goodtech 12: “If we stop thinking of better, it inevitably gets worse”

Also featuring compassion burnout, what you learn from Margaret Atwood, the legal status of ecosystems, rotary cellphones, making sense of tech ethics, and more

💡 Big Ideas

TL;DR: Compassion burnout is real, and the longer we all live in the death throes of late-stage capitalism, the more prevalent it gets. How can we get our mojo back? I tried to find mine in a live class with Margaret Atwood.

Are you as tired as I am?

I feel like everyone I know – all over the world – has reached new levels of compassion burnout, ones we didn’t know were possible back in the quaint old days before Covid and insurrections and wars and brutality and inflation. Back when we thought things were bad and had no idea what was coming.

Four of my most accomplished and intelligent friends – mid-career experts who work in policy, economic development, food, and tech – have recently had long conversations with me about returning to our roots in bartending and slinging pizza and waiting tables. We’re romanticizing the idea of getting out of knowledge work, off our laptops and back in the real world where work, you know, begins, and then ends.

Two other friends have left their jobs to start farms. Another is going back for another master’s degree, because ‘if I keep working for peanuts and living on credit cards I may as well go back to school and live on loans, at least the interest is lower.’ These people are all over the world, of every gender & class, they’re smart as shit and they’re done trying to save a world that resists change with all its strength.  

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think we’re losing our minds. I think compassion burnout is real, and getting worse. The longer we all live in the death throes of late-stage capitalism, the more prevalent it gets. The more often you have the rug pulled out from beneath you, the more anxious you are – and damn, but there were a lot of misplaced rugs since 2008 under most people’s dreams.

It’s been a hard decade for almost everyone in almost every country in the world, and at the end of it, we’re all a decade older and most of us feel like we spent decades working on things that didn’t just fail but aren’t even a conversation anymore. They keep trying to tell us we really are better off, but most of us can see through that shit from a mile away.

In the spirit of trying not to become a grouchy old woman at the age of 38, I applied to join a course about building utopias. Despite my belief (see: yes, I’m already a crotchety old woman) that there was a snowball’s chance in hell I’d make it, I was selected to join 200 people from all over the world for an eight-week class with Margaret Atwood that started this week.

I received a scholarship to attend and decided this was what I needed – to get back to saving the world, with a bunch of compassionate humans, and rekindle myself for fighting the good fight, etcetera, etcetera. We’re supposed to design practical, scalable, functional utopias, in eight weeks, with strangers we just met, reading and learning along the way.

photo of me freaking out that I’m actually listening to Margaret Atwood live.

So here I am on Tuesday, in a LIVE CLASS with MARGARET FUCKING ATWOOD, who I’ve only wanted to be since I was like 10 years old. She’s smart and funny and sarcastic. The fellows are sweet and eager and from everywhere.

And I can’t keep my eyes or my heart open; I’m jaded and sad; every time they ask us for a one-word feeling I think I’m the only one in the room whose words don’t end in exclamation points, who wants to say cynical, burdened, heavy, despairing.

It is hard to save the world, y’all. It is even harder to do it regardless of your personal world, regardless of your finances or the fairness of the systems you live under. It is especially hard to do it over decades without ever seeing change.

It is hard to separate your self from the world, recognize the shit that you’re going through and that it’s not fair, and try to do the right thing anyway.

I’m despairing because I see that burnout everywhere – across the goodtech community, in my friends, in my colleagues and peers, in myself – and I know there’s a more than even chance that with all the shit in the last decade, all the good people will be too tired, overwhelmed, overworked, and beaten down to ever wind up fixing anything.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope all of you reading this are still out there with energy & enthusiasm for the work of doing the right things. I hope this class brings back my faith in humanity (although reading about failed utopias will really challenge you on that, pro tip).

I hope that if you are reading this and you’re feeling the same way, you’ll reach out so we both know we’re not alone. This shit is hard, and I have so much respect and love for everyone trying to do the right thing anyway, and I also just think we should all acknowledge that it’s hard and help each other out.

As Margaret said in the first class, “If we stop thinking of better, it inevitably gets worse. Hopelessness is useless.”

Cheers to trying to be useful in spite of it all, friends.

If you’re interested in reading along with this class, I’ve put together a doc with all the links to date, and will add more as we go – you can find all the links right here! And if you do – let me know – I’d love to hear your thoughts.

🚀 Moonshot

One big dreamer of an idea, every month

I’ve been thinking a lot about trees, lately. (I finished The Overstory, a gargantuan, breathtaking book from Richard Powers that made me cry. Highly recommended.)

In addition to the climate work we’re examining in my fellowship, that book reminded me of how even I – a gal who grew up outside, hiking and camping the Appalachians, a gal who spends free time adding new native plants to my garden & took three years of botany for fun – have forgotten to make time for nature, for being outside, for simply existing in the woods.

Trees are ecosystems and communities all their own – here’s a great Ted Talk by the researcher Suzanne Simard, who first proposed this a few decades ago, if you haven’t read up on this. Like lagoons, high elevation balds, and other niche ecosystems, they’re supporting the world in ways we can’t even see or study yet.

So I was incredibly excited to see Spain’s most recent addition to the list of places that have granted legal status to an ecosystem in order to provide it protections under the rule of human law. They join Ecuador (first to formally recognize the Rights of Nature, in 2008); rivers in countries like New Zealand, Colombia, and India; city ecosystems across the US; and certain ecosystems in Europe.

As Columbia’s Climate School notes, though, while a lot of these legal protections are granted, they’re not actively enforced, because trees don’t have lawyers yet. Everyone is left to wonder why tiny nonprofits with no budgets are the only ones bothering to fight cases in court, often against industry behemoths with endless pockets, and then again why they often fail.

Spain’s latest attempt to add these legal protections to the Mar Menor lagoon is backed by almost 650,000 people and codifies the “lagoon’s right to exist as an ecosystem and to evolve naturally.” Read more here from The Guardian.

Oh, and get outside. Trees can literally help you breathe, support your immune system, and change your mood ( know it sounds crazy, but it’s true).

Photo by author; trees along the NC Mountains to Sea Trail along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

🥑 Holy guacamole, that might actually work

Cool ideas for new ways of doing things

Patagonia over here being awesome again

We’ve all read the news about Patagonia’s founder and his recent donation of his company to support climate change efforts – but what’s even cooler about this story is not just that someone wealthy donated a bunch of money to something, but that he did it with a structure in place that others can follow.

The Patagonia Purpose Trust will own and run the company, using its existing business model to generate revenue – and the Holdfast Collective, the nonprofit Patagonia has always funded to do its work, will continue to lead climate efforts. What this means is that both profits and donations will be consistent, over the long term, giving climate work the stability and support it needs in order to succeed. Read more on this from Philanthropy.

Former banker turned writer and hotel manager (!) rewrites the American class system

Peter Shanosky is one of my favorite new Medium reads. He’s a former banker and lender who realized how much that sucked and now writes really accessible economics and finance articles for people like me. This multi-part series looks at all the numbers you need to redefine the American class system – enjoy!

🥂 Upcoming Events

Friday, October 7 – Goodtech Coworking 12:00-1:15 EDT

If you needed a reminder to join the goodtech community, here it is: We have coworking on Friday at noon EDT – join us for great conversations, meet new people, and put some time into something you love.

📚 I’m on a curiosity voyage, I need my paddles

Books, podcasts, articles and more to feed your brain

That’s all for this month – I look forward to hearing from you as always, so don’t hesitate to reply to this email!

Thanks for being a good human and doing the best you can with what you have. If you needed a reminder – that’s what we’re all doing here, and we are doing it right, and you are not alone.