There’s a thing that people say sometimes about writing as a way of finding out what you’re thinking about. I’ve known for a while that photography is like that for me, I take pictures every day, almost entirely on instinct, and it’s only in looking back over what I’ve been photographing over weeks or months or years that I discover a theme emerging. I hadn’t realized that writing could be that way for me as well, but the exercise of writing a weekly newsletter is showing me my patterns. Looking back at the titles of my last few letters—“Not If, But When,” “Irrevocability,” “The Party of Stasis”—it seems I’m on a bit of a theme here, and of course today is no different.
I spent part of my Tuesday morning pleading with my Congressman—a centrist who continues to rise in the ranks of the Democratic establishment—to use this term to push for bold changes. My fear, I explained, is that unless people see real, meaningful changes in their day-to-day lives, 2024 (and maybe even 2022) are going to be a bloodbath for the Democrats, one that this country might not survive. He, unsurprisingly, used that as an opportunity to talk about rejecting socialism. Even on climate, supposedly his number 1 issue, he downplayed the urgency of the situation, saying on the one hand that we only have ten years to get a plan in place (a misleading statement—decarbonization needs to be in full swing by then, not just beginning to ramp up) but saying on the other hand that we need to work with Republicans to pass what we can while also recognizing that people are still going to drive to work and cook on gas stoves. This is a man who claims to have read the IPCC reports, which lay out in great detail the necessity for dramatic changes to land use, agriculture, and every sector of the economy, but who still found time to scold climate activists for scaring off centrist voters by telling them that they wouldn’t be able to have on-demand commercial air travel in the future. It’s all the sort of thing that manages to be completely unsurprising while still also managing to shock me.
Yesterday morning I listened to the latest episode of the podcast Reply All. The episode was called “A Song of Impotent Rage,” and the first ten minutes or so was basically a deep dive into one of the hosts’ anxiety and depression about climate doom. This was, as you might imagine, not great for my own climate doom-related anxiety. Later, during my lunch break, I got to record a wonderful conversation for my own show, a discussion about art and poetry that was both intellectually stimulating and affirming of our shared humanity. It was lovely, but as has been happening more and more often lately, afterwards I found myself wondering how much longer I’ll get to do this.
Podcasting as a medium cannot exist without our massive technological infrastructure, of course. The way my show in particular is structured, most of the conversations are recorded remotely, with my guest and I often separated by thousands of miles. I keep the video stream disabled in order to save bandwidth, so most of the time we don’t even see each others’ faces. In a lot of ways, the show has been a lifeline for me, and not just during the pandemic. Before my show, I rarely got the opportunity to talk about art or literature at all. More recently I’ve been able to make more connections locally, so I could in theory access some of what I get from the show. But I wouldn’t be able to reach nearly the same range of artists if not for my podcast and all of the electronic interconnectivity that enables it. Already people smarter than I am are talking about a world without things like cheap, fast transportation or round-the-clock electrical power—which, admittedly, already describes life in many parts of the world. Surely in such a future, art and literature and conversation will still exist, but I have trouble imagining podcasts will.
What I mean to say is that I understand the desire to hang on. I have always had difficulty with change. Even something as simple as moving to a new house has been emotionally challenging for me; losing my entire way of life is almost more than I can bear to contemplate. So when I look at someone like my Congressman, who has hung his hat on the idea that things won’t really need to change, I get it. Honestly, I want that, too.
The instinct to preserve is something we all experience to one degree or another, and for the most part it is an instinct that served our ancestors well. Stability for our ancient forebears meant survival; change often came with the risk of deprivation or death. Holding on to our way of life is the most natural thing in the world. But when our way of life is the thing killing us, holding on only accelerates the end. When change is inevitable, it may only be in letting go that we are able to save anything.
I and my colleagues have spent the past four years in resistance. It was the right thing to do. In many ways it still is—there are people in positions of power who want to make things worse, and it’s necessary to prevent them from doing so. But I think the real work ahead of us is not in resistance but in acceptance, and moreover in finding ways to teach others to accept. The world is going to look different whether we want it to or not, and it’s going to happen much more quickly than we’re currently prepared for. The sooner we can accept that, the sooner we can figure out how to make that new world a liveable one.