NYTimes columnist David Brooks' recent column about the "overpoliticization" of citizens, "The Stem and the Flower", called into question the part of me that I am most proud of and at the same time subsumes much of my existence. And it led me to a conclusion that, quite frankly, is equally empowering and terrifying.
See, I am one of those sorry overpoliticized folks that Brooks refers to who "forms their identity around politics". I have an "aspirational hope that politics can transform society", despite the reality that politics "rarely delivers". And, I must admit, I spend far more than 10 per cent of my waking hours thinking about politics at the expense of what should be on the minds of "good citizens" according to Brooks: philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture and fun.
I remember a time when I was David Brooks' ideal citizen. A time when I did not spend an inordinate amount of my day reading, sharing and discussing news. A time when I was able to wholeheartedly enjoy and engage in conversations and activities that were not in some way related to politics. A time when I felt truly free.
Since I became involved in the climate change movement, however, everything changed. The struggle to make inroads against the most complex crisis humanity has ever faced completely absorbed me. How could I continue living my charmed life after internalizing the reality that the actions of my country, and the West in general, will directly contribute to making life in developing countries "practically unbearable"?
Human beings who did almost nothing to contribute to climate change, and have absolutely no ability to stop it, will likely be devastated by disease, draught, resource wars, and dire economic consequences they are not equipped to cope with. My children are on track to live in a world dominated by misery, not the world of plenty and opportunity I was fortunate enough to inherit. And this depressing future is largely avoidable if we just put our minds to it.
Unfortunately, the solution appears to require government. Today, the playing field is not level. Not only are polluting industries permitted to spew carbon into the atmosphere free of charge, they are subsidized to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars per year. It is simply not possible to rely on human ingenuity or the power of the free market in these critical times, especially without a price signal.
Brooks believes that in rare occasions -- for example, the Civil War and the Depression -- government can be more worthy of our time and effort. It can be more than "a slow trudge, oriented around essential but mundane tasks". To me, and to the countless other climate advocates out there, the climate crisis is the Civil War of the 21st century. It's just less visible. Others are deeply passionate about addressing growing income inequality or upholding Aboriginal rights or building a more inclusive society or improving the quality of our democracy.
Politics is about the decisions that shape our lives -- having an interest in politics is having an interest in life, an interest in protecting the things that make life worth living. In a rapidly changing, unstable world, we need more people dedicated to championing meaningful change in politics and public policy, not less. Enjoying "philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture and fun" may not be possible if our quality of life continues to deteriorate.
What David Brooks helped me realize is that I do have a problem. Yet, for me, the problem is not overpoliticization -- it's an inability to sufficiently embrace that politicization. Pretending to be genuinely engaged by a job, or in my case the daily life of a law student, while your passion is really elsewhere, is the problem. Attempting to convince yourself that it's wise to spend a decade focused on securing a desired standard of living before diving into your passion is the problem.
So long as that passion is red hot -- and in my case, it likely will be until adequate action is taken to address climate change -- it is simply too painful to not embrace. It commandeers your thoughts, your private time, your entire life. I need to happily, and fully, surrender to it. I'm betting that when more of my waking hours directly engage that passion, it will be less of a struggle to relax and recharge during the downtime, to truly cherish and enjoy philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture and fun.
I'm not going to quit law school. Nor would I urge anyone to blindly switch careers. Yet if you find politics, or whatever your passion is, absorbing more and more of your mental energy -- don't just ignore it. Admit it. Face it. And consider doing something about it.
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