Let us go in together,
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.
The time is out of joint — O cursed spite,
That I was ever born to set it right!
Nay, come let us go together.
A Jan. 3 essay in the New York Times Magazine was a real eye-opener to the now we’re in. In “This Isn’t the California I Married,” Elizabeth Weil writes about how much she and her husband have loved living in California, but the state is now behaving like a partner who had gone astray.
The dominant story in California these days is that the orange, dystopian smoke-filled sky that blanketed the state on Sept. 9, 2020, was proof that our beloved was corrupted and had been for some time. We were in the midst of the worst wildfire season in the state’s history, and the evident wrongness traumatized us and shook us awake. Living in California now meant accepting that fire was no longer an episodic hazard, like earthquakes. Wildfire was a constant, with us everywhere, every day, all year long, like tinnitus or regret. The dry spring was bad; the dry summer, worse; the dry fall, unbearable. Even a wet winter (if we caught a break from the drought) offered little reprieve. All thoughts, all phenomena, existed relative to fire. Where we are now — January, the fresh and less fire-alarming time of year — should be the moment for us to relax and reassess what we’re doing in California and how to live here well. Yet the rains turn the burn scars into mud slides and allow the next season’s flora, what the foresters call fuel, to grow.
“This was not the California I first married,” Weil continues, “but to be honest, I’m not the same person, either. Time is a beast. Did choosing to stay here mean a life defined by worry, vigilance and loss?”
Hasn’t time become a beast for all of us, with disturbing changes becoming a commonplace wherever we live? Wildfire in Australia, record flooding in British Columbia, monster hurricanes in the Gulf, weird winter heat and prolonged drought and wicked snowstorms … Events happen now with breathtaking frequency and frightening concurrence … The things which made us so love our home landscape have become so impinged by problematic and disturbing changes that no one is in Kansas anymore. (That means you.)
Weil turns to climate futurist Alex Steffen for ideas. Steffen produces a podcast and newsletter called “The Snap Forward,” and she presents his thought like this:
The climate crisis has caused us to get lost in time and space; we need to dig ourselves out of nostalgia and face the world as it exists. As he explained to me in his confident baritone, yes, California, and the world, are in bad shape. But the situation is not as devoid of hope as we believe. “We have this idea that the world is either normal and in continuity with what we’ve expected, or it’s the apocalypse, it’s the end of everything — and neither are true,” he said. That orange sky in 2020? “We’re all like, Wow, the sky is apocalyptic! But it’s not apocalyptic. If you can wake up and go to work in the morning, you’re not in an apocalypse, right?”
The more accurate assessment, according to Steffen, is that we’re “trans-apocalyptic.” We’re in the middle of an ongoing crisis, or really a linked series of crises, and we need to learn to be “native to now.” Our lives are going to become — or, really, they already are (the desire to keep talking about the present as the future is intense) — defined by “constant engagement with ecological realities,” floods, dry wells, fires. And there’s no opting out. What does that even mean?
We’re living through a discontinuity. This is Steffen’s core point. “Discontinuity is a moment where the experience and expertise you’ve built up over time cease to work,” he said. “It is extremely stressful, emotionally, to go through a process of understanding the world as we thought it was, is no longer there.” No kidding. “There’s real grief and loss. There’s the shock that comes with recognizing that you are unprepared for what has already happened.”
I found Steffen’s sweeping, dark pronouncements comforting. He at least had language and a functional metaphor to describe what was going on. Most of us have dragged our feet and deluded ourselves for too long about the state of the world. While we remain stuck, our world pulled away from our understanding of it. We’ve now fallen into a gap in our apprehension of reality. We need to acknowledge this, size up the rupture, then hurl ourselves over the breach.
Weil goes on to report extensively on all the varied challenges of living in California, using Steffen’s lens to see a California blundered into its chaotic present by stealing from its future, using broken tools to address the worsening problem (like “managing wildfire” ) and engaging a politics stuck in the idea that there is a normal to return to. She then looks for ways of becoming resilient at the personal level to the threat of wildfire (for one, by “home-hardening” or fireproofing homes).
Weil’s biggest challenge is to surrender any notion that the California she married will be coming back. “Relinquishing the idea of normal will require strength, levelheadedness, optimism and bravery, the grit to keep clinging to some thin vine of hope as we swing out of the wreckage toward some solid ground that we cannot yet see.”
I signed up for the free part of Steffen’s newsletter subscription; in his most recent weekly update he took pains to clarify some of the points in Weil’s article. He writes: “First, though this story is about California — and that was the specific focus of the conversation Liz Weil and I had last summer — the changed realities Californians find ourselves facing are different only in their specifics from the challenges people all around the world now face.”
Second, the reason why the planetary crisis is not an issue, but an era, is that we find ourselves living within a human world we’ve built, on a natural planet we’ve radically altered, and as we’ve driven planet-scale transformations through the climate and biosphere, our human world is increasingly unstable. The core challenge facing humanity is the need to rebuild the places, systems and societies around us to work on the planet we now inhabit. Every other problem we’re struggling with is subsumed under this overarching reality. There is nowhere to stand outside of it.
Which means we’re living in a deepening discontinuity.
Billions of us will collide with this fact in the next few years. The suddenness of our understanding of this reality — a reality that’s been solidifying for decades, but that a combination of predatory delay, entrenched entitlement and cultural inertia have kept us from seeing — means that our sense of tempo is shot to hell. Enormous changes will now come very fast.
Pretty unsettling, to think that what we thought of a normal, stable and durable has been lost at incomprehensible scales and speed.
Steffen however is quick to point out that we aren’t at Armageddon, at least not yet.
The planetary crisis ain’t the Apocalypse. We do not face the End of Everything. We face the obliteration of our certainties, sure. We also face the destruction of many of the wonders of nature. And we face the reality that for billions of people, life will feel pretty damn apocalyptic, even as humanity as a whole staggers along. We live now in a transapocalyptic world.
This changes what we might think of as right action in this moment. We are not the ones who are going to save the world by keeping the planetary crisis from happening, because it is already in motion, with more to come. There’s this line from ‘No Country for Old Men’ that I can’t get out of my head: “You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”
What this means is that we aren’t going to be able to transition to a sustainable future fast enough from our habitual destructive systems. The damage is going to continue to get worse. There will be big economic losers—those who make their profits on things they don’t have to pay for, the way fossil fuel extraction creates air pollution; those who reap value from things that are vulnerable (like building on coasts and accumulating expertise for things being lost, like sustainability). A separate industry flourishes by selling the dream that such things aren’t imperiled (aided, paradoxically, by “idealists insisting that we can restore continuity in a discontinuous world — that we can ‘reverse’ the planetary crisis.”)
This leads to Steffen’s most important point, that we’re all in the process of waking up to what he calls the Snap Forward:
We are, in increasing numbers, coming to realize that not only is the world already profoundly different than we thought — a rupture with our past — but that over the next few decades, the world will depart even more wildly from what we still think of as normal.
If we want to understand our immanent future, we have to engage seriously with ways of looking at the world that are still only emerging. Shit is getting real. Discontinuity is the job.
Discontinuity is the job for those of us who want to succeed with purpose, to have our own aspirations connect with strategies to deliver new solutions at the scope, scale and speed reality demands.
Furthermore, discontinuity is everyone’s task now, whether we think of it or not. This includes
billions of people who are more concerned with their own selves, families and communities than with the fate of the Earth. People acting from necessity — from the need to secure themselves from danger, to seize the opportunities to be found in rapid change before others can, to find cohesive constituencies who are ready to move with the speed demanded — are going to change our society far more in the near term than even the massive ecological dangers unfolding in front of us. Indeed, a core part of the Snap Forward is recognizing that people responding to discontinuity have become the dominant force of change on the planet:
“[What’s coming is] a realization that large-scale actions are now being driven not primarily by collective agreement of all parties, but by the growing power of those who see fast action as not only being in their self-interest, but also to their direct advantage.”
None of this is under control, much less optimal, but that’s what happens when you melt the damn ice caps.
This is transforming the shape of the possible, not taking it away but in fact making it hugely present for all of us—just not in any one conceivable way. “It is not too late for humanity to find a future that’s brighter than the present, but it won’t happen because we all agree on what it should look like. Nothing is that simple, or linear, or collective, or predictable anymore.”
And finally, to our challenge:
It’s important to live when we are. Being native to now, I think, is our deepest responsibility in the face of all this. And being at home in the world we actually inhabit means refusing to consign ourselves to living in the ruins of continuity, but instead realizing we live in the rising foundations of a future that actually works. It may be a fierce, wild, unrecognizable future, but that doesn’t mean it’s a broken future. Indeed, it’s the present that’s broken beyond redemption.
When it comes down to it, humanity’s discontinuity is made up of billions of personal discontinuities. Facing our own discontinuity forces the reality of changes that we desperately want to think of as “out there” into our own work, our own lives, our own homes, our own hearts. Even this, though, can be liberating.
That’s what we’re here to talk about: liberating, in this new reality, the best possibilities of our selves, our solutions and our societies from the dusty, decrepit certainties of a predatory past. Succeeding in every sense.
If that sounds good to you, you’re in the right place.
Native to a dysynchronous now: As crazy as the moment is — as crazy as every moment nowadays — this is our only homeland and possible future out of a no-longer-salvagable past. The way forward must become the way back to our roots, the canopy, the healing communion. With our dyssynchronous moment, this homeland of the possible.
Weil concludes her essay,
Across California — across the world — it’s easy, even comforting, to sit in despair. To stay depressed and mired in a state where not that much has truly changed. But nihilism is a failure of imagination, the bleak, easy way out. We need to face the lives before us. We need to name the discontinuity: See, there it is, the tear in the universe created by our fear and greed. What we believed was the present is actually the past. That was Steffen’s message to me in the Berkeley bar. We failed to keep pace with the future. And the longer we sat there, drinking our beers, the wider the gap became.
We can’t fix California’s wildfire problem with a big idea. We can only settle into the trans-apocalypse and work for the best future, the best present. That starts with acknowledging that our political structures have failed us and keep failing us every day. The powerful have failed the vulnerable. The old have failed the young. The global north has failed the global south. We have failed one another.
It’s a real, grown-up, look-mortality-in-the-eye moment we face.
Working for the best present, this shifting, dysynchronous, pre-apocalyptic now: That is your challenge this week. What does the landscape of this look like where you live and celebrate your being?
CLIMATE IS SOMETHING DIFFERENT
This was a heron, and the oddly effortless but dense wedge
in its body made across the sky, and more odd for being unfamiliar,
landing on the puddled roof of the nearby frame shop,
the second day of the flood receding. Then, there was the crew
of red-vented bulbuls (which took me days of search terms
to identify — “black crested bird with red breast,” “bird with red chest,”
“bird red stomach,” “bird” & “red” & “Houston” — when they invaded
last summer’s ripened fig tree), the black-crested birds that came stowed
full of potential — mutated germs in the seedpods’ husks — in cargo holds
of boats docked in the ship channel, before leaching into the city
like benzene jumping pipes for the gulf. I mean this flood now abated,
yet still as it will be fifty, a hundred years from now, and you, gathered
on what shore you may have found there, you in this echo
I might have detected in pulses under the water’s depth,
and — measuring them — have found myself also, does it help
I only wanted so I could have the need? What I denied myself had a border
as elastic as risen dough, the kind that requires little heat and time
and teams of hungry organisms drunk and belching their conversions,
with our bodies. To complaining about the flood as only this flood
and then rue today’s temperature is only sticking my hand outside
to get an estimate on the weather. I can report it is uncomfortable,
the air hovering at the edges of volcanic breath. If there is a lesson
on how not to worry, it’s that you’re not stuck only being one thing,
the multitudes in me and the multitudes in you. When ice-melt
exposes the bottle brought aboard the ship suspended on its journey,
whatever finds it might carry gratefully across their lips
these agents of the loop now circling through us.
— from Levee, 2019