July 17, 2019–I spend most of my time thinking and writing about climate change politics. It is often a paralyzing experience. Not only is climate change a grave threat, but it is also one of America’s most polarized political debates.
To avoid the easiest, most comfortable narrative of the moment, I have learned that writing about climate change demands a special discipline.
It requires clearing away competing noise, reserving time for deep reading and critical reflection, seeking solitude away from the constant churn of today’s argument-fueled culture.
It requires a writer to quiet the mind, and to stop thinking about possible criticism or praise for what they write. Only a focused mind can write truthfully about the flawed assumptions and misguided ideas that have sidetracked progress on climate change, no matter their popularity or source.
As controversial as it sounds, to find my voice as an intellectual and writer in today’s polarized debate over climate change, I eventually realized that I had to quit social media and shift most of my reading back to print.
Playing to the rawest elements of human nature, social media has done great damage to American politics, details Siva Vaidhyanathan in 2018’s Anti-Social Media, destroying our ability to think collectively, maintain sustained focus on pressing problems, and discuss productively across lines of difference.
Artificial intelligence-driven platforms serve up a constant stream of news and commentary that reflects our existing biases and beliefs, rather than content that might challenge them. Because it kidnaps our attention, the most inflammatory, most outrageous, and most catastrophic content is rewarded by social media algorithms, ensuring that it travels the furthest.
Since social media is a place where we find comfort in our tribal identity, posting, liking, and spreading ideologically affirming content about climate change generates social value, regardless of the source, quality, or veracity of the content we may be sharing.
And it is not just social media, but online immersion itself that is the death of the climate change intellectual, disrupting the ability to acquire the specialized knowledge and insights needed to write lucidly and sharply about the wickedly complex problem.
As the mental circuits devoted to constant online multi-tasking strengthen, the circuits used for reading and concentration erode, writes Nicholas Carr in 2011’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. The altered brain consequently finds it more difficult to concentrate and read deeply, as numerous studies in subsequent years have shown.
The price of zipping around on the Web and social media is a loss in our depth of thinking, the essential trait of the intellectual and writer.
“I Used to be a Human Being,” was the title of a 2016 New York magazine cover story by Andrew Sullivan, who had spent the previous fifteen years devoting himself to writing “The Dish” blog, an occupation that included posting multiple blog posts a day, seven days a week, constantly tracking the latest online hot take or trending story.
Sullivan described himself as a “very early adopter of what we might now call be living-in-the-web.” But his obsession took a severe toll on his psyche, relationships, and health, he wrote. He could no longer read books, his mind and fingers “twitched for a keyboard,” and he suffered from chronic respiratory infections.
Even though Sullivan spent every day alone at a keyboard, he felt as if he were in a “constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades — a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise.”
Sullivan quit his blog and returned to longform journalism, describing in the article his months long recovery that began with a silent meditation retreat.
In a 2014 story at Outside magazine, the Vox.com climate and energy writer David Roberts described a similar experience to Sullivan.
At his past position as a blogger at Grist.org, Roberts described a daily routine of tweeting dozens of times a day, even when at the toilet, and once hit the daily tweet limit of 2,400 posts.
He would spend twelve hours a day fixated on a screen, staying up until 2am, taking breaks only to eat dinner with his kids and to put them to bed. He felt twitchy if he was away from his smart phone for only a few seconds.
“The core of my job — researching, thinking, writing at greater-than-140-character length — I could accomplish only in the middle of the night, when things calmed down [on social media],” he admitted. “I spent more and more hours working, or at least work adjacent, but got less and less done.”
His thoughts and attention had been fully hijacked by the addictive engineering of social media. No matter what he was actually supposed to be doing, Roberts instead “always had one eye on the virtual world. Every bit of conversation was a potential tweet, every sunset a potential Instagram.”
So he decided to take a year-long sabbatical not only from work but from any mode of online or social media activity. “I spent hours at a time absorbed in a single activity. My mind felt quieter, less jumpy,” he recalled.
He experimented with meditation and yoga, and immersed himself in the online addiction and self-help literature. He spent more time outside in nature and devoted afternoons to structured play with his kids.
As he returned to work as a blogger, moving to his new position at Vox, Roberts also returned to social media but pledged that he would mindfully take on the “challenge of our age, in work and in life: to do one thing at a time, what one has consciously chosen to do and only that, and to do it with care and attention.”
In the years since, Roberts’ Twitter following has grown from 36,000 at the time of his sabbatical to 130,000 today, a growth driven by his relentless posting that mixes commentary on the latest outrage from Trump and Republicans with updates on his life, hobbies, and travels, and the occasional tweet about climate change and energy.
Recognizing the harm that social media is doing to our minds and to our collective ability to address climate change, last year I began to experiment with various methods for minimizing the impact of social media on my life, even as I used Facebook and Twitter to successfully promote my ideas, articles, or new research.
In one strategy, I wrote out a very long password in a notebook, so that when logging on to Twitter, I had to do so with a specific intention and purpose in mind. On Facebook, I paired down my list of “friends” from more than 800 to just 65, half of which were relatives.
But as Roger McNamee, a one-time mentor to Mark Zuckerberg, writes in his recent book Zucked, when we try to use social media minimally and mindfully, we run up against an impossible task.
Tech companies like Facebook have recruited some of the world’s brightest minds to create an unbeatable chess game in which we battle artificial intelligence and algorithms with almost perfect information about us, machine learning employed with the specific intention to keep us addicted to distraction.
So, four months ago, realizing the battle that all of us are losing with great cost to our health, careers, and to society, I deleted my Facebook and Twitter accounts.
I also shifted most of my reading back to print, relishing time spent with books and weekly magazines like The Economist and Nature. These high-quality print sourcestypically provide a longer view on climate change-related issues and events, rather than the hourly dose of outrage and fear so prevalent on social media and via online news.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” observes Annie Dillard in The Writing Life.
I choose to spend my days surrounded by the stillness of my office or within the sacred sanctuary of a library, no digital screen in sight, filling Moleskin notebooks with observations, engaged in the type of deep reading and immersion necessary to tie together insights and arguments into a fresh web of analysis.
Swimming laps at a pool, I often sort out the complexities of an article. During my daily yoga practice, I quiet the mind, easing the anxieties that afflict every writer.
Culturally we have forgotten that writing is not typing. There is a creative linkage between the intellect, the hand, and the pen that I have rediscovered by writing the first draft of an article on a yellow legal pad, completely absorbed in the craft of composition.
As I write, I no longer feel the gnaw of anticipation over how people might react on social media. My mind is free to follow the evidence, to scrutinize the most deeply held assumptions, and to challenge readers to see clearly, brushing the dust of tribalism away from our eyes.
When I finally deleted my Facebook account, downloading the 1GB of data that comprised my time on the platform since 2006, I searched through the various folders with a sense of personal horror, sifting through thousands of posts, pictures, and comments, totaling what seemed like months of my life spent on the application.
A similar feeling overcame me as I looked back on the thousands of Tweets that I had posted since 2011.
At the time I was reading the Roman stoic Seneca, who as a busy Senator and advisor to emperors still reserved time for the life of the mind as a prolific philosopher and essayist, influencing countless subsequent generations of intellectuals and writers.
In 50 AD, he wrote in his essay on the shortness of life and how to spend it wisely: “No activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied…since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply but reflects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it…”