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In which John tries to think about whether anything matters in the grand scheme of things, and whether anything matters.
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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday. I was recently asked to speak to a group of college students, and here is some of what I said.

There's a certain strain of nihilism that has grown popular of late: everything's trash so why even bother, nothing matters in the long run anyway...And I'm sympathetic to these perspectives because the world is profoundly unjust and our shared challenges are overwhelming. 

And also yes, I am aware that nothing matters in the long run. Something like 275 million stars are going to die tomorrow. And in that context, it's a little difficult to get excited about earthly affairs like building bridges, and sewer systems, and voting. But I reject nihilism. Not only because I believe that nihilism, like all straightforward answers to life's great questions, is inadequate,  but also because I think human life itself is imbued with meaning.

I wrote my book The Anthropocene Reviewed because I wanted to pay attention to where my attention was going. And by attention, I don't mean like the ability to focus without distraction, I mean consciousness itself. Our soul stuff. Where that's going.

After all, what and who you care about, what and who you devote your soul-stuff to, when taken together, will be known as your life. And through three and a half years of writing the book, I learned some stuff about staphylococcus aureus and how grocery stores came to exist, but the biggest thing I learned - and it surprised me - is that I am broadly in favor of humans. 

Now I want to be clear that as species go, we are a catastrophe. We have caused countless extinctions, we've poisoned rivers, and caused famines, and murdered the innocent. Like, we aren't the first form of life to become so powerful and ubiquitous that our very success endangers the planet's climate and biodiversity - cyanobacteria caused a mass extinction over a billion years ago - but we're the first species to know what we're doing while we do it.

But then there's the other side of the coin, which is that we are also really interesting. We know the structure of DNA. We make art and other things, like sports and cappuccino and YouTube, that we don't technically need to survive but still kind of need. We know what's keeping the stars apart. We try to protect our young. We make really good music.

Now of course, none of this matters in the grand scheme of things. The sun is still going to turn into a red giant and boil our oceans away. But we don't live in the grand scheme of things. I think there is meaning in human life because there is meaning in us and in how we are bound together. There is meaning in loving and being loved, and in hearing and being heard. 

Like, when I'm thinking about why any of it matters, I always think about this line from Richard Wright: "I would hurl words into this darkness, wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all." I reject nihilism because I believe in the value of hurling words into the darkness, not least because it is possible that you, when you are in the darkness, may echo them back.

I know that optimism at the moment feels foolish and cringey, and nihilism feels like a way of trying to cut yourself off from the reality of feeling so you don't have to grapple with all of the complexities and pain. I get it, I do it too, but I would encourage you to hurl your words into the darkness. To never give up on trying to bring light and noise to where otherwise there would only be cave darkness and silence. 

Equally, I would ask you to be an echo, to tell your friends and loved ones that you hear them. Not just the words that they're saying, but also the feelings and thoughts that lie beneath those words. I think the opportunity and responsibility of personhood is to make meaning, and to acknowledge the meaning in others' lives. We do this through loving and helping others, and through allowing others to love and help us, and through deepening our shared understanding of the universe and our place in it. 

So yeah, maybe nothing matters, but only until we make things matter. And maybe life is meaningless, but only until we make it meaningful. 

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.