Musings on life and feeling good while living in an interconnected and deeply unfair world.
I spent an incredibly peaceful morning writing at an outdoor cafe on the banks of the River Tisa in rural Serbia. It was sunny and still, and the whole world seemed to have slowed: the lazy breeze, the river flowing past so slowly that the trees on the opposite bank formed almost perfect reflections on the glassy surface, the pollen drifting on the wind and settling on the water. It seemed impossible for anything bad to be happening in such a perfectly peaceful world.
And yet these same lazy, pollen-strewn waters sprang from the ground and started flowing in Ukraine. Travel a few hundred miles upstream, and you’re in a warzone. The Tisa’s source is in the Carpathian mountains in western Ukraine, so it’s not like you could sail straight to the Donbas or anything, but still, it’s a country that’s under attack, a place in which people were probably dying as I was sipping my espresso sa mlekom.
And yet I found it hard to connect with that fact. I ate my omelette, sipped my coffee, talked to the waiter in my bad Serbian, and then pulled out my laptop and began to work on my novel. It was a normal, peaceful morning. I felt completely happy.
And this is how we live, isn’t it? Bad things are happening to people near and far, and bad things are happening to the planet itself, but we live our lives because what else can we do? Compared to issues as large as war, injustice and climate change, our lives feel as small as those wisps of pollen floating on the breeze. Making a meaningful change feels as impossible as diverting the course of the river that was flowing past me this morning and is now in the Danube, on its way out to the Black Sea.
And yet, at some point, we will have to find a way. We will have to because the boundaries we set up between ourselves and others are illusory. Nature knows nothing of them: the same drops of water that flowed past me this morning may be falling as raindrops on your window as you read this somewhere thousands of miles away. If nature is being despoiled somewhere, the effects will be felt everywhere. That’s why scientists have found toxins, pollution and plastics everywhere from the deepest ocean trenches to the highest mountains to the Antarctic and of course the tissues of our own bodies. And of course, even if climate change will disproportionately affect those who have done the least to create it, it will come for us all in the end.
But it’s not just nature that’s interconnected. It’s us. For a long time, those of us with relative privilege managed to preserve the illusion that we could remain forever insulated from the suffering we saw on the nightly news. That illusion is coming apart at the seams. We have seen so many examples of “blowback” from previous acts of violence, often decades or centuries earlier but remaining rightly unforgotten. We have seen the enormous human cost of trying to preserve islands of privilege in a grossly unequal world. We have lived through a pandemic that reached from a Chinese wet market to kill an estimated 15 million people around the world so far.
I could go on. The solutions to the issues I’ve mentioned (and to the countless ones I haven’t) are not simple, and I’m not going to pretend they are. My point is simply that any solution based on exclusion and division will not work. At best, it will shift the problem somewhere else or temporarily delay the worst consequences.
The solutions we should be reaching for are those based not on expedience but justice. They will probably be harder solutions, more complicated solutions, because the world we live in is infinitely complex. But they have a chance of working. Instead of demanding a short-term fix that gives us a temporary advantage at the expense of other people or of nature, for example, we should ask how we can be better ancestors for the world to come. We need to be idealistic, perhaps even unrealistic, because we can all see that so-called realism and pragmatism aren’t working out too well for the majority of people on this planet. They’re often simply a cover for prolonging an unjust status quo.
The uncomfortable bottom line is that people like me have got used to living on credit. We’ve been overspending on the planetary credit card for generations and dumping the negative balance on the backs of the global poor and on the ecosystems we inhabit. This unsustainable mode of living has blunted the lives of billions of people and brought us to the brink of civilisational collapse.
Our response? We order another coffee. Chat with the waiter, try to tell a joke. Watch the river flow lazily past, track the wake of a fishing boat rippling across the surface. Feel content that nothing bad is happening, that nothing really needs to change. Because everything, for now, is good. Everything, for now, is perfect. The suffering is taking place somewhere upriver, beyond the line of trees on the horizon. It doesn’t affect us. We stop even looking in that direction. What’s the point?