Speculation, Inquiry, and a Quest for Purpose

In Search of a Foundation


Humanity is in crisis, and I don’t know what to do with myself—but I do want to help.

The climate situation has been documented well enough that if recent environmental calamities aren’t convincing on their own, they surely herald the swift and certain fulfillment of long-term predictions scientists have been pleading with us to understand for over a century. It keeps me up at night, this fact that there’s a threat so large, so existential, and so connected to our collective action as a species.

It’s not the end of the world as we know it—not yet, anyway—but if the story of modern humans was a work of narrative fiction, we’d be at the end of the second act. Depending on whom you ask, there’s either narrowly enough time to pull of a miraculous stunt that will yank us back from the brink of destruction, or it’s already too late.

Personally, I believe both are true, but I have to disclose that my conviction is based on an incomplete understanding of the data. In Saving Us — A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe reveals that the deleterious effects of human-caused climate change are not so inevitable as we once thought. While we might have thought of climate change in the 1990s as a runaway train with no way to stop it, now we have a clearer understanding that we humans are in the driver’s seat with our foot on the gas and our hand on the wheel. (Apologies for mixing metaphors, but I don’t know the vernacular to describe how engineers steer or propel trains.)

According to Hayhoe, citing John Holden, former senior science advisor to President Obama, we have three options: “We can reduce the heat-trapping gas emissions that are causing climate to change; we can build resilience and prepare to adapt to the changes that we can’t avoid; or we can suffer.”

I don’t think it’s either/or; I think it’s both/and. In fact, the situation reminds me most of that which Hari Seldon described in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation:

The dark ages to come will endure not twelve, but thirty thousand years. A Second Empire will rise, but between it and our civilization will be one thousand generations of suffering humanity. We must fight that.

…I do not say now that we can prevent the fall. But it is not yet too late to shorten the interregnum which will follow. It is possible, gentlemen, to reduce the duration of anarchy to a single millennium, if my group is allowed to act now. We are at a delicate moment in history.

Isaac Asimov, “Foundation”

Seldon—Asimov—was heavily influenced by the fall of the Western Roman Empire, therefore he was likely speaking about social and political systems, but I see a clear analogue to the very real crisis of our species and this Anthropocene Era. If we do not change our course of action, the planet will continue to warm, and a cascading series of failures will make it all but inhabitable for millions of us. If we do manage to reduce the heat-trapping gas emissions and build resilience to adapt to the changes we can’t avoid, we’ve still done enough damage already that it’s unlikely we’ll avoid an extinction level event.

This was concerning enough before I became a parent, which is, incidentally, one of the most damaging things you can do to Earth’s climate. Still, there is hope.

Data from Wynes, Seth, and Kimberly A Nicholas. 2017. “The Climate Mitigation Gap: Education and Government Recommendations Miss the Most Effective Individual Actions.” Environmental Research Letters 12(7).  DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/aa7541. Image credit: Catrin Jakobsson. 

A Detour Into Parenthood

In the middle of 2018, I quit my day job because I was burned out trying to work full-time while battling Major Depressive Disorder and General Anxiety Disorder. At the time, I was trying to finish rewriting a novel that was an obsession of mine for nearly ten years, and I thought if I just stopped doing anything else, I could get it out of my system and move on with my life. Instead, my wife and I became pregnant in January, 2019.

Since we had just finished burning through our savings on my creative pursuits, I had to resume work immediately, and there was no way I was going to return to customer-facing technical support, where I had spent the past ten years of my employment. That meant starting from scratch with a temp agency.

My son was born in August, 2019, and when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down offices and childcare centers across the world the following March, the math made it really easy for my wife and me to decide that I would stay home with him while she continued to work as an essential worker.

In a delightful inversion of the patriarchal norm, I did the shopping, the cooking, and the cleaning while looking after our son and working to finish renovating the 20th Century Craftsman house we moved into shortly after his birth. Having just moved, having left my job, and having no public gathering places to meet people in light of the pandemic, Corvid became the person with whom I spent the majority of my time, and I spent a lot of it ruminating about his future.

For instance, in September, 2020, 1,000,000 acres of Oregon was on fire, covering our home in Portland with smoke so thick it set new records for poor air quality. In other parts of Oregon, the AQI exceeded 500, which was the maximum measured by the scale at that time. The upper threshold has since been raised to 1,000.

My wife and I had plenty of N95 masks thanks to the pandemic, but we had nothing that would fit our infant son. Our house, with its century-old double-hung wooden windows, offered no protection against the microscopic particles of smoke flooding our air, so we had no choice but to hunker down in our basement and hope the fans would keep it out of his still-developing lungs.

I tried to make it fun for him, tried not to alarm him with my own sense of unease and anxiety, but I had to wonder if this was not a preview of his future—checking the forecast to know when to wear an N95 or just a surgical mask, hunkering down in the basement, unable to see the sky for the smoke encroaching on his doorstep.

Then, in December, 2021, it snowed enough that it was possible to make a snowman. I got our son layered up for a walk to a nearby park, relieved that he would have a day to play in the snow that was past the threshold of his longterm memory. It’s only snowed twice since then—once in early 2022 and once in early 2023—and on hot days he asks me, “Daddy, when is it going to snow again?”

I can only tell him, “I hope it does snow again.” I think again about his future, about how snow may become only a distant, foggy memory for him, rather than an experience he can share with his own children.

—If he even has children. If he even makes it to adulthood.

I was struggling with depressive thoughts and suicide ideation as a teenager, and I only had the usual challenges of adolescence to deal with. My girlfriend broke up with me, I was struggling in school, and I felt like I didn’t have any kind of future to look forward to—the usual teenage bullshit—but my son and his peers will grow up in a world where, even if humanity course-corrects on these issues of climate change, the positive effects of those efforts will likely take a century or more to be fully realized.

Even if we fix it, the next two generations will have to live with the worst effects of climate change on top of the already tumultuous experience of simply growing up. I have to imagine that Depression and Anxiety will become even greater issues than they already are, and the resulting instances of suicide will have a cumulative effect. It’s going to be hard to go on living when people around you are taking their own lives and everyone knows it’s only going to get worse in their lifetime before it has any chance of getting better for the next generation.

For now, he’s still a child, and I aim to do my best to raise him with as much resilience, optimism, and activism as I can instill in him—but still, there will come a time when he’s old enough, mature enough, and informed enough to turn to me and say, “Dad, what are you doing about all this?”

Returning to Work

In one year—September, 2024—my son will be old enough to start going to kindergarten, and I will, once again, have about forty hours each week to do with what I will. I could get an entry-level job somewhere and start working my way up again, I could go back to school for an advanced degree that would better enable me to do more meaningful work in a discipline I care about, I could double down on my aspirations as a writer, or I could curl into a ball and cry about how we’re all doomed.

“Only two choices here,” Roland whispers. “Don’t know how it is in your world, but only two choices here. Stand and maybe live, or die on your knees with your head down and the stink of your own armpits in your nose. Nothing…” He hacks out a cough. “Nothing to me.”

Stephen King, “The Drawing of the Three”

I am petrified by the decision that lies before me, of how to make the most impact with the little time I have to leave the world better than I found it, especially given that a “better world” is a nearly impossible goal in the thirty or forty years I have left. However, I refuse to die on my knees with my head down and the stink of my own armpits in my nose. At this early stage of my inquiry, I see a few meaningful paths forward.

Get a Job

The simplest and most straightforward course of action is to return to the job I held back in 2018—working with the general public to help them get the most out of their computing devices. I had a firm belief in the butterfly effect, that my proficiency with computers could remove the obstacles other people experience when trying to use them, and that those people would be better empowered to make the world a better place via my effort. Building capital for my family would mean we’d have a better chance of taking care of our material needs in the short-term, i.e. our meagre lifespans, and enabling our son to have the best options to pursue whatever work he finds meaningful.

Having a job is also a straightforward way to establish communal ties, and Hayhoe says that “The most important thing every single one of us can do about climate change is talk about it—why it matters, and how we can fix it—and use our voices to advocate for change within our spheres of influence.” So long as I’m sitting at home typing on a keyboard instead of engaging with people about the problems that face us and the solutions we can implement to solve them, I’m not part of the solution. As long as I remain nothing more than a parent, I’m more a part of the problem than anything.

Go to School

While I’m already qualified for retail technical support and customer service, I know I could do more good with more education in a relevant field of study. I believe there are plenty of climate scientists already hard at work understanding the problem space and developing solutions to implement, so I would want to direct my efforts elsewhere, either toward direct action fighting climate change or to preserving what I feel are the important parts of our human experience.

The Optimist’s Path

Optimistically, it’s not too late to reverse the deleterious effects of climate change and bring down our global average temperature below the extinction-level threshold toward which we are currently hurtling. Solutions exist, all we have to do is implement them. If I were to pursue further education along the path of optimism, I would likely want to study environmental sociology. Since climate scientists have already identified the means by which we might reduce global warming, it seems to me the challenge is getting the decision-makers and general public to get on board with them, and that would be supremely meaningful work.

The Pessimist’s Path

There’s also a chance that, although solutions do indeed exist, our collective heart is too hardened to effect meaningful change in the narrow window within which we still have time to act. According to the Seldon theory, there’s no way around the coming millennia of darkness and gloom—but we can lessen its duration and mitigate its harm by preserving the tiny facets we have discovered of what there is to know. Like Seldon himself, I’m drawn to library, information, and archival sciences. If I were to pursue further education along the path of pessimism, I would want to study how to preserve the intellectual and technological achievements of humanity for the benefit of future intelligent life, whatever form that may take. There are even valuable courses of study for archivists in biology, building seed banks for future agriculture and databases of DNA sequences for future biodiversity. If this is the end of our species, then future intelligent life may benefit from our body of work, and it need not perish with us.

The huge, onrushing mass of events must be deflected just a little, just a little—It cannot be much, but it may be enough to remove twenty-nine thousand years of misery from human history.

Q. How do you propose to do this?

A. By saving the knowledge of the race. The sum of human knowing is beyond any one man; any thousand men. With the destruction of our social fabric, science will be broken into a million pieces. Individuals will know much of exceedingly tiny facets of what there is to know. They will be helpless and useless by themselves. The bits of lore, meaningless, will not be passed on. They will be lost through the generations.

But, if we now prepare a giant summary of all knowledge, it will never be lost. Coming generations will build on it, and will not have to rediscover it for themselves. One millennium will do the work of thirty thousand.

Isaac Asimov, “Foundation”

Along a similar line, I believe there is a lot of meaning and value to be found in our collective artistic expression, specifically in literature. My undergraduate background is as much in comparative literature as it is in the history of mathematics and sciences, and I feel qualified to declare that our stories have had as much of an impact (if not more) on the development of our species as our technical achievements. An alternative pessimist’s path would be to study creative writing with a focus on telling stories to comfort the generations who must endure the coming hardship and communicate our values to the intelligent beings of the future who may be receptive to our collective wisdom.


I feel like I was almost getting into the swing of being a Real Writer™ before becoming a parent, and it may not require any special training or further education to continue along that path. Despite being a parent, I wrote Morning Pages for a thousand consecutive days, and I may be able to put my words to better use than simply rambling to myself about the ephemeral minutiae of my day-to-day life. Over the past several years, I have drafted a couple novels and several short stories, and I’m trying to learn how to write personal essays by means of this weblog. With dedicated, focused time to read and write, I may find that I have a lot to offer simply by means of my voice, and I can leave more rigid pursuits to people with more motivation to pursue them.

Writing is almost always a leap of faith—I never feel the value of whatever I’m writing in the moment so much as when I read it months or years later, and it’s almost impossible for me to tell in advance what I’m going to find meaningful after so much time has passed. I write in the hopes that my future self (or someone else) may find value in it, whether that’s immediately, decades from now, or long after I’m dead.

A Strategic Plan of Action

As I mentioned, my son won’t be starting kindergarten for another year, so I don’t have to decide anything now—but neither do I think it’s a good idea to wait a year to figure out what I’m going to do next. Therefore, I have determined to spend this next year aggressively pursuing my interests and my options, adding to the list above as needed, with the goal of deciding what to do with the next phase of my life by the first day of school, when my son will be starting his next phase. The deadline is Thursday, September 5th, 2024—one year from the publication of this post.

Over the course of this next year, I will be reading broadly, seeking insight from industry professionals, and volunteering my time where I can, all in the interest of narrowing down my scope of focus. I’ve been a generalist all my life, but that’s not going to help overcome the challenges of the future. Throughout this process, I will be posting prolifically to this weblog as a means of thinking through the process out loud, although I doubt many of the posts will reach such a lengthy wordcount as this has.

In Everything is Obvious Once You Know the AnswerDuncan J. Watts concludes that the main cause of strategic failure in any endeavor is rarely bad strategy, but instead great strategy that happens to be wrong. External circumstances beyond our control and our understanding lay waste to the best-laid plans (no plan survives first contact with the enemy,) so I don’t want to waste a lot of time designing a beautiful strategy only to see it slain by an ugly fact. Instead, Watts advocates curating several detailed speculative narratives of “future history” (informed by sound data,) then formulating a portfolio of strategies that are each optimized for their given scenarios.

Armed with such a portfolio, the task will then become to identify the core elements that are common to many of those possible futures and the contingent elements that are present only in a few. Rather than foolishly trying to account for all the possible futures and acting on them, it may be better to try a bunch of things in the short term and abandon what fails to gain traction while reinvesting in what does—essentially crowd-sourcing the challenge of managing strategic uncertainty.

This weblog will serve as a chronicle of that process.

I Need Your Help

As a younger man, I would have believed there was no one whose judgment I would trust more than my own, but I am no longer so arrogant. Aggregating the opinions of a bunch of individuals yields results that are comparably accurate to statistical models based on historical data, at least when it comes to making predictions. In fact, these aggregates often rival subject-matter experts’ predictions about the same topics.

Therefore, I’m asking for your help. If you’ve read this far, you must have found something interesting about my course of inquiry, or you simply share my concern for our planet and the fate of our species. I want to do good—to do the best I can—and with your help, I am confident I can find a purposeful, meaningful pursuit in which to engage my efforts.

Please consider everything you read here open for discussion, up for debate, and welcoming of your input. I’ll be writing about my interests, sharing my insights, and seeking your unique perspective on what seems important, what seems relevant, and what I seem to have a particular knack for.

In return, I will be sharing my interpretations of primary and secondary sources, new tools and skills that help me in the process of finding meaning, and original compositions that I hope will at least commiserate, if not inspire.

Even if we hardly know each other, I want you to know that I value your insight, thank you for reading, and ask you for your opinion:

What should I do that you predict would do the most good?

About the author

Ian Hayes

Former technical support and customer service professional, now freelance writer and entrepreneur writing Horror, Narrative Nonfiction, and Literary/Speculative Fiction.

Also backpacker, rock climber, casual biker, woodworker and armchair philosopher.

Currently living in Portland, Oregon, but also from New York, Alabama, New Mexico, Virginia, Georgia, Connecticut and Tennessee.

By Ian Hayes
Speculation, Inquiry, and a Quest for Purpose