There’s always the unsettling possibility that what we do matters.
It’s not a topic we talk much about and I have no window into the souls of others, but my suspicion remains that most of us ﬁnd the idea that our actions might have genuinely serious and perhaps lasting effects to be a source of profound unease.
Why? First of all, we—and here by “we” I mean “I,” with the assumption that I’m not alone in this—are lazy. If our actions matter, that saddles us with a duty, and all duties are frankly a drag. They tend to cut into the time available to watch movies online, think about sex and tweet about the quality of our morning coffee. If our actions matter, our inaction paints us in an unpleasant light, and the simple joy of slacking becomes more difﬁcult to savor.
Second, we don’t like to think about things that matter. Actions 0that matter tend to show their import only over time, and our hominid brains seem poorly adjusted to paying attention to (much less caring about) the far future. Indeed, early in our evolution too much foresightedness probably increased one’s risk of having a bad day with a saber-toothed cat. Sure, hunters and gatherers cache food and water and tools against the day they might need them in more desperate circumstances, but by and large actions intentionally taken today to change the nature of our lives tomorrow appear to be a pretty recent thing, and perhaps only really a thing for the last 30,000 years or so.
Our ability to foresee seems to have grown rapidly once we began living in larger groups with more complex cultures. (I have no actual evidence for it, but I’m pretty sure gossip and foresight are related—having to track the actions and imagine the mindsets of lots of other people tends to pull us into all sort of scenarizing about what might happen if we do X or they do Y—and it’s a pretty short skip from that to futurism, frankly.)0 That ability then blasted off into hyper-acceleration with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, scientiﬁc modeling and the sort of measurement and prediction that’s so vital to capitalism.
So the cognitive ability to grapple with how we shape the events of future times represent a sort of cultural add-on (arguably the most important thing culture has done for us), and one that we’re getting better and better at. But that doesn’t mean we’ve fully gotten the hang of it. Foresight remains a learned skill, unevenly distributed0 and poorly applied to the lives of even those who have mastered it to some degree (if my own actions are anything to judge from). Simply put, thinking ahead is hard work.
Then, too, and this might prove most important, the ﬁrst thing anyone realizes when 0beginning to consider the way their own actions might play out over time is that, in the future, we’re all dead. Inevitably, inexorably dead. You are, I am, so’s everyone else. The future, whatever else it is, is the place where the now living go to die. This does not make it a happy place0 for most of us to 0ponder.
So thinking about the consequences of our actions is unpleasant, difﬁcult and upsetting. Small wonder most of us avoid it whenever possible.
And yet… and yet. There the future sits, staring at us with its unblinking eyes, saying nothing. And once it’s seen one of us, it’s extremely hard for us to not to see it back. We’re having coffee, reading the news, and there it is; we’re thinking about our partner or our kids, and there it is; we’re planning our next career move or our retirement, and there it is: staring right at us, stony and unrelenting.
If you’re reading this, it’s almost certainly because the future’s seen you. It’s very likely you’ve spent time wondering what it wants from you. And in that process, if you’re like me, you’ve come again and again to the thought we started 0with: What if it actually matters what I do with my life?
One can handwave and say that in every generation, momentous questions demand the attention of the dutiful, or some shit like that. But I’m interested, for the moment, not in philosophy but in practice. And in practical terms, facts dark and large seem to say that what we do over the next forty or so years—that is, what we alive today actually do with the years we have to live—matters in a way that, perhaps, no one else’s actions have ever mattered before.
That’s because we stand astride a giant hinge 0moment in humanity’s relationships not only with the planet but with its own future. Actions taken or not taken, problems addressed or worsened, crises met or shirked from—these have the potential to radically alter the lives of our descendants, of real people, related to us, with their own loves and hopes and fears and strivings. Their worlds are being molded by our hands, and the Earth itself is the clay we work.
We need to try to stay sane in the face of such a realization, and one prescription for sanity is humility. Some things are out of our power: physical laws, our own universe, forces too large to grasp, trends which seem at least too big to alter, changes we set in motion long before we realized they were changes at all, the impositions of men with seemingly unchallengeable power. We can’t ﬁx everything as individuals and it is a terrible idea to try. Taking on the burden of it all will put you in the madhouse.
That said, here we are, and while we can’t change everything, we can perhaps change the most critical things. We can look for leverage points. We can spot state-shifts and attempt to accelerate or interrupt them. We can spread ideas that transform the possibilities other people can imagine, and that in turn can increase our ability to foresee and act decisively together. If the world demands insightful actions that currently lie outside the reach of most people, we can grow—become the people who can reach farther than people could before. If our actions matter, we can learn to act masterfully, with acumen and wisdom, on scales large enough to matter. Such a thing is not an impossibility, after all.
But to do that, we need new minds. If we wish to act on a planetary scale, to create a future we will not cringe to leave for those to come after, we must learn to think on that scale as well. Planetary thinking is the mastery demanded of planetary actors. To think it, after all, is always and ever the ﬁrst step towards being it. “Free your mind,” as the man says, “and your ass will follow.”
We might start by asking ourselves what we love to do and what we still don’t understand about the planet, and looking for the places where the two usefully intersect: putting our joy where it will help the most. We might start by heading straight towards the knottiest challenge we can ﬁnd, ﬁguring that our work will unweave a hitch in a fabric others are working to restore as well, so perhaps the best thing we can do is pick the right problem. We might start with Bucky Fuller’s challenge to himself: “If the success or failure of this planet and of human beings depended on who am and what I do…Who would I be? What would I do?” Or, ﬁnally, we might start simply by understanding we’re not alone.
To think the entirety of planet by oneself is an impossibility, and I believe the attempt can injure us. To begin with, even the most important natural and human systems with which we have concerned ourselves represent levels of complexity that exceed the grasp not only of one person, but of any small group of people: planetary thinking is a networked activity. (Even the lone geniuses out there are woven into that network, however distant they look.)
Further, I don’t know that any human psyche is built to withstand the pressure of planetary responsibility, alone. The road behind us is strewn with spiritual casualties—those who have tried, futiley, to carry it all single-handedly. I know, I became one.
I haven’t talked about it much in public, but while doing Worldchanging, I walked into a darkness I found too terrifying to conﬁde in others, and too deep to ﬁnd my way out of alone. I looked at the road ahead and I saw, in grim and stark detail, the ways humanity seems likely to fail over the coming century, and what tragedy, pain and loss those failures seem likely to exact from the innocents who come after us. I had horrifying dreams: walking into a hospital nursery in which all the babies were dead, or standing in forest onto which a stinging rain fell, until the trees dissolved into heaps of rusted metal. You know, fucked up shit.
It was some pretty classic PTSD, made worse by stress, the deaths of my parents and several good friends, and a frankly self-abusive lifestyle of constant travel, poor sleep, no exercise and staggering numbers of parties. And it didn’t play out until it had taken a toll on me and on a number of people I cared deeply about. The reality is, I’m lucky to have made it through without being too permanently diminished.
For much of the last 40 years, trauma has been our business in the sustainability movement. One of the worst things we’ve done to the world is to saddle people (most especially lots and lots of young people) with the crushing imminence of a dying planet, and then to send them off alone into the darkness to cope as they will. We continue to do this. It’s wrong, and it’s also counterproductive.
With Planetary, my goal has become to not only show people why and how tothink in planetary terms, but how to be whole with that knowledge. To give people the sense not only that these crises can be understood and grappled with (we all know that fear imagined is almost always much worse than realities made clear) but also that they don’t need to be borne alone; that we have allies everywhere, and good reason to temper our fear with optimism and courage.
That’s what we’re here to do together, and I propose we do it in the plainest spirit of exploration: by learning together in public, by going out ahead of the discourse, out there to the edge of knowing, and sharing what we ﬁnd. It’s my aim to lead by example in trying to be as bold, and clear, and true, and vulnerable as I know how to be in writing these letters
A cynic or a struggle-weary person might question whether a hand-picked group of dedicated, smart people can have much of an impact. They might well be right: this might come to nothing. But then again, what if? What if what we explore as we come together—what we learn, our discussions, the resources we share, the example we provide, the spirit of the thing we create—what if all that we do together matters?
I’m willing to put myself out there to ﬁnd out. Are you?