Something about the future defeats our imaginative capacity. “Present self screws over future self,” says Tim Pychyl, a psychologist at Carleton University who studies procrastination. He says that we regard our future self as a stranger, someone onto whose lap we can dump tons of work. On some weird level, we don’t get that it’ll be us doing it.
One of Pychyl’s students recently tried a clever experimental trick to get people to procrastinate less. The student took undergraduates through a guided meditation exercise in which they envisioned themselves at the end of the term—meeting that future self. “Lo and behold,” Pychyl says, those people “developed more empathy for their future self, and that was related to a decrease in procrastination.” They realized that time wasn’t infinite. Future them was no longer a stranger but someone to be protected. To get us off our butts, it seems, we need to grapple with the finite nature of our time on Earth.
This is the black-metal nature of task management: Every single time you write down a task for yourself, you are deciding how to spend a few crucial moments of the most nonrenewable resource you possess: your life. Every to-do list is, ultimately, about death. (“Dost thou love life?” wrote Ben Franklin. “Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.”)
I began to suspect that this is the truly deep, arterial source of some of the emotions around to-do lists. The people who make to-do apps agreed with me. “What is this class of software supposed to do?” asks Patel, the creator of Workflowy, rhetorically. “It’s supposed to answer the question ‘What should I do right now in order to accomplish all of my life goals?’ The most scarce resource many of us have is time.”
Ryder Carroll, the creator of the Bullet Journal paper-based method for organizing your work, puts it in even more starkly existential terms. “Each task is an experience waiting to be born,” he tells me. “When you look at your task list that way, it’s like, this will become your future.” (Or if you want the European literary-philosophical take, here’s Umberto Eco: “We like lists because we don’t want to die.”)
No wonder we get so paralyzed! The stakes with PowerPoint really aren’t that high.
Given that life is composed of time, a whole sector of the task-management philosophical magisteria argues that mere lists will always be inherently terrible. Just as Pychyl showed, we overload ourselves with more than we can accomplish and create Lists of Shame because we are terrible at grasping how little time we actually have. The only solution, this line of thinking goes, is to use an organizational system that is itself composed of time: a calendar.
Instead of putting tasks on a list, you do “time blocking,” putting every task in your calendar as a chunk of work. That way you can immediately see when you’re biting off more than you can chew. Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University and guru of what he calls “deep work,” is probably the staunchest advocate of time blocking. “I think it is pretty undeniable that time blocking, done well, is going to blow the list method out of the water,” Newport tells me. He says it makes you twice as productive as those suckers who rely on lists. Time blocking forces us to wrestle directly with the angel of death. It’s natural that we then screw around less.
Several researchers who study tasks told me they generally agreed that time blocking avoids the problems of to-do apps and lists. One to-do app, Reclaim, actually has an AI that estimates how long each task will take and finds a slot in your calendar. (The secret point is to show you there isn’t much room in there.) “We’ll not only tell you when tasks are overdue, we’ll tell you that tasks are going to be overdue,” says Patrick Lightbody, Reclaim’s cofounder.
The environmental ethicist Katie McShane compares our reverence for species to the word freedom. Everyone believes in it, but nobody knows what it means. “Even if you agree that it has value, it doesn’t tell you what to do when that value conflicts with my needs,” she says.
Comparing the value of things, weighing the costs and benefits of one against the other, is increasingly the preoccupation of environmentalists. Sometimes those competing things both have a claim in the natural world; sometimes one has a claim to bettering human life. Or the planet as a whole. If the mine at Rhyolite Ridge were digging for gold or copper, perhaps it would be easier to dismiss its value. Everyone benefits from raw materials, but it can be easy to say that you don’t “need” gold or that dollar value isn’t paramount. With lithium, denial is harder. Donnelly and Fraga both agree that the country—the world—needs to wean itself from fossil fuels. Lithium and sunshine are abundant in the desert Southwest, and so the transition to green energy will likely bring a new level of industrialization to its landscape. Mines and solar power plants will compete with rare buckwheat and desert tortoises. But in the absence of those mines and power plants, the desert will still suffer. For all their harsh conditions and seeming barrenness, deserts are fragile places, the life there is easily imperiled by higher temperatures and more frequent droughts. The conditions demand we formulate a moral equation: What is the value of the mine versus the value of the plant?
All mines have a dirty side, whether or not their products are “green.” They can destroy landscapes or pollute water supplies or expel greenhouse gases. Historically, mining companies have cared little about those impacts, doing the bare minimum to adhere to regulations. But lithium miners face extra pressure to act responsibly, explains Alex Grant, a technical adviser who works with those mines. Electric vehicle buyers are likely to care, for example, that 25 percent of their car’s lifetime carbon impact comes from the battery supply chain. So automakers, seeking to enhance their climate-friendly reputations, have increasingly leaned on lithium suppliers to burn less coal and seek certifications attesting that their mines do not ruin waters and habitats.
It is impossible to make every cost go away. As Grant sees it, there is no alternative to digging up lithium. The status quo of fossil-burning cars is not an option. What did opponents of lithium mining expect? A return to the horse and buggy? “We don’t need every project,” he says. “Some of them might have impacts that we should not accept. But we’re going to need a large fraction of them, that’s for sure.”
Each project seems to have its own set of costs that someone will find unacceptable, which makes deciding which ones should be allowed to move forward yet more difficult. In Nevada’s far north, Thacker Pass, another major lithium project close to digging, is held up by disputes with indigenous groups and ranchers over water rights and pollution. The same is true in places like Chile and Bolivia. Alternatives that appear more ecologically appealing, like brines near California’s Salton Sea, have been talked about for decades, but the technology and financing behind those projects is uncertain. We could look to the oceans, maybe; deep-sea mining could offer lithium on a scale that would make any terrestrial mine seem puny. But the environmental costs of that approach are arguably even less well understood, and potentially enormous.
In that context, the fate of a humble flower seems like a very small thing when the lithium can be had so soon, and with few extra complications. Mining interests, ranchers, and developers have long argued that the process of listing endangered species should factor in economic costs, like the lost value of a mine or the expense of keeping a species on life support when it seems natural forces could select it out of existence.
Earlier this year, Ferguson took me to Rome. Or rather, he took me to a dusty, far-flung Roman outpost called Parthia, which, for complex reasons involving a catfish and some stolen source code, is the most Malcolm ever got around to building. My avatar materialized beyond the settlement’s walls, beside some concrete storehouses. The label “Outsider” appeared next to my username. Ferguson was pacing toward me in a cowboy hat with antlers, and I hopped over a line of wooden looms to meet him.
The area appeared deserted. On a typical day in 2014 or 2015, he explained over Discord voice chat, this was where “random children” would craft weapons and tools. He gestured toward some stone barracks in the distance. “Over there,” he said, “there would be legionaries watching the barbarians and practicing formations.” A barbarian was any player who hadn’t yet been admitted into Parthia’s rigid hierarchy. Inside the outpost, the rankings got more granular—commoner, foreigner, servant, patrician, legionary, commander, senator, magistrate.
Ferguson, whose title was aedile, was in charge of the markets and the slaves. “They’re not technically slaves,” he explained. “They’re, in a sense, submitting their free will to participate in a system where they’re told everything to do.” (W, A, S, D.) Slaves could earn their citizenship over time, either through service or by signing up to be gladiators. When a Roblox employee visited the group once, he says, Ferguson helped stage a battle between two slaves in the amphitheater.
As Ferguson and I walked the rust-colored pathways toward Parthia’s towering gate, he described the exhaustive spreadsheets that he and others had kept about the group’s economic system, military strategy, governance policies, and citizenry. Unlike other Roblox role-plays of its era, Parthia stored your inventory between login sessions, which meant that whatever you crafted or mined would still be there the next time. This apparently cutting-edge development enticed some players, but what kept them logging in day after day was the culture.
Another of Malcolm’s former followers, a player I’ll call Chip, joined when he was 14. He says he liked the structured social interactions, the definite ranks, how knowable it all was. “I’ve always been the kind of gamer who prefers a serious environment,” he says. As a middle schooler in Texas, he felt like a computer missing part of its code—never quite sure “how to be normal, how to interact with people, how to not be weird.”
Parthian society was a product of Malcolm’s increasingly bigoted politics and his fierce need for control, three former members say. The outpost’s laws classified support for race-mixing, feminism, and gay people as “degeneracy.” They also required one player in the group, who is Jewish in real life, to wear “the Judea tunic or be arrested on sight.” Inside Parthia, vigiles patrolled the streets. We’d be stopped, Ferguson said, for having the wrong skin tone. (My avatar’s skin was olive.) The players voted overwhelmingly to allow Malcolm to execute whomever he wanted.
We approached Parthia’s gate, which was on the other side of a wooden bridge. Ferguson faced me and stuck his hand out. “If you’re an outsider, they’d go like this to you,” he said, blocking my avatar’s path. A bubble with the words “Outsiders not allowed” appeared above his head. The gate itself was closed, so Ferguson and I took turns double-jumping off each other’s heads to scale the wall. On the other side, I got my first glimpse inside Parthia.
Ferguson and Malcolm had talked a talented Roblox architect into designing it. Everything was big, big, big—columned public buildings, looming aqueducts, a mud-brown sprawl of rectangular buildings stocked with endless tiny rooms. After a brief tour, we ascended a ladder into a half-dome cupola. “If you had wealth or a name, you were standing here,” Ferguson said. “You’re supposed to be admiring yourself, your success, and looking down on the barbarians.” Romans would hang out, talk, collect social status, and, in Ferguson’s words, “smell their own farts all day.”
One of the most exclusive cliques in Parthia was the Praetorian Guard, Malcolm’s personal army. According to several former members, he sometimes asked high-ranking members to read SS manuals and listen to a far-right podcast about a school shooter. (“Simple friendly banter among friends,” Malcolm says.) Chip started an Einsatzgruppen division, a reference to the Nazis’ mobile death squads—partly because he thought it would get laughs, he says, and partly to please the caesar. In one case, memorialized on YouTube, Malcolm’s henchmen executed someone for saying they didn’t “care about” the architect’s girlfriend, Cleopatra. Chip still thinks that, for a lot of people, fascism started as a joke. “Until one day it’s not ironic to them,” he says. “One day they are arguing and fully believe what they’re saying.”
When it comes to Malcolm’s fascist leanings, Chip says, “On the stand, under oath, I would say yes, I believe he actually thought these things.” Malcolm, who says he is “just a libertarian on the books,” disagrees. “It’s always been just trolling or role-playing,” he says. “I’m just a history buff. I don’t care for the application of any of it in a real-world setting.”