On Shooting Butterflies

Well, the final news is out, the fix is in, headlines tell us that three major universities agree: we’ve had it, the sixth great environmental catastrophe is upon us, species are going extinct in unprecedented numbers, and humankind may not last another hundred years. It’s a relief, I must say.

When they finally get a diagnosis proving there’s something really wrong with them, people often feel relieved, even if the diagnosis is terminal. It’s a relief to be believed. It’s a relief to know you didn’t make it up. It’s a relief to have a timeframe: you’ve got six months to live--you’d better get your taxes in. For me, it’s a relief to know the long race to save humanity is over. It’s a race I’ve been running all my life, and I’m ready to hang up my track shoes.

When I was 13, in 1970, I sat huddled on a picnic blanket on a cold day on Stinson Beach listening to my chemist sister monologue about the scientific facts that proved humankind would be dead from pollution by 1985. We all needed to do everything we could to avoid the end. She, for one, had been recycling her aluminum foil and had saved a roll in the last year. I remember thinking at the time that cutting down on aluminum foil usage might not turn the tide. But, looking back, that was also the day that I realized I shouldn’t have children, because it would be a terrible thing to come to consciousness in a world that was on its way out.

For the rest of my life, humanity’s slow demise ran in the background of my mind, ran silent and anxious and unconscious no matter where I was or what I was doing. The fear that I was not doing enough to “save humanity” was always there, thwarting plans and curtailing dreams. This painful drip, this knowledge of ecological disaster, kept me focused on the terror of life rather than on its beauty, and I avoided many of the deepest experiences of living.

In order to save the world, I became a designer. If everyone just listened to me, perhaps humanity had a chance. In this ego-strength I followed in the footsteps of Morris and Gropius and Jacobs, but unlike them I did not have a positive manifesto for change. I had a fear of the future, not a plan for it. I became vocal. I became passionate-- that much over-used word that couples desire with heartbreak.  And, in the course of things, I became overwhelmed.

I teach “Design for Social Change” at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. We’re tiny. We have 800 students. We teach art and design and dance and theater and champion independent thinking. The main campus building is a repurposed seven story printing building. In the last year, Amazon has been building five tall, steel-and-glass office buildings in a ring around our small campus, dwarfing our old building and battering our days with pneumatics. When I go to lunch, I see hundreds of thirty year-old white males with Amazon lanyards who have been let out of their cubicles for their well-deserved and timed lunch breaks. South Lake Union, right below us on the hill, has been totally redone in the last few years, designed to look like a bunch of independent restaurants and stores, but in reality a mall, a habitat for software engineers, planned by a company called Vulcan.

We teach about art and self-expression and independent thinking, but we are ringed by corporate control. One afternoon I was walking from the college past a huge building site and things started to jumble in my mind. I froze in a flood of fear. I couldn’t walk forward and I couldn’t walk back. I felt that I was disintegrating. It had been 15 years since my last panic attack and I didn’t see the old routine coming.

Was it the height of the new construction looming over me? Was it too much work and coffee and not enough food? Or was it the sudden fear that nothing I had done or could do could change the relentless march of the material-consuming culture and that everything I had tried to do to help save humankind had been a ridiculous waste of time. Tall and smart and ego-driven as I was, I was tiny, and no match for tons of steel and glass and the corporate machine that created them. 

Fear is the best way to make bad decisions. During the Russian Revolution, as dirty and cruel a revolution as anything going on right now, it became fairly common for surrounded villagers to shoot their children rather than risk their torture at the hands of partisans. Are we shooting our children? Are we filling our students with a constant diet of facts about the end of the world, assuming dystopia awaits, leaving them no room for their human needs and deep desires? Does our insisting that they shoulder the burdens bequeathed to them by two hundred years of stupid human mess-ups do anything to make their lives better?  Or does this burden freeze them in panic, force them to take refuge in dreams of rusticity or in incoherent aesthetics? When Design teaches responsibility for overwhelming crises, it doesn’t create agency, it creates anxiety, and anxiety is fear.

So here's the thing. I'm not hanging up my track shoes just yet. I plan to do what I can still do. But of the things I can still do, perhaps the most important is being a witness. Butterflies are going extinct, but that doesn't mean we need to shoot them to put them out of their misery. Just because humanity is up against it doesn’t mean we can't witness for art and design and music-- for the good things that human life can make and be. Have kids or get married or put down roots or fight for equality or do what the heck you want to do with your life and your ability. But don't exhaust yourself. The odds are overwhelming: the diagnosis is terminal. We’re all going to die. So live.