Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
We are at the end of a world. Again. Which means we are at the beginning of a new one. Again.
In the world that is ending, identity-based superiority reigned, and it shaped everything. White people enslaved Africans, men enslaved women, and anyone who didn’t fit into the colonial capitalist heteropatriarchy—because they were disabled, or queer, or trans, or not a citizen, or didn’t fit into the “subservient” role they were cast into—were punished, locked away, or killed.
We are in a long arc of releasing that world in myriad ways: protesting it, opting out, critiquing and ridiculing it, developing analyses to help see how it works, educating each other. In this way, we change culture and assumptions and structures a bit every day. But because the shift is gradual, and occurs while we still exist in a world where regressive values manifest in pervasive and unique ways, it can feel like we are not the spark of change. Even as we divest from power structures that are predicated on the denial of any group’s humanity, the pace of our evolution and the ongoing struggles, the backlash, and the egregious acts of continuing harm can make it feel like nothing is really changing.
One of the ways I recognize how much is changing, and how rapidly, is by thinking back to the culture of my 20s (I am 44 now), and then the culture of my childhood. With this longer lens, I can see how much is changing, how rapidly the changes are coming, and sometimes I can even see where my generation has shaped those changes—about what was legal, spoken, sold, or normalized—which now shape the present culture. When I see both the impact of ancestral and elder organizing, and the impact of our organizing and culture-shifting, it makes me feel even more accountable for what comes next. This era is for visionary death doulas with time-traveling presence, able to stand in this moment full of embodied wisdom from our lived and ancestral experiences, and ripe with possibilities and practices for a future that is nourishing for all of us.
Being accountable in this moment includes a few key activities and perspectives:
Notice where dying ideas show up in your life.
We have all been inundated with the colonial, capitalist, heteronormative, and patriarchal ideas that this dying world inflicts upon us. Interrogate these ideas as they arise. Ask yourself if any of them actually feel true and compelling to you. One hint that they don’t is when you find yourself in structures of obligation, imbalanced care, constant sacrifice, or perpetual frustration. These dying ideas might also show up in massive meltdowns of spaces that ought to be commons, such as what we’ve all watched with Twitter this month. When those still clinging to antiquated power structures and mythologies (like money signaling brilliance) steal your agency, time, ideas, labor, or straight up displace you from your (physical, cultural, or ideological) home, learn to recognize the desperate grasps of a power structure that is dying. Find the opportunity to grow beyond their reach.
Notice collective denial.
We are living in a global pandemic with a virus that has long-lasting and debilitating impacts, if it doesn’t kill you. Those who survive are reshaped by the virus, some in overt ways we currently call long COVID, some in ways that don’t show until there’s a sudden death months later. We also don’t know what COVID will do to the generation of children we forced back into schooling conditions where they could not truly protect themselves—let alone the ever-growing number of children orphaned by the virus.
And yet, we now board planes and traverse a world full of unmasked, unprotected people—because our government supports the capitalist-fueled rejection of necessary COVID adaptations. Precautions that save lives, that protect the disabled and immunocompromised among us, aren’t lucrative. Taking even the smallest, simplest step toward community care—like consistently wearing a mask—now feels like swimming upstream, or shouting a political stance, even as people continue dying from a virus that keeps spawning new variations.
Our society has approached climate change the same way: Adaptations only seem to move where they can be monetized. But denying reality doesn’t work as a long-term solution. The fires are burning; the hurricanes are knocking out neglected, unprepared infrastructure; the droughts and floods are swallowing nations; and nonhuman species are disappearing in the sixth great extinction of our planet, caused primarily by our human impact on the planetary living conditions. All while COVID-19 is still slipping people out of this life.
Notice collective experiences.
The pandemic has changed us in other ways too. The amount of grief we carry is a collective weight. The way everyone is having to figure out safety on their own has increased distress and overwhelm. And it has hurt relationships—trying to be close to people who navigate boundaries differently can be tense at best, dangerous at worst.
We are perhaps more aware now of how much everyone is carrying, if we let that in. COVID and climate catastrophe aren’t the only things we are surviving as the systems we’ve been socialized into become obsolete and explicitly regressive all around us. How can we move through this period of endings, this anthropocene, with grace, rigor, and curiosity?
Slow down and embrace awe.
When I slow down and tune into the world around me, there is so much wonder available to me. If I am terrified, combative, or try to dominate the beyond-human nature around me, I get stung; I feel disconnected and hopeless. But if I slow down and lean into the experience of being of one species among many, I experience so much mutual curiosity, and I feel so much awe at the marvel of our collective existence, even in this moment of upheaval.
A worker bee was curious about me recently, and rather than panic, I got curious. She buzzed powerfully around my crown, and I felt wonder as that small and mighty buzzing moved down my body. She landed in my hair, and as she stepped around, I felt wonder at how small her body was, and whether her legs were narrower than the strands of my hair. I wondered how I smelled to the bee, what she found on my surface.
A seven-legged spider was curious about me shortly after the bee. I felt something moving on my face and instead of swatting, I got slow. I drifted my finger softly along my cheek toward the temple, and there she was, now moving along my fingertip, leaving web in her wake. I spoke to her, wanting the hum of my voice to show that I intended no harm. She climbed from finger to finger, hand to hand, stopping often to just sit there. I felt wonder, watching her move, watching her choose to stay with me rather than move to the concrete, glass, and canvas surfaces I offered her.
I worry that the world, which can abundantly care for us and for which we have found no replacement, is going to become uninhabitable to us and so many other species because we choose to live such contentious and distracted lives. We humans have made so many decisions that separate our species from the natural order, and thereby from curiosity and wonder about the world around us. Watching how biodiversity—and our chance of survival—has decreased as our wonder has dwindled and been confined inside fences, buildings, and screens, I can’t fight the urge welling up inside me to rekindle our wonder about all that is still living and changing on Earth, even now.
It is too late to sidestep the crises that arise from the tech-utopian false-solution futures that capitalism has predicted and promised, but perhaps, and I daresay I hope, that it is not too late to have a future in which our species is here and living in right relationship with the Earth and the other survivors of our palest age.
In my next and final column for this series, I will explore the practical wisdom of “transforming ourselves to transform the world,” tying together the arc of accountability into a cycle of dialectical humanism that allows us to not just survive, but evolve.
adrienne maree brown is a writer, editor, activist, social justice facilitator, coach, speaker, and doula. Her books include Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, which she wrote and edited, and Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements, which she co-edited. She is a YES! contributing editor.