The happiest of birthdays

On the road

I’m currently in New York, two weeks into a three-week leg of a book tour, seeing many family and friends along the way. The experience so far has been great, though exhausting. Each night I hit a wall the second I step off-stage, feeling like my body will collapse into illness or a comatose state if I don’t reach a bed as fast as possible. Thus far, I’ve made it.

My favorite event so far was in Philadelphia. It was an audience of people who work in social entrepreneurship and for nonprofits. Because of a scheduling mix-up I arrived at the event hours before it was supposed to start, but spent that time meeting many inspiring people. The crowd was mostly people of color and college students who were devoting their lives to serving others. I was impressed.

After giving a keynote about the book and its new idea, called Bentoism, I participated in a panel with three women who lead social programs around Philadelphia. At one point the moderator asked me about the next steps for my idea. Where did I want it to go?

I responded by saying that my goal was to bring an expanded notion of self-interest and a new way of defining value into the world. I was going to be a servant to the idea and do whatever it needed me to do.

After my answer one of the other panelists, a woman named Tiffany, asked for the mic. “I appreciate that,” Tiffany said while looking at me in front of the crowd. “But I look at you and see a leader. Someone that people want to follow. And so I don’t want to hear you talking about being in service. I want to hear you tell us what we need to do to make these ideas real.”

People in the audience applauded. It was all I could do not to cry. Tiffany was challenging me out of love. I could feel it. She sensed who I was and was asking me to step up more. To not be afraid of my power.

I managed to keep it together as I thanked her. “I hear the truth of what you’re saying and the love in it,” I replied. It meant a lot. After we stepped off-stage we hugged.

After the panel I was approached by a man who said he’d been out of work and struggling. He was a veteran. He’d recently taken an aptitude test that told him he had a capacity for leadership, but also that he was selfish. The night after he took the test he couldn’t sleep, he said, because he was so unsettled by what he’d learned. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do. His eyes were wet.

But listen, I told him, you’ve taken the hardest step. You took the aptitude test. You bothered to ask yourself hard questions. You chose to think bigger. Love yourself for it. A meaningful path will come to you if you don’t give up. I wrote down my contact info in his copy of the book and told him to reach out. I hope he does.

In the weeks before the book came out, most of my energy was focused on my ego. Wanting the book to be successful. Wanting to be recognized for my ideas. Wanting every seat to be filled at each talk. Checking my phone too often for meaningless but quantifiable signs of that success I craved.

All of these desires are still with me. But then there are moments like Philadelphia when I’m confronted with something bigger. When my heart leaps out of my chest with love and empathy. When I feel deep self-coherence. In those moments I know that even though I don’t know yet where this is going, I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.

The 2020 election

We haven’t talked about the 2020 Presidential election in a while. Now that we’re exactly a year out from next year’s election, here are a few thoughts on the six candidates that will have a meaningful impact on the race.

Donald Trump
In an early Ideaspace email, I wrote:

In 2019, the House will launch impeachment proceedings against the President. This will be a messy and lengthy process. Like the OJ case, the circus to end all circuses. Trump’s defense will depend on confusion, distraction, and destruction. Whatever the cost to the country. Ugly won’t even begin to describe it. This could even be when a war gets started.

By 2020, the Democrat-controlled House will vote to impeach Trump. But the Republican-led Senate — where it’s impossible to get a two-thirds vote on anything — will not remove him from office. Even if Trump is impeached for treasonous acts, he’s likely to stay President. And, like Bill Clinton, potentially a more popular one than before.

Which leads to the unthinkable: that in 2020, the President of the United States will be impeached and run for reelection in the same year. And in that scenario, I’m certain that Trump will win.

I still believe this is the most likely outcome. Though there were some signs that the GOP was turning on him after Syria and the Ukraine call, the wagons appear to have re-circled.

But I also think there are more signs of weakness than we’ve seen in the past. The fact that civil servants are standing up to him as whistleblowers is a big change. It’s also increasingly likely that at least one Republican Senator makes a big show of putting country over party and argues for Trump’s removal during the eventual trial in the Senate (more on that in a second). Still, I think Trump remains the favorite for reelection in 2020.

Elizabeth Warren
Warren and Bernie Sanders are my two preferred candidates. I think they have the right policies for this moment and, more importantly, the right character (remember when we used to talk about that?). If Warren were elected she would be the left’s Margaret Thatcher — a leader more concerned with her own ideas of right and wrong than what other people thought of them. To be a transformational leader this is what you have to be. But my gut also says that Warren versus Trump would be extremely close, and that Trump would ultimately win, especially if a third-party spoiler like Michael Bloomberg were to enter the race (and I think he might if she’s the nominee).

Bernie Sanders
Along with Warren, my pick for the best future-President of the bunch. Bernie has been “4 real” for a long time. He wouldn’t bend under the normalizing pressure of the White House. In 2016 I was unsure of whether to vote for Bernie or Hillary in the New York Democratic primary, in part because I couldn’t imagine a world in which Bernie Sanders was President. In a post-Trump world I no longer have that concern. If Bernie were to face off against Trump, I think he would win. Trump supporters would be tempted by Bernie, whose authentic opposition to the status quo would defang a big part of Trump’s shtick. His age and health are a liability, as is the threat of a Bloomberg third-party run. But overall I think Bernie is the best bet for removing Trump from office.

Joe Biden
Doesn’t matter. Never mattered. Would be a terrible President. But we shouldn’t discount the fact that Trump’s fear of Biden helped spark the Ukraine calls that could lead to Trump’s downfall. Not all heroes wear capes or get elected.

Pete Buttigieg
I wrote positively about Mayor Pete in earlier emails, but he’s not the one we’ve been waiting for. He’d be a bad President. He hasn’t done it long enough to stand by an unpopular decision. He’d be indecisive and liable to fold under pressure. An excellent VP or cabinet pick, but not the one to carry the weight of the job.

Mitt Romney
After Trump is impeached later this year or early next, a trial will take place in the Senate. There Mitt Romney will be one of the 100 jurors deciding Trump’s fate. How will Romney respond? I think he’ll choose to put country over party and attempt to lead Trump’s ousting. This kind of move runs in the family: Romney’s father, George Romney, the former Governor of Michigan, was one of the first Republicans to oppose the Vietnam War. It’s in Romney’s blood.

But it’s also worth noting that George Romney paid a big price for his stance, and that Mitt would too. Most Republicans dislike him. He’s the classic RiNO (Republican In Name Only) to conservatives, and many evangelical Christians are taught that Romney’s Mormon faith is a cult (growing up I was shown a video at church that made this claim).

Despite this, Romney is a dark horse in the Presidential race.

If Romney were to successfully lead a vote to remove Trump from office — something that at least 35 Republican Senators would reportedly vote to do if the vote were anonymous — this would put him in pole position for his party’s 2020 nomination. True, if Trump were removed VP Mike Pence would become President, but Pence was dumb enough to get involved in the Ukrainian mess. Pence failed his one job, which was to be the clean frontman on the liquor license. Pence will not be a viable candidate.

In this admittedly unlikely scenario, Republicans would need a nominee. Against an “extreme” candidate like Warren or Bernie, Romney might seem palatable and have a real shot. Bloomberg, for instance, would be less likely to do a third party run if a fellow hyper-rich technocrat was in the race to represent his interests. The idea of Romney being elected President in 2020 is not impossible to me.

Predictions
Paying out the possible scenarios, I’d guess:

  • Bernie soundly beats Trump in a head-to-head election

  • Bernie wins a plurality of the vote if Bloomberg also runs

  • Trump barely beats Warren in a mirror of 2016’s result (Warren winning the popular vote by an even greater margin than Hillary, but losing the Electoral College total)

  • Trump beats Warren if Bloomberg also runs

  • Bernie beats Romney in a landslide election

  • Romney beats Warren in a close election

I say all of this as someone who’s given Warren more money than any other candidate in the race, and who believes that she’d be the best President. I’d love nothing more than to see her get it. But still, I feel uneasy. Hopefully this is just my own nerves rather than anything real.

These are wild times. In a recent piece about the climate crisis, the writer Charles Pierce called the 2020 election “the first election at the end of the world.” It certainly feels like it.

Recommendations

Bentoism.org — A website I made with my friend and frequent collaborator Laurel Schwulst the explains the theory at the heart of my book. Really happy with how this turned out.

Time Loops by Eric Wargo — A scientific case for how the future influences the past, including premonitions, retrocausation, and the ability to see into the future. Sounds hokey but is very serious. Recommended by my friend John Higgs, it’s extremely wild and fun.

We Are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer — A beautiful, poetic meditation on climate change. Recommended by my friend Amanda Palmer, who said it felt like my book’s twin, only about the climate. She’s right.

Until next time, my friends. Peace and love everyone,

Yancey


The Ideaspace is an email sent sometimes by Yancey Strickler. If you signed up in error or no longer wish to receive it, you can unsubscribe below. To share with a friend, forward this email. This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World, is out now and you can get it here. XOXO!

The Art of Experiencing

Sup y’all!

Next Tuesday the book comes out. Nail-biting times. I have no idea what to expect. It feels like I’ve stepped onto an empty dancefloor, started dancing passionately with my eyes closed, and now I’m about to open them and find out if the party started or I’m the only one here.

There is some early activity. Kirkus published a good review. Medium published an excerpt. There’s a Tweetstorm that lays out themes. Next week are interviews and a bunch of events, too. Maybe I’ll see you at one of them? 🤞

The Art of Experiencing

“Arriving late at a performance, and seated in the center of the second row, I looked up and saw what I thought was an actor having a seizure onstage. Embarrassed for him, I lowered my eyes, and it wasn’t until the young man who’d brought me grabbed my arm and said, ‘Watch this guy!’ that I realized he was acting.”

— Pauline Kael on seeing Marlon Brando for the first time

Early in his career, Marlon Brando was renowned for bringing realistic characters to the stage and screen using a technique called Method Acting. A process by which he seemingly became the character he was playing. With the right script, Brando felt more real then reality itself.

The inventor of the “Method” of Method Acting was a Russian man named Konstantin Stanislavski. First an accomplished character actor, Stanislavski found immortality as a theater director, acting coach, and, we would now call him, an early systems designer.

An early systems designer because the “Method” in Method Acting is a highly structured series of exercises that push an actor into various emotional states matched by a lengthy analysis of the experience. This balance of “experiencing and embodiment,” as Stanislavski called it, brings the performer closer to the true emotions of their character. By following Stanislavski’s intricate process — as Brando, Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, and many others have done — a performer can bring their character’s soul vividly to life. 

Here’s how Stanislavsky visualized this:

This finely tuned process has proven so powerful that actors still follow it a century later. Stanislavski didn’t call this Method Acting. That name came later. He called it “the art of experiencing.” 

The art of experiencing isn’t just transformational in the world of acting. It’s most useful application, in fact, could be in the world of decisions.


Two years ago I left my job. After a decade of working obsessively on one thing, I wasn’t sure what to do next.

As I struggled with this, it occurred to me that while this question put me in a state of personal paralysis, I was very experienced answering it in a different context. I’d spent years making strategic plans for the company. What if I approached my own future in a similar way? What would happen if instead of asking what I as a person should do, I tried answering what Yancey, Public Benefit Corporation should do?

Despite normally being allergic to these things, I spent a week applying brainstorming methods, frameworks, and other corporate strategy tools to myself. What were my strengths and weaknesses? What were my opportunities? What were my blindspots? I filled a notebook with responses. Deciding to embody a corporate version of myself was surprisingly fruitful.

By the end of my experiment I’d sketched out five potential paths. But were any of them “right”? How could I be sure? Taking a page from Stanislavski, I tried living out each possibility first.

I devoted the following week to a kind of real-life role-playing game. An entire day was devoted to experiencing each path. Option one was to be a freelance journalist (as I was before), so I spent that Monday acting as if that was what I did. I came up with story ideas, researched who to pitch them to, tried writing one, and so on. I imagined doing this over a longer stretch of time and what that could entail.

All week I used the technique to explore various options. Including whether to write a book. When I imagined that as my job — what I would write about, whether I had the discipline to write it, and so on — I felt a surge of energy missing in the other experiments. My body’s response was clear: this was the right choice. 

I probably could have come to this conclusion without the Method-like process. There were plenty of reasons why writing a book made sense. But a more analytical decision-making process wouldn’t have produced the conviction I felt. It wasn’t logic that set me on this path, it was a feeling that did it.

Stanislavski echoes the importance of feelings:

“When you begin to study each role you should first gather all the materials that have any bearing on it, and supplement them with more and more imagination, until you have achieved such a similarity to life that it is easy to believe in what you are doing. In the beginning, forget about your feelings. When the inner conditions are prepared, and right, feelings will come to the surface of their own accord.”

— From An Actor Prepares

I hadn’t yet read these words when I undertook my experiment, but this is exactly what I did. I researched each path, supplemented what I learned with my own imagination, and listened to the feelings that organically emerged. As if I was baiting my subconscious to see what signals it would send back.

Conventional wisdom around decision-making today is to Disagree and Commit. Debate the options, decide on one, and then stick to it. Stanislavski’s process is more like Commit and Decide. Commit to fully experiencing the potential outcomes and then decide which one to pursue.

Not only does this awaken our subconscious, it can also produce a new state of mind.


One of the most fascinating examples of Method Deciding involves the Beatles.

It was 1966. The single year in which the Beatles released Rubber Soul; wrote, recorded, and released Revolver; wrote and recorded “Strawberry Fields Forever”; and wrote and recorded part of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Perhaps the single-greatest artistic year in history. (An excellent book by Steve Turner called Beatles 1966 documents everything the Beatles did, week-by-week, that year.)

Even more surprising for a year of such extraordinary output? It was the first year the Beatles went on vacation by themselves.

For his holiday, Paul McCartney decided to drive across France and Spain by himself. Paul didn’t want Beatlemania so he changed his appearance for the trip. He slicked back his moptop with Vaseline, wore glasses, and put on a fake mustache as a disguise. 

Amazingly, it worked. Paul successfully traveled incognito. For the first time in his young adult life, Paul didn’t have to be Paul McCartney of the Beatles. He could just be a person. It was revelatory.

When Paul got back to London, he called the other Beatles and told them what happened. Paul had already thought a step further, too. He told them they shouldn’t make another Beatles record. They needed to change their identities and experience the freedom of being someone else.

“I thought — let’s not be ourselves,” Paul told an interviewer years later. “Let’s develop alter egos so we’re not having to project an image which we know. It would be much more free. What would be really interesting would be to actually take on the personas of a different band.”

This idea was the inspiration behind Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Even the Beatles were transformed by the experience of becoming somebody else.


Just weeks after I’d signed a contact to write the optimistic book about the future I’d imagined during my role-playing experiment, I was sprawled out on the couch complaining about it to my wife. Now that I was committed to writing the book, I was struggling under the weight of what I’d proposed.

“Who am I to write a book like this?” I asked my wife. “I don’t think I can do this.”

She wasn’t having it. “Whatever it is you need to do to get over this” — she gestured at my defeated posture — “you have to do it. Because what you’re doing now? It isn’t working. And it isn’t going to work.”

I was stunned by the directness of what she said. And the truth of it. She was right: wondering whether I could do it wasn’t getting me anywhere.

As I replayed her words, my mind flashed to Paul’s story. Suddenly I knew what to do. I looked at my wife.

“I have to grow a mustache.”

The clean-shaven, good-guy version of me struggled to express the bold ideas the book demanded. But somehow I was certain that the person who could had a mustache. Someone too busy scheming to worry what anybody else thought.

I had to trick myself into becoming that person, and a mustache was the vehicle. As the mustache grew so did my confidence. My old fears faded and a new outlook took their place.


During the filming of Marathon Man, Laurence Olivier learned that his costar Dustin Hoffman, a Method Actor, hadn’t slept the night before to be closer to his character’s physical state. Olivier told him: “Try acting. It’s so much easier.”

Olivier wasn’t wrong. It is easier to act than to experience. But if we only act, how sure are we of the truth of our choices? 

Stanislavski designed the art of experiencing after his own struggles as an accomplished actor. After disappointing himself with inconsistent performances, Stanislavski began self-examining with a more critical eye. This ultimately led to a personal process of experience and embodiment that allowed him to get over himself and honestly explore other ways of being. This is the path all Method Actors follow today.

Method Acting and my Method Deciding bastardization are a kind of emotional and experiential exercise. They force us to confront our tendencies, our need for safety in the face of the unknown, the ways we retreat to feel secure. I’ve struggled with these things my whole life. Maybe you have too.

Left to our own devices, we play the same roles day after day. It’s so easy. But what opportunities do we miss by limiting ourselves to being “ourselves”? Is there more to our story? We can all learn from becoming somebody else.

Organic Music Society

A month ago I was introduced (s/o Johnny Wahba) to what has quickly become one of my favorite records of all time: Don Cherry’s "Organic Music Society.” It’s everything that I want everything to be. An album that feels more alive than life itself. The kind of record that makes me want to spend the rest of my life making records that sound just like this. (Here’s my fav song, “Hope.”) Seek it out on your favorite streaming platform, start with “Relativity Suite: Part II,” and let the cosmos rip. Alternately, I made an ever-growing playlist of my favorite tracks in similar spirits.

Peace and love my friends,

Yancey

The Ideaspace is an email sent sometimes by Yancey Strickler. If you signed up in error or no longer wish to receive it, you can unsubscribe below. To share with a friend, forward this email. This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World, will be released on Tuesday, October 29, and you can preorder it here. xoxoxo

Our future is nearly here

Sup y’all —

How’s everybody doing today? I’m doing great, thanks for asking. This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto For a More Generous World is just five weeks from release, and I’m deep in prep-mode for the launch. Please forgive me if parts of this email are a bit rougher than usual. Exciting/nerve-wracking times!

Events

First, a little housekeeping. I have a number of public talks coming up, most importantly a special event in Los Angeles this week for Ideaspace readers.

Book giveaway

Even if you can’t make it out to an event, I’d love for you to be part of the book’s release. Y’all have been with me on this journey from the beginning and it’s meant a lot. As a way of saying thanks, my publisher has agreed to give away ten early copies of This Could Be Our Future to readers of this email. Just share your name and email here for a chance to win a galley copy for yourself and a friend. Don’t worry — I already made sure there’s no marketing up-sell that happens by entering. All love.

The more things change…

The farther things have gone with Trump, the more they’ve stayed same.

The Ukraine news this week is yet another example. We’re confronted with a new scandal and a new low that quickly gets churned through the media machine of escalating hot takes about which side is more offended, before the precipitating offense gets lost and normalized in all the noise. The actual problem is forgotten, the debate disintegrates into nonsense, our standards lower further, and the media conversation shifts to analysis of who won or lost the latest round of the culture wars.

I’ll save you the trouble of ever reading one of those columns again: the loser is always us. The collective us. Our institutions lose. Our social values suffer. Our ability to trust authorities and each other plummets.

The other night I watched ten minutes of an episode of The West Wing. It was the typical Aaron Sorkin shtick of staffers doing vocabulary gymnastics while walking through the White House performing the intricate task of government. This ballet of work, we’re meant to take away, is itself the eighth wonder of the world.

Watching this post-Trump, I couldn’t buy it. The sweat to produce the State of the Union address, the agony to capture the mood of the nation in a time of crisis — all of that seemed meaningless now. The power and aura of our own history and institutions are being destroyed by the ugliness of their corrupt application today. Each day, more of our integrity gets wiped away. Not just for our future. Our historic integrity loses face, too. The shadow casts in all directions.

Meanwhile event after event gets put through the same media ringer that obfuscates truth, hides responsibility, and avoids meaningful conversation. The media today is a sausage factory: whatever you put in, it comes out looking and sounding the same.

Imagine an extra-terrestrial encounter happens this week. We’d initially feel a sense of wonder at a new way of seeing the universe. Twenty-four hours later this would dissipate into the same hot takes applied to the new paradigm (from “Aliens are here to teach you that everything your parents told you is wrong” to “Did you know that aliens pay no taxes and are the universe’s welfare queens?”). Little would actually change.

Media creation and consumption have become a process of emotional mirroring. We root for things to unfold in ways that affirm our beliefs and grant us the hero’s role in the journey we imagine we’re on. We look for events to perfectly square the circle of our own narratives, and the media does too. Even when these narratives are to the detriment of human existence and in direct conflict with the facts, we persist with them. Lying about the truth is easier than confronting our mental dishonesty.

Democracy RIP?

Combined with social media, our cynicism has turned into an anti-democratic force blocking our ability to make collective decisions of any kind. Shown to its most absurd end in the long-running paralysis of Brexit — which, and I mean this sincerely, may never end — the frustration of this process has caused many to even begin doubting the future of democracy itself.

If Democracy were a new Silicon Valley startup, I wonder how many of us would support it. We like the idea of people deciding together how they should be governed (partially because we probably think our opinion is the majority one), but the form of democracy we have in the US today is very different from the startup version we might imagine.

The Democracy startup, for example, wouldn’t discourage voting by making voter registration systems and voting processes intentionally difficult as many states do (especially if you’re a person of color). It’s doubtful the Electoral College would be a Democracy feature (it reeks of the kind of “God mode” that got Uber in trouble). We wouldn’t want elections to be determined entirely by advertising, as they are today (though the startup would almost certainly want to keep bit — for-profit democracy scales best as an ad-supported model, after all).

A 2015 study by researchers for the Institute of New Economic Thinking found that in every US congressional election except one between the years 1980 and 2014, there was a direct relationship between how much money a candidate spent compared to their competitor, and the percentage of the vote share that they received. “For every 1% increase in the money split compared to the other party’s,” the researchers wrote, “the vote is expected to increase by 1.277%.”

In other words, elections are almost entirely decided by money. This is how you get Congress having an 11% approval rate and 96.4% of its members getting reelected, as happened in 2014.

Facts like this make us want to blow the whole thing up. This is a growing consensus. A recent study by American and Danish researchers found that, “24 percent agreed that society should be burned to the ground; 40 percent concurred with the thought that ‘When it comes to our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking 'just let them all burn'; and 40 percent also agreed that ‘we cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.’”

This is exactly what those coming into power are exploiting. They’re using our disgust as license to dismantle, destroy, and betray the same institutions which have held our societies together for centuries. It is this onslaught against them — through actions and political rhetoric — that has made people turn against these institutions. Not the institutions themselves.

In an age of hyper-individualism, we view the destruction of these institutions as our right, and even our duty. I just finished reading The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s masterful account of the beginnings of World War I. In it, Tuchman mentions numerous times that in the lead-up to the war, there was a belief on all sides that a war would improve the world. It was a necessary step towards progress. It was this belief, she writes, that “some good would accrue to mankind [that] kept men and nations finding” for so long.

By the end of the war when this great transformation was to occur, there was only disillusion. “All the great words were cancelled out for that generation,” D.H. Lawrence wrote. The pain and obscenity were so great even the past was erased.

The age of organizations

As organizations age — whether they’re governments, companies, or churches — they become more brittle. The urgency that first birthed them transitions into a different kind of energy. The vigor of a startup fades into the complacency of success. This is what has happened to many Western institutions and democracy itself.

Every organization needs its “avocation, or secular mission to the world,” as the Japanese business guru Konosuke Matsushita put it, and a mandate to pursue it. That comes when people are given real problems to solve and the authority to design and implement real solutions.

In the 1950s and 1960s the US was focused on the growth of its middle class, to tremendous and unprecedented success. The entire explosion of the internet began with incredibly successful government grants and loans meant to spark the computer industry. The government had a mandate to plant the seeds of future prosperity and to ensure they were shared by all. It did this amazingly well.

Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, the US abandoned its focus on the middle class. Instead, the focus became the top-line growth of wealth. The goal was to grow the amount of money that existed, without any thought to who had how much or why.

This is the history my book explores. It’s also a history that’s rapidly evolving. In August, a group of the largest companies in America called the Business Roundtable announced a change to the expectations that companies should be held to. Instead of companies being expected to maximize “shareholder value,” they should now think about “all stakeholders,” a return to how companies acted in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

It was a surprising statement likely motivated by nightmares of being the face of corporate greed in Elizabeth Warren 2020 Presidential attack ads. But it also mirrors a “enough is enough” mindset that we’re starting to see among conservatives for the first time. Last week Utah Senator Mitt Romney — one of the inventors of private equity, a force as responsible for America’s shift from moral values to financial value as any other — wrote a letter to Donald Trump urging him not to lower capital gains taxes (thanks to Matt Stoller for pointing this out). Even the rich are starting to say this is too much. Their epic returns — executive compensation is up 1000% since 1977, while worker compensation is up about 10% — have hollowed out the ground underneath them to a dangerous degree. (Of course they made sure they locked in other tax cuts — which are already exploding America’s national debt — before making such a noble stand.)

This energy is growing, but we don’t yet know what to do with it because our institutions are still overseen by a rapacious playbook of profit-seeking in everything. Significant change needs to happen inside our institutions, but not the kind being fought for now. There’s a need for renewal of purpose. A refresher of meaning. A sense of optimism in our collective potential. A re-commitment to the whole.

The question is whether there’s enough time.

The goal of Trump and his wealthy funders is to destroy government beyond the point of salvation, ensuring a future in which public institutions are feeble and the public is reliant on private companies for everything, thus irretrievably transitioning power from the public sphere to the private. Though Republicans may dislike aspects of Trump, they’re on board with Trump’s macro-mission of destroying public faith as a way to ensure permanent political and economic control. No matter how low the public approval ratings get, as long as the machine stays the same and money keeps calling the shots, so will they.

Climate Strike

The side effect of all side effects of our financial growth is being felt by our natural environment and the organisms that inhabit it. The New York Times reported that 30% of all birds disappeared since the financial maximization age began. Global temperatures may soon start growing faster than interest rates. If that happens it really will be “the last party,” as an environmental scientist once told me.

Unlike House Democrats in the face of Trump, people aren’t taking the desecration of the environment lying down. The Climate Strike, begun by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, has grown to an amazing degree from its humble beginnings of a single schoolgirl staying out of school one day a week to draw attention to the climate crisis. That small act of civil disobedience has exploded into something much bigger.

On Friday my wife and I participated in the Climate Strike in Los Angeles. We were very glad we did. The energy — largely coming from high school kids and younger — was inspiring. It felt good to take action as a group rather than just mourn and lament on our own.

Do I think those couple of hours changed the world? No. But I do believe actions add up. I encourage you to watch this very sobering talk by one of the founders of the Extinction Rebellion on the state of the climate. One of the most interesting things they say is that just 3-4% of the population taking a stand can be enough to transform society. A movement doesn’t need everyone to succeed. It just needs a small minority willing to sacrifice to make it happen.

They cite what happened with the civil rights movement in the US as an example. How Americans thought about race changed after actions by the Freedom Riders, mostly white Americans who put their lives on the line to help force the end of segregation. There were just 450 total Freedom Riders, but the violence they experienced was enough to make the public see the life of black Americans closer to what it was. (Though it should not be forgotten that the press and the establishment often attacked the Freedom Riders for inciting violence by forcing the issue.)

Similarly, Extinction Rebellion focuses on the metric of the number of people who get arrested while performing acts of non-violent civil disobedience as a way of transforming how we think about the climate crisis. It’s the willingness of an ordinary person to momentarily sacrifice their freedom for something greater that has the most power. This is something that the filmmaker Adam Curtis brought up in an interview I did with him several years ago:

In the 1950s, young white activists went down to the South, worked with the young black activists for years. Many of them were beaten up; some of them were killed. They surrendered themselves to something, and they changed the world using that power.

The contemporary idea of freedom is very much an individualist one. I, as an individual, want to be free to do what I want to do.

There is another definition of freedom which simply says, “In whose service is perfect freedom.” By giving yourself up to the Lord, you free yourself of the narrow cage of your own desires and your own selfishness. You become bigger. You become a bigger person and part of something.

If the science that Extinction Rebellion and others cite is true, this is a moment that demands a similar level of courage. Not from all of us — just 3-4% of us. Or, as Greta Thunberg told Trevor Noah on The Daily Show:

“If I were to choose one thing everyone would do, it would be to inform yourself, and to try to understand the situation, and to try to push for a political movement that doesn’t exist. Because the politics needed to “fix this” doesn’t exist today. I think what we should do as individuals is to use the power of democracy to make our voices heard, and to make sure that the people in power actually can not continue to ignore this.”

Amen.

Recommendations

  • Art: I recently saw two amazing short films by the artists Micaela Durand and Daniel Chew at an event hosted by Rhizome. Both are about the internet without actually showing the internet. Their vibe is fresh and super real. If you get the chance to see them, jump at it.

  • Podcast: The recent appearance by author John Higgs on Ezra Klein’s podcast is a great trip. Higgs is the writer of one of the books I recommend most frequently, about the KLF. Amazingly, it was an earlier mention of that book in this newsletter that introduced Ezra Klein to his work. Ideaspace represent! From the podcast, Higgs’ re-examination of the film The Breakfast Club and his exploration of metamodernism have both stayed with me long after listening.

  • Essay: I really enjoyed/related to “Jobs To Be Done” by Toby Shorin, which explores our need to close the loop, and cleverly reduces most of life to a desire for the satisfaction of finishing a job.

  • Film: I rarely watch anything other than the NBA and climate change terror videos, but I recently saw Memories of Murder, one of the first films by Korean director Joon-Ho Bong. Dark humor, definitely worth seeing.

  • Music: A new mix. Tracklist:

01 Gravediggaz, “Mommy, What’s a Gravedigga?”
02 ESG, “My Love for You”
03 The Cleaners From Venus, “Corridor of Dreams”
04 Gospel IQ’s, “Peace in the Land”
05 Pavement, “Box Elder”
06 Hailu Mergia, “Shilela”
07 Charles Mingus, “Group Dancers”
08 The Fugs, “Morning Morning”
09 Delta 5, “Mind Your Own Business”
10 Stereolab, “Three-Dee Melodie”
11 The Smiths, “Rusholme Ruffians”
12 The Minutemen, “History Lesson Part 2”
13 A Tribe Called Quest, “Steve Bilko (Stir It Up)”
14 Solange, “Exit Scott (Interlude)”
15 (Sandy) Alex G, “SugarHouse (Live)”

Listen on Spotify here.

Thanks for reading and hope to see you soon!

Peace and love everyone,

Yancey


The Ideaspace is an email sent every other week by Yancey Strickler. If you signed up in error or no longer wish to receive it, you can unsubscribe below. To share with a friend, forward this email. This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World, will be released on October 29 and can be preordered here.

Life after reading "The Uninhabitable Earth"

Sup y’all. How’s life treating you today?

My family and I have been on holiday, which has been wonderful except I started the trip by reading David Wallace-Wells’ devastating climate book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. This short, meticulously researched book about what climate change has done and will do without serious changes was a life-altering read.

You can imagine how excited my holiday companions were as the book worked its way into daily conversation.

“Did you know that at four degrees of warming,” I began over dinner one night, “Which we’re currently on track for, by the way, some areas south of the equator will become so hot they’ll be unsafe for human beings to step outside during parts of the year?”

Or, on a plane: “Did you know that each of our seats on this flight equates to three square meters of the Arctic melting into the ocean? Let’s make the trip worth it, I guess?”

At some point one companion promised to read the book if I promised not to talk about it anymore. I agreed. The vacation continued as planned and climate change stayed out of the conversation. A few days later, though, they started reading it, too. They didn’t have to say anything — I could see it in the faraway look in their eyes.

The Uninhabitable Earth makes clear that fossil fuels are the biggest creators of the climate crisis. Of the CO2 in the atmosphere today, 70% of it came from 100 corporations in the fossil fuel business. Most of that carbon dioxide was put into the atmosphere during our lifetimes. More CO2 has been put into the atmosphere over the past thirty years than the first 230+ years of industrialization combined.

We’re not paying for the sins of generations past. This crisis is the result of our actions right now. When we talk about global warming, we’re talking about the energy dependence that’s at the center of our first-world human existence. We’re not all the exact people mining and burning the coal or drilling and refining the oil, but our lifestyles are built on these emissions.

The centrality of energy to the problem cannot be overstated. Even in a world where everyone on the planet dramatically cut their carbon emissions, this would affect only up to 30% of what we’re putting into the atmosphere. Some use this fact to argue that any individual actions intended to reverse climate change are meaningless. If we’re only 30% of the problem, how can we be the solution?

This gives those of us in first-world economies a convenient and unearned out from our impact. It’s no coincidence that this feeling of helplessness coincided with our lifestyles becoming more carbon-dependent. While we doubt our ability to improve the situation, we’ve unquestionably made it worse. This past July was the hottest month in recorded history, and climate scientists are expressing increasing alarm at how much faster the changes are happening than even they predicted.

Why changing this is hard

Earlier this summer I was with my child at a playdate at a neighbor’s house. While talking to another parent who was there, climate change came up. I brought up Wren, the carbon offsetting service that I wrote about in my last email (and who I became an investor and advisor to shortly afterwards). I shared what a wake-up call it had been to see my own carbon impact for the first time.

The other parent reacted negatively. “I wouldn’t want to see that,” they said. Why did I think this was worth doing when nothing would change because of all “those people” who believe climate change isn’t real?

I was taken aback by the response. This person had previously expressed a concern for climate change, but when given the smallest invitation to self-examine and act, they became defensive and aggressive instead.

This was especially frustrating as the person was obviously wealthy, with undoubtedly a larger carbon footprint than “those people” that they blamed for the crisis. I tried to gently point this out, suggesting that while the political situation has to change, so do our own choices. We all have something to face up to. They weren’t having it, however.

This conversation brought to life one of the bigger challenges of the climate crisis: the fact that we all have to change, but each of us in different ways.

For a Republican who’s been encouraged to believe that climate change is either not real or God’s Will, this very mistaken belief will need to change for there to be large-scale action to keep warming within 1.5 degrees (where things get merely really bad rather than catastrophic). Without state-driven change, we have no hope of stopping this before the “uninhabitable” part of Wallace-Wells’ book becomes true.

While Democrats are more likely to believe in climate change, that belief isn’t enough. In fact, they may even need to change their behavior more than their Republican counterparts. The average Tesla driver, for example, likely has a bigger carbon footprint than the average Chevy Silverado driver because flying on planes is such a significant contributor to emissions (I’m positing that Tesla drivers fly more than Silverado drivers without hard evidence — this assumption may be false). The Tesla-driving environmentalist’s politics support conservation, but their lifestyle does not.

It’s the rich and powerful of all political persuasions who need to change more than anyone. The richest 10% of society accounts for half of total carbon emissions according to a 2015 Oxfam report. These are also the board members, executives, and shareholders of the companies doing the polluting. The top of society directly profits from carbon emissions, produces more of them than anyone, and are the most insulated from its negative impact. This group holds the keys to making meaningful change while being incentivized to keep everything the same. The status quo is great if you’re the one in charge.

Creating a mass message for how to evolve in the face of climate change isn’t easy, because each of us needs to evolve in different ways. The climate crisis was created by all of us, yet our shared culpability allows us to attack the hypocrisy of our “enemies” instead of examining the hypocrisy of our own actions and inaction.

A theory of change

In my upcoming book there’s a chapter on what I call the thirty-year theory of change. The chapter explores how large-scale social changes happen, and theorizes that it typically takes thirty years for a new idea to become a new normal. I share numerous examples of this phenomenon (including exercise, recycling, organic food, hip-hop, and the creation of the internet), and left more examples of thirty-year changes on the cutting-room floor.

The reason for the elongated process of change is simple: change happens as power transitions from one generation to the next. This can happen peacefully (as we age or through retirement or death), violently (revolutions, overthrows, unjust uses of power), and by new ideas surpassing existing ones. But whenever power transitions non-violently, it takes time to do so.

A good example is the antiseptic method, invented by Joseph Lister in the 1860s. At the time, more than 90% of patients died from infection after surgery, but the cause of infections wasn’t yet known. A few years earlier Louis Pasteur had confirmed the existence of microscopic elements called germs for the first time, and he linked them to illness and infection. Lister applied Pasteur’s discovery to surgery, creating a sterilization technique that eradicated microscopic bodies and made surgery broadly non-fatal for the first time in human history.

You’d think such an achievement would be met with great celebration. It wasn’t. Despite its proven effectiveness, Lister’s theory was met with disdain from many leading doctors and surgeons. There are a variety of reasons for this, one of which being that if the antiseptic method was correct, these same doctors and surgeons carried some responsibility for the terrifying fatality rates among their patients. When entire hospital wards were stricken by mass infections and death — as often occurred — it was the doctors and nurses themselves who were transmitting the disease with their unclean hands and instruments.

Now that the antiseptic method is standard practice, we look back on these skeptical doctors with a judgmental eye. How crazy they were to doubt something so basic as the existence of germs! But if we put ourselves in the shoes of a surgeon back then, we can see why the theory was hard to accept: if what Lister said was true, this would mean we were complicit in the deaths of our patients. This is a very hard thing to face up to. It’s far easier to attack Lister’s idea than to confront our own (unintended, to be fair) culpability.

By the beginning of the 20th century the antiseptic method became established science and common practice. The change happened first in medical schools, where younger doctors were more open to Lister’s ideas. They had the emotional freedom to consider the science rather than feeling personally judged by it. Within thirty years, these doctors made up a growing majority of the medical field, and Lister’s new idea became normal.

This is also why today’s younger generation — like the inspiring, teenage climate leader Greta Thunberg — has been more effective and motivated to act on the climate crisis than previous generations. They can more clearly see the reality of the situation because they didn’t create it. They woke up to a world on fire that they had absolutely nothing to do with. They have the moral authority to call this disaster out for what it is. It’s easier to solve your friend's problems than your own.

This makes the rest of us more like the surgeons who resisted Lister’s theory. To accept the truth of what’s happening in our atmosphere requires a significant rewiring of how we view ourselves and the unintended responsibility that we share. This isn’t easy to do. If we wish to help solve the crisis rather than continue to enable it, however, this is precisely the kind of courage we have to find.

Keeping earth inhabitable

Since reading The Uninhabitable Earth, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my actions should change in regards to the climate. And to be transparent, I’ve been doing this while continuing to add to the crisis. I’ve had these thoughts while flying on planes, driving cars, shopping, and eating meat. I claim no innocence or moral or scientific authority on this topic. My list of things to change may very well be longer than yours.

But I’m also trying to be non-judgmental about it. I don’t want to be like one of those doctors who slowed progress because it would make them look bad. I need to see things the way they really are. This is what The Uninhabitable Earth opened my eyes to.

Thirty years from now, what will the world look like? By that point the Earth’s climate will have most likely altered life as we know it — how dramatically depending on whether serious changes are made between now and then. In what ways will a post-climate change society differ in its assumptions of right and wrong, and the default values we’re taught to accept? Today we use energy without thinking twice about it, but how will that change when carbon emissions are taken seriously in the future?

Thirty years from now is 2050, when Greta’s generation will be in power. These generations will be responsible for the task of trying to save life on our planet from extinction. (That sounds hyperbolic but, terrifyingly, it might not be.) In what ways will our climate reality change their values from ours today?

I can imagine five areas — and I’m certain there are and will be many more — where our daily defaults will need to change. Things we do now without thinking about it, but future generations will see differently. The question is what we can do to start changing these values now, so that in thirty years they might be new defaults.

  • The end of business travel. Planes are a huge pollutant, but a world where we no longer see distant loved ones and where tribalism increases by a lack of cultural exposure is problematic. We benefit from the accessibility of travel and will need cleaner versions of it in the future. A lot of business travel, however, could be done away with entirely. The internet, videoconferencing, remote working, and similar developments mean that most business travel exists because of social expectations. We should change those. The CEO of the videoconferencing company Zoom has taken only eight work trips in five years of leading his company, and just last week the venture capitalist Fred Wilson semi-endorsed this in a blog post too. Today we see personal travel as elective and business travel as a requirement. This belief could change. Companies looking to lead on the climate could have a positive impact right now by ending business travel in their organizations.

  • Ground not air. Sending something overnight or via two-day shipping may similarly be seen as an unnecessary and wasteful luxury. Before Amazon Prime, this is how everyone saw getting something overnighted or sent by air. It wasn’t done except in extreme circumstances. Amazon normalized a very expensive luxury by training us to think that getting toothpaste shipped overnight is “free” and better than going to the store. Carbon-emitting delivery by air will eventually be seen as an obscene abuse of natural resources. (Another carbon hacking tip for families: have a set day each week when you place your weekly Amazon order to avoid unnecessary boxes and shipments.)

  • Vegetarianism as default. Consumption of animal products (cow and dairy especially) is a major contributor to warming. The assumption that other organisms exist on this planet as food for humans should change (and I say this as a carnivore). Maybe a new default will be to eat vegetarian six days a week and to eat meat once a week. Climate change, ecosystem degradation, and mass extinctions could force this to be the case.

  • Used not new. The production of new goods is a significant pressure on the environment. Buying used things — and repairing things rather than throwing them away — is the most responsible form of commerce. While some may view this as a serious attack on capitalism, this doesn’t have to be the case. As the Wall Street Journal wrote about used goods websites last week, reselling products can be big business. Repairing and buying used products will fit into a new way of measuring value and growth: our ability to get more from less. As resources constrain, this will become a necessity.

  • Carbon offsetting. Adding carbon-absorbing materials could become a very normal and necessary part of life, like mowing the lawn today. This could happen through something like Wren, by companies working to become carbon-neutral like Apple is doing, or in more direct ways, like the recent project to plant 350 million tress in one day in Ethiopia. What if we all spent one day a month planting trees in our regions? What kind of long-term benefits would that create? Growing up I was taught the legend of Johnny Appleseed, a folk hero who planted apple trees throughout early America. Might our future heroes be tree planters, too?

This list is incomplete, but shifting our default beliefs and behaviors in this direction could have an impact. Emissions would lessen and it would pressure companies and governments to respond with new defaults and changes of their own.

In The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells writes that if Americans used the same amount of energy as the average European, global emissions would drop considerably. If the wealthiest 10% did the same, emissions would decrease further. This is simple stuff. It’s not going to back to the Dark Ages. Practical adjustments like these must be part of any sustainable solution.

These are things I’m personally working towards, but I also acknowledge that my lifestyle still calls on me to break these rules. I’m about to go on a book tour that will make my carbon footprint bigger than it’s ever been. But because it’s expected and how things are done, I’m doing it anyway. Harming the environment feels painless because the costs are collective and our social expectations don’t yet demand different choices. But as the crisis grows our leaders will shift. As expectations change our behavior will too.

Technology and the climate

This list neglects what we know is responsible for 70% of emissions: fossil fuels. But changes involving fossil fuels and energy are unlikely to come from consumer actions. They’ll come from technological breakthroughs that make our current ways of life sustainable (the nonviolent version of change) or from disasters that force us into dramatic adjustments (the violent version of change).

Technology and capitalism are big causes of the climate crisis, and they’ll also be drivers of the solution or lack thereof. One could argue that the most optimistic cases for all five of the areas I just laid out are in new, capital-intensive technologies. It’s only because of videoconferencing and the internet that business travel could be made obsolete. Air shipping is wasteful unless delivery by carbon-neutral drones becomes possible. Eating meat will be problematic until lab-grown, artificial meats are developed. New ways to manufacture goods with much less waste may happen. Investments are being made into machines that will absorb CO2. And for the biggest challenge of them all — fossil fuels — there are significant opportunities in renewable and nuclear energy.

But even if technology provides the answer, we need time to develop these moonshots and to create whatever the Moore’s Law of CO2 removal will hopefully be. That means greater efforts towards conservation now and in the future, and new metrics to define success. We’ll need to ruthlessly focus our energy on measuring and limiting carbon emissions and resource exploitation, and on growing a sustainable and healthy way of life. We’ll need to learn to rationally grow, protect, and invest in these values the same way we do financial value today. This is all-hands-on-deck, society-wide kind of stuff.

How ready are we?

Though the United States leads the world in wealth and power, right now it’s a 0 out of 100 on climate readiness. Our institutions are more focused on denying the existence of climate change than preventing or preparing for it. And when the climate crisis does come, the US government’s instincts will be to militarize, subcontract, and monetize the crisis, turning global warming into a new budget cash cow. Asia and Europe are better equipped (even the UK declared a climate emergency) in that they’re honest about the problem and are making preparations. (Check out this piece about NYC’s neglect of the Hudson Tunnel to see how badly America is dropping the ball in comparison.) But now the fires in Brazil, the globe’s new climate superpower, are turbo-charging even the worst predictions. Things are dark and feel like they’re getting darker. There’s a lot of Doomsday talk these days.

But in The Uninhabitable Earth even David Wallace-Wells admits optimism. We created the crisis and we have the ability to address it. There are reasons for hope. But they require us facing up to a lot of hard truths first. The Uninhabitable Earth is the place to start.

Hanging Laundry in Sardinia

This has been a long and heavy message. Thanks for sticking with it. I want to close with a poem.

Hanging laundry in Sardinia,
shirts, towels, and patterned blankets
dangle from a clothing line awaiting their pins;
Except for the wet flap of taut linen
and the scrape of gravel beneath my sandals
the air is silent, hot, still
like a lover who has given in
to a cloud of resentment
and sees little hope that
the nature of things can or will ever change.

To be here now, in the August of a warming body,
with no air conditioning or niceties
beyond a roof, running water, and a non-floor on which to sleep,
I feel what I imagine is empathy for the ancients —
though this may just be time-traveling narcissism, I admit —
that came before and whose memories
are carried in prehistoric atoms of hot breath
that I inhale and exhale
as I shift between the hanging blankets
like a capo evading a hit in a Godfather knockoff.

The Sardinian flag is four squares of red
with a face donning a Kamikaze headband filling each;
A jackpot of violence and determined independence
as a succession of rulers — Moors, French, now Romans — staked their claim;
Today the four faces of resistance droop,
conquered and neutralized,
from the facades of restaurants, wineries, and marinas
where they symbolize the completeness of victory
of the new wealthy conquerors, capturing trophies in viral snapshots
and “can you believe how cheap this is?” dinner bills.

Do the old ways of resistance and independence remain?
Are they in the nose-to-bumper driving
through the island’s rocky curves?
Are they in the party promotion of a Sardinian man
handing out fliers for low-cover dance parties on the beach
where pleasure unapologetically rules the night?
Or is it that today we are all Sardinia,
islands in oceans of collective creation and destruction,
independent (so we think) before waves of salty then soapy water
wake us, and we find ourselves hanging
from a line, waiting to be worn again.

Peace and love everyone,
Yancey

PS: Here’s my vacation reading list. Heavy stuff, but all are highly recommended.

  • The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

  • The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Robert Greenblatt: Incredible book about the Roman empire, the Enlightenment, and the fragile state of knowledge.

  • Three Women by Lisa Taddeo: Nonfiction that takes you inside the inner and sexual lives of three women. Wonderfully written.

  • Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl: A classic about the Holocaust and finding meaning in life.

  • The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones and others: A New York Times series rewriting America’s founding narratives from the year 1619, when the first slave ships arrived in North America. Eye-opening, mind-altering, powerful.

  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo: Confrontational book that helps white people acknowledge and confront white supremacy and their complicitness in it. Honest, loving, and practical. Recommended.


The Ideaspace is an email sent every other week by Yancey Strickler. If you signed up for this in error, you can unsubscribe below. To share with a friend, use this link or forward this email. My book, This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World, will be released on October 29 and can be preordered here. Thanks!

Earthquakes, environmental individualism, and the state of AI

Ideaspace #20

Sup y’all —

Welcome to our biweekly exploration of the Ideaspace. How’s everybody doing today?

Before getting started, some quick housekeeping.

First, the most recent issue (Subject: “In Defense of Normal”) was mistakenly sent from “The Ideaspace” rather than my name. This caused some confusion. Apologies! If you missed the last issue, you can read it here.

Second, I could use your help making sure these emails get read. Email algorithms sometimes label this as junk mail or de-prioritize it in inboxes. To help, you can:

1) Reply to this email. Just say hi! That will tell your email provider that I’m a trusted sender.

2) Drag the message into your main inbox if it appeared in your promotions folder or anything other than your priority inbox (if you use an email service that offers this). This tells the algorithm how to sort the message in the future.

3) Forward emails you like to your friends. They can always sign up here, too.

Much appreciated!

Environmental individualism

About ten years ago I was on a flight leaving a conference. Sitting next to me was a man I’d seen at the event. We introduced ourselves. I learned he was a scientist focused on the environment.

“What can I do to help the environment?” I asked him. “What do I change? Should I go vegan? Something else?”

“There’s not much you or I can individually do,” he told me. “It’s bigger than us.”

He paused, then leaned in.

“Think of this as the last party before everything changes.”

I looked at him wide-eyed. The words “last party” hung in the air. He went on to explain that the coming impact of climate change — which he thought was unlikely to be reversed — would be so significant our current way of life would soon disappear forever.

Those words echo in my mind each day as I read headlines about all the new, bad weather records being set around the world. If this is the last party, it’s starting to feel like last call.

A recent climate change protest in Cologne, Germany. The protestors are standing on blocks of ice.

I appreciated my flight companion’s candor. But being told there was nothing I could do was hard to hear. We’re just supposed to wait for this thing to destroy us? How can that be? But at the time he was largely right. We could conserve and limit our energy footprint, but in terms of proactive things to balance what had already been done, it didn’t seem like there was much the average person could do.

This may be changing, however. Earlier this week I came across a company called Wren that promises to help a person become carbon neutral.

Wren calculates your personal carbon footprint using a short survey, then proposes a monthly payment to a carbon-offsetting project of your choice (like planting trees, protecting rainforests, or preventing deforestation) to balance your personal carbon usage.

What my carbon footprint looks like. Notice the box with the text “29 months.”

Seeing my own carbon footprint got to me. I learned I’m four times the global average, and 55% of my carbon footprint comes from the 14 flights I said I’d take this year (which probably undercounts it). If everyone in the world lived like me we’d already be doomed. This was not an easy mirror to look in.

Through Wren I agreed to pay $40 a month in support of tree planting and protection projects that will offset my footprint. This makes me (theoretically at least) personally carbon neutral. According to Stanford researchers, carbon offsets produce significant environmental benefits by doing things like paying people to preserve forests rather than chop them down. These offsets align economic and environmental values, and are effective as a result.

Whether offsets can make carbon-heavy lifestyles like mine, yours, and a growing number of people’s truly sustainable isn’t as clear. That seems unlikely without significant changes in behavior and technology.

A cynic might say a project like Wren is just a values-signaling cover to help people sleep better without actually changing their behavior. There’s some truth to that. But these projects don’t need to fix everything to be valuable. They just need to help slow the catastrophic shifts brought about by climate change, and make more time for good ideas — and trees — to grow.

Earthquakes

Last week Los Angeles was struck by two significant earthquakes. I didn’t feel the first but definitely felt the second, larger one (7.1 on the Richter).

It started just as our child was getting out of the bath. My wife and I huddled with him in the bathroom doorframe as the house rocked back and forth. It lasted so long my wife and I locked eyes three separate times, wordlessly wondering, “How effing long is this going to last???” while trying not to alarm our child. (Who, when it finally finished, asked: “That was just a small one, right?”)

Afterwards I went into survivalist mode. During last year’s wildfires we’d packed a go-bag in a similarly panicked spirit and I started doing it again. I grabbed our electronics, notebooks, food, water, and every charger I could find and stuffed them into my bag. One more tremor and open road here we came. Or, closer to reality, one tremor and four hours of traffic to nowhere here we came.

Thankfully the Big One stayed away and things went back to normal. Except the other day I looked for a pen in my backpack and discovered gas masks, batteries, a flashlight, and a dozen bags of protein-rich oatmeal raisin cookie bites instead.

I laughed at myself. It seemed absurd that just a week before I’d anxiously shoved these things in. But then I remembered those moments in the doorframe when it felt like we were seconds away from hearing a snap, crack, and the rush of gravity and concrete around us. Anything seemed possible. Until, suddenly and mercifully, the shaking stopped.

The go-bag stays by the door now.

Links

THE STATE OF AI Last week AI experts Nathan Benaich and Ideaspace reader Ian Hogarth posted an exceptional report on the State of AI in 2019. The first fifteen slides alone freaked me out. I learned that AI agents are conquering video games, receiving super-dexterous hands, and being taught to be curious by software that incentivizes the creation of new memories. Deep, disturbing, and recommended.

ME ON A PODCAST I appeared on a podcast called Intellectual Explorers Club to discuss the Dark Forest Theory of the Internet, the Ideaspace, and my upcoming book. You can listen here or by searching for my name in your preferred podcast app.

A NEW MIX Last night I watched the first artist on my latest mix, Ana Roxanna, soundtrack “an interdimensional ritual.” It was easily the most California thing I’ve ever done. The mix is called Ever Present and it goes like this:

01 Ana Roxanna, “I’m Every Sparkly Woman”
02 Sun Ra, “Springtime Again”
03 The Beach Boys, “All I Wanna Do”
04 Earl Sweatshirt, “Ontheway!”
05 PJ Harvey, “The Glorious Land”
06 Life Without Buildings, “The Leanover”
07 Mulatu Astatke, “Dewel”
08 Lucinda Chau, “Somebody Who”
09 Tony Allen, “Asiko”
10 Frank Ocean, “Ivy”
11 The Durutti Column, “Bordeaux”
12 Cut Worms, “Song of the Highest Order”
13 Bill Callahan, “The Sing”
14 Earl Sweatshirt, “Riot!”

Listen on Spotify here.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed, please share with a friend.

Peace and love,

Yancey

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