My Very Hot Southern European Summer
Signs of climate adaptation sanity and gratitude for French lessons in college
This is the Substack version of my newsletter also distributed via Puck with minor changes like the photo above!
I’m still on vacation, but I can confirm I will be returning, later than planned yet sooner than desired. After traveling for one month so far, it occurred to me this is the longest continuous amount of time I’ve spent outside the United States in my life. I’ve seen much of the world, but the vast majority of my time abroad has been for brief business and event purposes: a tech conference here, a television shoot there. Traveling for weeks with no real agenda, through countries where the primary language is not English, has been a refreshingly different experience. I won’t share exactly where I’ve been because there’s a non-zero chance that you are a real estate agent intent on buying and flipping these under-the-radar towns and villages. But I will share that my wife and I have been exploring Spain’s Costa Brava region, as well as Southern France, and that I’m drafting this letter from a centuries-old tower in the Puglia region of Italy. If you’re mildly resourceful, you can figure out the specifics—or just respond to this email and ask.
I’m not the first traveler to observe this, but stepping outside of the familiar, daily stream of demands on your attention provides remarkable mental clarity. And what it’s allowed me to see are bustling markets, lively squares, and pristine beaches filled by people of all generations not consumed by their cell phones or by fear of mass shooters. I’ve driven hundreds of miles along the way, most of them in some stage of a roundabout: either entering, exiting, or preparing for the next one. I’ve happily adopted a rigid meal schedule—because everything here tastes so damn good because the food is actually food and not the latest iteration of a profit-maximizing science experiment. And I’ve received the highest honor a non-French person can receive, which is not a distinction by the Légion d'Honneur, but rather the simple compliment, by multiple residents of various French villages, that I speak their language perfectly. (Thanks to Blanca, my French instructor at Harvard in 1995 and 1996!) Throughout these various transnational experiences, one other thing has been an inescapable constant: the heat. It comes as no surprise. We broke the planet, and now we’re feeling heat records break, one after another.
The latest report from The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change demonstrates what’s in store for us and how we got here to begin with. Simply put, it’s terrifying. (For a visual representation of the report, check out this infographic.) What’s more, there’s no guarantee that the incontrovertible fact of rising temperatures will be met by a single, unified response by the world. (If only!) Instead, how people respond will depend on their histories, their cultures, and their associated worldviews. What I’ve witnessed in Europe this past month has shown me how their response may differ from ours in the U.S.—and has given me some ideas about what more we can all do.
A New Vision of Climate Action
I’ve grown accustomed to air conditioning. If you have resources in the U.S., you crank up the A.C. and deny the reality of hot weather, whether you’re in your car, home, or place of business. But I’ve found that air conditioning is approached differently in Europe. They don’t recreate the conditions of a walk-in freezer inside their homes the way many of us do. The other night, in an effort to augment the weak air conditioning in our room, we asked the innkeeper for a fan. I don’t think anyone has ever done that here. When we plugged it in—I kid you not—we killed the power to the entire hotel. Thankfully, they simply reset a circuit in the morning, but it meant sleeping with no fan and no A.C. To my surprise, we slept fine.
As a substitute for the reality-denying artifice of air conditioning, the people and places we’ve visited have tamed heat in other ways: by cleverly sealing every door and window in the afternoon; making brilliant use of cross breezes; walking on the shady side of the street; dipping in the sea; eating ice cream daily; and by pausing all business, and indeed any form of kinetic activity, between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. In other words, Europeans are responding to the collective challenge of climate change through conservation and sacrifice. Governments have mandated minimum cooling and maximum heat settings, prohibited illuminated outdoor advertising at night, and will fine companies for blasting the A.C. when their doors are open. Government buildings in Germany won’t even run hot water for half the year, and France has appointed a minister for ecological transition!
I’ve shared reports of the climate-cooling centers in Barcelona, but what I saw on the ground in that city goes much further. Banners around the city pointed to this website inviting residents to participate in discussion and debate about how to build an economy that also makes the city more climate resilient. At a dinner party with expats, we learned about a local school that’s installing solar panels and planning to offer its excess energy to the surrounding neighborhood. Those same expats framed the political differences between Europe and the U.S. like this: in Europe, even the right-wing parties are interested in thinking about the temperature, and political debate is over what to set the thermometer to; in the U.S., the right wing resists the very idea of knowing the temperature.
My extended break from the U.S. also got me thinking about the word “freedom”—a word that Americans have largely monopolized, but which means different things to different people around the world. There’s the freedom we associate with individual rights: my freedom to do what I want with my property, for example, or my freedom to bear arms. But there’s another variety of freedom, one that isn’t bound by human laws or edicts: the social freedom to coexist with others in peace; the economic freedom to spend time on activities other than work; the emotional freedom to gather in a square without worrying about an active shooter.
Europe certainly isn’t heaven. There’s a long, violent history here of wars, colonization and racialized resource extraction. But one thing they seem to have figured out that we in the U.S. could learn from is the balance between collective and individual self-interest. Here, things are weighted more towards the former, and, by and large, people seem to be happier because of it. Experiencing such a subtle but radical difference has been something to remember—and a reminder that these are choices all of us can make.
Some Personal News
Despite my recent love affair with Southern Europe, I do still have love for America, and you can see that love on display in my PBS series, America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston. Our premiere season has completed its six-episode run, so you can now binge the entire series in the PBS video app or on the PBS website. Also, I’ve been nominated for a Jackson Wild Media Award for my role as host!
This September 21-24, I’ll be hosting Unfinished Live in NYC. This is an immersive live and digital event that, like me, exists at the intersection of technology, art, ideas, and impact. If you don’t think the future should be a foregone conclusion decided by a handful of tech companies hoarding all the things, consider joining.
See you soon!