Sunday, November 27, 2016

Getting out of grief in Trump country


In those first miserable days after the election, we progressives spent the beginning stages of our grief torturing ourselves with hindsight. We allowed that Clinton was the wrong candidate. We asked ourselves if we lived in a bubble. We self-flagellated late into the night, wincing with each cleansing lash of the whip—for being so out of touch, for being so wrong, for abandoning sixty million voters.

I went through this stage as well. I was shocked that Trump won. He’s just so vile. So obviously unqualified. So patently full of shit. Have I, too, been living too much in my own bubble? Am I missing something?!

I’ve since emerged from the soul-searching stage with clear eyes and far less patience for all the navel-gazing and self-loathing (though I think this has been a good and necessary stage for the Democratic Party to go through).

In short, I think we need to stop thinking of Clinton as a flawed candidate when the real problem is with Trump’s flawed voters.

We are in denial about this group of voters. We progressives are so understanding and empathetic that oftentimes plain truths cannot be seen through the fog of our own moral relativism. We believe it’s all about their economic struggle. Their jobs shipped to other countries. Their disappearing mining jobs. These, no doubt, are serious and legitimate factors that affect how these people think, act, and vote, but they’re only half of the story. These voters are also driven by factors far more hideous than rational economic self interest—they’re driven by “identity politics,” a euphemism whose dull syllables hide a fire-breathing religion, sociopathic racial and class resentment, and a baseless paranoia about everything from our Kenyan leader to Hillary’s emails to the giant magnetic crane coming to snap up everyone’s guns—all neatly stoked by fake news and rightwing propaganda.*

I do not write this from one of those much-maligned East Coast liberal bubbles. I write this from Stokes County, North Carolina, where I’ve lived off and on for the past six years. In Stokes, 76 percent of voters voted for Trump. Two houses to the left of me, a neighbor waves a Confederate flag (in the middle of which, oddly, is a picture of a bass). Two houses to the right of me, a neighbor (who rides his truck with his Trump/Pence bumper sticker to fire his weapons all afternoon) erected a gate over our road and hung a wooden cutout of an assault rifle painted in black.


On the week leading up to the election, I volunteered for the local Democratic Party to be a designated poll observer and to hand out flyers supporting local Democrats running for office. In front of one polling station, a friend of a Republican candidate went up to the candidate and cordially remarked, “I can get anyone to come out and vote for you, except the niggers.” One of the Democrats running for office (a very sweet, soft-spoken gentleman) was approached by a Trump supporter who called him a “baby killer,” which escalated into a heated verbal confrontation. In King, North Carolina, an Afghanistan veteran holding a “Veterans Against Trump” sign outside of the American Legion polling place was struck by a car. Let me repeat that: a Trump supporter used his car to assault a person he disagreed with. The driver opened the door and yelled out, “What were you in, the gay guard?”



In the local newspaper, we have a local pundit who writes letters to the editor once a month that are so regular and so long they’re more like commissioned Op-Eds. With a strange penchant for 18th Century-style capitalized nouns and a curious fascination with same-sex marriage and transgender-friendly bathrooms, he writes hateful gobbledygook like this for us each month:
The same-sex unions, which some call marriage, are fraud; not truth, since truth does not change, it is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Same-sex unions have been illegal for thousands of years: since the commands of law. Marriage has been defined from the beginning, as between one man and one woman. Right and Wrong cannot logically be reasoned equal by any honest person, nor can one say definitions that are different, are the same for marriage.
This isn’t just some looney uncle with fringe beliefs who we all roll our eyes at when he talks in public forums. This guy actually has influence over our county commissioners, who’ve passed resolutions in favor of ending gay marriage and North Carolina’s odious HB2 bill that discriminates against transgender people.

To round out my “rural-living” cred, let me add that I’ve lived in rural Alaska, rural Nebraska, rural Utah, next to Jerry Falwell’s church in Lynchburg, Virginia, and I spent 4.5 months walking across the reddest, most conservative section of America—the “flyover country,” which voted for Trump in large numbers. (I come to these places more for the scenery and inexpensive rent than the politics.)

The people around me, the people I watched fill out their ballots, may have convinced themselves that they were voting for Trump out of love of God and country, but often behind this thin surface of do-gooding decency is something far uglier, and we need to stop mincing our words and pulling punches when describing it: it’s hatred, it’s racism, it’s horse shit.

When I walked across the Great Plains talking with folks about climate change, I did not have rational discussions with folks in which we presented facts, confessed our ignorance to some issues, and engaged in healthy intellectual dialogues. It was more like this: they’d spew nonsense while I politely listened. From Trespassing across America:
Each person spoke to me as if they were doing me some great service, as if they were imparting sage wisdom from ancient texts. But more often than not, I saw that they were propagandized, only regurgitating rumors they’d heard at the local café or half-remembered falsehoods they saw on the TV. They talked in absolutes, spoke expertly on every issue, and rarely if ever would you hear someone say, “Well, I guess I don’t know much about that.” They weren’t free-thinking men, but stone tablets onto which dogma had etched its wicked creed.

When I started this trip, I wondered if I had been living too much in a bubble. Perhaps I’d been reading too many New York Times articles. Perhaps I’d put too much faith in peer-reviewed science. Perhaps—surrounded by open-minded, well-educated, progressives—I was missing the bigger picture. Perhaps if I left academe and went out to the Heartland, I’d tap into the wisdom of the prairie and the farmers who worked it. Maybe they knew the land and skies and environment in ways we suburbanites and city dwellers didn’t. Maybe I’d find that they had good reason to deny man-made climate change.

But not one person I encountered had said anything even halfway intelligent when denying global warming. No one had read books or articles on the issue, and they couldn’t begin to understand how peer-reviewed science works. They saw themselves as too freewilled and independent to be duped into accepting something that an accomplished and well-trained scientist says is true. But these skeptics are only selectively skeptical. They think themselves enlightened for resisting all this new proof and remaining steadfast in mistrusting any- thing that someone else says. But it is a false enlightenment to accept only those ideas that align with one’s worldview and reject those that don’t.
I’m not the only one who’s moved on from the initial stages of grief. Paul Krugman of the New York Times writes how these working class whites would benefit far more from Clinton’s proposed policies than those of Trump:
Democrats have already been pursuing policies that are much better for the white working class than anything the other party has to offer. Yet this has brought no political reward. Consider eastern Kentucky, a very white area which has benefited enormously from Obama-era initiatives… Independent estimates say that the uninsured rate fell from 27 percent in 2013 to 10 percent in 2016. That’s the effect of the Affordable Care Act, which Mrs. Clinton promised to preserve and extend but Mr. Trump promised to kill…

Nobody can credibly promise to bring the old [manufacturing] jobs back; what you can promise — and Mrs. Clinton did — are things like guaranteed health care and higher minimum wages. But working-class whites overwhelmingly voted for politicians who promise to destroy those gains.
In a brilliant Alternet piece, the author says the Democrats shouldn’t worry about their political bubbles since it is rural white America that has closed itself off to the rest of the world:
The real problem isn’t east coast elites who don’t understand or care about rural America. The real problem is rural America doesn’t understand the causes of their own situations and fears and they have shown no interest in finding out. They don’t want to know why they feel the way they do or why they are struggling because they don’t want to admit it is in large part because of choices they’ve made and horrible things they’ve allowed themselves to believe….
For us “coastal elites” who understand evolution, genetics, science…nothing we say to those in fly-over country is going to be listened to because not only are we fighting against an anti-education belief system, we are arguing against God…

Rural, Christian, white Americans are entrenched in fundamentalist belief systems; don’t trust people outside their tribe; have been force-fed a diet of misinformation and lies for decades; are unwilling to understand their own situations; and truly believe whites are superior to all races. No amount of understanding is going to change these things or what they believe. No amount of niceties will get them to be introspective. No economic policy put forth by someone outside their tribe is going to be listened to no matter how beneficial it would be for them. I understand rural, Christian, white America all too well. I understand their fears are based on myths and lies. I understand they feel left behind by a world they don’t understand and don’t really care to. They are willing to vote against their own interest if they can be convinced it will make sure minorities are harmed more. Their Christian beliefs and morals are truly only extended to fellow white Christians. They are the problem with progress and always will be, because their belief systems are constructed against it.
You might argue that poverty, oppression, and marginalization inevitably lead to desperation. They inevitably lead to anger and resentment and hellfire religion. They inevitably lead to the election of the personification of a middle finger. No! These things aren’t inevitable. Poverty, oppression, and marginalization can lead to cooperation, to resolve, to dignified action. They can uplift and bring out the best in people. When blacks want their rights, they march, perform sit-ins, go on freedoms rides. They follow principled men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend William Barber. They quote the best Bible passages and sing “We Shall Overcome.” They act with dignity, patience, perseverance—the same way Native Americans are taking water cannons to the face in South Dakota right now. The same way women, LGBTQ groups, and environmentalists fought for equality and justice. (Yes, there are sometimes riots and violence, but they normally occur only after peaceful protests have failed to result in progress.)

What have these “oppressed” whites done to fight for their rights? What have they done to make their plight known? What marches have they gone on, what dogs have been unleashed on them? How have they appealed to the rest of us? How have they tried to capture the country’s heart? What dignified leaders have they followed?

Instead of doing any of that, they just picked a foul-mouthed reality TV star, who runs corrupt businesses, assaults women, offends minorities, calls for his opponent to be killed and jailed, etc., etc., etc.

What can be done? How do we go about fixing something like mass hatred and mass delusion?

My short answer is: I don’t know. There are (implausible) long-term initiatives that would have an impact: namely enhancing income equality and promoting the liberal arts so we have a smarter, more scrutinizing, and less resentful, electorate. And Congress and our social media overlords simply must do something about controlling fake news.

In the short term, and on a more local level, I think we can do a couple of things.

First, we must acknowledge the problem. We cannot act as if we’re dealing with rational voters whose primary interest is their economic betterment. If we try to appeal to them in that way, like we’ve been doing for years (with promises of better health care, higher wages, infrastructure spending, environmental protection, and affordable college), we’re not going to get anywhere. We need to find ways to get to their emotions. Their guts. They are Republicans more out of a sense of tribalism than anything else. We need to strip off their surface of do-gooding decency to expose them for what they are—for them and the rest of us to see.

We need to have face-to-face conversations with the other side. The Alternet writer above seems to suggest that Christian rural white America is hopeless. I don’t know if I agree. It is possible to change people’s minds, as well as their hearts and souls. Author Daryl Davis, an African American, did just that. In Klan-destine Relationships, he describes his hobby of having conversations with Ku Klux Klan leaders. By following just a few principles, he got some of the most fervent racists in the world to turn in their robes and leave the Klan. Davis’s words from an Atlantic piece:
The most important thing I learned is that when you are actively learning about someone else you are passively teaching them about yourself. So if you have an adversary with an opposing point of view, give that person a platform. Allow them to air that point of view, regardless of how extreme it may be. And believe me, I've heard things so extreme at these rallies they'll cut you to the bone. Give them a platform. You challenge them. But you don't challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform. So he and I would sit down and listen to one another over a period of time. And the cement that held his ideas together began to get cracks in it. And then it began to crumble. And then it fell apart.
I remember in Texas I was speaking with a hardass about environmentalism, which he thought was a big government hoax. I told him about how I grew up near Love Canal in Western New York, where toxic chemicals led to unprecedented miscarriages, cancer rates, and birth defects. After I told this story, and how it factors into my environmentalism, he softened. He got it. He didn’t turn into John Muir, but he did learn that you don’t have to be a whacko to be an environmentalist. I listened, then he listened, and some small progress was made.

Move to the Heartland. Jobs may be few, but the scenery is gorgeous and the rent is ridiculously cheap. We can’t all concentrate ourselves in coastal liberal bubbles. And between the memes, the misinformation, and digital barrier between each set of eyes, Facebook divides us more than it brings us together. The only solution is face-to-face encounters and person-by-person cultural diffusion. Let's consider this the 21st Century's Bloody Kansas, where we move to rural states to change the fate of the nation. Romanticize it by thinking of yourself as a political frontiersman, heading out alone into a conservative, and rather gun-happy (bring an orange florescent vest), wilderness. Be a progressive missionary and come to the Heartland with nonthreatening stories of legal edibles and gay weddings. Join me in Stokes so I have someone to talk to. And bring some of those New York bagels, willya?

What if the left commandeered some of the right’s favorite issues? Let’s get out ahead of the right and use some stiff moral rhetoric to call for, say, drastically reducing the abortion rate (not by making abortions illegal, but by ramping up sex education programs and making contraceptives more widely available). If done in the right way, the Republican Party would no longer have a moral monopoly over the issue. In this way, with more than a little manipulation (and perhaps some legitimate moral motives as well), we can steal issues from the right.

Progressives also need to treat all religions equally, and that includes hating them equally: Fundamentalist Islam ought to get the ire that we don’t hesitate to heap on Fundamentalist Christianity. Our unrelenting praise for diversity and multiculturalism, and our moral relativism, have made it possible for someone like Trump to take a no-nonsense hardline stance on, say, Islamic immigration. We have enough extreme Islam-related incidents in our country, and have witnessed more than enough in Europe, to begin to speak of the religion with the scorn and intolerance it deserves.

Let’s talk about gun rights in positive terms. Instead of talking about restrictions, every Democrat should begin his line about guns with his dedication to protecting the Second Amendment before proposing a few sensible restrictions.

Think about every issue that’s important to conservatives and determine if there are ways that they may be rhetorically commandeered by progressives. None of this is going low or stooping to their level. It’s addressing their fears and speaking to their values in a way that will in the end help advance progressive principles. It’s really about framing progressive ideas for everyone, and not just progressives.

These might be silly ideas. They probably are. And I don’t know if they’ll work. But I know for certain that what we cannot do is use our same-old tactics and let them — with their fake news, rotten religion, and thinly-veiled racism — drive us back into the Dark Ages. We have truth and justice on our side, but that doesn’t mean much when they have the votes.


***


*I am not using the terms “fake news” and “rightwing propaganda” lightly. Here’s just a few stories about this problem:

Inside a Fake News Sausage Factory: ‘This Is All About Income’

How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study

Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say

Sunday, July 10, 2016

My four months of getting hassled by cops

Photo taken in Port Arthur, Texas, on the final hour of my journey.
On my walk across the Great Plains, I had countless encounters with law enforcement. At one point in Montana, I was awoken by an armed posse led by the local sheriff. In Petersburg, Nebraska, I was detained and driven out of the county on false charges of breaking into local homes. In Kansas, I was approached by cops every day — sometimes several times a day — so that they could check my ID and see what I was up to. In Texas, a cop pulled over and interviewed me to determine whether I was an environmental terrorist. In my normal life, I’m never approached by cops. But on this 146-day trip, I must have been targeted by cops several times a week.

On the one hand, I can identity with people of color who are routinely suspected of wrongdoing just because of how they look. (In their case, they’re black, and in my case, I was a bearded and bedraggled stranger.) But, on the other hand, I’ll never really understand what they have to go through. I never felt fear in any of these encounters. I never worried about getting manhandled, beaten, or shot. I never felt my dignity was being assaulted because I knew that this targeting would end the minute my hike did, and I'd go back to my old life in which my whiteness makes me invisible to cops. Honestly, being detained or cornered by cops was a source of amusement to me more than anything else.

I was treated with respect in all of these interactions. I’d call them “warm,” even. They usually ended with the officer wishing me good luck. One time, when things got scary in Atoka, Oklahoma — when a stranger approached my tent in the middle of the night — I called the cops, who came out to make sure I was okay. Another time, in Augusta, Kansas, the police department offered to let me sleep in their offices on a particularly cold December night. Despite being suspected of wrongdoing all the time, I ended my journey with great respect for cops and what they do.

But this is not a “all cops are wonderful” post. There is no question in my mind that African Americans are disproportionately targeted, mistreated, and killed. (Make sure you read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” before you disagree with that comment.) There’s no question that doing what I did — trespassing across the whitest part of America — would be one hundred times harder, and deadlier, for a person of color.

I’m not sure what this post is other than a double dose of sympathy from someone who’s neither black nor a cop: I sympathize with folks who are racially targeted and I sympathize with the men and women who put their lives on the line for us every day. This post is an acknowledgement of the good work our cops do and an acknowledgment that things must also change.

Detained in Petersburg, Nebraska on false charges of breaking and entering.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Trespassing across America—An Imperfect Journey

There’s almost nothing good that will come from reading a book review about your own book. After you’ve poured your life and soul into a book for almost three years, reading one critical sentence in an otherwise glowing review can ruin a perfectly good afternoon. Maybe I’m just overly sensitive, but I’m guessing that criticism is tough to take for most authors and artists, especially when this criticism is made public for everyone to read.

Most of the time I won’t read reviews unless someone has gone out of their way to tell me that it’s a great review, and even then sometimes I choose not to. Better not even chance it, I’ll think. But I do feel some obligation to read them, as I do want to grow as a writer and learn what I can from professional critics. And of course I’m simply curious to find out how people respond to a literary work that I’ve rewritten and reread a hundred times with the aim of making it a pleasurable read. Did I succeed? If not, how did I fail? 

There have been at least two negative reviews of Trespassing across America, which has been out for two months now. Since there are patterns to the criticisms in these reviews, I wish to address them. Not in an angry, vengeful, Twitter-war way. But in a literary and intellectual way. In a way that defends my book while acknowledging its shortcomings.

In one of the earliest reviews, written by LA Times book critic Dean Kuipers, Kuipers refers to me as a “a reluctant interrogator, constantly backing away from encounters that might prove too hot.” Kuipers is referring to my reluctance to talk with landowners about climate change. This is of course an important conversation for me to have on a journey in which I’m walk over a controversial oil pipeline. 

Ilgunas walks into a face-full of what one strongly suspects is regurgitated Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and for reasons of either politeness or fear he can't break through. Finally, in the middle of the book, he is invited to lunch by Stan, a pro-pipeline guy who thinks climate change is fake but who says he hopes the backpacking stranger can help him understand differently. When he asks Ilgunas, "Don't you believe environmentalism is all about power?" — voicing a conservative belief that climate change is a plot to increase government control — Ilgunas shuts down. "From the phrasing of this one question, I gathered that any sort of mutual understanding was impossible.”… We need him to transcend the confrontation.

Elizabeth Kelly of the Star Tribune writes something similar: 

Time and again, confronted with ranchers, farmers, oil workers, merchants who stand at the other pole from Ilgunas on the pipeline issue, he mumbles that his mission is merely a long walk rather than risk the direct challenge of an opposing view… [U]ltimately this backing down by the author reduces his account to a mere travel journal when he had begun his journey with the announced intent to change the world’s energy habits.

On one hand, I certainly see their points. In a book sort of about big, important political things, you want the author to charge ahead and tackle them head on. You want the protagonist of a book to act heroically. To act courageously. To act assertively. And oftentimes I was calculatedly unassertive. As a liberal New Yorker illegally walking across people’s lands in arguably the most conservative part of America, I certainly had to exercise a lot of caution. Bringing up a subject as contentious as manmade climate change, I recognized, could be the difference between my having a positive social interaction and one in which I’m legitimately worried about my safety. To their credit, these critics acknowledged my unique situation, even if they didn’t let me off the hook for it.

But to defend myself and my book, I should say that I did have many talks about pipelines and climate change. Most were too unexceptional to make it into the book, or they overlapped with other conversations I had. I got a lot of people’s positive impressions of the fossil fuel industry and their disbelief in manmade climate change, for all the usual reasons. These are peppered throughout the book. What I’m getting dinged for is not sticking up for what I believe in. For not confronting these folks with the hard facts behind manmade climate change. My constant sheepishness can be frustrating to the reader.

I am not proud of my sheepishness, but I feel that my depiction of my sheepishness needs to be defended on two levels. Firstly, my confronting a few dozen — or even a few hundred — landowners on climate change would have accomplished nothing. Debating climate change is almost like debating religion: people’s minds, especially among older-aged folks, are made up. Persuading folks, one after the other, of the validity of climate change was never my goal. In the end, I got what I came for: their beliefs and an understanding of where they’re coming from.

And on another level, I deliberately kept my sheepishness in the book because I wanted to faithfully chronicle one normal guy’s experiences talking about a subject as toxic and complex as climate change in the years 2012 and 2013. Then and now, climate change is not an easy subject to bring up, debate, or change someone’s mind about. (Even scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, arguably the person most equipped to persuade ordinary folks about the existence of manmade climate change, has said he won’t debate deniers.) If you happen to live in a progressive bubble, it may sound unusual that I felt reluctant talking about climate change with other folks. 

But out there, on the Great Plains, climate change is a subject that’s explosive and emotionally-charged. Tied up in the issue of manmade climate change are folks’ livelihoods and identities. Implicit in a conversation about climate change are threats of having to undergo an upheaval in how we live and how we identify. Will we have to leave behind the images of ourselves as hardy, self-sufficient, small-government individualists in order to tackle something as tremendous as climate change, which will require a robust government, collective action, keeping fossil fuels in the ground, building an international coalition to impose greenhouse gas limits, and containing the evils of the free market with stricter regulations—all anathema to the right-wing mind? 

Rather than coming to terms with things that imperil the sanctity of their identity, it’s easier for them to just deny climate change and angrily dismiss believers as deluded halfwits doing the dirty work for a nefarious, power-grabbing leftwing. Imagine talking about abolition with a sympathizer of slavery in 1850’s Georgia. Talking about climate change in a red state today isn’t quite that bad, but it is one of those subjects where there’s starkly different opinions and little-to-no middle ground for sympathy and mutual understanding. When your identity is so synchronized with a belief, it’s something worth going to war over—and it was this tension that I felt whenever I brought up environmental subjects.

I wanted my sheepishness to be a part of the book because it says a lot about our times. And I wanted it to be in the book regardless of whether or not it makes me look bad or ultimately frustrates the reader, because it showcases how difficult it is for a person to have a conversation about a politically-charged and scientifically-complex subject. It’s about feeling awkward about identifying as an “environmentalist” to Republicans. It’s about not having any confidence in my ability to marshal facts about CO2 levels and ice-core studies in a conversation. It’s about not talking about contentious subjects in the unprecedentedly partisan atmosphere of the Obama era. (Early on in the book, I recount a story of one of my drivers on my hitchhike who threatened to kick me out of his car if I said something positive about President Obama—this is a prime example of the hyper-partisan country we’re living in.) Consider these facts from a recent New York Times article that borrows data from a Pew Research Center survey about contemporary partisanship:
  • “For the first time since at least 1992, the majority of Democrats and Republicans say they view the opposing party ‘very unfavorably’…  [A]round half of the members of either party said their opponents stirred feelings of fear and anger in them.”
  • “Today… 91 percent of Republicans view the Democratic Party unfavorably, with 58 percent holding ‘very unfavorable’ attitudes toward it. Among Democrats, 86 percent view the Republican Party unfavorably, while 55 percent hold it in a very unfavorable light”.
  • “The Republican Party strikes fear in the hearts of 55 percent of Democrats surveyed, Pew found. Among Republicans, 49 percent felt the same way about the Democratic Party.”
  • “Roughly 1 in 3 members of each party said they considered their political counterparts to be less intelligent than other Americans.”
  • “Exactly half of Republicans and 46 percent of Democrats said they find talking politics with a member of the opposing party to be ‘stressful and frustrating.’”

That I couldn’t have difficult conversations or even refer to myself as an environmentalist (which I certainly did plenty of times, but in the book I wanted to point to the instances in which I didn’t for all of the above reasons) is a testament of our toxically-partisan era. My sheepishness then is not just a personal failing; it’s a product of social, political, ideological, and religious forces that affect us all. It’s something worth developing in a book about climate change set in the 2010’s.

I should also say that my book is about an imperfect journey. It doesn’t wrap up neatly like Eat, Pray, Love or A Walk across America. There was no life-altering transformation. I didn’t marry anyone at the end of it. I didn’t change any minds about climate change, and I certainly didn’t singlehandedly stop the Keystone XL.

So is my book worthwhile even though I accomplished little? Should it have been written? 

Critic Elizabeth Kelly says that my “backing down” reduces the book to “a mere travel journal when he had begun his journey with the announced intent to change the world’s energy habits.” This line is difficult to take not only because of the many months of research that went into the book — of Great Plains history, American property history, environmental ethics, and energy policy — that I undertook with the intent of turning the book into something much more than a mere “travel journal.” But my so-called intent of changing the “the world’s energy habits” ought to have been regarded as the tongue-in-cheek naïveté from a dreamer consciously reveling in a moment of ridiculous monomania that it was. The journey was not about “changing the world”; it is about one person walking out to confront climate change head on, which, given one individual’s relationship with something as enormous, amorphous, and out-of-my-hands as climate change, the journey could only result in feelings of despair, impotency, powerlessness, and occasional hope. 

My journey was imperfect and incomplete. Yet there is value in presenting it in such a way because most journeys are imperfect and incomplete, and our journeyers usually don’t quite accomplish what they’d originally set out to do.

I once talked with a young guy who’d hiked the Appalachian Trail. This young guy seemed disturbed by his reflection that he’d changed and learned little from his months-long journey. If we’re honest with ourselves, like this young man was, we’d acknowledge that often the expectations we take into our journeys go unmet and that the romantic notions that led us into them were in some ways misguided. 

One of the travel books I most admire is Robyn Davidson’s travel memoir Tracks, about her 1,700-mile trek across the Australian desert with three camels in 1977. I’m not sure if I liked Tracks, but I admired and respected the hell out of it. 

I’m not sure if I liked Tracks because Davidson is a tough character to like. She presents herself as unsociable, misanthropic, and sometimes as stubborn as the camels she takes on her trip. A lot of the book is her griping about the paradoxical nature of her trip: She wanted to trek across Australia with camels as part of a grand, solo adventure, yet she must rely on a sponsorship from National Geographic. And this sponsorship requires that she routinely meet up with a photographer who takes staged pictures of her, undermining the authentic spirit of the trip she’d imagined. She reflects on how her newly-won fame gave rise to a series of unpleasant experiences with tourists, who gawked at her as an eccentric novelty: the 27-year-old “Camel Lady.” Davidson, then, is not an adventurer in the style of the great explorers of the past whom she so admired. Rather, she’s embittered by the fact that she’s something quite different: a tabloid adventurer who needs the support of the public as much as she resents it.

Tracks is very much a 21st Century journey. Different from the Age of Discovery between the 15th and 18th centuries and our early 20th Century races to the Poles, the late 20th Century and early 21st Century journey is something else entirely. Because everything that’s presently discoverable has already been discovered, these modern-day journeys are undertaken for other purposes: they’re for “causes,” self discovery, breaking speed records, or simply recreation. Yet we all want to feel what those old explorers felt. Unlike the adventurers of the past (see Thesiger’s Arabian Sands or The Journals of Lewis in Clark), we modern adventurers have one foot in the past, in which we strive to achieve the transformational qualities of the “man vs nature” dramas, and one foot in the present, in which our planet has 7 billion people, far fewer wild spaces (that only exist because of government protection), and has been thoroughly Google-mapped. (Think Chris McCandless of Into the Wild, or really any modern thru-hiker.) There’s something inherently sad about a modern journey—for we're setting out to embrace something that’s no longer truly there. It’s almost as sad as playing a video game set in a Medieval world in order to desperately escape our service-economy present to live virtually in a wilder, more adventurous, but long-gone, past.

Still, these modern-day journeys are most definitely journeys (they’re just far more existentially complex than the simpler discover-and-plant-a-flag journeys of the past), and that’s why Tracks is so valuable: Davidson honestly confronts the messiness of the modern journey in which things like branding, sponsorships, Kickstarter campaigns, and the media all get entangled in journeys that are never quite what we imagined them being. To make a worthwhile 21st Century travel book, this messiness needs to be dealt with honestly and made central, even if it’s just quietly lingering in the subtext.

I’ve tried to do that in my book, which is certainly not immune to criticism. Like with any of my writings, there’s plenty for me to be embarrassed about and the book has its share of shortcomings. One could easily and perhaps rightly criticize a few cheesy lines, some repetitious walking passages, and the sometimes disjointed nature of my trying to weave together history, reflection, and the travelogue itself. With this entry I don’t mean to insist that my book is above criticism; I only mean to defend what critics have twice now pointed out to be my book’s fatal flaw, which, though still a flaw, is also a strength when the book is read with the context of our times in mind. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Upbringing of a Trophy Kid

Portrait of an average kid. 

One thing that's always bugged me is the label "trophy kid." 

"Trophy kid" is a slur used by older generations to demean millennials. The slur implies that because the millennial was handed unearned participation trophies and because he was mollycoddled by his parents (who protected his fragile self-esteem from ever being bruised by the harsh Darwinian world), the millennial enters the real world with a sense of entitlement, unrealistic expectations, and a bloated ego. 

This label contrasts with the characters of the Baby Boomer generation. They'd have us believe that, in Caucasian America's Golden Age, they grew up in a brutal Hunger Games-like era, where they chopped their own firewood, ran marathons to school, and benefited from a more callous dog-eat-dog world that formed them into hardened, upstanding, non-consumeristic individuals. An ideal upbringing, according to this line of thinking, might be gotten in Stalingrad in 1943, or from eating your shoe in the Great Depression. 


A life's worth of participation trophies.

While visiting my parent's home, I started doing a little organizing of old stuff and came across a box of old test scores, report cards, and trophies. 

I was a trophy kid. I was awarded a participation trophy after every baseball, hockey, and football season. But the trophies did nothing to make me feel exceptional. I always knew my place. Even the most mollycoddled first grader has some understanding of where he stands among his classmates. He knows who's the smartest, the dumbest, the fastest, and the slowest. Here are a few test scores and report cards: 


Thoroughly average first grade test scores that were followed every year by average scores. 

The dreaded "area of weakness" check mark.

(Two goals in eighteen games. Yikes! (But notice Walden on Wheels's character, Josh Pruyn, with zero.)

Slightly better than average SATs.

I always knew how smart I was in relation to the rest of the class. I always knew who the better athlete was. I didn't just intuit these things: there were statistics that routinely and very clearly reminded me of my position in the pecking order. Sometimes I could tell where I ranked to the percentile. 

I was constantly reminded of my averageness. This followed me throughout my whole childhood. While the advanced students were awarded honors and got to take AP classes, I did okay in second-tier classes among my fellow second-tier peers. From age six to eighteen, all of my sports teams were horrible. Virtually every season was a losing season, and my team was always among the worst in the league. I knew nothing but academic mediocrity and athletic failure. My peers beneath me certainly were aware of their lowly position and my peers above me were probably far from satisfied in the competitive school environment in which there's always someone better. My point is that awards and trophies will never give a kid a bloated sense of self esteem in an ultra-competitive environment where he's constantly reminded of his inferiority to someone else. 

All this isn't to make a statement about trophies. Kids always know who the true winners and losers are, and the trophies were as much junk to us then as they are now. Perhaps they were meaningful to the kids who were floundering as students and athletes, and, if that's the case, I think that's enough reason to keep the tradition alive.  

And this entry is neither a condemnation of nor praise for standardized testing and a competitive grading environment. Despite being reminded of my averageness nearly every day for twelve years, I felt loved by my family, liked by my friends, and encouraged by my teachers. From them I built up enough self esteem to withstand the constant reminders of my averageness. 

I suppose all I'm trying to say is that there's no such thing as a trophy kid, at least as it exists as a label for an entire generation. It is a groundless slur used in senseless generational warfare. And I think it's wrong to suggest that building self esteem in young people is something that should be frowned upon. My trophy kid generation had among the highest suicide rates in the last sixty years. Giving a low esteem kid a certificate to tack up on his wall or telling him he's better at something than he really is, in the long run, won't do him any harm. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Books for the 21st Century Environmentalist

Mashable has kindly published my list of recommended books for the "21st Century Environmentalist."

It's interesting to see how environmental literature has changed from decade to decade. It began with the romantics: folks like Wordsworth, Rousseau, Thoreau, Gilbert White, Muir. These guys -- often mixing poetry, philosophy, and naturalist observation -- more or less championed the goodness of nature or wilderness.

In the early 20th Century, we see folks like Muir and Roosevelt fighting for specific things, whether it be the preservation of an animal or a landscape in the form of a national park. By the middle part of the 20th Century, we got books like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, which depict a world that is an interconnected ecological network, in which an insecticide like DDT could have a massive impact on the whole ecosystem.

Nowadays, in the 21st Century, we're seeing books about food and food production in, say, Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Jonathan Safron Foer's Eating Animals. There aren't as many premier environmental books calling for more wild spaces (with the exception of E.O. Wilson's recent Half Earth). Rather, we see books like Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction and Jared Diamonds Collapse, which are grim reality checks about our destructiveness as a species and our increasingly fragile planet, now challenged by overpopulation, thinning resources, and an unstable climate.

The earlier books, surprisingly, are just as readable and relevant today, as their call to embrace nature is, I think, a necessary step our society must take to surmount our much scarier environmental problems today. For a wonderful survey of all environmental writing, from its birth to its much more diverse form today, I strongly recommend American Earth, a collection of writings edited by Bill McKibben.

So what exactly is a 21st Century environmentalist? It may be a person who combines all the environmentalisms of yesteryear: someone who has the aesthetic nature-loving sensibilities of the naturalist-romantics, the desire to preserve wild places and animals in perpetuity, the understanding of a vast and complex ecological system that needs careful management, and the concern for animal welfare and the fate of our planet.