Currently Contributing to my Brain’s (En)lightening Storm

Thinking about the larger structures that inform our everyday experiences has sent me into epiphanic raptures since at least my early college days. In the past few weeks, I’ve encountered several works that take a systems view of the pressing issues of our time. Taken together, they seem to coalesce around imagining what comes next for society and planet. At the very least they have all set my brain alight. I hope some of them do the same for you.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.

A sample quote ~

We are stuck with the problem of living despite economic and ecological ruination. Neither tales of progress nor of ruin tell us how to think about collaborative survival. It is time to pay attention to mushroom picking. Not that this will save us–but it might open our imaginations.

I first encountered Tsing’s work in my Intro Anthropology course, where we read In the Realm of the Diamond Queen. This helped us understand post-structuralist ethnography. Two years later in our “Commodities and Human Agency” course, I read parts of what was then her most recent book, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. From Tsing, I learned about the critical value of studying the margins: of society, of economies, of history. Mushroom goes even further into this poststructuralist marginalia, incorporating multispecies perspectives into her meandering, riveting storytelling. She leans into the interconnection and impossibility of synthesizing competing narratives, recognizing the whole as mutable and somewhat unknowable. But always worth investigating. Her work, like much of the other work I’ll discuss in this post, allows me to envision a future worth creating and living.

The Next System Podcast on Capital Bias

Specifically, an episode about capital bias and transitioning to an economy driven by worker-owned enterprises. Marjorie Kelly reminded me why I got involved in starting a food co-op five years ago, and why Marx & Engels’ work on capital and labor is still relevant today. She challenges us to rethink the relationship society has with capital, and imagine how it might be different.

“You don’t eliminate capital any more than with feminism you eliminate men–you just change the power relationship.”

Kelly’s work on generative design and capital bias, not to mention The Next System’s larger project, accounts for causality and interconnectivity in our current state of economic inequality and ecological upheaval, among other seemingly intractable systematic problems. That people are committed to working through them gives me hope, and inspires me to join them in whatever ways I can.

Recent Reporting on Artificial Intelligence and Automation

Speaking of work and our ever-transforming economy, I was struck by two articles that dive into the implications of technological innovation: Mother Jones’ “You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot” by Kevin Drum, and The New Yorker’s Dark Factory by Sheelah Kolhatkar. Optimistic these stories were not. But they do important work in further sounding the alarm about where AI and automation are leading our economy and society as a whole, and the fact that perhaps we should be putting policies in place to protect people and their livelihoods. Worker co-ops could be part of the solution, as could universal basic income.

Upstream Radio on Universal Basic Income

Upstream focuses on the social determinants of health, which means their work covers all sorts of fascinating topics, from climate change to the prison system to foodways to education. Its recent podcasts (or “documentaries,” to use their term) have tackled the various models of universal basic income and their potential effects on society. Like The Next System, they imagine the paradigm shifts necessary to enact more livable futures. Also like The Next System, their optimism inspires some skepticism: how on earth would our globalized economy shift away from capitalism? But they have intriguing ideas, and I’m willing to listen and learn whether some of them might be applicable.

Secret Feminist Agenda on Whatever it Damn Well Pleases

Hannah McGregor, co-host of the essential Harry Potter podcast “Witch, Please,” has a new show wherein she addresses current events, pop culture, academic topics, and much more via a feminist lens and in collaboration with intelligent guests. Secret Feminist Agenda has helped me rethink laziness and productivity, parenting, academia, accepting when work is “good enough,” how women are socialized to be cogs in a machine that extracts our labor for very little compensation, and most crucially, how to resist this by living differently in the world. It’s truly a balm in a world that is chaotic and overwhelming.

Hurry Slowly on Rethinking Work as a Sustainable Practice

Speaking of pushing back against the exhausting status quo, the podcast Hurry Slowly is interrogating the ways in which we can slow down and get more meaning out of our professional and personal lives. Guests share different workplace models that value a separation between life and job, reasons to limit smartphone use, and how to engage with nature as a restorative force. The overarching idea is to make a person’s productivity sustainable, and the strategies presented in these episodes are ones I plan to hang on to as I contemplate my future career moves.

Science Vs on Renewable Energy

Finally, I’d like to plug a recent episode of the podcast Science Vs, which asked whether it was possible to achieve 100% renewable energy. Far beyond renewing my desire to get more involved in combating the myriad ill effects of climate change, one of the show’s guests provided validation of my (admittedly rare) propensity to harbor hope for the future. When asked whether he would have children today, energy economist Jim Sweeney had this to say:

Absolutely…I’m not going to give up on the future because there are challenges. There are always challenges. I was born in World War II; my parents had children. So I don’t see that there is any reason for believing that we’re going to go to hell in a hand basket. We will have challenges there is no doubt about it.

All of the readings and podcasts listed above have reinvigorated my desire to go deep, learn more, and look for solutions to some of the major systemic problems society faces. I want more of the work I do to be geared toward building a future that values people and planet. There are many things to work on: climate change, economic inequality, educational access, gender equality, racism and xenophobia, environmental preservation–you name it, it needs some work.

Now to pick something and get started…

 

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Positivism, History, and Optimism: NPR’s 13.7 on the Endurance of Scientific Knowledge

“Religious repression and wars pass, but scientific knowledge remains.”

So goes theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser’s argument in a recent opinion piece on NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture blog. To which I thought:

Not necessarily.

Knowledge can be suppressed, corrupted, or simply lost. In one of the latter (lesser?) books of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a character describes the problem of chronicling millennia of human history. In short, you can’t preserve everything. Choices are always made. Topics fall out of vogue. Those in power can produce countering knowledge, or bury unfavorable information. Even the most meticulous archivists, following the most stringent of professional standards, are guided by prevailing cultural assumptions about what is worth saving.

Later in the blog post, Gleiser writes:

“Kepler witnessed the state collapsing around him, and felt helpless. He couldn’t pick up a sword to fight, for he was a hero of ideas and not of bloody battles. Instead, he looked up. And so did Galileo. And what they saw, and their diligence in pursuing the truth, changed the world forever.”

How can one make such an eternal claim? For someone who lauds the scientific method and the “objective” power of observation so heartily, this is quite the leap of faith.

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So we retreat

into familiar narratives
ways of seeing
being
thinking
to the company of those who share our values

We’re all so busy drinking our own Kool-Aid
Few attempt mixing all the fountain sodas together anymore

We fear the unexpected flavor

 

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Book Review: The Quarry Fox

Quick plug:

A few months ago I read The Quarry Fox and other Critters of the Wild Catskills by Leslie T. Sharpe. The Literary Review recently posted my review.

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Autumn Chill

The October night is mine to fill. My parents have long since gone to bed with our cat, who knows something is wrong. I’m left alone with my paperback copy of Never Let Me Go, purchased yesterday during our weekly trip to Costco. Never have I been so invested in a fictional friendship. I let the drama absorb me; it’s an effective distraction from the death that looms outside.

Autumn lies on the top step of the stoop. Once a swift jumble of insatiable canine exuberance, tonight she is quiet and still. The cool concrete seems to give her 13-year-old body some relief. A year ago Autumn was overweight for a shepherd-lab mutt her size. The growth in her lung that announced its presence in March has siphoned away much of her muscle, leaving a scrawny, dull-eyed creature whose every breath seems to cost effort she doesn’t have to spare.

It’s brisk outside. I put down my book and rise from the couch, opening the heavy wooden screen door to check on her. This is the third or fourth time I’ve done so tonight. It is a ritual I will reenact on several evenings before we let her leave us.

“Do you want to come inside, baby girl?”

Autumn does not raise her head at the sound of my voice. I crouch and lay a hand on her greying brow. We have to be gentle; sometimes she flinches when we pet her. I watch her ribs rise and fall under the mottled brown coat that inspired her name.

The humans in the family have realized that we should take her to the vet for the last time. We’re still not sure when. No one wants to decide. Soon is too close to now, even as now extends her decline. We’re watching her, waiting for a definitive sign, but Autumn doesn’t give us one. She simply fades, often imperceptibly. Eating less, sleeping more, weighing less, hurting more. There is no marker, no metaphorical cliff over which she can fall to let us know that the time, her time, has arrived.

We cannot discuss this with her. We do not ask, Have you suffered enough? Do you want to die? When should we kill you? but we have taken it upon ourselves to answer for her.

Inside, Ishiguro’s codependent characters await reactivation. They will endure intimate betrayals and paradigm-shifting revelations under my watchful gaze until one character enables the others to slowly disconnect from life. Even fictional mercy requires consent.

I stroke Autumn’s torso, my palm barely grazing her. We look into each other’s eyes and she seems to sigh. I tug her collar and again suggest that she come indoors, lay on her soft bed, let the cat cuddle close.

She won’t move.

Unwilling to wait, to be with her stillness, I stand and return to the house, to the couch, to the book whose ending is probably as dismal as our family’s current reality. How long do we let her endure this lessened life? Even after we make the call, we won’t know.

Autumn never tells us.

The essay above is a dispatch from 2010, written for a 2016 creative nonfiction class.

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