How long do we have?

How far are our necks from the afore-mentioned Grim Meathook Future? When will the magical thinking at the core of economics finally be revealed for the hand-waving bullshit it actually is?

When is soon, probably. We could keep rolling sixes and spin it out another 22 years, but we’re getting to the point where relatively small system shocks could propagate uncontrollably like a fat man falling through ice on a pond. I can’t tell you when, but I can tell you that the US is in trouble, Europe is in trouble, they’ve printed insane amounts of money and it hasn’t stabilized things, assets are being devalued in complex processes which hide inflation and still there are no new jobs. People kick around terms like “stagflation” but what’s happening is simple and subtle: nothing.

We’re treading water. We’re like a shark that’s stopped swimming. We’re a cartoon character, all flailing legs, hovering above the abyss.

And at the bottom of it are those poor bastards in Africa, in rural India, South America, Asia, eating rice and bugs because there’s nothing else to eat. And you’ve ignored them your entire life as the money poured from “we know not where” into the First World Lifestyle, which squandered the wealth which could have fed and housed every human being on earth on an extractive economy which wastes 40% of the food produced and has a billion fat people, including me.

Vinay Gupta says the stuff no one else is willing to say – not the political “unthinkables” that are ricocheting around the media at the moment, as the left/right dichotomy struggles to keep relevance in the face of the destruction it has engineered, but the true unspeakables: that we are screwed, that it might be unfixable, that those onto whom we’ve foisted off our responsibilities are caught in a tailspin, and that we can’t see it for the distractions we built to keep us in the soma-bliss of ignorance.

That‘s the future I’m going to try to peer into. I have no particular expertise or training that makes me ideal for the job. So far as I can tell, my only qualification is my willingness to admit it has to be done, that it may be a doomed effort, and that trying is the only thing that’s going to let me get to sleep at night.

I can’t ignore my complicity any more. And part of what I’m going to be doing here going forwards is making it as hard as possible for you to ignore yours.

8 thoughts on “How long do we have?”

  1. The funny thing about being an academic who spends his days studying postcolonialism is how clearly I understand my complicity, and how deeply I wish it could be changed collectively. Because the sad truth is: individuals doing what they can to not be complicit won’t change anything, in part because you cannot live in any first world country without being complicit, no matter how “off the grid” you try to be. The very action of living in a country like the U.S. means you are complicit, benefiting from the colonial and capitalist heritage(s) by simply living on the land which was produced from it.

    Progress and change doesn’t come from individuals. It comes from collective effort to make things better for as many people as possible. Not just the rich. Not just the poor of one country. But as many poor and middle class and disenfranchised and, yes, even some rich folks (who, if help is needed, more often need help from themselves) as we can possibly help all at once.

    But as a conversation with a British friend of mine made clear: I don’t think we can do any of that in the heavily nationalized landscape in which we live. When I brought up that we could solve things like world hunger and disease, she more or less shrugged and said, “If you say so.” My guess is that many people do this because they understand, internally if not externally, how much work would need to be done to fix the way the world operates, all of which makes the task very difficult to do, if not nearly impossible. It’s easier to shrug it off as impossible than to deal with the underlying problem: humanity is broken.

  2. So the question is “what are we hoping to protect?”

    Let’s take some scenarios: a viral plague kills 90% of humanity, we go back to the caves, but we remember arithmetic, basic literacy, and some texts are transcribed on to durable media (human memory or parchment) and caches of material are slowly uncovered.

    Problems mostly solved: environment, nanobio risk to the ecosystem. We lose a few hundred years of progress and hopefully don’t screw it up so badly next time. Some enclaves keep a slightly higher tech level, they become wizards because they have steam engines.

    Sucks to be us, but life goes on. Biology protected, our essential humanity is not broken in the way a global fascism would break it, and it would make for very, very good mythology for the survivors!

    Now, compare that scenario to a hundred year global fascism with extensive germ-line inherited genetic modification of human beings to make them (let’s say) more prone to obey authoritarians, and not get sick unless they’re so sick they die. Eventually when it’s over our descendants have got thousands of years of hideous cultural imprinting, and possibly permanent genetic alterations to unwind.

    There are much worse things that can happen than a mass die off.

    I am not *predicting* a mass die off, but I’m holding up these two bad scenarios and saying that, *actually*, there are more important issues at stake than saving people’s lives here. There’s a deep integrity to biology and humanity that we have to value.

    Cambodia. Lost a third of their population, and apparently have a pretty decent culture these days, just a few generations later, because every generation of kids is born happy, beautiful and shiny, and if their parents don’t act out the bad old stories too much, soon it’s all washed away by the rivers of time.

    I’d like us to leave our planet in a condition where our mistakes are washed away by the rivers of time, and our brilliances are preserved in memory. Right now it seems entirely too possible that we’re going to screw up and do it the other way round.

    But we can resist this.

    I think that it’s worth revisiting TOPY as a source for inspiration about how mass movements can work. Imagine a version of TOPY that wasn’t pathologically aggressive, one dedicated to creation rather than resistance, something that might have the technological capacity to build the Open Source Ecology toolkit and replicate it in dozens or hundreds of places.

    Imagine something springing full-formed from the side of Ananda Marga, who are an absolutely fascinating organization.

    We *can* do this. If I’d given up hope I’d be hiding out in a bunker somewhere stockpiling food, rather than sitting on the internet talking about where we apply ourselves to make this work.

    Good few years ago I wrote – a few weeks ago I was sent the first Obey Emperor Gandhi bumper sticker. I based my life on a Bruce Sterling short story, “Green Days in Brunei” – read it when I was about 17, said I can do that. I treat “Shockwave Rider” like a to-do list, and I’m quite scared that we appear to have reached the end of the book, and there’s no sequel, but what we create.

    What I’m trying to convey is that a roused human being can do anything. You know what heros look like: become them. We’re kneecapped by the economy, we can’t get paid to know how to save the world, because generally speaking you have to sell out to get funded. The few beacons (One Acre Fund) are just about visible from orbit in a sea of mediocrity.

    See what I’m saying? I’m not making this super clear – I’m tired, a little burned out – it’s about stepping up. Grant Morrison talks about it in The Invisibles. Robert Anton Wilson too.

    At some level, you just stop caring about the stories of the culture, look to your own mythology, and go with it.

    That’s how we do this. We become the people who can. Because our story comes with numbers, with statistics, with goddamned space stations which tell us what we’re doing to the world, and their story comes with marketing reports and delusion-inducing memetic contagions.

    We’re right, they’re wrong, and we can do this. We just need to find our pride, our power, and our strength to stand up for the data, and refuse to participate in the lies any more.

  3. Vinay and John Robb of global guerrillas and a few more of us seem to be homing in on the same kind of resilience toolkit. We should be doing it much more consciously and consistently. The solutions for the “poor bastards,” those 90% at the bottom of the pyramid are also the solutions for the top 10% whether they know it or not. My particular piece of the puzzle is simple solar (all I know about the subject is up on youtube, search for “gmoke”). We know what to do, believe it not. All we have to do now is start cracking.

  4. Care to point out where anyone even so much as implies that holocausts or genocides are a ‘solution’ rather than a sad inevitability, Wintermute? Or are you just grumpy because someone’s taking an even more doom-ridden outlook than your usual offerings? 😉

  5. I do not agree at all, Vinay.

    We had a single chance. Now let’s assume we’ll have a collapse. This is probably. Orlov postulates five grades of collapse, from
    (1) a collapse akin to what the UK had in the late 70s.
    (2) a collapse analogue to the 1930s crisis or the 1990s USSR collapse.
    (3) a collapse analogue to what happened in imperial Rome or recently in Zimbabwe
    (4) a cinematic collapse akin to a ‘Mad Max’ or ‘Somalian’ anarchy. At best warlords take over.
    (5) a few hollow eyed people huddled around a fire afraid to go to sleep. Hell on earth.

    The world has a certain human carrying capacity. Right now the world’s carrying capacity is greater than the total global population, but we are using up unreplacable reserves. You can’t make this statement because some uneducated simpleton will whimper “but.. but..the world is so *big*’ as if big were any guarantee with ten billion middle this century.

    I think this world could, if we had a maximum competent, maximum humane, maximum consistency, maximum PR, maximum unchallenged autocratic dictatorship (the leading singleton knows what it is doing, they have very good intent, they are loved by all mankind, they are incorruptible and virtuous, and they are unrivalled in power, sustain well over the current human population, and sustain all animal species and natural diversity. At current technologies.

    But we don’t. We are as a planetary species extremely uninformed (*), rivalrous (*), tribal (*), competitive (*), antisocial (*), irrational (*), military fractitious (*), superstitious (*), etc.etc.

    Each (*) is a detractor for allowing a set number of humans on this planet to live, long term sustainable.

    The big problem is that as we consume like lemmings we also reduce our chances. The future is a graph where rising population numbers will clash hard, oncoming train style, will lowering constraints. And even worse, if we do have a collapse, a whole lot of deteriorating factors will still continue or even accelerate. After the collapse in the 1930s we had dustbowls emerge overnight. After the collapse in the USSR we had major industries become sources of dystopian pollution, worst example Chernobyl, directly attributable by a USSR bankrupting itself.

    So as we will have the world tighten, the push will be hard towards a tyranny, as to ‘patch’ towards keeping it all together. This won’t work as it will push people into rebellion, and rebellion is something set to become a lot more effective in the next decades.

    My personal estimate is that a collapse will be irreversible. It will be a domino effect. It won;t even be global (5), but for a while it will be a (2) nearly everywhere but some rare enclaves. Then as reserves wear out the billions of the world will need to be fed, and once they grow hungry they will come looking. Looting won’t be very effective, but there are a bunch of desperate strategies that will annihilate remaining global reserves. The Bush Meat trade comes to mind as a sad example.

    When the gigadeath starts in earnest, someone will start throwing around nuclear weapons. This will spur on paradoxical development and temporary abundance even in localized regions, but only for a few years or a decade. As more reserves fall away we’ll see climate consequences from hell. We’ll see derelict industries turn to toxic waste belts, we’ll see a dozen chernobyls, we’ll see several nuclear terror incidents or use of gas and viral attacks per year, and that’s civilization swirling away in a dirty bathtub. Imagine living in such a world. I know I’d be psychotic with fear.

    A world in an aggravated collapse state, where life reorganizes from widespread stage (3) collapse and a few rotten stage (4) zones, with ‘lost’ regions, ‘toxic’ regions and constant local and persistent brushfire wars (and a lot of genocides) does not casually return to our current civilized level. We may see countries return to having universities, hospitals, television stations, internet, thriving fashion markets and well-known media stars. We might even have technologies unprecedented in 2011.

    But what we won’t have is anywhere near the affluence or abundance or diets or medical care we have now. We’ll be using old parts for centuries and some factories here and there will succeed in manufacturing ‘pretty good’ 2010 current PC mainboards.

    But such a world will know no economic growth, very little scientific progress, very little appreciation for democracy, low expectations, no civil rights movement, no aspirations and no hope. Such a world will be in awe about the past and well aware of a massive list of retrograde statistical trends turning everything worse. Population numbers, fertility rates will go down for generations.

    After a long while the accumulated technological knowledge might spur on progress, solely based on haphazard experimentation and chance discovery, but only after things have stabilized. And stabilization would be in a world will less than a billion humans left alive, most the globe decertified, over 95% of the worlds animal and plant species after 1900 eradicated, and nearly all minerals, (specifically oil and coal) irreversibly depleted. By then the remaining humans will even have mined dry the deserted cities and garbage dumps for raw ore, and it will be a very lean existence.

    I do not regard any scenario involving collapse as acceptable. I do not think anyone should argue such a thing ‘might be for the best’. I think we should all see the facts, see what we got and defend it tooth and nail.

    If we really make an effort we might still be something better than we have ever been, but no. It doesn’t look good at all.

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