Cognitive dissonance


I attended the climate strike on Friday. I was late to the march itself, and as I tried to walk from the Financial District to Foley Square, to reach its beginning, I realized that I was swimming against the tide. Hundreds of kids — I’m old enough to call them that now — passed me with clever homemade signs and cheerful expressions. I think they were happy mostly to be able to skip school.

I decided to reverse my course and walk parallel to the route of the march, not in it. As a result, I reached the destination, Battery Park, when only a light smattering of bodies covered the green. I made my way past the camera section to a spot thirty feet from the stage. It was not unlike being early to a concert. Both banks of speakers were covered by large posters declaiming “Climate Strike NYC”. People were milling about, waiting for something to happen, although I gathered that no one knew exactly what.

And then the kids came. And more, and more, and more, until I couldn’t see past them. Some brought posters so large that, when held aloft, no one behind them could view the stage. Some climbed up trees until an announcer told them that the NYPD would haul them down if they didn’t climb back themselves. Some elbowed their way to the very front of the crowd, and I found them charming despite being on the receiving end. I was surprised by the sheer mass of people; later, I found out that New York’s Climate Strike attracted 250k marchers, and that Battery Park couldn’t hold them all. There was such an infectious excitement and intensity. When speakers went on stage, many in the crowd clapped at the same lines that I felt woke for responding positively to (like how indigenous people are disproportionately impacted by climate change). I felt like I was among kindred spirits (the woman who got two unsuspecting strangers to hold up her NIMBY sign protesting a new Wawa in Jersey being a prominent exception.) And eventually Greta Thunberg took the stage, and scolded the politicians for their inaction in her plain, accented English. When she said, “And if you belong to that small group of people who feel threatened by us, then we have some very bad news for you, because this is only the beginning. Change is coming, whether they like it or not,” I felt chills and some, albeit fleeting, hope.

Today I attended a very different climate event. It was co-sponsored by The New Republic and The New School. It featured 5 panelists, 4 women and one gender non-conforming, who were all climate reporters in some capacity. Two wrote for The New Republic; one was a professor who wrote a book on the topic; one was a former climate change correspondent at Vice News Tonight and now hosted a climate change podcast; and one covered climate change for Univision.

The topic of the panel was how to cover the climate crisis: how coverage can become broader-reaching, more compelling, and spur more change. Perhaps the most affecting set of answers were in response to a question about separating one’s personal life from one’s reporting. As all of the panelists noted, the question is ludicrous on its face. While some forms of journalism strive for a “view from nowhere”, climate change is almost invariably personal in some respect. How can someone report on this crisis in a clinical, detached way? It affects what we eat, where we live, what catastrophes might befall us, what wars we might enter into, what other humans we might maltreat, and what kind of a world we’re leaving for the next generation.

On that last subject, one of the panelists was a new mother. She told the story of being on maternity leave but still working (as, I’m sure, many journalists do); pumping breast milk in a tiny room in a WeWork while reading David Wallace-Wells’s book, The Uninhabitable Earth, straddling her lap. The cognitive dissonance, she mentioned, was palpable. On the one hand, if the scientists are to be believed, we may have lost our chance to mitigate global warming and instead entered into a disastrous feedback loop that will change the planet and human civilization in ways that are both simultaneously predictable and also unimaginable. On the other hand, we are raising tiny people that will have to inhabit this uninhabitable earth, to survive and thrive in a world in which what we, in the West, now take for granted — access to healthy, affordable food, clean water, geopolitical stability, etc. — are all imperiled.

The friend whom I attended the event with is both better-read and more pessimistic about climate change than I am. He views it as a catastrophe that we won’t fix; I retain some hope. It is perhaps not surprising that being well-read and viewing humanity’s prospects as dismal go together. All of the panelists were afraid, and unashamedly so. One even mentioned that the need to separate oneself from one’s reporting was not driven by the demands of journalism, but instead borne out of self-protection. Depressed people don’t want to write essays, or make TV segments, or breast-feed their children. But if we take the science seriously, how can we not feel depressed? She termed it “pre-PTSD”, and the other panelists laughed, nervously but in agreement. I felt any residual hope from Greta’s speech fade away and I left, enervated.

To be fair, I was in a bad mood to begin with. I found out a few hours earlier that my company would be having mass layoffs tomorrow, including six out of my ten direct reports. I still haven’t emotionally processed the news, but I thought I’d write about it in hopes of fostering that goal. The thought to which I keep circling back is the same one that the new mother mentioned: cognitive dissonance. I will show up to work tomorrow knowing that the fabric of the company will shortly be irrevocably damaged. I will probably continue writing code, reviewing pull requests, and conducting business as usual. I will continue to claim to be a progressive, a leftist, while laboring for a capitalist organization that just fired 25% of its white-collar workforce, an organization so clearly driven solely by money that there wasn’t even a pretense that the firings were “performance-based”. Those people mattered, and many of them were my friends. (And, even if they weren’t my friends, they’d still matter.) Some have tenuous visa situations and will be forced to find a job to stave off deportation. (My boss remarked, cruelly and flippantly, that she wasn’t worried about some of the remaining employees leaving because they are bound by their H1Bs.) Some have medical conditions, or newborns of their own, and will be forced to buy health insurance. (How generous my employer is to “partially” fund their COBRA payments!) Some have been looking for jobs for several months and have been unsuccessful; while I hope that being fired clarifies their job search, a more likely outcome is that they settle for a position they will later suffer in. And all need the money more than I do, or more than any of the C-suite executives do. (It goes without saying, but none of the latter group was fired. In our American meritocracy, the only accountability is for the little people.)

I’m embarrassed to show up to work tomorrow because I did nothing to ameliorate the situation and everyone on the other side knows it. And I’m embarrassed that I’m embarrassed because, in the grand scheme of things, I’ll be fine and other people might not be. When she delivered the news to me today, my boss broke down crying a few times. She and I, I suppose, are both as nauseatingly self-pitying as Tony Hayward, former BP CEO, when he said about the Deepwater Horizon crisis, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” I was texting my friend tonight to discuss the news; she fears she will be fired. She wrote, “Sorry, this is probably awkward and terrible for you considering you’re staying”. I was thinking to myself, “Why the fuck are you apologizing?”

I’m also embarrassed that I’m expected to deliver the saccharine lines of HR-speak to my former and remaining employees. I received a Google document this evening entitled, “Q&A Messaging”. It explained, “The messaging points below are meant to further empower you for upcoming conversations. However, if you are not comfortable delivering these messaging points, you can always defer any questions you receive to your boss.” To give an example, if I’m asked, “What led to this decision?”, the suggested response is to say, “As you know, despite the best efforts of the entire team, we have been consistently behind our plan on growth.
 The exec team needed to make some tough decisions to get us back on track, including streamlining our operations.” If someone who reported to me took that talking point seriously, I’d almost say they deserved to be fired.

With both our long-term crises and our short-term ones, we would like to believe we’re helping. No one on the left half of our political spectrum wants to be the person who Greta Thunberg is calling out; Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden want her adulation even if she is too principled to give it. I suppose I think, in the last little while, I’ve lost my way. How did I go from being someone who cared about workers to someone who tacitly accepts their appalling treatment; from someone who spoke truth to power to someone who is expected to repeat bullshit handed down from above? Or maybe I was never that first person to begin with.


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