Posts Tagged ‘Economics’

Back to an old complaint on mine: living in a world so polluted that it’s impossible to assert that pristine, untouched (by human interventions) places exist anymore. Every bit of soil, water, and air is now affected by chemical alteration. degradation, and pollutants subtle and gross. Was intrigued to learn that despite despoliation, life finds a way (for now, anyway): a new marine ecosystem has formed in the middle of the ocean, normally devoid of much life, amongst the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (which goes by other names). Here’s the abstract from a scientific paper on the subject:

… the high seas are colonized by a diverse array of coastal species, which survive and reproduce in the open ocean, contributing strongly to its floating community composition. Analysis of rafting plastic debris in the eastern North Pacific Subtropical Gyre revealed 37 coastal invertebrate taxa, largely of Western Pacific origin, exceeding pelagic taxa richness by threefold. Coastal taxa, including diverse taxonomic groups and life history traits, occurred on 70.5% of debris items. Most coastal taxa possessed either direct development or asexual reproduction, possibly facilitating long-term persistence on rafts … results suggest that the historical lack of available substrate limited the colonization of the open ocean by coastal species, rather than physiological or ecological constraints as previously assumed. It appears that coastal species persist now in the open ocean as a substantial component of a neopelagic community sustained by the vast and expanding sea of plastic debris.

This news reminds me of flourishing ecosystems (significantly, absent humans) in Le Zone Rouge and the Chernobyl exclusion zone. To bright-siders, maybe these examples are glass-half-full observations, meaning take whatever good news presents itself and move on. Of course, I’m a glass-half-empty type, disgusted and dispirited by the very existence of all our floating refuse, which is expected to triple by 2060, largely from single-use plastics. (Readers are spared the indignity of stomach-churning pictures of trash floating in the ocean or beaches strewn with trash.) Everyone knows by now a good portion of human trash ends up in garbage gyres in all the major oceanic bodies. Yet transition to a better mode of packaging and consumption to avoid further wreckage appears nowhere on the horizon. Although each of us participates at some level (by virtue of being alive) in the cycle of extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal, I really blame industry for refusing steadfastly to adopt practices that don’t lead to obvious harms; I blame governments for not regulating industries that pollute wantonly; and I blame economists for failing to account for externalities such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch because, well, to do so would invalidate most business models.

So chalk another one up for the bad guys. A tiny thread of sliver silver lining pokes through an otherwise suffocating blanket of darkness.

Even without being a historian (you or me), it’s easy to recognize seminal figures in U.S. history who have articulated the basic ideology behind what has grown to be a maniacal notion of what a world power can and should be. For instance, not very long after the American Revolution and the purported end of the Colonial Era, President James Monroe established the Monroe Doctrine, claiming the entire Western Hemisphere as being within America’s sphere of influence and warning others across the Atlantic not to intervene. Later in the 19th century, Abraham Lincoln responded to the Southern Secession by launching the American Civil War, establishing that no state could leave the Union. A period of isolationism followed, broken when the U.S. joined WWI (unclear to me why the U.S. fought that war). Woodrow Wilson laid out the principles of liberal internationalism in 1917:

The American military, the president told a joint session of Congress, was a force that could be used to make the world “safe for democracy” … Wilson’s doctrine was informed by two main ideas: first, the Progressive Era fantasy that modern technologies and techniques — especially those borrowed from the social sciences — could enable the rational management of foreign affairs, and second, the notion that “a partnership of democratic nations” was the surest way to establish a “steadfast concert for peace.”

from “Empire Burlesque” by Daniel Bessner (Harper’s Magazine, July 2022)

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Note that that bit of rhetoric, “safe for democracy,” has been trotted out for over a century now yet shows no sign of losing its mojo. It helps, of course, that no one really knows what democracy is anymore. The public is subjected to relentless narrative spin and propaganda, bread and circuses, and inferior to nonexistent education that muddies the concept beyond recognition. Ten months prior to the U.S. entry into the next world war, influential American magazine publisher (Time, Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated) Henry Luce added further justification for growing U.S. geopolitical ambitions:

… the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the United States, which had already been aiding the Allies, officially entered the war. Over the next four years, a broad swath of the foreign policy elite arrived at Luce’s conclusion [from just before the war]: the only way to guarantee the world’s safety was for the United States to dominate it. By the war’s end, Americans had accepted this righteous duty, of becoming, in Luce’s words, “the powerhouse … lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmist called a little lower than the angels.”

from “Empire Burlesque” by Daniel Bessner (Harper’s Magazine, July 2022)

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There has since been no going back, only solidification and strengthening of what is called The American Century (thanks again to Luce) but really represents the spread of a global empire. So much for the end of colonialism, now pursued primarily through other means but still reverting to overt militarism whenever and wherever necessary. Just like civilizations, empires have come and gone throughout human history with power centers shifting somewhat reliably if unpredictably. The American Empire will undoubtedly join others in the dustbin of history no matter whether anyone survives the 21st century to survey the wreckage. Moreover, the illusion that The American Century can be extended is handily dispelled by the Macrofutilist, noting that corporations are leading the charge into the abyss:

Humans have no agency in this world dominated, at every institution and at every level of those institutions, by corporations and states that function as corporations. Under the rubric of the corporation, every public good or resource is under relentless exploitation, subject only to the fictional “control” by political or legal structures. Bolstered by near-total capture of every ancillary human social event or condition, corporations are wonderfully positioned to lead humanity off its cliff of resource degradation and impending scarcity … The horror is so monumental, so vast in its iniquity, so above any moderation, so all-consuming in its reach, so supreme in its command, that the subject of corporate ownership of the means of species destruction risks becoming boring. Who has the right to speak of “resistance” or “change” or “giving back” when all forms of social control are under obdurate corporate ownership?

from Corporations Are the Perfect Vehicle to Drive Humanity to Its Self-Extinction

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Although it’s impossible to establish beyond reasonable doubt who’s actually driving the bus — corporations, the military-industrial complex (those two form a tautology by now), elected members of government, the Deep State, or some other nefarious cabal — it’s probably fair to say that members of each group have taken into their hearts the desire for full-spectrum dominance. That term originally meant complete military control of a theater of war. However, as its very name frankly admits, activities of the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government signal a new style of Hobbesian war of all against all has begun. Indeed, what I used to call creeping fascism no longer needs the modifier creeping. The end game may have finally arrived, the evidence being everywhere if one has the fortitude to look.

Continuing from pt. 01, the notion of privilege took an unexpected turn for me recently when the prospect inevitability of demographic collapse came back onto my radar. I scoffed at the demographer’s crystal ball earlier not because I disagree with the assessments or numbers but because, like so many aspects of the collapse of industrial civilization, demographic collapse lies squarely beyond anyone’s control. My questions in reply are basically Yeah? And? So? Do a search on demographic collapse and it will reveal a significant number of reports, with reporters themselves (including the worst contemporary media whore and glory hound who shall forever remain unnamed at this site) freaking out and losing their collective minds, on the hows, whys, wheres, and whens population will crash. The most immediate worrisome aspect is anticipated inversion of the youngest being the most numerous, the usual state of affairs, to the oldest being the most numerous and flatly unsupportable by the young. This has been the basic warning about Social Security for decades already: too few paying in, too many granted benefits. See also this documentary film being prepared for imminent release. I suspect supporting annotations will appear in time.

Probably not fair to call capitalism and its support structures a Ponzi scheme (latecomers to the scheme supporting earlier entrants), but the desire to perpetuate historical demographic distributions (as opposed to what? yielding to the drift of history?) is clearly part of the perpetual growth mentality. Traditionally, prior to the 20th century in the West, when the vast majority of people participated in agrarian and/or subsistence economies instead of the money economy, children were desirable not least because they provided free labor until they were grown, were positioned to take over family farms and businesses, and cared for oldsters when that time came. Intergenerational continuity and stability were maintained and it was generally accepted that each generation would supplant the previous through the seasons of life. The money economy destroyed most of that. Many young adult children now exercise their options (privilege) and break away as soon as possible (as I did) in search of economic opportunity in cities and form their own families (or don’t, as I didn’t). Estrangement and abandonment may not be complete, but families being spread across the continent certainly limits extended family cohesion to holidays and occasional visits. Oldsters (in the affluent West anyway) are now typically shuttled off to (euphemism alert) retirement homes to be warehoused prior to dying. Easier to pay someone to perform that service than to do it oneself, apparently. So if older people are currently privileged over the young (in some ways at least), that condition is being reversed because, dammit, children are in short supply yet needed desperately to keep growth on track.

Demographers point to a number of factors that have conspired to create the crisis (one of many interlocking crises some intellectuals have begun calling the polycrisis). The two main factors are declining fertility and reproductive choice. My suspicion is that the toxic environment, one result of centuries of industrial activity with plastics and drugs now found in human bodies where they don’t belong, accounts for many fertility issues. Add to that poor food quality (i.e., malnutrition, not just poor diets) and it’s easy to understand why healthy pregnancies might be more difficult in the 21st century than before. I’m not qualified to support that assessment, so take it for what it’s worth. Reproductive choice, another recently acquired female privilege (in historical terms), is a function of several things: financial independence, educational attainment, and availability of birth control. Accordingly, more women are choosing either to defer having children while they establish careers or choose not to have children at all. (Men make those choices, too.) Delays unexpectedly leave lots of women unable to have children for failure to find a suitable mate or having spent their best reproductive years doing other things. As I understand it, these correlations are borne out in some harrowing statistics. As the polycrisis deepens, a philosophical choice not to bring children into the world (just to suffer and die young) is also a motivation to remain childless.

(more…)

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.

When the Canadian Freedom Convoy appeared out of nowhere over a month ago and managed to bring the Canadian capitol (Ottawa, Ontario) to a grinding halt, the news was reported with a variety of approaches. Witnessing “democracy” in action, even though initiated by a small but important segment of society, became a cause célèbre, some rallying behind the truckers as patriots and other deploring them as terrorists. Lots of onlookers in the middle ground, to be certain, but the extremes tend to define issues these days, dividing people into permafeuding Hatfields and McCoys. The Canadian government stupidly branded the truckers as terrorists, finally dispersing the nonviolent protest with unnecessary force. The Canadian model sparked numerous copycat protests around the globe.

One such copycat protest, rather late to the party, is The People’s Convoy in the U.S., which is still underway. Perhaps the model works only in the first instance, or maybe U.S. truckers learned something from the Canadian example, such as illegal seizure of crowdfunded financial support. Or maybe the prospect of confronting the U.S. military in one of the most heavily garrisoned locations in the world gave pause. (Hard to imagine Ottawa, Ontario, being ringed by military installations like D.C. is.) Either way, The People’s Convoy has not attempted to blockade D.C. Nor has the U.S. convoy been widely reported as was the Canadian version, which was a grass-roots challenge to government handling of the pandemic. Yeah, there’s actually an underlying issue. Protesters are angry about public health mandates and so-called vaccine passports that create a two-tier society. Regular folks must choose between bodily autonomy and freedom of movement on one hand and on the other compliance with mandates that have yet to prove themselves effective against spread of the virus. Quite a few people have already chosen to do as instructed, whether out of earnest belief in the efficacy of mandated approaches or to keep from falling into the lower of the two tiers. So they socially distance, wear masks, take the jab (and follow-up boosters), and provide papers upon demand. Protesters are calling for all those measures to end.

If the Canadian convoy attracted worldwide attention, the U.S. convoy has hardly caused a stir and is scarcely reported outside the foreign press and a few U.S. superpatriot websites. I observed years ago about The Republic of Lakota that the U.S. government essentially stonewalled that attempt at secession. Giving little or no official public attention to the People’s Convoy, especially while attention has turned to war between Russia and Ukraine, has boiled down to “move along, nothing to see.” Timing for the U.S. truckers could not possibly be worse. However, my suspicion is that privately, contingency plans were made to avoid the embarrassment the Canadian government suffered, which must have included instructing the media not to report on the convoy and getting search engines to demote search results that might enable the movement to go viral, so to speak. The conspiracy of silence is remarkable. Yet people line the streets and highways in support of the convoy. Sorta begs the question “what if they threw a protest but no one came?” A better question might be “what if they started a war but no one fought?”

Gross (even criminal) mismanagement of the pandemic is quickly being shoved down the memory hole as other crises and threats displace a two-year ordeal that resulted in significant loss of life and even greater, widespread loss of livelihoods and financial wellbeing among many people who were already teetering on the edge. Psychological impacts are expected to echo for generations. Frankly, I’m astonished that a far-reaching civil crack-up hasn’t already occurred. Yet despite these foreground tribulations and more besides (e.g., inflation shifting into hyperinflation, food and energy scarcity, the financial system failing every few years, and the epistemological crisis that has made every institution flatly untrustworthy), the background crisis is still the climate emergency. Governments around the world, for all the pomp and circumstance of the IPCC and periodic cheerleading conferences, have stonewalled that issue, too. Some individuals take the climate emergency quite seriously; no government does, at least by their actions. Talk is comparatively cheap. Like foreground and background, near- and far-term prospects just don’t compete. Near-term appetites and desires always win. Psychologists report that deferred gratification (e.g., the marshmallow test) is among the primary predictors of future success for individuals. Institutions, governments, and societies are in aggregate mindless and can’t formulate plans beyond the next election cycle, academic year, or business quarter to execute programs that desperately need doing. This may well be why political theorists observe that liberal democracies are helpless to truly accomplish things, whereas authoritarian regimes centered on an individual (i.e., a despot) can get things done though at extreme costs to members of society.

A quick search revealed that over 15 years of blog posts, the word macrohistory has been used only once. On reflection, macrohistory is something in which I’ve been involved for some time — mostly as a dilettante. Several book reviews and three book-blogging series (one complete, two either on hiatus or fully abandoned) concern macrohistory, and my own several multi-part blogs connect disparate dots over broader topics (if not quite history in the narrow sense). My ambition, as with macrohistory, is to tease out better (if only slightly) understandings of ourselves (since humans and human culture are obviously the most captivating thing evar). Scientists direct similar fascination to the inner workings of nonhuman systems — or at least larger systems in which humans are embedded. Thus, macrohistory can be distinguished from natural history by their objects of study. Relatedly, World-Systems Theory associated with Immanuel Wallerstein and The Fourth Turning (1997 book by William Strauss and Neil Howe) take similarly broad perspectives and attempt to identify historical dynamics and patterns not readily apparent. Other examples undoubtedly exist.

This is all preliminary to discussing a rather depressing article from the December 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine: Rana Dasgupta’s disquieting (ahem) essay “The Silenced Majority” (probably behind a paywall). The subtitle poses the question, “Can America still afford democracy?” This innocuous line begs the question whether the U.S. (America and the United States of America [and its initialisms U.S. and U.S.A.] being sloppily equivalent almost everywhere, whereas useful distinctions describe the United Kingdom, Great Britain, and England) actually has or practices democracy anymore, to which many would answer flatly “nope.” The essay is an impressive exercise, short of book length, in macrohistory, though it’s limited to Western cultures, which is often the case with history told from inside the bubble. Indeed, if (as the aphorism goes) history is written/told primarily by the victors, one might expect to hear only of an ongoing series of victories and triumphs with all the setbacks, losses, and discontinuities excised like some censored curated Twitter or Facebook Meta discussion. One might also wonder how that same history reads when told from the perspective of non-Western countries, especially those in transitional regions such as Poland, Ukraine, Turkey, and Iran or those with histories long predating the rise of the West roughly 500 years ago, i.e., China, Japan, Egypt, and the lost cultures of Central America. Resentments of the Islamic world, having been eclipsed by the West, are a case in point. My grasp of world history is insufficient to entertain those perspectives. I note, however, that with globalism, the histories of all regions of the world are now intimately interconnected even while perspectives differ.

Dasgupta describes foundational Enlightenment innovations that animate Western thinking, even though the ideas are often poorly contextualized or understood. To wit:

In the seventeenth century, England was an emerging superpower. Supremacy would come from its invention of a world principle of property. This principle was developed following contact with the Americas, where it became possible to conjure vast new English properties “out of nothing”—in a way that was impracticable, for instance, in the militarized, mercantile societies of India. Such properties were created by a legal definition of ownership designed so that it could be applied only to the invaders. “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of,” John Locke wrote in 1689, “so much is his property.” When combined with other new legal categories such as “the savage” and “the state of nature,” this principle of property engendered societies such as Carolina, where Locke’s patron, the first earl of Shaftesbury, was a lord proprietor.

Obvious, isn’t it, that by imposing the notion of private property on indigenous inhabitants of North America, colonialists established ownership rights over territories where none had previously existed? Many consider that straightforward theft (again, begging the question) or at least fencing the commons. (Attempts to do the same in the open oceans and in space [orbit] will pick up as technology allows, I surmise.) In addition, extension of property ownership to human trafficking, i.e., slavery and its analogues still practiced today, has an exceptionally long history and was imported to the Americas, though the indigenous population proved to be poor candidates for subjugation. Accordingly, others were brought to North America in slave trade that extended across four centuries.

Dasgupta goes on:

From their pitiless opposition to the will of the people, we might imagine that British elites were dogmatic and reactionary. (Period dramas depicting stuck-up aristocrats scandalized by eccentricity and innovation flatter this version of history.) The truth is that they were open-minded radicals. They had no sentimentality about the political order, cutting the head off one king and sending another into exile. They could invent financial and legal structures (such as the Bank of England, founded in 1694) capable of releasing unprecedented market energies. Even their decision to exploit American land with African labor demonstrated their world-bending pursuit of wealth. Their mines and plantations would eventually supply the capital for the first industrial revolution. They loved fashion and technology, they believed in rationality, progress, and transparency. They were the “founding fathers” of our modern world.

And yet they presided over a political system as brutal as it was exclusive. Why? The answer is simple. They could not afford democracy, but also, crucially, they did not need it. [emphasis in original]

So much for the awe and sacred respect in which Enlightenment philosophers and the Founders are held — or used to be. Statues of these dudes (always dudes, natch) are being pulled down all the time. Moreover, association of liberal democracy with the 17th century is a fundamental mistake, though neoliberalism (another poorly defined and understood term) aims to shift backwards to a former or hybrid state of human affairs some are beginning to call digital feudalism.

The article goes on to discuss the balancing act and deals struck over the course of centuries to maintain economic and political control by the ownership class. It wasn’t until the 1930s and the postwar economic boom in the U.S. that democracy as commonly understood took root significantly. The labor movement in particular was instrumental in forcing FDR’s New Deal social programs, even though populism and socialism as political movements had been successfully beaten back. Interestingly, the hallowed American nuclear family (limited in its scope racially), an ahistorical formation that enjoyed a roughly 30-year heyday from 1945 to 1975, coincides with the rise of the American middle class and now-aged democratic institutions. They’re all connected with widely distributed wealth and prosperity. But after the oil crisis and stagflation of the middle 1970s, gains enjoyed by the middle class have steadily eroded and/or been actively beaten back (again!) so that dominant themes today are austerity imposed on the masses and inequality coughing up hundy-billionaires with increasing frequency. Estimates are that 30-40% of the American citizenry lives in poverty, bumping up against failed state territory. Inequality has returned to Gilded Age levels if not exceeded them. Dasgupta fails to cite perhaps the major underlying cause of this shift away from affordable democracy, back toward the brutal, world principal of property: falling EROI. Cheap foreign labor, productivity gains, and creation of a giant debtor society have simply not offset the disappearance of cheap energy.

Dasgupta’s further discussion of an emerging two-tier economy along with the Silicon Valley technocracy follows, but I’ll stop short here and encourage readers instead to investigate and think for themselves. Lots of guides and analyses help to illuminate the macrohistory, though I find the conclusions awful in their import. Dasgupta drives home the prognosis:

The neoliberal revolution aimed to restore the supremacy of capital after its twentieth-century subjugation by nation-states, and it has succeeded to an astonishing degree. As states compete and collude with gargantuan new private powers, a new political world arises. The principle of labor, which dominated the twentieth century—producing the industrious, democratic society we have come to regard, erroneously, as the norm—is once again being supplanted by a principle of property, the implications and consequences of which we know only too well from our history books.

/rant on

Since deleting from my blogroll all doom links and turning my attention elsewhere, the lurking dread of looming collapse (all sorts) has been at low ebb at The Spiral Staircase. Despite many indicators of imminent collapse likewise purged from front-page and top-of-the-broadcast news, evidence continues to mount while citizens contend with other issues, some political and geopolitical, others day-to-day tribulations stemming from politics, economics, and the ongoing pandemic. For instance, I only just recently learned that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC — oh yeah … them) issued AR6 last month, the sixth periodic Assessment Report (maybe instead call it the State of the Union Address Planet Report). It’s long, dense reading (the full report is nearly 4,000 pp., whereas the summary for policymakers is a mere 42 pp.) and subject to nearly continuous revision and error correction. The conclusion? Climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying. And although it’s true that mundane daily activities occupy center stage in the lives of average folks, there is simply no bigger story or concern for government leaders (I choke on that term) and journalists (that one, too) than climate change because it represents (oh, I dunno …) the collapse of industrial civilization and the early phase of mass extinction. Thus, all politics, geopolitics, economic warfare, class struggle, Wokeism, authoritarian seizure of power, and propaganda filling the minds of people at all levels as well as the institutions they serve amount to a serious misallocation of attention and effort. I will admit, though, that it’s both exhausting and by now futile to worry too much about collapse. Maybe that’s why the climate emergency (the new, improved term) is relegated to background noise easily tuned out.

It’s not just background noise, though, unlike the foreknowledge that death awaits decades from now if one is fortunate to persist into one’s 70s or beyond. No, it’s here now, outside (literally and figuratively), knocking on the door. Turn off your screens and pay attention! (Ironically, everyone now gets the lion’s share of information from screens, not print. So sue me.) Why am I returning to this yet again? Maybe I’ve been reviewing too many dystopian films and novels. Better answer is that those charged with managing and administering states and nations are failing so miserably. It’s not even clear that they’re trying, so pardon me, but I’m rather incensed. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of knowledgeable experts compiling data, writing scientific reports, publishing books, and offering not solutions exactly but at least better ways to manage our affairs. Among those experts, the inability to reverse the climate emergency is well enough understood though not widely acknowledged. (See Macro-Futilism on my blogroll for at least one truth teller who absolutely gets it.) Instead, some lame version of the same dire warning issues again and again: if action isn’t taken now (NOW, dammit!), it will be too late and all will be lost. The collective response is not, however, to pull back, rein in, or even prepare for something less awful than the worst imaginable hard landing where absolutely no one survives despite the existence of boltholes and underground bunkers. Instead, it’s a nearly gleeful acceleration toward doom, like a gambler happily forking over his last twenty at the blackjack table before losing and chucking himself off the top of the casino parking structure. Finally free (if fleetingly)!

Will festering public frustration over deteriorating social conditions tip over into outright revolt, revolution, civil war, and/or regime change? Doesn’t have to be just one. Why is the U.S. still developing and stockpiling armaments, maintaining hundreds of U.S. military bases abroad, and fighting costly, pointless wars of empire (defeat in withdrawal from Afghanistan notwithstanding)? Will destruction of purchasing power of the U.S. dollar continue to manifest as inflation of food and energy costs? Is the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture actually doing anything to secure food systems, or does it merely prepare reports like the AR6 that no one reads or acts upon? Will fragile supply lines be allowed to fail entirely, sparking desperation and unrest in the streets far worse than summer 2020? Famine is how some believe collapse will trigger a megadeath pulse, but I wouldn’t count out chaotic violence among the citizenry, probably exacerbated and escalated as regimes attempt (unsuccessfully) to restore social order. Are any meaningful steps being taken to stop sucking from the fossil fuel teat and return to small-scale agrarian social organization, establishing degrowth and effectively returning to the land (repatriation is my preferred term) instead of going under it? Greenwashing doesn’t count. This headline (“We Live In A World Without Consequences Where Everyone Is Corrupt“) demonstrates pretty well that garbage economics are what pass for governance, primarily preoccupied with maintaining the capitalist leviathan that has captured everything (capture ought to be the trending word of the 2021 but sadly isn’t). Under such constraint, aged institutions are flatly unable to accomplish or even address their missions anymore. And this headline (“Polls Show That The American People Are Extremely Angry – And They Are About To Get Even Angrier“) promises that things are about to get much, much worse (omitted the obvious-but-erroneous follow-on “before they get better”) — for the obvious reason that more and more people are at the ends of their ropes while the privileged few attend the Met Gala, virtue signal with their butts, and behave as though society isn’t in fact cracking up. Soon enough, we’ll get to truth-test Heinlein’s misunderstood aphorism “… an armed society is a polite society.”

Those who prophesy dates or deadlines for collapse have often been slightly embarrassed (but relieved) that collapse didn’t arrive on schedule. Against all odds, human history keeps trudging further into borrowed time, kicking cans down roads, blowing bubbles, spinning false narratives, insisting that all this is fine, and otherwise living in make-believe land. Civilization has not quite yet reached the end of all things, but developments over the last couple months feel ever more keenly like the equivalent of Frodo and Sam sitting atop Mount Doom, just outside the Cracks of Doom (a/k/a Sammath Naur), except that humanity is not on a noble, sacrificial mission to unmake the One Ring, whatever that might represent outside of fiction (for Tolkien, probably industrial machines capable of planetary destruction, either slowly and steadily or all at once; for 21st-century armchair social critics like me, capitalism). All former certainties, guarantees, sureties, continuities, and warranties are slipping away despite the current administration’s assurances that the status quo will be maintained. Or maybe it’s merely the transition of summer into fall, presaging the annual dormancy of winter looking suspiciously this year like the great dying. Whatever. From this moment on and in a fit of exuberant pique, I’m willing to call the contest: humanity is now decidedly on the down slope. The true end of history approaches, as no one will be left to tell the tale. When, precisely, the runaway train finally careens over the cliff remains unknown though entirely foreseeable. The concentration of goofy references, clichés, and catchphrases above — usually the mark of sophomoric writing — inspires in me to indulge (further) in gallows humor. Consider these metaphors (some mixed) suggesting that time is running out:

  • the show’s not over til it’s over, but the credits are rolling
  • the chickens are coming home to roost
  • the canary in the coal mine is gasping its last breath
  • the fat lady is singing her swan song
  • borrowed time is nearly up
  • time to join the great majority (I see dead people …)
  • the West fades into the west
  • kiss your babies goodnight and kiss your ass goodbye

/rant off

Guy McPherson used to say in his presentations that we’re all born into bondage, meaning that there is no escape from Western civilization and its imperatives, including especially participation in the money economy. The oblique reference to chattel slavery is clumsy, perhaps, but the point is nonetheless clear. For all but a very few, civilization functions like Tolkien’s One Ring, bringing everyone ineluctably under its dominion. Enlightenment cheerleaders celebrate that circumstance and the undisputed material and technological (same thing, really) bounties of the industrial age, but Counter-Enlightenment thinkers recognize reasons for profound discontent. Having blogged at intervals about the emerging Counter-Enlightenment and what’s missing from modern technocratic society, my gnawing guilt by virtue of forced participation in the planet-killing enterprise of industrial civilization is growing intolerable. Skipping past the conclusion drawn by many doomers that collapse and ecocide due to unrestrained human consumption of resources (and the waste stream that follows) have already launched a mass extinction that will extirpate most species (including large mammals such as humans), let me focus instead on gross dysfunction occurring at levels falling more readily within human control.

An Empire of War

Long overdue U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has already yielded Taliban resurgence, which was a foregone conclusion at whatever point U.S. troops left (and before them, Soviets). After all, the Taliban lives there and had only to wait. Distasteful and inhumane as it may be to Westerners, a powerful faction (religious fanatics) truly wants to live under a 7th-century style of patriarchy. Considering how long the U.S. occupied the country, a new generation of wannabe patriarchs came to adulthood — an unbroken intergenerational descent. Of course, the U.S. (and others) keeps arming them. Indeed, I heard that the U.S. military is considering bombing raids to destroy the war machines left behind as positions were so swiftly abandoned. Oops, too late! This is the handiest example how failed U.S. military escapades extending over decades net nothing of value to anyone besides weapons and ordnance manufacturers and miserable careerists within various government branches and agencies. The costs (e.g., money, lives, honor, sanity) are incalculable and spread with each country where the American Empire engages. Indeed, the military-industrial complex chooses intervention and war over peace at nearly every opportunity (though careful not to poke them bears too hard). And although the American public’s inability to affect policy (unlike the Vietnam War era) doesn’t equate with participation, the notion that it’s a government of the people deposits some of the blame on our heads anyway. My frustration is that nothing is learned and the same war crimes mistakes keep being committed by maniacs who ought to know better.

Crony and Vulture Capitalism

Critics of capitalism are being proven correct far more often than are apologists and earnest capitalists. The two subcategories I most deplore are crony capitalism and vulture capitalism, both of which typically accrue to the benefit of those in no real need of financial assistance. Crony capitalism is deeply embedded within our political system and tilts the economic playing field heavily in favor of those willing to both pay for and grant favors rather than let markets sort themselves out. Vulture capitalism extracts value out of dead hosts vulnerable resource pools by attacking and often killing them off (e.g., Microsoft, Walmart, Amazon), or more charitably, absorbing them to create monopolies, often by hostile takeover at steep discounts. Distressed mortgage holders forced into short sales, default, and eviction is the contemporary example. Rationalizing predatory behavior as competition is deployed regularly.

Other historical economic systems had similarly skewed hierarchies, but none have reached quite the same heartless, absurd levels of inequality as late-stage capitalism. Pointing to competing systems and the rising tide that lifts all boats misdirects people to make ahistorical comparisons. Human psychology normally restricts one’s points of comparison to contemporaries in the same country/region. Under such narrow comparison, the rank injustice of hundred-billionaires (or even simply billionaires) existing at the same time as giant populations of political/economic/climate refugees and the unhoused (the new, glossy euphemism for homelessness) demonstrates the soul-forfeiting callousness of the top quintile and/or 1% — an ancient lesson never learned. Indeed, aspirational nonsense repackages suffering and sells it back to the underclass, which as a matter of definition will always exist but need not have to live as though on an entirely different planet from Richistan.

Human Development

Though I’ve never been a big fan of behaviorism, the idea that a hypercomplex stew of influences, inputs, and stimuli leads to better or worse individual human development, especially in critical childhood years but also throughout life, is pretty undeniable. As individuals aggregate into societies, the health and wellbeing of a given society is linked to the health and wellbeing of those very individuals who are understood metaphorically as the masses. Behaviorism would aim to optimize conditions (as if such a thing were possible), but because American institutions and social systems have been so completely subordinated to capitalism and its distortions, society has stumbled and fumbled from one brand of dysfunction to another, barely staying ahead of revolution or civil war (except that one time …). Indeed, as the decades have worn on from, say, the 1950s (a nearly idyllic postwar reset that looms large in the memories of today’s patrician octogenarians), it’s difficult to imaging how conditions could have deteriorated any worse other than a third world war.

Look no further than the U.S. educational system, both K–12 and higher ed. As with other institutions, education has had its peaks and valleys. However, the crazy, snowballing race to the bottom witnessed in the last few decades is utterly astounding. Stick a pin in it: it’s done. Obviously, some individuals manage to get educated (some doing quite well, even) despite the minefield that must be navigated, but the exception does not prove the rule. Countries that value quality education (e.g., Finland, China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea) in deed, not just in empty words trotted out predictably by every presidential campaign, routinely trounce decidedly middling results in the U.S. and reveal that dysfunctional U.S. political systems and agencies (Federal, state, municipal) just can’t get the job done properly anymore. (Exceptions are always tony suburbs populated by high-earning and -achieving parents who create opportunities and unimpeded pathways for their kids.) Indeed, the giant babysitting project that morphs into underclass school-to-prison and school-to-military service (cannon fodder) pipelines are what education has actually become for many. The opportunity cost of failing to invest in education (or by proxy, American youth) is already having follow-on effects. The low-information voter is not a fiction, and it extends to every American institution that requires clarity to see through the fog machine operated by the mainstream media.

As an armchair social critic, I often struggle to reconcile how history unfolds without a plan, and similarly, how society self-organizes without a plan. Social engineering gets a bad rap for reasons: it doesn’t work (small exceptions exist) and subverts the rights and freedoms of individuals. However, the rank failure to achieve progress (in human terms, not technological terms) does not suggest stasis. By many measures, the conditions in which we live are cratering. For instance, Dr. Gabor Maté discusses the relationship of stress to addiction in a startling interview at Democracy Now! Just how bad is it for most people?

… it never used to be that children grew up in a stressed nuclear family. That wasn’t the normal basis for child development. The normal basis for child development has always been the clan, the tribe, the community, the neighborhood, the extended family. Essentially, post-industrial capitalism has completely destroyed those conditions. People no longer live in communities which are still connected to one another. People don’t work where they live. They don’t shop where they live. The kids don’t go to school, necessarily, where they live. The parents are away most of the day. For the first time in history, children are not spending most of their time around the nurturing adults in their lives. And they’re spending their lives away from the nurturing adults, which is what they need for healthy brain development.

Does that not sound like self-hobbling? A similar argument can be made about human estrangement from the natural world, considering how rural-to-urban migration (largely completed in the U.S. but accelerating in the developing world) has rendered many Americans flatly unable to cope with, say, bugs and dirt and labor (or indeed most any discomfort). Instead, we’ve trapped ourselves within a society that is, as a result of its organizing principles, slowly grinding down everyone and everything. How can any of us (at least those of us without independent wealth) choose not to participate in this wretched concatenation? Nope, we’re all guilty.

In my neighborhood of Chicago, it’s commonplace to see vehicles driving on the road with a giant Puerto Rican flag flying from a pole wedged in each of the rear windows. Often, one of the two flags’ traditional colors (red, white, and blue) is changed to black and white — a symbol of resistance. Puerto Rican politics is a complicated nest of issues I don’t know enough about to say more. However, the zeal of my neighbors is notable. Indeed, as I visited a local farmer’s market last weekend, I couldn’t help but notice quite a welcome diversity on display and folks entirely untroubled by the presence of others who didn’t look just like them (tattoos, unnatural hair colors, long beards and shaved heads, nonstandard attire and accoutrements, etc.). I’m actually pleased to see a level of comfort and freedom to present oneself is such manner as one wishes, and not just because of the buzz phrase “diversity and inclusion.” So go ahead: fly your freak flag high! (This same value applies to viewpoint diversity.)

In contrast, when I venture to some far-flung suburb for sundry activities now that lockdowns and restrictions have been lifted, I encounter mostly white, middle-aged, middle-class suburbanites who admittedly look just like me. It’s unclear that folks in those locales are xenophobic in any way, having withdrawn from city life in all its messiness for a cozy, upscale, crime-free subdivision indistinguishable from the next one over. Maybe that’s an artifact of mid-20th-century white flight, where uniformity of presentation and opinion is the norm. Still, it feels a little weird. (Since the 1980s, some rather well-put-together people have returned to the city center, but that usually requires a king-sized income to purchase a luxury condo in some 50-plus-storey tower. After last summer’s BLM riots, that influx turned again to outflux.) One might guess that, as a visible minority within city confines, I would be more comfortable among my own cohort elsewhere, but that’s not the case. I rather like rubbing elbows with others of diverse backgrounds and plurality of perspectives.

I’ve also grown especially weary of critical race theory being shoved in my face at every turn, as though race is (or should be) the primary lens through which all human relations must be filtered. Such slavish categorization, dropping everyone giant, ill-fitted voting blocs, is the hallmark of ideologues unable to break out of the pseudo-intellectual silos they created for themselves and seek to impose on others. Yet I haven’t joined the growing backlash and instead feel increasingly ill at ease in social situations that appear (on the surface at least) to be too white bread. Shows, perhaps, how notions of race that were irrelevant for most of my life have now crept in and invaded my conscience. Rather than solving or resolving longstanding issues, relentless focus on race instead spreads resentment and discomfort. The melting pot isn’t boiling, but summer is not yet over.

On the heels of a series of snowstorms, ice storms, and deep freezes (mid-Feb. 2021) that have inundated North America and knocked out power to millions of households and businesses, I couldn’t help but to notice inane remarks and single-pane comics to the effect “wish we had some global warming now!” Definitely, things are looking distinctly apocalyptic as folks struggle with deprivation, hardship, and existential threats. However, the common mistake here is to substitute one thing for another, failing to distinguish weather from climate.

National attention is focused on Texas, expected to be declared a disaster zone by Pres. Biden once he visits (a flyover, one suspects) to survey and assess the damage. It’s impossible to say that current events are without precedent. Texas has been in the cross-hairs for decades, suffering repeated droughts, floods, fires, and hurricanes that used to be prefixed by 50-year or 100-year. One or another is now occurring practically every year, which is exactly what climate chaos delivers. And in case the deep freeze and busted water pipes all over Texas appear to have been unpredictable, this very thing happened in Arizona in 2011. Might have been a shot across the bow for Texas to learn from and prepare, but its self-reliant, gun-totin’, freedom-lovin’ (fuck, yeah!), secessionist character is instead demonstrated by having its own electrical grid covering most of the state, separated from other North American power grids, ostensibly to skirt federal regulations. Whether that makes Texas’ grid more or less vulnerable to catastrophic failure is an open question, but events of the past week tested it sorely. It failed badly. People literally froze to death as a result. Some reports indicate Texas was mere moments away from an even greater failure that would have meant months to rebuild and reestablish electrical service. A substantial diaspora would have ensued, essentially meaning more climate refugees.

So where’s the evil in this? Well, let me tell you. Knowledge that we humans are on track to extirpate ourselves via ongoing industrial activity has been reported and ignored for generations. Guy McPherson’s essay “Extinction Foretold, Extinction Ignored” has this to say at the outset:

The warnings I will mention in this short essay were hardly the first ones about climate catastrophe likely to result from burning fossil fuels. A little time with your favorite online search engine will take you to George Perkins Marsh sounding the alarm in 1847, Svente Arrhenius’s relevant journal article in 1896, Richard Nixon’s knowledge in 1969, and young versions of Al Gore, Carl Sagan, and James Hansen testifying before the United States Congress in the 1980s. There is more, of course, all ignored for a few dollars in a few pockets. [links in original]

My personal acquaintance with this large body of knowledge began accumulating in 2007 or so. Others with decision-making capacity have known for much, much longer. Yet short-term motivations shoved aside responsible planning and preparation that is precisely the warrant of governments at all levels, especially, say, the U.S. Department of Energy. Sure, climate change is reported as controversy, or worse, as conspiracy, but in my experience, only a few individuals are willing to speak the obvious truth. They are often branded kooks. Institutions dither, distract, and even issue gag orders to, oh, I dunno, prop up real estate values in south Florida soon to be underwater. I’ve suggested repeatedly that U.S. leaders and institutions should be acting to manage contraction and alleviate suffering best as possible, knowing that civilization will fail anyway. To pretend otherwise and guarantee — no — drive us toward worst-case scenarios is just plain evil. Of course, the megalomania of a few tech billionaires who mistakenly believe they can engineer around society’s biggest problems is just as bad.

Writ small (there’s a phrase no one uses denoting narrowing scope), meaning at a scale less than anthropogenic climate change (a/k/a unwitting geoengineering), American society has struggled to prioritize guns vs. butter for over a century. The profiteering military-industrial complex has clearly won that debate, leaving infrastructure projects, such as bridge and road systems and public utilities, woefully underfunded and extremely vulnerable to market forces. Refusal to recognize public health as a right or public good demanding a national health system (like other developed countries have) qualifies as well. As inflated Pentagon budgets reveal, the U.S. never lacks money to oppress, fight, and kill those outside the U.S. Inside the U.S., however, cities and states fall into ruin, and American society is allowed to slowly unwind for lack of support. Should we withdraw militarily from the world stage and focus on domestic needs, such as homelessness and joblessness? Undoubtedly. Would that leave us open to attack or invasion (other than the demographic invasion of immigrants seeking refuge in the U.S.)? Highly doubtful. Other countries have their own domestic issues to manage and would probably appreciate a cessation of interference and intervention from the U.S. One might accuse me of substituting one thing for another, as I accused others at top, but the guns-vs.-butter debate is well established. Should be obvious that it’s preferable to prioritize caring for our own society rather than devoting so much of our limited time and resources to destroying others.