Just tell me what to do

March 11, 2019 (1243 words) :: Sometimes I don't know if I should be prepping for the collapse, fighting to avert it, or just giving up because nothing I do will matter anyway.
Tags: personal

This post is day 70 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

I recently read Tim Maughn’s thought-provoking sci-fi novel Infinite Detail (which I reviewed on Goodreads). I’m not going to give away too much about the book here, except to say that it features a global event of apocalyptic proportions, and the book is divided between storylines set in the “before” and those in the “after”.

Sci-fi’s at its most powerful when it forces you think more deeply about the world you yourself live in, by implicitly asking you whether the world depicted in the book has any parallels to your own. I spent most of the book in a sort of muted horror, contemplating the possibility of a collapse-like scenario in the near future. Should I be prepping for this? Is there even any point in prepping for such a thing, when life in a post-apocalyptic world might be completely unrecognisable? Is prepping merely a pernicious survivalist fantasy, diverting away energy that should be expended into building social movements to make life better right here, right now?

The one good thing about the prospect of impending collapse is that it has a way of clarifying things. When the only thing that matters is survival, everything else ceases to matter as much: the unread emails, the open browser tabs, the burnt-out lightbulbs. And if you have enough advance warning of the collapse, it could theoretically spark a coordinated effort to avert it. In Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi book Seveneves, in which people are given 2 years’ notice of an astronomical event that will basically obliterate planet Earth, scientists from around the world are able to (mostly) put aside their differences in order to concentrate on ensuing the survival of the human race. (I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that they succeed, at least in the immediate aftermath.)

The problem with the “we’ll come together to avert disaster” idea is that the apocalypse rarely announces itself in a way that can’t be dismissed as a hoax, or speculation, or merely a possibility. The IPCC’s recent report with its terrifying timeframe of 12 years is probably about as close as we’re going to get before we’re firmly in “praying for a deus ex machina” territory. And still - still! - the people who are supposed to be running things are reluctant to consider anything remotely radical, choosing instead to scold their critics for being “unrealistic” while making vague gestures at “affordability” and “feasibility”. Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking.

So if there isn’t a climate of urgency born of widespread acceptance, then the promise of imminent disaster doesn’t necessarily do much to improve humanity’s cohesiveness. Those who do care about it (and I have all the respect in the world for people like Alyssa Battistoni who are doing work in this field) are dismissed by the skeptics as paranoid. Those who want to care about it, but still haven’t found a way to make it fit within their cognitive map, end up just feeling guilty and confused all the time, unsure what they should be doing about it.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing fiction. After I’ve finished my first book, I think I’d like to work on near-future sci-fi, with elements of dystopian SF, hard SF and alternate history. It would be a political endeavour, of course; the goal would be to combine radical ideas with worldbuilding in a way that’s engrossing and thought-provoking rather than sanctimonious.

This new career goal was probably most inspired by watching Boots Riley’s film Sorry To Bother You, which impressed upon me the power of political art (and which I reviewed for Notes From Below). In terms of other sci-fi writers, I’d be drawing most heavily on China Mieville, Ursula K Le Guin, and Kim Stanley Robinson, all of whom are able to infuse wonderfully rich fictional worlds with their own radical politics. David Foster Wallace is also an influence - as much as I wouldn’t want to mimic his style, I’m in awe of his ability with words. Neal Stephenson is another influence, though a muted one, mainly for his talent at writing compelling hard sci-fi, and not for the literary or political merits of his work.

Some days, this is a tremendously energising prospect; after a few years of feeling lost, maybe I’ll have finally found the thing I want to do with my life. Some days I think: why even bother? Will it have an effect, in the grand scheme of things? Will I be wasting energy that I should be devoting to more pressing efforts? Will the coming climate collapse cut everything short in any case?

The downside of taking a leap of faith into the world of left politics and finding beauty in its systemic critiques is that understanding the critiques feels like responsibility. The more I accepted how bad things were, the more guilt I felt for not doing everything in my power to change things. And of course I know that whatever I do might turn out to be worthless anyway, and that I have to take care of myself in any case, but it’s hard to fully shake off the feeling that I should be doing more.

Maybe this is just a holdover from the self-flagellating work ethic instilled in me from childhood in order to mould me into the perfect subject under neoliberalism. Maybe it’s a legitimate desire that I shouldn’t overlook. I don’t know. But sometimes I just want to turn my brain off. I want to watch bad TV and scroll through social media. I want to buy stuff that I know I don’t need but which still satisfies the latent consumerism in my psyche I’ll probably never get rid of. I want to temporarily escape from a reality that’s getting heavier with the simultaneous weight of despair and responsibility so I can pretend that things are going to be okay.

I guess the problem is that I haven’t fully reconciled the fact that, like many people, I am both a person who wants to accomplish things (ideally the right things), and also a person who wants to give up. I suspect other people resolve this by alternating between the two with a reasonable cadence, maintaining a balance between getting things done and recuperating to avoid burnout.

It would be a lot easier if I knew what things I should be doing, though. Should I be writing? Should I be organising? Should I be prepping for the apocalypse? I just want to know. I want all this uncertainty to go out the window. I want a progress bar whose validity I can accept, so I can focus entirely on maxing it out.

I don’t really have an insightful point to make here. I’m sorry. This is just me crying into the void, quietly hoping for answers.

I recently realised that this entire blog post challenge is basically just a giant progress bar for myself - a minor self-delusions that I created for myself in the hopes that it would obscure the existential void of not knowing what I should be doing with my life. Same with my Goodreads reading challenge of 100 books this year.

Are these progress bars measuring the right thing? Lord knows, but I need them. They keep me going, and they may even get me incrementally closer to where I need to go. Maybe the universal progress bar doesn’t exist.

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