Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis
By Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky
Spoiler alert: We’re all going to die. It’s just a matter of when. That’s the problem with climate change, and the seemingly hopeless discussions around it. If individuals aware of their own mortality still treat living as the norm and death as a surprise, why would they welcome warnings of a global catastrophe that is far less personal and immediate? Expert reports pile up like the grinning skulls that adorned the studies of medieval potentates. But the science-based memento mori has little effect on politicians who inhabit a short-term never-never land where doomsday predictions compromise materialist desires.
So why not despair? It’s an entirely reasonable reaction to unheeded debates over how bad things need to be before the end is officially declared to be near. In Learning to Die, B.C. poet Robert Bringhurst and philosopher Jan Zwicky hymn a short and disturbing elegy to present-day myopia that is refreshing in its utter disdain for our feeble human fiddling.
The better part of Learning to Die is Bringhurst’s measured depiction of humanity as an insignificant player in the nature of things, where the sun peters out eons after our self-centred race has vanished in some briefly footnoted epoch of disasters. The little existence we’re granted on the path from dust to dust, you might wisely conclude, should not be wasted in mindless triviality.
There is comfort, however cold, in giving up futile battles and accepting the inevitability of the end just as the condemned Socrates does in Plato’s Apology. Zwicky focuses on the philosopher’s serene death-watch, seeing him—not entirely convincingly—as a model for condemned humankind awaiting the imminent arrival of catastrophic
Yet the authors can’t bring themselves to feel as serenely stoic as their mortality-embracing philosophy demands. An irrepressible activist streak requires them to settle environmental scores even as the apocalypse looms, and we might be better off getting our moral affairs in order. Some twenty-five pages are devoted to challenging Steven Pinker’s appealingly optimistic view of resourceful humanity’s prospects, which is inconsistent with the authors’ proud disdain for technological innovation and urbane comforts. In a more practical world, where life goes on regardless, you probably need to incorporate both points of view, however much you prefer the stick to the carrot, the wilderness to the city, the purity of a good death to the profound messiness of human existence.
A Matter of Taste: A Farmers’ Market Devotee’s Semi-Reluctant Argument for Inviting Scientific Innovation to the Dinner Table
By Rebecca Tucker
We’ll never agree on what constitutes good food. Every culture possesses the verbal equivalent of Rebecca Tucker’s main title because it’s easier to reconcile our differences as matters of taste than argue forever over the absolute truths of our menus.
Diversity is food’s great glory—anyone who campaigns for a single way of doing things, whether agribusiness globalists, megalomaniac innovators, utopian idealists, or perfectionist foodies should be held suspect. One size doesn’t fit all, no matter how small or beautiful. But in an age where eating is rife with insecurity, food shoppers caught in the worrying space between good and evil are desperate for ethical edible salvation.
If that description seems overheated, you are not an introspective urbanite like Tucker, who occupies a milieu in which good food and moral decision-making are inseparable. Her tour of the modern culinary landscape, where it is never clear whether a farmers’ market is a virtuous statement of organic independence or an aesthetic plaything of the elite, quickly becomes fraught with anxiety.
To her credit, she doesn’t hide her ambivalence about nostalgia-based marketing. But her innate skepticism disappears when she turns to technocratic alternatives for feeding the masses—a woman who cheerfully admits she couldn’t handle a small patch of community garden probably shouldn’t be recommending apartment-based farming as the hope of the future.
By the time she’s wound up her restless and rambling meditation, Tucker seems fed up with her over-thinking. In the end, she’s content to accept an each-to-her-own philosophy as the best solution to the appetite-sapping conflicts of modern eating, if only to enjoy her next meal.
Bolder: Making the Most of Our Longer Lives
By Carl Honoré
The challenge in writing a book about aging: old people already know, and young people don’t want to hear. Undaunted, London-based journalist Carl Honoré has crafted an absurdly upbeat message for the tweeners, vigorous middle-agers like himself who sense the shameful onset of chronological decline but can’t bring themselves to believe the final phase will fall far short of wonderful. Bolder (great title, admittedly) is very much the triumph of hope over experience, an inspirational guide to an overly revved-up future in which we can all become exceptions to aging’s rigid rules.
As much science-driven as faith-based, Bolder is a maddening book because it occasionally feels true and reassuring and thoughtful on a subject where derisive stereotypes and mass indifference abound. Anyone who has felt isolated or unwanted as the years advance will find comfort in studies that reveal oldies to be happier, wiser (all that accumulated experience), more altruistic, less anxious (because who the hell cares?), freed from the people-pleasing constraints of youthful inhibition—I’m not getting grumpier, I’m getting bolder.
Real-world evidence surely contradicts breezy evangelizing about human potential. Old age is a mixed blessing, however much the slowed-down brain finds ingenious ways to compensate for our more obvious frailties and losses. Kudos to Honoré for informing his frightened contemporaries that it’s not all gloom, crankiness, and nostalgic Brexit votes. But then he goes too far and vastly overstates the forthcoming glories of an imagined longevity revolution where supercharged seniors refuse to act their age. His pioneers and heroes are comically, even cruelly, outlandish: an octogenarian gaming addict, late-life sex-rompers “exploring light bondage,” a troupe of rebellious graffiti artists, womanizing clubbers drinking their juniors under the table, Ms. Senior Universe, “lifestyle influencers smashing it online.”
It all sounds like such hard work, with so little return. And when do you find time to nap?