Source: Photo: Jenny Lea on Unsplash
As a former long-time Bay Area resident, I find it heartbreaking to watch the images from this past week. The fact that the Burning Man festival, the quintessential West Coast gathering — an event “that is Silicon Valley,” as Elon Musk once described it — ended just a few days before yet another wave of wildfires hit the region was a strange coincidence emblematic of the strange times in which we live. Shortly after tens of thousands of “Burners” were gathering in the virtual “Multiverse” of this year’s Burning Man, large parts of the U.S. West Coast were up in flames, and in many places had burned down to the ground, with the skies lit orange, street lights turned on during ash-gray days. It wasn’t uncommon to hear “Blade Runner” comparisons.
There couldn’t be a more poignant image for the dismal state of the Golden State: a region famed for producing bold visions of the future and blessed with an abundance of sun and optimism drowning in a dark, apocalyptic perversion of its own utopia.
The saying: “This isn’t California’s worst year in the last hundred, it’s California’s best year in the next thousand,” made the rounds on Twitter, and not even the most unabashed optimist can argue its underlying truth.
Climate change is a human-made disaster, fueled by greed and the insatiable desire to win at all costs. It’s the final product of a business world that equates profit maximization with maximal extraction of both natural and human “resources,” of data and identities. No CEO Business Roundtable declarations of intent or other expressions of “conscious capitalism” can detract from this. The Long-Term Stock Exchange, which launched this past week in San Francisco as an attempt to help business leaders free themselves from “being held hostage” to quarterly profits and short-terminism, valuing long-term positive social and environmental impact, may simply have come too late.
The (looming) apocalypse is indeed the great “reveal” (such is the word’s original meaning in Greek). In a region that is home to Big Tech the irony is especially biting: Silicon Valley, touting to make the world a better place, has basically become hell on earth: unhealthy, unbalanced, unhabitable. The ugly interface of late capitalism.
Climate action means strengthening our human systems
We may indeed have to learn how to lose, not as a cynical act of resignation but as a humbled posture that lets us appreciate a smaller life while finding solace in each other. It is no coincidence that the final act of Burning Man is the ritualistic burning of “the Man,” and one of its community principles is: “Leave no trace.” If we get our endings right, we might indeed be capable of new beginnings. You can mock Burning Man and its Multiverse as escapism or decadence all day long, but it is undeniable that it knows a thing or two about the power of surrendering to something greater than yourself and the beauty of community.
This made me think of the controversial essay the novelist Jonathan Franzen published in The New Yorker almost exactly a year ago: “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it,” he wrote, and began his case with the weltschmerz words of Kafka: “There is infinite hope, only not for us.” Franzen flips them though and counters that “in our rapidly darkening world, that the converse of Kafka’s quip is equally true: There is no hope, except for us.”
He discusses various scientific outlooks regarding climate change and concludes: “Call me a pessimist or call me a humanist, but I don’t see human nature fundamentally changing anytime soon. I can run ten thousand scenarios through my model, and in not one of them do I see the two-degree target being met.” And further: “All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable. Once you accept that we’ve lost it, other kinds of action take on greater meaning.”
So it is hope, against all odds, in fact, against all evidence (which, arguably, is the very essence of hope) and community then — making every single one of our human systems stronger — that he views as the best bulwark against the climate crisis: “Keep doing the right thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically — a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble — and take heart in your small successes. Any good thing you do now is arguably a hedge against the hotter future, but the really meaningful thing is that it’s good today. As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for” — and to be part of a “Larger Us.”
A “Larger Us” is possible
The “Larger Us” is a concept coined by Alex Evans, the founder of the Collective Psychology Project and a contributor to The Great Wave. He is promoting the idea of a Larger Us to overcome the growing polarization in our societies, arguing that that the COVID-19 pandemic, just like climate change or political tribalism, has asked us: “Do we see ourselves as part of a Larger Us, a them-and-us, or an atomized ‘I,’ and do we respond to perceived threats by going into fight-or-flight or tend-and-befriend mode?”
To realize the Larger Us, Evans points to a framework he labels ABC, as in Agency, Belonging, and most importantly, Conscious Self-Awareness:
- Agency is about whether we feel like we have power to shape our lives;
- Belonging is about whether we feel connected or alone; and
- Conscious Self-awareness is about whether we have the presence of mind to be able to choose how to react to the stuff that happens in our lives rather than our amygdala (the part of our brain that deals with threats) choosing for us.
The C is key because Agency and Belonging can also be found in terrorist organizations or in a conspiracy theory movement like QAnon. Conscious Self-awareness, however, is a matter of tendering to ourselves, Evans explains. When we spoke this week, he impressed on me the link between state-of-the-world and state-of-mind, between systemic change and our inner world: “All of us need to manage our mental and emotional states now more than ever. Not just for our own wellbeing, but also because our inner states end up affecting everything else around us.” This is particularly true when all certainties, and the narratives which used to provide orientation and a sense of identity, collapse around us.
Evans’ call for Conscious Self-awareness may sound a bit like a concept catering to an elite class of consumers privileged enough to work on their state-of-mind through mindfulness classes and wellbeing apps. But he views his concept as a democratizing formula and stresses that it does not delegate the responsibility solely to well-heeled individuals. He thinks that across social strata we are all practitioners of collective psychology anyway, consciously or not, and if governments and organizations, and especially companies, help us cultivate the ABC, a Larger Us is indeed possible — for all of us.
Like California, and like America, the Larger Us is not something that can ever be achieved. It is the idea that better stories evoke our better angels, and essentially a myth — but that doesn’t make it less powerful.