Happy turning of the screw to one and all!
As we poke our collective heads out, like shell shocked Punxsutawney Phils after a nuclear winter, we wonder, what does this year have in store for us all?
Well, gonna do a super condensed run through and hopefully get to the really good part by the end––what's happening, what might it mean, and how on earth to manage the road ahead (including an invite to train with us to address this entire clusterf*ck together)...
What follows is a 10-15 minute read that distills about 36 months of research and reading into one pithy and irreverent read––so consider it the Campbell's Condensed Soup can of your new year. Would recommend reading it through and then going back to any/all of the links for deeper dives into the content.
Not sure about you, but it seems like the past month (Dec. 6th to Jan. 6th) has prompted a decided downturn in collective sentiment––people are more and more bummed, and they're starting to say the quiet parts out loud.
You know when the king of "dick lit" Tucker "I hope they serve beer in hell" Max is publicly going full prepper, strange winds are blowing. (See Tucker's recent post on Doomer Optimism).
And here's a great thought experiment assessing the "100 Year Flood" likelihood of governmental collapse from one of our favorite contrarians at the Handwaving Freakoutery blog: The Surprisingly Solid Mathematical Case of the Tin Foil Hat Gun Prepper
Chalk it up to a flurry of combination punches:
🦠 Omicron ricocheted around the world, just as we were tentatively opening up again after the summer/fall Delta wave.
🎭 Broadway with its stutter-step re-openings, conferences that went from overjoyed community reunions to super spreader events, travel mayhem, etc.
🌨 Intense and "unseasonable" weather unsettled us, from all-time record snowfalls in Tahoe, to springtime in DC to raging wildfires in Denver suburbs.
🍿 Netflix's #1 doom satire Don't Look Up rubbed it in our faces, which, even though it was directed by Adam McKay of slapstick Anchorman fame, still wasn't any weirder than life in the last 5 years.
🏛 And finally, oh yeah, the anniversary of our Battle of Lexington (aka The Jan. 6th Capitol Riot).
In many ways, 2021, we all intuited, was our Double-Super-Secret Probation for earning a chance to get back to "normal" and not sailing off the cliff. And we flunked it.
Covid response went from a common sense global public health challenge to fractured schizophrenia and mass formation psychosis. It's become impossible to tell which friends or family members are in which corner muttering darkly to themselves about "what's really going on."
Glasgow and COP26 Climate talks went tits up, and Joe Manchin, a single senator from a tiny state, single-handedly broke democracy and scuttled the global response to carbon.
Plus, the human stuff: isolation, illness, loss, financial and social uncertainty, disembodiment and stress. We're entering our third year of quarantine, well past the time we can hold our breaths, and getting into forgetting what whole, alive and engaged might even feel like.
(BTW, incredibly grateful for Camp Omega in Aspen, our Utah Canyons adventures, and all the other chances we had as a community to re-mammal and get our heads on straight in beautiful places with good folks!).
As one dear friend and colleague put it "the Dreads are descending on me in a way I haven't felt in a while and it's making it hard to do much productive work."
(See Johan Hari's new book for a bracing assessment of our doom scroll attention economy––Your Attention Didn’t Collapse, It Was Stolen. I deleted my news app right after).
So that's the people stuff. Now we gotta talk about the bigger picture stuff (I've been holding off writing this bit for several months now, but if you bear with me, I hope the clarity will be helpful in the longer run). It's well past time to rip off band aids, scrub the living shit out of our collective wounds, and get back on the path of healing and action.
It's time and we're needed.
When facing complex and consequential issues, we're all deeply conditioned to the "Well, there's good points on both sides, and it's super confusing. We should definitely call for more research to be done" (and then do nothing).
This is how both the tobacco companies and the oil companies gaslit and stalled us from more active responses for decades while reaping record profits. It's happening even more now with climate. We get whipsawed between pundits who all hold forth with absolute certainty that they are right and the other side are lying or worse.
The Hermeneutics of Suspicion thrill us (the dynamic where exposing the hypocrite or the conspiracy provides more of a rush than actually getting to shared reality and coordinated action)––and the net result is we go back to magical thinking, "soft climate denial" and crossing our fingers praying it's all gonna work out.
Except it doesn't seem to be the case that best case scenarios are anywhere left on the table.
So here's five concepts that are so matter-of-fact that it's hard to ignore them, regardless of our prior assumptions or political persuasions. These aren't cast in stone, they're just the ones that are most alive for us based on latest rounds of research––read 'em through and see how they land for you.
We get told this all the time but forget it instantly––there's a world of difference between linear and exponential rates of change. In the beginning of the pandemic, we all read cheery Covid explainers reminding us of what exponential viral spread looks like––and how, if you had to guess "If a football stadium doubles the number of people in it each day, and fills up completely in a month, on what day is it half full?" (Answer: Day 29/30).
But even if we somehow grok that for Covid spread (and most don't, as the recent record breaking Spider Man box office attests) it seems to elude us when considering projected temperature rise and systemic destabilization over the coming decades. Despite utterly whiffing at the latest string of climate talks, we run the back of the envelope linear math and think "well, we're already at 1.1 °C warming (compared to 19th C pre-industrial temp trends), so...1.5 °C is less than 40% worse, and 2 °C isn't even twice as bad. So, it'll probably be ok. We can handle that, right?"
Except if 2021 taught us anything, it was that almost all the climate prediction models broke because Mother Nature was moving exponentially faster than expected. The rate of fires, floods, droughts, and ecosystem collapse radically outpaced even the most pessimistic calcs. We were seeing 2030 weather events a decade ahead of schedule. That's because, for a long while exponential curves trundle along and look almost the same as linear change, until they suddenly hit that rampy knee of the curve and shoot straight for the ceiling.
That means that 1.5 °C––the absolute, positive happiest outcome anyone's even pipe-dreaming about isn't going to be only 40% worse than 2021. It could be twice as bad as now, or ten times as bad, or...(really, once your house has burned down, or been washed away, statistics are cold comfort). Add to that any more complex chaotic-systems analysis, where one exponential curve interacts with and compounds others (like ice shelves, the Amazon, methane, and ocean currents conspiring in unholy and unhelpful ways) and we're way way off the map of incremental linear progressions.
If you have ever bothered to read the fine print of the Paris Agreements to see precisely how a bunch of distracted, fracturing and fiscally over-leveraged nations are gonna pull together and invest in this stuff to get it all done in the nick of time, you'll be stunned to realize that the math only pencils out if "carbon sequestration technologies" are deployed at global scale.* There's only one problem. They don't exist. And there's no market to encourage them to exist. It's not that they couldn't––there are already very small, very expensive pilot projects. But there's absolutely zero roadmap to roll this out at any kind of scale. It's like realizing you haven't saved enough for retirement and then penciling in "lottery winnings" to make the math work for your accountant. (See South Park Underpants Gnomes).
On top of that, it turns out that even the numbers that countries have been reporting so far are largely made up!!! An analysis of national commitments coming out of COP26 revealed that almost everyone's fudging their data and no one's really been checking (like Singapore claiming the same amount of carbon sequestration from their Carbon Super Forest as it's neighbor Indonesia who has 5X the amount of tree cover, or Russia and China's suspiciously rosy claims) and that for some bizarre reason only politicians could agree to, no one has to count all international shipping and flights. Think about that––our entire global supply chain, Fed Ex, Amazon, China and Toyota, and all of our hopscotching globe trotting. None of it's even on the books to be cooked!
So even if we did somehow, impossibly "meet" our Paris 1.5 °C goals based on reported remediation, the actual reality is we wouldn't have. It was vaporware all along. Made Up. And while politicians would back slap and victory lap, Mother Nature would keep churning along to the inexorable laws of thermodynamics.
This one comes from a great article a decade ago by Bill McKibben "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math" that I've mentioned before but in a nutshell he says this:
There's currently 21 Trillion dollars of oil reserves (much more in today's dollars) in the ground yet to be extracted and burned (good news), but it's already priced into Big Oil share prices and the global stock market (bad news). That means, if we burn it, we tank our ecology (it accounts for over 4X the amount of additional allowable carbon release for 1.5 °C targets). But if we let it sit, we tank the economy (that kind of a write-off would collapse entire industries and regions). It's a Devil's trade.
Where's Charlie Daniels when you need him?
If you follow climate optimists, you've probably heard the truly encouraging news that solar and wind power are exploding, that their cost now outcompetes coal and gas in many global markets and even that a few small countries like Costa Rica are already at or near "100% renewable energy." And that really is awesome news and super hopeful. Enough to make us believe that full scale transition to renewable economies is right around the corner. The only problem is, like confusing linear and exponential change, we often confuse "de-carbonization" with turning anything with a tail pipe or smokestack electric. Think Teslas and solar panels instead of F-150s and coal plants.
But, as Vaclav Smil, (recognized by the Gates Foundation as the smartest futurist out there) outlines in his most recent book Grand Transitions, we are way more embedded in a fossil fuel economy than most of us ever realize.
He points out the Four Petro-Pillars of modern civilization:
Take any one of these out of our economies and the whole house of cards comes down. That includes the steel and concrete windmills, the photovoltaic solar panels, the lithium ion batteries (with their conflict mineral ingredients) and everything else we're creating to help to transition off the Black Sticky Icky in the first place.
So, you might reasonably conclude at this point, it's time to get our Greta Thunberg on and take to the streets! Rebel against our looming Extinction! The only solution to this kind of global crisis is to pull the two biggest levers of influence we have––political and economic. Flex our citizenship and vote with our wallets. Except there's a problem there too. Fighter pilots talk about "OODA" loops––that means Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. If you can get inside the OODA loop of your enemy in a dog fight, you can get them in your gunsights and cut them to ribbons.
But now, success lies in the opposite direction. Instead of trying to have a quicker, tighter OODA loop like the fighter pilot, we have to develop longer, wider OODA loops to think at an ecological scale of time and space. Decades and centuries, not stock prices and tweets.
The only problem is that contemporary politics and economics have OODA loops ranging from a few months (quarterly reports to Wall Street) to a few years (the 2-4 year cycles of elections). That's the tail that wags all the other dogs. Long term investment, civic sacrifice, and delayed/diffused returns (meaning, if we do a hard, expensive thing now to save our countries or the world, the benefit will come way down the line, and likely effect non-shareholders, and non-voters as much as it will pay back "my people.")
And if you're then holding out for some transformational political or corporate leadership and are bummed that none seem to be stepping up, realize it's not personal, it's structural: If any elected official or appointed CEO even attempts to make decisions and investments from that longer term OODA loop, they will get shot down by a competitor promising instant fixes and quicker returns. That means that even the most principled and ethically dedicated leader will have to compromise their vision on the simple logic of "if I get kicked to the curb, then I will have zero chance of effecting change, so I have to win at the short game to even have a seat at the table of the longer game." Except that never really works out, does it?
Alright––by now, you're either puking in the toilet, or rocking in a fetal position. Or maybe you poured a stiff Scotch or took a ripping bong hit just to get through it all. But somehow, at least some of you are still here––and that's gotta count for something, right?
Our buddy Jason Silva recently sent us this excerpt from Kevin Kelly (founder of WIRED and one of the more thoughtful futurists out there). It’s so on point, gonna share in full, because it offers a way out of the despair, and back into Full F*ck Yes and joyfully going for it.
“Here is why it is so hard to imagine an optimistic future: God is a million times more difficult to imagine than the devil. We find horror, evil, chaos, destruction much easier to describe in detail than the details of the good, true and beautiful. That’s because the good and the beautiful are improbable, while the destruction is probable, indeed almost certain. This is the law of entropy: Everything wears down, runs out, breaks down, and levels out into flat sameness. The universe is titled towards this low bottom, as is our imaginations…
On the other hand ordered, living systems are highly improbable. Life may be common in the universe but every specific example of it is unlikely. Flowers might be common but this particular species of flower is improbable. You and I are highly unlikely. The universe could roll its dice a trillion times and another one of you or I will never happen.
All life exist(s) along a narrow path. [Its] existence is highly unlikely, and therefore highly difficult to predict…Which is why we find it highly difficult to imagine optimistic futures. We have no trouble describing in very good detail catastrophe, destruction, extinction and the end of the world because these are inevitable states. But we find it near impossible to imagine a plausible, beneficial, supportive, desirable future because any of those specific futures are highly improbable. That is the nature of all good things: in a true cosmic sense they are unlikely statistical outliers…So we have to get better at believing in the improbable."
Read that as many times as you need to until it softens your heart and primes the pump of hopefulness.
Because that's what we mean by radical hope. It lies on the other side of facing all the facts. On the other side of assessing our situation with clear eyes and evidence, in the absence of bargaining and distraction. It's faith in a future, as Jonathan Lear writes, "that we cannot see from here, but still, somehow believe in."
The age of Existential Scholasticism, where clever people seek to outdo each other in print and on podcasts counting the angels on the pinheads of Collapse, has come to a close.
We know enough to get cracking. It is the holy work of our lifetimes to rage against the dying of the light (and the warming of the seas).
But in order to follow Kevin Kelly's advice, we have to double down on believing in the improbable. Because everything Good, True or Beautiful that's ever come into this wild, weird world––from amoebas, to pterodactyls, to Botticelli––had no business showing up in the first place!
So we gotta do the one thing we can do––screw our courage to the sticking point, Find the Others and Leave Space for Grace.
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