50 Shades of Low-Carbon Leisure

Fifty Shades of Low-Carbon Leisure

You’re at the theatre on the edge of your seat. You’re in bed, wiping sweat off your face in a moment of contemplative bliss. You’re gazing down at a frothing river from a rocky ridge. Not every moment of pleasure—shared or private—comes at the expense of something else. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. But there is unambiguously good pleasure—good for the body, for the soul, and for every human being alive. There’s more than enough to go around. We have all the hormones and nerve endings we need to be happy. To spread the love just requires an equitable distribution of resources—and a little less carbon in the sky. Could climate politics raise goosebumps?

Your typical discussion of climate psychology assumes that climate action is more than anything about sacrifice. That’s obvious enough, right? George Marshall, in his entertaining book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change explains why people are unimpressed by “a narrative of responsibility, austerity and future hardship.” But what if doing what it takes to stop climate change felt good? I’m not talking about the (sometimes obnoxious) sense of self-satisfaction that comes from protesting a fossil fuel company. Nor the pleasant (er…) feeling of clicking an online donation to 350.org. I’m talking about the pleasures of culture, of the flesh, of the wild.

I didn’t invent the concept of low-carbon leisure. (I think Tim Jackson and Juliet Schor and André Gorz get the credit for that—at least in my universe of knowledge.) But I’m running with it. This post is meant to tie together a few little essays I’ve done in the past few months, where I’ve tried to ask how we can urbanize low-carbon leisure. What’s the relationship between these pleasures and the city (including prospects for escaping it)? Also, I made the picture above.

In the middle is the essay I wrote for Jacobin, Seize the Hamptons. To boil it down, the rich are causing the most carbon emissions, even if they live in Manhattan. One pleasurable solution (besides taking their money, and their Hamptons) is to build up cultural centres in the densifying suburbs, and low-carbon (rail and coach) access to the wild beyond city limits. There are historical precedents. See the French workers in that photo who busted their ass in a massive strike to force the government to grant them two weeks paid vacation, plus discounted rail passes (which apparently extended to rail cars for bikes). We can do this.

In another essay, Is Climate Change Big or Small?, I drill in on the question of culture. Climate change isn’t some distant future thing. There’s a dread to it that assaults us now. But the key is to tackle it in the now. Pleasurably! The pleasures of culture and the flesh are entwined. Right-thinking bourgeois have always been suspicious of artists. And they were right to be. Right-thinking fossil fuel industrialism is incompatible with the wild pleasures of the flesh that our free imagination—uncorked by the arts all around us—insists that we explore.

Last, in Forget Fertility, Get Feral, I’ve said even more about the wild, and about how yoking this whole climate project on our kids and grand kids, or even worse, yoking our despair on our kids and grand kids, gets us nowhere. Nowhere! To prevent climate chaos, we need to start now. There needs to be pleasure at the other end. And for lots of us, that means getting out of the city; rewilding not just our land, but our own selves. See if you can catch the BDSM reference. It won’t be hard. But it’s past the halfway mark.

The work I linked to above by Schor, Jackson, and Gorz is foundational to all this stuff. And there’s a whole literature on “queer futurity” I want to now explore for its connections. But I’m already pretty sure that we could stand to be a little less puritanical about low-carbon leisure than its founders have been. A condom is better than a steak—for the environment, and for the body. (Well, obviously there are exceptions, like when you’re trying to have baby.) We’ve tried wholesome optimism. Why not experiment with a more visceral variant?

And no, none of this is meant to replace real, conflictual politics. Those are the premise. (In my day job as a PhD student, I’m writing a dissertation called Street Fight: Urban Climate Politics in an Age of Finance and Revolt.) Low-carbon leisure is the punchline.  

This blog post is so absurd already, I’m just going to go ahead and end by quoting myself from Seize the Hamptons:

We should chase what we want, using what we know and already have. It’s good that solar panels are improving. And we need to point out that the wealthy are the chief ecological culprits, even if they live in Manhattan townhouses and applaud Bloomberg’s climate advocacy.

But cursing the rich and cheering cheap renewables won’t be enough to spare the atmosphere — or to get us out of bed in the morning. The shameless, confrontational pursuit of low-carbon leisure, building on the victories of poor and working-class movements around the world, and mixing in the most useful expertise around, could produce democratic, decarbonized cities — not cramped, dull warehouses, but diverse, stimulating metropoles with plentiful access to the wild beyond.

Yes, there will still be tedium and struggle. But we’ll also prowl boulevards in bright sweaters woven by robots powered by windmills.

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