Stanford professor Jef Caers discusses addiction, mental health, sexuality and stopping fossil-fuel-funded research

Feb. 27, 2023, 11:28 p.m.

On Friday, Stanford professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Jef Caers spoke to an audience of over 100, in a manner not often seen in academia. Wearing a rainbow-accented shirt that read “equality isn’t rocket science,” Caers shared his experiences battling addiction, mental health and coming out along with how these struggles evoked his realization that he no longer wanted to be an “enabler” for the fossil fuel industry. 

In the talk titled “My Personal Journey out of Fossil-Fuel Funded Research,” organized by the Coalition for a True School of Sustainability and Scientists Speak Up at the Shriram Center, Caers focused on his personal pledge to no longer accept funding from fossil fuel companies in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability for the final third of his presentation. 

But for most of his talk, Caers shared intimate stories about growing up in Tongerlo, Belgium, the process of accepting and feeling accepted by his queerness, living with HIV and being bipolar and fighting a methamphetamine addiction. He then went on to discuss being sober for the past 10 years and finding joy in community service, particularly his work with Project Open Hand, where Caers says he currently volunteers for four hours each week in Tenderloin, San Francisco. 

“I’m going to tell a very personal journey,” Caers said in his opening line. “I will talk about challenges I’ve had throughout my life, particularly around addiction, and also how I learned from other people’s stories. We often hear at Stanford stories of successes and excellence; this is a story about failure and about the challenges that came with it, and how I addressed some of these challenges.” 

Before 2015, Caers was a professor of petroleum engineering at Stanford and until 2022, Caers worked with over 25 oil and gas companies to guide their decision-making. 

Today, Caers still works on decision-making in the energy sector but on the renewable side. He has taken on the role of the principal data science advisor for Kobold Metals and the founder of Stanford’s new Mineral-X Initiative

Caers said that through the Initiative, he works to increase the mineral supply necessary for a “just” energy transition, emphasizing stewardship and prosperity for everyone. According to its website, Mineral-X explores topics such as “efficient exploration and responsible mining” necessary for the critical mineral supply of copper, nickel, lithium, cobalt and REE, community engagement and mining workforce education.

In the talk, Caers described building a wall around himself and becoming guarded when grappling with his identity as a gay man. This process precipitated a downward spiral centered around loneliness.

“Loneliness is a very strong emotion for me,” Caers said. “Behind the wall, it’s very lonely, and being faculty is very lonely. I had loneliness in my heart and my profession.” 

Laney Conger ’24 said of the talk, “I have never heard a STEM professor speak so openly about queerness. Jef’s narrative was refreshing and deeply needed. I was reminded of the importance of staying true to yourself both in morals and identity.”

When Caers’ life felt exceptionally lonely, he turned to methamphetamine, using the drug from 2005 to 2013. Later, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. According to Caers, being bipolar and addicted to methamphetamine “comes with a lot of risk-taking” and this led to his HIV diagnosis.

Caers said that he eventually went to rehab and made life decisions centered around health and community. One of these decisions was addressing what he called the root cause of his addiction: loneliness. 

“As a bipolar person, you’re very influenced by the negativity or the positivity of the people that are around you,” Caers said. “So I associated myself with communities and community organizing around positive imaging and positivity.”

Caers later detailed how his life has shifted since he left rehab, marked by joining non-profit organizations and participating in events such as AIDS/LifeCycle — a yearly bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money for reducing HIV infections and improving the quality of life for people with HIV/AIDS. He says he also joined Gay For Good and Project Open Hand to build community while giving back. 

Caers said with addiction there is often an enabler, the person that covers up for the addict and believes the addict’s promises that they will start making healthier decisions. 

“What is the world addicted to? There’s one band who knew it in the 70s. Money,” Caers said, playing a clip of “Money, Money, Money” by ABBA. “Addiction is a very cunning and vicious disease, and it has a whole entourage that is enabling it. I don’t want to be the enabler, so I stepped out.”

What Caers stepped out of was the fossil fuel industry. He said he knew his skills and experiences were crucial for “building a new future.” He said he now concentrates on “the endpoint” — 100 percent renewable energy. To him, the endpoint consists of solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal and materials for the energy transition, and Caers decided to focus on the material component. 

Caers said he wanted to work differently than he had before — focusing on “science with heart, engineering with justice and academic freedom with responsibility.” He went on to say that building a new renewable infrastructure requires a new approach, ensuring that a system that affects everyone leaves no one behind.

Yannai Kashtan, a third-year Ph.D. student in the Earth System Science program and a member of the Coalition for a True School of Sustainability, said during a formal introduction at the start of the event, “Jef is a role model of faculty acting in line with their values while remaining open and compassionate with those who act differently.” 

“I was moved by the vulnerability of Jef’s story,” said Henry Lai ’24, a student in Caers’s class GEOLSCI 240: Data Science for Geoscience. “It’s hard to be personal as a professor, as he mentioned in his talk, but he did it with grace and showed us his journey. We really wouldn’t have understood his decision to stop accepting fossil-fuel funding without knowing his story. Like he said, more people should share their stories.”

Caers concluded his talk with a simple message, “Today I’m good,” while sharing a photo of his fiancée and their 1-year-old dog — a Valentine’s Day gift from last year. 

Anna McNulty '24 is a climate writer at The Daily. Contact her at news 'at'

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