25: Let's set a high bar

Far too little and far too much at the same time

Untitled (The Moon), Willhelm Sasnal

So I ended up reading about and talking about and tweeting about and yes writing about Jeff Bezos a whole bunch this week more than I prefer to be honest but I will do just a little bit more of it for you all because I give and I give. 

Despite the topics of some past newsletters and the fact that I write a lot about funding, I don’t particularly enjoy writing about billionaires. Maybe one reason is I’ve always had kind of an allergy to stuff that people are paying attention to, which is pretty awesome for a career in journalism as you can imagine. But when you pay too much attention to people like Bill Gates, you miss out on more interesting stories on the margins about levers of power, how change happens, hypocrisy, redemption, surprise victories, etc. 

But anyway, every now and then something happens that gets everyone interested in philanthropy, which is happening a lot more often. But this was a really big one, you may have heard the CEO of this company called www.amazon.com decided to commit $10 billion to addressing climate change. I always find these moments kind of frustrating in a petty way, because everyone writes a take and some of those takes are not that hot I find.  

They aren’t wrong, necessarily, but you can feel people struggling with what exactly to say about big philanthropy, as they feel compelled to say good things about things they suspect are bad, or bad things about things they suspect are good. Over the years of covering the sector I’ve thought a lot about these contradictions about power and inequality and influence, but also progress and urgent causes and great people in the nonprofit sector (1 in 10 jobs) and great funders and you know it can be a real mess. This was I suspect my best attempt to make sense of it all

I’m not saying I am like the master of writing about philanthropy, but at this point I have a decent understanding of the moving parts, let’s say. And most coverage hits on maybe one of these parts. So common responses were, yes but Amazon is really bad. Or it’s fucked up how much money Jeff Bezos has he needs to pay more taxes. Or, I don’t trust his intentions. Or, all this money is super awesome, it should go to this one climate change solution because I’m a smartypants and this is the right one. 

The anger toward the corporation and the inequality behind the philanthropy I do really appreciate, and it’s great that those takes are more common instead of a lot of blind positive coverage. But after you say that, it’s kind of like, then what? Because beyond whether we think this is a good thing or a bad thing, or even what cause it’s earmarked for, what happens next—how the money moves and how certain people will wield it—has high stakes.

So I did my at least warm take I hope, which was—there are many problematic aspects of this announcement, let’s try to think about what it would really take, based on what we know about the history of major funding initiatives, for this influx of $10 billion to have a positive influence. Here’s part:

When philanthropy reaches the scale of Bezos’s recent $10 billion pledge to address climate change, it always feels to me like far too little and far too much at the same time—too little of his accumulated wealth and too much potential influence. 

Add to that Amazon’s huge carbon footprint, the tech services it provides for oil and gas extraction, and the fact that the company managed to pay zero federal corporate income taxes in 2018, and the mixed reaction to this week’s announcement of the Bezos Earth Fund is completely understandable.  

Of course, it’s also just a lot of sorely needed funding for this most important and time-sensitive cause. For comparison, if the Bezos Earth Fund were to become an endowed foundation, its minimum annual payout would be $500 million, nearly five times what the Hewlett Foundation, the field leader, granted for climate in 2018. Even as folks rightly point out that it’s a relatively small chunk of his net worth (7.7%), or that he should be bearing a greater burden based on his contribution to the problem, this is still game-changing money coming into climate philanthropy. 

So at the risk of wild speculation, the announcement presents us with an opportunity to ask what guiding principles might put such a windfall to proper use. 

The spoiler is that Bezos would first have to get his company’s shit together. Then yield decision-making power to people working on the issue and dealing with it on the ground, support grassroots action in impacted communities, avoid one top-down strategy, and a couple other things. I’m under no delusion these things will happen btw but you know let’s set a high bar. You can read the whole thing here I am not sure if it’s behind the paywall.  

Drag Anchor Redux

There was some news this week on natural gas and methane that I wanted to share in light of last week’s beating up on Bloomberg for enabling the fracking boom because I do love a good told you so. 

There’s this article, in which a study found that, “Oil and gas production may be responsible for a far larger share of the soaring levels of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, in the earth’s atmosphere than previously thought.”

So back when people were all about the idea of gas as a bridge fuel, the narrative was that yes there was a chance that resulting methane pollution could be bad, but many including funders and big green groups were basically saying, well let’s just make sure this gas extraction is done in a good way because that’s environmentalism. Turns out it is much worse than industry let on.

From Shipwreck, some weird interdimensional scifi from Warren Ellis and Phil Hester

It’s true that methane is a short-lived climate pollutant, so different than CO2 in that regard. But it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon because, as this other article pointed out, we now have all of this new fossil fuel infrastructure and a glut of cheap gas in the system: 

Gas is such a bargain that it’s being viewed less as a bridge fossil fuel, driving the world away from dirtier coal toward a clean-energy future, and more as a hurdle that could slow the trip down. Some forecasters are predicting prices will stay low for years, making it tough for states, cities and utilities to achieve their goals of being zero-carbon in power production by 2050 or earlier.

“The fact that there’s an abundance of it makes the move to complete decarbonizaton much harder,” says Ravina Advani, head of energy, natural resources and renewables at BNP Paribas SA.

Yes, this article is from Bloomberg news, and it has a little note at the end about all of Mike Bloomberg’s climate funding which is just chef’s kiss, considering he once wrote in an op-ed, “Fracking for natural gas can be as good for our environment as it is for our economy and our wallets, but only if done responsibly.”

Anyway, one more thing, because of all this news happening I was Extremely Online more than usual this week which is not great for a person’s head and why I may seem a little cranky today. I was getting annoyed at the parade of climate dudes and philanthropy dudes in the news, even though I am 100% both of those dudes. So as a remedy, check out this post and twitter list by Jen Bokoff if you want to hear from or elevate women and diverse voices who have been engaged with and challenging philanthropy for long before the current wave of critique. Gaining a Say: Lifting Up Philanthropy’s Unheard Voices


Links


Reading

Another good book I read over vacation was Cadwell Turnbull’s The Lesson, which is an alien invasion story set in the US Virgin Islands. Character-driven, a fascinating historic backdrop, it explores colonialism and violence through understated scifi elements.


Watching

Also coincidentally about violence and colonialism via scifi was Season 4 of The Expanse, which I finished this week. It’s equally concerned with the science of the distant future and space exploration as it is with the social and political implications. It’s the only space opera scifi, especially on TV, where I’m like yeah this seems kind of plausible. There’s also this character Bobbie and she is a real badass. Just a heads up if you’re terrified of slugs like I am, there’s some serious slug horror in one episode but you can do it be brave. You can tune in and watch it on, sigh, you know where.

Kick his ass Bobbie

Podcasts

Two pods to recommend this week. First up, one organization that I really think the world of, it is actually a network of a bunch of groups, is the Climate Justice Alliance. Now they have a podcast! It is called Stories from Home: Living the Just Transition.

CJA is really into the importance of art and culture being a part of equitable climate action, and I loved this thing that writer Samantha Harvey said in the first episode, “If you separate emotion and culture from the work you’re doing, it’s very easy to forget who you’re affecting and who you’re speaking for.”

Second one is The Slowdown, hosted by poet and former poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. The Slowdown delivers one poem every weekday, read by Smith along with some words of wisdom as she introduces it. For example:

I wish I could say to everyone who lives with a fear of poetry, hey, relax, you don’t always have to understand. You can let it nudge you, let it cause something to stir. The sounds of words gliding along next to one another, the glimpse of an image, a face, an animal, something taking flight.

They are short little moments of shelter and warmth and thought, only around five minutes each and if you listen at 2x speed for efficiency, even shorter just kidding just kidding.


This week I wanted to end on a sad note but an important one, and take a minute to remember a very dear friend who recently passed away, Ed Johnson. Over the years, I was fortunate enough to have Ed in my life as a fellow organizer and fundraiser, a boss, a mentor, and finally, a friend. He died last week after a nearly 13-year battle against Multiple Myeloma.

There are countless tributes online from all the people he impacted over the years, and the fact that they all touch on some similar themes speaks volumes about his integrity and his ability to connect with people. I was talking with my friend Pat, who was very close to Ed, and we were remarking about how the thing about him is that he somehow brought out the best in all of the people in his orbit. He could see whatever spark a person had to offer the world, and draw it out, even if we didn’t always see it in ourselves. And Pat said, yeah but the other thing was that Ed always gave you the best of himself too.

It’s hard to put into words how much I learned from him, about people, about serving a purpose, saying the thing that needs to be said, doing the thing that needs to be done. And, of course, he was just a fun, hilarious, sweet person to hang out with. I will miss him so, so much.

Hug your people,

Tate

24: Drag anchor

How Bloomberg hijacks and redirects progressive fights

Nocturne Grey and Silver, Whistler, 1873-1875

Well I guess this is as good a time as any to talk about Michael Bloomberg. In the past week or so, he has emerged as a new favorite among Democrats who are basically Republicans but maybe they shop at Whole Foods or people who don’t like Trump but also things are going A-OK for them so let’s not f with the program too much.

But the big news is that Bloomberg’s candidacy has resurfaced a lot of the awful stuff he’s done and said, including being an enthusiastic implementer of the racist stop and frisk policy that led the NYPD to terrorize New Yorkers with over 5 million reported stops during his time as mayor. Black and Brown people were nine times more likely to be harassed by cops than whites during that time, and fewer than 0.1% of stop and frisks led to convictions for possession of a weapon, the policy’s purported goal. Bloomberg says he merely inherited stop and frisk and ended it, which is technically true except for the giant middle chunk in between when he dramatically expanded it, fought against civil rights lawsuits challenging it, then finally succumbed to pressure and wound it down.

And there was other coverage like a recap of several allegations of misogyny that include nearly 40 discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits. 

So all of that is to say, I’d like to officially endorse Mike Bloomberg in the Democratic primary. No just kidding, he should not be a candidate and honestly the idea that any plutocrat would lead the Democratic ticket right now is ridiculous. 

But you know I see a lot of people, very serious climate people, rush to Bloomberg’s defense because of his philanthropic record. They will say hey now it’s worth pointing out that Bloomberg has given hundreds of millions of dollars to climate action, etc., and that is true. But his philanthropy also shows us a lot about how Bloomberg wields power. In fact, I would argue that you can’t really say, oh he maybe did this bad stuff BUT look at his philanthropy, because his philanthropy is inseparable from the entire Bloomberg thing, which is that he uses multiple channels of significant power to try to fix the world in the ways that he sees best. 

I have written a fair amount about his philanthropy over the years, so here are two big observations:

Bloomberg uses his philanthropy to increase his own power

One thing you can say about his philanthropy is that it is highly effective, in the sense that it is substantial, focused, and it often does exactly what he wants it to do. That’s potentially a positive because a lot of the things he tries to do (like expanding gun control, for example) are good things, and I’ve even written positively about some of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ grantmaking. But as I never stop saying these days, the true judge of philanthropy’s value to society should be whether it distributes power instead of consolidating it. And Bloomberg is kind of the embodiment of the exact opposite of that. 

It’s well documented (check out this rundown by a reporter who covered his tenure for years) that Bloomberg as mayor used his massive giving as a tool to advance his agenda, all the way up to his push to expand the number of terms he could serve. He arguably became even more powerful after his administration ended, through his combined philanthropy, consulting, political giving, public platform, and his connections with city leaders in the US and abroad. 

To be clear, there are certainly good people working on important things that are funded by Mike Bloomberg (which is a real bummer for them right now!). But it’s also all part of this overall network of influence he’s developed, which is certainly now benefiting his run as president. 

Bloomberg tends to hijack and redirect progressive fights

When Bloomberg sets his sights on a cause like climate change, he makes it his issue and steers it in the direction he wants it to go. That is almost always toward a more moderate approach, typically led by elites. The classic example of this is his huge funding to shut down coal plants, making it a priority for the environmental movement, while championing natural gas.

Here’s a thing I once wrote about this

Bloomberg is a proud moderate, and a number of times in his run as a billionaire environmentalist, he’s bristled at climate agendas more idealistic or progressive than his own. I’m reminded of an analogy presented by Mark Dowie in his book American Foundations, depicting philanthropy as a “drag anchor,” a nautical device that steadies a ship in rough waters, but notably slows forward progress. 

For one example, just as Bloomberg was becoming coal’s worst enemy, he was simultaneously pushing for an embrace of natural gas. Bloomberg co-wrote an op-ed in 2012 championing the economic and environmental benefits of gas and calling well-regulated fracking the “sensible center.” He also gave $6 million to the EDF to secure such rules. The ongoing gas production boom he supported in the name of pragmatism sunk billions into new fossil fuel infrastructure that is still leaking methane and locking us into carbon emissions we can’t afford.

Then there was the Global Climate Action Summit, during which businesses and government officials were celebrated as climate leaders, while climate justice protestors filled the streets calling for stronger action and a seat at the table. Bloomberg, who played a large role in the summit, found it crazy that there would be “environmentalists protesting an environmental conference,” and strangely compared the activists to those supporting Trump’s border wall. 

Finally, we can’t forget that Beyond Carbon is Bloomberg’s direct response to the Green New Deal, which he’s criticized as “pie in the sky,” and those who promote it as disingenuous. The Green New Deal is by no means perfect, but it is a sweeping, aspirational platform for government action, led and under development by mostly young activists. The idea that a wealthy donor would counter that with his own approach (especially coupled with political donations) is also troubling. 

It’s worth noting that this is not just a Bloomberg thing. It’s often the MO of large foundations to see themselves as brokers of compromise or above the fray technocrats, throwing themselves into issues in ways that edge out other players like grassroots and activist groups. As Dowie describes, the drag anchor may steady the ship, but it slows forward progress. This is documented in the realm of climate diplomacy in the excellent book The Price of Climate Action by Edouard Morena. One recent example of this (although it’s a little different) is Marc Benioff convincing Trump to embrace the trillion trees program, which I had a twitter convo about here if you want to see it. 

So I see Bloomberg’s presidential campaign as another example of this hijack and redirect approach, attempting to fix a Democratic Party that is veering beyond his preferred solution set. 

You might think well what’s the big deal he did help shut down those coal plants, after all. But hey maybe there was a way to transition away from coal without the US becoming the world’s largest producer of oil and gas in the process. And you know what, maybe he could beat Trump, but given what we know about his record, in service of what values, exactly? At the expense of whose suffering? And maybe the most important question, why is this the guy who gets to set these terms? And the answer is that he has $62 billion. 


Links

  • A proposal for an old state hospital in the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston would build residences heated and cooled by geothermal energy.

  • Hundreds if not thousands of recorded incidents of school bullying can be directly linked to Trump’s rhetoric. “Build the wall,” has become a popular chant.

  • We will shut down Canada.” All over Canada, there’s been nationwide blockades and demonstrations of solidarity for Wet’suwet’en chiefs in British Columbia as they fight a gas pipeline.

  • End the GOP.

  • Hundreds of billions of locusts are swarming East Africa because of you know what.

  • Environmentalism’s racists origins.

  • Black women are leaders in the climate movement.

  • Mayor Pete represents a fissure in the Democratic Party between transformation and restoration.


Listening

I love Dan Bejar who records as Destroyer and he has a great new record called Have We Met. This is one of my favorite songs on it, which has a recurring line “Just look at the world around you, actually, no, don’t look” that I think would be a good tagline for Crisis Palace. Another line I love in the song Cue Synthesizer goes “Went to America went to Europe, it’s all the same shit.”


Watching

In 2019, I started a rewatch of every David Lynch movie and then I kind of stopped for some reason I think maybe I got really into Skyrim or something. But I started it up again and just watched Wild at Heart. I had last seen it when I was in high school and was obsessed with David Lynch, and I remember it being one of the more straightforward of his movies but I don’t know it’s pretty weird I guess. Apparently 100 people walked out of one of the test screenings if Wikipedia is to be believed. It’s basically a love story but horrifying. A horrifying love story. The one scene that stuck with me as a teen (and there is a lot of hanky panky in this movie) is when Sherilyn Fenn is about to die on the side of the highway after a car crash, lit up only by headlights, and she keeps saying “I have all this sticky stuff in my hair.” Also Willem Defoe as Bobby Peru (Defoe again!). I’ll spare you a picture of Bobby Peru here’s these two instead.


Happy Valentine’s Day everyone. Today I got a haircut at the shop down the street and my barber Joniel who speaks about as much English as I do Spanish said Happy Thanksgiving as I was leaving and then looked at me like hang on a second and then everyone started laughing and another barber yelled out Valentine’s Day. For a second there I was like, wait, is it Thanksgiving today? Anyway we all had a good laugh dude can really cut hair he is raking it in over there.

Remember the right amount to care about Valentine’s day is the same amount as the person you love plus just a little bit more to be safe. And you know what readers? I LOVE YOU. Every one of you.

Tate

PS. Don’t worry there’s not going to be a lot of presidential election stuff around here you get enough of that everywhere else. And by the way, if you are ever like what is this guy talking about or I am totally wrong on something you can reply to this email and I’ll read it and I promise I won’t get mad.

23: Riding in on a wave

A wave of history


I was recently talking to someone for an article and she mentioned this idea, paraphrased from Oakland-based artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez, that “culture moves faster than policy.” I looked up the original quote, and I believe it’s in this interview where Rodriguez says, “The entire cultural space is moving much faster than politics.” 

Both the original and the paraphrase have been making me think this week about how even though in some ways it feels like we’re moving backwards, in others it feels like both US and global culture are zipping along, blowing past elected officials and public policy. I didn’t have room to get into this idea in the article so I thought I would here, but first here’s a little chunk from the post I wrote that ran this week here you go:

Forward-Thinking Funders Pitch Practical Changes for a Sector Under Fire

There’s a reckoning underway in the philanthropic sector, from hard-hitting books and journalism challenging the power of the wealthy, to concerns over how philanthropy is serving threatened communities in a regressive political moment.   

While there have been some encouraging responses, so far, this reckoning has largely been a matter of discourse. In other words, a lot of talk, not a lot of action. 

One progressive funder, the San Francisco-based Whitman Institute, has been operating since around 2004 in a way that seeks to curb some of the power imbalances currently under fire. Now Whitman and peer funders who subscribe to similar grantmaking practices are taking their approach to philanthropy on the road.  

“What would our roles be if we weren’t the experts, the gatekeepers?” she says. “I don't think it means we are all out of a job, but I do think there could be thoughtful reorientations to what our roles are and how we can augment and support the social, economic and political movements of our time.”

The she in that quote is Pia Infante, the co-executive director of The Whitman Institute, a small foundation that does really impressive social justice grantmaking, and works within the sector to get funders to yield some of their power to their grantees. I’ve written a bunch about how the transfer of power (not effectiveness or impact), is the way philanthropy ought to be judged as an institution. As opposed to a common attitude—held explicitly or otherwise by donors like oh I don’t know presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg—that philanthropy is yet another avenue through which they get to bend the world to their liking, which is not such a good attitude. I would call that a badditude. 

But anyway, I was asking Infante about where their work fits into growing demands for equity and she mentioned Favianna Rodriguez has this idea that culture moves faster than policy, so they see the work as part of a reckoning where we have to turn our values into practice. 

That got me reading about Rodriguez, who for years has been developing a concept of cultural organizing and you may know her from this image she is famous for of a butterfly with the phrase Migration is Beautiful which you can see and buy as a poster here and all sorts of other gear here. She came up with it back in 2012 in response to the Obama administration’s horrible accelerated deportation of immigrants. Rodriguez also designed this poster commissioned by the 2014 People’s Climate March: 

So you get it she’s an amazing artist and pretty much the best and she has this great essay she wrote based on a talk she gave in 2013, called Change the Culture, Change the World. In it, she makes the argument that we mistakenly think of arts and culture often as a communications strategy for a political campaign. When really, we should be thinking of (and funding) their role within the “idea space,” where culture has far greater power. One example of this power is how the cultural acceptance of LGBTQ equality, while hard fought for years, hit a point where it surged forward, causing policy change to sort of whiplash in its path at incredible speed.

Rodriguez talks about social change as this breaking wave that is the product of all kinds of other unseen changes, many of them cultural and not related to any campaign or policy goal. 

In the political world, we experience the wave’s peak moments through events like elections or policy wins, but we don’t always recognize the undercurrents and conditions that lead us there. In the world of art and culture, many of us help construct the conditions that lead to this climax. Culture is a space where we can introduce ideas, attach emotions to concrete change and win enthusiasm for our values. Art is where we can change the narrative, because it’s where people can imagine what change looks and feels like.

Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.”

She has another great line about how, as opposed to an explicit political message, “You’re more open to how culture is going to transform you, so you walk into it with an open heart.”

I love this essay (read the whole thing here), because it opens up the way we might view change, from this narrow scope we usually see it through that’s maybe like a dumb old bill that passes or fails, to instead viewing these strong, sometimes rapidly moving tides that we’re all a part of and that can shape with our own contributions. It’s a power that I think we underestimate at our own cost.


Linkadoo

  • Trump is blowing up protected desert lands in Southern Arizona, including land that is sacred to multiple Native American tribes and even burial sites. All for a stupid fucking wall that does nothing but serve as a monument to bigotry.

  • Land defenders in British Columbia are blocking a pipeline that would bring fracked natural gas through the territory of the Wet'suwet'en First Nations people. Militarized Canadian police made a pre-dawn raid this week trying to force out the camp but they appear to be in a standoff.

  • Harvard faculty voted 179 to 20 in favor of calling on the university to its frankly obscene $41 billion endowment from fossil fuel stocks.

  • The GOP is way farther to the right than most conservative parties in other countries, closer to Europe’s fringe white nationalist parties. Democrats are pretty much standard center-left.

  • The story behind John Singleton’s prescient 1995 film Higher Learning. Here’s a wild fact, John Singleton was 20 when he wrote Boyz n the Hood and 22 when he directed it! Legend.


Watching

Last week I watched The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson by the guy who directed The Witch, which is one of my favorite movies from recent years. The Lighthouse is not for everyone, in fact, Jamie hated it and stopped watching like halfway through but I really enjoyed it, just be warned. I also read this review of the movie by a guy who worked on 32 lighthouses over 18 years. “In the ’60s there was a keeper there who was gathering some old wire, and a bit of it took off over the cliff – it had wrapped around his leg, so away he went. They never did find him.” He has his complaints about the film but ultimately gives The Lighthouse 5 out of 5 stars so pretty good. Here are some pictures of Willem Dafoe:


Podcasts

Check out this interview with N.K. Jemisin about the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft, and her new book which involves a giant tentacled monster destroying the Williamsburg Bridge.


Listening

I have this memory of a birthday a few years back when I took the day off and walked around Boston and did random stuff and at one point I was listening to Albert Ayler Trio’s Spiritual Unity on my headphones while walking through the Common and the Public Garden. It was May so kind of sweaty and bright out and there were tons of people walking and laying around and it all made perfect sense together. Later on I found it on vinyl and now I own it it is mine. I thought about that because I just read this article about Ayler’s music and I only really know Spiritual Unity and sounds like I’m really missing out on the Don Cherry recordings. Anyways, even if you hate free jazz, I would recommend listening to Spiritual Unity while going for a walk because short of maybe seeing it live which we sadly can’t do that seems like the way to do it.


OK before I send this puppy I wanted to mention via my good friend Eric Swedlund that today is International Clash Day, which started out as a day to celebrate The Clash but has also become about the political causes the band stood for. So this year, KEXP in Seattle made the theme Clash for Climate, playing relevant music but also highlighting climate activists, nonprofits, learning about climate change, and voting. It’s pretty cool! And also fitting the theme of this week’s newsletter so I will close with this song recorded as part of the event, a spooky cover of Should I Stay or Should I Go by Joy Formidable.

Hang in there everyone. Even though it might feel like you are being tossed about by a giant wave sometimes, remember that you are the wave.

Tate

PS: Email title this week comes from Downtown Boys, Wave of History.

22: That void ahead

How should you feel about the future?

Bangkok, present day

In the last newsletter of 2019 I started to talk about the dizzying scale of climate change and the algorithms that scatter the information we exchange and how they’ve broken the way we experience time. A good corollary to that is the fact that the way we experience the future also seems to be broken. 

What better person to ease us into this topic than William Gibson, one of my favorite writers since I was a teen reading Burning Chrome and listening to Nine Inch Nails. I went to see him, William Gibson that is, in Cambridge this week as I always try to do when he has a new book out. He was recounting how he was just about finished with a semi-contemporary novel as the 2016 election happened. He found himself plunged into professional crisis as he realized his entire manuscript suddenly existed in an irrelevant reality, a timeline that had basically hit a dead end and collapsed. 

While Gibson is cast as a futurist, he cycles between writing in a slightly off-kilter present, the near future, and the distant future, and insists that in all cases he’s using these timelines merely as tools for understanding the present moment. So Neuromancer was less about cyberspace and more about corporate globalization in the 80s. Post-election, he found the timeline he had been using was broken. Suddenly, his new book was irrelevant, because as he put it, the post-2016 world had become “so stupid he often thought he must be dreaming.” And every week it seemed to get stupider than the week before. How does a science fiction author write something that can keep up with a world in such turmoil?

He did find a clever solution after much agonizing, and spoke recently with New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg about the implications of that creative dilemma, which she calls a “darkness where the future used to be.” Gibson’s books have always been fairly dark, but he used to consider himself an optimist, stating in one essay about the never-arriving apocalypse, that history never stops happening. “Since the end of the Cold War, I’ve prided myself on being the guy who says, eh, don’t worry, it’s not going to happen tomorrow,” he told Goldberg. “And now I’ve lost that.”

Increasingly, it feels like we don’t know how to envision what’s to come. Gibson recalls how in the 20th century, we constantly referenced the 21st century with a kind of glee, and that doesn’t happen anymore. “We don’t seem to have, culturally, a sense of futurism that way anymore. It sort of evaporated.”

In my own mind, I do find I have a hard time picturing beyond 30 years or so. The possibilities of where the world could be at that point seem so radically divergent depending on what happens in the next 10 years that it’s just kind of a cloud. But I have to admit I would generally not describe that cloud as a happy place.

David Wallace-Wells once wrote, about the difficult decision to have children:

Take any chunk of nine months over the last decade and the picture of climate change is sure to have darkened in that time. Take any chunk of nine months in the future and the same is likely to be true. Extend the chunk of time to the length of a childhood, or a full life, and that picture of climate suffering gets dramatically worse.

The optimism or pessimism with which we view the future has been a source of great debate in climate communications. For many years, based on I don’t know some communications professor’s article, people got it in their heads that we like optimism more than pessimism so you have to shroud the warning of climate change in hope. As a result, we’ve been sugar-coating it for years. Wallace-Wells’ Uninhabitable Earth article and then book were a quite effective effort to counter that. 

I tend to be of the opinion that the relentless attempts at positive messaging were indeed a disservice. But there is something to be said for needing to imagine a better future. I just listened to an Ezra Klein interview (I know I’m always talking about that podcast) with Saul Griffith in which he talks about how decarbonization is hard, but it’s totally possible and we’ve done big things like it before but nobody ever talks about it that way. And it can actually make our lives better. What I like about Griffith is that he’s also very realistic about the difficulty, that it will take huge government mobilization, not just market forces, and we have a limited window to do so before certain irreversible tipping points.

One main objection to the case for optimism is that it’s often focused solely on technology. As Michelle Goldberg points out in her column, people are not only no longer optimistic about technology the way we once were, it’s actually become a source of horror. We keep seeing how tech seems to make things better at first, then ruins everything. So any credible envisioning of a better future has got to include new realities of social and economic structures, along with physical infrastructure. (See more on this here: Imaginable Worlds, and Eric Holthaus recently wrote a great example of it here.)

There are authors out there trying to fill in the black void ahead.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife is a book that I found flawed, but I do sometimes recommend because it has this vivid vision of an apocalyptic Phoenix (where I grew up) and some gut-wrenching worst-case scenarios of how we’ll treat each other during climate crisis. But one of the issues I have with it is that I find it leans a little too heavily on the everyday misery of his characters.  

By contrast, in his novel Blackfish City, Sam J. Miller is a master of depicting a violent dystopia that is nevertheless a really cool place to live sometimes, where people are often just kind of doing their thing and eating really good noodles. One of my favorite little moments happens randomly at the end of a very serious conversation:

“Thanks, Grandfather. Oh, look!”

Two sea lions barked and bumped chests. Both men laughed.

Octavia Butler’s excellent Earthseed books are on trend these days, because they are cathartically bleak stories of a near future in ways that seem extremely plausible or even accurate to the present day US. They are very, very dark. But Butler’s books do have touching relationships and communities, and her Earthseed philosophy poses a way to live in peace with chaos and trauma. The series was supposed to end with the characters starting new communities on other planets, but Butler struggled with the final book and didn’t finish before she passed away in 2006. 

In Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, climate change unfolds quietly in the background of her interconnected characters’ lives over the decades. She almost offhandedly describes the sea wall barricading off part of Manhattan, water shortages and altered seasons, and solar panels that collect energy from the moon at night, all while characters live out the drama of their lives. 

I’m still ambivalent about how optimistic or pessimistic we ought to try to be about our future. The answer is probably neither and both, as Cheryl Strayed says, that “two things can be true at once.” This is well put by Mary Annaïse Heglar in her essay, “Home is Always Worth It,” in which she criticizes both “doomer dudes” and those demanding a hopeful tone.

We don’t have to be pollyannish, or fatalistic. We can just be human. We can be messy, imperfect, contradictory, broken. We can recognize that “hopelessness” does not mean “helplessness.”

We don’t know how this movie is going to end, because we’re in the writers room right now. We’re making the decisions right now. Walking out is not an option. We don’t get to give up.

That’s all of our jobs now, activists, writers, people making decisions at their kitchen tables—to fill in that void ahead. We have to imagine what kind of world we want to build, even while it’s on fire. It won’t be ever-warring doom or a utopia of innovation, but it has to be something.


Links:

  • We all know plastic waste is very bad, but petrochemical plants generate enormous GHG emissions. “Plastic is fossil fuel in another form.”

  • Baby boomers are basically living in a form of socialism, but remain deeply opposed to others experiencing it. Meanwhile, the path to adulthood looks bleak for young people.

  • Market Street in SF is car free. “Today represents the way the world is finally changing how it thinks about the role of transportation in cities.”

  • Jon Stewart’s 2010 rally was a low point of denial about common ground with an unhinged right.

  • The Guardian will no longer accept fossil fuel advertising. (Meanwhile, the Post and NY Times are producing ads for oil companies.)

  • If, like me, you do not get the whole Andrew Yang thing, this article does a very good job of explaining it.

  • If, like me, you do not get the whole Tyler the Creator thing, this article does a very good job of explaining it (although you probably still will not like him).

  • Judges keep trying to block DA Rachael Rollins’ agenda. Still, Rollins wiped out a larceny conviction of an immigrant who was facing deportation because of it. “Justice won today.”


Understanding Fossil Fuel Divestment

You can still access a two-part series I wrote about fossil fuel divestment, answering why major foundations are still invested in oil and gas, and why divestment is such a critical issue.

Major Climate Funders Are Still Invested in Fossil Fuels. Why is That?

Ellen Dorsey of Wallace Global says, “There is a whole thing around how entrenched modern portfolio theory is, and how the investment professionals have a vested interest in retaining control. So they're going to fight. They become part of the opposition to it.”

As Top Foundations Resist Divesting from Fossil Fuels, What Might Change Their Minds?

“It is unconscionable and immoral to support the industry that is burning down the planet,” says Clara Vondrich, director of Divest Invest. “So, yes, it is a litmus test for real climate commitment, particularly given that there’s a false choice between returns and divestment.”



Reading

I’ve been wanting to read this one for a long time I’m currently in the middle of Erica Chenoweth’s Why Civil Resistance Works, a highly influential book for climate activists like Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion, but also animal rights activists groups like Direct Action Everywhere. It’s the result of a study that looked at resistance campaigns from 1900 and 2006 and found that nonviolent campaigns were nearly twice as likely as violent campaigns to be successful.

“Moreover, we find that the transitions that occur in the wake of successful nonviolent resistance movements create much more durable and internally peaceful democracies than transitions provoked by violent insurgencies.”


Watching

Sex Education is a little on the crude side, but more than anything, it’s a show with an enormous heart. I think part of the charm is that it takes place floating free from location and time, in an imaginary rural England / American high school fantasy land where teens play Harry Nilsson at their parties and have deep conversations about body image and consent. Sort of like Spider-Verse did for superheroes, Sex Education attempts to heal the troubled past of the teen comedy genre and it is also very funny.


Buying

I have a real bag addiction I just love things that carry things and I have way too many backpacks, etc. It’s almost certainly rooted in some deep control issues, but anyhoo we don’t have to go down that road. The best bag I own right now is the Lo & Sons Hanover Deluxe 2. It sounds fancy, but it is a unisex, plain matte black backpack, holds its shape, has a removable internal organizer in case you want to use it just for clothes, and the right number of little pockets.

Best of all, and this just never happens—it has zero branding. You will not find a company name or logo anywhere on the bag. not even on the zipper pulls. It is an artifact from a William Gibson novel, come to life. This is it.


That’s what I got this week. I’m starting up an obnoxious new hobby which is a thing I do sometimes. Once I told my friend Swedlund that I needed a hobby and he said you have like five hobbies what are you talking about. So this one is pickling things which I swear is not some kid of apocalyptic survival project. I just like pickled vegetables but I like them only in a really specific way so I’m going to try to make them. I have all these packages showing up, kitchen scales and digital thermometers like I’m Walter White or something and the other day Jamie texted me you got your pickle packages and I responded with this which she thought was pretty funny.

Image result for dill with it gif

I’ll let you know how the pickles go maybe I’ll do a competition where the winner gets a jar of pickles because I have a feeling I’m going to have way too many pickles before long. So stay tuned if for no other reason than the chance to win some pickles. Stop saying pickles.

Tate

21: Memory keepers

The history is gruesome, but delivered so delicately, and feels like receiving a gift

Naga, the seven-headed snake protector of Buddha, being carried around by like a million dudes. Angkor Wat.

So I recently got back from this trip to Cambodia and Laos, and briefly Bangkok, and it was an amazing trip but it’s the kind of thing that’s difficult to put into words. On one hand it’s this relatively frivolous thing, basically some Americans’ two-week vacation and there’s nothing worse than people going on about the precious wisdom gleaned from their time abroad. But travel is also profound in this really personal way that’s hard to even fully wrap your own head around. It kind of scrambles your brain.

And then on another level it’s just a bunch of random stuff that happened and now it’s over. It was riding rickety old bikes across an island of ginger and banana crops, drinking Negronis on a rooftop bar watching the sun set over Phnom Penh, riding in various boats down the Mekong, sleeping through a high fever waiting for 1500mg of antibiotics to do their job, sitting on the couch laughing and catching up with dear friends, eating noodles, swimming in infinity pools, wandering through night markets. 

But I did want to bring something from the trip back to the old Crisis Palace, some souvenirs and a slide show, and in thinking about what to say I keep coming back to these two squishy themes of perspective and memory. 

Lot of good sunsets. This one’s in Luang Prabang, Laos

Most of the work I do and things I think and write about tend to revolve pretty tightly around the United States and that makes some sense because this is my home after all and you can only really engage with so much it’s a big world. But spending time in a place so far outside of your usual realm, especially one like the US, you’re constantly having to face both how insignificant your one little country is in the grand scheme of things, but also how significant that one little country can be. The challenges facing other regions are so much different and bigger in their own way than the ones the United States faces, but also the way the United States deals with its problems can either create or alleviate profound problems far beyond its own borders.

I was talking to my therapist about this and he compared the US to a small spoiled child in a large family that nevertheless has the power to make everyone else miserable. And, of course, we frequently, directly harm other countries, something you are constantly reminded of in various historical plaques around the world.

This rat named Bibititi and others like it can detect land mines and other explosives. The US dropped at least 26 million explosive sub-munitions on Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

Cambodia is like a lot of countries in the Global South and developing parts of Asia, in that it’s experiencing a lot of unequal economic growth, and with it growth in emissions, but still lacks sufficient investment to mitigate or adapt to climate change. It’s also dealing with a corrupt, albeit currently stable, government and threats to its economic sovereignty from outside superpowers. Meanwhile, whether it’s worsening drought, flooding, storms, or punishing heat, its people are suffering the consequences of the high standards of living that wealthier countries have been enjoying for many decades. 

So it’s humbling to ride through swarms of diesel burning tuk tuks and scooters sometimes carrying families of four across town, or the endless chorus of construction in an urban center surrounded by rice farms, and then think about say public transit policy in Boston. It’s also infuriating and depressing to think about how much power and wealth we have in the States and think of what we could accomplish with it and what we actually accomplish with it. These aren’t super novel ideas or anything but seeing them up close for a couple of weeks is something, and it made me want to do a better job of understanding how issues I care about manifest in other parts of the world.

This one is Bangkok.

During the trip I was talking with a friend about climate change as is my bullshit and he was expressing pessimism that humanity will respond in some kind of noble or just way, you know judging by the scoreboard. But he is also fairly optimistic that we’ll make it through to the other side, because that’s just what people do. He was clear, however, that this is not a desirable outcome he is comforted by, that it basically means an “abandonment of any sense of ethics.” 

That reminded me of this book by Annalee Newitz called Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, about how humanity has a good shot at avoiding extinction because we can do those three things in the title. But I couldn’t remember the third thing which is funny because it is literally to remember. And the remember part is probably the most important one. The scattering and adapting seems like something we are good at but the remember part, that is the tricky one. 

One very important thing we did while in Phnom Penh was visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which at one point was a school but was used as an interrogation and detention center during the Khmer Rouge regime. When Pol Pot’s forces seized control in 1975, the goal was to turn Cambodia into a classless, socialist agrarian society. That goal provided justification for dehumanizing and ultimately eliminating anyone with ties, perceived or real, to the preceding society. This is exemplified by the fact that when they took control of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge declared it “Year Zero.” They were erasing the past. You could be executed for speaking a different language, even wearing glasses. The resulting genocide killed at least 1.7 million people, around a quarter of the population at the time, in just a few years.

The Tuol Sleng museum is incredibly well done. Walking the grounds, you get the feeling you are witnessing some of the worst cruelty humanity is capable of, but also that you are part of something sacred in the remembering of what happened here. Only 12 people survived the Tuol Sleng prison, and two of them still spend their days at the museum sharing their stories. The history is gruesome and painful to hear, but is delivered so delicately, and feels like receiving a gift. Visitors are asked to become “memory keepers” and “messengers of peace” upon leaving the site. 

Photos of prisoners at the Khmer Rouge S-21 interrogation and detention center

I’ve mentioned before how Kate Marvel describes her biggest fear about climate change, that it’s not any geological outcomes, but “what it will make us do to each other.” Whether democracy can survive climate change, whether rapid change and scarcity of resources will only amplify our cruelty. There’s pushback coming from some climate circles that we should cool the talk about extinction and emergency, that humanity will survive. But what a low bar. Fear of extinction is about more than just loss of our species. It’s about loss of entire ways of life, entire cultures, the loss of our humanity in the name of mere survival.

In facing any big global crisis, not just climate change, I think my friend and Newitz are probably right that humanity will survive. We will certainly scatter and adapt. But I think whether we come out better on the other side requires that we stay rooted in our past and all we are capable of, good and bad, and always remember.


Links


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Listening

Please enjoy this little firecracker from LA quartet Kills Birds, led with fury by Bosnian-Canadian filmmaker Nina Ljeti.


Reading

I have a lot of books to catch up on here but one I finished before leaving that I wanted to be sure to highlight is Shapes of Native Nonfiction, edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton. I’m biased because Theresa is a very good friend and by law my family member but I would highly recommend it even if that were not the case. It’s an amazing collection of essays, and puts a unique focus on creative use of form and how it carries each author’s message. It’s a page-turner too, with an engaging mix of subject matter and plenty of humor.


Our hosts in Phnom Penh have two very smart and funny children and the first day we were there we had some time to kill with the kids. One thing I always try to teach young children whenever I have access to them is this funny little scatological rhyme and when I told the boy Simon I was going to teach him something illicit he got super serious and got a pen and paper so he could record it properly. Here it is.

And with that my job is done.

Tate

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