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© Max Moinian

interviews

Pain Is The Price of Consciousness

by Max Moinian
September 17, 2019

This interview with Max Moinian was conducted and condensed by frank news. Max was the co-editor of our May 2018 issue on Urban Planning.

frank: Hi! Tell us about yourself and Future Earth.

Max: I am Max Moinian, I have a Master's in Urban Design from MIT, and Future Earth is a climate change education platform, right now just on Instagram. It’s a newborn baby I had with Steph Shepherd, who is a total social media and marketing genius. We think our combined brains are good parenting. Good information that is enticing and digestible. 

vGaoDnIl

This all happened because mutual friends told us we were both climate change crazy ladies. We met and finished each other’s sentences. She convinced me that more celebrities would engage in environmentalism if the cause was packaged for them. So we tried a rebranding exercise. Make it cool and sexy. Do for the treehugger what Gloria Steinem did for feminism, if you will. But also survey what’s out there and fill in the gaps.

What are the gaps?

Plastics have suddenly become the environmental villain on social media.

I’m not mad at that, plastics are a gateway drug to environmentalism, but let’s take it a step further and talk about petrochemicals and how the same shit making those bottles is in your activewear and household products, and powering your car and house.

Basically what we're doing is trying to visually represent information we're reading, and make it enticing and clear for Instagram. I'll do the heavy lifting and read through the dense reports, make three-step guides, and report back on Instagram. Everything from science lessons, to consumer and lifestyle tips, ways you can get involved, and movies to watch. It’s imperative to me that we reflect on the psychological, personal aspect about learning about climate change. My own journey was so emotional and I found it hard to find a shoulder to lean on and people to have those conversations with.

Facts aren’t everything. Feelings are facts too.

How did you end up focusing on climate issues? 

It's crazy to think that years of Ivy League education, undergrad at Barnard, Master's at MIT, and you know, private school before that – all of it – never touched on the very rudimentary and basic information about climate change that everyone needs to know. It was never presented to us, I read headlines but they never stuck, and somehow I got away with ignoring it all of those years. 

via Max Moinian

Then there I was at MIT – the grand narrative is how do we design and protect cities from the coming environmental perils? So, sea level rise, temperature rise, extreme weather, pollution, deforestation…. All of it from a policy and design standpoint. I focused on design, so, seawalls and engineering systems to address the consequences of global warming. But what about the causes? Why can’t we start there? Why aren’t we talking about it?

In design studios, we were tasked to protect cities by building things.

We had projection data for the year 2100 without fully understanding what's causing sea level rise in the first place.

It really bothered me. I felt like this world of mobilized urban designers and architects are at the end of a line that starts with the science, goes through technology and policy, and leaves us with a very limited, pathetic toolkit. Real innovation doesn’t happen at the end of the line, you know? 

We're still that client-based discipline where you just have to do whatever the client says and not necessarily what you stand for. I busted my ass to get an internship at BIG because I wanted to work on the BIG U. I got disenchanted in three seconds. I remember one night I called my advisor and told him I was morally conflicted.

We were using taxpayer money to protect people, but mostly to protect valuable assets.

To be fair, the opportunities the firm had were completely restricted by policy and bureaucratic nonsense. But I wanted no part in it. He told me I had to make the choice of working within the system to change it, or go full radical. And I guess I’ve been testing the outlaw territory ever since.

Big U Moses Collage

via Max Moinian 

What's the best way to a) begin your personal education in climate change, and b) retain information without feeling constantly overwhelmed and emotionally drained?

I know better than anyone how hard it is to commit time in your life to this topic. I didn’t do it until I had six months to research and write a thesis. I thought, I'm going to devote to learning about climate change now because when else can I do this? I wasn’t worried that climate science had no clear place in urban design. I knew I’d figure out a way to get away with it. 

I spent most of those days making a matcha latte, getting back in bed, and reading a book for the morning. Then writing and drawing in the afternoon. It was a glorious time of ultimate brain activation. I loved being isolated in my little academic bubble. Not everyone can do that, not everyone wants to do that, no one has the time. So here’s a cheat sheet:

Step one: start with the basic facts. How does climate change and what does that mean for the future? But also, how do we get data and make projections? What are the main causes? What are our options? Your resource is the IPCC. Don't listen to what anyone else has to say except the IPCC and climate scientists. And don’t be ashamed if you need a refresh on middle school science. There's a textbook version of IPCC reports for young adults that I reference constantly. 

Step two: a brief history of how climate science has been politicized. Seeing how the proof and solutions have been muzzled by Big Oil and politics is mindblowing.

It showed me that we are not as dependent on the systems we rely on today as we may think.

It also made me hyper-skeptical but in a good way. I love Naomi Oreskes and Naomi Klein, two badass women who write clearly but also have documentaries and interviews you can watch. 

Step three: take care of yourself. It took a few breakdowns for me to admit that I wasn’t invincible and this was seriously heavy shit. It’s emotional, and most people connect emotionally. I've read the facts, I know the projections. But it never registered for me. You know, but at the same time you don’t know.

Because my capacity to imagine what two degrees of warming looks like is low. Because this is the most daunting, helpless topic possible.

This is the equivalent of the atom bomb. This is the environmental narrative of our time, and it's really hard to do anything when you know that the problem is so far beyond your little self, your community, your country. It's the entire world, with no silver-bullet solution, and no end in sight, and that's fucking scary. 

Yes, it really is.

One time, when I was in the depths of knowing too much, like borderline depression, I was sitting with a professor who will probably never know how much she means to me. As I was talking I think she could just tell something was not right, and she put her arm on my shoulder and said, "Honey, you need to read some Rebecca Solnit." So I bought this book Hope in the Dark and I've gone back to it maybe five times already. It was the hug that I needed. I needed to know that there are people that know more than me and they are still fighting. And I needed to see that they had happy normal lives, or at least appeared to.

Another game-changing book is Living In Denial by Kari Norgaard. The psychology of inaction. She says,

"Pain is the price of consciousness. To be conscious in the world today is to be aware of vast suffering and unprecedented peril."

No one wants to feel like that. Everyone has a threshold, a cap to how much of those kind of feelings you can harbor. And we're all maxing out on our personal issues, our family, our life. You know, millennial burnout or whatever.

Who wants to willingly experience that much pain?

Right. 

To exist is painful enough. 

Sometimes I get pissed off watching people go about their day, nonchalant, like parked with the engine running, A/C blasting with the windows down, watching TV on their iPhone. And I feel like this person doesn't care. And I’m almost jealous at how simple life seems to be in their mind, so guilt free and chill. But to Norgaard that's actually really difficult to do: “Apathy is the mask of suffering.” It's really hard to suppress all those existential thoughts and feelings, but because it's so much harder to actually deal with them, we lean towards denial. 

Being hyper-aware is a massive burden. I've never sought out therapy in my life – I just started seeing a psychologist who specializes in climate anxiety.  Being an activist and educator means I’m committing to VIP care for my mental health. Because that is my MVP!

As Solnit says, “Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism.”

FEC Thesis Committee