Gentle Decline 2/1: Disaster & Dealing
Welcome to the new platform; a defence of gradualism; an exploration of the details of Gibson's Maxim.
Hello, and welcome to the first email coming to you from Substack, as opposed to the newsletter’s old home on Tinyletter. It’s not that there was anything wrong with Tinyletter (apart from persistent rumours that its owners, Mailchimp, would eventually close it down), but Substack has a bunch of useful features from the list owner point of view. I hope it’s been a seamless change for you - please let me know if it wasn’t (assuming by some miracle you do end up reading this).
[ Gentle Decline is an occasional newsletter about climate crisis, and - more to the point - how to cope with it. Drew, who needs to eat as well as rant, has a Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/drewshiel - specially requested by readers of this newsletter and Commonplace. You can see details that didn't make it into the newsletters, for a start, and there are and will be (possibly mysterious) other benefits. Sign up today! Alternately, go for the coin-in-in-the-busker’s-hat at Ko-fi.]
I’m taking this new hosting as a signal to change the volume number for Gentle Decline. We’ve been on Volume One to date, as I work out what this writing is about, who it’s for, and what it should do. I think I have that largely pinned down by now (although articulating it still isn’t the easiest thing). What I don’t have pinned down, of course, is what else is going to come down the pike. It’s pretty clear that trying to predict any more than the broadest of strokes of the the 21st century is difficult, and sometimes impossible. The world we’re living in now, in January 2021, is in many ways completely unrecognisable in comparison to the one we we were in January 2020.
But about that: I had a conversation a few months ago, in which I was touting gradualism (my contention that there is no sudden change in history, only gradual change which becomes apparent), and other people were saying “But look at 2020! That was sudden!” (I paraphrase massively here).
The events of 2020 - the pandemic and the reactions to it - were not sudden. As a civilisation, we’ve known about the possibility of widespread disease for a long, long time; since the mid 1300s. We knew about respiratory diseases circulating fast and lethally at various points in history, but the influenza pandemic of 1918 is a pretty good example, because its spread - and the methods of preventing that - are very similar to COVID-19. We have also had plans for dealing with pandemics for a long time, and more so since the SARS-Cov-1 outbreak in 2003, which was a close relative of today’s virus. The only reason it feels like it was sudden was that we, as a culture, weren’t paying attention.
This is, of course, pretty perfectly analogous to the changes that are already out there in the world due to climate alteration. All the things that are predicted are already happening somewhere, but as a culture, we’re ignoring it. I mean, I’m writing here in the wake of the most active hurricane season of all time, and a few days after Ireland had its coldest night in a decade or so (-6.5 right outside the house in Maynooth).
(Some people are still trying to actively deny it, which always strikes me as weird - in order to deny it, you have to look at it. Once you’ve looked at it, why claim it’s not there? The answer is usually short term gain, usually in cold hard cash.)
This has, of course, been better stated by a better writer. William Gibson said, “The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed”. Of course, it turns out I have already invoked St. William in Volume 1, Issues 1, 12 and 23 - but he’s right. However, rather than cover the same ground again, I want to take a look at some things that prevent us from proper consideration of the future whose unevenly distributed parts are already here.
First, there’s the day to day grind. Weirdly, the pandemic has changed that for a lot of us; we’re not commuting, we’re not going to committee meetings or training sessions or whatever things we did that occupied all our hours in the Before Times. But it is very definitely true that when you get up at half past six, shower and dress and get some coffee in and get on the bus and get to work, do whatever you do for seven or eight hours, get on the bus going the other way, get home, eat, do something for a couple of hours and then sleep, you want to do something with that couple of hours that you’re going to enjoy. So you don’t want to go look at things that are happening elsewhere that might at some point happen to you. And to be honest, that’s (mostly) ok, or it should be.
I say “should” here, and that’s a word that in a lot of ways I dislike. “Should” usually involves the imposition of someone else’s thinking, morality, rules, or expectations rather than one’s own good. In this context, though, I mean that in better circumstances, that would be ok, because someone else’s day-to-day work would be looking for those things, noting them, planning for them, and making provisions for the execution of those plans. This is, after all, the kind of thing that either governments or the invisible hand of the market are for, depending on your point of view. I regret to inform that at an initial glance both government and the invisible hand are doing jack shit in this direction.
So the day-to-day stuff prevents us from looking at anything other than the day-to-day stuff. This is markedly useful for capitalism, mind; it means that the consumer consumes and doesn’t otherwise interfere with market-incomprehensible stuff like morals or ethics or rights. And nobody else (much; present company excepted, etc.) is looking at the non-day-to-day stuff either, because they’re all doing the same things.
Second, there are efforts going on at many levels to conceal environmental change and climate chaos from us. Some of them are coming from inside our own brains, like shifting baseline syndrome, in which we don’t really believe that accounts of the world from before our own lifetime are real. We can see change since our first real comprehension of a situation, but projecting the curve backward seems beyond us. So we never really get the sense of urgency that we might if we could really comprehend change over a couple of centuries. This might, in fact, be the root of why gradualism is not a universal understanding; we only see the end of a process, or an inflection point.
The ones from outside our own brains are worse, though: companies and industries that attempt to conceal the damage they’re doing, or pretend that they’re doing good instead. The entire fossil fuel industry is in this category, but you can see it every from palm oil and avocados to microchip manufacturing. If you want to read more about that kind of stuff, I recommend Emily Atkins’ Heated, which will tell you in greater detail than I can muster. Also, more locally, the Irish agricultural industry is supplying propaganda to children.
What would a responsible market response look like? Logic dictates that there are some bits of market-provided cope-with-climate-chaos stuff out there already, and indeed there are. I’m going to look in detail at one of these: there is a company called Judy selling disaster readiness kits. That could be a valuable service.
They sell three kinds; a belt-bag, a backpack, and a crate. The crate costs $250 (about €206 at today’s rates), and for the sake of being fair before I slate these people, I have costed this out. There is the crate itself, and then: a multitool; 2 black plastic bags; 4 glow-sticks; a 109-piece first aid kit (pieces unspecified, and they might count each band-aid); a pair of triple-layer latex work gloves; a candle and some matches; some duct tape; 4 of the shake-type handwarmer things; 4 emergency blankets (the metalised plastic things); 2 whistles; a packet of wet wipes; a hand-crank radio; 16 “water packets” of indeterminate size, but almost certainly not more than 500ml; 10 meal replacement bars; 2 packs of tissues; a quick-drying towel; 4 ponchos (probably simple plastic ones); 4 KN-95 dust masks; and a biohazard bag.
You can get a crate like this one for very little. IKEA have a representative sample for about €8. The multitool is probably the most expensive single object in the box; you can get one like it for about €25, and that’s with an extremely casual search on Google. I refuse to cost the black plastic bags; if they cost more than 50c each, someone was swindled. Glowsticks are so cheap you can’t buy them singly. You can get 6 for €1.20, though. The exact first-aid kit I can’t pin down, but you can get a 125-piece one for €12.50 on Amazon. The latex work gloves, again, hard to buy one pair, but you can get three for €4.50. The candle, if it’s a good one that’ll burn for a few hours, will set you back maybe €5 (the candle depicted looks very small). Matches, less than €1. The duct tape can be had for €4. The emergency blankets are most often given out for free having been bought in bulk, but it looks like if you really want one, they are less than €2 each. The whistles are again so cheap they’re hard to price, but 25c each seems reasonable. The wet wipes, €2. A very similar looking hand-cranked radio can be had from Wish for €7, but let’s say €10 to get one with a solar panel. The water, about 8l of it, let’s say you’re going to buy some of the big containers, or even 16 500ml bottles from a supermarket, rather than fill a container of your own. So €8 or so. You can get really good meal replacement bars for €3 each, and there are 10 here. The tissues might hit €1 for the two packs. Maybe. The quick-drying towel is €4. The plastic ponchos are another buy-in-bulk thing; they might be €1 each. The dust masks are about €2.50, and the biohazard bag is a sturdy plastic bag of the sort used for gardening: €1.50 for a top of the line one. That’s a total of €107.40, assuming you bought the first thing you saw, didn’t shop around and definitely weren’t an organisation buying in bulk. I fully expect that Judy are paying something more on the order of €45 for the contents. In short, $250 for this is a swindle.
Capitalism, in a move that will surprise nobody, is not being helpful here.
At the same time, running around shouting “wake up, sheeple!” at folks who mostly just want to get to the weekend isn’t going to get us anywhere either. That leaves government efforts, and at the moment, I know very little about that. I suspect there is very little to know, but I should check that before I pronounce more doom and gloom. So that’s a research project for the near future, and I’ll get back to you soon with details of what disaster preparedness is out there. If, y’know, any.
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