More like a human
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been trying, and mostly failing, to engage in the news coming out of the COP26 summit in Glasgow. Dipping in and out when I can afford to feel angry or dispirited. Starting podcasts and then abandoning them halfway through for something that’s easier to listen to.
It’s hard to know what to feel. On the one hand, I can’t remember a time in the ten years since I graduated from the University of California with an environmental studies degree where the climate emergency has dominated the headlines in such a way. So that’s something. But on the other, I literally cannot stomach the kind of incremental bureaucracy and UN-speak that defines such events. The hypocrisy and the private jets and the pageantry of it all. It just makes me want to tune out.
I think a great indictment of the climate movement over the past ten years is that it’s always framed as a compromise: If we want to preserve civilization and humanity, we must give up and compromise on some of the things we like. In other words, saving the climate has to be done at the expense of much of the progress, innovation, and comfort that capitalism has afforded us.
Never is it framed as an invitation: Hey, have you noticed the way we’re living actually kind of sucks — with all the mental illness, inequality, loneliness, pollution, and the fact that you spend the vast majority of your life working while ignoring all the aforementioned ills because you simply don’t have time? And have you heard that the same things that would help the planet to thrive once again would also help you and your community to do the same?
Sadly, gatherings like COP are basically all we have when it comes to global cooperation. But I still think they frame the problem all wrong. A recent edition of the solutions-focused climate newsletter HotHouse quotes Peter Norton, an associate professor of at the University of Virginia, who teaches young engineers through the lens of climate issues.
When asking his students how to cool homes and buildings without air conditioning—thousand-year-old technologies deployed in everything from old Florida homes to Bedouin tents in the Middle East—many didn’t know where to start. “Even a mechanical engineer didn’t have a clue of ventilating a building without power,” said Norton. “I’ve learned to expect certain blind spots. The least expensive, most accessible, most proven, and most inclusive solutions are very often low to zero tech. The problems have to be reframed.”
So what does reframing this problem look like? I think it starts by taking stock of the many things we’ve willingly given up in exchange for all this progress. The list is long: A deep sense of place and time. The profound comfort of working within natural rhythms. The ability to truly, deeply rest. The deep ties and interwoven communities that make life rich and interesting — and also solve for many of the societal-level mental health issues we see play out in Facebook conspiracies and misinformation today. We’ve lost sight of the idea that we’re not individualized atoms optimizing for our own success, but rather, nodes in living networks who thrive in concert with each other. In the name of having everything all the time, we’ve given up a lot of what it means to be human. And yet we still wonder why we’re so polarized.
I used to be a business journalist, and so I know that to even come close to saying “we can solve the climate crisis by changing how we live our lives” is a big no-no. You can’t be earnest when you’re reporting the news. It’s all carbon taxes, renewable energy credits, geo-engineering. Civilization can stay in tact if we just find the right mix of policy and technology.
And yeah, we probably need those things too — in fact, at this point we’ll take anything we can get. But the policy fixes and technological shifts feel hollow to me without addressing the very fundamentals of how humans live and connect. It’s like “teaching chemistry in a different class from biology and physics,” as James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis put it. “It is impossible to understand these subjects in isolation because they are interconnected. The same is true of living organisms that greatly influence the global environment.”
At COP it feels like they’re searching for an answer that, in a way, we already have. Everything is going to change. We can either choose to let the planet force that change on us and then try to innovate and engineer ourselves out of it using progress. Or, we can accept that the way we’ve been living is, in planetary terms, an aberration. It has to end. The latter choice is “the least expensive, most accessible, most proven, and most inclusive.” It means giving up a lot, but it also means gaining a lot back, too.
I will concede that perhaps that kind of shift simply can’t be made in a conference room in Europe where diplomats wear suits and pop champagne when they sign a piece of paper about theoretical targets five years in the future. Maybe it can only happen at the scale of an individual life — each person figuring out how to live a bit more like a human, which means each community starts to wind itself back together, which means each ecosystem has a chance to find homeostasis once again.
For me it looks like this: Foster this sense of place. Get to know it. Pick tiny things about it that I can maybe change, or make better. Pay attention to cycles. Work within them instead of trying to outsmart them. Give and take from closer to home. When I get distracted by shiny objects, ask myself what feeling I’m trying to ignore.
And I’ll be honest — these days, that work feels more productive to me than reading the news anyway.
Things I enjoyed reading
“Lately it has seemed possible that everything must change.” A post-humous profile of the adored anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber serves as a good reminder that the structures we live under are not fixed, they’re merely ideas we agree on. [NY Mag]
Should you quit your job to write your book? Most probably not. [Jami Attenberg]
Heartening: “UK's Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) says that demand for its work-based training program has jumped 58% in 2021, the highest rate of increase for decades.” People are tired of screens. [BBC]
The internal politics and etiquette of Buy Nothing groups on Facebook are wild — but also kind of beautiful. [NYT]
We need to chill out on consuming True Crime, I think. [Gawker]
Embracing the Covid-forever possibility is our best path forward. [NYT]
As a California to UK transplant, I can attest to this: Good weather year-round does not make for a happier life. Something else does, though. [The Atlantic]
I’ve never been a big pen-to-paper journaler, but I’ve been playing around with this method from Austin Kleon recently and I love how it connects the stray thoughts in my brain. [Austin Kleon]
A thing I enjoyed listening to
I listened to the audio book of Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery by Ross Douthat. You won’t find anything more nuanced, thoughtful, and indeed thought-provoking on the mind-bending questions that arise when you pit alternative medicine against peer-reviewed science. It feels hugely relevant in the Covid era.
Paid newsletter interlude
This month’s Q&A for paying subscribers was with Simone Stolzoff, a writer whose forthcoming book, The Good Enough Job, will trace how work has become a central source of identity for so many people. We talked about how overwork is both a societal problem to fix and personal coping mechanism to unpack.
Here’s a quote from our interview
When I was 22 I got the opportunity to interview my favorite poet/writer, Anis Mojgani. He was my professional rockstar. I asked him about this idea of loving what you do and never working a day in your life. I was expecting him to give me a kind of pep talk about following your dreams, and yet he said something I’ll never forget: “Some people love what they do for work. And some people do what they have to do for work — so that they can do what they love when they’re not working. Neither is more noble.”
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“Just think about it deeply, then forget it. Then an idea will jump up in your face.” —Don Draper
“When I make a connection between two disparate subjects, I can almost feel my scalp tingle. I imagine the dendrites in my brain reaching out to make new connections to old knowledge. To me, setting my scalp atingle is one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing…” —Leonard Shlain
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