What’s the point?
On flossing your teeth and going to work in the face of climate doom
I took on some new responsibilities at work today and I made it to the gym and I remembered to floss this morning but oh my god who cares, the world is ending anyway.
Hi! It’s Wednesday and it’s time for the Brutal South newsletter.
I’m a millennial, which means I find myself thinking and hearing a lot of sentences like that first one. Maybe you can relate. I’ve collected some field samples from twitter that I’ll be sprinkling throughout this issue.
The basic formula goes like this: Mundane daily task + impending doom = What’s the point?
I felt ridiculous last week going to my office job while the Amazon rainforest, one of the last bastions against catastrophic climate change, was burning. I was supposed to be planning for retirement, but then I saw the president was asking his advisors why he couldn’t just launch nukes at hurricanes, and I couldn’t imagine this country or the global economy continuing to function in any meaningful way when I am 67 years old.
Faced with the ever-nearing prospect of climate apocalypse, dire financial prospects, and a global resurgence of fascism, my generation’s outlook and humor have gone pitch-dark. This is perhaps more pronounced among the growing number of us who’ve been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, but I think we’re all susceptible to feelings of doom.
To me, climate change looms largest among our existential threats. Unless your name is Xi Jinping, you are essentially powerless to stop the melting glaciers and burning forests. Take the bus, go vegan, cover your house in solar panels — these are all honorable choices but they won’t save us unless we summon the political will to curtail the power of the billionaire class.
So. How are we supposed to live now?
Climate change is an existential crisis on a global level (it threatens the continued existence of human life), but it’s also a source of existential crisis on a personal level.
I’ve only seen one movie that dealt with that personal crisis, and it was First Reformed, Paul Schrader’s 2017 drama about a pastor who becomes obsessed with his own complicity in global warming and agonizes over what action he should take. Schrader also wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver, if that helps give you an idea of the tone of his work: pensive, always on the verge of violence, and dark, dark, dark.
There’s a scene in the first act where the pastor, played by Ethan Hawke, is counseling a parishioner who has become a radical environmental activist. Here’s what the pastor says:
Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. I can't know what the future will bring. We have to choose, despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously: hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope.
Hope and despair! That’s some top-notch pastoring. But the pastor struggles to live by his own words, and he falls deeper into his own despair as the film goes on. By the end, hope is a long way off in the distance.
Despair isn’t the same thing as pessimism. Despair is saying with another pastor, the author of Ecclesiastes, “What is crooked cannot be made straight.”
Have you ever read Ecclesiastes? You could read it on your phone on a lunch break. I have read it at least once a year since I was 15, and it is as much a salve to my 30-year-old dad anxieties as it was to my teenage angst.
It’s a book of wisdom written by an old man, supposedly Solomon, who was getting tired and cranky and salty as hell. Among his big takeaways: Work is meaningless (4:4), speech is meaningless (6:11), people are basically animals (3:18), and the living should envy the dead (4:2). Don’t get mad at me; it’s in the Bible.
Hope and despair, though! And hope isn’t the same thing as optimism. It’s an act of will, not a disposition. When I think about hope I think about Ecclesiastes, too:
“(God) has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
I realize I’m quoting the Bible at you a lot this week, and I thank you for your patience if you don’t believe in God and you’ve kept reading this far anyway.
Bear with me here: Maybe hope, real transcendent hope, begins in despair.
Try meditating for a minute on the shrinking crop yields, the mass extinctions of plants and animals already underway, the mass migrations that will begin once the great coastal cities abandon their seawalls. Think about death. What matters in the end?
“What gain has the worker from his toil?” Ecclesiastes asks, and you can almost see the author smirking.
There was a whole crew of philosophers who spent time smoking and arguing in French cafes after World War II and one of the big questions they were trying to answer went something like this: Now that humans have godlike power to destroy entire civilizations and maybe even commit mass suicide, how are we supposed to live?
These people were called existentialists and my favorite one was Albert Camus, a French Algerian who looked like a haggard Humphrey Bogart. During the war he edited an underground French Resistance newspaper called Combat.
One of his major ideas was revolt — affirming the absurdity of life and carrying on anyway, as an act of defiance against the prevailing order.
Revolt, Camus said, “is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity … It challenges the world anew every second ... That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation which ought to accompany it.”
So you do stay in the fight, even if you’re bound to lose. You do go to work, even as you acknowledge the absurdity of it. Camus wrote a novel called The Plague about an Algerian town that was afflicted with disease. There’s a doctor in the town who goes around lancing wounds and treating patients long after it’s obvious they’re all going to die, and that’s as close as anyone comes to heroism in Camus’ book.
Hope and despair: When you become a parent, they suddenly share a common focus. I see hope in my children; I despair for the world we are handing them; I feel both of those things at the same time.
So here’s my stance of revolt: I am powerless to fix the world for my children, but I’m damn well going to try.
I realize I’ve rambled on about movies and French cigarettes and the Bible and given no practical advice or insights. The problem I’m trying to address isn’t a practical one. It’s philosophical: “Why should I bother?”
Maybe none of this spoke to you; maybe you have no problem getting out of bed and going to work. I have a bad habit of assuming my neuroses are universal. Forgive me.
But if, like me, you do need a word of encouragement, I leave you with this benediction for the week: You have to live as if your actions matter, even if they don’t. You have to live your life in open revolt against the absurdity of the world. And we have to do it together.
Go in peace.
The Camus quotation comes from Justin O’Brien’s English translation of The Myth of Sisyphus, from the section titled “Absurd Freedom.”
The Ecclesiastes passages come from the English Standard Version, which translates the teacher’s famous refrain as “vanity of vanities!” but includes a footnote that the actual Hebrew word means “vapor.”
I was listening to a lot of music by the band Slow Runner while I wrote this week, particularly the song “The Sea Is Never Full” off of their debut album, which takes its chorus from a line in Ecclesiastes 1.
Finally, I highly recommend this piece by Sarah Miller about the lies and evasions of Miami real estate agents during the final decades of that city’s existence.