I am ambitious and looking for real men.

There have been a few ripples in the media, lately, about the experience of men in the dating realm presented alongside studies showing a decline in sex and relationships, usually written by women. It’s the kind of easy, writes-itself pseudo-journalism that invites clicks and eyeballs and doesn’t really do much to even properly acknowledge the issues, never mind advance them or offer meaningful solutions. I would like to offer a different, more anecdotal take, through my own signature doom-laden prism.

I matched with two women this morning whose profiles gave me not just pause for thought, and an opportunity for wider reflection on online dating in 2023, but the fodder for a full-blown existential crisis.

One would-be suitees’ (that’s not the opposite of a suitor, but it should be) profile notes simply that she’s “Looking for real men.” First, you will note my utter astonishment at having made it through such a filter – or the initial stage, at the very least. Here it is, finally: external validation, by a woman, that I present, on the surface level, as a Real Man. In days of yore, I might have been sent off into the wilderness to hunt and bring back a deer for the tribe in order to attain such a title, or receive some elaborate tattoo laced with profound masculine meaning, or genital mutilation ritual by a dope-maddened Shaman. But today, in this moment, via the swipe of a finger on a telephone, my rites of passage has finally commenced. I’d better not spoil it by, y’know, messaging her anything whatsoever, lest the jig be up. Then there’s that pluralisation – not, “looking for a real man” singular, the monogamous ideal espoused in our cherished holy scriptures and March Of The Penguins – but men, plural. Dare I, reader? Dare I submit myself, prostrate, to that orgiastic conveyor belt? To what end are Real Men being sought and what lies at its end? Perhaps neither Heaven nor Hell – but assistance, among a team of assembled Real Men, put to work assembling flat pack furniture, bewildered but unbowed amid that surfeit of sausages, under the guise of a date. It genuinely wouldn’t be the first time – but those are stories for another time.

The other profile – and as I contemplate it, I am sure that it represents a nexus for all that is wrong with not just online dating, but human relations and our interactions with the natural world as a whole – states: “I’m ambitious.”

Ambition. Like “professionalism,” and indeed “real men” – “ambition” is an over-used to the point of meaninglessness, hollowed-out, fundamentally ambiguous word, and a sword suitable for extraction from the stone, malleable for wielding and mass persecution by only the sharpest-elbowed duelers. The critical self-reflection component of “ambition” is of course to be lauded, as is the inherent consideration of the passage of time – one must assume that those rendered immortal must lose any aspirations of ambition, favouring a “when it’s done” approach to all things. But just like there’s no entrance exam nor certification for an “audiophile” – ambition is entirely subjective. And, surely, the truly ambitious – the post-ambitious, or rather: successful – would be possessed of a far greater and more well-rounded clarity and humility of personal vision to shirk such a classification? Perhaps a more charitable reading, rather than seeing it as a sword, is that the claims of ambition among those with less than a billion in the bank, or millions of followers, or currencies bearing their visage, should be considered a shield – an aspiration, a plea: “I’m aiming higher than where I’m currently at.”

Fine. But where can any of us truly aim, in this day and age? And I’m not talking about the impossibility of reaching the housing ladder that is a reality for so many, the rise and permanence of food banks, the cutting away of safety nets, the absurdity of Brexit and the decline in living standards and rises in the cost of living and so on.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Zoological Society of London have published the Living Planet Index (LPI) which has tracked the average decline in wildlife populations since the 1970s. It’s fallen 69%. It coheres with an infamous 1972 MIT study that predicted society would collapse due to economic growth in the middle of this century, whose hypothesis was revisited and confirmed by KPMG’s sustainability and dynamic system analysis lead at the end of 2020.

Doesn’t it at some point become obscene to think about personal ambition amid such a crisis? And yet the business-as-usual vacuum that we all live in – its complete perimeter and shape having revealed itself fully during the 2020 lockdowns, those edges softening and fading away, now, for the majority – continues apace. With even bigger blinkers on.

Although, as with all science, there are issues with the way this data should be taken, the bottom line, if we are to counter the climate crisis, which is perhaps the greatest existential crisis we’ve ever faced – The End Is Nigh to end all End Is Nighs – is that we need a few billion psychic light bulbs to get themselves illuminated – really fucking quickly. And it must be a broad church: it must occur across the board in real men, real women and real non-binaries, or even the unreal, and simulacrums of every shade of grey therein, among the self-described ambitious, or even the sofa-dwelling inertia-riddled ones.

At its height, Nasa had 400,000 working on the Apollo moon program. It’s a cliche that everyone wants to build something, but nobody wants to maintain it, and it is a source of deep sadness in any space nerd that we haven’t got moon bases or had more frequent trips up there. But if we roused 400,000 for that noblest of ambitions and giant leaps of adventure, surely we must be able to rouse a few more zeroes on top – 4 billion? – to dedicate ourselves earnestly to the cause of reversing the monstrous harm humans have inflicted on the natural world and securing our future?

It’s quite likely that the small matter of our impending oblivion’s obfuscation in daily discourse and swathes of the mainstream media (even climate crisis reports don’t lean in as hard as many climate scientists) is contributing to the very same relationship malaise outlined at the start of this article. It’s so much bigger than money and sex and relationships and any ambition any individual human may have. And although I’m preternaturally comfortable in my solitude, at times having that awareness does feel like an outrageously lonely place to be.

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