It’s been a minute since I sent out this newsletter. I’ve been back from vacation for a week now, but I had to take another week to live and stay mentally healthy, and I’m finally shambling back into the groove.
One thing that’s been on my mind a lot recently is this tweet, and the basic problem it describes:
This all seems true enough. Most people are doing the same things as they’ve always been doing, and some form of deadly mass catastrophe and societal breakdown is going to happen if we confront the burgeoning environmental crisis with our current set of habits. (I don’t know about “collapse of civilization” in the complete form it’s sometimes imagined – I think, to paraphrase William Gibson, that the future will continue to be distributed unevenly – but I do think we will see more and institutions fall if we don’t adapt a lot faster than we’re doing.) Thinking about this is bound to make people feel crazy, because our individual behavior seems to be out of line with this reality.
Of course, there are good reasons most people continue their normal habits. As many commenters pointed out, “they let you starve if you don’t have a job.” There are also social incentives to keep calm and stay in a familiar place. Angling for individual or small-group survival in such a future sets someone against their fellow humans (and erodes the trust and equality we need to survive such a moment), while collective survival requires difficult conversations, under-rewarded work, and a lot of trust and altruism which can be hard to generate and maintain.
Beyond incentives, we also just aren’t very good at ever imagining things will be different, or imagining what it means to actually live differently. We’re animals who’ve learned certain habits of getting by, and we stick to them because not getting by in the way we know how is uncertain and scary. The feelings we associate with survival depend on being in a good place in society, and being in a good place usually means following familiar habits and well-trod paths. This is particularly true in our current era, since a large portion of middle-aged adults in the US lived in the calm between the storms, the eye of the hurricane of history, and are likely to pass on the idea that significant change isn’t really something we have to confront, that the best way to survive is to keep calm and carry on.
But global warming is real and unprecedented, and as the environment changes other things are going to change. One way they might change is that powerful people start leaving people to die, picking winners and losers and saying we can’t afford to save everyone or even address the problem as a whole. This seems to be the approach of Trump and the right wing in general, and is the approach by default of centrists who don’t think we can afford the inconvenience of change or of promising to take care of the vulnerable. If we keep making the ceiling on how much we’re willing to do for people harder than the floor we won’t let them sink below, then rising costs of adjusting for the future will be fatal to a lot of people.
Another way is to create a mass mobilization, at the scale of mobilizing for a war, around addressing both climate change and a more robust promise of leaving nobody behind, making massive economic restructuring compatible with the necessities of survival in the meantime. This will require people high in the hierarchy to give up some of their unfettered privilege, just as, in wartime, rich and poor alike are asked to pitch in and curb luxuries, in order to secure the infrastructure of survival. This is the approach taken by the left wing of the Democratic party, and the heart of the Green New Deal which targets the new challenge with the basic structure of our most effective peacetime mobilization in living memory.
But see, here I am, again, talking about politics like you study it in school, and I still don’t really know how to imagine or shape my lived experience. I’ve never been through something like we’re going through and our culture at large is disproportionately dominated by the kind of people for whom “the news” was something you observed, debated, even made decisions about, but didn’t directly experience in your daily life. Consequence felt far away. And this is still the filter we’re given for the world – disasters to be observed or feared, scandals, big personalities, investigations, all sorts of spectacles but nothing suggesting a change of what we do with our waking hours. Like most people, I still tune in. One rationalization might be that staying informed gives me knowledge that I can use to guide my decisions, that I have access and knowledge that can be applied to influencing the influential in a way that would be impossible if I didn’t stay up to date. But a lot of it is just that the habit of watching and intellectualizing things is familiar, and just the process of going through familiar motions can give some form of reassurance even as the actual reality I’m learning about tells me things will not be okay.
Like Sydney here, I often feel anxious about how little we’re all changing. I take small steps, too small. I do a little volunteering, but not enough to move mountains. My main day job is in the right direction, but it isn’t revolutionary. I’ve gotten better at social support, but I’m not carrying a family or anything. My thinking is relatively open, but not transformative. I’m taking better care of my mental health in more structured settings than I used to, but I’m still hampered by anxiety on a recurring basis, it still saps a lot of my energy.
I don’t know what, if anything, to conclude, other than that we need a lot more support and guidance, from people who understand the scale of how far we need to go and the amount of support people need to feel comfortable changing their ways. I think this means, in these times, listening to and elevating leaders in roles large and small who have dealt with real stakes and whose empathy for the vulnerable is unimpeachable, as we are all vulnerable in this day and age. A lot of us were raised to strive for power or to hang onto it, were told that it was our means to survival, or that we should apply the same instincts used at survival-level struggle to the vague goal of getting ahead. But, frankly, people, like me, adapted too much to privilege and power don’t know what the fuck they’re doing when it comes to these kind of movements, and having people who don’t know what the fuck they’re doing in charge is a liability.
So let’s stop bluffing like we know what we’re doing. We need help and support, those of us facing everyday struggle and those of us continuing to cause problems. Most of us are both.