Joy and delight will make it all right
Engineering for energy
1. Choose delight!
In almost every aspect of life, we strive for delight, whether all-inclusive pleasure or ineffable beauty or innovative surprise. As he departed for a twelve-day hiking trek yesterday(!!!), my husband had three pints of ice cream delivered to me and the kids. My colleague’s wife stuffs adorable, pun-filled notes into his laptop when he travels. My friend installs clever and gorgeous unofficial art projects around the neighborhood. I may or may not hire a mariachi band for every kids party I throw.
Admittedly, I find twee gestures of kindness and whimsy the most delightful. As president of my student government in high school, my lasting contribution (don’t judge, it was the late 90s, there was nothing bad happening in the world?) was bus driver appreciation day, which mostly involved making breakfast for…all the bus drivers. So of course Bill McKibben found a receptive audience in me when he wrote the words delight and blimp in a thoughtful post this week. In his beautiful paean to moving slowly and appreciating energy-efficient modes of transit for the joy they inspire (read the whole thing!), Bill also manages to tie delight to climate, an association not made frequently enough.
I am writing this dispatch from a southbound train, which left my home in Middlebury Vermont at midday and is making its way—not too fast, not too slow—towards Penn Station in New York. So far it’s been an absorbing and beautiful ride: the trees began to turn in earnest these past three days, and so the hay fields and marshes we’ve passed are fringed with orange and red; herons and ospreys have flown by. The train got to Rutland twenty minutes ahead of schedule, and so the conductor encouraged us to debark and cross the parking lot to the town’s large Farmer’s Market—I came back to my wife with saag paneer and vegetable samosa, which we ate happily as the countryside rolled by; soon we’ll be along the Hudson (always sit on the right side going south from Albany!)
What does it mean to choose delight in a climate context? In Bill’s world, it’s the wonder of taking a beat to look out the window. Yes! But to my mind, it’s also the community context. If fossil fuels seal us off into little machines, hurtling autonomously towards our destination, other modes of transit allow us to take it slow and engage with the beauty around us (the train), or to more viscerally interact with the city (the bike) in a way that allows for delightful encounters (unless everyone’s yelly, H/T HS)! I’m reminded of this funny, if harsh, Danish commercial that tries not so much to illustrate the delight of public transit as the indignity of not public transit. Still, the humour is delightful!
I’ve written about how climate protests need to be rebranded as parties, and delight is adjacent to that – it’s the tenor of how we do it all, and a thing to strive for in our climate communications and actions. Because it’s delight and not doom that will win the day. How can you inject delight into climate? Highlight the beautiful possibility of a better world, because that is the opportunity before us. And hire a mariachi band whenever you possibly can.
2. There’s no choice but delight.
Here’s the wrinkly part that I wrestle with. How do you position a choice between climate wreckage and salvation? It’s a logical fallacy in so much as telling people they have a choice is both wrong and disingenuous if one of those choices is death. That’s the latent framing of a piece I loved this week, which posits that we’re in a race between Armageddon and awesome. Choose hope because it’s the only possibility. While it’s true that there’s a binary, I increasingly feel like the word choice is undermining the efficacy of the proposition. One I myself have been guilty of putting forth.
It’s too late for pessimism. So said the excellent climate economist and writer Gernot Wagner to me a few weeks ago. If that’s true, then there is no choice. Only one path, one way, one march to whatever good future and bad fashion choices may come. But that path must be delightful. Because that is what encourages us forward, and invites others to hop on the planetary peoplemover. I really don’t say peoplemover enough. Peoplemover.
Of course, it’s our storytelling brain that forces us into these setups, and it’s our desire to give people freedom utmost that causes us to contort our communications in the name of choice. But the choice framing is in some ways no different than both sidesism – it legitimizes the horror by inviting it into the discourse as something to be considered. And while it’s true you need the bad to see the good, I think that’s all you need. To see it. To have it rendered as the clear evil that it is, so that we can run to delight.
So what’s the answer for a freedom-loving populace? Pull back on the choice between status quo and action, while expressly stating that status quo = destruction. There is no choice there. Instead, emphasize the choice in approach. There is all the choice in the world there. And there is opportunity for beauty, novelty, and joy.
I’m also a big fan of language that commits people to the right choice as a presupposition. It’s why I like “how will you do X?” as a call to action – it presumes you’ve already made the decision to electrify your world, or take tuba lessons. It’s not nefarious if you assume that people want to do right by the planet. Most do.
And it’s a fun, creative, inspiring assignment. Just yesterday, I was talking to an amazing electric activist of a teenager and his mom. They said what inspired them about the organization I work for is its optimistic, can-do energy. Their enthusiasm was so palpable it jumped off the screen and into my body. And together we started engineering for energy, and plotting some delight. No mariachi band necessary.
This planet: Do right by delight
What groove is in your heart? LMK!
Last planet: Live! Laugh! Die!
Thank you for your eloquence. I particularly loved these two. From my wise beyond his years colleague, N:
Your writing on death reminded me of the Jewish maxim: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it." I think that recognizing that we will all die (relatively soon, in the scheme of things) liberates us from the impossibly high bar of "completing the work," and empowers us to simply start it.
This is the perfect framing in every way.
Writes lovely A:
I love this one about how not to fall into a sea of despair over bad environmental news. I totally identify with this and find myself in a bad habit right now of just not listening to the news at all and yes being that ostrich with her head in the ground without the fancy plumage! It has gotten to the point that any time I even dip my toe back into keeping abreast of news is sending me down into this pit of despair and anxiety, especially thinking about the girls and worrying about how fraught their future might be. As my form of escapism, I've become a junkie of YA books, escaping from the hard truths of the world right now and despite many of these books being hard and distressing reads at times, you know it will always be wrapped up in a tidy bow at the end end the protagonist will prevail. With the news there is such a giant question mark as to how this is going to play out in the end and feels impossible to prepare yourself and so anxiety provoking that it feels more comfortable to ignore it. At first I was enjoying this form of escapism but now I feel like it has turned me into this person who doesn't even know what is going on in the world and was embarrassed to suddenly hear there was a new leader of the Conservative party and had to admit to M I was unaware of this because I haven't even been listening to CBC! Anyhow, I'm realizing I need to find a bit more of a balance where I take my head out of the sand because ignoring it isn't necessarily making it better either.
Personally, I love a world where Pierre Poilievre doesn’t exist, but this is the struggle!
If you’re US-based (a few thousand of you are), do you know about all the climate dollars coming your way thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act? Check out my organization’s calculator to see what you’ll get and start planning your electric journey! Also, come work with me?
Rob Meyer. If there’s one climate reporter you should always read, make it him!
So shocked and saddened at the cancellation of How to Save a Planet. It brought sooooo many people into the climate conversation. If you haven’t listened to all the eps, delight in the back catalogue!
Know someone who could use some climate education? 75% of people who take Talk Climate to Me report feeling confident in talking climate after the fact, and 95% report taking climate action. 100% report enjoying dancing around like a goofball with 100+ strangers. Sign up here!
GREAT behaviourally-informed thread on individual action narratives.
Amazing Tim is getting Toronto into e-bikes. He hosted a webinar this week, and the recording will be up shortly. Check it!
Toronto, get a heat pump!
Is this newsletter just a Noga Erez stan account? Maybe? But Noga + Missy Elliot! Yes!!!!!!!
Thank you for reading. I hope you are happy and healthy and finding some time to rest this weekend. Let me know how to make this newsletter better, as I value your time and insight.
Thanks for a shot of positive this morning! In my Medium writing, which I generally do in the morning, I write about a lot of negative stuff, like the disaster happening in Florida, politics, etc. The words need to said and there are many readers for them. But my newsletter writing and things like your perspective help keep me balanced, which is a huge big deal! Gratitude…M
Dear Sarah, Thank you so much for sharing this perspective. I really needed your post today to give me permission to focus on that which brings me joy and delight.
After a 40-year career as a Florida landscape architect, I'm done working for affluent property owners who are annoyed at the inconvenience and delays with their landscape projects, indifferent to the statewide impact of Hurricane Ian, which includes the wholesale nurseries that supply plants for their projects.
So today I chose to seek more joy and delight in my work. I resigned from a design project with a substantial fee. The clients aren't interested in lowering their carbon footprint, no matter what modest phased small improvements I recommended. In fact, they're going the opposite direction: more outdoor paving, more square footage. And they're impatient. It's sickening. I tried so hard, but it's simply not a project where I can even cultivate a shred of consciousness about their environmental impact, much less joy and delight.
As soon as I resigned, I felt a spark of joy creeping back into my heart. I'm FREE! from working for selfish folks who live in an artificial bubble. Now I can focus on working with people who really do care about their ecological impact, and feel joy and delight in the process of helping them.
Keep up the great work!