When **it Gets Real
Part One: This is your brain on discontinuity
The heat has come.
In Portland, Oregon, it was hotter (108ºF) Saturday than it’s ever been there. . Yesterday, it was hotter still (114ºF). Records are dropping in Seattle and Vancouver and scores of smaller Pacific Northwest cities. That green and rainy corner of the world is baking in greenhouse sun and drought.
All this is, the National Weather Service informs us, “unprecedented.” No one has ever experienced what it's like to live in these places at these temperatures. We're in the unknown, now; Terra incognita. And here be dragons.
We all now need to learn to think in new ways, and we need to do it fast.
Discontinuity is best seen from above. The faster change is happening, the more important it is to try to see the big picture.
Right now, getting a clear grasp on the big picture is like wrestling an oiled octopus. I’ve done more kraken-grappling than most people, so I’m sympathetic to the confusion most of us feel about both the nature of the crisis we face and how it is unfolding in our lives.
This last week, a draft of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment was leaked. It hit hard. Their latest findings about impacts are unsurprising to folks who do this work every day, but because our public debate about this crisis has failed so comprehensively, their plainly-worded expressions have sent shock waves through the broader public discussion. The ecological and climate problems we face are numerous, complex and chaotic. They interconnect and accelerate one another, in an avalanche of impacts. They are largely irreversible. The dangers are extreme, and we face “systemic and cascading risks.”
Our public debate does an extremely poor job of reporting how far into the planetary crisis we’ve already passed—but it does an even worse job of seeing the enormous torque now pent up in human systems. That torque has grown as institutions, communities and enterprises have ground up against the crisis and attempted to remain unchanged. Every certainty we have about how systems work is already shaking under the strain. Those who do the gatekeeping in our public debates are generally pretty clueless about this.
The ways we’ve agreed to discuss the world fail completely, though, when it comes to acknowledging how quickly and inexorably that pressure is building up behind our dams of denial and delay… and how inevitability huge, disruptive changes will be unleashed by the release of that pressure. Already the cracks are showing. Each day of inaction makes our lives and societies less predictable, subject to an even greater degree of discontinuity. We’re not yet ready for what’s already happened. We have extreme difficulty even discussing what is coming. The Weird spreads its tentacles across the land.
No one can control the upheaval that we have already set into motion in the systems and places and politics we still treat as stable. The torque that’s built up in those systems and places and politics is not reversible… and with outdated thinking, it’s not even visible. Big tentacle-waving monsters are supposed to be easy to spot, but scale doesn’t make any of this easier to see—or less slippery in our grasp.
Personal climate foresight, we might call it—this skill we need, to make sense of our own lives as we move into deeper and deeper discontinuities. (Some might quibble with the “climate” label, given the fact that global warming is only one of a whole set of powerful ecological threats we face, but I think it makes the most sense to the most people, which is why I often describe myself as a “climate futurist,” rather than “a foresight expert whose work engages the intersection between the planetary crisis and societal change.”)
Whatever we call it, we need it, and it’s hard to find. Much of what is available could best be described, bluntly, as bad. It’s riddled with simplistic formulae (clean energy will save us!) and false certainties (fleeing North is the only sensible plan!). Never hand cash money to anyone who claims they can pare down a set of writhing discontinuities into a few easy choices.
Folks who understand this crisis often describe the changes growing from it as massive and imminent. Even more, though, they’re immanent—like rising floodwaters in a flat riverside town, they flow through our societies in all directions, they suffuse all our decisions, they wash away boundary lines and landmarks; each of us finds ourselves a stranger now in a strange land, a xenotopia. You and I and all the people we know live in a moment when learning how to move through a landscape stripped of its familiar reference points is an essential life skill.
Our estrangement is worsened by our worldviews. Most of us have been taught to think of the planetary crisis as an issue (or set of issues) rather than an era. Those of us who care the most often therefore imagine the planetary crisis as a grand narrative of struggle and solidarity, with our identity defined by being part of a movement, who are doing what we can in our own lives, and who share a commitment to waking the world up to its peril. We say, this is who I am, and we ask, what can I do?
Many thousands of smart people make their living suggesting what we should do. Most of those actions serve agendas; they were professionally designed to grow audience, get the public climbing a “ladder of engagement,” and mobilize public commitment—which in practical terms usually means getting folks to reach for their credit cards. Most folks reading this have encountered thousands upon thousands of these calls to action.
These calls to action are the building blocks of our public debate on the planetary crisis. Almost everything most people think and say about the planetary crisis is based not on the extensive knowledge about this discontinuity we’ve gained through scientific inquiry and expert foresight—which even many well-educated, committed and intelligent people would have a hard time fully explaining to a friend—but from those calls to action.
Most of us are trying to grasp a vastness of epoch-making change through messages designed to reach people who care, but only a little—people who do not want their certainties questioned; people for whom the planetary crisis is a distant concern; people who regard taking small actions as an expression of virtue or charity. We learn in tweets and soundbites, and think in slogans.
Advocacy and activism are not wrong, obviously. Indeed, whatever progress we made on tackling the planetary crisis in the last five decades was the direct result of the advocacy of committed citizens. A host of people have given their all to make change, and humanity owes the environmental movement a historic moral debt.
Nor are movement-building strategies wrong-headed. Designing messages that successfully recruited people to act—to vote with their shopping dollars, to join the movement, to spread the word—are tools that have done some real good, and might once have tipped the balance away from ecological chaos.
I myself have spent almost the entirety of my adult life working to build awareness of the problems and advance climate and sustainability solutions. I’ve spent years working as an environment reporter, started a leading sustainability publication, served on boards, gone to protests, attended fundraisers, worked on campaigns, designed strategic communications and foresight projects, given hundreds of talks, read thousands of reports. In my private life, I try to live with minimal consumption. I don’t buy much. I haven’t owned a car in more than 20 years. For three decades, I have lived most of my days watching the storm swell, and darken, and move ever closer. The wind is howling now. Time is short.
I began my career in a different era, though, when curves were gentler and environmental issues had not yet spun together into an all-encompassing planetary crisis, and the changes demanded of us could unfold more slowly and deliberately, and we still faced what could be usefully thought of as discrete issues that were resolvable through specific policies and practices—and whose impacts could have been greatly mitigated, or at least contained.
We have a model for how change is supposed to happen—an orderly transition. It is no longer possible to achieve that orderly transition, to combine action at the scale and speed we need with a smooth transition and a minimum of disruption. We have already failed to create the future most advocacy still seeks to bring on.
Policy matters. Regulations matter. International agreements matter. Plans and procurement and budgets matter. We cannot build a better future without leveraging the power of governments—and we cannot leverage that power without exerting even greater democratic pressure through advocacy.
But no achievable political program is going to roll back the clock and put us in a position where continuity can be restored. Our actions cannot now be optimized, disruption cannot be avoided, and the world isn’t going to become predictable again. Democracy cannot undo discontinuity, just as King Canute sitting in his throne on the beach could not command the tides to halt.
Our belief in orderly transition harms us. It allows those whose main goal is to slow change to frame their delays and triangulations as responsible contributions to a long-term plan. Worse, the messages we once designed to prod people into the actions that supported our pursuit of the orderly transition now prevent all of us from understanding the era that has erupted around us.
Traditionally, advocacy offers the resolution of issues: if not with the next step, then further down the path as the arc of history bends to meet our hopes. That’s not what’s coming, which is the breaking of barriers and the release of a massive amount of build up pressure. What’s needed now is comfort with profound uncertainties, the management of mayhem, and the transformation of discontinuity into opportunities for rapid change.
This is the moment for boldness. It’s critical, though, to be honest about who is actually able to be bold in the real world that we have right now.
Too often, our self-identity as advocates not only inclines us to think in terms of orderly transition, it also prevents us from seeing our personal power in what is fundamentally a professional crisis.
The overwhelming majority of the decisions that will really matter in the next critical decade—the decisions that shape strategies, leverage resources, launch efforts, shift systems—will be made by those whose job it is to make them. The professionals who work for advocacy groups are vital, but an increasingly small proportion of those whose job or mission it is to make these kinds of decisions. The future we get will largely be decided by how well a few million people do their jobs in the next decade.
If you’re reading this, you’re likely someone who can do things, who can apply intelligence and skills and connections and power to make shit happen. By dint of education and advantage, you likely have—compared to most people on the planet—enormous capacities for influence, innovation and initiative. If you aren’t, you are likely able to make yourself into such a person, if you care enough. Even without being a professional in climate and sustainability, you can learn where critical decisions are being made in your organization or community or industry and aid those who are pushing for real change.
Because when it comes to the planetary crisis, speed is everything. And speed matters most in changing systems.
To unlock insight into the world we’re living in, it helps to remember that we’re in a new era, surrounded by systems designed and built in the old. These systems sit at the center of networks of powerful people, professionals, and political interests whose aim it is to change these systems more quickly—or slow and delay change as long as possible.
None of these systems are stable. Many display economic fragility and ecological brittleness. Their beneficiaries—including the experts and professionals who manage them—are temporarily holding back a flood of disruption with denial and dead weight.
The conflict between those who profit from this delay and those who seek speed of action is central to the politics and economics of this moment. But tension is also mounting between those who have different approaches to growing and seizing the opportunities to be found in building new systems. Fast interests are increasingly competitive with one another. That’s because more and more people are coming to understand this as not only a moment of crisis and discontinuity, but of worldchanging potential.
We face urgent and enormous threats, sure, but the most powerfully disruptive forces in our society spring from the unrealized upsides of bold action. Indeed, we are now in an era of ferocious competition for benefits; of upheaval in pursuit of staggering opportunities, unprecedented in scope, scale and speed. If we succeed in accelerating change quickly enough, we won’t reverse the catastrophes the last five decades has saddled us with, but we may well snap forward into a global boom of sustainable prosperity and systems ruggedization that not only enables us to be largely successful within discontinuity, but leaves billions of people better off than they are now.
Normal is dead, but the permanent weirdness we live in now is alive with possibility.
The Snap Forward (my forthcoming book, written with Justus Stewart) is a guide to grokking when we are and asking the right questions about climate and sustainability strategies for the real world.
It explores how to center the planetary crisis in our thinking, in order to liberate new possibilities for humanity. How to create successes that change systems. (If that matters to you, you’ll want to read the book, and you’ll probably also want to sign up for the supporters-only podcasts I’m doing as part of this newsletter.)
If what I’m saying about discontinuity, the loss of an orderly transition, the professional nature of this crisis, and the opportunities to be found in disrupted systems doesn’t yet make sense to you, don’t worry. I have more, a lot more, to say about all this.
We don’t experience life at a systems level, though. Between large systems and strategies, and the small, vital matters of daily life and family, concerns that are at once planetary and personal collide in our minds. It is here where the lack of that personal climate foresight I spoke of nags at us at night. It nibbles at the edges of our contentment. It fills us with worry when we’re reading to the news. It scares the hell out of us when we look at our kids, full of love, and think about their futures.
The toughest part for many of us, I think, is that simple answers are not on offer. You’d be a fool to trust anyone who claims to have them. This new era melts ways of understanding the world that until recently felt solid. Past experience can’t guide us. Carefully gathered expertise is rendered obsolete.
Acceptance of discontinuity is the beginning of wisdom, these days. Shit is getting real, now, and when it comes to figuring out what to do about that, we’re all pretty much on our own. No one is coming to save us.
I’m fond of the Wendell Berry quote, "All good work remembers its past.”
Today, though, all good work grasps its discontinuity with the past. The work of building a better future is profoundly different now than it was even a few decades ago. Effective strategy—in the real world that exists underneath denial and delay—demands a sharp break with what worked in the past. In this new era, the strategies that can seize opportunities and produce change are different. The sets of skills and insights needed to develop and execute those strategies are different. The challenges each of us face in building a good life and a strong community are different. The habits of mind we need to be at home in the world are different. Even the kind of conversations we have with those closest to our hearts—about our plans, hopes and dreams—are changing as we come to accept our changed realities.
The critical question in all our lives is not what this crisis closes, but what it opens. For this is not the end of everything, but the beginning of a new world—the one each of us will inhabit for the rest of our days.
Each of us has a desperate need to find what is opening up in our lives. That’s where the insight to make good choices is to be found—and there, too, lies the strength to walk through this strange world and find in it the place we’ll call home.
Let me be awkwardly direct: I do not have the answers you need. I don’t do self-help. But I was ahead of the curve in asking what have turned out to be the important questions, and I have been one studious and applied motherfucker. What I’ve learned so far might help you evolve your own thinking in ways that lead towards finding your paths to success and safety. I’m going to share what I think are some of the most useful ways of looking at all this.
This email is the first in a series. In the next four newsletters, I’m going to share how I think about:
WHAT IS PROFESSIONAL ACCELERATION? How do we teach ourselves to be successful at seizing transformative opportunities in our work?
WHAT IS PERSONAL RUGGEDIZATION? How do we make smart choices about where we live, how we structure our practical affairs, and work to strengthen our communities?
WHAT IS PSYCHOLOGICAL REGROUNDING? How do we learn to be emotionally connected with and intellectually at home in this new world?
WHAT IS GOOD PARENTING IN A PLANETARY CRISIS? How do we plan ahead for our kids and grandkids, and how do we talk with them in loving and helpful ways about the upheavals they’re living through?
Trying to keep the planetary crisis out there—in the distant sphere of things we care about that aren’t really parts of our lives—won’t help us. This discontinuity is a defining fact in our lives. It’s time not only to fight for big changes, but to bring the big picture home.
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Top image: Richard McNeil, CC.