I was able to see how much cigarette smoking had infected every aspect of my life. Cigarettes were, in fact, the only thing in my life that I took with me everywhere I went.

Our Collective Addiction

In case you have not yet figured it out, our society is addicted today. And the addiction is much worse than cigarettes and nicotine. As lethal and pervasive as nicotine addiction may be, it is nothing compared to the addiction we face: petroleum (and other fossil fuels). Like the heavy smoker whose cigarette habit permeates every inch of their lives, petroleum is doing the same with all of ours. We breath it. We ingest it. It is on our skin, in our hair, our clothing and it is destroying our environments everywhere. It is threatening the very existence of life on our planet. Intellectually, anyone who has done any reading about climate change knows this. Yet our addicted selves keep using anyway.

Oil refinery
Oil refinery

It is the energy we use to light our homes. It is the plastics we use to wrap our foods. It is the keyboard I am typing on right now. It is the carpet we walk on, the insulation in our walls, our cell phones, our lubricants, our jewelry, toys and cosmetics. It is even the fertilizers we use in our industrial farming. And it is killing us at an alarming rate.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that every year 4.6 million people die from causes directly attributed to air pollution, primarily caused by the burning of petroleum and other fossil fuels. And that is only the deaths from air pollution and that is only the human deaths. It does not count non-human deaths. Nor does it count the death from polluted lakes, rivers, wetlands and oceans. It does not count the deaths from plastics, an end product of our petroleum addiction. Nor does it count the human deaths from wars that we fight to gain control of fossil fuels.

In Europe alone the annual death toll is 310,000 people from just air pollution. And evidence is mounting that we have either passed or are about to pass the tipping point after which the climate crisis will be unrecoverable. Yet, the average American goes about their lives as though they are blissfully unaware, unconsciously firing up their gas-powered leaf-blowers as though nothing is wrong.

We are on oxygen, hacking up black phlegm and still buying cigarettes while going about our over-consumptive, petroleum-dependent lives as though nothing is wrong. We are in desperate need of an intervention. Even worse: the people who need to hear this the most are the ones who aren't getting the message, because climate change and pollution disproportionately affect low income people and those in developing countries, the people who consume the least, and, therefore contribute the least to to the problem. Most of us in wealthier countries, and particularly the more affluent parts of wealthier countries, feel little connection to the crises that are happening around the globe, like the collapse of animal populations, fires raging like never before across the globe and worse.

And, the worst part is that the over-consumptive behavior of the people who are better off isn't even making them happier. As consumption habits of Americans have skyrocketed, overall happiness levels have declined because we have all been programmed to work jobs we don't like in order to buy crap we don't need. Like my cigarette smoking: it's an expensive habit with no benefit. We do it just because it's what we know to do. Most people can hardly imagine a world where they are happier with less stuff, even if they intellectually understand that less stuff means more freedom and healthier, happier lives.


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