Soot-and-blood-stained fingers

Anyone who thinks they’ve got the threat model nailed is probably wrong.

As I write this COP26 is ending with a whimper. They’ve got a deal that apparently amps up ambition (whatever that means), but that even the Washington Post calls inadequate to avert disaster. India apparently made a last minute demand to weaken language about phasing out coal use——ironic, given that our best cli-fi minds (including myself) all think the subcontinent is likely to be one of the first nations to experience truly horrific climate impacts. But then, it’s only 2021, and KSR’s imagined Indian heatwave doesn’t hit until 2022.

Maybe half-failure here is necessary for a fuller victory in a year or two——a very “narrative disorder” way to think about this massive technocratic process, but one that I think is comforting and useful. It allows us to believe that the forces of good are about to rally, which helps us drag ourselves out of climate despair and maybe join the charge, which is probably a prerequisite to getting real change. What gets the metaphorical adrenaline pumping more that palpable feeling of being down one run with two outs in the bottom of the nineth, when the comeback kid picks up his bat? The problem is if we spend too many years about to turn things around, we will eventually find outselves with a planet too broke to fix.

Thing is, the watering down that India demanded is just language. All of this is about getting consensus on word choice and comma placement, which the UN hopes will then lead to appropriate policy by national governments, which will somehow down the line result in coal plants and combustion engines being turned off before they cook the world. Problem is each year it seems like the gap betweeen ambition and action grows wider. Is it necessary to set ambitious targets? Yes. Is it sufficient? No. At some point you have to stop talking and do the hard thing.

This was an actual negotiating COP, the kind that presidents and prime ministers actually show up to. Other years are intermediary COPs, in which the many very skilled professional peons of international diplomacy work out and fiddle with the details of the big agreements and keep the institutional engine warm. That’s the kind of COP I attended in 2018, in Katowice, the heart of Polish coal country. You’d think that’d be something they’d want to downplay, but no. The Katowice pavillion had a literal shrine to the beauty of coal. Don’t believe me?

Until you’ve been, it’s hard to grok just how much the COP is the stomping ground of the fossil fuel lobby and the petrostates. In a consensus-based negotiating process with an honor-system enforcement mechanism, it’s basically impossible to pass anything that Exxon and the Sauds aren’t comfortable with. And that’s just in the context of the toothless UNFCCC. When it comes to actual legislation, things can get even harder, as we see with President Manchin blockading the actual regulatory provisions of the BBB.

That seems to me pretty typical of how things are going to go. There’s plenty of appetite for clean energy subsidies, since capital has correctly realized that there’s a lot of money to be made there. Hell, it’s not like Shell and Chevron and all don’t have their soot-and-blood-stained fingers in all sorts of alternative energy pies. But actually asking them to stop burning the carbon they’ve dug out, or to stop digging up the carbon they’ve scouted out——that’s where they draw the line.

So it’s not hard to imagine that climate victory is going to hinge on a combination of solar and wind viciously outcompeting fossil fuels, both economically and culturally; and, shall we say, “non-regulatory” means of discouraging and disrupting emissions. I’d say we’re one nasty Surpreme Court case away from “eco-sabotage is no longer optional” takes becoming rather more mainstream, not to mention an increased interest in “names and addresses.” Children of Kali, Monkey Wrench Gang shit. Will it work? Will it just lurch us into crackdowns and backlash? Don’t know. But I’ve got that Malm book in the mail.

All this stuff about the tenuous connection between the contents of international treaties and the contents of the Earth’s atmosphere is exactly the subject of the book I wrote about the COP, which comes out next April (do preorder it, if you can, or request it from your local library or bookstore). Through stories set in five possible future scenarios, I interrogate the COP’s culture and vibes, its strengths and weaknesses. And there are some strengths. In defense of everyone involved, stopping climate change is the wickedest problem of all time, probably the hardest thing human beings have ever tried to do. And we have a great number of savvy and passionate people determined to do it, which is something, even if we keep falling short.

Anyway, there’s more newsletter down on the other side of this rant. Thanks for reading. If you like what I’ve written above or the stories and notes I’ve shared below, I’d very much appreciate it if you shared with someone else who might enjoy it. And if you’ve found your way here without subscribing, here’s a handy button you can click.

The New-New

I have a flash fiction piece about art and memes out in Lightspeed Magazine this month: “Stowaways.” It’s in the form of a pretentious gallery description card. You know, the thing you have to lean close to the wall and squint at to read, that gives you a semi-enlightening, semi-inscrutable short history of the attached painting or other artwork. This one, however, has a creepy twist.

I wrote the first version of this several years ago when I was solicited by someone putting together a compendium of ‘impossible works of art.’ I came up with three, this being the weirdest. One of the other ideas birthed my Pushcart Prize-nominated story “Black Ice City,” published in Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Winters. Nothing ever came of the original project, as far as I know.

However the concept in this story of “nucleated” and “unnucleated” brains hosting “memetic intelligences” goes back to a novel idea I had as a wee college student way back in 2007, when I was studying abroad in Kalimpong, India. The story was about Memento-memoried people living in cloud cities on Venus, waiting in limbo while a centuries-long terraforming process unfolded. I’m still amazed at how many ideas I had that fall, when I had no easy access to TV or internet and instead spent most of my free time drinking chai, journaling, and staring out at the rolling, foggy Himalayan foothills. The title of that never-written novel (which, who knows, maybe I’ll one day write) was Float, which in this story lends its name to the future artist who created the eponymous memetic Stowaways.

I’m quite fond of this weird little story, and I’m very glad that (after racking up many, many rejections) it has finally found a home.


Works in Process

  • “Boomtown” (a short story I’m working on with Corey J. White) started to come together. So far it’s too full of solar road trains, autonomous “snail” factories, and air capture rocket fuel to actually have much plot, but that’s a problem for next newsletter’s Andrew.

  • The Remainder —— I’ve written my way all the way up to the start of the climax of my covid-rapture-X-files novel, and suddenly find myself paralyzed with worry that the whole book is unreadable nonsense. Probably this is my brain picking up on the psychic shockwave of a million people starting and faltering on NaNoWriMo novels, as I have done many an early November. Anyway, I expect this will pass as soon as I’ve gotten a couple other things off my plate, at which point I will get over myself and finish the book, terrible or not.

  • Editing Ben’s drugs book —– all finished. It was great fun to read and help shore up the rough parts on. Spoilers: probably the best thing we could do to address “the drug problem” in America is making sober life better for everyone, starting with Medicare for All.

  • Nights of Paper, Days of Glass —— To apply for a residency this week, I put together a pitch for this literary idea-bucket about diurnal energy use, a booming future book business, and post-pandemic American fragility. Every time I write this thing up, I feel it getting sharper, more interesting. Pretty soon someone is going to bite on this thing, and I’ll actually have to write it, as opposed to what I’ve been doing: jotting down shitposts about this world in my notes app.


The Lizard and the Rat —— Speaking of India, while I bow Stan’s masterpiece of climate realist horror from the first chapter of Ministry, I have my own story set in a deadly Delhi heatwave. Mine is a caper and chase story, with cat burglars and cults, trillionaires and spooks. You can listen to an excellent performance of this story on the StarShipSofa podcast here. Here’s a little taste in text.

You can read more of my work via my website. If you’re a fan of the above, consider preordering my next book, Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures, coming April 2022.

Research Notes

Like a lot of people, I’ve spent the last week dug into The Dawn of Everything, the recent landmark synthesis of archeology, anthropology, and anarchist thought by David Wengrow and the late David Graeber. I’m listening to the audiobook, since that’s how I first really grokked Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years almost ten years ago. I’d been assigned some sections of Debt in undergrad, but it wasn’t until I picked it up again——after the financial crisis, while I was bouncing between precarious unemployment and bullshit jobs amidst sky-high Bay Area rents——that it really clicked for me. Much like Debt, Dawn’s unbothered-but-firm argumentative style works well as an audiobook, filling you up with why’d-no-one-ever-teach-me-this history while still making you feel like you’re discovering a logic that you’d kind of already suspected, down in your root-chakra understanding of our modern world’s palpable absurdity.

As I go, I’m filing away lots of notes on Zoo York City, my shelved alternate history socialist detective novel with talking elephants that I one day will pick up again. I’m still a bit miffed with myself that I wasn’t able to hammer that book out during pandemic year, but every few months I find something that makes me go “oh yeah, I never could’ve written ZYC before reading this.” And here we are again.

Alternate history as a genre tends to be, on average though not exclusively, conservative and right-wing in politics, or at least a bit naively liberal. It’s always “America good, what if America bad?” never “America bad, what if America good?” Always “what if the Nazis won?” never “what if trade unions won?” I think this flows a lot from alt-hist inflection points often inherently buying into the Great Man Theory of History. When you want to make the smallest change with the biggest possible impact, you naturally go to the people we are told made the biggest impacts. It’s a kind of bank robber’s “because that's where the money is” logic, but it misses out on engaging with moments where history hung in the balance not in war rooms and presidential offices but in the streets, salons, and shop floors.

The early sections of Dawn, about 17th and 18th century political discourse between indigenous Americans and settler/conquerer/missionary Europeans, give me the sense of a time when history could have turned a great deal on ideas (Native American ideas, to be exact)——even more than it already did.

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Material Reality

This week I went back to in-person yoga——both practicing and teaching——for the first time in a few months. This move was inspired both by getting my booster shot a couple weeks ago (after two doses of Pfizer I’ve decided to bring my talents to the Moderna Mob) and by the painful realization that, without a regular physical practice in my life, my body was quickly starting to show its age. Watching Twitch on the elliptical unfortunately doesn’t cut it.

Over the last several weeks I’ve tweaked my lower back hiking, tweaked my right shoulder doing morning home yoga without doing a pre-yoga warmup, and developed a come-and-go pain in my left thumb joint. These have all felt like injuries of civilization, the result of too much time spent in sedentary typing/doomscrolling without the regular stretching/strengthening/posture correction that something like yoga provides. The pain has been a major distraction from writing, and a reminder that lots of people less lucky than I have to deal with such distractions much more often.

I’ve had a physical practice of one kind or another in my life since I was a teenager——a regular activity that got me to exercise while also making me learn with my brain about how to use my body. Karate in high school, tae kwon do in undergrad. Then later rock climbing while I lived in the Bay, slowly transitioning, when I moved to Arizona, to yoga.

I’ve long held on to the wisdom from my TKD days that once you’ve mastered the basics, the next step in any practice is not just to learn more advanced techniques but to teach someone else the basics. I taught some TKD when I was working as a journalist in India in 2010——truly one of the more bizarre experiences of my life, being 23 and leading 40 barefoot Nepali schoolchildren in kicks and sparring on a dirt futbol field.

The fall before the pandemic I did a 200 hour yoga teacher training. It was a great time, and I really loved the studio and community I’d found. Then covid hit, and sweatily breathing indoors with a bunch of randos suddenly seemed unthinkable. I dropped off, but eventually found my way back to practicing and teaching outdoors when my studio started doing classes in the park. I got vaxxed and we reopened up the studio, and again I felt grounded in my physical practice. What a magical time May and June were, here in the US, when we tricked ourselves into believing it could be over.

Then delta started spreading, and my pandemic-borne fear of unmasked strangers and indoor spaces and Long Covid and infecting my roommates reasserted itself. I dropped out again. Maybe in doing so I dodged a breakthrough infection, but maybe I also just isolated myself and let my body get wound up too tight. It’s all a crapshoot, and anyone who thinks they’ve got the threat model nailed is probably wrong. Half of it is unknowable transmission vectors, and the other half is the pure chaos of organic chemistry sloshing around inside your body.

But it felt good to be back, and to find out that I hadn’t lost all my moves since August.