Much of the intrigue of John B. McLemore, subject of the hit podcast S-Town, comes from his inherent contradictions—a genius who never graduated college; a liberal with twisted views on feminism, homosexuality, and racism; a benefactor who appears to have died broke. More than a crime mystery, S-Town is an exploration of John B.’s mind and the suffering he endured. As one of his friends describes it, “John seemed to have made an insurmountable challenge out of living.” It’s not completely clear what caused this suffering, though host Brian Reed posits several options throughout the show before finally suggesting that it was mercury poisoning that at the very least exacerbated John’s mental torture.
Another cause, or perhaps a focus, of John’s depression is climate change. Reed devotes a substantial amount of time to his subject’s preoccupation, though not as much as John B. devoted to it during his life. When asked on the Longform podcast what John B. might think of S-Town, Reed says he would have just wanted three episodes explaining climate change and the coming resource crisis. Throughout the show, John’s fatalistic obsession is painted as an indication of his troubled mental state. And indeed, it seems to cost him dearly—his friend Olan attributes the end of their relationship to John’s inability to stop talking about climate change. It’s not just that John is aware of climate change; he ruminates on it obsessively, staying up late to write manifestos and presentations, letting it dominate his mood and darken his outlook on the future. Indeed, his suicide note states that “my absence makes room, and leaves some resources, for others.”
It is clear, throughout the show, that John suffers from mental health “issues” of some kind. It is less clear that John’s reaction to climate change is a manifestation of these issues, rather than a logical response to what is in reality an existential threat to civilization as we know it and the planet at large. Of course, the way he handles those thoughts—the obsessive loops, the monomania—is clearly reflective of some unhealthy psychological patterns. But when it comes to the reality of climate change, I’d say John B.’s take is significantly more logical and less “crazy” than the reaction most of society has.
I don’t think that Reed feels that John’s obsession is all that misplaced, either. One of the most frightening moments of the entire show comes not when he’s investigating a murder but when he’s investigating the list that John sent him of all the problems we’re about to face. His fact-checking endeavor essentially checks out. Resources are going to run out. We are hurtling toward catastrophe. And then Reed switches gears. We don’t have to think about that now, or “at least, any time soon,” he says, as he returns to the story of one man, in one place, at one time.
It is entirely fair that Brian Reed did not want to make a podcast about climate change. He wanted to make a podcast about John B. McLemore, at which he is wildly successful. But in the days since I finished the show, I keep turning over that idea—yes, this is a problem, but it’s not one we have to address anytime soon. This is a constant cultural refrain when it comes to climate change. And it’s a large part of why we’re in this mess in the first place. As the Onion “joked” earlier this week, “according to climatologists, rising CO2 levels must be contained before it’s too late, which it now is.” The Onion is pretty spot-on there. It doesn’t really matter how many lightbulbs well-meaning souls like Olan change; climate change is a massive systemic problem that needs to be fixed through massive, systemic changes, and our country, one of the biggest polluters, is led by the only world leader who doesn’t even admit it’s happening. As John B. himself put it, when it comes to addressing climate change, “The whole world is giving a collective shrug of its shoulders and saying, ‘Fuck it.’ ”
John B. can’t really handle this fact. Most people—even those intimately aware of the threat and the stakes—somehow manage to. That doesn’t mean John’s insane and we’re not. It means some of us have gotten better at deluding ourselves that everything is OK even when it definitely is not. A few weeks ago, a friend and climate activist wrote to me to ask, “If you really agree that civilization itself is at risk without rapid climate action, wouldn’t forcing that action become the most important thing you can do?” I do really agree that civilization itself is at risk, but I am not doing much to force action about it. I am saying “Fuck it.” When I wrote my friend back, I said, “When I think about this stuff, I kind of feel my brain disconnecting from the emotional side—like, it’s just too much to really internalize.”
In reality, the feeling I get when I think deeply about climate change is the same feeling I get when I remember that someday, at some point, I, me, myself personally, am going to die. There’s fear and disbelief, and my heart seems to collapse in on itself. Eventually, something in me forces myself to stop thinking about it, and I edge away from the cliff. My climate activist friend told me that my response was typical. Most people, it seems, are able to emotionally disconnect from the existential nature of such problems. That’s what we do to survive.
John B. didn’t have this defense mechanism. His coping mechanisms were out of whack, but not his sense of perspective. He felt the reality of our impending doom every day. He kept staring off the edge of the cliff. He couldn’t look away.
Which reaction is “normal”? Mine is certainly more common. It’s also more pragmatic—my brain is forcing me to live my life, in spite of the mess. There’s not much I can do about it, anyway, and frankly, why should I be put out? But if you want to ask which is more logical, which is more moral, which is more correct, the answer is surely John’s. What kind of human can look ahead and realize that we’re headed for a massive disaster and then shrug and still order takeout? Perhaps I’d feel more ashamed if I thought I would still be around to answer for my crimes.
This, of course, is the entire problem of climate change. Addressing it would require massive, selfless sacrificing, for a common good that feels so far off as to be almost immaterial. And even with his obsessing, John too seems totally aware of this. His endless calculations of how much time each man has in a life betrays his own personal (and entirely human) desire to maximize these hours. His despair never quite propels him to activism, either—he is bitterly aware that there is not much to be done.
In the end though, and perhaps inadvertently, S-Town does provide a compelling opportunity for John B. to change all of this. After delivering the image of Mary Grace, sitting, pregnant, on her land, rubbing her belly, hoping for a genius, it ends with John Brooks McLemore being brought home from the hospital. In that moment, as a listener, I realized how much I had come to care about this one soul, this one person, living in this one time, in this one place. It is a triumph for a story to bring its reader, or in this case, its listener, to such a place of compassion. If we can care about John, a man so removed from the lives of many of the show’s listeners, can we find it within ourselves to care about the future Johns, too?