We are among uncertain times. Not this decade, or the general “these days,” but in times as immediate as this week. We share our world with a brutally unsustainable economic system, extreme weather patterns that show no sign of slowing, consistent violence between citizens and state, and a worldwide zeitgeist of revolution in the air. How can we expect to plan our futures when we are not given the promise of tomorrow? The things we allow ourselves to do today are restricted by goals that are set for us five years into the future. With these factors changing at an instant pace, it makes all the forecasts of tomorrow too blurry to be sure of. It makes five years from now too invisible to imagine.
There is an incredible burden that comes with acknowledging the difference between the world we were born into and the projected vision of the world our children will walk. Every day it seems the planet becomes a degree more inhospitable; not to human life, but simply to society as we have built it. This is a situation we have seen approaching for decades, however, we are the first generation to see and possibly exceed the tipping point. The decisions made by people alive today will not only become a highlighted chapter in history textbooks but a defining chapter in human evolution.
We were taught from a young age that our generation would have to solve the problems handed to us from the generations before. We would have to find sources of safe, renewable energies, we would have to end global hunger and establish sustainable life on and beyond our planet. We were told there were no solutions to these crises and that the responsibility of answering them was ours to bear. At the risk of failure, the price wouldn’t be tragic, but existential.
Believe it or not, that’s a lot of pressure to put on a generation. It’s hard to distract ourselves from this impending doom. However, distractions are a necessary variable in the equation that results in productive behavior. We all find ourselves on the forward trajectory towards living a normal life. Having bills to pay and a job to pay them leaves very little room for avoiding that equation. Anything sitting in for that variable of distraction must be of similar proportion on either the personal or existential scale. As I grew up, I found a few distractions that helped me get through each day.
In middle school, I would fantasize about running away to work on an oil rig, or a fishing boat, or as a lumberjack. Just for a few years to fill my bank account up to the top. I would be able to buy a fair piece of a mountain with a stream running through it, where I would farm most of my food, create my energy, and build myself a cabin full of a few good books and a hundred blank ones to write about the truth as it came to me. I’d live this way until I get sick and die alone. Sometimes the daydream involved creating a simple hydroelectric dam to power a bitcoin mining operation. Other times it involved taking on the persona of a cult leader in charge of one hundred devoted acolytes, erecting a city of peace in the wilderness. Though most of the time it was just about being left alone. This Transcendentalist wet dream seemed like a beautiful and flawless vision for my life. The fantasy I created for myself gave me a way to escape the world I saw around me. The tradeoff I was willing to make was ‘not contributing to the end of the world’ in exchange for removing ‘save the world’ from my responsibilities list.
When I was younger I would justify not doing my homework by reveling in the existential size and indifference of the universe. A simple example would be eating an entire chocolate cake; it seems like a large amount with a heavy consequence until you think of how big our planet is, and our sun, and the vast distances and speeds upon them all. It makes one chocolate cake seem not so bad - The one I really liked to think about was the great filter; the idea that there may not be any other intelligent life out there in the stars for a reason.
The natural assumption is that along the track of evolution to becoming a space-faring species, there must be some evolutionary filter that kills off evolving life. Perhaps that filter will be a challenge that our generation is the first and last to face. If it’s a challenge that we face and no other species has overcome, then the odds are stacked against us in cosmic proportion. Now thoughts like that can help justify not doing a lot of homework.
The personal distraction of the cabin lasted until I asked myself the question “what will I do if the stream dries up or becomes terribly polluted?” The change in the river would change my way of life entirely and would be the result of factors far outside of my control. My upstream neighbors would probably have little empathy for a stranger, let alone a stranger to everyone. As a hermit, I would suffer the consequences of the surrounding world that I willfully ignored. This taught me that empathy and kindness are largely dependent on proximity, similarity, and influence.
Consider an unremarkable stranger thousands of miles away from you, presently living a life entirely unlike your own. Their opinions and beliefs are different from yours and their actions have no consequence on your life. Are you sympathetic to their position? It’s easy to tell yourself yes, but consider to what degree you would go to in your personal life to change theirs for the better. How much of your time, money, and attention could you justify devoting to someone who is and always will be a stranger?
It’s a grim thing to think about, especially when you look around and see the answer in the actions of others. It was humbling to realize that in my most ideal fantasies, I was no exception. I would be actively contributing to the downward trend of the planet’s well-being in exchange for money. I would be selfishly, though inadvertently, hurting strangers and metaphorically polluting their streams. It would be easy for me to justify pumping oil, cutting forests, and contributing to overfishing as a necessary evil in the terms of my own narrative. The end of isolating myself in the mountains and having enough money to die of natural causes at the appropriate age would justify the means of extreme negative environmental impact.
Perhaps this could be the great filter. Perhaps it is as simple as a general disregard for maintaining the resources required to maintain growing populations; the challenges we face today might be what keeps all intelligent species planet-bound. It’s an unlikely chance, but a deep idea. Perhaps it is the nature of ego-centric intelligent life to destroy itself slowly.
These daydreams would keep me company through chemistry tests I didn’t understand, recruitment assemblies from colleges I wouldn't be able to go to, and the six o’clock news where well-groomed adults would calmly say “every human is fucked and we don’t want to lose any money over fixing it.” It takes a world without empathy to make total isolation seem like a cure, and unfortunately, a world without empathy is where I thought I lived.
The answer is extremely accessible but, as many answers are, so simple and commonplace that it sounds stupid and cliché. Love, kindness, and good vibrations. Being kind to your neighbors, loving the strangers you will never meet, and wishing them the best in the actions you take. It’s been hardwired in human nature to want to help when we are helped. When you realize that you can survive on the kindness and generosity of strangers, you feel yourself carrying this massive debt. You owe it to the world to pay that kindness forward. The best part is when that kindness comes from a stranger, you don’t owe it to that specific stranger - you owe it to all the strangers. You pay it forward on random people that come through your life. It is that cycle of receiving and returning help that will overcome the challenges we are set to face.
The end of the world as we know it may not be the end of the world. It could be a beautiful and hardly imaginable Utopia. It could be some anarcho-communist era or even something as geologically minor as the collapse of the Roman Empire. It could be an instant, permanent and total silence across our dimension as if the experiment was suddenly turned off. All I can be sure of is a sudden shift in the world for better or worse. This leaves the questions: what can we do to prepare for tomorrow and how can we get through today?
A good place to start is preparing yourself for emergencies of any kind. You should talk to your friends and loved ones about having a plan to keep some basic medical supplies, camping gear, and nonperishable food. Even if there is no existential emergency that we face, there will still be regular storms and blackouts. You can be sure that you will eventually be able to use the supplies in the event of an emergency or in everyday life as they get replaced.
You should ask yourself what you can do to help the world around you. Do what you can in your own life to keep the global temperature down. Be a kinder person, minimize your waste, and do what you can to get through the day. Be kind to the future and live your life with a foresight far beyond your death.
You should ask yourself what it is you want from this brief life and how you can get it as soon as possible. Whatever it is you’re passionate about, try to pursue that, not for money but for passion. Realizing what we have now will not last, and savoring the little things while they're here. Leave your job in finance, become a baker, start a business. Enjoy your life as much as you can in this short moment of life we have. Whatever you do, don't be afraid to connect with people. Maximize your empathy and kindness stat bars with the people around you, if for no other reason than to gain the strategic advantage of making yourself a character in their personal narrative. Being a hermit doesn't get you much further than knowing yourself. If the only thing you know is yourself, no matter how well, you'll still feel alone. Disconnection isn't the ultimate solution to chaos. Knowing yourself is only a means to help navigate a chaotic world. Isolating yourself would be equivalent to practicing magic tricks your whole life and never surprising anyone. Get to know yourself and then get out there- try to know everyone else and surprise the world.
Kiss a stranger, buckle up your holy shit belts, get ready for the future, and make peace without tomorrow.