There is a (no doubt apocryphal) story about bus travelers in a remote rural area of the world. Here, on what are no doubt dusty roads in an empty landscape, some people will hang for a while after they’ve completed their journey and have exited the bus. This gives their soul time to catch up. Or so the story goes.
I often thought of this story when I still traveled the world. Would your soul be lost if you left again before it had had the chance to catch up? The blank stares of my fellow business travelers did not bode well. My hollow expression in the mirror late on a Friday at Munich or Heathrow seemed to confirm the hypothesis. I can only hope that two years of Covid and living and working within a tiny country has given my soul the chance to catch up.
I wanted to write about playing the guitar again. It had been twenty years. And I’d never been particularly proficient. Quite bad, actually. Now, with one week of Fender Play supported dusting off, I can play simple tunes and sing along again. That’s for a future update. Instead, in this update, two-and-a-half loosely related stories about being lost.
First, something that angered me. I studied a sustainability monitor for the Netherlands by a research consultancy. The PDF started inconspicuous. Surveying over two thousand people, the researchers found they worried about pollution, global warming, and conservation issues. Moreover, two-thirds of all respondents felt the urgency to live more sustainably, a ratio I seem to come across more often.
Then, however, the report lost me. Categorizing people into buckets, the researchers found that of the people queried about their attitudes and opinions regarding sustainability, 13% were ‘green doers.’ Worse, the 26% of respondents who didn’t care too much about sustainability in their survey were labeled as “indifferent” (onverschillig in Dutch). Thoughtlessly, the report linked this to the education they had received (less than average). 3.6 million people, labeled as indifferent nitwits. Idiotic.
This thinking is flawed and dangerous. First, as another research showed a few years back, thinking about sustainability does not equate to taking action. Labeling people that care about sustainability as “doers” without ascertaining they actually do anything risks rewarding the wrong behavior.
It may be that Leiden, the city where we spoke with thousands of people in the streets about their ideas and actions regarding sustainability, is a case apart. Or that the many organizations where we initiated a movement around the SDGs were special. Yet, I’ve found time and again that many people who don’t care too much about biodiversity loss doubt climate science and fear migrants also take positive action on the various sustainability agendas. Not to save the world, but to make their neighborhood a better place to live. To help their neighbors and friends. And because it feels well.
Handily, the report also showed that in the Netherlands, the more education you receive, the more CO2 you admit. Having an above-average income also raises your emissions. Women emit less than men.
We’ve spoken to thousands of people in September and many more at other moments. Some of them looked the part of a sustainability advocate. Yet others were less obviously involved. Blue color workers, retirees, school dropouts, newcomers… often they had the best specific examples of how they contributed to a better world through their actions. If we label them as “indifferent” because they cannot always find the right words, we risk losing an invaluable asset in our quest for a better world.
Two, briefer now. If you listen to one podcast this week, make it Sean Carroll’s conversation with C. Thi Nguyen. C. Thi Nguyen’s argument is that games have a temporary artificial clarity of values and purpose. This clarity is appealing enough to people for them to play games they know they will lose. Yet, carrying it over into the real world is dangerous, as it creates a system where simplified values (money, class) become more important than realistic, nuanced values.
An artificial, simple set of values and purpose is also what games share with cults and conspiracy theories. And with all of us that believe in institutions.
“I think there’s this vision where for a lot of us, like when you look at anti-vaxxing, anti-masking, anti whatever, climate change denialist space, what we want to say something like, “Oh, those people are totally irrational.” But I think what you have to think instead is, they have an entirely different basic framework of trust, for a different set of institutions. And the degree of rationality there depends on the degree to which we can justify our trust in our institutions.”
C. Thi Nguyen gives an easy tool to test if you’ve ‘gamified’ your thinking. Ask yourself, “Is this moral view or world view too yummy?” In other words, “Is this true or does it feel good to believe it.”
I think many institutions that I believe in maybe too yummy to be true. The United Nations, for instance, or — more urgently — the SDGs. Citizen assemblies. Democracy. The rational thing is not to trust them but distrust them as I do not fully understand them.
To rally people to our cause, it is not enough to wave more facts and evidence in their faces. We need to restore their trust in a shared set of institutions. Here, art plays a role, as it allows us to try on different worldviews. It helps us keep the world complicated. Fight gamification attempts where they have no merit. Such as outside of sports and games.
Like travelers on a high-speed bus, neoliberalism and its ever growing economies have left quite a number of people wondering where their soul has gone. But, unfortunately, Covid has proven so far to be more of an airport — touch and go — than a bus stop where we could catch up with ourselves.
Consequently, what we found talking with real people about real issues is that many of them have disengaged from the institutions that put them on the bus. Lost, new institutions welcomed them with open arms. YouTube conspiracy channels. Anti-vax communities. Like modern-day messiahs, they’ve gathered lost souls and given them a place to belong and ideas to trust.
Facts and evidence will not do to counter that. Compassion may. Art may.
As I’m wrapping up this newsletter, my train has stopped in the business district of Amsterdam. A light show is going on outside, apparently without an audience, or I must be the audience, virtually alone at this late hour. We’re so shockingly rich in my country, we can permit ourselves compassion and art. I hope you can too.
Thanks for reading, replying, forwarding; see you next week!