Boredom, Tedium and Ennui

What Does Boredom Do to Us—and for Us?

Why Boredom Is Anything but Boring

From what I hear, you’re all pandemically bored, right? I have no suggestions of what to do about that but Google uncovers 7,860,000 answers. My thoughts about boredom may or may not make you feel better. After all, it’s our common fate. We’re all in this together, as the Democrats continue to remind us.

Isolation makes some people angry. Some take up knitting or art. Some are just bored to tears. I have experienced plenty of boredom in my life, starting with early formal dinners with my parents. Most classes in high school produced long stretches of stifling tedium. In graduate school my friends and I used to entertain each other by getting drunk and reading aloud from the Oxford English Dictionary. Kids today resort to their phones during lectures.

With the pandemic I find myself sleeping a lot more. I often avoid getting up in the morning, lying in bed and letting the mind wander into frivolous paths. Avoidance of boredom often produces more boredom: watching baseball on TV, trying to get into a boring book, avoiding the exercise machine.

It’s hard to agree on what constitutes boredom. Is the capitalist system at fault? Is boredom a social construct? A built-in human response? Margaret Talbot recently wrote a wonderful anatomy of boredom, which you ought to read. She touches on the many definitions and descriptions of the complaint. Here’s one I like: “a cognitive state that has something in common with tip-of-the-tongue syndrome—a sensation that something is missing, though we can’t quite say what.”

Some think it’s inherent in the human condition. Others, like Margaret, see it as a function of how we work and live, part of the capitalist nightmare:

David Graeber, in his influential “bullshit jobs” thesis, argues that the vast expansion of administrative jobs—he cites, for example, “whole new industries,” such as financial services and telemarketing—means that “huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.” The result can be soul-choking misery.

The French call boredom ennui, which adds the suggestion of lassitude or languor. Baudelaire’s great poem “Au Lecteur” (To My Reader) identifies it with decadence and death, calling all of us brothers, tainted with the apathy of evil. The best book I ever read on boredom is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

There’s an old saying that most people couldn’t stand to sit alone in a room for fifteen minutes.

A while back some researchers put together what’s been called the most boring video ever.

Other researchers have had study participants watch an instructional film about fish-farm management or copy down citations from a reference article about concrete.” Thanks, I’ll go on hanging up my laundry.

Black Lives Don’t Matter

Of Course There Are Protests. The State Is Failing Black People.

Trump Threatens to Unleash Gunfire on Minnesota Protesters

Horace Silver: The Natives Are Restless Tonight

From the days of the Klan, through Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery and now George Floyd, the U.S. has been saturated with black lynchings—daily, weekly, however you can count them. When I was in college in the 1950s a guy I knew named Clark Eubanks made jokes at the local bar about the recently murdered and mutilated Emmett Till. I was appalled and have never forgotten or forgiven him. My parents, great aficionados of black jazz, would not hire black household help. They could never explain that preferential prejudice.

Such deep strains of racism and fear go back forever in the American culture. They surface especially when the country is in crisis as it is now. The U.S. desperately needs a cultural climate change, and it’s not likely to get one. Trump advocates violence against looters, and the protestors face angry, ill-trained cops. A friend from Minneapolis thinks the police union is at fault, indoctrinating the force in tactics of intimidation and violence.

More than that, it’s the power of the state and the federal government that is exercised against the most vulnerable and persecuted, those it should be defending. A black NY Times opinion writer puts it clearly: “ . . . the fact that Mr. Floyd was even arrested, let alone killed, for the inconsequential ‘crime’ of forgery amid a pandemic that has taken the life of one out of every 2,000 African-Americans is a chilling affirmation that black lives still do not matter in the United States.” The pandemic’s attack on black populations has been simply horrifying. And the trend to lynch innocent people in the street is accelerating. If we needed proof of how the infection spreads, there’s the case of Amy Cooper in Central Park.

Trump called the protestors “THUGS,” a term better applied to his cabinet. May the protestors finally succeed—at least for a moment—in bringing the country out of its racial trance. The natives are restless tonight, and the chickens have come home to roost.

The Coronavirus Blues

Ten Reasons Why a ‘Greater Depression’ for the 2020s Is Inevitable

Why Our Economy May Be Headed for a Decade of Depression

 Welcome to the End of the ‘Human Climate Niche’

I want to call it the coronavirus blues, that empty, groping housebound depression that keeps you from engaging with all that free time. It’s a coma of aimlessness—not really to be compared to clinical depression, though maybe a second cousin. Wearing a mask intensifies the detachment. Even with walks outside one feels alienated from life; taking off the mask doesn’t help much .

Social isolation causes it, and one way or another it seems to infect everybody. Camus called it a “feeling of exile, that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.”

These thoughts are reinforced from reading recent remarks by Nouriel Roubini, the infamous Dr. Doom who was one of a very few who predicted the housing debacle and near-global collapse of the financial system in 2006. Now he predicts something even worse to come, what he calls the Greater Depression, which will make your coronavirus blues look like small change. (How the word depression got to be applied to economic collapse is another story.)

Roubini considers ten factors or trends that will be exacerbated to produce a severe global depression, a series of events that make another crisis inevitable. A summary of the ten: fiscal deficits and private-sector debt; the healthcare crisis and the aging; the coming deflation; currency debasement; digital disruptions like automation; deglobalization and protectionism; populism; the standoff of the U.S. and China; cyberwars accelerating to cold wars; and the environmental disruptions.

Finally in the list he considers man-made climate change.

The Paris Accord said 1.5 degrees. Then they say two. Now, every scientist says, “Look, this is a voluntary agreement, we’ll be lucky if we get three—and more likely, it will be four—degree Celsius increases by the end of the century.” How are we going to live in a world where temperatures are four degrees higher? And we’re not doing anything about it. The Paris Accord is just a joke. And it’s not just the U.S. and Trump. China’s not doing anything. The Europeans aren’t doing anything. It’s only talk.

And then there’s the pandemics. These are also man-made disasters. You’re destroying the ecosystems of animals. You are putting them into cages—the bats and pangolins and all the other wildlife—and they interact and create viruses and then spread to humans. First, we had HIV. Then we had SARS. Then MERS, then swine flu, then Zika, then Ebola, now this one. And there’s a connection between global climate change and pandemics. Suppose the permafrost in Siberia melts. There are probably viruses that have been in there since the Stone Age. We don’t know what kind of nasty stuff is going to get out. We don’t even know what’s coming.

Roubini is one of those economic savants who puts it all together in one totally depressing yet horribly believable package. For some reason, skeptics like this make entire sense to me. His grim analysis, oddly, can offer a program to treat your coronavirus despair, unlike other doom-sayers such as David Wallace-Wells. One takes a kind of weird comfort in thinking that somehow these cheerless predictions can turn into a recipe for reform and, one hopes, reconstruction.

Defying the Gods of Nature

How Climate Change Is Contributing to Skyrocketing Rates of Infectious Disease

The Covid-19 ‘Infowhelm’

 There Is Still No Plan

This is a picture of plastic on the sea floor, a rape of nature and another instance of hubris—that ultimate kind of human arrogance—here putting the stuff out of sight, out of mind.

Some of our oldest and greatest human stories involve hubris—meaning, for the Greeks, “excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods.” I like writing about hubris because it never goes unpunished, at least in the Greek myths. Pride always goeth before a fall, and our fall could be a long drawn-out catastrophe.

We are now in the process of committing one of mankind’s greatest acts of hubris ever in challenging the gods of nature. Climate change may be the final act in response to man’s defiance of the natural world. The punishment is going to be severe beyond our imagining. COVID-19 is a signal warning, its spread enabled by climate change.

A catastrophic loss in biodiversity, reckless destruction of wildland and warming temperatures have allowed disease to explode. . . . The diseases may have always been there, buried deep in wild and remote places out of reach of people. But until now, the planet’s natural defense systems were better at fighting them off.

The hubris embodied in our myth of perpetual progress and growth has led modern capitalism to this state. Our myopic focus on extraction, deforestation, paving, overfishing, carbonizing (the list goes on) has made us blind to what we are doing to nature and what this disrespect will lead to. One who does understand this is Amitav Ghosh, whose book The Great Derangement I reviewed here last year.

For Ghosh, the imaginative, psychological and cultural failures keep us from talking about climate change or confronting it. So does our concept of time as something linear, progressing, moving always forward. In fact, progress is the spurious idea behind modernity, which fostered the separation of mankind from nature.

It has become difficult to make sense of all this because we are deluged daily with data and information. With coronavirus we are met with “dizzying numbers of disease prevalence, fatalities, ventilators, unemployment claims; models predicting time to hospital overload, time to reopen for business.” Trump doesn’t even bother with a plan for getting the virus under control. Coronavirus has eliminated any safety net, and as many thousands of Americans die, Trump has set himself to take no responsibility—an act of utter hubris.

The consequence of the data dump also applies to climate change as the onrush of climate data provokes “everything from anxiety, numbing, and complacency to hubris and finger-pointing.” It’s overwhelming and so we proceed with business as usual. As Ghosh revealed, we are now meeting the limits of human understanding and our response is “out of sight, out of mind.” This, as the old stories tell us, cannot continue.

Hard Truths about Climate Change

Climate math: What a 1.5-degree pathway would take

How McKinsey Destroyed the Middle Class

Op-Ed: The McKinsey I hope the world gets to know

Do we really have any chance to come to grips with climate change? Like many of us, I go back and forth on that one. Some recommend throwing out the whole capitalist system. If that seems a bit unlikely, you’d need to know how to redirect the system and what it would really take to decarbonize global business.

A pretty convincing roadmap for that is provided by McKinsey, the firm some love to hate. The critics hate its high-pressure culture, its stress on process, its success. But the business of America is still business, and McKinsey’s leaders have recently tried to transform their firm’s role to reflect the totally changing world we’re living in. I almost went to work for McKinsey in 2006, which would have been to the delight of my capitalistic forebears, but that didn’t happen and I’m grateful.

Anyhow, McKinsey recently issued a report on Climate Math that challenges business to meet the demands for a 1.5-C degree warming limit. This is very much worth your reading so you can understand in some coherent detail the challenges in achieving that goal.

 . . . With further warming unavoidable over the next decade, the risk of physical hazards and nonlinear, socioeconomic jolts is rising. Mitigating climate change through decarbonization represents the other half of the challenge. Scientists estimate that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would reduce the odds of initiating the most dangerous and irreversible effects of climate change.

The report offers five necessary and difficult steps to get to that goal. “The good news,” they say, “is that a 1.5-degree pathway is technically achievable. The bad news is that the math is daunting.”

None of what follows is a forecast. Getting to 1.5 degrees would require significant economic incentives for companies to invest rapidly and at scale in decarbonization efforts. It also would require individuals to make changes in areas as fundamental as the food they eat and their modes of transport. A markedly different regulatory environment would likely be necessary to support the required capital formation.

The report traces five needed interdependent “shifts” in areas that we all know, with varying means and prospects of achieving reform:

    • reforming food and forestry
    • electrifying our lives
    • adapting industrial operations
    • decarbonizing power and fuel
    • ramping up carbon capture and carbon sequestration activity.

Each of these areas plays out in three scenarios the report envisions, not as predictions but as “snapshots” to get where we have to go.

All the scenarios, we found, would imply the need for immediate, all-hands-on-deck efforts to dramatically reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions. The first scenario frames deep, sweeping emission reductions across all sectors; the second assumes oil and other fossil fuels remain predominant in transport for longer, with aggressive reforestation absorbing the surplus emissions; and the third scenario assumes that coal and gas continue to generate power for longer, with even more vigorous reforestation making up the deficit . . . .

Relying so much on reforestation seems to me dubious at best, despite the report’s qualifications. The final pages state in bold type, “It is impossible to chart a 1.5-degree pathway that does not remove carbon dioxide to offset ongoing emissions. The math simply does not work.”

The challenges here are immense and the report does not shy away from them. But finally we are getting serious analysis of how feasible (or unlikely) the 1.5-degree goal is.

Testing, Testing, Testing

Not Even the Coronavirus Will Unite America

The US economy can’t reopen without widespread coronavirus testing. Getting there will take a lot of work and money

Trump refuses to lead a country in crisis

It doesn’t take a genius to understand that reopening the economy depends on a program of massive testing. One wonders why it takes a new coronavirus task force of business brains (sans Mitt Romney) to figure this out.

“States can do their own testing,” Trump said. “We’re the federal government. We’re not supposed to stand on street corners doing testing.” Well, there is no way the states and their governors can coordinate and provide the millions of tests per week required. It seems undeniable that any reopening of the economy will result in big spikes in the virus, and who knows how many deaths. Q.E.D.

The Rockefeller Foundation, a major player in health care funding, has a testing proposal.

“It’s going to [initially] cost at least $100 billion and upward of $500 billion over the long haul,” said Eileen O’Connor, senior vice president for communications, policy and advocacy at the Rockefeller Foundation.
The foundation’s plan, which will propose that the cost be financed directly and subsidized by the federal government, estimates that 20 million to 30 million tests each day would need to be performed to get many Americans back to a more normal life.

Their plan will target health care workers first, then food production workers, then truckers. “After that, the goal would be to have tens of millions of tests done every day to have the country fully return to work.” The very idea of implementing such a plan seems totally beyond the thinking of the Trump administration.

At the same time, bureaucratic screwups have made things worse. Nature magazine tells us that their “investigation of several university labs certified to test for the virus finds that they have been held up by regulatory, logistic and administrative obstacles, and stymied by the fragmented US health-care system.”

And the public is so polarized that even a brutal pandemic can’t bring it together. Writing in The Atlantic, Dominic Tierney proposes that nothing short of a powerful human enemy, a Kaiser, a Hitler, will unify the country.

Every aspect of the crisis is colored by partisanship, including beliefs about which information sources to trust and views about who is worthy of federal aid. Even the act of social distancing is political—another way to show tribal colors—as liberals urge people to stay at home and conservatives chafe against government restrictions. The evangelical Liberty University has decided to welcome back thousands of students . . . and has instructed professors to hold office hours in person.

How can one even imagine a program of adequate testing within this kind of tribalism? As the poet said, thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.

Camus Updated

Albert Camus, The Plague

 Gordon A. Craig, Politics of a Plague

 David Wallace-Wells, The Coronavirus Is a Preview of Our Climate-Change Future

I’m rereading the great Albert Camus novel The Plague (La Peste), and there’s no fiction more timely than this. It’s Camus’s best work, the story of how plague comes to a small French-Algerian city in the 1940s with consequences more frightening than today because so much about the blight was then unknown.

Among other things, it is the story of how ordinary people do extraordinary things when under pressure. Of course we think of our health care workers of today: the priceless virtues and commitments of all those who care for the sick under dreadful conditions.

The plague in Camus is a metaphor for the Nazi holocaust. But it also represents the “abstraction” in all our lives, those rules, habits, and forces that control us, keep us in line and, even, give satisfaction as the townsfolk march to work every day, go to the movies, drink in cafés and live out their pedestrian lives.

The town of Oran is a grim, featureless place, and Camus stresses the climate’s effect on its inhabitants. “It must be the weather,” they say: the blue sky, the piercing sun, the heat that keeps people indoors, “socially distant.” Reading from our perspective, it could be a metaphor for climate change. The plague transforms the city into a charnel house. And “the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good.” It hides in furniture, clothes, bedrooms, cellars, always to reemerge without warning.

Like cholera and COVID-19, plague is a disease of society, as if a God were taking vengeance. In Camus’s novel, the plague exposes all our shortcomings—political, social, moral, economic—and so it is with COVID-19. Our very isolation forces us to contemplate the vacuous defects of our institutions and the precariousness of our lives.

We have been living in a bubble of denial about pandemics and certainly about climate change. We discover that we cannot insulate ourselves from the natural world, though that seems to be the goal of our culture. As David Wallace-Wells put it: “Nature is mighty, and scary, and we have not defeated it but live within it, subject to its temperamental power, no matter where it is that you live or how protected you may normally feel.”

My isolation is pretty comfortable. Boring, but comfortable. Yet it forces me to think of what others are enduring. I think of the trenches being dug to bury the nameless, unrecovered dead. I think of those who expire in a ventilator isolated from all.

Being in Mexico, I think of these words of Camus:

Thus the first thing that the plague brought to our town was exile. . . . It was undoubtedly the feeling of exile—that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.

In our present isolation, we are thrown back on that “sensation of a void within” for much of the day, trying to make sense of the abstraction of a pandemic that is all too real. It’s an effort to wrap our minds around the inscrutable nature of something so distant and basically unknowable.

Corona Conquers All

America Is Trapped in Trump’s Blind Spot

The coronavirus forces a personal response from all of us, even if we decide to do nothing about it. Yes, there are people out there who party and congregate at the beach, and you find yourself hoping they come down with a bad case of the disease. Or maybe they escape it and survive, justifying their stupid nonchalance. You also find yourself hoping Trump will test positive.

But you can’t get away from personally dealing with a pandemic like this. I want to talk a little about my response and how it necessarily must displace our concerns about the climate. At least for the moment.

I live in Mexico, which is mostly unprepared for the oncoming disease. The next few weeks presumably will show how woefully unprepared we are. I’m personally at greater risk than most—because of my age (85), sex (male) and medical history (asthma, some emphysema). Like most of us, my urge to continue a normal life conflicts with the need to take some real precautions.

So I’m trying to get used to doing all the recommended stuff, like sanitizing surfaces, wearing a mask when I shop, washing hands, isolating. (I haven’t yet taken to wearing the mask but that will be next.) I got a lecture from my friends last night about being more careful about such things. Sometimes you need to hear this from others.

Andrew Sullivan recently wrote about his case. His words apply to me:

I have chronic asthma and consider my somewhat neurotic attempts to avoid this virus a prudent way to spare any hospital a future ventilator I would almost certainly need to survive. And there’s another reason for wearing [masks] outside as a matter of course: You show the world that you’re all-in on restraining the virus. And that helps encourage others to do the same. It’s a bit like those “I Voted” stickers you wear after doing your civic duty. It reinforces a social norm. Plagues, like wars, require some kind of solidarity over the long haul—and masks help visually express that.

Sullivan catalogs a few of the odious things that get drowned out by the virus, like “the constant harping of the woke” with their insistent assertion of their own identities. Isolation and quiet allow for new, reflective experiences. “For a blessed period, the truth matters—not a narrative, not a construct, and not your truth or my truth, just biology and humanity in a dance repeated endlessly in human history between viruses and bodies.”

Listening to the birds sing, for instance, enjoying the presence of a pet, dismissing the phony drama of Trump’s press conferences, just chilling out: these are the benefits of isolation and a kind of quietism. I’m lucky enough to have a great collection of music that will keep boredom at bay.

I’m also lucky enough to live in Mexico, not Seattle and New York where my kids live. Even as we await the plague, it teaches us how to simplify things and put on a new set of glasses.

More on Corona and Climate

Why the coronavirus outbreak is terrible news for climate change

‘This is a yes-we-can moment’: What the coronavirus response means for climate action

Climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’

The relationship is complicated, very complicated. I’m struck with a few of the many comparisons. One is that corona and climate both demand present sacrifice to achieve future goals—fighting the virus in the short term, attacking climate change over an extended time. Some young people find this hard to accept because the burdens fall heavily on them. Their public protests must give way to social distancing, and the internet is no real substitute.

Both crises require a broadening of the concept of community, a fundamental change to demand of a country like the U.S. composed largely of radical individualists. The populace will have to learn to trust in science, or at least accept it. This will not be easy for a people heretofore dominated by consumerism and laissez-faire economics. The impediments will be our so-far limited understanding of coronavirus and the perceived “remoteness” of climate change.

Both corona and climate have penetrated and largely collapsed the idea of national borders. What’s happening in Europe demonstrates that borders don’t stop the disease though lockdowns may slow its progress. Ethnic nationalists look more and more absurd in the face of it. Nobody can dodge the bullet.

On the positive side, the economic slowdown has given the world cleaner air, a major benefit for the 8.8 million people who die from pollution each year. But it’s a wild card:

If countries like China try to revitalize their economy by subsidizing polluting industries like steel and cement, emissions could soar in the coming months. During a period of economic crisis, climate concerns often fade, many analysts have noted. But there’s another scenario: Governments could seize this moment to enact new climate policies. Low oil prices are often a good opportunity to remove subsidies for fossil fuels, which have been increasing in recent years, or raise taxes on carbon dioxide emissions, since consumers are less likely to feel the impact.

Comparing the notional effects of corona and climate, Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, had this to say: “The coronavirus crisis is a better lesson than the financial crisis because, while it is still quite like a creeping crisis, it is like a fast-forward run of the climate crisis. The difference is that instead of it taking place over four decades, it has taken place over four weeks.”

The global pandemic is giving us a preview of what’s to come with climate change. Each sets up a range of harsh choices we must deal with. Climate change and the virus both require us to give way to the experts. But the remedies proposed must also involve community action. The costs will be tangible and immediate but offer us the prospect of remote and abstract returns. That will be an interesting challenge to the human species.

The Virus and the Climate

Coronavirus ‘Really Not the Way You Want to Decrease Emissions’

 For Richer or Poorer: Coronavirus, Cheap Oil Test Climate Vows

How the Wuhan Virus Is Accomplishing the Green New Deal’s Goals

María Medem, New York Times

We’re seeing a slew of articles on how coronavirus is affecting climate change efforts. After reading several, my take is that the outlook isn’t good, but nothing is certain. The consensus of opinion seems to be that

    • emissions will go down in the near term, then rebound
    • mountains of waste will increase
    • reductions from cheap oil and a possible recession will be short-term
    • unstable geopolitics make things totally up for grabs.

It’s not all bad news, but the situation is so fluid that no good predictions are really possible. “One of the greatest hazards for climate policy related to the coronavirus is that governments, international organizations and companies may have fewer resources and less time to focus on other thorny problems.” Yet it could be that the challenges of dealing with the virus may fundamentally change behavior and finally enable us to confront the enormity of climate change. A recession will complicate matters.

Let’s hope real change isn’t pie in the sky: “The focus is on health and supply chains right now. But the process of challenging assumptions and fundamentally altering behavior—illustrated by remote work—can be seized on by climate action advocates once the worst of this health crisis is over.”

To the contrary, Daniel Turner in The Federalist, a conservative bible, argues that the virus is a good stick to beat the Green New Deal with. “Coronavirus is a glimpse of the long-term pain a Green New Deal and environmental radicalism would inflict on America. And besides, grandma would die eventually anyway.” How old is your grandma, Daniel?

The virus pandemic has brought the world to a state of both high anxiety and compassion. Could it be the trigger for finally confronting climate change seriously? One can only hope. All the likely negatives are listed here.