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I’ve spent the week working through the writing of climate futurist Alex Steffen. Some of you have probably been following him for years; I found his work through Liz Weil’s excellent, provocative piece on what it means to continue to live in California.
Steffan’s current argument is four-fold:
The planet we occupy is already in a state of what Steffen calls discontinuity. As he puts it, “the human world has become something no human has ever experienced before,” and we need to figure out how to live with that alteration and the promise of significant alterations to come. We’ve spent years trying to pretend otherwise — that there will be some silver bullet green market fix, that the houses we build in flood and wild fire zones will be miraculously spared — but things just keep getting worse. We need to stop yearning (and voting, and policy-making) for a return to some pre-climate change time, because it’s not going to happen.
The suffering associated with this discontinuity is not evenly distributed. We are living through a transapocalypse, in which a certain segment of the population can pay for conditions that (temporarily) erase the effects of climate disaster, while millions of others have no choice but to deal with its financial and health and cultural realities. “The local forecast for some may be ecological collapse with choking air and a side of failed state,” Steffan writes, “but elsewhere, times are good, the skies are clear and the markets are up.” And so long as the wealthy can protect themselves, there will be no action to protect those left behind. People get through the day, the week, the year because they have to. But that doesn’t mean that getting through the day, the week, the year in this way, with this amount of suffering, is normal.
Steffan is no doomer. He believes truly apocalyptic thinking gives people license to act in actively immoral ways. He’s no idealist, either. He’s a futurist insomuch as he thinks there will be one, but only if we act. “Discontinuity means change in our selves and our societies,” he writes. “Transformation is not just a matter of loss. The losses are profoundly tragic. They are not, however, the whole story, or even its most important plot line. The fiercest truth of this emergency is not how bad things have gotten, but how much is now within our power to change for the better.”
An important part of acting — in this moment — is concerted ruggedization. The knee-jerk reaction interpretation of that word is “prepping,” but that’s not what Steffan is referring to. Individuals outfitting their individual houses for climate disasters is about as effective against climate disaster as, I dunno, telling everyone in the U.S. to get trained in CPR instead of having accessible and affordable healthcare for all. Ruggedization means discerning which places are going to be unlivable (and which property is going to be uninsurable and/or lose all value) and figuring out not just how to find new homes for those people, but also how to compensate them for that loss, because it’s a long-term gain in terms of costs for the state. It means tolerating fire mitigation practices that include actual fire, even when that sounds and feels scary. It might mean giving up on some unlivable locations. It also means acknowledging that weather aberrations are not, in fact, aberrations; they are the norm.
I’ve missed some nuance here — I highly recommend this post on discontinuity, this one on the transapocalyptic now, and this one on ruggedization — but I wanted to sketch out the overarching thinking. It appeals to me because it occupies the liminal space we’re often denied in liberal spheres, which can demand a sort of sunny revivalist spirit: Yes We Can, and if you feel like you can’t, you need to adjust your attitude. I certainly have leaned into this attitude myself, particularly in the wake of 2016, when it really did feel like we could vote our way into a different posture, a different paradigm, anything that wasn’t the nihilistic abyss of Trumpism.
The 2018 midterms did seem to underline that political action was possible. There were echoes of that same hopefulness in 2020, but the combination of Biden Moderation, Joe Fucking Manchin, the erosion of voting rights, and continued inaction on climate change, on childcare, on eldercare, on healthcare, on the filibuster, on student loan debt, on pandemic mitigation — I am more convinced than ever that the United States is a nation in decline.
We often paper over that reality with nostalgia for a previous time: which, depending on your particular ideology, is defined by middle class stability, by white privilege and supremacy, by the privileging of the nuclear family, by widespread home ownership, by thriving rural culture, by analog connectivity, by less partisan politics, by strong unions, by collectivism, the list goes on.
But I think there’s a difference between acknowledging that our society has been different in the past — that, for example, strong labor protections are possible — and wanting to revert to that past. Because no matter what moment you pick from that past, there were other (massive, exclusionary) problems there, too. Even if the past were in fact reproducible, from a general social justice perspective, it shouldn’t be.
So we need to cut nostalgia, and look clearly at the present. You can’t build a structure that stands unless you acknowledge the composition of the ground on which you’re building. That’s what ruggedization allows: a framework for action in face of constant upheaval and disruption. This may sound obvious, but I’m not sure it is. As Jason Crawford notes in the Twitter thread below, humans aren’t great at assessing information in the moment. We cling to old information until it’s so obsolete we’re all but forced to update our priors. (See, for example, the particular endurance of hygiene theater). Most of us live in past understandings as a matter of course.
See especially: policy drift. The term was coined by economist Jacob Hacker to describe what happens when a policy created for a certain set of societal needs (related to, say, the economy of the 1950s) is not updated in order to respond to significant societal changes. And as I’ve reported on the various forces (student loan debt, the racial wealth gap, the childcare crisis, the eldercare crisis) that make contemporary life so hard for so many, it’s the only explanation that makes it all make sense.
Our thinking on child and eldercare (who should do it, how it should be rewarded, monetarily or otherwise) on student loans, on retirement, on the length of the school day or the work week, on the way we regulate and tax businesses, on the protections we provide for workers — so much of it was built to accommodate a reality that is simply no longer the reality for the majority of Americans. So why haven’t we updated them?
The answer isn’t straightforward. There’s institutional fear and anxiety, a tax structure still set up to protect and privilege capital at all costs, a general lack of imagination, and prevailing Christian Nationalist positions on what “family” should look like, all topped off with a legislative body that has effectively ceased to make meaningful policy in any political direction. (On this point, I strongly recommend reading Ezra Klein’s case against the filibuster, which argues that our current system is too paralyzed to govern in any direction, so we just keep dealing with this shitty policy drift, and voting purely on ideological talking points, instead of actual governance).
We have effectively resigned ourselves to pretending these tattered clothes we wore when we wore in kindergarten fit us, in our grown-ass bodies, and protect us from the elements. Abolishing the filibuster could (could!) result in substantive policy changes. If this current iteration of the GOP is in charge, that could also entail a good amount of wreckage. But at least the wreckage will be discernible: something that voters can understand as linked to a political party. And if the GOP isn’t in charge, it opens up the possibility for a different imagination of what government could be and do.
Here, I return to some of the societal stopping blocks I outlines earlier this year:
Our current school hours are overwhelming for educators, too much for most students, and brutally inconvenient for most parents. Why not change them? Childcare is a market failure. Why not rethink how we fund it? Our current medical system fails in so many intersecting ways and it is preposterously expensive. Why not do the hard but necessary work of joining the rest of the world in decoupling it from employment? The racial wealth gap is expanding instead of contracting. Why not address it through one of its primary causes: student debt?
Higher education, too, is a broken system and a burnout machine. What if we stopped trying to patch the hull and just rebuild the ship? It’s really hard to be single or solo-living or a single-parent, to the extent that many people stay in toxic or abusive relationships that they would otherwise leave. Why not rethink the way our tax code and social security privilege marriage? We need more workers. Why not allow more people to become citizens? The fetishization of the one-family home has culminated in millions struggling to afford housing and thousands of others without homes at all. Why not continue to rethink — and, in many cases, revisit — other ways of living with one another? The carceral state is deeply racist and ineffective in actually deterring crime and hugely expensive. Why not actually consider abolition?
People want a way to be with their kids more, but not all the time — or work more, but not all the time, or figure out how to do work for pay and also do work, for others and in their communities and in their families, that doesn’t pay. Why not at least start thinking about how Universal Basic Income could dramatically change our overall quality of life?
Only when we actually say the problems aloud can we actually begin to start to solve them — and, in the process, make those solutions rugged. People talk a lot about how organizations should aspire to a sort of nimbleness, and I think that’s an important characteristic when it comes to, say, the handling of a crisis. But resilience and adaptability are just as crucial. We’re not just talking about actual ideas here; we’re talking about the idea’s capacity for modification. Put differently: If a policy isn’t working, do we have the systems in place to adapt it? If the circumstances animating a policy change, do we have the tolerance to change the policy? If the proposal for change involves significant patience over the long term, can we figure out how to cultivate it?
So many of us (and Americans in particular) have become addicted to short-term results. Within this thinking, if a plan or policy or change won’t bear immediate fruit, it should be abandoned. As a result, we spend the bulk of our time reacting instead of preparing. But making ourselves resilient for the next pandemic requires a paradigm shift now, before it arrives. Same with wildfire management and preparedness for any massive weather event, regardless of location: we need to start hardening ourselves against their inevitability. Does that cost money? Yes! Does it ultimately cost less than cleaning up after disaster? Also yes!
Insurance companies understand this: that paying for your colonoscopy is ultimately far cheaper than paying for months or years of colon cancer treatment. Maybe the real problem is that same refusal to think of what’s happening to our planet — and our nation — as a wasting, fatal disease. We acclimate to new realities, and those of us with capital have the capacity to make them survivable and, as such, effectively ignorable, with periodic bouts of deprivation and/or misery.
But that approach is not a societal solution — not even close. It’s transapocalyptic: a not-even-early stage of a society’s disintegration.
Steffan has ideas about how to ruggedize our built environment and infrastructure for the climate catastrophes to come. But what I’m thinking about, moving forward, is how we can build our organizations, our businesses, and our care structures to be similarly resilient. Look to the example of the (spectacular) Portland restaurant Katchka, whose co-owners recently announced that they’d be replacing tipping with a 22% service fee that would allow all employees — including back of the house staff — to make $25 an hour.
Employees also all have full health insurance, and, by the end of the year, will be part of a profit-sharing model. This approach not only makes restaurant work more equitable in so many overlapping ways, but also makes it more sustainable — for both the restaurant itself and its employees. As the restaurant industry as a whole grapples with mass resignations, Katchka’s model is a move not just to protect its own future, but the future of food culture in Portland in general. “This isn’t a competitive move, going ‘Oh, we’re going to pay our restaurant workers more money,” Katchka co-owner Bonnie Morales told Eater. “I imagine a Portland where this is the status quo, this is the norm, so Portland continues to feel like a food destination.”
For portable (previously “office”) work, ruggedizing means figuring out a plan for the future that makes it easy to revert to full-time remote work whenever needed, for whatever climate or pandemic-related reason. It looks like climate leave policies and significant bereavement leave and family leave for family that is bound by kin, not law. It looks like flexible scheduling that allow for caregiving disruptions. And it also looks like scheduling and managing strategies that works to protect against burnout before it happens, not live with it once it does.
For work that has historically demanded presence, ruggedizing means figuring out alternative ways to provide service when that presence is not possible. What would it look like to dedicate even more time and funding to figuring out what robust, remote library services would look like? How can telehealth become even more sophisticated and accessible? What the hell do we do about education? And how can we come up with protocols, paid sick leave, and enforceable protections for those workers who do have to leave their homes, whether to maintain infrastructure or provide emergency services?
How, in other words, can we actually protect our essential workers — both in the short and long term, in ways that account for mental and physical health — so that we can continue to have a civilization that functions?
It’s more than packing a bug-out bag for your family — it’s figuring out a let’s-survive-this strategy for your community. What’s the plan, for example, for communal childcare when those services aren’t available? How can we transform into tight pods of care and service that cushion the blows for the most vulnerable? And how can we put that rugged infrastructure into place now, before another societal or environmental catastrophe demands it?
I know that’s a lot of questions. But we need a lot of new answers.
One of my acts of community care this week: trying to make life just slightly easier for the teachers in my life (and their students). Here’s a thread on very straightforward ways you can do so in your own community.
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