“How about some good news? “
That’s a refrain I’ve heard at regular intervals since approximately 1992, when I got my first gig editing an environmental publication. I think the first-ever such comment I got was from someone tired of what they termed the “endless litany of venal republicans and clearcut redwood forests.” I understood. I was too. And that was before the famously ecocidal 104th Congress declared their Contract With (certain privileged demographic sections of) America.
Fact was, we did report good news, and frequently. Every single issue had creative nonfiction style essays by regular contributors who wrote about natural history, gardening, evocative animals and innovative people doing remarkable things that could be duplicated to good effect. We had great reporting on the court-ordered salvation of Mono Lake from desiccation at the hands of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. We covered the triumph of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act.
But we also covered those clearcuts, and assassination attempts on people trying to stop those clearcuts. We covered the Clinton administration’s half-hearted and ill-thought-out attempts to create compromises between ecocidal corporations and environmental activists. We covered the watering down of the Endangered Species Act. And while I think the majority of readers appreciated our work, and most of the complaints we got were thoughtful and substantive and involved either errata or our missing the point of an issue in our coverage, we also got the less substantive complaints about too much bad news.
I left that publication and joined the staff of another, where I ended up working for a decade. We heard the same complaint there. As we did at the Los Angeles public TV station where 1,750 of my articles lie mouldering in the web archives.
And we hear it about the podcast. I wondered aloud to my favorite co-host as we hiked the other day just how people would react if, say, someone responded to my mention of a recent death in my family by saying “yes, but do you have any good news?”
“That is a good point,” she said. (She doesn’t always think my rhetorical points are good, so it feels nice when she does.)
People die. It’s a tragic and regrettable reality, this Second Law of Thermodynamics stuff. We are stuck in our limited perception of time as a river flowing in one direction, and so we mourn our loved ones when they die because we can’t just go back to February 2007 and hang out with them some more. I am of an age when my older family members are dropping… well, not like flies, but too frequently for my liking.
And no one will greet my sadness over their respective losses by complaining about too much bad news.
The end of a human life is sad for those left behind. If a person dies as a result of some avoidable threat, if their life is cut short when they could have lived for decades longer, that is tragic. And as I reach my mid-60s, the ages my ancestors had reached when they stopped breathing, in the 70s and 80s and 90s, seem a lot younger than they used to. But when a person in her 80s has lived, as the saying goes, a good long life? If they have spent that life engaged with humanity, creatively fulfilled, surrounded by loving family and friends? Death is normal. It is to be expected. If that person has for reasons of ill health stopped enjoying life, death can even be something like welcome. Not that we don’t still weep.
The cataclysmic erosion of ecosystems? The untimely extinction of a formerly abundant and thriving species? The abject and untold misery being caused by our monkeywrenching the climate, which is certain to get worse? None of that is normal. None of that is to be expected. If you, like me, were the kind of person who made awkward and insensitive comparisons, you could easily make the case that the above-mentioned redwood clearcutting was orders of magnitude more tragic than the sad loss of a single beloved elder human.
So why the entreaties for leavening the Cassandra schtick with something uplifting, even if superficially?
Let me pause a moment to take a deep breath and allow as how I do understand why people ask for that good news. I have, every day for the last 30-plus years, woken up in the morning, flipped on whetever computer I had at the time, and collected bad news from around the world to be digested and interpreted and criticized, and then at some point retold — usually in my own words — for whatever audience the publication I worked for happened to have. I never tried to exclude more upbeat or promising news, but any good news I’d find was usually outnumbered by bad news at a rate of about 10-1. I tell myself I have calluses on my soul that buffer me against the vicarious trauma of taking all this news in. Some days that’s kinda true.
Three years after the Dome Fire, which incinerated 43,000 acres of my favoriteplace in the desert, I am still not fully come to terms with the loss of the Cima Dome Joshua tree forest, where for years I had slept out on the ground during too-warm nights and too-cold nights watching winter constellations and meteors and projectiles laden with human beings, where coyotes sang me to sleep and pocket mice helped with the dishes. I have wondered why I have not yet wept over that loss, since the desolation I feel about it is never far from the surface. And now the still-smouldering York Fire has taken twice as much of that landscape away. There are fragments of the landscape left, some of them extensive. But for how long?
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Faced with the extinction of a place I have loved for half my life, you might expect me to be desperate for good news about its salvation, perhaps even its recovery. But being upbeat about nonexistent chances of recovery of the landscape simply because the news is too bad otherwise? It’d be one thing if I believed there was good news there. But I don’t, so I’d be lying to myself.
I really do empathize with the people who ask for regular doses of good news in the litany of bad. I want that good news too. And yet I have noticed something about who doesn’t ask that question. If you were brought up in a world that readily grants you respect and comfort, asking for that good news seems to make good sense: the natural order of things is that you are content and even happy, and that infusion of good news will possibly restore that normal way of things, at least in yourmind.
People who didn’t grow up with that privilege? I don’t read minds, and few people tell me their life stories these days, but to a first approximation I’d venture to say that people who didn’t grow up with an excess of social privilege don’t ask that question. They seem to accept that bad news happens and must be dealt with, that turning your back on a problem usually makes it worse — and almost always makes it someone else’s problem.
It is, I think, ironic that the people who ask — as well as those who don’t — have the key to the good news warehouse in their pockets. Every time a person reacts to bad news by getting active and doing something to make things better? That is the best news possible.
It’s also the only good news that will actually help the bad news seem less of an onslaught.
what a wholly insufficient word, that “favorite.” More suitable for the most-played track on your workout playlist than for a place that has taken you in, sheltered you, nurturted your soul and mind, for decades.