We all live in California, now.
Discontinuity is blowing up, all around us, now, everywhere — and the biggest changes are still incoming.
“We were in the midst of the worst wildfire season in the state’s history, and the evident wrongness traumatized us and shook us awake.”
Yesterday, some of my ideas were the frame for a feature story in the New York Times Magazine about California’s need to learn to live with megafires.
“I met with Alex Steffen, a climate futurist, on the back patio of a bar in Berkeley. Steffen, a 53-year-old mountain of a man with a crystal-ball-bald pate, hosts a podcast and publishes a newsletter called The Snap Forward. The idea behind both is that the climate crisis has caused us to get lost in time and space; we need to dig ourselves out of nostalgia and face the world as it exists. As he explained to me in his confident baritone, yes, California, and the world, are in bad shape. But the situation is not as devoid of hope as we believe. ‘We have this idea that the world is either normal and in continuity with what we’ve expected, or it’s the apocalypse, it’s the end of everything — and neither are true,’ he said. That orange sky in 2020? ‘We’re all like, Wow, the sky is apocalyptic! But it’s not apocalyptic. If you can wake up and go to work in the morning, you’re not in an apocalypse, right?’
The more accurate assessment, according to Steffen, is that we’re ‘transapocalyptic.’ We’re in the middle of an ongoing crisis, or really a linked series of crises, and we need to learn to be ‘native to now.’ Our lives are going to become — or, really, they already are (the desire to keep talking about the present as the future is intense) — defined by ‘constant engagement with ecological realities,’ floods, dry wells, fires. And there’s no opting out. What does that even mean?
We’re living through a discontinuity. This is Steffen’s core point. ‘Discontinuity is a moment where the experience and expertise you’ve built up over time cease to work,’ he said. ‘It is extremely stressful, emotionally, to go through a process of understanding the world as we thought it was, is no longer there.’ No kidding. ‘There’s real grief and loss. There’s the shock that comes with recognizing that you are unprepared for what has already happened.’
I found Steffen’s sweeping, dark pronouncements comforting. He at least had language and a functional metaphor to describe what was going on. Most of us have dragged our feet and deluded ourselves for too long about the state of the world. While we remain stuck, our world pulled away from our understanding of it. We’ve now fallen into a gap in our apprehension of reality. We need to acknowledge this, size up the rupture, then hurl ourselves over the breach.
As we sat there, the bar’s concrete patio filled up with young, busy people and their laptops, their gatherings part of an endless stream of work meetings displaced by the pandemic, individuals trying to make the shapes of their lives as ‘normal’ as possible — the whole premise of which, Steffen argued, was a mistake. The mind-set locks us into defining ourselves as the trapped inhabitants of someone else’s broken world.
Relinquishing the idea of normal will require strength, levelheadedness, optimism and bravery, the grit to keep clinging to some thin vine of hope as we swing out of the wreckage toward some solid ground that we cannot yet see. ‘We’re no longer dealing with a fire regime in the woods that responds to the kinds of mild prevention and mild responses, the sensible responses we have thought about, and that thought alone is a crisis,’ Steffen said. ‘It means the lives we had we no longer have.’
Across California — across the world — it’s easy, even comforting, to sit in despair. To stay depressed and mired in a state where not that much has truly changed. But nihilism is a failure of imagination, the bleak, easy way out. We need to face the lives before us. We need to name the discontinuity: See, there it is, the tear in the universe created by our fear and greed. What we believed was the present is actually the past. That was Steffen’s message to me in the Berkeley bar. We failed to keep pace with the future.”
It’s a great piece, and you should read the whole thing. I can’t complain at all, either, about how my ideas are described and used to frame the story. And lots of people have already found my work because of the piece’s prominence — including about 1,000 of you who are new subscribers — welcome! [Pro tip: If you’re a paying subscriber, start listening to the podcast series at the beginning, since each builds on the last.]
All of which is fantastic.
I have, however, been getting lots of questions about these ideas and what they mean, and I’m seeing people start to wrestle with the complexities of discontinuity, transapocalypse, ruggedization, and the Snap Forward itself.
Long-time readers — especially paying supporters who’ve been listening to me ramble on in the podcasts — probably feel familiar with these ideas, so forgive me if some of this is recap, but I thought I’d lay down a few quick guiding thoughts to help clarify things.
First, though this story is about California — and that was the specific focus of the conversation Liz Weil and I had last summer — the changed realities Californians find ourselves facing are different only in their specifics from the challenges people all around the world now face. California may get a lot of press for its fire tornadoes, atmospheric rivers, ocher skies and crumbling seaside cliffs. It may even have become some sort of shorthand for imminent destruction. Nowhere else is much better off, though. Ask not for whom the klaxon bell rings, dude, because we all live in California, now.
Second, the reason why the planetary crisis is not an issue, but an era, is that we find ourselves living within a human world we’ve built, on a natural planet we’ve radically altered, and as we’ve driven planet-scale transformations through the climate and biosphere, our human world is increasingly unstable. The core challenge facing humanity is the need to rebuild the places, systems and societies around us to work on the planet we now inhabit. Every other problem we’re struggling with is subsumed under this overarching reality. There is nowhere to stand outside of it.
Which means we’re living in a deepening discontinuity.
Billions of us will collide with this fact in the next few years. The suddenness of our understanding of this reality — a reality that’s been solidifying for decades, but that a combination of predatory delay, entrenched entitlement and cultural inertia have kept us from seeing — means that our sense of tempo is shot to hell. Enormous changes will now come very fast.
As I wrote before,
“A big problem in thinking about discontinuity is that the first step is the longest one: embracing the idea that things can change at scales and speeds that render suddenly obsolete and unstable much of what we still assume is normal, valuable, and durable.”
Third, the planetary crisis ain’t the Apocalypse. We do not face the End of Everything. We face the obliteration of our certainties, sure. We also face the destruction of many of the wonders of nature. And we face the reality that for billions of people, life will feel pretty damn apocalyptic, even as humanity as a whole staggers along. We live now in a transapocalyptic world.
This changes what we might think of as right action in this moment. We are not the ones who are going to save the world by keeping the planetary crisis from happening, because it is already in motion, with more to come. There’s this line from 'No Country for Old Men' that I can’t get out of my head: "You can't stop what's coming. It ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity."
We will not see what I call the Orderly Transition. There is no new continuity to be had. As I wrote before:
We are not now capable of designing a future that works in continuity with our existing systems and practices while producing emissions reductions and sustainability gains fast enough to avoid truly dire ecological harm. This is an option that no longer exists.
This means that major parts of our economy are precarious. That which relies on externalities for its profits. That which is valued without regard to its vulnerabilities. That which is based on the kinds of expertise and experience that have lost their value in discontinuity — including much current sustainability expertise. All of these are overhangs, waiting to fall. Fighting to forestall recognition of this reality is why predatory delay exists. (Paradoxically, idealists insisting that we can restore continuity in a discontinuous world — that we can “reverse” the planetary crisis — help preserve the illusion these slow interests depend on.)
Fourth, we’re all waking up in the Snap Forward. We are, in increasing numbers, coming to realize that not only is the world already profoundly different than we thought — a rupture with our past — but that over the next few decades, the world will depart even more wildly from what we still think of as normal.
If we want to understand our immanent future, we have to engage seriously with ways of looking at the world that are still only emerging. Shit is getting real. Discontinuity is the job.
Discontinuity is the job for those of us who want to succeed with purpose, to have our own aspirations connect with strategies to deliver new solutions at the scope, scale and speed reality demands.
Discontinuity is also the job, though, for billions of people who are more concerned with their own selves, families and communities than with the fate of the Earth. People acting from necessity — from the need to secure themselves from danger, to seize the opportunities to be found in rapid change before others can, to find cohesive constituencies who are ready to move with the speed demanded — are going to change our society far more in the near term than even the massive ecological dangers unfolding in front of us. Indeed, a core part of the Snap Forward is recognizing that people responding to discontinuity have become the dominant force of change on the planet:
“[What’s coming is] a realization that large-scale actions are now being driven not primarily by collective agreement of all parties, but by the growing power of those who see fast action as not only being in their self-interest, but also to their direct advantage.”
None of this is under control, much less optimal, but that’s what happens when you melt the damn ice caps.
Nor is it all bad, at all. We don’t take the planetary crisis seriously enough, but we completely fail to grasp that we’re experiencing not just discontinuity but a massive transformation in the shape of the possible. It is not too late for humanity to find a future that’s brighter than the present, but it won’t happen because we all agree on what it should look like. Nothing is that simple, or linear, or collective, or predictable anymore.
Fifth, it’s important to live when we are. Being native to now, I think, is our deepest responsibility in the face of all this. And being at home in the world we actually inhabit means refusing to consign ourselves to living in the ruins of continuity, but instead realizing we live in the rising foundations of a future that actually works. It may be a fierce, wild, unrecognizable future, but that doesn’t mean it’s a broken future. Indeed, it’s the present that’s broken beyond redemption.
When it comes down to it, humanity’s discontinuity is made up of billions of personal discontinuities. Facing our own discontinuity forces the reality of changes that we desperately want to think of as “out there” into our own work, our own lives, our own homes, our own hearts. Even this, though, can be liberating.
That’s what we’re here to talk about: liberating, in this new reality, the best possibilities of our selves, our solutions and our societies from the dusty, decrepit certainties of a predatory past. Succeeding in every sense.
If that sounds good to you, you’re in the right place.
Yours in discontinuity,
PS: If you’re currently signed up for a free subscription and you want to listen to the podcasts, I invite you to upgrade to a paying subscription.
PPS: If you’re interested in one immediate, practical application of this thinking, I’m doing the second part of my class on ‘Personal Ruggedization’ this Thursday, January 13 at 10:00am Pacific time. Space is limited. It’s a stand-alone class — having taken part one will deepen your understanding, but isn’t a prerequisite.
Here’s the sign-up link: