from Year of No Snow
February 22, 2023
Inherent in the invention of futures is the risk that you make a mistake–underestimate the toll, overestimate capacity, look foolish or hysterical or overly pessimistic, alienate your friends, get cast out of the market, be shadowbanned on the web. The alternative is to continue eating up the nostalgia. Climate change grief is real; I look at maps of the disappearing coastline of Senegal and immediately feel that hungry ocean on the steps of my first home and my current one. Climate change grief is also a consumer index. In a world this unpredictable, our fear, our need for stability, is exploitable, and it is being exploited–by oil companies paying for public relations campaigns meant to assuage a justifiably distrustful public, by centrist Democrats quashing dissent from the left by provoking the beast on the right, by a media culture that turns personal narratives into sellable content, and by an economy that turns humans and nature into labor and resources so it can pour back into itself what it takes, living off of our therefore perpetually unfulfilled lives like a parasite.
As environmental writer George Monbiot says, “We will prevent the pandemics of the future only when we value life ahead of money.” Here, he’s responding specifically to the recent, seemingly unstoppable outbreak of avian influenza as it relates to animal farming, but I’ve had the phrase running through my head in just about every context: on the train, at the doctor’s office, while paying bills. Valuing life ahead of money is also how we’re going to survive climate change, if we’re going to survive it in a meaningful way, because doing so would put us back into alignment with nature, which has no use for money at all and, in fact, thrives in the absence of the systems which center it. And in this era, which may or may not be late capitalism, imagining a future where we value life ahead of money is, by necessity, an invention. It means pulling “the violence” that “has been largely pushed out of sight,” as David Graeber puts it, back into the center of our understanding of what’s bad and what is changeable about this world.
[...] Anything that has been invented by human beings, and which confers economic value and financial benefit to its owners simply by being owned—buildings, financial assets, others’ labor—perpetuates the notion, based on not one single natural law, that anything can be owned. That nature, or wildlife, or human beings, can be owned. Graeber again: “We are talking of ‘rights held,’ as English law puts it, ‘against the world’—that is, understandings between ourselves and everyone else on the planet that they will all refrain from interfering with our possessions, and therefore allow us to treat them more or less any way we like.” Consider the reality that we can legally, lawfully, under capitalism, apply these principles to natural ecosystems that we ourselves live within and depend on. To me, a smart kid who nevertheless got a C in Econ, it makes no sense. It seems evidently destructive, yet it’s what we’re dealing with.
So, it is imperative to invent something else. As always, I see this capacity in my friends—people who share meals with each other, grow tomatoes and give them to neighbors, travel to the border to assist asylum seekers, create skill-share groups, donate to GoFundMes, disrupt gender norms, read each other’s poems or whole entire manuscripts, exchange clothes, start free stuff groups online, install community fridges, pass the joint, try desperately to better understand what “the economy” actually is, share abortion information, create families, march in the streets. As always, it’s us, and we’re already doing it on a small scale every day. Acknowledging that, seeing that in our natural constitutions, is vital to the process of getting rid of the rest of it, which is vital to inventing a new relationship with this, our one place in the universe, which is vital to saving it.
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“Newsletter” isn’t exactly the right word. Mortal Lives is a series of reflections on the many intersections of the human and natural worlds, and what we can learn there. These writings are based on my experiences as a birder, researcher, and wildlife care manager working with the other New Yorkers, from hawks and gulls to opossums and warblers. I’m inspired by climate activists, Indigenous thinkers, and leftist organizers who seek to imagine a different, more harmonious balance between all beings on earth. If that’s not your thing, I welcome you even more.