A big part of the internet was dunking on this Jonathan Franzen piece last week, entitled “What if we stopped pretending the climate apocalypse can be stopped?”
The critiques ranged from “that’s not how climate change works” (to be fair to the critics, this was being said by actual climate scientists, so I’m sure they had valid points) to “rich white man who lives in Santa Cruz and is going to die before climate change gets bad conveniently says we should give up” (to be fair to Franzen, I don’t think he was suggesting we give up). Another common dig was “why don’t you get actual scientists to write about climate change for the New Yorker.” Surely, we can have both?
At the risk of sounding out of step with the Right Take on the internet, I find the bare bones his argument kind of a relief, even if the finer details are problematic. (For the record, I’m all for the Green New Deal, and I’m very much here for Elizabeth Warren’s take on regulating fossil fuel companies.) In its simplest terms, I think what he is saying is this: The time where we had a chance to preserve the way we live now passed thirty years ago. We need to start accepting that now. That’s not giving up on mitigating climate change, but adapting to the reality that doing so will mean our lifestyles will change to a degree that’s hard for us to conceptualize at present.
Here’s what our world probably isn’t going to look like in my lifetime: eating strawberries in January, flying long-haul for £400, buying new things and having them delivered the next day as thoughtlessly and seamlessly as we put away a pair of socks. We will have precisely zero time for lifestyle influencers or venture-funded startups using the language of sustainability to sell us more stuff — because we will finally understand sustainability means buying less stuff, full stop — and a lot more time for our immediate communities, which we will increasingly depend on.
It can often feel like this future world is creeping into our reality now. When it’s 40 degrees C in London and Paris. When the Amazon is burning. When a category five hurricane stalls over the Bahamas for 40 hours. But we don’t dwell here; it’s simply too much. We go back to our busy lives — the influencers, the deadlines, the short term wants and needs available on Amazon Prime.
But interestingly, my day job has brought these thoughts into the fore of my mind more. Covering the business of travel often means contemplating a future where the market forces and consumer preferences that sustain a multi-billion dollar industry change drastically. In my day to day reporting, the economic and climatic realities that may one day existentially threaten this industry feel … not that far away.
Maybe that’s why, in a personal sense, I think perhaps we should all try to dwell in this scary space more. To grieve, to reflect, and to think about how the lives of people around my age and younger are going to change drastically over the course of the next forty to fifty years.
What decisions should we make differently? What goals and values should we craft our lives around? What inherited beliefs about succeeding in a market-based system that has failed the planet should we give up now, instead of waiting until we’re forced to? How are we actively preparing ourselves for a world where cooperation and interdependence are more important than the balance of our bank accounts? And, as I’ve discussed frankly with some thoughtful friends recently, should we really be having kids amidst all this?
As Franzen notes, to retain the world as we’ve known it will require “overwhelming numbers of human beings, including millions of government-hating Americans, need to accept high taxes and severe curtailment of their familiar life styles without revolting. They must accept the reality of climate change and have faith in the extreme measures taken to combat it. They can’t dismiss news they dislike as fake. They have to set aside nationalism and class and racial resentments. They have to make sacrifices for distant threatened nations and distant future generations.” Oh, and they need to do this quick.
Frankly, I spend too much time on Twitter to be optimistic on that front. Where I am optimistic, however, is how we might behave when we get to this scary new world.
We’ve been trained to think that human nature is selfish. But I tend to agree with Rebecca Solnit, who wrote in A Paradise Built in Hell that it’s not humans who are selfish, but humans living in a market-dominated society — defined by winners and losers — who are selfish. That’s literally why we are in the place we are. Where we end up will be worse in a lot of ways, but maybe better in that one respect. Capitalism’s gospel of growth will be less important than cooperation.
I also think it’s worth considering how we will find joy in this scary new world. And pleasure. Amongst all the hardship, I suspect we will. (As Bertolt Brecht wrote: “In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” )
These days I get the most joy from the tiniest of things, almost all of which involve a direct connection to where I live: the last tomato salad of summer, helping service users at the homeless drop-in where I volunteer pick out a few new t-shirts and socks, riding my bike to yoga and seeing a bunch of people I know and literally lying on the ground. As Franzen notes, that’s where we should be shifting our focus and efforts now: “keep trying to save what you love specifically,” he writes.
It just so happens that doing so means we are likely to buy less crap, eat less meat, reuse more things, and fly less. As we should have been all along. Funny how that works.
Things I wrote this month:
I absolutely love writing about the geopolitical force that is tourism. This month I covered why Russia is liberalizing its extremely restrictive visa regimes.
Venice has a huge problem with cruise ships. The cruise lines don’t have much to worry about though, because Italian politics is unlikely to get its act together anytime soon. Oh, and there’s a ton of money involved. I wrote about the utter mess.
Remember when we were talking about Greenland for a week?
If travelers are being told to go to places like Tbilisi, Ljubljana, and Vilnius to avoid contributing to overtourism, what are Tbilisi, Ljubljana, and Vilnius doing to prevent overtourism?
The 130 year old Savoy hotel has an in-house carpenter. I hung out with him for an afternoon. We used the word “bespoke” a lot.
How do you rebuild a country where 50% of GDP comes from tourism? You encourage tourists not to cancel their trips, despite the destruction of a category five hurricane.
Things I read this month:
Life is totally fucking random. Act accordingly. [The Atlantic]
“Society pushes women toward motherhood without providing adequate systemic support or even an honest conversation about the possible long-term cost to their careers, ambitions, and happiness.” This piece had me thinking and talking for days. [The Walrus]
Damn, have you seen The Last Black Man in San Francisco yet? The film, and the true story behind it, are both unforgettable. [IndieWire]
I aspire to be as aggressive as Kara Swisher. [The Cut]
“When David Brooks says it, it’s profound,” she told me. “When I say it, it’s woo-woo.” Marianne Williamson is absolutely right about that. [NYT Magazine]
The story behind the story of John Allen Chau, the American missionary who was killed last year trying to reach the un-contacted Sentinelese tribe. [GQ]
How to write a book with a full time job. Some great, actionable advice here. [The Creative Independent]
The "nomad" or “van life” way of living, while framed as aspirational, often wreaks actual havoc on your mental health. [Outside]
Who are these monsters who dislike em dashes? [NYT]
And one podcast you should listen to:
Ten Sessions, from This American Life. Therapy is some powerful stuff. This made me miss going. [This American Life]
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are happy to be in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
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