Tag Archives: collapse

Rejoinders to Coupland’s pessimism

Another guest-article in list format from Gen-X prophet of gloom Douglas Coupland has appeared, this one at The Globe & Mail; cue the sort of bleak “it’s all uphill from here” head-shaking that appear to be the man’s stock in trade of late. Some samples:

1) It’s going to get worse

No silver linings and no lemonade. The elevator only goes down. The bright note is that the elevator will, at some point, stop.

Gee, thanks, Doug. I needed that. We all needed that. More coffee, anyone?

14) Something smarter than us is going to emerge

Thank you, algorithms and cloud computing.

The transhumanist lobby see that one as a net positive, provided we’re steering things in the right direction; on days less fraught than this one, I’m usually inclined to do the same.

20) North America can easily fragment quickly as did the Eastern Bloc in 1989

Quebec will decide to quietly and quite pleasantly leave Canada. California contemplates splitting into two states, fiscal and non-fiscal. Cuba becomes a Club Med with weapons. The Hate States will form a coalition.

Old news, whether you listen to sf authors or sociopolitical pundits. Or both.

28) It will become harder to view your life as “a story”

The way we define our sense of self will continue to morph via new ways of socializing. The notion of your life needing to be a story will seem slightly corny and dated. Your life becomes however many friends you have online.

Harder? I think it’ll become easier, because our definition of “story” will shift; indeed, it has already started. At this point I’ll bring in a guest rejoinder from Jeremiah Tolbert’s own responses, which are well worth a read:

Narrative struc­ture didn’t invent itself, you know.  We’ve been struc­tur­ing our expe­ri­ences as story since we could paint on cave walls, or even before.  The idea that our life will instead be how­ever many friends we have online, I just don’t buy it.  It sounds like some­thing Facebook would pitch to ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists, not a real futur­ist pre­dic­tion.  Yes, your social net­work will be impor­tant.  But we’ll define our sense of self by it?  Is there going to be a fun­da­men­tal alter­ation of our brain chem­istry at the same time?

I’d add that Coupland seems to be buying into the persistent but poorly-argued riff about how online ‘friendships’ are devaluing the meaning of friendship itself; again, I think we’re just moving to a point where the spectrum of friendship is becoming wider, more granular. I think we’ll have a similar number of friends to what we’ve always had; ‘friends’ in the Facebook sense are something different entirely, something that people under the age of thirty seem to understand quite instinctively. Don’t let the kids freak you out, Doug.

Back to Coupland:

34) You’re going to miss the 1990s more than you ever thought

Again, I’m with Jeremy – I already miss the nineties a whole lot, and pining for the rootless and jagged freedoms of one’s adolescence is hardly a new development. One suspects Mister Coupland is projecting somewhat. He closes with:

45) We will accept the obvious truth that we brought this upon ourselves

And here, Jeremy hits it out of the park:

I thought this was sup­posed to be a pessimist’s guide?  That’s the most opti­mistic pre­dic­tion about a fun­da­men­tal change in human nature I’ve read yet!

Exactly; if there’s one thing that could really pull our civilisational arse out of the fire, that’s it. It won’t be pleasant while it’s happening, granted, but I’ve long suspected that it’s the key to surviving the crescendo end-phase of the planet-bound stage for intelligent lifeforms.

This is probably old news to people who’ve followed Coupland’s output for longer than I have, but man, he really likes to wallow in that existential angst thing, doesn’t he? Which isn’t to claim that I’m not prone to moping myself (again, the nineties are never far away in this household), but this list is saturated with the same “everything sucks, not least of all being aware of how much everything sucks, and so there’s nothing to do but constantly remind ourselves of how much everything sucks” attitude that so repelled me while reading JPod. In my most secret of hearts* I pride myself on being more cynical and both-sides-of-the-story than most people, but there’s an odd relief in finding that I’m not actually the biggest pessimist on the planet. Perhaps it’s the easing sensation of realising I never had a crown to cling on to?

And just to complete the spectrum, BoingBoing has a guest-post counter-list to Coupland from one Jim Leftwich, whose treacly animated gif of an outlook makes me feel like I’m inhabiting the rational and considered middle-ground for the first time in my life to date.

3) Memes are going mainstream Every day new memes will appear, others will be repeated, remixed, and amplified, and others will fade. Cultural in-jokes will abound. Your grandma will send you image macros for the lulz.

My mother already does; sadly, spending twelve hours a day connected to the internet hive-mind means that I’m about five years ahead of her comprehension thereof. She’s just discovered LOLcats; I now understand how I managed to piss so many people off with them back in 2005**.

5) It’s going to get fresher and tastier The growth in farmers’ markets will make locally grown fresh produce more accessible to more people all the time. Neighborhood and backyard gardens and greenhouses, with heirloom varieties, chickens, and beekeeping combined with a more fun cooking culture will increasingly supplement and in some cases replace processed and commercially prepared foods.

Actually, I’d much rather this worked out than Coupland’s requiem for lettuce. Fingers crossed.

10) You’ll get by and make the best of it Because after all, that’s what most of us do. You can help by connecting to and sharing with the people around you, both locally and in your virtual common interest circles. The stronger we are socially and otherwise interconnected, the more effectively we’ll take on and respond to challenges. Shit happens, but remember to reach out to help when you’re able and receive when it’s necessary. We really are all in this together, regardless of how they slice us up into groups and categories.

Again, agree with the basic premise (“we’ll get by”, I mean – it’s what we do as a species), but I suspect the global village will have to get a lot more fragmented before we reach the point that we realise we’re all the same (ref. item 45, above). But maybe Leftwich is spot on when he says we can make things better if we reach out and help when we’re able to. So, let’s start right now: let’s all think happy thoughts in Doug Coupland’s direction before bundling the poor guy into the office hug machine.

[ * Well, that’s that cover blown, I guess. ]

[ ** Only kidding, Mum, you know I love you. But seriously, forwarding chain emails; not wise. ]

Does Asimov’s Foundation trilogy hold wisdom about the current crisis?

Asimov's Foundation Trilogy in SpanishMartin Börjesson has just been re-reading Asimov’s famous Foundation Trilogy, and found himself wondering whether the books are any use as a way of reframing the current global situation with regard to economics and geopolitics.

Here it is worth noting that the main inspiration too this novel, which started as a series of short stories by a 22 year old Asimov, published from 1942 and forward, came from Gibbon’s famous work “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. When I see it in this perspective I can’t avoid thinking of the role of the monasteries which worked as knowledge capsules during the dark ages.

What does Dr Seldon say about what causes the fall of the Empire:

  • a rising bureaucracy
  • a receding initiative
  • a freezing of caste
  • a damming of curiosity
  • …a hundred other factors

And the effects will be:

  • its accumulated knowledge will decay
  • the order it has imposed will vanish
  • interstellar wars will be endless
  • interstellar trade will decay
  • population will decline
  • worlds will lose touch with the main body of the Galaxy
  • …and so matters will remain

Do these bullets sound familiar?

Well, of course they do; the ways that big systems collapse are well-known to historians and science fiction writers alike; it’s the political types and economists who seem to have the wilful blind spot in this case.

Can books like Foundation help us see things more clearly? Sure – if you’re the sort of person who’s willing to look for those analogies and think them through for yourself. As a tool to bring the message to the masses, though, I doubt they’re of any greater utility than a celebrity cook-book. [image by draXus]

Global collapse? What global collapse?

Apocalypse later?Futurist Brian Wang has had it with the doom-mongershe’s pretty sure there’s not going to be any global collapse, and he’s got a list of reasons why. Here are just a few:

1. Efficiency, conservation and an energy plans can be enhanced beyond current levels with minimal strain. There has been partially voluntary reductions in energy demand during the credit crisis. 10% reductions with minimal effort and 20% reductions with more austerity.

OK, seems reasonable.

5. In regards to global warming and environmental concerns:

  • a rapid switchover to totally clean power would stop the air pollution of coal and most oil and would greatly reduce any additional CO2
  • geoengineering can be used to reduce global temperatures if necessary
  • if the beliefs of climate change being from man-made sources are right then we are already geoengineering by accident as a side effect of our industry. It will be cheaper and easier to geoengineer to cancel those accidental side effects with intentional reversal efforts

Well, possibly, but geoengineering is a very speculative field indeed, as noted yesterday. And how are you going to defeat the political inertia on energy source changes?

9. Financial doom scenarios

  • Mandated resets of debt forgiveness, re-issuing script etc… can be used to reboot a country or a financial system
  • People and systems for production would still exist even if there was 1000 trillion in debt

Yes, but where’s the motivation for those hungry and desperate people going to come from?

Wang’s points all make sense, but they all seem to assume the presence of a strong and clearheaded global or national leadership which, most importantly, hasn’t lost the respect of its subjects or its power to organise them into productive and efficient units.

Wang frequently compares these potential responses to war-time mobilisation efforts, and as regards the scale of effort needed that comparison has validity. But I’m not so certain about his confidence in the psychology of a mobilisation of that sort; before his list, he says:

One thing of note is that most people usually think that Hitler and Stalin were bad guys for killing or causing the death of about 100 million people. Most of the civilization die off scenarios are that level of death each and every year for 70 years. 1000 times the number of deaths in the holocaust. Why is there the belief that significant mitigation efforts would not be made ?

Because political rhetoric is more easily focussed on an enemy with a face, perhaps?

The problem with existential threats is that they’re hard for our fundamentally selfish and short-range psychology to focus on. When you’ve not got enough to eat, your first priority will be filling your stomach, not saving the world. Mobilising people on the scale of nations takes a government with its people’s ear and trust, or at least their obedience under pressure… and with exception of some of the more totalitarian regimes on the planet, those are in short supply at the moment, and likely to be more so as the number of tangible existential risks increases, in my opinion. [image by sashomasho]

What do you think – would the world come together in the face of a genuine extinction event, or would it be every man for himself in the last days of civilisation?