If I were into clickbait, I’d call this a story about cancel culture vs. a culture of cancellation, but I’m not. Also, to be honest, I am writing this while insomniac, stressed and exhausted. I am going to make sweeping oversimplifications (“left” and “right” being the most egregious, perhaps). I hope you find some nuggets of wisdom here to inform your thinking nonetheless.

This is a barely structured collection of notes about people and institutions, about good and evil, about the messy processes of progress and harm reduction, and about navigating our way through.

Image for post
Image for post
Eve Tempted by the Serpent, by William Blake.

A flawed greater good

The Guardian newspaper & media institution is in financial trouble, and is asking its readers and supporters to support it in ever greater numbers (spoiler alert: I have). This, by itself, is not newsworthy given our time of decline in journalism, and the context of economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. …

A short course in planetary time, for planetary survival

This is less of a blog post, and more of a howl.

The planetary climate clock, in human time

Let’s start by some human and planetary timescales. I don’t know why we don’t learn them in grade school (I never learned them at all). But they matter. And let’s represent them visually, in a stark, plain way.

Image for post
Image for post
King Canute and Queen Aelfgifu, date circa 1020, from the register of Hyde Abbey, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“_” : this is our unit of time, and it’s 1000 years long.

_ is 10 long human lifespans, 40 generations, the time separating us from the first millennium and the Middle Ages in European history, when Canute of Denmark ruled Britain, before Marco Polo traveled the Silk Road. …

You should always at least try to meet your heroes, especially when they are as immense as Kirk Smith, so when I attended a conference in Berkeley in 2011 (one of my last long-haul work flights), I wrote to him to see if we could meet. Characteristically generously, he said yes, and we made a date for a pizzeria near the University. I went, but couldn’t find him: I wandered around, staring into the faces of strange men, but none were him. Finally I just sat down and had a lovely meal with a total stranger who had been amused by my staring at him (I was wondering if he was hiding Kirk under his beard). …

Image for post
Image for post
Rich white dudes (here Voltaire, D’Alembert, Diderot & Co.) used to be able to sit together and talk about stuff, but we have to use the internet now because of a global pandemic. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This is less of a blog post and more of a collection of essential readings at this time. I’ll be adding to it (especially if you send me links, hint hint). There are books in here: please consider ordering them from your local bricks & mortar bookstore.

[Update March 21st, 2020: adding new contributions, but this is obviously going to get a bit long, so starting to categorize. Also it occurs to me that this collection is VERY male-centric, and mostly white. This is because dudes are socialized to be overconfident and women are socialized to be overcautious. Contributions by women & Black/PoC/indigenous/disabled etc gratefully accepted.
Latest update: May 18th 2020. …

You who build these altars now,
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it anymore.

-Leonard Cohen

The word sacrifice is bandied about by both sides of the debate on climate action. Shall we unpack this loaded shuttlecock?

Image for post
Image for post
The Sacrifice of Isaac by Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Raising the spectre of sacrifice is the all the vogue in current climate denier and delayer circles: it is representative of our current moment in time. Having comprehensively been routed on the denial of science, the minions of fossil fuel lobbies have moved on to delay the onset and diminish the scope of action. “Sacrifice” is one of their preferred bogeymen: any reduction in the use of fossil fuels is presented as unacceptably curtailing the standards of living of — well — anybody, really. They’re not fussy on that count. Rich people, poor people, people in developing countries or well-beyond-industrialized ones — it’s all much the same to them, as long as combustion of their products is in the supply chain. “Fine, fine, there is a climate crisis, indeed, we totally did lie about that part,” goes their narrative, “but are you really sure you want to sacrifice all the convenience brought to you by burning gas, oil and coal?” By equating action on climate with discomfort, they hope they can buy a few more deadly years for their business model. …

How do we start from imperfect places and end up somewhere better? This is a basic question which can apply just as well to a messy room as it does to our fossil-fueled economies, or to popular movement which wants to represent many people, but whose membership and decision-making structures don’t center diversity or intersectionality.

The wrong target

So now you know what I’m talking about: the decision, by one Extinction Rebellion affinity group, to disrupt morning public transportation in East London.

Many people commented on this event, some noting the violence was itself a sign of a frayed society. One crucial point here is that the protestor reacted violently to being pulled off the train, and thus to characterize the violence as purely one-sided coming from the delayed commuters, as it often was at first, is inaccurate. This also showcases the importance of practicing non-violence and de-escalation. Another point is that the vast majority of Extinction Rebellion activists opposed this action before it took place, but the decentralized nature of Extinction Rebellion as a movement meant that the affinity group that planned it still went forward under the banner of Extinction Rebellion. …

This is not an easy blog, a single story, or a simple point. It’s simply the three intertwined threads of yet another sleepless night.

First strand: saying goodbye to my father and his century

It’s our last day in Geneva. Yesterday evening, my 98 year-old father shared a glimmer of his old self. “So, Julia!” he exclaimed, smiling at me. A simple shared moment of humor and affection, a reminder of times past. Leaving means that this may have been the last of such moments. Thinking about this robs me of sleep, but it is not the only thought.

Image for post
Image for post
“Story Time (Portrait Of The Artist`s Father And Daughter)” 19th century by Ekvall Knut (CC 2.0, source here).

Being a person who thinks in these times means being tangled up, a small creature, fighting and struggling in a large current of historical, intellectual and sheer physical, planetary scale forces. Being a scientist and communicator in the age of climate breakdown and mass extinctions, as well as social media, and resurgent, even triumphant, totalitarianism, means that every experience becomes colored and questioned in the light of our shared fractured time. …

Teaching climate science & action can seem daunting: for university-level lecturers, teaching to younger children can be quite intimidating. For primary-level teachers, the science and scope can seem too vast and fast changing to cover. For everyone, the content can be overwhelming. As adults, how do we present this topic to children: give them the information they need without crushing them?

I decided to face the challenge, and over the course of one rather sleepless night, put together some materials for my 6 year-old son’s class. This post summarizes and communicates that experience, in the hope that others can take ideas and inspiration, and will be encouraged to volunteer to teach about climate in primary schools. Teaching and engagement in schools is now part of all of our work, as researchers, academics, parents, activists, advocates, so I hope this idea spreads. The 4-part lesson plan worked quite well: the topics & materials held the children’s attention, gave them varied aspects to think about and interact with, and they seemed to come away with deeper understanding. The whole thing took roughly 1 hour. …

Failing to learn from past mistakes is the only truly unforgivable mistake in science. And on climate change, the scientific community (by and large) has been criminally negligent when it comes to observing — and especially learning from — its own track record. This blog post is a postmortem in 4 acts: an anatomy of failure, so that we can hopefully learn, act and change. Fast.

Image for post
Image for post
Dubious anatomical science: Zodiac Man from Fasciculo di medicina by Johannes de Ketham, 1495 CE (via Moxham & Plaisant, 2014).

Act 1: Science as success

Let’s get one thing out of the way, shall we? The physical science of climate change has been a resounding, phenomenal, triumphant success. As a colleague from the University of Leeds recently put it, “We’ve been right for decades.” This makes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change first Working Group (on the physical science) assessment reports an absolute dawdle to write up: “Still right!” [That’s a joke, by the way. There are always absolute stacks of new science to report on: just the large lines of it have not budged at all.] So there is not much to learn from there in terms of failure. Well done, physical scientists, you’ve observed & modeled external reality. …

Image for post
Image for post
Student climate strike in Australia (image from @_slangers)

Dear Life,

I was not aware, when I was born, that I was born onto a battlefield. I was not aware, as I learned to walk, that I was stomping over the habitats of many creatures. I was not aware, as my mother drove me to school, that we were riding roughshod over the unmarked graves of our fellow humans. I was not aware, as we flew around the world, that I was attacking my child’s chances. I was not taught, when I went to school, that we all had been drafted, as unwilling and unwitting child soldiers, into an army of destruction. …


Julia Steinberger

Immigrant, Swiss-American ecological economist at the University of Leeds. Research focus on living well within planetary limits. Opinions my own.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store