Sludge is a Grosser Word Than Moist

Also, another world is possible!

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’ve been doing a daily video club to keep my kids sane. Or perhaps to keep myself sane. (Join!) #Doing is a bit of an exaggeration. I basically just made a spreadsheet and a crowd of beautiful humans jumped in to share all sorts of amazing games, knowledge, and creativity (I made the above watercolour wash during a lesson given by my friend’s daughter, Lila, age 12). Yesterday, my city councillor did a Q&A from his backyard, calming parents and kids alike with some helpful guidelines about going outside. In talking about all the things our city has done thus far, he said something which aligned with what I’ve been thinking: “There are things that are possible that we didn’t think possible before.”

Councillor Mike Layton was speaking to the fact that Toronto has opened free, 24-hour childcare centres for essential workers and leased entire hotels to provide housing for the city’s homeless population. Why the heck couldn’t we have done this before? Why the heck can’t it last? From The Intercept

Moreover, if our society can act, finally, to manufacture a million ventilators and a billion protective masks, surely we can within a few years act on a far grander scale to erect, say, a million wind turbines, insulate and solarize a hundred million buildings, carve ribbons of bicycle paths throughout our cities and suburbs, and so on. With the pandemic enforcing a brutal but necessary reset, the NIMBYism that has impeded this kind of progress practically everywhere might be swept into the dustbin for good.

I get that we wouldn’t necessarily want things to proceed at warp speed in regular life. When you move fast and break things, you end up with broken things. But at the same time, so many of these quickly realized solutions are things we’ve been working towards for years, decades even. So many of these efforts have been stymied by unnecessary hurdles, fear, paperwork, apathy.

In one fell swoop, we seem to have gotten rid of what the world’s most hilarious behavioural scientist, Richard Thaler, calls sludge. Sludge is the bureaucratic nonsense that impedes progress, hampers good decision-making, and, at its worst, manipulates and misleads. While randomized vaccine trials aren’t sludge, the finicky red tape of overly prescriptive process that surrounds so much of modern life very much is sludge. Thaler and another fantastic scientist, Sendhil Mullainathan, wrote about how to do away with sludge to help fight coronavirus for the New York Times a few weeks ago. (Here’s a thing I once wrote about design sludge, which is the worst!) 

In some ways it seems we are, all of us, undergoing individualized desludgification. Overly formal work documents...sludge! Fussy recipes...sludge! Pants...absolute sludge! Despite my love of the word Rococo, I have even less patience for the needlessly adorned, the wasteful, or the gratuitous right now. Which may explain my pivot to overalls.

While there’s some evidence that COVID has caused an uptick in envirosludge (generally unscientific impromptu rules around reusables), I’d wager that, on the whole, we’ve reduced some of the bureaucracy that impedes strong environmental action. Want to garden? Just do it. Want to dig for a geothermal heating system on your front lawn? Bylaw officers are otherwise occupied. Just do it.

While I’m not building an unpermitted earth house in my backyard, I have been taking pleasure in the small again, too. As green infrastructure projects jockey for all of our governments’ attention, I’m nursing my own green infrastructure by growing green onions. I’m just kind of making things, figuring out stuff as I go.

The cartoon column I write for Yes! Magazine is called Small Works. It’s all about the importance of doing little things (they catalyze bigger things, they empower us, they help us break larger challenges into discrete pieces, they’re everything!). And yet I need to remind myself of the importance of small, time and time again. I’d never grown anything from seed, because I had neither time nor ability. I usually just buy plants. But that’s not an option right now. And my wonderful friend Gayla sells beautiful seeds. So I got some. And they’re working. When I saw the little green shoots burst forth from the soil, reader, I cried like I was two glasses of red wine into a screening of The Notebook. Like I said, little green things ftw.

BUMP THIS

Pushing for green development standards? We have a rare opportunity to rethink how we apply development monies. This toolkit may help your municipality.

350.org wants Canadians to write to their MPs to help the people, not the powerful.

Take back the streets! (via Treehugger)

THIS WEEK: Sludge

What sludge have you gotten rid of/chosen to ignore? Let me know!

LAST WEEK(S): Discounts and #Doingthings and The Quiet

The estimable Bruce Lourie channels my frustration about acting too slowly, too weakly, too late. We discount, and we pay the price.

The quiet

Writes Janet - 

I’m old. I’m sad to see what we hippies, who were supposed to save the earth, have done to this planet. I have always lived the life of what I refer to as a “voluntary peasant “.

Life moves so quickly today. Everything is advertising. Money is worshipped. I belong to a group that held classes in life skills like gardening, canning, cheese making, knitting and bike repair. We quit about 5 years ago because few people showed up.

Writes Dan - 

I've learned to live with doing less (or nothing) since moving to Iowa 4 years ago. It's not new to me. It's just Executive Function dysfunction..ha ha.

Your weekly edition of cute families dancing:

If you’re not Canadian, you may be like “WTF?” but I can’t get enough of this catchy tune that makes our citizenry aware of ‘speaking moistly.’


Thanks for reading. Hope you are safe and cozy.

Sarah

Stewing on Doing

How to do things without moving a pinky

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 loved this Jia Tolentino New Yorker piece on the outerwear brand Outside Voices from last year. Reading it again now, this paragraph feels so different given the current sitch: 

I took my place amid a sea of young people wearing Doing Things hats in blue and burnt orange. Haney gave a minute-long pep talk—“Our mission is to get the world moving!”—and waded into the crowd. The ludicrously energetic instructor turned on a booming reggaeton mix and launched into a 2-a.m.-at-the-club dance routine so saucy and contagious that everyone around me screamed. It was a hot, thick, strange day, and soon everyone was booty-popping, body-rolling, unhinged by glee. I took videos so that I could show my friends what I was doing. I felt amazing—porous and overcome. Afterward, I talked to a student named Jesse, whom I’d spotted in the crowd. He wore a U.T. polo, rolled-up khakis, shower slides, and tube socks. He’d just been walking by, and had joined in; he’d never heard of Outdoor Voices or Zumba. He was buzzing. “That was so, so great,” he said, dazed.

It speaks to the physical joy that no amount of Zoom dance parties can capture. Happening upon something wild and gleeful that perfectly satisfies some desire you didn’t even know you had. Of course, I’m a sucker for outdoor collective dance parties on ‘hot, thick strange days.’

The piece made me go check out the workout wear company itself, but I could find no correlation between the strangely bland overpriced leggings and the rather beautiful Outdoor Voices motto: Doing Things. And yet I always think about this phrase, #doingthings. Is it the time to be thinking or the time to be doing? Does doing require movement? Is a disco protest more #doingthings than a letter-writing campaign?

VIBE OR PRESCRIBE?

A reader, Cath, wrote to me a few weeks ago suggesting I could make the newsletter a bit more prescriptive (thank you, Cath!). That had been my original intention, but with disparate interests and geographies and resources and styles, I’ve slowly pivoted that initial idea into customizable prompts—hopeful thought starters that can be adapted to the particulars of your world and worldview. But I get that sometimes people want a simple thing to #do. I myself often want these things, too. (Just tell me what to do, world! Do I stop flying? Do I stand in front of my MPs office with my hair on fire? Do I watch Love Is Blind?)

In my work, I’ve often used engagement tools to help clients generate thousands of petition signatures or letters sent to politicians. It’s not so much that I don’t believe in the effectiveness of these tools, but that they don’t feel like #doingthings. They feel like autopilot. Most people don’t read the letters they send, or the petitions they click. So while the sheer mass of them may be effective on occasion, the jury is out on how much they move people up the ladder, thereby stymieing real mobilization. I worry, too, that recipients of these mass-produced campaigns don’t grant them the same legitimacy as individual change-making efforts, or they experience digital onslaught fatigue. Sure, constituency assistants dutifully catalogue numbers of emails received, but I suspect they consider these digital efforts a less-worthy means of doing. Politicians don’t capitulate to a few thousand letters the way they do to a few dozen angry citizens and a TV camera. In Ontario, our government generally just ignores anything that doesn’t immediately make them look horrible.

But is attending a rally or occupying a physical space doing more? I think I’ve always had a bias toward the physical. It takes longer and feels scarier, therefore it must mean more. Every nonprofit’s Ladder of Engagement agrees. We move people from clicktivism to...mobilizing. It’s harder for me to get to events at prescribed times, so, rightly or wrongly, I ascribe a higher value to the idea of showing up. Even as I know it’s increasingly impossible for so many people to find the time or resources to show up. Of course, we literally can’t show up right now. So #doingthings must now answer how to make our voice heard while we shelter in place. I know, I’m running in circles in my living room.

I don’t have an answer, but I do think being shuttered is going to force us to find new ways to do action, new paths to move projects and goals and ideas forward. It’s one of the few things I’m optimistic about. That, and my next loaf of bread (I never learn).

PIVOT TO ACTION 

In the run of two newsletter editions (an eternity on the COVID clock), I’ve gone from feeling like we needed to be sensitive to the current situation and not advance an environmental agenda while people get sick to...TRUMP IS ROLLING BACK EPA REGULATIONS WHILE AMERICANS DIE LET’S DO SOMETHING RIGHT NOW! (Even staid Obama has jumped into the fray to say “go vote.”)

I don’t want climate work to be silenced because we can’t leave the house, which is on fire. So let’s DO THINGS. Let’s write things, let’s share things, let’s yell things from our porches, be they digital or clapboard. 

How are you taking action from home? I would really, really love to know. As well, if you have a digital effort that could use a bump, please send it to me, and I will start a handy new section to share these. I’ve started this week with a few of my own. 👇👇👇

THIS WEEK: BUMP THIS

Why are construction sites deemed essential but community gardens being shut down here in Ontario? People need to grow food.

People before polluters petition from Environmental Defense Canada.

We can still climate strike (digitally). Tomorrow!!

LAST WEEK: WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THE QUIET…

So many beautiful ones.

Danae
I am working my way down through the (too big) chest freezer down in the basement, meal by meal, and can almost see the bottom in some places…

Petrina
I walk my dog nearby In a re-treed tree farm, I put her many sticks (former tree branches) in the X branches of a tree along the middle trail.  So far we have 2 layers of sticks in one tree to select, 5 sticks on one layer, 4 on the other. I like ones that are smooth, just enough wt., not too terribly long or it’ll hit the ground and mess up my aim, and jar my wrists.  Sticks that bounce like a kong ball, every which way, thrill me. The sticks in the tree remind me of a place pool cues live…but in trees! I think the bouncing (kinda like throwing rocks in a lake—skipping ‘em) thrills me more than my lab Tess!

Jenny
I'm essentially solitary in a retirement community.  I've been reading my old journals to try to get in touch with my much younger self.  It's been a fascinating dialogue.

For some reason my kids started watching Alf this week.

Hope you are safe and healthy. 
Thank you for reading,
Sarah

(Thank you lovely Bernadette K for proofing this beast!)

C+C Terror Factory

Scary things come in Cs

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.

What are the parallels between climate and COVID? They’re numerous I think, but here are three biggies.

Awakenings

When I had my climate awakening, the world crumbled like an apple crisp. How was this horrible stuff happening without anyone doing anything or even talking about it? Over the years, many have had their climate awakenings, whether through Greta, or from noticing the changes in their own backyards, or from the occasional poetically terrifying feature that would creep into a mainstream lad magazine (this one remains vivid in my mind because of the beautiful title: The Ballad of the Sad Climatologists). 

With COVID, it’s similar. See the family member on the group chat go from it’s NBD to checking the case stats hourly. 

Why does any of it matter? Because we have to remember to welcome everyone to the band. I think my No. 1 takeaway from years of trying to bring people over to climate is that everyone can like the band and it’s never too late to start. COVID is a stadium band (are there such things any more?) and not an indie darling. The band doesn’t become uncool because more people like them, and it doesn’t matter that it took your aunt four years to understand the genius of the music. What matters is that your aunt is here, bopping her head arrhythmically to the music. 

We need everyone fighting the climate crisis and everyone practicing physical distancing. As soon as someone has their awakening, you can welcome them with open arms (from 6 feet away).

Discounts!!!

I talk about discounting way too much, but it’s because discounting is why we eff up so many things. The less science-y term for hyperbolic discounting is present bias, but you might as well just call it Human Impatience. It just means that we prioritize the immediate. It’s literally in our DNA.

We discount everything. Even though a few dollars a few decades ago could have stopped climate change. Even though a few more dollars at the CDC a few years ago could have drastically improved American preparedness for this shitstorm.


I tried really hard to get one of my clients to let me do a campaign about discounting a few years ago. The government wanted to sell off a huge chunk of our hydro utility for what sounded like a large sum of money. But in 9 (measly!) years we would have made back the amount of money they’d sold it for. We would have had that revenue FOREVER. Needless to say, the campaign was a little too eggheady for public consumption, but if we could make salient the idea that we need to think about our long-term selves (and children’s selves) whenever possible, we could stop a lot of folly.

Amazing behavioural science initiatives play with this idea. Save More Tomorrow is a resoundingly successful campaign that helps people commit to, you guessed it, saving more tomorrow.  Researchers have also used aging apps to get people to care about their future selves, not to mention to stop smoking, drinking, and eating garbage. 

But with climate and COVID, we’ve lost our early-mover advantage. Unsurprisingly, the discounting curve and our case curve look remarkably similar. 

We’re seeing what not taking early COVID precautions means in high speed. Maybe this will illuminate why we need to act as quickly as possibly to prevent the worst of climate catastrophe? (Not holding breath). In this great Atlantic piece, Ed Yong ponders all the places we could go from here. He writes that America has been trapped in a cycle of “panic and neglect,” but that perhaps a pandemic that touches all will stir the realization that everything needs to be very different. 

Politicians are incentivized to think short-term. We need long-term thinking, at every level of life. Also, more dancing:

Inequality Exacerbators

C + C both exacerbate inequality. The world was already growing epically unequal. Now, in an instant, COVID has bowled us snake eyes. People with stable jobs, security, and social capital will ride out the horror watching Netflix. People with no safety net will die. Climate crisis wreaks the same havoc; we just see it less.

The positive take (that I gently nudged at last week) is that we’ll realize that we are, all of us, on this planet together. That we’ll disrupt the worst of capitalism to reconstruct a better world for everyone. But given that humans are actually pitching the expendability of our elders in the name of the stock market, I’m 60/40 on this prospect. You?

I’ve taken comfort in seeing the amazing ways that people rally to remediate the deep inequality all around us. From baking bread for neighbours to giving up their ventilators. 

I worked on a kibbutz for a year. Everyone was a little bit nuts, but everyone was also wonderful. I would not say our neighbourhood has gone full kibbutz, but I do love the pot-banging camaraderie of our already friendly street. Will we finally begin to know that, by working together, we can take care of everyone? The next months will be grim, but let’s hope for the best.

Onward

I heard Dr. Michael Gardam, a very thoughtful physician who is often called to opine on the radio here, say something helpful last week. He mentioned that every morning he wakes up optimistic because he knows we will get a little bit closer to figuring things out. It’s the most positive frame to have, and it gives me comfort when I wake up in the morning and flick on the radio.

I know everyone has been having their Zoom moments of companionship but a particularly favourite of mine came on Monday. I usually go to Dark Dancing, a communal DJ set at our local Owls Club, where we all dance in the dark. Of course, Dark Dancing, like everything else, has gone online. My little family tuned in to the livestream, and danced away our Monday night. I felt the anxiety dissipate for a few minutes. 

Over the past few days people have begun to write the way forward, offering up ideas as to how we must use this moment in time to create a better future. Bill McKibben likens it to breaking a virus transmission (divesting is like cutting off a flow). Economists and policy advisers have begun to make suggestions about making the stimulus green. Masha Gessen writes of contextualizing the things we’re doing so they have a more positive impact. Will we think of basic income as just an easier way to pay people, or will we actually begin to value people for their humanity, and not just what they produce? As I said, I’m 60/40.

This Week

How do climate and COVID paint the future for you? LMK.

Last Week

How are doing/what are you doing?

Writes Haley:

What am I doing? I told myself that if I can’t go to work I am going to turn my “dabbling” of healing myself (meditation, eating better, improved posture, a little exercise and walks) into my full time focus. So in between taking care of my toddler twins and grading college student papers and writing posts about fashion sustainability, I eat dark chocolate almonds and throw my shoulders back while cleaning the dishes. And trying to remember to stop holding my breath. Literally, not figuratively, though there’s that, too. 

Writes Mary:

I’m working on a tapestry/fabric collage series of Rudyard Kipling Just So Stories. How the Leopard got his Spots is in progress.  And yes I’m anxious. 75 didn’t seem so old a few months ago.

Writes Michèle:

As far as how I am coping, I  am making a corona virus "toy" that I can kick around when it all gets too much for me. 

So beautiful!

As always, stay cozy and safe.

Thanks for reading,

Sarah

Still Here

Be chill, my heart

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.

When I was 12, my parents sent me and my sister to French immersion camp in Quebec. The Quebecois kids stuck together, so my sister and I ended up becoming best friends with all the kids in immersion, who were almost exclusively from Mexico and Colombia. Which is why I went home with a Mexican accent, and no French language skills to parlay of. 

My best friend was an awkward 15-year-old from Mexico City named Daniel. We wrote excruciating fan fiction about our French teacher, Madame Irene Paradis, throughout our time at camp, and for many years thereafter, as pen pals. 

One anecdote that Daniel told me about his life in Mexico has been imprinted on my brain the way things imprint on your brain when you’re young and still able to learn things. Daniel told me you couldn’t drive your car on certain days in Mexico City because of pollution. I was shocked. I don’t know whether I was appalled that you’d be forbidden from driving your car, or that pollution was so bad where he lived. Probably a little of both. He explained that cars had to take days off the road based on their license plate numbers, but that rich people just bought a lot of cars to get around this. 

For pretty much my whole life, I’ve thought about this forced stasis. As my environmental angst has grown over the past coupla decades, I’ve perhaps dwelled on it even more. It’s one of my mental tropes, this vision of everybody just stopping, chilling out, being quiet, not going to the bachelor party weekend in Cancun. I imagine something like Don McKellar’s great film Last Night, which I really need to watch again, now that I think of it. 

Pre-COVID, I’d explore these little thought experiments: What if we shut down industry for a day a week, a month, a few hours every afternoon? We’d solve climate change and be happier humans. What if we had a weekly day of rest, a secular sabbath? I can see that nascent start-up flexing like they invented the concept of weekly rest: digital detox with us every weekend! The app is free, but premium dayofrest costs $9.99.

Without being glib about the devastating fallout of our current game of global freeze tag, I have to concede that it’s interesting to see my thought experiment come to life. As a person who likes staying close to home and keeping it simple, it’s also easy for me to take comfort in all this extra sourdough time (well, except for the fact that I’ve killed two starters given me by my friend Tyler and am too embarrassed to ask for a third bread bailout.)

The next step in this thought experiment is to reconcile this mandated cessation of movement with the idea that some of these lessons could be incorporated into wherever we go from here. I’m reluctant to espouse narratives that try to capitalize on the fragility of the moment by inserting agendas. At the same time, ramming abortion restrictions into your Coronavirus package is disgusting, while setting the stage for a healthier new world is admirable.

My mild optimism that this terrorful mess might be a time for positive change is because there’s long been an undercurrent of THINGS ARE NOT WORKING. I’m not talking about the loud drumbeats of the people who know it’s not working, but instead about the status quo types who have quietly been moving their money out of oil, realizing, from their positions of vertiginous privilege, that they just have TOO FUCKING MUCH. To be clear, I don’t mean that I’m counting on a billionaire come-to-Jesus moment, just more of a critical mass of humanity tipping the fringe into mainstream. I mean, we’ve pushed the Overton Window to talk of what essentially is a Universal Basic Income. Why not a Green New Deal, universal health care, and basic human decency?

But back to the quiet. While I’ve packed our family’s little calendar with all manner of virtual excitements (Join our ‘school,’ if you please! Teachers needed!) I am finding time, betwixt the anxiety, to enjoy the stillness, to play hours of soccer with my son, to be OK with not getting much of anything done, to doing weird and wonderful things I’ve never done before (hello, morning gratitude choir!).

THIS WEEK
What are you doing in the quiet? I’d love to draw these activities/thoughts, so please send them to me!

Stay cozy,

Sarah

The Finite Pool of Worry Edition

The positive side of being totally freaked out

The Finite Pool of Worry:

Because people have a limited capacity for how many issues they can worry about at once, as worry increases about one type of risk, concern about other risks may lessen. More here.

It’s such a beautiful little phrase. The Finite Pool of Worry. I think about it often, especially when I realize that I’m not worrying about climate because I’m fretting about things much closer to home, like work, my children’s health, or whether we have enough bland, orange cheese in the fridge to keep my son eating. COVID-19 is a perfect example of how we have little choice in what consumes our finite pool of worry, and why climate always gets the short end of the body of water.

If there’s a tiny glimmer of something to be learned from all this horribleness it’s how emotional the decisions are regarding our finite pools of worry. COVID-19 is enveloping us emotionally, and amplifying our more quotidian concerns as well. Of course there’s no room for anything else. There’s barely room for climate when we aren’t consumed with worldwide pandemic. Those trying to inject it into the current conversation seem woefully out of step with what it means to be a human right now.

Which is not to say that it’s not worth thinking through COVID + climate. It’s just that rhapsodizing about reduced emissions due to contagion isn’t that helpful. These are not sustainable reduced emissions. We’ve reduced emissions before during a crisis, and they always just creep back up.

But back to these melancholy pools of angst. Perhaps the most useful thing about this crisis is it’s providing us an opportunity to engage with our worry, to itemize the things that make our hearts race the most. With few places to go, we have more time to really think through the anxieties. And with COVID-19 at the top, my extremely irrational fears of clowns, crime procedurals, and conga lines have all but dropped off the list. Though perhaps I should keep conga lines in the pool, given all that physical contact.

The lovely Joanna Goddard of Cup of Jo posted this anxiety trick a few days ago, and it’s a quite wonderful piece of behavioural science. In a nutshell, it’s all about imagining positive outcomes, rather like this excerpt from Christiana Figueres’ book that I mentioned last week. Envisioning a positive future doesn’t mean ignoring risk and worry or suppressing fear, but it does give hope and strength...and can galvanize fruitful action. Things could be OK, or even better than OK.

It can be tough to distance ourselves. As the brilliant academic (and co-originator of the FPoW) Elke Weber writes:

We enjoy congregating; we need to know we are part of groups,” Weber said. “It gives us inherent pleasure to do this. And when we are reminded of the fact that we’re part of communities, then the community becomes sort of the decision-making unit. That’s how we make huge sacrifices, like in World War II.

But unlike WWII, we’re being told to not come together physically. Which doesn’t mean we can’t convene digitally, sending each other less physical equivalents of love and support like custom emojis. We can even sing together, alone. How beautiful is this?

THIS WEEK

In the words of Drake, Take Care! 

I hope you all have the support you need. I hope you’re making cookies and reading good books, taking care of loved ones, and being taken care of by loved ones, and getting help if you need it. 

Sarah

PS As I walked home from dropping my daughter off at what will be her last day of school for three weeks, a pulse of sun suddenly cut through the blanket of grey. Wishing you sunbreaks!

PPS Many thanks to Bernadette Kinlaw for proofing this newsletter! And to Ben, whose newsletter you should check out, as a witty respite from worry.

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