Posts Tagged ‘Collapse’

/rant on

New Year’s Day (or just prior) is the annual cue for fools full of loose talk to provide unasked their year-in-review and “best of” articles summarizing the previous calendar year. I don’t go in for such clichéd forms of curation but certainly recognize an appetite among Web denizens for predigested content that tells them where to park their attention and what or how to think rather than thinking for themselves. Considering how mis- and under-educated the public has grown to be since the steady slippage destruction of educational standards and curricula began in the 1970s (says me), I suppose that appetite might be better characterized as need in much the same way children needs guidance and rules enforced by wizened authorities beginning with parents yet never truly ending, only shifting over to various institutions that inform and restrain society as a whole. I continue to be flabbergasted by the failure of parents (and teachers) to curb the awful effects of electronic media. I also find it impossible not to characterize social media and other hyperstimuli as gateways into the minds of impressionable youth (and permanent adult children) very much like certain drugs (e.g., nicotine, alcohol, and cannabis) are characterized as gateways to even worse drugs. No doubt everyone must work out a relationship with these unavoidable, ubiquitous influences, but that’s not equivalent to throwing wide open the gate for everything imaginable to parade right in, as many do.

Hard to assess whether foundations below American institutions (to limit my focus) were allowed to decay through neglect and inattention or were actively undermined. Either way, their corruption and now inter-generational inability to function effectively put everyone in a wildly precarious position. The know-how, ambition, and moral focus needed to do anything other than game sclerotic systems for personal profit and acquisition of power are eroding so quickly that operations requiring widespread subscription by the public (such as English literacy) or taking more than the push of a button or click of a mouse to initiate preprogrammed commands are entering failure mode. Like the accidental horror film Idiocracy, the point will come when too few possess the knowledge and skills anymore to get things done but can only indulge in crass spectacle with their undeveloped minds. Because this is a date-related blog post, I point out that Idiocracy depicts results of cultural decay 500 years hence. It won’t take nearly that long. Just one miserable example is the fascist, censorious mood — a style of curation — that has swept through government agencies and Silicon Valley offices intent on installing unchallenged orthodoxies, or for that matter, news junkies and social media platform users content to accept coerced thinking. Religions of old ran that gambit but no need to wait for a new Inquisition to arise. Heretics are already persecuted via cancel culture, which includes excommunication social expulsion, suspension and/or cancellation of media accounts, and confiscation of bank deposits.

A similar point can be made about the climate emergency. Fools point to weather rather than climate to dispel urgency. Reports extrapolating trends often focus on the year 2100, well after almost all of us now alive will have departed this Earth, as a bogus target date for eventualities like disappearance of sea and glacial ice, sea level rise, unrecoverable greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, pH imbalance in the oceans, and other runaway, self-reinforcing consequences of roughly 300 years of industrial activity that succeeded unwittingly in terraforming the planet, along the way making it fundamentally uninhabitable for most species. The masses labor in 2023 under the false impression that everyone is safely distanced from those outcomes or indeed any of the consequences of institutional failure that don’t take geological time to manifest fully. Such notions are like assurances offered to children who seek to understand their own mortality: no need to worry about that now, that’s a long, long way off. Besides, right now there are hangovers to nurse, gifts to return for cash, snow to shovel, and Super Bowl parties to plan. Those are right now or at least imminent. Sorry to say, so is the full-on collapse of institutions that sustain and protect everyone. The past three years have already demonstrated just how precarious modern living arrangements are, yet most mental models can’t or won’t contemplate the wholesale disappearance of this way of life, and if one has learned of others pointing to this understanding, well, no need to worry about that just yet, that’s a long, long way off. However, the slide down the opposite side of all those energy, population, and wealth curves won’t take nearly as long as it took to climb up them.

/rant off

/rant on

The previous time I was prompted to blog under this title was regarding the deplorable state of public education in the U.S., handily summarized at Gin and Tacos (formerly on my blogroll). The blogger there is admirable in many respects, but he has turned his attention away from blogging toward podcasting and professional writing with the ambition of becoming a political pundit. (I have disclaimed any desire on my part to be a pundit. Gawd … kill me first.) I check in at Gin and Tacos rarely anymore, politics not really being my focus. However, going back to reread the linked blog post, his excoriation of U.S. public education holds up. Systemic rot has since graduated into institutions of higher learning. Their mission statements, crafted in fine, unvarying academese, may exhibit unchanged idealism but the open secret is that the academy has become a network of brainwashing centers for vulnerable young adults. See this blog post on that subject. What prompts this new reality check is the ongoing buildup of truly awful news, but especially James Howard Kunstler’s recent blog post “The Four Fuckeries” over at Clusterfuck Nation, published somewhat in advance of his annual year-end-summary-and-predictions post. Kunstler pulls no punches, delivering assessments of activities in the public interest that have gone so abysmally wrong it beggars the imagination. I won’t summarize; go read for yourself.

At some point, I realized when linking to my own past blog posts that perhaps too many include the word wrong in the title. By that, I don’t mean merely incorrect or bad or unfortunate but rather purpose-built for comprehensive damage that mere incompetence could not accomplish or explain. Some may believe the severity of damage is the simple product of lies compounding lies, coverups compounding coverups, and crimes compounding crimes. That may well be true in part. But there is far too much evidence of Manichean manipulation and heedless damn-the-torpedoes-full-steam-ahead garbage decision-making to waive off widespread institutional corruptions as mere conspiracy. Thus, Kunstler’s choice of the term fuckeries. Having already reviewed the unmitigated disaster of public education, let me instead turn to other examples.

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Didn’t expect to come back to this one. Five years after having blogged on this topic, I was delighted to see Graham Hancock get full Netflix documentary treatment under the title Ancient Apocalypse. No doubt streaming video is shaped in both tone and content to fit modern audiences, not modern readers. We are no longer people of the book but instead people of the screen. (An even earlier mode, displaced by the onset in the Gutenberg Era, was the oral tradition, but that was a different blog.) As a result, the eight episodes come across as tabloid-style potboilers, which regrettably undermines Hancock’s authority. Having read two of Hancock’s books exploring the subject, I was already familiar with many of the ancient sites discussed and depicted, though some reports are updated from his books. The main thesis is that archeological structures and cultural origin stories all around the world point to a major human civilization now lost but being gradually rediscovered. The phase of destruction is unaccountably saved until episode eight, namely, a roughly twelve-hundred-year period known as the Younger Dryas marked by repeated, severe climatic events, most notably the Great Flood that raised sea level by more than 400 ft. Suspected causes of these events range from the breaking of ice dams and subsequent breakup of the continental ice sheets to multiple meteor impacts to a coronal mass ejection. Could be more than one.

Several YouTube reviews have already weighed in on strengths and weaknesses of the documentary. Learning that others have been completely absorbed by Hancock’s books is a little like discovering a lost sibling. Intellectual brethren focused on decidedly arcane subject matter is quite different from mass market fandom (or as I once heard someone joke, “You like pizza? I like pizza! BFF!”). Of course, beyond enthusiasts and aficionados are scofflaws, the latter of whom come under specific attack by Hancock for refusing to examine new evidence, instead adhering blindly to established, status quo, academic consensus. Although some would argue the principal takeaway Ancient Apocalypse is filling in gaps in the story of human development (a cosmology or better origin story), my assessment, perhaps a result of prior familiarity with Hancock’s work, is that officialdom as instantiated in various institutions is an abject and unremitting failure. The Catholic Church’s persecution of numerous proto-scientists as heretics during the Middle Ages, or similarly, what has recently become known derisively as “YouTube science” (where heterodox discussion is summarily demonetized in a pointless attempt to shut down dissent) should be concerning to anyone who supports the scientific method or wants to think for themselves. Whether refusals to even consider alternatives to cherished beliefs are a result of human frailty, power struggles, careerism, or sheer stupidity someone else can decide. Could be more than one.

A couple wild suggestions came up in the reviews I caught. For instance, lost knowledge of how to work stone into megaliths used to construct giant monuments is said to be related to either activating resonance in the stone or indeed a completely different form of energy from anything now known. A similar suggestion was made about how the World Trade Center and other nearby structures were demolished when 9/11 occurred. Specially, purported “directed free-energy technology” was deployed to weaken the molecular coherence of solid metal and concrete to collapse the buildings. (Video demonstrations of iron bars/beams being bent are available on YouTube.) For megaliths, the suggestion is that they are temporarily made into a softer, lighter (?) marshmallow-like substance to be positioned, reformed, and rehardened in situ. Indeed, material phase changes under extremes of pressure and temperature are both obvious and ubiquitous. However, to novices and the scientifically illiterate, this is the stuff of magic and alchemy or straight-up conspiracy (if one prefers). I’m largely agnostic when it comes to such assertions about megalithic structures but those theories are at least as tantalizing as evidence of existence of a lost civilization — especially when officialdom instructs everyone not to look there, or if one does anyway, not to believe one’s lying eyes.

As observed in my earlier blog on this subject, the possibility nay inevitability of destruction of our present civilization, whether from forces external or internal, would make putting aside petty squabbles and getting going on preparations (i.e., prepping for human survival) paramount. Good luck getting humanity all together on that project. Are there secret underground bunkers into which the financial and political elite can flee at the propitious moment, abandoning the masses to their fate? Again, conspiratorial types say yes, both now and in the ancient past. Good luck to any survivors, I guess, in the hellscape that awaits. I don’t want to be around after the first major catastrophe.

According to some estimates, historical trends bring us to 8 Billion Day (human population) today (November 15, 2022), despite a slowing birthrate. Took only 11 years to add the next billion from 7 Billion Day and only 4 years to add the half billion from 7.5 Billion Day. That doesn’t look to me like deceleration; perhaps the last 3 years of Covid pandemic is the hinge of the trend reversal. Previous milestones are 1 billion in 1804, 2 billion in 1930, 3 billion in 1960, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, and 6 billion in 1998. Projections are 9 billion in 2037 and 10 billion in 2058. Whereas past numbers are fixed, the future is IMO quite unlikely to produce those numbers on schedule if at all. Factors are many and unpredictable, such as the rise in excess deaths a/k/a all-cause mortality already being reported (but quietly lest panic ensue).

Various economists, demographers, and business leaders bemoan that many countries have already fallen below replacement rate, which poses a dramatic reduction in skilled, experienced labor as members of the Baby Boom retire and die off. Worse than that, however, is the recognition that in growth economies (now ubiquitous across the globe), the only way forward is to have a growing population, young people at the bottom supporting old people at the top. It’s a perfect Ponzi setup, replicated many times over in various institutions and destined to fail spectacularly as more women (in particular) are educated and opt out of motherhood entirely in favor of careers. Given that the Covid era has proven to be a baby bust, one can only wonder whether birth rates will spike as fears subside (which produced the Baby Boom after WWII) or population decline will be a permanent feature of society. I offer no predictions. Further, with myriad variables competing for primacy among doomers who forecast dire consequences of human behavior accumulated over several centuries , I admit being at a loss to know what to hope for. More people (and thus, more subsequent suffering) or fewer?

The difference between right and wrong is obvious to almost everyone by the end of kindergarten. Temptations persist and everyone does things great and small known to be wrong when enticements and advantages outweigh punishments. C’mon, you know you do it. I do, too. Only at the conclusion of a law degree or the start of a political career (funny how those two often coincide) do things get particularly fuzzy. One might add military service to those exceptions except that servicemen are trained not to think, simply do (i.e., follow orders without question). Anyone with functioning ethics and morality also recognizes that in legitimate cases of things getting unavoidably fuzzy in a hypercomplex world, the dividing line often can’t be established clearly. Thus, venturing into the wide, gray, middle area is really a signal that one has probably already gone too far. And yet, demonstrating that human society has not really progressed ethically despite considerable gains in technical prowess, egregiously wrong things are getting done anyway.

The whopper of which nearly everyone is guilty (thus, guilty pleasure) is … the Whopper. C’mon, you know you eat it do it. I know I do. Of course, the irresistible and ubiquitous fast food burger is really only one example of a wide array of foodstuffs known to be unhealthy, cause obesity, and pose long-term health problems. Doesn’t help that, just like Big Tobacco, the food industry knowingly refines their products (processed foods, anyway) to be hyperstimuli impossible to ignore or resist unless one is iron willed or develops an eating disorder. Another hyperstimulus most can’t escape is the smartphone (or a host of other electronic gadgets). C’mon, you know you crave the digital pacifier. I don’t, having managed to avoid that particular trap. For me, electronics are always only tools. However, railing against them with respect to how they distort cognition (as I have) convinces exactly no one, so that argument goes on the deferral pile.

Another giant example not in terms of participation but in terms of effect is the capitalist urge to gather to oneself as much filthy lucre as possible only to sit heartlessly on top of that nasty dragon’s hoard while others suffer in plain sight all around. C’mon, you know you would do it if you could. I know I would — at least up to a point. Periods of gross inequality come and go over the course of history. I won’t make direct comparisons between today and any one of several prior Gilded Ages in the U.S., but it’s no secret that the existence today of several hundy billionaires and an increasing number of mere multibillionaires represents a gross misallocation of financial resources: funneling the productivity of the masses (and fiat dollars whiffed into existence with keystrokes) into the hands of a few. Fake philanthropy to launder reputations fail to convince me that such folks are anything other than miserly Scrooges fixated on maintaining and growing their absurd wealth, influence, and bogus social status at the cost of their very souls. Seriously, who besides sycophants and climbers would want to even be in the same room as one of those people (names withheld)? Maybe better not to answer that question.

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A friend put in my hands a copy of Peter Zeihan’s book The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization (2022) with instructions to read (and return) the book. Without a moment’s pause, I exclaimed “oh, that guy!” Zeihan has been making the rounds of various podcasts and interview shows hawking his book and its conclusions, so I had gotten the bullet, so to speak, a few times already. This is frequently and understandably the case with authors doing the promotional circuit and repeating the same talking points with each appearance. Some fare better in that regard, some worse. Zeihan is among the worse, partly because he has recently entered the doomosphere (or collapse space, if one prefers) publicly, whereas I’m not an ingénue on the subject so not easily led. Thus far, I’ve only read the introduction, so rather than book blogging, let me instead admit a few of my biases openly, mostly based on what I’ve learned about collapse over the past decade and a half, without any expectation that Zeihan will dispel or overcome them in the course of 475 pp. (not counting acknowledgements and index).

Measurement. As a demographer, Zeihan repeats one of the most basic conceptual errors in science, namely, that by taking the measure of something one can reveal its secrets. With human population trends in particular, measurement is unambiguous and easily mistaken for staring into a crystal ball — so long as history remains basically continuous. Thus, the phrase demographics is destiny gets batted around (sometimes disputed — do a search) as though the prophesied future is as inevitable and inescapable as the rising and setting sun. Well, demographics is in fact pretty reliable until the appearance of one or more metaphorical black swans. Flocks of them have been circling around the early 21st century.

Totality. The term globalization might be properly limited to use in economics, but it describes industrial civilization as well. When one collapses, so, too, does the other. They’re inextricably linked and form a unity or totality. No doubt different regions and/or geographies will collapse differently; that’s not in dispute. However, the title suggests grievous loss followed (immediately?) by opportunity. As I’ve understood various collapse scenarios (those parts that can be reliably anticipated), none permit a quick restart or global reset. Rather, the bottleneck will be severe enough, the loss of habitat and resources so egregious, that what remnants manage to survive (no assurances) will be tiny, barbarous, and extremely localized (including the bolthole billionaires, but then, calling them barbarous is a tautology) compared to the nearly eight billion global citizens now alive in the short-lived Age of Abundance. The beginning of what, exactly? After most species succumb just as in previous major extinction events (usually an extensive process but this time sped up by orders of magnitude), it will be a very quiet Earth for tens or hundreds of millions of years if it bounces back at all (no assurances).

Terraforming. Like it or not, human activity and ingenuity have essentially terraformed the planet, but not intentionally or for the better. Sure, we have skyscrapers, giant transportation and energy networks, enough archived knowledge and entertainment to sate even the most insatiable intellects consumers, and all the manifold material glories and know-how of the modern era. But on balance, our own refuse is littering literally every place around the Earth (air, water, soil, in orbit), a mixture of plastics and toxic waste in waterways and soils make water (beyond headwaters) undrinkable and many foods unhealthy, lacking in nutrition, and even carcinogenic, and subtle alterations in atmospheric chemistry are changing the climate. These are catastrophes so big and diffuse they might as well be invisible; many people simply can’t grok them. The terraformed planet is now a sacrifice zone, exploited and despoiled ruthlessly for short-term gain leaving no future worth living. Global supply chains are already breaking down and will not be able to adjust fast enough to avoid a megadeath pulse.

Hubris. Zeihan is a geopolitical strategist. Even if he’s correct in his analyses and prognostications, even if leaders heed his advice and prepare responsibly, even if all of humanity pulls together somehow to address cascade failure and eventual collapse, there is no reason to expect that history writ large can be steered toward desired outcomes to avoid worst case scenarios now barreling at us. That’s simply not the way history unfolds, and experience demonstrates that those who try to exert god-like influence over human affairs become maniacs, despots, and tyrants who generally manage to make matters worse. The world is already experiencing diasporas from politically, socially, economically, and ecologically destabilized regions, and the obvious, humane response (i.e., take them in) has been limited because those countries regarded as lifeboats (true or not) can’t haul them all aboard. The book’s Table of Contents doesn’t indicate consideration of that demographic effect and the index doesn’t list the term diaspora. Yet Zeihan’s got everything figgered well enough to offer strategic advice?

I support the idea of studying history to better understand ourselves in the present. But that can’t be the limit of a book with the tease “… just the beginning” right there in the title. Macrohistory is going to roll over all of us no matter what, and it’s wishful thinking to believe much can be done at this point to redirect the terrible consequences and momentum of past centuries. Although academics can recognize in hindsight major influences, technologies, ideologies, and inflection points that delivered us to this point in history, and perhaps even see how some near-term developments will break good or bad depending on fortuitous circumstance, no one planned, directed, or chose any of the epochal shifts of the past. Rather, human societies and civilizations muddle through and adapt continuously until — at last — they can’t anymore. Then they collapse. It’s happened over and over but never before (that can be ascertained) at a global scale. Yet Zeihan promises a new beginning. I, OTOH, can offer no assurances.

Is militarism the gift that just keeps giving? To war profiteers it is. From an article in Harper’s Magazine (Nov. 2021) entitled “Ad Astra” by Rachel Riederer, I learned a host of truly awful aspects to U.S.-styled militarism. Foremost among them is that time (July 8, 1962) the U.S. detonated a nuke in space to see what would happen. This event, known as Starfish Prime and a part of larger projects Operation Fishbowl and Operation Dominic, occurred toward the end of above-ground nuclear testing, an era that contributed significantly to the Cold War and was fraught with atomic angst (which resurfaced in the 1980s and yet again in the 2020s — as a culture, we repeatedly forget then remember). If I learned about these miserable activities earlier in life, I’ve since suppressed them forgotten; learning of them now is still absolutely horrifying. Another aspect is the existence of the Outer Space Treaty (OST) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1967. The main objectives of the OST include nonappropriation of celestial bodies (meaning that potential resources in space are a commons to be exploited freely, if not equally) and nonweaponization (meaning that weapons could not be deployed in space). Starfish Prime predated the OST.

Considering how long this madness has been going on, I paused to wonder whether 45’s creation of the Space Force wasn’t another example of a chief executive inadvertently crystallizing the moment (now the fourth in a series of blog posts). It was risible at the time, but that might have been naïveté on my part, as the article mentioned above suggests. The question for me was never whether the U.S. should deploy weapons and fighters in space (unequivocal “no!”) but whether it’s inevitable that the U.S. (or another country) does it anyway in defiance of the OST. Such a deployment would be a giant boondoggle, adding to the crazy portion of national resources already devoted to “defense.” Given the maniacal direction the military-industrial complex has been pointed for many decades, along with foolish investment in whiz-bang hypercomplexity (e.g., orbital communications and surveillance), I get that the U.S. has assets in place to protect. However, those assets are fragile and highly vulnerable to interference and attack should someone get it in their heads to move in earnest against the U.S. Furthermore, it should be obvious to anyone paying even a little attention that the leviathan humans created (i.e., industrial civilization) is creaking and groaning under its own weight and momentum and cannot be sustained much longer. Extending armed conflict into the final frontier, as it were, just might be the last, insane hurrah of leaders and despots behaving like boys with toys, unconcerned with the damage done by their actions.

On a darkly humorous note, I saw that Caitlin Johnstone named the various branches of the U.S. war machine armed services:

  • Army
  • Navy
  • Air Force
  • Marines
  • Coast Guard
  • Space Force
  • Mainstream Media

As part of patriotic concerts every summer, I perform some version of the Armed Forces Salute/Medley, an audience favorite. Thus far, no one (so far as I know) has arranged a new version including a tune for the Space Force. I suggest the main title theme from Star Wars should be appropriated adopted unapologetically. No suggestion for the mainstream media, whose inclusion wouldn’t work for jingoistic audiences.

Update: I was just a few days early. The Space Force now has an official song:

Cynics knew it was inevitable: weaponized drones and robots. Axon Enterprises, Inc., maker of police weaponry (euphemistically termed “public safety technologies”), announced its development of taser equipped drones presumed capable of neutralizing an active shooter inside of 60 seconds. Who knows what sorts of operating parameters restrict their functions or if they can be made invulnerable to hacking or disallowed use as offensive weapons?

A sane, civilized society would recognize that, despite bogus memes about an armed society being a polite society, the prospect of everyone being strapped (like the fabled Old American West) and public spaces (schools, churches, post offices, laundromats, etc.) each being outfitted with neutralizing technologies is fixing the wrong problem. But we are no longer a sane society (begging the question whether we ever were). So let me suggest something radical yet obvious: the problem is not technological, it’s cultural. The modern world has made no progress with respect to indifference toward the suffering of others. Dehumanizing attitudes and technologies are no longer, well, medieval, but they’re no less cruel. For instance, people are not put in public stocks or drawn and quartered anymore, but they are shamed, cancelled, tortured, terrorized, propagandized, and abandoned in other ways that allow maniacs to pretend to others and to themselves that they are part of the solution. Hard to believe that one could now feel nostalgia for the days when, in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, calls for gun control were met with inaction (other then empty rhetoric) rather than escalation.

The problem with diagnosing the problem as cultural is that no one is in control. Like water, culture goes where it goes and apparently sinks to its lowest ebb. Attempts to channel, direct, and uplift culture might work on a small scale, but at the level of society — and with distorted incentives freedom is certain to deliver — malefactors are guaranteed to appear. Indeed, anything that contributes to the arms race (now tiny, remote-controlled, networked killing devices rather than giant atomic/nuclear ones) only invites greater harm and is not a solution. Those maniacs (social and technical engineers promising safety) have the wrong things wrong.

Small, insular societies with strict internal codes of conduct may have figured out something that large, free societies have not, namely, that mutual respect, knowable communities, and repudiation of advanced technologies give individuals something and someone to care about, a place to belong, and things to do. When the entire world is thrown open, such as with social media, populations become atomized and anonymized, unable to position or understand themselves within a meaningful social context. Anomie and nihilism are often the rotten fruit. Splintered family units, erosion of community involvement, and dysfunctional institutions add to the rot. Those symptoms of cultural collapse need to be addressed even if they are among the most difficult wrong things to get right.

I’ve quoted Caitlin Johnstone numerous times, usually her clever aphorisms. Her takes on geopolitics also ring fundamentally true to me, but then, I find it simple and obvious to be against empire, needless war, and wanton destruction just as she is. That’s not the position of most warmongers important decision makers driving cultural and political narratives, who are reflexively imperial, excited by war, self-aggrandizing, and reckless in their pursuits no matter who suffers (it’s rarely them). Anyway, I had not checked her blog for a while, which for me is too much like staring at the sun. Indeed, that same reason is why I stopped reading TomDispatch and have mostly backed away from Bracing Views. Geopolitics is just too ugly, too incoherent, too raving insane to be believed. However, these paragraphs (from here) caught my attention:

Humanity’s major problems arise from the impulse to control. Ecocide arises from the impulse to control nature. Empire arises from the impulse to control civilizations. Oligarchy arises from the impulse to control political outcomes. Ego arises from the impulse to control life.

A healthy humanity would be free of the impulse to manipulate and exert control: over life, over people, over nature. But it would be so different from the humanity we know now that falling into that way of functioning would be a kind of death. And it would feel like a death.

Sometimes it seems like people want the world to end, want humanity to go extinct. I’d suggest that this may be a confused expression of an intuited truth: that there’s something good on the other side of ending all this. But it’s the end of our dysfunction, not of our species.

I initially misread the first sentence as “Humanity’s major problems arise from lack of impulse control.” Self-restraint (also self-abnegation?) is the quality I find most lacking in everyone, especially our species-level consumption, whether for nourishment, enrichment, or meaningless status. Writ large, we just can’t seem to stop our gluttony, or put another way, suffer the inability to recognize when enough is enough. Johnstone’s remarks that giving up control feels like death echo others who have described the leaders of industrial civilization, politicians and corporate CEOs alike, as members of a global death cult driving everyone ineluctably toward early extinction. While safety, security, and profit are ostensible near-term goals, mechanisms developed to achieve those goals involve no small amount of death dealing. And because civilizational dynamics (observed many times over by those who study such things) demonstrate ebb and flow over time (centuries and millennia) — e.g., the inevitable collapse of industrial civilization and knowing destruction of the planet (specifically, the biosphere habitable by humans and other species) — the willingness to pursue and perpetuate a destructive way of life is maniacal and insane. Whereas Johnstone believes giving up (illusory) control passes as eventual release from earthly torments or at least an opportunity to create something smarter, wiser, and perhaps more restrained than the outright energy binge we’ve been on for the past two centuries, my expectation is that self-annihilation will be total and complete. No one gets out alive; there is nothing beyond.

Here’s a deal many people would take: you get to live in the First World and enjoy the ample albeit temporary benefits of a modern, post-industrial economy, but to enable you, people in the Third World must be brutally exploited, mostly out of sight and out of mind. (Dunno what to say about the Second World; comparisons are typically hi-lo. And besides, that Cold War nomenclature is probably badly out of date.) There no need to say “would take,” of course, because that’s already the default in the First World. Increasingly, that’s also the raw deal experienced by the lower/working class in the United States, which now resembles other failed states. People without means are driven into cycles of poverty or channeled into the prison-industrial complex to labor for a pittance. That’s not enough, though. The entirety of public health must be gamed as a profit center for Big Pharma, which wrings profit out of suffering just like the U.S. prison system. That’s one of the principal takeaways from the last two years of pandemic. Indeed, from a capitalist perspective, that’s what people are for: to feed the beast (i.e., produce profit for the ownership class). For this very reason — the inhumanity of exploiting and subjugating people — critics of capitalism believe the ruthlessness of the profit motive cannot be tempered and the economic system is ripe for replacement.

Arguments that, “yeah, sure, it’s a flawed system but it’s still the best one on offer” are unconvincing. Rather, they’re a rationalization for lack of imagination how a better, more equitable system might be developed and tried. Human nature, frankly as “animal” as any other animal, also discourages anyone from rising above social conditioning or breaking from the herd. Instead, history forces fundamental change only when decrepit systems no longer function. Late-stage capitalism, having reached nearly the full extent of easily exploitable resources (materials and labor), is creaking and groaning under the weight of its inbuilt perpetual growth imperative. The dynamic is nonnegotiable, as measures of gross national product (GNP) are only acceptable if a positive index, the higher the better. Whereas previous social/economic systems failed in fits and starts, transitioning gradually from one to the next, it’s doubtful capitalism can morph gracefully into a new system given its momentum and totalizing character.

For many millennia, slavery was the solution to labor needs, which became morally intolerable especially in the 19th century but was really only driven underground, never truly extinguished. That’s the point of the first paragraph above. Terminology and mechanisms have sometimes been swapped out, but the end result is scarcely less disagreeable for those on the bottom rungs. Globalization brought practically the entire world population into the money economy, which had been irrelevant to peasant and subsistence societies. Apologists often say that the spread of capitalism enabled those peoples to be lifted out of poverty. That’s a ridiculous claim while wealth/income inequality continues to launch the ultrarich into the stratosphere (literally in the infamous case of at least a couple billionaires) compared to the masses. Yes, refrigerators and cell phones are now commonplace, but those are hardly the best measures of human wellbeing.

So what’s person of conscience to do? Born into a socioeconomic system from which there is no escape — at least until it all collapses — is there any way not to be evil, to not exploit others? Hard to say, considering we all consume (in varying degrees) products and services obtained and provided through the machinations of large corporations exploiting humans and nature on our behalf. When it all does collapse in a heap of death and destruction, don’t look for high-minded reexamination of the dynamics that led to that endgame. Rather, it will be everyone for themselves in a futile attempt to preserve life against all odds.