Earlier in the pandemic there was a sense, I think, that COVID-19 had unified us—not in a good way, or anything—but there was a very real feeling that for a change we were all experiencing one shared problem, across the country and the globe, and we could agree it sucked. There was talk of essential workers, people being heroes, and a nearly subliminal idea that COVID-19 wasn’t the only thing that was wrong with the world. At some point, this feeling got long in the tooth, and we’ve buried the stress and whatever goodwill we all had for everyone and now we’re just stuck in this “New Normal,” which I say with ironic quotes for the sake of my wife. But the New Normal is a dangerous idea. Here’s why.
Among the many metaphors and phrases now circulating on a daily basis is the boiling frog. We hear it in regards to climate change and Trumpism mostly, and it’s an apt enough metaphor, I suppose; we become used to the gradual increase in temperature, in disasters, in fashy marches and insurrections, etc., such that we don’t realize we’re being overtaken. But this idea supposes someone at the controls—a metaphorical chef in a metaphorical kitchen. This idea, and the idea of a New Normal, betray the scale of our peril. This metaphorical kitchen? It’s on fire. There is no getting out of the pot, there is no turning the heat down, and God’s away on business. The New Normal as an idea, even as it winks at the word normal, says there’s no such thing as normal, reifies our position as such. I know I’m in the weeds here—stick with me, a moment.
The powers that be, conspiratorial as that sounds, have a very basic need: they want you to go back to work. By giving you a name for where we are now, by standing on a stage and saying “things are good enough,” by acknowledging some of the hurt and, I dunno, telling celebrities to sing for you, they are saying it is time to move on from survival mode. And here’s the thing: they’re half right. We do need to move on from survival mode. But not because we’re not in a dangerous situation. Their point, of course, is that the machine needs to be firing on all cylinders again, and by inoculating you to this idea that the abnormal is normal, they’re also going to frog-boil you for issues beyond COVID: we’re stronger than Crisis X and Y, the endangered are forever inaugurated into a hall of pure gesture, your bank releases a commercial about how life has changed under the Reign of the Sentient Comet People, and thousands die so that we all can grind on. That’s the message: grind on. It’s us and our way of life against whatever new and shiny hazard comes our way.
I want to make something very clear about this message, because even I have discussed it in this manner. For a long while we’ve talked about individual disasters like Monsters of the Week and climate change as humanity’s season finale antagonist, but it is, emphatically, not. COVID is not the enemy. Climate change is not. Collapse is not. Climate change and collapse are the grenade we held in our hand so we could sell off the pin.
I’m not blaming you. Most of what got us here is baked into human nature, and blame is a waste of time. Should we figure out the best way to fricassee billionaires? Yes. But this isn't a newsletter of recipes for long pig. What I'm here to tell you is that we've got to figure out a new way forward, and our best chances at that are together. Disruption of life as we know it is guaranteed. It's not only guaranteed, it must be our goal. Because we do not live sustainably today, we must change the way we live. If your idea of the future is some kind of continuity of service arrangement with your internet provider, I've got bad news.
That sucks though, right? We didn’t ask for any of this. Most of us struggled just to get what we have, little as that may be, and now I’m saying we need to give it up? That is a jagged, bitter pill. But giving up luxuries isn't my point, though it is bound to happen. Let's try and take a look at all this from a slightly more positive perspective before I lose you.
Where We're Going, We Won't Need a Grid
I mean, we kinda will. Just not the grid as we think of it today.
While the goal of this newsletter has always been preparation, I wonder if I haven't, accidentally, done some of the work of exposing you to the idea of the New Normal–of expecting disaster and taking it in stride, even if that stride is different from the mainstream. What I mean to say is that while I've been talking about little preps, stocking a month of food, bugging out, winter disaster scenarios, I have been forcing you to think in a fundamentally short-term context. Even in our worst-case scenarios, while I may have hinted at the apocalypse, we've been talking about work that tides you over, that gets you plugged back into the grid and streaming Netflix again in a couple of months, max. And that, as I see it now, is a problem.
Because our way of life is unsustainable, because the world as we live in it now is going to become increasingly hostile, our goal must not be simple survival. When we prepare only for survival, we can leave ourselves stranded on the far side of calamity. Our goal now, our ultimate goal, is for a disaster to not be a disaster, for the grid to become obsolete, for our lives to be so resilient that when things go wrong we don't have to seek shelter and upend our lives not only because we are the shelter, but because we no longer live in such a way that demands we change in order to survive.
Imagine a 100-year blizzard today, the sort of winter storm that could either become more common or almost vanish thanks to climate change. A big, feet-of-snow blizzard. Your life in the city grinds to a halt, the city issues a level-3 snow emergency, you can't get to work or the grocery. You might lose power. You might be in some serious danger and need rescuing. But that's not necessary if we choose to live a different way. That blizzard can be a hard few weeks that we look back on with nostalgia, remembering the time spent at the neighbor's because they had a woodstove and a spare cot and, being neighborly, you brought over fresh-baked bread and hard cider you had brewing, all while you waited on the community maintenance team to restore power. And neither of you had to worry about work because work is local, and there are no quotas short of that which provides for the community. This doesn't have to be a fantasy.
This will not be an easy world to bring to life. Unlike a year ago, I don't have a simple step-by-step guide to packing a bag that creates a resilient and cooperative community. Instead, what I hope to accomplish here, is a kind of awakening. I want you to realize that the way we live our lives now is akin to being on a raft at sea–the sea isn't the problem; the problem is we're on a damn raft. With that perspective, the realization that we as a society have chosen to stay on a raft amid increasingly turbulent waters, you're coming out of this letter better than you came in. And maybe you already knew all this, which is cool too. How's staring off into the middle distance going for you?
So while I don't have a guide for you today, I want you to know that I don't because there simply isn't one. As the world by bits and pieces crashes down around us, my only wisdoms are these: it's going to keep crashing; and we don't have to wait to move out from underneath it.
A Thought Experiment
Actually, I do have a sort of guide for you. A few weeks back I was cooking breakfast, and was struck by all that was going on around me. The air conditioner was running (in October), I had the toaster heating up, and on the stove I was cooking an egg freshly laid by our beloved Petunia. Of the things that would be available to me should the power go out, I would only have the egg. That terrified me. It's not that I wouldn't be able to survive, suddenly–it was that I have come to rely (naturally) upon all this abundance around me, and I hadn't given it much thought.
So, to close out the letter today, I want you to do the same. Take stock of where you are, what you're doing, what's going on in the background. If someone flicked a switch, if lightning struck, if some militia took over a power station, if, hell, a squirrel climbed into the wrong box–what would be left of all those things? What would you have? And electricity is only one example. What food would you be able to bring into your home tomorrow if all the truckers in the country went on strike today? Would you have enough food for the week? Two weeks? These are the things we have to be preparing ourselves for. Not just to survive some temporary storm–that's child's play prepping. No, we need to be ready to live in that world, the one that exists within disaster.