We are screwed but you still have options
14 Sep 2021- Stephen Bosch
7 min read
- Daniel Quinn, "The Story of B"
Do you feel helpless when you think about the ecological crisis? Do you feel like nobody around you seems to care, or if they do, that they don’t know what to do? Do you feel like politicians talk a lot and do little? Do you feel like your vote doesn’t matter?
Do you feel hopeless?
Do you wonder how all these bringers of bad news manage to stay sane?
I offer you some practical advice that will help you out of this paralytic melancholy. It is simple advice, but not easy advice.
Accept that some damage is irreversible
The situation is already dire. Humanity - we - you, and I - have failed to act decisively even though some of us have known about this problem for many decades.
The atmosphere responds to changes with delay. What carbon dioxide does is change the radiative capacity of the atmosphere; as the sun’s radiation strikes the earth, less of it escapes to space than before, and so more of it remains as heat.
Once the carbon is in the atmosphere, it affects the storage of heat from that point forward, so the climate effects develop over time. That is what climate scientists mean when they say that “climate change is already baked in.”
So things are bad. Now what?
The solution lies in many millions of people doing something about it.
Center yourself. You are still alive. The sun will still rise tomorrow. There will still be nice days ahead. There is much left to save. You could wallow in your sadness. Or you can start doing something about it right now.
Don’t blame yourself for being part of a system
We are born into a world we don’t understand and learn its ways first through osmosis. Later we are taught things, and those teachings emerge from a culture shaped by its history.
We grow up in existing systems, societies, rules and traditions. They decide what opportunities and supports are available to us. They establish acceptable patterns of thinking and of behaviour – our habits of action and of mind.
When the foundations of the system are the problem, how can we be expected to act in ways opposite to the damaging ways that the system encourages? The answer is that we can’t. Not in the beginning, anyway.
There is no business on earth that is sustainable. Not one. Anything you use or consume came from a business born in the old system. No matter how hard you wish it, there is no way that you personally can live fully sustainably, short of taking off your clothes and wandering off into the woods, supporting yourself only through what you can hunt and gather. And while that might be conceivable, it will not contribute meaningfully to solving the problem because it would remove you from the social system that itself must transition to sustainability.
In other words, by being born in the system, you are irretrievably part of its damaging structure. So there is nothing gained by blaming yourself because the groceries you depend on for your survival were grown with petroleum-based fertilizers or transported on trucks burning diesel, or for driving your children to school if it is too far for them to walk.
Be unfailingly honest with yourself
That all said: it is possible to take this clemency too far. (There are thousands of climate policy makers with frequent-flier cards. That’s a problem because they have no skin in the game.)
Be unflinchingly honest about your expectations, about what you think is fun and why, about what you want your ideal lifestyle to be, about your patterns of consumption. You probably already know what has a future and what doesn’t.
Think about how much waste you produce and how much of it is really necessary. Think about what you really need.
When you feel pain at the idea of giving something up, dig deeper. There is insight to be found there about what is really motivating you. It’s the things you cling to that are the keystone problems.
This is more than a virtue exercise. This is about healthy risk assessment and also, importantly, part of your first survey of opportunities. What parts of your consumption are vulnerable to disruption? What consumption habits are likely to get dramatically more expensive as carbon costs increase? What habits are most vulnerable to supply-chain disruptions? What future risks could you reduce with action taken today?
Consuming things to solve the problem doesn’t actually solve it. You don’t get a “get out of jail free”-card just because you bought an electric car, particularly if all the other aspects of your lifestyle remain unchanged.
For you to live sustainably, your sources of joy must be sustainable, too.
Examine how you make your living today critically and change it
Some people are despairing because they have been feeling the dissonance between how they earn their living, the behaviour of the people around them and the obvious primary importance of dealing with the most critical and important problem facing humanity: our completely unsustainable society.
How do you not lose your marbles when you go to work and everybody is behaving as though this were nothing more than a bad dream? That’s like the gaslighting of an entire species.
Your number one task is to bring how you earn your living into as close alignment possible with the work we need to be doing to solve this greatest of all problems.
I wish I could give you concrete, immediately actionable advice on this (though I will try to give you some examples in the coming months). Everybody’s circumstances and geography are different and you need to find that alignment where you are.
But you’ll never find it if you don’t ask yourself what that might look like and take concrete steps towards making it happen.
I would start by reducing your investment in the old system, because those investments are making you dependent on it. Get out of debt. Simplify your consumption. Downsize.
Reduce your burn-rate.
All these things buy you time to figure out what to do.
Don’t try to do it alone
By doing this kind of work you are also helping to change what is socially acceptable.
There is a social dimension to how we earn our living that goes beyond our interactions with coworkers. What we do is a signal to others. This signal quality is why we often ask “what do you do?” in social settings.
If you understand that you need to make a change, then the people you keep in your network of friends, colleagues and acquaintances will play a role in how easy or difficult making that change ends up being.
Whom you associate with determines in large part what you think about and what you ultimately do. At the very least, you should be surrounded by people who give you the space to pursue this. But it’s better to find those who truly get it.
So, go find them. Don’t try to do this alone. The good news is that there are more and more people who get it all the time. Modern technology makes it easier to connect with them than ever before.
Understand that people who have doubled-down on the old system are going to get louder and more aggressive as the impacts become impossible to ignore. Prepare yourself mentally for this.
Revolutions are never pleasant. But people can and do survive them. Fortune favours the prepared.
Money and temptation
Making modern business truly sustainable is the greatest challenge of all time. While there are many people trying and much progress has been made, nobody knows how to completely do it. So there’s no guidebook, no turnkey solution. Nobody has the answer for you. You have to invent it.
Doing difficult things is tiring. When you get tired, you will find yourself tempted to slip into old patterns. This is the trap. Prepare for it by understanding that the easy ways to make a living:
- Do not solve the sustainability problem,
- are based on old models vulnerable to disruption, and
- are too obvious to everybody to give you any edge.
As long as negative externalities are not being priced, you will feel this pull. In fact, it’s precisely the negative externalities that need to be resolved to make our economy sustainable.
There’s a model of emergency management in astronautics, they call it “working the problem.” It means, among other things, staying calm, defining the problem clearly and breaking it down into its atomic components, and dealing with each one at a time.
That’s the situation we face, and that’s how each one of us has to respond.
You need constraints to do your best work
The sustainability problem is the hardest one humanity has ever faced.
This is like going to the moon for the first time, but much bigger. Not 100x bigger or even 1000x bigger, but 100,000x bigger.
If these problems are solvable, somebody will solve them, and those somebodies will get rich.
Free riders need not apply. There are no cookie-cutter careers, no fat salaries, no perks, no “five-year exits”, no guarantees of any kind to be found here. You will be inventing a completely new world. Still, if you are you worried about unemployment, don’t be. This is a career for life.
Embrace your limitations. You need constraints to do your best work. Problems that are not hard do not lead to novel solutions.
If you want to work on sustainability, then learn how to do hard things. Dig deeply to understand how the modern world is made. Detailed process knowledge is going to be more important than ever, because it’s processes that are the problem everywhere and it’s processes that we have to fix.
Dig deeply to understand what the modern world is made of. Ask about the materials in everything you use, everything you touch. Where was it extracted? Where does it go at the end of its life? The material flows of every single thing human beings use will have to be closed. Taken as a whole, that challenge is gargantuan. But behind every tiny little application lies a massive opportunity.
But don’t try to fix the whole world at once. Pick a tiny place to start, and focus on that.
Everything we can do to move the needle in the right direction is worth doing and worth feeling good about. The important thing is that you keep pushing.
Take care of yourself.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.
So when you feel overwhelmed, bring the scale down. Focus on the things that are right in front of you. Get some rest. Eat well. Drink enough water. Spend time with friends. Read some fiction.
These simple measures will help you make positive change in your life and the world. If you follow them, you will find that you sleep better and things will look brighter. ⊡