Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy proposes radical strategies for thinking beyond capitalist narratives of efficiency, attention and value, and preserving our inner lives through reflection, research, grounding and intentional networks.
Odell applies this framework to our current moment of historical urgency, illuminating how ‘resisting in place’, existing within, but not accepting the condition of the present, can offer a through-line to liberation.
A transcript excerpt of the MWF Digital closing address on 16 August 2020.
I actually want to start by talking about an object that I found on my walk earlier this week. And since this is audio, I will describe it to you. It is a gumnut from a eucalyptus tree, and it might look familiar to you, it’s like a cone shape with a little cross in the middle, it kind of looks like a big Coke button, and I found it in a park about a half-hour walk from my apartment. If you’ve ever been to the Bay Area, you may know that we have tons of eucalyptus trees here along with many other Australian trees like Australian blackwood and Silver Wattle, but although I grew up in the Bay Area surrounded by these trees, I didn’t know their names for a long time. And as I wrote about in my book How to Do Nothing, I began paying attention to my local ecology as an intuitive response to the fear and outrage surrounding the 2016 presidential election in the US and what I saw as my own abusive relationship to social media at that time.
My book proposes that one way to resist the attention economy is to become grounded through bioregionalism, which simply means familiarity with local lifeforms echoing in some ways the Indigenous land ethic and sense of stewardship. Bioregionalism is as much about participation as it is about observation. Ideally, you not only see but identify with and feel responsible to your bioregion, a living community that’s the opposite of the photogenic naturesque backdrop. Of course, I don’t need to tell you that eucalyptus trees aren’t native to the Bay Area, that’s something I’ve been dimly aware of for a long time as well as the fact that they were introduced to California sometime in the 1800s. But during the pandemic, as I’ve gone on the same few walks around my neighbourhood day after day, I started to wonder more about these non-native trees. And when I looked into it, it turned out that an Oakland developer named Frank C Havens opened a sawmill and planted three million eucalyptus trees here. One man, three million trees. And I should be clear that he did this to make a quick buck. Havens was caught up in something of a eucalyptus fad in a time when Europeans and Americans thought that these trees could be a kind of silver bullet, all-purpose material. But when Havens harvested the timber and tried to sell it, the young wood was useless as building material, it cracked and warped when dried. It turned out that the trees would have to be at least 75-years-old to make useful lumber and this obviously didn’t fit into the extractive get-rich-quick mindset that accompanied the Californian Gold Rush. Now Havens was gone, but the trees remain.
When I moved to Oakland from San Francisco four years ago, I had always known the Oakland Hills as being forested, enough that they appear as sort of blue from far away. It was only now during quarantine that I looked for and found photos of the same hills from the 1800s before eucalyptus had been introduced. The hills were utterly unrecognisable to me, covered only in grass and scattered with oak trees. This landscape looked naked compared to what I’m used to, and it was an incredibly jarring image, even more so when I considered the mid-1800s was really not that long ago. Before that and before colonisation by the Spanish, the original inhabitants of this place maintained an opened grassland. That was long before one man planted three million trees and before I came along and took those trees for granted. I’m telling you this story now because of what it says about time and attention. For me, as someone with the privilege of working from home, and maybe for some of you, the pandemic has been a strange combination of urgency and dole dread of both the feeling that all of this is unprecedented and the feeling that you’re living the same day over again. And one result of this combination can be the sensation of both anxiety and hopelessness as though the future is a foregone conclusion and an inevitable outcome of the past.
When you’re in a hurry, when you’re scared or when you’re merely reacting versus acting, there is no time to truly examine the topography of the present moment. To reach outside of habitual ways of thinking, and especially to see the way contingent moments in the past made up that present topography. The truth is that everything about this current moment is a specific outcome of something that happened in the past, whether that was a minute ago, a year ago or a geological epoche ago. And why that it’s so important to remember is that it reminds us that actions matter. That in fact, no moment is the same as the last. That nothing is predetermined and that in every subsequent moment, there are choices we can make about what to pay attention to and how to respond to the present. The story of the eucalyptus can also teach us about the importance of context. We know from ecology that everything exists as part of a fine-tuned network. But when Europeans originally found eucalyptus trees in Australia and took them back with them, they didn’t see ecological elements they saw material, specifically material they could sell. Likewise, when Frank C Havens planted his millions of trees, those trees were missing everything that normally exists in relationship with that. Koalas, wallabies, pademelons, hundreds of species of birds, other plants etcetera. As a result, eucalyptus groves in the Bay Area have a low degree of species diversity. They are the living leftovers of a mindset that thought it could extract usefulness from something without recognising any of its surrounding contexts. Now eucalyptuses here are referred to as an invasive species. I frequently have to remind myself that what I’m seeing are not inherently invasive eucalyptus trees but rather fragments of an ecosystem that were taken out of context. Fragments that ended up here as part of a long story involving multiple instances of colonialism and environmental extraction.
Both time and context form a large part of my argument in How to Do Nothing. There are also things that I’ve returned to in the midst of the pandemic so I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss them a little further. My hope is to give you some tools for accessing them even in the middle of whatever experience you’ve been having of the pandemic.
Most of all, I hope this can be a reminder of the importance of intermittent retreat and reflection.
Not as an escape but as part of a dialectic with action and participation. In late 2016 after the election, I was asked to give a talk at an art and new media conference called Eyeo the following summer. It was a moment somewhat similar to this one in that I was struggling to respond and to find something useful to say. At that time, I had been going and sitting at Morcom Rose Garden about five minutes from my house, and as I described it, doing nothing. The talk that I wrote, and that eventually became a chapter of the book How to Do Nothing, was the result of my reflection on what felt different about time and space there compared with the rest of my life. One thing I remember really trying to articulate was the feeling of guilt and luxury I associated with taking a moment away from the pressures of productive time. On the other hand, I also felt on a gut level that it was necessary for my emotional survival and at the end of the day, my ability to act meaningfully. I noticed that the park enabled a certain type of observation and listening compared to other spaces.
In the book, I mention the sound artist and composer Pauline Oliveros whose often associated with what she described as ‘deep listening’. For her, deep listening was ‘Listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing. Such intense listening includes the sounds of daily life, of nature, of one’s own thoughts as well as musical sounds.’ She incorporated this into her performances, for example, the 1989 album Deep Listening in which she and other musicians—wielding their voices, an accordion, trombone, didgeridoo and electronics—improvised in constant response to each other. They did this in an underground cistern with a two million gallon capacity and 45-second reverberation time. Oliveros wrote ‘The cistern space, in effect, is an instrument being played simultaneously by all three composers’. This album demonstrates a form of attention where listening and playing are inseparable. The music is an ongoing response of players to other players and to the cistern. To listen is to stay awake and alive to the world as it is. For Oliveros, deep listening required discipline and was something you had to practice. The reason is that we’re taught to do the exact opposite of deep listening. She wrote, ‘In general, our cultural training dominantly promotes active manipulation of the external environment through analysis and judgement, and tends to devalue the receptive mode which consists of observation and intuition.’
Another figure whose work came to mind while I sat in the garden, but who I don’t mention in the book was the French writer George Perec. He’s known among other things for trying to write a novel without the letter ‘e’. But my favourite work of his is called An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris in which he goes and sits in the same area on multiple different days and notes down things that happen …so I’ll read just a tiny bit of it to give you an idea. ‘A bird settles atop a lamp post. It is noon. Gust of wind. A 63 goes by. A 96 goes by. An apple-green 2CV goes by. The rain gets fierce. A lady makes a hat with a plastic bag marked “Nicolas”. Umbrellas sweep into the church. Moments of emptiness. Passage of a 63 bus.’ and so on. And one of the most important parts of this piece for me is the introduction. Perec lists out a number of things in the plaza, things with names like the church and various businesses. And then he says ‘A great number, if not the majority of these things have been described, inventoried, photographed, talked about, or registered. My intentions in the pages that follow was [sic] to describe the rest instead: that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.’ And this is just as good a description as any of Perec’s ideas of the infra-ordinary, ‘infra’ meaning between. The infra-ordinary is something so ordinary you actually can’t see it without great effort. In order to see it, you have to set up external circumstances such as Perec’s decision to sit in the same place for a certain period of time or Pauline Olivero’s sound pieces where a response could only follow from intense listening. Finding the infra-ordinary, in other words, learning to see what is actually right in front of you, is an endurance activity. Again, something that must be practised. For me, it was the rose garden that helped me practise this kind of listening and attention. Part of it was simply its status as a park, a recognisable category of space marked off from other spaces, one that doesn’t prescribe any particular activity or suggest [sic] any specific goal. Indeed a park is generally understood to be a sort of non-goal orientated space. It is also largely where I started birdwatching, learning the names of birds and different songs one by one. It was and still is easy for me to see this as a self-indulgent activity but part of the case I try to make in How to Do Nothing is that we best learn how to listen with finer and finer detail in times and spaces like this. And the reason that matters to me is that newness and invention are not things that are far off in some future that is unrelated to the present. I really believe that the future actually exists in the present, that it consists of a different lens on the present, connecting existing dots and new patterns, allowing us to see something that wasn’t obvious.
In a time when many of us receive information keyed to a certain pace and a feeling of urgency, where narratives can so quickly harden and be taken for granted, something like Pauline Olivero’s concept of deep listening provides a counterweight and a different way of understanding. As a small illustration, just last week I was walking in my neighbourhood, again, and past by an ivy-covered ledge that I’d probably seen hundreds of times. This particular day, I saw a dark-eyed junco, which is a very small and common bird here, fly out of the ivy and land in a tree nearby watching me. It’s nesting season for many birds here, so I looked into the patch of ivy it had just flown out of and in a very unlikely spot saw something that looked like a tiny nest. A long moment past before I realised that not only was there a nest but there was a baby bird sitting right there staring back at me only a few feet away from my face, completely unmoving. This was so surprising to me that I actually jumped back and said, ‘oh my god’ out loud. As I walked back home, I thought about those couple of seconds where I was pointing my eyes right at the bird but not seeing it. And then about the moment when the slight colour and shape congealed into something recognisable to me.
Nothing about the scene had changed—only my ability to make sense of what I was seeing.
This experience may sound trivial, but to me, it’s an example of degrees of seeing. Not only did it take a few moments for me to register the bird, but my inability to see it at first had everything to do with my expectations, namely not to see a bird there. Every time I have an experience like this, I wonder what else I’m not seeing, and once you’ve noticed or recognised something, it can be hard to imagine what you used to see there. If you learn to identify a certain type of tree, for example, it’s impossible to reaccess the state of mind where you once merely saw some tree or perhaps didn’t notice it at all.
To me, the lesson of observation and deep listening is that there’s always more. There will always be something there to surprise you, and the longer you take, the more you’ll be surprised. I value spaces like the rose garden and time outside of productive time because they can train us to observe more acutely and with less expectation, less judgement. This is not only restorative—it can actually give us new information and new ways of interacting with the situation that we may have been taking for granted. At the time that I wrote How to Do Nothing, the rose garden was interesting to me as an exception from times and spaces devoted to endless productivity. A situation where, as I wrote ‘the parks and libraries of the self are always about to be turned into condos.’ But within the pandemic, I see it slightly differently, which is to say I’m thinking differently about the importance of momentary retreats. Since the beginning of the pandemic and especially since the murder of George Floyd I have felt not the pressure to be productive in the traditional sense but the pressure to be useful, to do something useful right now and to see immediate results. There were a couple of weeks where I could not tear myself from Twitter, endlessly scrolling through videos of police violence, liking and retweeting things in an effort to signal boost them, living in a very claustrophobic sort of temporality of endless reaction. At a certain point, I realised that while this felt like participating, it was eroding my ability to think outside of that temporality. It was also an incredibly isolating experience, though the sense of urgency and the imagined presence of others masked that from me. Over time I came to feel paralysed by fear and despair, and if we’re talking about usefulness, that’s not useful to anyone. I was also finding that in all of my donating and feverishly signing petitions, there was something I was looking for that I wasn’t finding. I came to understand that was I was looking for was traction. I wanted to be connected to other people, not throwing ideas into a void or conversely being on the other side of someone’s scattershot broadcasting. I wanted to think about what I could do in addition to donating and signing petitions, something I could bring more of myself to. But here’s the thing, doing that takes time. It takes time to a.) process a situation; b.) mourn what has happened; c.) understand myself, and what it is I can contribute; and d.) do some research and find those folks who in many cases been doing the work on this issues for decades, and furthermore, to be thoughtful and sensitive and how my own contributions may fit in with that work.
I want to give you three examples of traction that I found and emphasise how all of these involved time and stepping back to assess the situation. First of all, here in Oakland, I learned about a group called the Anti Police-Terror Project that for many years have been advocating to move resources out of a racist police force and toward restoring justice and community programs. I took some time to learn about their work and thanks to their invitation to the community I called into a City Council meeting for the first time when the police budget was on the agenda. Although it was on Zoom and none of us could see each other, 150 Oakland residents made several hours worth of comments. And though it was a far cry from being in a physical room together, I can’t stress how different this experience felt from social media, even though social media had been instrumental in getting the word out about the meeting. It was meaningful for me to hear those other voices and to understand my own voice as a part of that group in that moment. This was also the first time I’d ever actually looked at city budget resolutions, as in actual PDFs, and learned about how the meetings are structured. This is seemingly boring stuff that takes time to understand and it’s unglamorous compared to social media, but it’s also concrete, its where the rubber hits the road in terms of how things get changed. A second example: starting in July there have been an alarming number of COVID cases and deaths at San Quentin State Prison, which is about an hour from where I live. Once again, I signed petitions and sent form emails and felt sort of dissatisfied, so I decided to write my own email. I remember that a friend of mine had taught math at San Quentin and texted asking if there was anyone else besides the governor who I should be emailing. He asked around and came back with two names of officials who were appointed but not public-facing so they wouldn’t be receiving as much email. I’d never heard of either of them, but they both worked specifically on prison issues. And to give you some idea, I found their names buried in a truly mind-blowingly large organisational chart of the California state government. I then spent a lot of time reading every recent article I could find about the situation as well as articles about how other states had handled similar problems. I wanted to make sure that what I was saying was up to date and not redundant, and after all this I spent actually a very long time composing the email, thinking about the actual person it was going to and how they would read it. Now, I’m not saying this email accomplished anything by itself but what I can tell you is that sending it felt different from sending a form email. The amount of time and attention it took made me feel like a person reaching out to another person in a situation that, again, was concrete and not abstract. A third and last example: I signed up to be involved with the local chapter of a youth-led climate justice organisation, and when someone got back to me asking what I was looking for in my involvement, I was honest and a bit sheepish. I said that my abilities had more to do with research and writing than with organising or protesting, and I wondered if I could be of any use to them in that capacity. It was a really pleasant surprise for me to hear that yes, indeed that would be helpful and in fact, others had fulfilled a similar role for them in the past. This wasn’t an option that had obviously presented itself to me. I had to go and ask about it, and I’m so glad that I did. It made me wonder how many others out there want to participate in activism but can’t find the right entry point for their specific skills and perspective. Again, I don’t mean to suggest that donations, petitions and hashtag activism are unimportant. But I think that in addition, it’s important for us as individuals to feel some kind of traction and specific connection, and to feel useful in order to combat feelings of overwhelm, isolation and despair. And again I would emphasise this type of engagement typically takes more time, time that I recognise not everyone has.
In How to Do Nothing I reference a study by Veronica Barassi called ‘Social Media, Immediacy and the Time for Democracy’ in which she interviewed activists in Spain about the temporal challenges of their activism. She identifies three problems: 1.) Instantaneous communication creates information overload that quickly drowns out any messaging, requiring activists to constantly produce attention-grabbing content. 2.) Because of this immediacy and the need for content to be catchy, social media closes down the time needed for what she calls ‘political elaboration’ where the long conversations and debates that need time to grow and flourish. My experience seeking traction relates to the third problem Barassi identifies, that immediacy creates weak ties that are ‘based on a common reaction or emotion and not on a shared political project.’ She says that ‘strong ties come from action on the ground, face-to-face interaction, discussion, deliberation and confrontation.’ And this is where I want to clarify a line that I often see quoted from my book. ‘What does it mean to build digital worlds when the actual world is crumbling before our eyes?’. It would be easy to interpret this as digital dualism, the idea that the digital world and the physical world are separate and that I privilege the physical. Indeed, much of How to Do Nothing is a love letter to my local ecology as well as mournful reflection written as it was against the backdrop of catastrophic wildfire. It is true that I’m asking the reader to pay attention to what is right in front of them, and for me, that means people, plants, animals, watersheds and everything else that life requires.
But a hard line between the physical and the digital is not only difficult to draw—it’s not worth drawing.
In fact, much of my work prior to How to Do Nothing was about the interesting reverberations between the digital and the physical world. What I mean by ‘actual world’ has more to do with wholeness, nuance and sensitivity in the face of abstraction. It is perhaps best summed up in a line from that email back from the climate organiser who spoke of the importance of ‘seeing each other as humans removed from productive demands and avoiding digital organising efforts disconnected from each other and our actual lives’. The New York Times recently ran a profile on a young climate change activist called Jamie Margolin titled ‘The Teenagers at the End of the World’. The leading photograph is of Margolin in her room surrounded by posters, scrunched up on her bed and holding her phone only a few inches from her face. This photo illustrates what I mean when I say that digital dualism involves a distinction not worth making. Sure, Margolin is glued to her phone. She is organising, i.e. using the technology at her disposal to make strategic contacts with other specific people, forming networks and actions that are very much poised to affect what happens to her shared physical world. Later in the book, I pose a different rhetorical question ‘What if we spend our energy on saying the right things to the right people or person at the right time? What if we spent less time shouting into the void and being washed over with shouting in return, and more time talking in rooms to those for whom our words are intended?’. Whether it’s a real room or a group chat, I want to see a restoration of context, a kind of context collection in the face of context collapse. If we have only have so much attention to give, and only so much time on this earth, we should think about reinfusing our attention and our communication with the intention that both deserve. And what I’m essentially describing here is the same thing that Barassi highlights, that face-to-face interaction, discussion, deliberation and confrontation—things that require nuance, context and above all time.
The pandemic has provided an especially vivid illustration of the ways in which meaningful connection can happen online when we’re forced to be more intentional about our meetings and who we reach out to. Disabled folks have long been demonstrating forms of community and participation that are possible through digital means. And young people, including my students, have been hugely inspiring to me in the way they use digital media for organising and maintaining networks in ways that echo activist strategies of the past. I would add a fourth time-related challenge on top of the three that Veronica Barassi describes, which is that time is required for gaining historical context. It can already be an emotionally foreboding task to simply pull oneself away from the temporality of social media and the 24-hour news cycle. But beyond that, there’s the long task of finding and understanding the history that explains the current situation and thus gives meaning and direction to your actions. One of the first books I read during the pandemic was a surprisingly engrossing 700-page history of labour unions in the US. It was really interesting to go back and forth the urgent present and these events that happened centuries ago to start to understand the connection between them. It had the same effect for me as learning about eucalyptus trees and why they’re there in the first place. A story of how things came to be the way they are and the reminder that the future is an open field just like the past was in every subsequent moment.
Seeing things in historical context made me appreciate that the changes we want to see will take time.
And it made me more committed to being in it for the long haul, not waiting for some kind of total gratification today, next month or next year. I can see and accept that it will always be a struggle, and I’m willing to rest as necessary to stay in that struggle. Although I never could have foreseen these circumstances, one of the things I was trying to do in How to Do Nothing was just to figure out a way to be in the world without imploding or wanting to escape and that still feels relevant now. At the time, I was concerned about obligatory expression, information overload and the loss of an inner-reflected self. But I was also dissatisfied with things like commercialised digital detoxes and the escapist mindset in general. I wanted to find a way to split the difference, and I found a really useful model for engagement in the 20th-century American monk and hermit Thomas Merton. Although he initially became well known for a book called The Seven Storey Mountain, a sort of indictment, rejection of a conflict-torn world in the 1940s, he later had an epiphany on a street corner during one of his trips into town. He wrote to a friend that he suddenly became overwhelmed with love for the strangers that surrounded him, and he described it as waking from a dream of separateness. He was here in the same world with them. Later in a book called Contemplation in a World of Action, he wrote some lines that have come back to me often during this pandemic. He wrote ‘If I had no choice about the age in which I was to live, I nevertheless have a choice about the attitude I take and about the way and extent of my participation in its living, ongoing events. To choose the world is an acceptance of a task in a vocation in the world, in history and in time, in my time, which is the present.’ What I love about Merton’s formulation and even the title of his book Contemplation in a World of Action is this kind of dialectical relationship and moving back and forth from action to contemplation. Being in it and then outside of it, using each perspective to better understand the other. What I want to emphasise is that this process is never finished. It is ideally something that continues for the rest of your life.
Finding the right response to the moment is something that takes both action and the capacity to step away and reflect on that action.
What that contemplation process looks like will be different for everyone. It could be a conversation with a friend or a group of friends, a conversation with a thinker from the past through reading, or a conversation with oneself when alone. For me, it has involved all of these and especially writing, which in some ways inherently embodies that dialectical relationship in that it involves both observation and being in the world but then stepping away and synthesising and parsing that into some kind of coherent thought. I especially love the description of nonfiction writing that I encountered in the recently published memoir of Rebecca Solnit, a masterful American nonfiction writer. She writes ‘Nonfiction at its best is an act of putting the world back together or – tearing some piece of it apart to find what’s hidden beneath the assumptions or conventions – and in this sense creation and destruction can be akin. The process can be incandescent with excitement, whether from finding some unexpected scrap of information or from recognizing the patterns that begin to arise as the fragments begin to assemble. Something you didn’t know well comes into focus, and the world makes sense in a new way, or an old assumption is gutted, and then you try to write it down.’ In a way this has been my life’s work, a pursuit of patterns and the work of reconnecting what has been fractured, often fractured by categories that break or subject history to meaning and subcompartments from which the whole cannot be seen. This is one of the reason’s I love Solnit’s writing so much because it dares both to take the time and to cross boundaries in order to make sense of what has happened and is happening.
Confronting the complexity and nuance of the actual world is difficult, but it is not impossible. I think, for example, about the story of the eucalyptus and how it is at once a story about colonialism, capitalism and ecology, and how it expresses a truth that can’t be understood except through all of those lenses at once. It is a task not only of writers but of each individual to try to cultivate the patience to be able to see in this kind of stereoscopic way. To observe the past together with the present, the minute detail together with the longer narrative. The specific injuries together, with the systemic racism. The inconveniences of climate change with the logic of capitalism, whose extractive logic has produced both slavery and the destruction of natural resources. It is one thing to cast out a platitude that everything is connected. It is quite another and a much more difficult, time-consuming task to understand and articulate how everything is connected, which is why I humbly suggest that anyone who does have the luxury of time, that they not only not feel guilty momentarily stepping out and away from the urgent pace of social media and news but remember that doing so can be a first step toward collecting context, finding traction and hopefully considering strategic action for the longterm. One simple part of that is not burning out, which, as I mentioned before, is not useful to anyone. I think that effective actions come from love and not from fear and for that reason it’s important to allow yourself moments of joy and the reminder that against the backdrop of non-existence you’re in fact here, you’re alive, and that is a miracle that in the end cannot be accounted for. I also think that it’s important to seek experiences where you feel like you’re together with others. I have found that there are times when I turn to social media for updates and information, and in which case, it can often be quite useful. Other times I’m subconsciously driven by loneliness and in those cases. Although I feel in some ways confronted with the endless presence of others, I also don’t feel like I’m together with anyone. If I’ve learned anything in the past few months, it’s that a feeling of togetherness is what leads to the feeling of traction. And of a three-dimensional experience of the self in relation to three-dimensional others even if that happens through text or on a screen. Of course, you can experience togetherness with more than human companions and in How to Do Nothing I talk a lot about birdwatching, which embodies many of the things I have mentioned. Anyone who has gone birdwatching knows that it is absolutely an exercise in deep listening, one that develops over a lifetime. It is also something that always brings with it surprise since as I write in the book, you can’t simply go out and look for a bird.
The unexpected arrivals and departures of birds are for me a daily reminder that each moment is different from the last.
My familiarity with the local birds, especially the migratory species, is also where climate change becomes personal for me as I watch the disruption of their journeys and of their lifecycles. This relationship is large enough to encompass both wonderment and heartbreak, which are in fact deeply intertwined. But above all, watching birds has been for me a reminder of life itself both in the amazing multiplicity of its forms and in its drive for survival and flourishing. That life includes me.
As I write in How to Do Nothing, I have a piece by the artist, Hallie Bateman, in my apartment that says ‘We’re all here together and we don’t know why’. In this time of heightened isolation, I think it’s more important than ever to remember that you’re not alone. You are not alone in your concern, your despair, your radical hope that things could be better. You are not alone in struggling to make sense of it all. You are not alone in your guilt. You are not alone in your helplessness. Living under neoliberalism is already an isolating experience where we are each considered independent and competitive units playing the hero [omit the hero, unsure of this] of some game. This mindset tells you that everything is your problem and that when you fail, you just didn’t try hard enough. But you need other people, and other people need you. Not only to provide meaning and recognition but because the changes we seek will have to come from broad and I think unexpected coalitions. Every time you reach out to someone, every time you ask how can I be useful? Or what do I need to say and who do I need to say it to? you are building a little bit of that network. The idea of unlikely coalitions and combinations in something dear to me, not only as an interdisciplinary artist but and writer but someone who is biracial. In the context of ecology, I find myself drawn to hybrid or unclassifiable forms as well as the margins between bioregions and areas of exchange like ocean upwelling zones. I’ll repeat what I said before, that the future does not exist somewhere cut off from us but is embedded in the present as the possible combinations of existing forms. That is the very essence of evolution and invention, and it is the way in which individual entities, both in physical ecology and social ecology, exceed their own capacities to create something new in the world. And it’s easier to see this when for a moment the rigidity of categories falls away, and everything is being questioned. In the midst of this fearful and uncertain moment is the opportunity to question who we are, what we value, what new patterns of connection we can form and what is possible if we do. But that will only happen if we give ourselves time, space and trust.
So, since I began this address with a eucalyptus gumnut, I’ll end with something else that had a similarly long journey. I have here with me on my desk a small jar of water that I tell the story of in How to Do Nothing. It began when I happened to see a newspaper article about something called an atmospheric river. And if you’ve never heard of them, atmospheric rivers are temporary narrow regions in the atmosphere that transport moisture from the tropics to the west coast of the US. Basically a river in the sky hundreds of miles away. I was especially interested in this article because it said that the imminent storm was an atmospheric river arrives from the Philippines, the place where half my family is from but which I have never been to. That week I put out a jar and collected rainwater, and when I had enough, I used it along with some drugstore watercolours to paint a picture of a Sampaguita, the national flower of the Philippines to send to my mum. The rest is in this jar with me right now; it’s resting place for now.
But ever since I collected it, when I see clouds, I remember that they too are water from somewhere else.
So I’ll end by asking you to picture water, whether that’s the clouds over your head, the ocean or the water in your tap and I’ll read what I wrote about this jar of rain. ‘I find something confidently anti-essentialist in the way ecology works. As someone who is both Asian and white, I am an anomaly or a non-entity from an essentialist point of view. It’s not possible for me to be native to anywhere in any obvious sense. But things like the atmospheric river or even the sight of Western Tanagers migrating through Oakland in the spring gives me an image of how to be from two places at once. I remember that the Sampaguita, while it’s the national flower of the Philippines, actually originated in the Himilayas before being imported in the 17th century. I remember that not only is my mother and immigrant, but there there is something immigrant about the air I breathe, the water I drink, the carbon in my bones and the thoughts in my mind. Bioregionalism teaches us of emergence, interdependence and the impossibility of absolute boundaries. As physical beings we’re literally open to the world, suffused every second with air from somewhere else. As social beings, we are equally determined by our contexts. If we can embrace that, then we can begin to appreciate our and others identities as the emergent and fluid wonders that they are. Most of all, we can open ourselves to those new and previously unimaginable ideas that may arise from our combination, like the lightning that happens between an evanescent cloud and the evershifting ground.