Illustration by Taili Wu

The Age of Avoidance

Is solitude the key to our downfall in the age of the Anthropocene?

I don’t want this to be the thing. I hate feeling guilty about stuff. But the thing is, I’ve run the numbers, and I’m pretty sure this is the thing.

Have you ever done a tarot reading? There’s this card, the Eight of Cups, that shows a caped man slinking away from a tower of chalices. If you pull this card, you are supposed to take stock. “Is there something you’ve been avoiding? The man is leaving in the dead of night,” reads one guide. “There may be a level of escape or avoidance in this card.”

It’s a card that is meant to inspire trepidation, but all it inspires in me is inspiration. I root for the man. Go faster, man! Farther! Bury your face in those lusty hills before anyone can catch you!

I am a recluse at heart. I crave solitude like water. A couple times a year, I turn my back on the bounty of my wife and sons and head for the hills of Virginia, North Carolina, western Michigan where there are no hills. It doesn’t matter where; I just need to swim in the pace of my own thoughts for a little. To unravel. My wife lets me go, I think—even as the strain on her grows exponentially harder as our newborn becomes a teether and our teether a toddler—because I come back better.

Time for the math.

There is this horrible rule of thermodynamics that reduces the whole point of living into greed: organisms need to take in more energy than they exert. Reptiles forgo the expense of warming their blood; bears power down for the winter. Plants use chlorophyll to turn sunshine into sugar.

Our trick is outright theft. To slow the rate at which we lose our energy, humans huddle together. Huddling has been shown to decrease the cost of thermoregulation by up to 60 or 70 percent—meaning, less energy is exerted to stay warm. Every hug, a scientist once told me, “is an economical exchange.” This behavior is called kleptothermy. Heat theft. And it worked. Century after century, we snuggled our way to survival. It’s not glamorous. It smells of feet and swallowed grudges. But it works.

Enter, the Eight of Cups. The first person who struck out in search of solitude. Who turned her back on the chalices of warmth. Because she needed time to unravel.

When we did that, we turned our back on a renewable resource and moved to more destructive means of staunching the flow of heat from our bodies. We skinned bears for their pelts, burned trees, gobbled up squirrels at a newly voracious rate, began drilling into the earth in search of anything, anything, any other way of keeping warm.

I write this under a canopy of eucalyptus and olive trees. A swoop of green with steampunk wings blurs by every now and then. A soft rain falls on the blanket over my legs as I loll away the morning in a rental treehouse outside of LA. I’ve burned an unconscionable amount of money, an unconscionable amount of carbon, to be alone. My brain is florid—it is flourishing? It is aflutter with new thoughts. Nice thoughts. Last night, three owls had my back as I sipped a beer and watched the sunset. They hooted from somewhere behind me as we all watched the dusk swash slowly into dark. Their echoes lobbed around the canyon at a lazy speed. At one point a dog called back. At one point, I grew feathers.

In the beginning, Evolution gifted us with a perpetual-warmth machine that seemed to violate the harsh rules of thermodynamics. We got warm and stayed warm, the energy somehow never draining. It allowed us to live in equilibrium with this place. All it took to keep the perpetual-warmth machine running was for us to return to each other each night, night after night, fight after fight, small disappointment after petty wound, meaning all it took was forgiveness, daily forgiveness.

We broke the world when we decided that we couldn’t do it anymore. That we needed a little space. We broke the world when we first tasted the fine taste of sulking, the peace that comes in being surrounded by organisms who lack the anatomy to judge us.

Hoot hoot.

I can name it and blame it; I can locate the culprit in the numbers, the leak in the system. But I don’t think I can—or will— stop trying to indulge in it.


Orion Summer 2022 issue is generously sponsored by NRDC.


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Lulu Miller is a Peabody Award–winning science journalist, cohost of Radiolab, and cofounder of Invisibilia. She is the author of the nonfiction scientific thriller Why Fish Don’t Exist.