A Manifesto for the World as One Finds It

We’re on winter break until January 6. In the meantime, please enjoy our contributor’s take on one of 2019’s most acclaimed books. This article was originally published on October 7, 2019.
Animals have been disappearing for the past two centuries: first from our everyday lives, in the era of urbanization and industrialization, and then, as the sixth ...

Animals have been disappearing for the past two centuries: first from our everyday lives, in the era of urbanization and industrialization, and then, as the sixth mass extinction picked up speed, from the planet itself. But images of animals have proliferated. In the 20th century, for example, what we might call the “Disney era” of capitalism reduced animals to puppets, toys, and movie characters. In his 1977 essay “Why Look at Animals?,” John Berger notes that “the reproduction of animals in images” races on, even as “their biological reproduction in birth becomes a rarer and rarer sight.”

We might now discern a similar irony about the “Silicon Valley era” of capitalism. Today, as vulnerable species and habitats disappear in the actual world, their names and images are trademarked and multiplied by tech companies. The word “Amazon” no longer immediately signifies the Amazon River basin, now more precarious than ever under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s “business-friendly” regime. Instead, it refers first and foremost to Jeff Bezos’s multinational corporation. (Remember when Amazon.com had a river in its logo?)

“Twitter” and “tweet,” likewise, no longer echo the calls of songbirds like the bank swallow—a real-world bird that used to thrive in the Bay Area, before its rivers were dammed and its marshes drained for development. Meanwhile, Washington State–based tech giant Microsoft uses an abstracted butterfly as the logo for its internet portal MSN, while actual butterflies of the region, like the Taylor’s checkerspot, are endangered by habitat loss due to human development.

For those dispirited by these observations, there is artist-writer Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing. “A field guide to doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy,” the book argues for environmentalist practices of attention as an alternative to the world of the internet. Odell, like other digital media critics (including Sherry Turkle, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and Zeynep Tufekci), is worried about what the for-profit internet is doing to our psyches, our communities, and our sense of the good life. The “attention economy” she describes runs on clicks, posts, and fear. It converts our leisure time into yet more work—cultivating our personal brands, for instance, or responding to emails and notifications at all hours.

Odell, like others, suggests that we stop giving our attention to the infinitely refreshable feeds of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. These feeds turn our attention into a commodity; they also present information, whether gossip or fearmongering or advertisements, removed from the context that would allow us to make sense of them. What sets How to Do Nothing apart from other treatises on the soul-sucking side of the internet, though, is the alternative Odell prescribes. She recommends that we turn, instead, to the physical place we are in—and, specifically, to that place’s natural and cultural history. Letting go of the need to “do something” is an act of resistance, especially if we do so where we spend our lives.

What looks like doing nothing—like unproductive or unprofitable stillness—is actually some of the most urgent work of all.

Odell lives in the Bay Area, so where she is takes the form of the night herons at her neighborhood KFC, the public Rose Garden, and the Calabazas Creek near her childhood home in Cupertino. Paying attention to these roots her in her local ecology. These are things and spaces that could be seen to “do nothing.” Yet they live and support life. They are not monetizable; they just are.

The book demonstrates an alternative ethic of living—based on attaching oneself to local places and people, and to noticing the ecological background of daily life—by presenting an eclectic set of do-nothing heroes. These include the workers who maintain the Rose Garden; Pauline Oliveros, the composer who developed the practice of deep listening; Diogenes, the Cynic who rejected Athenian society from a tub in the middle of the street; the longshoremen who led a general strike in 1930s San Francisco; Masanobu Fukuoka, the inventor of do-nothing farming; and Old Survivor, the old-growth redwood in Oakland that avoided logging by being too small and too awkwardly positioned to be worth cutting down. All of these, according to Odell, demonstrate this ethic of “doing nothing.”

Against a tech-libertarian dogma of disruption, unfettered growth, and speed, Odell patches together a story with different commitments. She celebrates those who practice the slower arts of maintaining, listening, refusing, striking, watching, and staying in place. What looks like doing nothing—like unproductive or unprofitable stillness—is actually some of the most urgent work of all.

Environmentalist thinking hasn’t, up to this point, had much to say to digital media studies (or vice versa). The exception to this rule is a small group of researchers and journalists from both disciplines who have drawn attention to the material, labor, and afterlives of digital electronics. They have exposed, for example, the carbon footprint of a smartphone, the toxic mines that source raw materials for our devices’ batteries, and the hazards of electronic waste. And scholar Amanda Starling Gould has called for a digital environmental media studies, which would recognize the physical infrastructure and environmental costs of a digital world that seems ethereal to most of its users.

Odell yokes together digital media and environmentalism in a different way. How to Do Nothing is less interested in the material environmental conditions of the digital economy—cobalt mines, e-waste dumps, CO2-spewing bitcoin farms—than in how commercial social media has ravaged personal and social landscapes. Odell’s book bets that a more deliberate practice of paying attention might help repair those damaged sites.

How to Do Nothing argues that the connection between the digital and the ecological takes many forms. One of these is analogy. Odell warns us of the danger of not only “biological desertification but cultural desertification,” comparing the attention economy to a “monoculture” farm with only a single crop. Meanwhile, digital and cultural phenomena “like the American obsession with individualism, customized filter bubbles, and personal branding” ignore the fact that individual humans are all interdependent on one another; they thus do “the same violence to human society as a dam does to a watershed.” My personal favorite of these metaphors: under the doctrine of productivity optimization, “one might say the parks and libraries of the self are always about to be turned into condos.”

And part of the connection between the digital and the ecological is comparative. If Facebook, Yelp, and Google train us in one kind of attention, then surely trees and birds and neighborhoods train us in another. Odell contrasts the fast-paced accumulation of out-of-context stories on her Twitter feed—hard news! Celebrity gossip! Personal anecdote! Advertisement!—with the ecological connectedness that she slowly begins to recognize while watching birds. “At some point,” she writes, “the impossibility of paying attention to the discrete category ‘birds’ became apparent. There were simply too many relationships determining what I was seeing—verb conjugations instead of nouns. Birds, trees, bugs, and everything else were impossible to extricate from one another not only physically but conceptually.”

I don’t think Odell’s environmental politics is reactionary; in fact, it’s steeped in social justice, indigenous knowledge, and anti-capitalist energy. She has read and learned from Audre Lorde, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Barbara Ehrenreich, to name just three of the thinkers discussed in this generously cited book. But her environmentalism is, in its way, old-fashioned. Her touchstones are bioregionalism, an ethos of local ecological cultures that dates back to the 1970s; Henry David Thoreau, that lodestar of first-wave back-to-the-land environmentalism; and bird watching, which becomes the paradigmatic example of “doing nothing” in the book. The idea that nature will heal an individual’s wounds from too much civilization is quintessentially Romantic.

This Romanticism informs not just Odell’s writing, but also her art. Indeed, How to Do Nothing might be read as a manifesto for the art not just of found objects, but of the world as one finds it. For The Bureau of Suspended Objects—one of the pieces discussed in the book—she organized two hundred pieces of junk from the dump, creating a scannable archive that viewers could access to learn about the material history of each object (such as “a Nintendo Power Glove, a jumble of bicentennial-edition 7UP cans, a bank ledger from 1906”).

Odell’s work, like that of the artists she admires—John Cage’s musical rest 4’33”, Eleanor Coppola’s Windows (a map of local windows and a date for viewers to go look at them), and Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s “maintenance art” (performance art in which the artist just does ordinary maintenance and care work, like washing floors or taking care of children)—is not about medium-specific craftsmanship. Rather, it is about taking the contemplative curiosity we have been taught to give to museum art, and redirecting it toward the sounds, sights, and activities of everyday life.

Odell seems to believe that art, by training us in different kinds of attention, can change political horizons, even when it lacks overt political content. Our current state of political angst and environmental catastrophe has been engendered by a regime that only values growth, profit, and productivity; that is, it only allows us to think of value within the confines of capitalism. Perhaps art that makes other values thinkable won’t be sufficient to halt the crises, Odell admits. Yet it still might be necessary.

How to Do Nothing articulates its ambitions on the personal, micropolitical scale. It is a book for people who are tired of feeling bad all the time, and who suspect that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube might have something to do with it. Odell writes that at one point she conceptualized her project as “an activist book disguised as a self-help book,” an apt description of a text that tells us the cure for our malaise is more time in nature (even if the diagnosis of our illness is capitalism).

“Do nothing” may be a good maxim for the individual trying to be less sad, burnt-out, and alienated in the 21st century. But can it work on a larger, more collective scale? Odell addresses this question glancingly, in her discussions of the General Strike of 1934 and a recent movement in Berkeley to protect an indigenous burial area from condo development. A strike is, of course, the ceasing of work: the epitome of doing nothing. And stopping, or at least stalling, development is, again, just another way of saying that a community likes things as they are and, therefore, that it is comfortable doing nothing.

These were local and regional battles, but “do nothing” also resonates in the most global of political projects: the effort to combat climate change. For example, “Keep it in the ground!” is the demand animating the anti–fossil fuel movement, one of the most important political movements of our era. It resounds in the Blockadia sites Naomi Klein documents in her book This Changes Everything, where grassroots groups all over the world protest fossil fuel infrastructure in their communities, and it has been a rallying cry in the school climate strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg and September’s global climate strike.

As the Arctic warms and its oil and gas reserves become more accessible, countries including Russia, China, Norway, and the US are undertaking new fossil fuel exploration projects. But unleashing and burning all that carbon would warm the planet far beyond the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement.

Doing nothing with all that energy locked underground is, in some sense, unthinkable—certainly to the leaders of an economic system built on cheap fuel, cheap labor, and endless growth. But the planet’s future capability to support human life and the lives of countless other species—“birds, trees, bugs, and everything else”—may quite literally depend on nothing else.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus and Liz Bowen. icon

Featured image: Untitled. Photograph by Mikael Kristenson / Unsplash