Hello from the first temperate day in what feels like weeks in Philadelphia, where it’s 80° and the sun is thankfully tucked behind a thick wall of clouds.
I spent way too much time thinking about David Wallace-Wells’ apocalyptic piece on climate change these past couple weeks. The response was widespread and fell into several camps: arguments about whether fear can motivate people to care about climate change or if it’s more likely to cause paralysis; discussions about how to present doomsday scenarios which could be possible but are also unlikely; plus earnest questions about the responsibility to be accurate when presenting science on any topic.
(As an aside, I’m thinking about all of this stuff as someone who is decidedly not a journalist, but my work is journalism adjacent and I’m someone who likes to think about a lot of things, so herewith some loosely-formed thoughts.)
I won’t rehash most of the response to Wallace-Wells’ piece save to say that it’s complicated: fear can be both a spur and an obstacle to action and it’s not easy to draw the line. Accuracy is critical to journalism, of course, but speculation has its place in the way we order the world and think about the future. Wallace-Well’s piece was maybe sloppy, but could also have been better framed. But mostly I think those arguments missed other, more interesting points.
Climate change is hard to talk about because it takes place over such a long period of time: we (and by we here, I mean Americans, although this may be true to other degrees in other cultures) are really bad at longterm thinking, and even worse at trading present-day comforts for future benefits. So climate change conversations about how cities will be made uninhabitable by heat waves by the year 2100 are just unfathomably distant, as close to hand and as relateable as whatever blockbuster sci-fi film is in the theaters right now.
The most motivated activists in climate change aren’t fighting about the year 2100; they’re fighting pipelines that are leaking into their drinking water right now. They’re fighting refineries that belch into the air and fill up their children’s lungs and cause terrifying asthma attacks. They’re fighting for jobs that pay enough for them to think past the first of the month.
If you want to motivate people to do something about climate change, I think you have to make it connect to their present lives. It’s not hard to draw those long lines about heat waves and sea level rise back to present day concerns: climate change isn’t only a problem of the future—many people are struggling with its impacts today, have been struggling their whole lives. The climate change movement is too often presented as the concern of wealthy white intellectuals worried about the hypothetical far future while poor brown people quietly suffer on the front lines.
The lack of racial diversity in journalism is a startling liability, and the climate change beat is no exception.
One more thought about this: Wallace-Well’s piece spins all kinds of stories about the consequences of climate change, but fails to address the source. We cannot effectively talk about climate change without talking about capitalism. Kate Aranoff’s response to Wallace-Wells was the most compelling of any I read (and I think I read them all): “Dealing humanely with the kind of warming already locked-in and avoiding warming even worse than that will mean a wholesale transformation of a political economy that includes everything from fossil fuels’ dominance to mass incarceration.” I’ve long suspected that many of the wealthy climate change deniers are not in fact skeptical of the science: they just assume that their wealth will insulate them from the consequences, and they don’t much care what happens to everyone else. They think that they are Danny Huston’s character in Children of Men, comfortably ensconced behind a high wall, safe from the starving masses on the other side. They’re wrong, of course—they are not safe, not completely. But neither are we in an economic system that values capital over human life. The key to lessening climate change is building a political system that protects the right to a habitable world for everyone. Because the apocalypse is coming sooner for some of us than for others.
“There is no one to arrest for this, to send to jail, to fine or execute or drag to his humiliation in the city square. Even if Karen and Dawn win their fight and convince the government to remove every gram of radioactive waste in the landfill and the creek and the airport and the backyards and gardens here, people will still be sick. Thousands of them. Chronic exposure to radiation has changed their DNA, and they’ll likely pass those changes on to their children, and to their children’s children, and on and on through every generation. In this regard, no one is immune.” Lacy Johnson with a stunning story about a landfill fire that borders an illegal nuclear waste dump in St. Louis. I read this twice and clutched my heart. This is also, in its way, a story that tells us something about how to talk about climate change: it’s a story of women pushing for environmental rights in their own communities, and the complete lack of accountability for the harm done to them.
“Los Angeles was the twentieth century, you see: the city of the motorcar, of film and TV, of aerospace and the WW2 military-industrial complex; a thick nexus of globalization, migration, white flight, and urban renewal. And it was the definitive American city because it was the first truly American city, the first not to look back towards Europe for its street plans and topography but to sprawl hungrily a hundred miles into the desert, cannibalizing water supplies from lesser municipalities, a luxuriant low-rise efflorescence lurching from one crisis to the next. It was late capitalism, post-Fordism, postmodernism—and as such, the crucible where late 20th century urban geographical theory was heated to a sometimes fervid degree.” Jay Owens on smog and the San Bernadino Valley.
“Cue basic income, aka let’s make this the state’s problem. This is the turbo-charged version of gig-economy platforms shifting employment risk from companies to individuals and state welfare systems, all in the name of profit. It’s part of the bigger trend of global companies stepping back from their responsibilities, expecting the state to pick up the tab even though they’re not prepared to pay the taxes to fund it.” Sonia Sodha on Silicon Valley’s cynical support of universal basic income.
“To be blunt: if western culture were real, we wouldn’t spend so much time talking it up.” Kwame Anthony Appiah on the myth of western civilization.
“What we learned as students through mock trials and presentations and clinics was this: Law is still a straight white man’s world. Everyone else might never be given the same respect afforded to male attorneys, and the best shot we queer women have at success right now is to create ourselves in the image of straight men’s idealized vision of how women ought to behave and look. Failing to do so not only ends up reflecting unfairly on our abilities, but also impacts the incredibly high-stakes judicial proceedings in which our clients are caught up.” Bea Bischoff on dressing straight.
“You rarely hear black people suggesting that they emulate Jewish success anymore, although as the only Jew in mostly black spaces growing up, and almost always the only black Jew, I sometimes heard it, often with the same ambivalent mix of admiration and hostility with which it comes across on 4:44. That advice isn’t given anymore because of the popular recognition that if American blacks had the same access to credit as American Jews, if thrift and moral rectitude were all that was necessary for economic success, the Bed-Stuy that created Shawn Carter would never have existed.” Adam Serwer on the economic nationalism of 4:44.
“Coppola thought that by removing black characters, she was scrubbing race from the film entirely. But that presumes white isn’t a race that has long been treated as the norm from which all other races deviate. Whatever her intent, The Beguiled is a curious reckoning of the myths of white womanhood—how they use fragility as a shield for deviousness and insulate themselves from the horrors of a world that they too are responsible for.” Angelica Jade Bastién on how The Beguiled tackles race.
“[I]t has been disheartening to hear my artistic choices, grounded in historical facts, being characterized as insensitive when my intention was the opposite.” Coppola responds to the backlash against The Beguiled and neatly demonstrates the old adage about good intentions and the road to hell.
“It has taken me a while to find these people, this group of queer Muslims who will spend a Saturday night sharing parts of themselves. It has taken me years dragging myself to lesbian bars and pride and dance parties and all that this city has to offer, these places where my Muslimness, my brownness feel acutely out of place. These places where, once, a white lesbian once petted my hijab like I was an exotic creature, where this other time, a Moroccan bouncer looked me up and down and said, ‘What are you doing here, sister?’” Lamya H with a beautiful and wrenching story about being Muslim and queer.
Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which I reached for when I needed a break from the world, and wow did it deliver. It’s kind of a ghost story, kind of a socialist-feminist romance, and I loved every sentence of it. Matthew Desmond’s Evicted was not, however, escapist: I have to put it alongside Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow as books that have completely rewritten how I see the world. I’ve long understood how housing discrimination is core to inequality in the US, but Desmond’s book has provided a degree of clarity to that problem that has me shook. I can’t recommend it enough.
Not for the first time, I’m wondering about the wisdom of talking about cocktails while contemplating life-ending climate change and the violence of inequality. So much of present-day life is cognitive dissonance. But inasmuch as food and drink are one of the ways we come together, I’m going to keep going. Drink with a friend, or two, if you can.
I think I’ve shared this before, but it’s in high rotation this time of year so here it is again. It’s worth picking up some grapefruit bitters if you can, but don’t skip the drink if you don’t have them on hand.
The Best Day Ever
2 oz gin
1 oz Aperol
1 oz dry vermouth
Dash of grapefruit bitters (optional)
1 strip grapefruit peel
Fill a mixing glass with ice. Pour in gin, Aperol, dry vermouth, and the bitters, if using. Stir for thirty seconds, then strain into a chilled coup glass. Twist the grapefruit peel over the drink and drop it in.
As always, hit reply to share reading recommendations or tell me what you’re drinking. Cheers —m
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