The title of this one is a little tongue-in-cheek, but it captures the spirit of a problem I’ve grappled with my whole life. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what my role will be in humanity’s planetary-scale experiment with our climate, our water, and our land, with the oceans and forests and rivers. It can be hard to get your head around the magnitude of what our collective actions have done to our thin, fragile strip of biosphere, and yet it’s also those actions that will ultimately get us out of whatever catastrophe is hurtling our way because of them, if we can act in time. And thus, the eternal question: what can I possibly meaningfully do in the face of a problem so huge? And what am I doing right now, if I truly believe in the scale of this problem, pursuing things like a PhD that do nothing towards finding a solution?

My partner and I had a long talk about this a few weeks ago one evening, spurred on by, of all things, the uniquely millennial apocalyptic climate nihilism present throughout Bo Burnham’s Inside. She recalled her time as an eco-anarchist in her late teens and early twenties, when she was vegetarian, went to climate protests, and wrote to MPs regularly, and how her fervour for protecting the planet as a whole soon got swallowed up by the smaller-scale but more pressing issues of fighting racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and rape culture.

And that’s when it dawned on me: almost no one I know, and maybe almost no one I’m even going to read stuff from, is actually going to read the entire 3949-page report. The summary for policy makers, sure; maybe even a couple of sections on predicted outcomes to create the flashy terrible headlines of how New York will be underwater by 2050. But the science behind how those predictions were made? How we even know the course of changes in temperature, carbon dioxide concentration, ice volume, and sea level throughout the past and present in the first place? How we can assess confidence in the potential future scenarios offered, and what each of them imply in terms of actions we’re taking right now? Not anyone I know.

So… why not me?

Another important resource I discovered was the writing of Alex Steffen, and his podcast, The Snap Forward. I’ll link here some essays I’ve found useful, but this quote of his in particular struck me:

Optimism is a political act. Entrenched interests use despair, confusion and apathy to prevent change. They encourage modes of thinking which lead us to believe that problems are insolvable, that nothing we do can matter, that the issue is too complex to present even the opportunity for change. It is a long-standing political art to sow the seeds of mistrust between those you would rule over: as Machiavelli said, tyrants do not care if they are hated, so long as those under them do not love one another. Cynicism is often seen as a rebellious attitude in Western popular culture, but, in reality, cynicism in average people is the attitude exactly most likely to conform to the desires of the powerful — cynicism is obedience. Optimism, by contrast, especially optimism which is neither foolish nor silent, can be revolutionary. Where no one believes in a better future, despair is a logical choice, and people in despair almost never change anything. Where no one believes a better solution is possible, those benefiting from the continuation of a problem are safe. Where no one believes in the possibility of action, apathy becomes an insurmountable obstacle to reform. But introduce intelligent reasons for believing that action is possible, that better solutions are available, and that a better future can be built, and you unleash the power of people to act out of their highest principles. Shared belief in a better future is the strongest glue there is: it creates the opportunity for us to love one another, and love is an explosive force in politics. Great movements for social change always begin with statements of great optimism.

Alex Steffen — Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century