Desire Is Our Superpower. Use It!
First we fancy Brian Eno – then we save the world
Solana Joy explains why desire is the real energy we need to harness to transform our lives and planet, via a tale of synths, snogging, sci-fi – and the extraordinary influence of Brian Eno
Really what artists have to do now is keep reminding us that the way we’ll save the world is by falling in love with it again.Brian Eno
One particularly rainy day, while said good husband was away teaching at a retreat, I sat down to work on my impossible project. It occurred to me that I might base a character on the person who’d created this music I loved so much. Then I realized I wouldn’t know how to, since I knew virtually nothing about him beyond an armful of albums various dudes had foist upon me over the years. But then I remembered; that was what YouTube was for.
The one thing I was somewhat aware of going into YouTube was that this Eno fellow was meant to be something of an egghead. That’s the thing about him that all the guys (and it was always guys) I’d heard speak of him seemed to respect him for. His interviews quickly confirmed an intense intelligence. But also, a sense of humor. He laughed a lot, and when he did, his smile was gorgeous, and his blue eyes lit up with mesmerizing warmth…
No. He wasn’t just warm. He was hot.
My mind struggled to process three revelations, arriving in swift succession:
Brian Eno is really sexy. How did I not know this?!
… I desperately want to snog his beautiful face.
… I guess that’s what my book is about now. Goddamn it.
But again, even though it was now about that, it couldn’t be just about that. I wanted it to be about our world, and its weather, and the astonishing pleasure of being a part of it. That was the book I had been trying to write. Partly because of the lyrics and song titles of Another Green World, which are about clouds and thunder, islands and volcanoes, reptiles and fishes, trees and beaches, and ships and sailors. And because of my own love of the natural world, as someone who grew up in a rainforest, and remains a woodland creature at heart.
So I spent a lot of time eagerly seeking out Brian Eno interviews, and doggedly researching all the other subjects I needed to move my book forward. Avoiding science (and the dire grades associated with it) had been one of the guiding principles of all my years in formal education. But now, my desire to make out with Brian Eno was such that, even through the darkest months of the pandemic, bleary-eyed from breastfeeding through the night and rising well before dawn with my son, I sat down every afternoon I could, and made myself study things I had little or no working knowledge of, from the shape of Earth’s magnetopause to the nutritional needs of butterflies.
Absolutely no one else cared if I showed up to my work; if anything, my family would have been happy if I didn’t. And no one was paying me a dime for my efforts. I could have done any number of other things with my time. And it’s quite likely I should have. But I didn’t. I scrambled for every hour I could get for this task, and neglected many others. Because I wanted to write this book more than anything in the world. For my own sake, of course… But also, let’s be real; because I wanted to make out with Brian Eno.
I showed drafts to my husband, no longer humiliated by his notes, but craving them; my need for this book to not be crap had at last become greater than any weapon in my ego’s brutal arsenal of resistance. Through generous feedback and sheer grinding repetition, the drafts got smoother, and longer, until finally, I had actually written a novel. Something I had intended to do since I was about nine years old, but had never had the nerve or resolve or skill to tackle fully. Until now. Because of a pandemic that made it impossible to go on any adventure other than the one in my head. Because of a husband who helped guide me. And because of the unrelenting and frankly pain in the arse desire to make out with Brian Eno.
While I was writing the book, I tried to keep the extent to which wanting to make out with Brian Eno motivated me on the DL. And when I started sending the book out to agents, I decided not to tell them, “This is a book about wanting to make out with Brian Eno.” I say instead that it is a book about “human desire, and its role in the evolution of our universe.” Which is true.
But obviously now I am talking about this desire openly and straight-on. Because it is the best way I know to clarify a point I want to make. About desire. And art. And the future.
In my years of absorbing Eno interviews, I’ve heard him say many times that our capacity for imagination is what defines us as a species. But that isn’t exactly right. Yes, our imaginations are profound, and seemingly boundless. But it is our desire that fuels and directs that imagination. Left to our imaginations, we’d just float aimlessly through daydreams, and not be much bothered about doing anything in particular with them. It’s our desire that locks in on one specific thing and says, This! THIS is what I want, and I will focus my imagination on it until I figure out what to do about it.
So it’s not just that we imagine what lies over the next mountain, or across the sea; we have a desire, a need to know, and then we invent a way to get there. Imagination is just the tool of desire. And it is our ability to desire with both tenacity and flexibility that has driven and enabled us to make ourselves at home in every habitat of this planet, and to get started trying to set up shop on Mars. And that is what has set us apart from all other animals, whose instincts program them with strong, but much more finite and fixed sets of desires. As an evolutionary strategy, our way of desiring is undeniably, singularly powerful.
But it’s also a source of profound and perpetual confusion and conflict, in every facet of our domestic and public lives. And it is proving the ruin of every territory we touch. So it’s very much a hazard as well as an asset. And that has perhaps never been more the case than it is at this moment. How does one even begin to get a handle on an overactive sense of desire at this moment in time? When every physical surface and digital platform is plastered with ads for things some unseen entity hopes it can make you desire. When nearly every person on earth can get on a dozen different soapboxes and spout opinions about what they think you ought to be allowed to desire. When everything anyone can possibly think to desire has been commodified a thousand times over, including the very concept of ‘truth’, while the microplastics from our refuse flutter down from the sky in the snow our children catch on their eagerly outstretched tongues.
That is the real crisis we face right now; a crisis of desire. Our desires have been amplified and echo-chambered beyond what civility or ecology can maintain.
Usually, when something in nature generates beyond what its habitat can hold, it results in a culling. And when it comes to some kinds of human desires, this is overdue. The particular incarnation of capitalism we’ve had for the last several decades gets high on convincing people to consume more and more and more stuff. And I mean, hey, who doesn’t like stuff? I like stuff. But I’ve realized that usually, if I get a desire to go shopping, it’s really a secondary desire; a symptom of intolerable frustration at another more sincere desire not being met. Like editors ignoring all of my pitches. Or being too broke to get a break from the chaotic city center I live in. Or not being able to make out with Brian Eno.
It’s no coincidence then that our overconsumption of all things has unfurled alongside an explosion in epidemics of loneliness, anxiety, depression, opioid addiction, self-harm, and deaths of despair. We are being goaded into relentlessly desiring all manner of things that don’t really mean much, while being told to ignore the extent to which we are not meeting our desires for the things that actually mean everything.
And into this context waltz a certain strand of climate activists, god love them, telling the public that actually, they are very naughty for enjoying things like cheese, and fire, and procreation. As though the desires to have and feed and house our families are what are most wrong with the world, and are the facets of our civilization that we should be ashamed of.
This is not a winning approach. And you can see it not winning, all over the world.
If we are animals of incomparable desire, then we should try to focus on utilizing the massive energy of our desire, rather than hoping to brow-beat our species into pretending not to fundamentally crave what we do. Rather than putting the emphasis on sterility and self-denial, we should be selling this ‘green revolution’ as the thing of fertility and flourishing that it absolutely ought to be. We should be honest that this is, one way or another, going to be a time of great changes. But things that are difficult, and even terrifying, can also be the catalyst for great transformation, transcendence, and even joy. Those who would seek to mobilize us all should allow us to be the sorts of creatures who desire compulsively, widely, and sometimes with great flair. We don’t need our desiring spirits crushed, just dialed-in on the things that are genuinely precious and satiating, rather than any old shiny garbage that is waved in front of us.
And who is going to do that? Who is going to show us what our hearts most desire, and how we might pursue it? We can’t look to religions, or governments, or corporations. They can provide us the structure and resources we need to get us where we want to go. But they are always going to do so with the hopes of manipulating us into doing what they desire, because those are the sort of creatures they are. And we can’t look to scientists, because their work obliges them to pretend they can entirely detach from their desires – and even when they do admit to having them, they tend to communicate them in ways that make people feel drowsy rather than roused.
There is only one group of people whose whole business in life is desire. And those are artists. Yes, I’m sorry, I know it’s a terrifying thought, but I’m afraid it’s true; artists are the ones who are going to have to step up and steer this thing.
Now I have known a lot of arty fuckers over the years, and now that I am a Writer Of Books, I might even count as one of them. And I will be the first to admit that they (we?) are lunatics. Not to much greater extent than anyone else; all humans are mad, because we are trying to juggle so many conflicting desires, in every minute of every day. The difference is that artists worth their salt make it their job to try to wrestle with, fuck, and devour those desires, and make something beautiful or useful from the remains. To capture the ecstasy and absurdity of trying to be both mind and flesh, pulsating and pulled in every direction at once with desire. I say ‘job’… it’s not like most of us even get paid for our work. We do it because we have the desire to do so, and it is simply much, much more painful to resist that desire than to follow it.
I know what you’re thinking; if art was going to fix this problem, this epic entanglement of human desire and global ecology, wouldn’t it have done so by now? REM were doing songs about pollution like thirty years ago, at the same time The Smiths were informing us that meat is murder. What more do people want?!
To which I would answer; such efforts up to this point have made a difference. They have changed thoughts and behaviors in people’s day-to-day lives the world over. They really have. But it hasn’t been enough. Not nearly. Not given the scale of what we’re dealing with. And also, again, activism/art that is simply against a thing doesn’t do the job; the psychology is all wrong. Having spent the pandemic with a toddler, I can tell you; if you try to nag them into doing anything, like simply getting dressed, it’s next to impossible. If, on the other hand, you remind them that there are binmen and trams and dogs outside, there’s a strong chance they will fly into their clothes. Our desires change as we age, of course, and we learn to tolerate doing some of the things we don’t want to. But this remains true for all ages; if you want something done with speed and enthusiasm, you have to spark an active desire for something in a person’s heart.
Which is why it isn’t enough to give out about air pollution to get people out of their cars; you have to find a way to make cycling sexy. And why it isn’t enough to rattle off all the objectively vile stats about factory farmed meat to get people to give it up; you have to make vegetables mouthwatering. And you can do these things, absolutely. But it takes persistence to find the right words and notes and colors and textures and flavors. And it takes time. Time to grow up, and learn how to cope with all these desires, and which ones to prioritize, and how to defend them from the desires others impose upon you. It’s overwhelming. For a person, for a democracy, and for a species.
My desire to make out with Brian Eno had the advantage of being strong, clear, and simple. And that made it actionable. I mean, not directly; all this work has not culminated in actually making out with Brian Eno. But I was able to hold onto the desire, and convert it, and utilize it. It gave me focus, and fortitude, which enabled me to do more than I believed I was capable of. And I’ve become a more well-rounded, more widely-read, more skillful, and more confident person in the process. And I believe this kind of transformation can be transposed to other actors with grander goals. Obviously, Saving The Whole World is a more unwieldy thing to want. But I think that is our task, as Desire Mongers; to find a way to make people want it in a way that is as strong, clear, and simple as the desire to be snogged.
The wanting it strongly part should be no problem. I mean, we do, don’t we? I can feel it, can’t you?
And if we can feel it strongly, it must be possible to come up with a clear vision of what it is we desire, if we really focus. Possibly, something shining and blue, exquisite and gladdening as an unpolluted morning sky, or our amazing planet seen from space, or Brian Eno’s eyes…
Sorry. I’m back.
And then I guess the trick is to find a way to communicate that desire most simply. That’s probably the hardest part, to focus on just one element of the entire shit-show before us. How about… breathing? Hard to think of any simpler or more pressing desire than to breathe. Impossible to go about singing or snogging or cycling without noticing our breath. Hard to think of any changes that would improve the world’s air quality that wouldn’t also hugely benefit our ecosystems, and our cities, and our children’s organ development. Buddhism built one of the most prolific and enduring philosophies on Earth around simply paying attention to how we breathe; could we not also build a formidable movement around simply desiring breathable air?
That’s just one idea. It has the strong, clear, and simple thing going for it. How to make that desire into art though? You could imagine a world where AQI was the dominant metric, rather than GDP. What would the art of such a world be like? What would the people of such a time, with their hearty pink lungs, sing of? What would their guiding myths be? What would they wear? How would they move around?
But maybe breathing is too specific an entry point to this particular exercise. Maybe we need to back up. Maybe it has to start somewhere utterly personal. When you think of a future where we don’t get our shit together, what is the one thing that breaks your heart the most? Now, what does the opposite of that feel like? When you think of a future where we do sort ourselves out, what most makes your heart leap up and rejoice?
What comes to mind for me is not unlike where I grew up. It smells of petrichor, and sap, and a trace of smoke. It is almost entirely green, except for magenta shafts of fireweed, giving a friendly wave as bees bumble about their blossoms. It sounds like wind and children off playing in the leaves. It tastes like rain dripping down my face, and the wild berries that the birds and bears and I all hunger after. It feels like knees and palms damp from kneeling down on the mossy ground, trying to take it all in. It feels restful, and simultaneously, fully pulsating with life. And I feel the same. Which I am, because I am of it, and in it, and in love.
That is the dream of home I carry in my heart, that reminds me how little else matters, and how much I could forsake with gleeful ease, and how hard I could work, if it might bring about the unequivocal goodness of my son inheriting such a land as I once knew; another green world, you might call it.
What is the new green world that you most desire? Sing, stitch, splatter, or spell it out. Capture our attention, and make us catch our breath. Make us want it, too. With our skin and mouths and limbs, as well as our minds. With all our hearts. Do it now. And don’t stop. Please.
This is the energy revolution that will save us, if any will. Right here, just waiting to be tapped.
What’s so good about this?
If we want to bring about positive and lasting changes for ourselves and for the planet, we have to be clear about what it is we truly, actively desire. Luckily, desiring is the great human superpower. And we can use it to respond to climate change with an emphasis on pleasure rather than penance.
Support Brian Eno’s charity to help the music industry support the climate emergency: earthpercent.org
Meet the writer
Solana Joy was raised in Alaska, has wondered widely since, and now finds herself raising her son in Berlin. Her head is an amusing mess of music, mountains, mushrooms, menstrual cycles, maternity, mythology, and a masters in global politics. She has written one novel, and dreams of having the time to finish the others she’s begun. Mainly she writes nonfiction instead, on a range of topics including health, art, animal welfare, hiking, motherhood, and psilocybin. You can find her on Substack and Instagram.