The Millions

Who Is Unthinkable? On Imbolo Mbue’s ‘How Beautiful We Were’

1.
Fake news has never angered me on a visceral level. I don’t earnestly engage with conspiracists who fret about Satan worshippers or baby-eaters, for instance, and I have always found those who do amusing curiosities. For me, real anger has to imply a degree of sincerity and investment. Viscerally, I worry about how it is possible to possess the right knowledge without following through with the right actions.

It pesters me, for one, that I and every person I know agree with the scientific consensus that we are on track to log a two-degree temperature rise by 2050, which would herald “catastrophic” consequences. But few take this knowledge seriously. I’m not saying such a person doesn’t exist; that person is just weird and extraordinary enough to warrant his own ProPublica profile, and his profile reads more like a description of performance art taken too far than a considered ethical response to crisis. Dumpster diving for leftover food, practicing “humanure,” and driving a biodiesel converted car—the outlandish austerity of these practices make Peter Kalmus an archetypal American eccentric. But that view of him—eccentric!—defangs the righteousness of his undertaking. Kalmus has long ago given up any semblance of a “normal” life, and his wife is at the end of her rope. Who wouldn’t be, with a partner obsessively confronting everyone at every turn in all-caps “NOT TO DESTROY THE FUCKING EARTH?” But maybe this is the kind of reckless abandon of social convention—or, conversely, the assumption of radical personal responsibility—that is demanded of us amidst systemic failure.

The pandemic has intensified my malaise regarding the’s line, “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.” I pat myself on the back for making unhistoric sacrifices for the sake of a greater good. But by the evening, as I drift to sleep, I dwell on how short life is, how it only belongs to me, and how I am therefore accountable only to living my best life for myself.

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