Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think.
I am that person who still hasn’t watched The Wire. Ever since I had kids and began reading about feedback loops, there just hasn’t been time for TV. When I do find a moment, I’m always a beat behind the zeitgeist. Unsurprisingly, no one wants to talk to me about Fleabag a year after they’ve bagged the show. So, finding myself with a bit of staycation time this week, I decided to push newer stuff to the top of my to-watch list. I’d be au courant, if only for one week of my AV life.
I loved The King of Staten Island, mostly enjoyed Palm Springs, and am savouring my way through Normal People. And yet I was hit with the same feeling I have when I watch anything now - where is climate?
I know people don’t generally speak to the issues of the day mid-movie. I don’t expect characters to break the wall and turn to the camera, a la Frank Underwood, to talk to me about BLM or income inequality or climate or Kanye. But there’s something about a piece of contemporary art that doesn’t acknowledge the existential, in even the most abstractly metaphorical of ways. Yes, books and films are written and shot well ahead of time, but not that well ahead. This stuff is in the air (literally). I just want Andy Samberg to make an aside about how he’s lucky to be caught in an infinite loop because...climate change. Is that too much to ask?
Of course, this is one of my thought grooves, something I come back to the way other people muse on whether they’d be embarrassed if they were found dead in their current state (eating a bag of cheezies, wearing a regrettable muumuu, watching Nailed it). Instead, I wonder what people will think when they comb our cultural artifacts. They were living through the 6th extinction and all they did was tweet jokes about Goya beans?
But if this is a rote thought path for me, The King of Staten Island sparked a slightly novel detour (thank you, Pete Davidson!). It’s a twist on the Finite Pool of Worry, or the idea that there are only so many pressing problems we can focus on at a time. What if the issue is not that we’re overloaded with mammoth, existential woes aplenty, but simply that mere living these days (with more work, more responsibility, and less social support) precludes us from thinking very much beyond ourselves? Just getting through the day, even with a loving family and good friends, often takes up all our bandwidth. Which explains why Pete’s character smokes a lot of pot and listens to Kid Cudi. Despite non-life threatening emergencies, it takes all his energy just to get by. Of course the warming of the planet doesn’t figure into that mindscape. It’s a more human take than ‘people just don’t care.’ Pete’s just got everyday crap to deal with, like what to do with his life.
WHICH BRINGS ME TO WHAT I AM REALLY TRYING TO SAY
I’ve been thinking a lot about the cognitive burden of climate, and how upstream policy change would lessen it. Despite literally having all the time in the world (Palm Springs is basically Groundhog Day set in the desert), Andy Samberg doesn’t have time to think about climate. And, in some ways, neither do I. When I buy groceries, I don’t want to perform mental calculus at each decision point - trying, with limited knowledge, to guess which option is least harmful to the planet.
I’ve recently been revisiting Sheena Iyengar’s famous jam study and Barry Schwartz’s paradox of choice in search of clarity on choice overload, and while there’s not much research on environmental decision fatigue, it’s easy to see that layering in another variable (carbon footprint) only makes life EVEN MORE IMPOSSIBLY COMPLICATED. I want policy to figure out the best way to solve that problem, so I can live my life like Pete Davidson. Minus the ill-advised tattoos.
The less government policy does, the more we, as citizens have to do on our own. With climate change, the burden of action has fallen, unevenly, to individuals. This, when simple mechanisms like a price on carbon, better public transit, and the incentivization of deep home retrofits and EV purchases would dramatically reduce consumer burden, and mental fatigue.
A term I dance back to over and over again is human flourishing. It’s when we’re being our truest selves, flowing. But it’s hard to get to human flourishing when you have to slalom through systemic oppression, deep inequality, and the myriad impossible life and consumer choices that have been offloaded to the individual. No wonder we’re all exhausted.
Do you think about the presence of climate or lack thereof in the culture you consume or the convos you overhear? LMK!
Writes Saara: “I liked the newsletter! I even liked you being angry for BP, that was for a good reason. But I sort of disagree that the concept of carbon footprint was bad and only guilt tripping. I think it has now grown bigger than that.”
Saara is totally right. I didn’t mean to say that caring about carbon footprints aren’t important. It’s bigger than spin, and I still believe that the little ladders up to the big. And also that we feel good when we do right. So there are numerous reasons to turn down the thermostat.
Also, helpful thoughts and good context from Laura:
”Thanks for this eye opener. The Mashable article is a good reminder of how insidiously and ubiquitously the fossil fuel industry distorts useful concepts. However, it's a bit misleading. BP may have originated the "carbon footprint" propaganda, but they can hardly be said to have invented the concept. It goes back to the "ecological footprint," which was conceived much more broadly than as a tool for individuals. As I recall from my first encounter with it in the 1990s, the inventors described it mainly in terms of cities, showing that a city's impacts are much larger than the land on which it sits or even the downwind/downstream areas it pollutes. Mathis Wackernagel and the Global Footprint Network still emphasize nations and communities in their ongoing work to foster this kind of systems thinking.”
Vox overview of Biden’s climate plan. Worth a listen!
Hack bias with veggies. (Carrots FTW!)
My partner in life and letters suggests hitting the HEART at the top of this post is algorithmically important, so if you like this newsletter, please do so!
Have a wonderful week in this beautiful world,