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Essays about history, literature, science, culture — and a better way of life
Across a few weeks in mid-March 2020, American life was remade, whether temporarily or permanently no one can say for sure. To stem the spread of the Covid-19 virus, states and cities closed schools and non-essential businesses, ordering more than 280 million Americans to shelter at home. With much of the economy coming to a sudden halt, the U.S. jobless rate quickly climbed to its highest level since the Great Depression.
During the lockdown, I briefly went into a war-like mobilization mode, urgently thinking of ways that as an academic I could shift my research activities to contribute to a solution.
But I quickly ran up against the barriers of reality. Sheltering at home with my wife and our six-year old son, I found myself paralyzed by the radical uncertainty of the moment.
My situation was in sharp contrast to the heroes serving on the frontlines of the pandemic crisis who each faced a far greater risk of infection. My job was also secure, unlike the tens of millions who were soon out of work. And yet by noon on most days, my brain was completely scattered.
So, I decided to heed my inner voice, slowing down rather than speeding ahead. With a sabbatical scheduled for the fall, I knew that the best way I could quiet my mind was to focus on a few long planned projects that took me in new intellectual directions.
For months, I immersed myself in books, data, and articles, filling moleskine notebooks with thoughts, reflections, and observations. I discovered that only by looking back at history and by organizing my days around moments of contemplation, could I begin to understand the whirlwind of events.
Lost in thought
As I emerged from my sabbatical at the end of 2020, I announced via social media I would be launching a “Climate Politics” newsletter and podcast devoting my focus to research-driven analysis of climate politics, communication, and journalism. In a matter of days, more than a hundred subscribers had signed up.
But on January 6, the moment that Trump-inspired domestic terrorists stormed the U.S. Capitol building seeking to kill Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the history of our nation changed.
We are no longer the country we thought we were. If the event was the plot line to a movie, it would be considered so subversive there would be calls for its banning — the equivalent of a political snuff film.
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In the days that followed, each time I sat down to write a first piece about climate politics, something tugged inside me. The sweet ping of words that fly off the keyboard — a sure sign that I am engaged in strong analysis — eluded me as I struggled to find perspective.
To unwind during the evening, I plunged down on the couch to read Lost in Thought, a recently published book by the philosopher Zena Hitz.
As a professor at an elite university, Hitz came to recognize — like almost every academic today — that the intellectual joy of her youth had been blotted out by years of hyper-competitiveness. She had grown up valuing learning for its own sake, but now focused almost exclusively on career ambition and achievement.
Working so busily on narrow research projects, she barely had time for the soul nourishing reading of a broad range of books and the forms of deep reflection that motivated her to become a professor in the first place.
After leaving academia for a few years, she returned in search of work that could rekindle intellectual joy in her and others. By chance, Hitz was able to land a faculty position at her alma mater St. John’s College, a liberal arts institution where teachers as mentors guide students on a journey through the wonders of a Great Books curriculum.
Reframing my focus
Reading Lost in Thought, I realized that at Substack I needed to focus on a broader range of topics and to let my intellectual passions shape my direction as a writer.
As a scholar and teacher, I also have a special duty to live up to what this unprecedented moment in world history demands of us, and to harness my idiosyncratic gifts on behalf of the public good.
The process by which the public and decision-makers come to understand debates over science, technology, and the environment — and the influence of ideas, politics, expertise, and culture — is a subject I have studied and written about for two decades.
But I also believe it is a mistake to reduce the future to climate change, as some academics and activists tend to do. Committing to a totalizing cause blinds us to parallel threats like pandemics or the crisis in our democracy — and to the many other things about the world and life that are worth studying and writing about for their own sake.
I consider climate change a grave threat, but it doesn’t keep me up at night. Instead, I approach the problem as shining a light on ourselves.
We tend to read into its wicked complexity our hopes and desires for the future; and our vision of a good society. In this sense, the intensely polarized debate over climate change is a vehicle for understanding our inconvenient minds and the broader sources of division in society.
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My outlook on climate change reflects my intellectual disposition as a fox rather than a hedgehog, a distinction famously articulated by Isaiah Berlin.
A hedgehog tends to “relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel,” wrote Berlin.
In contrast, a fox pursues “many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory,” and is skeptical of totalizing theories and causes. Plato and Nietzsche, for example, were hedgehogs. Aristotle and Montaigne were foxes.
So given what is at stake in society today, and the feelings of deep uncertainty that all of us are experiencing, I decided to expand my focus, organizing the re-named newsletter and podcast around the following central themes:
The battle of ideas
In a first main theme, I explore the intellectual history behind today’s mega-problems and political divisions, tracing the sources of our disagreement, examining the events, trends, movements, and ideas that define the fault lines in our culture.
This history is often told in a one-sided way by both progressives and conservatives, but how we arrived at this moment as a nation cannot be reduced to a single interpretation.
The deep complexity of the problems we face require critical analysis of our assumptions and beliefs, a goal best reached not through full throated advocacy, but via contemplative engagement with a diversity of voices and ideas.
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Instead of quickly choosing between clashing perspectives, a better approach is to spend time wrestling with their tensions and uncertainties, and to recognize what each offers that is of value.
Numerous social science studies, for example, demonstrate that in situations where consensus is closely guarded and defended to the exclusion of dissenting voices, individuals and groups tend to make poorer decisions and think less productively.
In contrast, exposure to dissent, even when such arguments may prove to be wrong, tends to broaden thinking, leading individuals to think in more open ways, in multiple directions, and in consideration of a greater diversity of options, recognizing flaws and weaknesses in positions.
The moderate mind
In a related main theme, I write about the importance of moderation in politics and life. Drawing on philosophy and history, I make the case for why moderation, pragmatism, and institutional thinking are so desperately needed, and the essential role that these habits of mind must play today.
Across history, moderates in the tradition of Aristotle, Montaigne, Ben Franklin, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama have been the strongest defenders of freedom, pluralism, civility, and self-restraint. Moderates do not think in black and white, but shades of gray, and are mindful of the limits to their knowledge.
They are pragmatists who oppose fanatics of all stripes, skeptics who criticize grandiose visions, and skillful diplomats who strive to maintain common ground between competing factions.
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Moderation is also an ancient virtue for living a better life, and a philosophical resource for standing firm against today’s accelerated culture. So in other essays, I investigate the many twisted messages about human happiness and flourishing that dominate our culture.
In today’s world, almost every aspect of life continues to speed up, allowing little time for joy, connection, or contemplation. I tackle not just our relationship to work and its many forms but the excesses of the latest self-improvement and "life hacking" crazes.
I also write about traditional contemplative practices such as stoicism, yoga, Buddhist meditation, walking, and the reading of Great Books — exercises that cultivate a moderate mind.
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