Another podcast episode queued up, maybe this time on existential risks with Thomas Moynihan of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute; or a webinar with Elizabeth Kolbert about her new book on saving ourselves through geoengineering; or an article on the cultural implications of organic cotton farming in India. Talks and ideas and conversations about the future, the present, the past.
What am I doing with all of this?
Often it’s just following curiosity. I’ll read just about anything on dinosaurs, Montana, tectonic plates, Jane Austen, supernovae, walking or pedestrian advocacy, or Star Trek. I try to follow content that other people in my circles aren’t reading or listening to, which locks out pretty much anything from the Washington Post or NPR but opens up a lot of other things.
Aside from curiosity, what I’m really looking for in all this content—all those long lists of “other stuff to read or listen to”—is what I imagine many other people are looking for: answers. I’m looking for a way out of the mess we find ourselves in. A way to feel better, an assurance that everything’s going to be okay. Sometimes, when I open Soundcloud and look to see if there are any new interviews with Stephen Jenkinson or Sherrie Mitchell, or go onto YouTube to see if Derrick Jensen has posted anything new since Endgame, I’m reminded of a character in an L.M. Montgomery novel opening the Bible at random, looking for an answer to any question that plagues me. Guidance, assurance, solace—if we’re not doomscrolling or rage-clicking or persuading ourselves that we need to keep on top of the news, isn’t this what most of us are hoping for?
Maybe not. Maybe it’s just me. But judging by a number of conversations I’ve had over the past few weeks, I’m not alone in my searching.
I was listening to one of my regular podcasts the other day—it might have been a Futures episode on nostalgic feedback loops, or Tides of History on the rise of what we think of as “civilization” in Uruk in 4000 BCE Mesopatamia—and thinking about the need for guidance, a sense that somehow if we pursue enough angles we’ll collectively find a way for everything to be okay.
It’s not going to be okay. Nothing is, not climate change or mass extinctions or lethal tribalism or antibiotic-resistant superbugs or the zoonotic diseases out there waiting for humans to engage in just a little more habitat destruction, or plastics pollution or income inequality or the lack of affordable housing or the constant assaults on voting access. It’s not going to be okay.
The truth is, it never has been okay. I read an essay in Aeon recently about the philosophy of John Gray that articulated the not-okayness of existence so well I had to print it out and put it in my slim pile of essays I imagine returning to repeatedly over my life, whether for their writing or for their ideas. This one was written by Andy Owen, an author and Iraq war vet who read Gray when he was trying to reconcile what he thought the humanitarian mission of his military was, with the actual mission he found of securing oil reserves and promoting ideology. In Gray,
“I saw the similarities between the doctrines of Stalinism, Nazi fascism, Al-Qaeda’s paradoxical medieval, technophile fundamentalism, and Bush’s ‘war on terror’. Gray showed that they are all various forms (however incompatible) of utopian thinking that have at their heart the teleological notion of progress from unenlightened times to a future utopia, and a belief that violence is justified to achieve it (indeed, from the Jacobins onwards, violence has had a pedagogical function in this process). At first, I baulked at the suggested equivalence with the foot soldiers of the other ideologies. There were clearly profound differences! But through Gray’s examples, I went on to reflect on how much violence had been inflicted throughout history by those thinking that they were doing the right thing and doing it for the greater good.”
The urge to look for a way that things will be okay, and the pitfalls that leads us into, seems similar to some of Gray’s philosophical ideas. It’s natural to want to believe, as Stephen Pinker does, that the human species is traveling on an inevitable arc of progress that leads to more freedom and security and health for all. “Gray,” though, writes, Owen, “points to the re-introduction of torture by the world’s premier liberal democracy during the war on terror as an example of the reversibility of progress.” The essay is in some ways about Owen’s journey into Gray’s philosophy as a way to be okay while knowing that things aren’t okay.
From an ecological perspective, Derrick Jensen’s writings and speeches also seek to acknowledge and find a way to live with the not-okayness of existence. In one essay for The Ecologist, he tracks a certain urge that some humans have, a certain culture, to destroy life and call it progress back to Gilgamesh and the deforestation of what is now present-day Iraq, and how that mentality spread:
“The Egyptians and Phoenicians didn’t kill the forests of North Africa, they ‘remade’ them into navies and deserts. . . . This culture isn’t killing the oceans; it’s merely ‘remaking’ them such that there probably won’t be any fish. It’s not extirpating elephants and great apes and great cats and two hundred species per day; it’s merely ‘remaking’ them so they’re extinct. It doesn’t commit land theft and genocide against Indigenous peoples, instead it merely ‘remakes’ them and their landbases.”
Jensen has expressed these kinds of views in a variety of ways through a variety of media. This particular article was an answer to the pro-progress Ecomodernist Manifesto that deifies human progress and perpetuates the irrational belief that human life is somehow separate from the rest of nature, leading to narratives telling us, falsely, that:
“The United States has never committed genocide, but rather has fulfilled its Manifest Destiny. It has never waged aggressive war, but rather has ‘defended its national interest’ and ‘promoted freedom and democracy.’ Today, the dominant culture isn't killing the planet, but rather ‘developing natural resources.’”
It’s not going to be okay. It might get better in some ways, if we keep paying attention and keep working hard to subvert the narratives and structures that have destroyed so much, but we’re not going to wake up one day with everything okay.
Being okay isn’t the root of our problems. Our problem is feeling alone, isolated, as we face the non-okayness of the future, of the now. This has come up over and over in conversations I’ve had with friends recently, especially people locally as our state legislature tries to dismantle everything from a bare minimum of women’s reproductive control to voting access to clean water. People feel alone in their sorrow, isolated in their resistance. It’s that feeling of isolation that erodes our future.
It’s not going to be okay. But you are not alone.
I recently binge-watched Can’t Get You Out of My Head, a six-part, eight-hour documentary from BBC journalist Adam Curtis about . . . something. The recent history of nationalism, early psychological research, and society’s loss of power through increased isolation? It’s kind of those things, though none of that really describes it or comes close to the scope of the narrative. My spouse came into my work space a number of times as I was watching and every time he asked, “What’s this about again?” I said, “I’m not sure but I can’t stop watching.” At the end I told him, “It’s kind of about how the doctrine of individualism leaves us weak and alone and makes humans depressed and paranoid, and how collective action like unions can help mitigate the effects but also about a hundred other things, too.”
I’d love to know what Curtis’s pitch was to his bosses. Can’t Get You Out of My Head includes the story of Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s fourth wife, and how her personal grievances played out during China’s Cultural Revolution; the psychology work of B.F. Skinner on radical behaviorism using pigeons; Tupac Shakur’s music and the influence of the Black Panthers on his activism; the poet and anti-Soviet dissident turned Russian nationalist Eduard Limonov; the evolution and lure of conspiracy theories, and much, much more.
Essentially, the main message seems to be that idealized individualism is a weakness that allows entrenched power structures to run roughshod over everyone else; but also that those power structures, whether it’s China’s authoritarian government, Putin’s oligarchy, Facebook’s manipulative algorithms, or neoliberal ideology*, are weaker than the dominant narratives lead us to believe.
It’s a riveting documentary despite my inability to describe it, and Curtis kept circling around or back to something I learned while researching my book, which is that making people feel isolated and alone is the greatest weapon power structures can wield. Which makes the intentional development of things like suburban life, which increases isolation and loneliness, all the stranger. Regarding the early rise of Valium use among suburban housewives, Curtis said in a podcast interview that “The aloneness is the weakness of it all.”
It’s not going to be okay. But you’re not alone. This is important to remember. It’s almost everything.
I interviewed many people for my book who’d gone on long walks—long like walking for months, not long like walking for hours. Most of those stories didn’t make it into the book. But like the ones that did make it—Katherine Davies’s walk across Europe and Jonathan Stalls’s eight-month walk across America, to name two examples—the people who’d gone on long walks, whether for pilgrimage or peace or clean water or just because, found that most people are kind, most people want a world where we care for one another. It’s scare-mongering stories of scarcity, “someone’s going to take what’s yours,” or an “other” eroding a cherished or safe way of life that prompts people to clam up, shut down, and lock the door.
For the most part, these stories of taking and scarcity aren’t real (some are, but the ones that are wielded as weapons of control generally aren’t), but they are effective. Still, the fact that most people still want to live in a world where we care for one another is a demonstration that these stories of scarcity and others aren’t quite as powerful as the human urges for connection and caring.
It’s not going to be okay. But you’re not alone. You are not alone.
It’s not going to be okay. Climate change is dire. The attacks on democracy are real. Racism is pervasive. When the Idaho legislature recently refused to accept a federal grant supporting early child care and one legislator said, “any bill that makes it easier or more convenient for mothers to come out of the home and let others raise their child, I don’t think that’s a good direction for us to be going,” it should have surprised nobody. Arguing with people like that that lack of child care materially hurts my ability to work is pointless—they don’t believe I should be working. There will continue to be people like Jeff Sessions, whose gleeful expression as he prepared to announce the end of DACA I might never forget. There will be policy wonks who continue to justify the pursuit of war with the adage that “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs,” neglecting philosopher John Gray’s counterpoint that “You can break millions of eggs and still not have a single omelet.” The only thing to do is to remove people like this from positions of power, which we can’t do if we believe that we’re alone.
There are no grown-ups in some hidden room working to fix it all, no TED talks with ultimate answers, no first-class ride to Mars for any of us. (And really, Mars is a hellhole of a place to live for human beings.) The world will not get more just or respectful of life without some considerable work on our part. And even if we put our whole hearts into the work of a lifetime it might make very little difference within that lifetime. That doesn’t mean the work isn’t worthwhile—love and kindness and laughter are worthwhile even though we’re going to die someday.
It’s not going to be okay. But we’re not alone.
When I turn on the podcasts, open an article, pick up a book, play a video while I make dinner, I am looking for guidance, if not escape, most of the time. It’s all a balance in my head, though, looking for a way to make things not okay but a little better, at least, for myself and others. To feel better inside, materially improve things outside—I’m looking for a way to human better, all the time.
It’s not going to be okay. But it’s okay to love life in the meantime. Go for a walk. Breathe in your local air, place a palm on a tree, watch a cloud, listen to a bird, find a crack in concrete and remind yourself that the earth is constantly moving, living, being underneath every footstep. Play some music. Find laughter to share. Find a way to share your grief. Watch the movement of water.
There is no answer but to walk through this world, this life, be kind, and remind others that they’re not alone, either.
You are not alone. It’s going to be okay.
After I’d written the first draft of this essay, I checked my email and found an update from Forward Montana, not their weekly What the Helena? legislative update but one of the other reasons I’m so grateful for this organization: they know that feeling isolated and alone makes people feel powerless as well as lonely. We don’t just need to be told we’re not alone; we need to feel it, to embody it. You are not alone.
*In an interview with the Red Scare podcast (thanks to Kim for pointing me to both podcast and the documentary’s release on YouTube!), Curtis said that he eschews concept words like “neoliberalism.” However, in that same podcast, he constantly and off-handedly referred to an undefined “left,” as if progressive thought is a monolith that is always represented by the loudest progressive voices. I find these kinds of criticisms of “the left” just as caricatured as those pushed by people like Fox’s Tucker Carlson. Even when critiqued by people who consider themselves progressive, “the left” is never defined, leaving it a handy chimeric thought bubble embodied by, I dunno, Rachel Maddow, some Washington Post columnists, and a handful of students at Middlebury College? It’s impossible to say. Critics never define “the left” that they’re so wary of, which makes it easy to ignore actual progressive work by real people. Curtis claimed in the interview that the use of the word “neoliberalism” is too loose and undefined and allows for lazy thinking. But the same thing applies to his use of “the left” throughout the rest of the interview, and elsewhere. It’s internally inconsistent to dismiss concepts like neoliberalism—which is frequently and specifically defined—while talking about an intellectualized “left” that is never defined. Besides which, the constant use of “left” and “right” is becoming as meaningless and destructive to discourse as characterizations of “red” and “blue” states. I believe it was Sarah Kendzior who wrote, “America is purple—purple like a bruise.”