Media Theory Reviews

2019 Existentially Reviewed

I want to share with you my three favorite pieces of media from 2019: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, Inside Bill’s Brain by David Guggenheim, and Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang.

I originally wrote this in early January but decided to shelve it because this post felt too personal and off-topic for a blog (mostly) about post production. What a difference eleven weeks can make, right? I don’t have anything to say about the ongoing global pandemic, but something about this post feels of the moment and worth sharing now.

In 2019 my wife gave birth to our second child and I became a father again. Parenthood is amazing, and beautiful. But that’s not what this post is about, because being a parent is also an endeavor filled with an existential anxiety best expressed by a quote from Elizabeth Stone:

“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

It is through this lens of existential anxiety brought on by parenthood that I want to share with you my three favorite pieces of media from 2019: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, Inside Bill’s Brain by David Guggenheim, and Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang.

“Forget your hopes. They are what brought you here.”

— Clive James translating Dante

If you think you know what Wallace-Well’s book is about without having read it, you’re wrong! The Uninhabitable Earth is to climate change, as The Omnivore’s Dilemma was to food: a framework to think about its respective topic and a survey of the best thinking in the field.

Just as Michael Pollan set out to explore the complex multi-faceted ways in which we grow and consume food from fast-food to farm-to-table; David Wallace-Well examines all of the ways our climate is changing (rising sea-levels, reduced air quality, more extreme weather, etc) and more importantly, how we as a species are coping with it. His chapter on how Cognitive Biases prevent us from effectively grasping the problem is a worthwhile reason to read this book.

I don’t know how to come to terms with the fact that my children may very well live to see a world where humans abandon coastal cities like Miami and Venice. But neither do I know how to reconcile how much I love my kids with how much I dislike people. Humans aren’t good at much, but we are certainly good at holding opposing values as equally true.

“Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary.”

— Herman Melville, Moby Dick

David Guggenheim frames his wonderful portrait of the brilliant Bill Gates through the work he and his wife, Melinda, are accomplishing through their foundation. Let’s just get this out of the way: Guggenheim tries to paint Gates as complex, but his documentary series is really an indictment against the rest of us. Bill and Melinda Gates want to give us clean water and eradicate polio, and they are willing to spend Billions of dollars to do it, but people just can’t stop being people. We reject the vaccines and the cheap clean energy and good money continually gets thrown after bad.

Watching the Netflix documentary series made me feel two things: firstly, Bill Gates was born a genius and was given every opportunity to succeed. His success doesn’t feel like much of an achievement as it does an inevitability; it would have been reprehensible had his life turned out any other way.

Secondly, that most all of humanity has relinquished so much power to so few makes me feel sad for the future. We, the people, no longer believe that government can do something like eradicate polio through smart public policy, so instead we wait for billionaire overlords to hand out a disease free future when they feel like it. Because as much as Bill Gates wants to help humanity, he’d prefer not to pay more taxes.

“What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.”

— Seneca

The wisest of us know that if there is any comfort to be found in this world, it is to be found in art. Ted Chiang’s recently published collection of short stories Exhalation are transcendent. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” are beautiful explorations of regret and the triumph over it.

But in my opinion, the best of Chiang’s short stories is, “The Great Silence,” about the parrots who live next to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and lamet humanity’s inability to see what’s right under their nose. It’s heartrendingly beautiful and is the perfect coda to a post about existential dread. If you only read one of my links, go to Electric Lit and read his story here.