In September, when I quit my job to take a step back from the daily news cycle, I made a promise to myself: I was going to use at least part of my expanded brain real estate to read more about the climate emergency. Not in a through-one-eye, in between articles about a million other things kind of way. But rather in a clear-eyed, full-throated, let-the-horror-wash-over-me kind of way.
Here are some things I’ve learned in that effort: First of all, don’t read about the climate emergency before bed. Secondly, the reason we all look away from this is not an intellectual or scientific one, it’s an emotional and psychological one. We are no different from addicts in denial, on a global scale. Thirdly, even if radically we change the way we live today, a lot of what’s going to happen is already baked in. In other words, no matter what we do, the chances that your kids’ lives will be as easy as your life are pretty much zero.
So why in god’s name are we still living like this? I think it has something to do with the takeaway from this longread about why the US and Europe (not just the UK, by the way, all of Europe) have fared so badly against Covid compared to the rest of the world. You can adjust for all the variables, come up with all kinds of hypotheses about age distribution, seasonal weather patterns, and differences in our healthcare systems, but ultimately, the best bet is that potent cocktail of hubris and denial. As Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina, quoted in the piece, put it: “This is a symptom of a bunch of nations and societies that really haven’t had to deal with adversity on our shores in a really long time. We are uncomfortable with making the hard decisions that have to be made.”
I’ve lived most of my life in those cultures, and the biggest shift I’ve felt during our pandemic year is giving up on the expectation that things will ever be okay again under their norms. In climate world parlance, this might be called the shift from mitigation to adaptation — in other words, stop trying to prevent the horror, and start adapting to living under it. But I don’t think adaptation is as simple as just lying down and taking it, as it’s so often framed.
Something happens when you stop assuming the existing systems we’ve historically relied on will figure out a way to save us, so we can resume living our selfish little lives. When you stop listening to people who say it’s silly to imagine a system other than globalized capitalism. When you stop employing the incredible amount of cognitive dissonance that’s necessary to care about your little career trajectory while living through a mass extinction event. The resulting attitude doesn’t quite feel like optimism, but I will say it feels better than despair. I would describe it as somewhere between denial and nihilism, allowing you to find some agency in choosing how you’d like to move forward.
If nothing is guaranteed — if a baseline level of justice, equality and the avoidance of ecosystem collapse are an open question — then do you want to go down swinging, fighting for those things with your regular efforts and the broader aims of your life? Or would you like to continue devoting all your efforts to achieving under the broken status quo, being let down and horrified every single time that approach comes up short and empty, wondering, for the thousandth time this year, why the world is so fucked up?
I guess some people would choose nihilism when given that choice. But I think part of the reason for that is we don’t have enough models right now for a middle path. Inspired by the writing of Tyson Yunkaporta, I’ve accepted a new framework: It’s not about fixing the system, it’s about creating the conditions for a new system to arise. At the level of an individual life, I think that looks different for everyone. But in order to be real, it has to be tangible, practical, life-altering work. This is not a tweak around the edges; you have to reframe your relationship to ambition, work, consumption, and material life. If I’m interested in writing about anything these days, it is how on earth we are supposed to do that.
In the six or so years I’ve been writing this newsletter, a very loose theme has arisen: The outer work starts with the inner work. If we are to face the climate emergency, imagine a better world outside of capitalism, stop propping up white patriarchal supremacy, replace our narrow-minded ambition with a kind of expansive spirit of adaptation, each of us first has to face what’s kept us hooked on the status quo for so long. We have to undermine what keeps us focused on individualism and scarcity. We have to unlearn the myth that competition rather than cooperation is what makes us human. While capitalism certainly reinforces these things in an all-consuming way, our eager participation in them very often starts early in our life, and startlingly close to home. (If you don’t believe me go to therapy and talk about your relationship to work. You will probably end up talking about your childhood.)
Often, when I write here, I am trying to tell you how I’m doing those things in my own small life. In the past year, that’s meant changing a lot of external things. I moved away from a city so that my life expenses are drastically cheaper and I can work less. I quit a career path that was requiring me to devote all my creativity and energy to a profoundly broken digital media ecosystem that I suspected was turning my brain into worms. I abruptly stopped caring about how successful I look to other people on the internet (hugely recommend). I realized that a spiritual practice is not an affectation to hide from the many evidence-based cynics I know, but rather the central frame I use to face these challenges day after day. Those steps have brought me to the point where I even have the energy to contemplate new system conditions, so to speak.
As talk turns to “returning to normal,” I remain kind of mystified. After all the last year has shown us, I’m amazed people want to return to the conditions that allowed this pandemic to unfold the way it did. We’ve just been given what science fiction writers call a new “structure of feeling.” We have to use it to get comfortable making the hard decisions that face us.
Things I Wrote
When Hothouse, a solutions-focused climate newsletter, asked me if I had anything to say about how post-Covid travel will intersect climate, I took a big deep breath and said: Yes, I have a lot to say. As a person whose personal and professional life in the last ten years has largely been based on the idea that I can always get on a plane, writing this piece felt like writing a eulogy for a part of my life that’s over. I also talked about it on Monocle radio (52:45 mark).
The pandemic has led many people to realize why yoga has persisted as a practice for thousands of years: It is an endlessly adaptable companion to the spiritual and physical challenges of being alive. I wrote about elevating your at-home practice, and why it might just be more nourishing than practicing in a studio after all.
Things I Read
“Writers who succumb to shame scripts usually talk themselves out of writing.” This, from Thomas Page McBee, is some of the best writing advice I’ve ever read. [Medium]
“I found myself subconsciously looking for things that would piss me off…” Africa Brooke makes a radical case for divesting from the never-ending and always-shifting performance of being a woke liberal online. [Africa Brooke] (In addition, this book has helped me understand how we got here. Thanks to those of you who recommended after last month’s edition.)
An incredible essay on becoming a mother to twins during the pandemic. (A note to my many pregnant/new mom friends: maybe skip this one if you’re feeling fragile.) [The Atlantic]
On the writers and artists who foresaw the pandemic and its lockdown in their work. [Vox]
Isn’t it wild that every single clinical drug trial has to account for the placebo effect because it’s so effective, and yet it’s considered taboo and unscientific to just … use the placebo effect to help heal people. A mind-bending article on the persistence of mind-body dualism. [NYT Magazine]
One of the best accounts I’ve read on the unquantifiable amount that Covid has taken from us. [Gen]
“They didn’t want to scare the public.” A chilling longread about the cover-up of a sniper at work in my hometown. [The New Yorker]
Things I Listened to
Nicole LaPera, aka The Holistic Psychologist, on why taking a strictly materialist, evidence-based view of healing yourself is limiting. [How to Fail]
Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham have an incredibly nuanced conversation on the use of that word, the one that got a 45-year veteran New York Times reporter pushed out of his job. [Still Processing]
A reminder that you can see what I’m reading — including which books about the climate emergency — on my Bookshop.org page. I get a cut of whatever you buy via my page.
Also a reminder that I am teaching yoga on Zoom every other Sunday-(ish) at 6pm UK time. You can sign up here. It’s slow and we take a lot of child’s pose throughout, so you can meet yourself wherever you’re at.
“I think if I could go back in time and give myself a message, it would be to reiterate that my value as an artist doesn’t come from how much I create. I think that mindset is yoked to capitalism. Being an artist is about how and why you touch people’s lives, even if it’s just one person. Even if that’s yourself, in the process of art-making.”
"The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark." —Virginia Woolf
As always, thank you for reading. If you enjoy this newsletter, it helps me a surprising amount if you forward it to a friend or two, or share it on social media. The subscribe link is here.