Can we still have nice things?

Balancing desire and cost as climate change looms

by James Kaelan, Blessing Yen, and Caitlin FitzGerald

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“Guys, how’s the air quality out there right now?” texted Caitlin FitzGerald. “Way better?”

My wife, Blessing Yen, and I have been holed up in our house on the eastern edge of Los Angeles since March 7.

“So good,” wrote Blessing.

“It’s been raining off and on all month,” I said. “Rain, wind, way fewer cars, way fewer planes!”

“I feel like the sky looks bluer, too,” added Blessing.

“I bet it does!” said Caitlin. “I’m terrified for the people. But I’m so excited for the planet right now.”

At the time of our conversation last week, I wasn’t aware — beyond anecdotal evidence that the San Gabriels looked unusually clear from our back yard, and that the air smelled as fresh as Kauai on a breezy day — that Los Angeles suddenly had the cleanest air of any major city on the planet.

(In a more dramatic turn, even if their air particulates are worse than ours, 12,000 miles away in Punjab, the residents of Jalandhar can now see the Dhauladhars — a range at the edge of the Himalayas — for the first time in more than 40 years.)

Caitlin, Blessing, and I have been friends — and occasional creative collaborators—for the better part of a decade. A few weeks before California locked down, Caitlin passed though town (emphasis on “passed”; she arrived by train) and we all had dinner together. She’d just finished shooting the first two episodes of Station Eleven, a forthcoming limited series from HBO Max about a viral pandemic that sweeps the globe. COVID-19 was still largely confined to Wuhan, with outbursts of still-unknown scope in Iran and Italy.

Since then, production on Station — which was supposed to resume in June — has been postponed indefinitely. And worldwide COVID-19 deaths have eclipsed 125,000. The pandemic show had been halted by a pandemic. And we’re all entering the second month of quarantine.

Back at our dinner in late February, coronavirus was on everyone’s minds. But the idea that the entire globe would sputter to a standstill as containment efforts shuttered non-essential businesses — leaving one in seven Americans unemployed — was, quite literally, beyond our imagination. And still, at the table that night, a reckoning seemed at hand. “We’re making the earth sick,” said Caitlin. “Maybe now the earth is making us sick?”

“We all need to be Plant-Patty!” exclaimed Blessing.

A couple months earlier she’d finished reading Caitlin’s copy of Richard Powers’s The Overstory: a towering novel about trees in which a disparate collection of non-activists turn insurrectionary and, quite literally in a few cases, give their lives to saving what’s left of our forests. At the intellectual center of the book is Dr. Patricia “Plant-Patty” Westerford, a dendrologist who first observes chemical conversations amongst “individuals” in a copse of sugar maples.

“The biochemical behavior of individual trees,” Plant-Patty writes in a paper about her discovery, “make sense only when we see them as members of a community.”

Plant-Patty, whose fictional work parallels the real research of ecologist Suzanne Simard, proves that forests are aware — and then suffers decades of professional humiliation until the rest of the scientific community catches up to her prescience.

Hunkered down in quarantine, the urgent request of The Overstory — take care of nature now or die miserably as ecosystems topple — feels more urgent than ever. And it’s still hard to heed the warning of the doomsday prognosticators, even when you believe every word they say. How can you even begin to change your behavior when everything you do hastens ecological collapse?

The Overstory completely changed my mind about the massive Chinese elm in our backyard,” Blessing wrote in our group text. “I was never okay with uprooting it (I feel like it has more of a right to the backyard than we do), but after reading Overstory, I decided we just needed to shape the rest of the space around it. Speaking of which, Caitlin, do you know about how the topography of the U.S. was COMPLETELY different before we killed all the beavers?”

“I did not, Blessing!” exclaimed Caitlin. “Tell me! They’re so goddamn industrious and we made them into hats. Oh, the destruction we’ll rain down for a fad.”

“There’s a great podcast about it,” said Blessing. “They used to be so abundant. Places we think of as desert or arid plain, now — huge portions of Arizona, New Mexico — used to be verdant. Bogs and wetlands and lakes because of beaver dams. They made entire ecosystems. When we killed them, we completely changed the face of the continent.”

“I hope this is what the next chapter of life on earth looks like,” said Caitlin. “Us looking to the animals and the planet for instruction.”

“Also…” wrote Blessing. “Chestnut trees.

“Chestnut trees!” said Caitlin.

“Beavers and Chestnuts!” I yelled. “The U.S. was a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT PLACE IN THE 19TH CENTURY.”

“I would give everything I have to see what America looked like before we cut down all the trees,” said Caitlin. “It must’ve been unbelievable.”

“The chestnuts died of a blight,” I said. “But at least metaphorically, we were that blight.”

“Oh fuck,” said Caitlin. “I hope it was a Native American curse. But of course it was something someone brought over on a ship right? A tree COVID?”

“There’s a novella called Mother Nut that I actually read before The Overstory,” I said. “It’s about a guy who (spoiler alert) cuts down one of the last remaining secret chestnuts on the continent, and there’s a passage in the story that includes an excerpt from a 19th century newspaper feature that feels relevant:

There’s an article from the Marietta Daily Journal, in Georgia, that I think about a lot. It describes something that took place in Macon in the eighteen-eighties. “The fact of the chestnut trees dying,” it read, “was mentioned and discussed in a group at the courthouse, and the late Judge McManus, being in the crowd, readily solved the question. He said that when the Indians left Georgia” — meaning on the Trail of Tears, in the eighteen-thirties — “they they [sic] pronounced a curse on the chestnut tree, ‘that it should die and never do the pale face any good.’ ”

“So, one way or another,” I continued, “it was an ‘And then the Europeans arrived…’ tragedy. And of course COVID, in a sense, is a product of our endless expansion. Not only is it spread by our constant, unsustainable movement — but also by the destruction of habitats that put people in contact with animal populations that contain diseases we aren’t immune to.”

“How do we harmonize this human curiosity and desire for travel,” asked Caitlin, “with what it does to the earth? I think about this a LOT. I mean, I spend most of my life traveling for work. And I love it. And I hate what it does to the planet. And I also know that since time immemorial we’ve moved as a species. I was just reading about how we came across the Bering Strait. It’s such a part of us. How can we be expansive and curious without destruction? Is it possible?”

“I drove up to Seattle recently for a wedding,” I said, “and I did so intentionally to produce at least a bit less carbon than flying. But one of the realizations I had was that if getting there can be of equal importance to being there — that might hold part of the solution.”

“You mean the journey is the destination kind of thing?” clarified Caitlin.

“It’s a privileged position,” I acknowledged. “Taking longer to get somewhere is time-consuming. But privileged people are the ones DOING ALL THE POLLUTING. And it’s good to remember that, at least in our incredible country that we stole, shit is AMAZING EVERYWHERE. Sequoia National Park isn’t Japan. But then again, Japan isn’t Sequoia.”

“It’s glorious to see new places,” said Caitlin. “To discover. It’s deep, deep in our nature to wonder what’s beyond those mountains, what’s on the other side of that ocean.”

“Could we find our way to a balance?” Blessing asked. “I would give up just about everything else before travel. If companies didn’t send employees on weekly transnational flights because it’s somehow more efficient for their bottom line (like Deloitte and the rest of the Big Four), if we did most international business over teleconferencing, and everyone could have, like, a certain number of trips or miles allocated per year (personal travel pollution credits?), then could we have some travel?”

“I really hope COVID is teaching white collar industries that they don’t need offices,” said Caitlin. “Their employees don’t need to commute anymore. Maybe we’ll see the skies clear for a few months and decide we don’t want to go back. But I still haven’t figured out how to do my work without flying. I’m working on it, though. Trains when and where I can has been a fun starter solution.”

“All movies and TV shows moving forward must be shot on trains,” said Blessing. “They’re all Murder on The Orient Express.”

“I think if traffic returns to normal in LA,” I said, “people will riot and demand free public transportation.”

“Is there any chance of flight with green technology?” asked Blessing.

“The problem,” said Caitlin, “is the oil lobby has stepped on any green technology they could possibly put their boot on for decades.”

“Caitlin’s point is major,” I agreed. “The time frame during which we could’ve developed the green tech that would’ve saved us… has elapsed. Because the oil companies slowed down research.”

“I have fantasies,” said Caitlin, “of COVID forcing a Green New Deal to get people back to work — and suddenly there’s all this money and time and energy behind new technologies.”

“Same,” said Blessing.

“I believe in the goodness of humans on some fundamental level,” said Caitlin. “But there are some Exxon executives that really make me question that.

“Well,” I said, “when you’re raised to believe that whatever you can buy is your birthright, you’re gonna get some Exxon execs.”

“I’m reading Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine right now,” said Blessing, “and it’s making me wonder if people are mostly evil.”

“That’s a good book for right now,” said Caitlin. “But also some Rebecca Solnit. There is still hope in the darkness.”

“Solnit should be required reading for everyone, once a year,” said Blessing.

“A transition to a sustainable future,” I tossed out, darkening the mood again, “is going to require material sacrifice from everyone living right now. The planet doesn’t have enough stuff on it for everyone to live ‘first-world.’”

“I’ve been thinking about everyone lamenting the loss of ‘normal’ right now,” said Caitlin, “and I’m also totally mourning that idea. But this is our world now, forever. There’s no ‘normal’ in climate change.”

“James,” said Blessing, “what you’re saying is accurate, but the problem is the branding.”

“Agreed, Blessing,” said Caitlin. “How do we tell a story that doesn’t sound like punishment? Because it doesn’t have to be. If we even lived like Europeans we would already be doing so much better in terms of footprint — and it wouldn’t feel punitive.”

“We’re all ready to ‘change,’” I said, “until we find out what ‘change’ is.”

“You can’t motivate people by demanding self-denial and sacrifice from them,” said Blessing. “You can’t win with moral arguments, unfortunately.”

“I’m very excited about all the people planting gardens and buying chickens in response to COVID,” said Caitlin. “That doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. Quite the opposite. And yet it’s so, so much better for the environment.”

“I was just going to say the same!” said Blessing.

“How do we tell these kinds of stories?” Caitlin asked. “About how living more in touch with the earth is more pleasant, actually. And also so much better for the planet!”

“But that’s only a step toward where we need to go,” I said. “And the problem is we have to get somewhere radical really quickly — or the planet will just wipe us out. But Caitlin, I totally second your messaging. A slower life is BETTER. A life in nature is BETTER. There’s a threshold where this changes, of course, but the less you need, the less you want.”

“It required a pandemic slowing down the supply chain,” said Blessing, “to make it impossible for Amazon to deliver the whole world to your doorstep in a day. So some people (myself included) have started changing their habits — in part because they had to. Now, a lot of people will probably go back to shopping on Amazon as soon as they can if the Amazon-replacement products are equal to or lesser than what they could get on Amazon. Amazon wins on speed + cost + efficiency if the goal is just to have more stuff, cheaper. But if people are getting something new, something better, out of shopping locally, then these new habits might stick. Maybe it’s quality — like buying fresher greens from a farmer’s market instead of a big box store; or even growing them yourself! — and maybe it’s the experience of interacting with the people you buy stuff from. People will choose the local, smaller-footprint option if it’s bringing MORE overall value to their lives. Being forced to slow down in the purchase process actually impacts upstream decision-making. You realize you don’t need as much stuff, and that more convenience ≠ more happiness.

“I love all of this,” I said. “But I still worry about the insufficiency of incrementalism.”

“I don’t know that we’re going to get anywhere radical anytime soon,” said Caitlin. “I fear people will adjust, and children will just grow up having to wear face masks because of viruses and pollutants.”

“Yeah,” I said, “if I had to bet, I’d say we’ll just adapt to hell.”

“I also worry about incrementalism,” said Blessing, “but I also think the fastest way to change is to get people to want differently. Like, in a straight-up consumerist, self-interested paradigm. Anything else requires cooperation that, at this point, I don’t think we’re capable of without the pressure of imminent self-destruction — like COVID — or an authoritarian state. And even with this pandemic we’re barely able to transcend our own self-interest if it requires any denial of personal liberty.”

“I think that’s right,” said Caitlin. “But it would certainly help if we had people in power who gave a shit about/believed climate change was real. Top-down messaging would help. But the truth is, change is coming. It’s already here. Sadly — very, very, very sadly — it’s coming first and hardest to those who contributed least to the destruction. But we’re now going to have to contend with it. Can we at least waltz as the Titanic goes down?”

“Or maybe even get more people in lifeboats??” I said. “For what it’s worth, this is what I’m trying to work on. A story about a fully-sustainable future that you can visit in the present and choose to be a part of if you dig it. Or reinvent it on your own terms. Like, what if we could create a way of living that worked pre-apocalypse and post-apocalypse?”

“I’m all in!” said Caitlin. “How??”

“That’s what I’m trying to articulate over the next few weeks,” I said. “I don’t think I have the be-all, end-all solution. But I think I have a framework for ONE wholesale solution.”

“I think the solution has to be very-many-pronged by definition, no?” said Caitlin.

“Totally!” I agreed. “People have to be able to look at a viable option for the future and go, ‘Yeah, sounds rad, let’s try it.’ Or they can be like, ‘Nah, fuck that, but it gave me an idea…”

“What we need badly are ideas right now,” said Caitlin. “Creative, smart people wondering about what comes next and how we can get there. All these negative stories just paralyze us with despair.”

“I’ve been circling this drain for years,” I said, “and the thing that makes me feel the most sane, the most confident that we can unfuck ourselves, is finding a way for a discrete number of people to live well with zero net impact. And if you can achieve that, you can scale it. But it requires addressing ALL the systems at play.”

“What does ‘living well’ mean to you?” asked Caitlin.

“In one of many debates we’ve had about this,” said Blessing, “I exemplified ‘living well’ as a world in which you can still have an amaro if you want it.”

“I am gonna guess,” said Caitlin, “that everyone has their version of an amaro. How do we pull that off? Can we?”

“I think amaros are eminently achievable!” I said.

“What if my amaro is going to Italy to drink it?” asked Caitlin. “Fuck.”

“You just have to go slowly!” I said. “Which will make Italy that much more gorgeous when you arrive.”

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