Finding comfort in the wrong things kept me complacent. Perhaps it’s the same for you. This is a list of things that no longer comfort me, and why.
Don’t get me wrong, we all need to find some level of comfort in our daily surroundings & activities, otherwise we can no longer function. But if our culture and thought habits are the ones that are driving planetary-scale breakdown, not to mention wars, genocide and famines— not through any fault of our own, but because they have been shaped by extractive, exploitative, overproducing, overconsuming economies which moreover support anti-democratic governments— it’s high time to put them under scrutiny.
[One caveat: quite a bit of this essay scrutinizes individual behaviour options, which is a privileged liberal lens that applies to my background (and thus may or may not resonate with others). The goal of this essay, however, is not to reinforce this lens, but to breakaway from it, as it is woefully insufficient to motivate the collective work of effecting systemic transformation.]
Because I am a cancer survivor, and health analogies help us clarify what’s at stake with the climate and ecological crises, I’ve added some “cancer analogies” to each category in the list below.
1. Being slightly less worse
Humans have lots of coping mechanisms, to deal with objectively bad situations. One central coping mechanism is to focus on slight improvement, rather than the situation as a whole. This coping mechanism is so pervasive and dangerous, it’s hard to overstate its power. Claiming the high ground because one’s own [SUV/company fleet/country/etc] is slightly less polluting than it used to be, or the neighbours are, is both common and awful. We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to a baseline of sky-high harm, but to where we need to be to remain within planetary boundaries. The statement “my activities used to cause immense harm, and now that level is still immense, just slightly less so” should no longer fool or comfort anyone. Raise the bar for your own ambition, and the standards you hold others to as well.
If we had cancer, this would be like being told our huge tumour is slightly smaller than another patient’s. Not so comforting, eh.
2. Being slightly more efficient
Obviously a close cousin of the previous one, but deserves its own category. I experience this one over and over: when we are on a long car trip, but at least we have 4 people in our car, whereas everyone else on the motorway is alone. We are more efficient per person travelling— but in reality we are still one more car on the motorway. When we are flying on a full plane, rather than a half empty one. We are more efficient per person travelling— but really we are just one more fuel-guzzling plane. When I close all the curtains and turn down the radiators at night, to save heating — but at the end of the day, I am still living in an overlarge fossil-fuel heated building. You get the idea. Being slightly more efficient is the psychological equivalent to the economic Jevons Paradox, where gains in efficiency result in higher resource use economy-wide. Feeling better at being more efficient concerning one small aspect of an overall bad situation allows that situation itself to continue and be normalized, enshrined in daily practice. Polluting companies know this all too well, which is why they continually bombard us with feel-good stories about more efficient/green airlines, cement, cars, etc [why our media keeps printing these misleading corporate press-releases as straight news stories should be a larger scandal, though]. To be motivated to get away from the bad situation as a whole, we have to stop masking the reality of that situation, which is what we do when we congratulate ourselves too much for being slightly more efficient.
In terms of cancer analogies, this would be like smoking a pack a day, but putting some cigarettes out before we reach the filter. Still doing harm.
3. Being the exceptional, virtuous one
This is the mechanism where we comfort ourselves for doing the wrong thing, yes, but for the right reasons. Flying across the world — but for a scientific conference that ultimately should benefit humanity (perhaps). Working for a company which has a terrible track record — but as part of their token green(ish) or sustainability departments. Benefiting from fossil-fuelled or extractive investments — so you can donate a small part to charities. Once again, this mechanism comforts the active participation in harmful systems, because the intent of the person participating in pure. Guess what? The biosphere and the rest of humanity don’t live on intent. They have to live in reality. If the purity of your intents is allowing you to support harmful systems, it’s probably time to get a reality check.
In terms of cancer analogies, this would be like smoking, but justifying it because we are the great misunderstood genius, who needs to smoke for their creativity/sanity. Not so clever, actually.
4. Being unexceptional and normal
In an insane society, which is accelerating away from planetary safety, it can feel like you are the crazy person for trying to shift the society away from its present course. Conversely, going with the flow, and doing the same as everyone else, is extremely comforting. Driving on the motorway with all the other cars feels … normal. Everyone else is doing it, how can it be wrong? Eating meat and dairy food. Flying on holidays. Having a nice job in financial or extractive sectors. And on and on. There is comfort to be had in doing the same as before, the same as everyone else, but that comfort itself can be insanity.
Cancer analogy: everyone else is smoking and dying of cancer. It’s just what we do around here.
5. Every little bit counts
This is the “small gestures” school of sustainability and if I could bundle it into a rocket and fire it into the sun, I absolutely would. This is the thought process where we excuse one category of terrible actions (say, driving an SUV or flying every other week or working for a damaging sector) by reminding ourselves of some small token gestures (like recycling, or turning off the light, or eating vegetarian once a month). It justifies large crimes using small band-aids, and it should comfort no one. We need to be working on large systemic change, instead of searching for cosmetic excuses, like needles in a haystack.
In terms of cancer analogies, this is like being a chain smoker who is very good at tooth brushing. Totally irrelevant to the larger problems at hand.
6. Progress is happening
This category is somewhat complex to describe, because progress is happening, both in popular awareness, movements and real-life change, and should not be discounted. However, the “progress as comfort” narrative is a disempowering one: where we rely on the fact of some technology and policy advances to justify our own lack of action and engagement. We should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time: welcome progress where it happens AND push ever harder to make it happen even faster & better, in all sectors. As well as preventing it from sliding back. Sadly, as many people in the climate & biodiversity justice movement are learning, the forces against change don’t accept defeat easily, and work constantly to reverse positive trends and decisions.
Cancer analogy: keeping on smoking because medical technology is developing cancer drugs that might (or might not) be ready in 30 years. Just really dumb.
7. Not everything is shit yet
This category is the reason I decided to write this post. It is also complex, because we should rejoice at the good things in the world around us: babies screaming, smiling, drooling and making their loving carers work hard, migratory birds making their way back & forth across the globe, trees reaching far into the air and soil, tasty healthy meals with friends and family, beautiful cool mornings and lovely rainy days. All of these are extremely very good and we should rejoice in them, without a doubt.
At the same time, at times of great change and upheaval, it is entirely possible to be too comforted, and hence too pacified, by the remnants of normality around us. The fact that our city, our home, has not yet flooded doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be going all out to prevent the climate crisis from worsening. The fact that a few beloved birds are still around, trying desperately to feed on the remnants of formerly abundant insect or fish populations, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t being to everything possible to give life and space back to them, and stop the progression of the sixth mass extinction of biodiversity. In fact, seeing all the parts of the world we love should motivate us to fight harder against the forces of evil who are doing their best to destroy them.
Cancer analogy: just because we’re alive and feeling fine right now doesn’t mean we don’t need drastic medical treatment to stay alive in the future. I felt fine when I was diagnosed with a deadly disease, and the treatment made me feel extremely sick. But without treatment, I would not be here today.
Where can we find real comfort?
I wrote this as the conclusion of another post, “Cogs in the Climate Machine”. It’s still word for word what I would write here, so here you go.
Comfort and security are the past, if you ever had them. Many people never did. The Holocene is behind us. What lies in front is still undetermined, and can still be changed. But it will take the fight of our lives, for all of our lives, to change this. This will not be fun, or fulfilling, or a worthy adventure of self-discovery, or a cute feel-good movie, or a task of personal validation. I mean, maybe from time to time there will be those things, who knows. Who cares. This is a fight for life itself. We get to be depressed, despondent, little creatures against the crushing change of geological epochs and mighty economic systems. But we need to be little creatures who are learning to fight very very very fast and very very very well together against the brutal forces of domination which steer our current course.
What does it mean to be loving a vanishing world a this time? As Mary Annaïse Heglar has written: “I don’t need a guarantee of success before I risk everything to save the things, the people, the places that I love. … This planet is the only home we’ll ever have. There’s no place like it. Home is always, always, always worth it.”
So. Read Naomi Klein, Arundhati Roy, George Monbiot, Frantz Fanon, Rosa Luxemburg. Learn to become a revolutionary, get some courage and guts and analysis. Consult my handy “Audacious Toolkit” on types of action & activism and how to find your place in them. Join Extinction Rebellion (caveat: only the groups that put social & racial justice front & centre, obviously), and/or the Sunrise Movement, and/or Fridays for Future, and/or all of them. Let’s do this. GO.
Also, join a union if you can, and work towards a general strike. That’s the scale and scope of power we’re going to need. Make the struggle for life itself the thing that brings you comfort, because that’s all we have now.