It's been a while since I wrote here, which is a shame because I've recently realised it's a much more reliable place to unload the battered container of my unfiltered thoughts than my diary, which was recently stolen (for the 3rd time!). So here's some thoughts that have been buzzing around said container (apologies for the terrible imagery) for the past couple of months.
May and June have been very busy months for me in terms of my involvement with XR. There have been several days where I have done essentially no work for my PhD because I was answering messages, writing up newsletters or preparing for actions. I don't regret this for a second. I've learnt a lot and I have a better idea of how I want to spend my time in XR for the next couple of months. I also don't feel burnt out thankfully (burn outs being disturbingly common in XR Belgium), but I am glad that this hectic period is mostly behind me.
During this period, and especially now, as I try to concentrate on my PhD again, I've lost pretty much all the motivation I had for my research and engineering and science more generally. I have a theory for why this is, which I will get to later, but let me take a step back a bit first before I get to it.
For most of my life I enjoyed maths and science. I enjoyed my classes at school and enjoyed reading pop science books about economics, medecine, physics - pretty much everything. I loved the idea of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and that exhilarating feeling of making connections between disparate subjects. A case in point is trigonometry and waves. The link between triangles and geometry, to waves, to complex numbers, to dynamical systems, to Fourrier series, to quantum mechanics, to eigenvectors and values, to music... I found it amazing that such simple functions, sine and cosine, learnt by pretty much everywhere at school, keep popping up everywhere and can explain so many natural phenomena.
I still do find it amazing, though the novelty has worn off a bit given that it's been so long. It's been a while however since knowledge for the sake of it has been able to motivate me. I studied (and still do study) engineering which by its very nature is supposed to be practical, and in the last 8 years I'm less and less interested in technique and knowledge for its own sake.
Thinking back to when I started my PhD, there were a number of aspects that really motivated me. First there was of course the learning about a world that I knew very little of before, that of electric power systems and markets. Secondly, I was delighted to be able to finally work in a field directly related to energy transition, after 4 years of having to sit through fluid mechanics lectures where every other example was oil or gas flowing through a pipe. In retrospect, I think the first aspect was only enjoyable thanks to the second. Finally, back then I was still quite the geek, and I loved learning the ins and outs of Julia and feeling like I had really mastered a programming language. I used to get intense satisfaction from writing good code (which didn't happen that often at the start admittedly, but we're there now).
Joining XR changed all that. It reminded me that what I was doing wasn't useful at all, for a number of reasons. Firstly, there's simply not enough time to deploy the technologies (e.g. storage) that I consider in my models - we've missed 1.5 or even 2 degrees Celsius, and are probably hurtling towards 4 degrees. When I run an adequacy assessment for 2032, I struggle to convince myself that that world will look anything like 2022. I must admit this is a bit of a confused point, but I think it could be rephrased to make more sense.
Secondly, all my research is embedded in a neo-liberal framework, and I'm less and less comfortable with that. I find my colleagues' obsession with economic efficiency besides the point given the stage where we're at, and also detrimental to justice issues (again, I need to refine that point).
Ultimately I'm troubled by the general lack of urgency within my work environment and how this translates into the work that we do. I'm constantly reminded of Cat's Crade by Kurt Vonnegut and feel like we're just technicians solving a problem that's been given to us from above but we're not really trying to solve the clusterfuck of a situation we've found ourselves in. I now think that there's less of a difference between the people I knew in the Chemical Engineering department at Imperial and my engineering colleagues at KU Leuven than I had initally presumed.
Perhaps I'm just making excuses for myself though. I have been getting lazier and lazier since my first year of university and I've been asymptotically converging to the minimum amount of work that I need to do to survive (I'm embarrassed to say how little that is right now). Even if that's the case, and that other people would grit their teeth and just get on with it, that's not really helpful for me. I've realised that I don't need to work myself to death to live comfortably, so what's the point?
My lack of motivation may also be because I'm surrounded by activists. I look up to them and what they do now, instead of to researchers and scientists as I did before. If that is the case, it's still not very helpful. I don't want to go back to a life where I feel like I'm ignoring my conviction that we don't have much time left before complete societal breakdown.
So this is where I stand right now. 9 months of PhD to go, after which I'm looking forward to making music (which has no purpose other than for itself) and doing activism. I'm honestly not sure how this last stretch is going to down, but I suppose only time will tell.
Written on the 26th of June, 2022.