Posts Tagged ‘Futurism’

Following up the two previous entries in this series, the Feb. 2022 issue of Scientific American has a cover article by Adam Becker called “The Origins of Space and Time” with the additional teaser “Does spacetime emerge from a more fundamental reality?” (Oddly, the online title is different, making it awkward to find.) I don’t normally read Scientific American, which has become a bit like Time and Newsweek in its blurb-laden, graphics-heavy presentation intended patronizingly for general-interest readers. In fact, I’ll quote the pullout (w/o graphics) that summarizes the article:

How Spacetime Emerges. Space and time are traditionally thought of as the backdrop to the universe. But new research suggests they might not be fundamental; instead spacetime could be an emergent property of a more basic reality, the true backdrop to the cosmos. This idea comes from two theories that attempt to bridge the divide between general relativity and quantum mechanics. The first, string theory, recasts subatomic particles as tiny loops of vibrating string. The second, loop quantum gravity, envisions spacetime being broke down into chunks — discrete bits that combine to create a seemingly smooth continuum.

Being a layperson in such matters, I’ll admit openly that I don’t fully grasp the information presented. Indeed, every breathless announcement from CERN (or elsewhere) about a new subatomic particle discovery or some research group’s new conjectures into quantum this-or-that I typically greet passively at best. Were I a physicist or cosmologist, my interest would no doubt be more acute, but these topics are so far removed from everyday life they essentially become arcane inquiries into the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. I don’t feel strongly enough to muster denunciation, but discussion of another aspect of pocket reality is worth some effort.

My understanding is that the “more basic reality, the true backdrop” discussed in the article is multidimensionality, something Eric Weinstein has also been grappling with under the name Geometric Unity. (Bizarrely, Alex Jones has also raved about interdimensional beings.) If the universe indeed has several more undetectable dimensions (as memory serves, Weinstein says as many as 14) and human reality is limited to only a few, potentially breaking through to other dimension and/or escaping boundaries of a mere four is tantalizing yet terrifying. Science fiction often explores these topics, usually in the context of space travel and human colonization of the galaxy. As thought experiments, fictional stories can be authentically entertaining and enjoyable. Within nonfiction reality, desire to escape off-world or into extra- or interdimensionality is an expression of desperation considering just how badly humans have fucked up the biosphere and guaranteed an early extinction for most species (including ours). I also chafe at the notion that this world, this reality, is not enough and that pressing forward like some unstoppable chemical reaction or biological infiltration is the obvious next step.

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.

I use the tag redux to signal that the topic of a previous blog post is being revisited, reinforced, and repurposed. The choice of title for this one could easily have gone instead to Your Brain on Postmodernism, Coping with the Post-Truth World, or numerous others. The one chosen, however, is probably the best fit given than compounding crises continue pushing along the path of self-annihilation. Once one crisis grows stale — at least in terms of novelty — another is rotated in to keep us shivering in fear, year after year. The date of civilizational collapse is still unknown, which is really more process anyway, also of an unknown duration. Before reading what I’ve got to offer, perhaps wander over to Clusterfuck Nation and read James Howard Kunstler’s latest take on our current madness.

/rant on

So yeah, various cultures and subcultures are either in the process of going mad or have already achieved that sorry state. Because madness is inherently irrational and unrestrained, specific manifestations are unpredictable. However, the usual trigger for entire societies to lose their tether to reality is relatively clear: existential threat. And boy howdy are those threats multiplying and gaining intensity. Pick which of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with whom to ride to the grave, I guess. Any one will do; all four are galloping simultaneously, plus a few other demonic riders not identified in that mythological taxonomy. Kunstler’s focus du jour is censorship and misinformation (faux disambiguation: disinformation, malinformation, dishonesty, gaslighting, propaganda, fake news, falsehood, lying, cozenage, confidence games, fraud, conspiracy theories, psyops, personal facts), about which I’ve blogged repeatedly under the tag epistemology. Although major concerns, censorship and misinformation are outgrowths of spreading madness, not the things that will kill anyone directly. Indeed, humans have shown a remarkable capacity to hold in mind crazy belief systems or stuff down discomfiting and disapproved thoughts even without significant threat. Now that significant threats spark the intuition that time is running perilously short, no wonder so many have fled reality into the false safety of ideation. Inability to think and express oneself freely or to detect and divine truth does, however, block what few solutions to problems remain to be discovered.

Among recent developments I find unsettling and dispiriting is news that U.S. officials, in their effort to — what? — defeat the Russians in a war we’re not officially fighting, are just making shit up and issuing statements to their dutiful stenographers in the legacy press to report. As I understand it, there isn’t even any pretense about it. So to fight phantoms, U.S. leaders conjure out of nothingness justifications for involvements, strategies, and actions that are the stuff of pure fantasy. This is a fully, recognizably insane: to fight monsters, we must become monsters. It’s also maniacally stupid. Further, it’s never been clear to me that Russians are categorically baddies. They have dealt with state propaganda and existential threats (e.g., the Bolshevik Revolution, WWII, the Cold War, the Soviet collapse, being hemmed in by NATO countries) far more regularly than most Americans and know better than to believe blindly what they’re told. On a human level, who can’t empathize with their plights? (Don’t answer that question.)

In other denial-of-reality news, demand for housing in Sun Belt cities has driven rent increases ranging between approximately 30% and 60% over the past two years compared to many northern cities well under 10%. Americans are migrating to the Sun Belt despite, for instance, catastrophic drought and wild fires. Lake Powell sits at an historically low level, threatening reductions in water and electrical power. What happens when desert cities in CA, AZ, NV, and NM become uninhabitable? Texas isn’t far behind. This trend has been visible for decades, yet many Americans (and immigrants, too) are positioning themselves directly in harm’s way.

I’ve been a doomsayer for over a decade now, reminding my two or three readers (on and off) that the civilization humans built for ourselves cannot stand much longer. Lots of people know this yet act as though concerns are overstated or irrelevant. It’s madness, no? Or is it one last, great hurrah before things crack up apocalyptically? On balance, what’s a person to do but to keep trudging on? No doubt the Absurdists got something correct.

/rant off

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.

What if everyone showed up to an event with an expectation of using all their tech and gadgets to facilitate the group objective only to discover that nothing worked? You go to a fireworks display but the fireworks won’t ignite. You go to a concert but the instruments and voices make no sound. You go to a sporting event but none of the athletes can move. Does everyone just go home? Come back another day to try again? Or better yet, you climb into your car to go somewhere but it won’t start. Does everyone just stay home and the event never happens?

Those questions relate to a new “soft” weapons system called Scorpius (no link). The device or devices are said to disrupt and disable enemy tech by issuing a narrowly focused electromagnetic beam. (Gawd, just call it a raygun or phaser. No embarrassment over on-the-nose naming of other things.) Does the beam fry the electronics of its target, like a targeted Carrington event, or just simply scramble the signals, making the tech inoperable? Can tech be hardened against attack, such as being encased in a Faraday cage? Wouldn’t such isolation itself make tech nonfunctional, since electronic communications between locations is the essence of modern devices, especially for targeting and telemetry? These are a few more idle questions (unanswered, since announcements of new weaponry I consulted read like advertising copy) about this latest advance (euphemism alert) in the arms race. Calling a device that can knock a plane (um, warplane) out of the sky (crashing somewhere, obviously) “soft protection” because the mechanism is a beam rather than a missile rather obfuscates the point. Sure, ground-based technologies might be potentially disabled without damage, but would that require continuous beam-based defense?

I recall an old Star Trek episode, the one with the Gorn, where omnipotent aliens disabled all weapons systems of two spaceships postured for battle by superheating controls, making them too hot to handle. Guess no one thought of oven mitts or pencils to push the “Fire!” buttons. (Audiences were meant to think, considering Star Trek was a thinking person’s entertainment, but not too much.) Instead of mass carnage, the two captains were transported to the surface of a nearby planet to battle by proxy (human vs. reptile). In quintessential Star Trek fashion — imagining a hopeful future despite militaristic trappings — the human captain won not only the physical battle but the moral battle (with self) by refusing to dispatch the reptile captain after he/it was disabled. The episode posed interesting questions so long as no one searched in the weeds for plausibility.

We’re confronted now, and again, with many of these same questions, some technical, some strategic, but more importantly, others moral and ethical. Thousands of years of (human) history have already demonstrated the folly of war (but don’t forget profitability). It’s a perennial problem, and from my vantage point, combatants on all sides are no closer to Trekkie moral victory now than in the 1960s. For instance, the U.S. and its allies are responsible for millions of deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere just in the last two decades. Go back further in time and imperial designs look more and more like sustained extermination campaigns. But hey, we came to play, and any strategic advantage must be developed and exploited, moral quandaries notwithstanding.

It’s worth pointing out that in the Gorn episode, the captains were deprived of their weapons and resorted to brute force before the human improvised a projectile weapon out of materials handily strewn about, suggesting perhaps that intelligence is the most deadly weapon. Turns out to have been just another arms race.

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.

I’ve often thought that my father was born at just the right time in the United States: too young to remember much of World War II, too old to be drafted into either the Korean War or the Vietnam War, yet well positioned to enjoy the fruits of the postwar boom and the 1960s counterculture. He retired early with a pension from the same company for which he had worked nearly the entirety of his adult life. Thus, he enjoyed the so-called Happy Days of the 1950s (the Eisenhower era) and all of the boom years, including the Baby Boom, the demographer’s term for my cohort (I came at the tail end). Good for him, I suppose. I admit some envy at his good fortune as most of the doors open to him were closed by the time I reached adulthood. It was the older (by 10–15 years) siblings of Boomers who lodged themselves in positions of power and influence. Accordingly, I’ve always felt somewhat like the snotty little brother clamoring for attention but who was overshadowed by the older brother always in the way. Luckily, my late teens and early twenties also fell between wars, so I never served — not that I ever supported the American Empire’s foreign escapades, then or now.

Since things have turned decidedly for the worse and industrial civilization can’t simply keep creaking along but will fail and collapse soon enough, my perspective has changed. Despite some life options having been withdrawn and my never having risen to world-beater status (not that that was ever my ambition, I recognize that, similar to my father, I was born at the right time to enjoy relative peace and tranquility of the second half of the otherwise bogus “American Century.” My good fortune allowed me to lead a quiet, respectable life, and reach a reasonable age (not yet retired) at which I now take stock. Mistakes were made, of course; that’s how we learn. But I’ve avoided the usual character deformations that spell disaster for lots of folks. (Never mind that some of those deformations are held up as admirable; the people who suffer them are in truth cretins of the first order, names withheld).

Those born at the wrong time? Any of those drafted into war (conquest, revolutionary, civil, regional, or worldwide), and certainly anyone in the last twenty years or so. Millennials appeared at the twilight of empire, many of whom are now mature enough to witness its fading glory but generally unable to participate in its bounties meaningfully. They are aware of their own disenfranchisement the same way oppressed groups (religious, ethnic, gender, working class, etc.) have always known they’re getting the shaft. Thus, the window of time one might claim optimal to have been born extends from around 1935 to around 1995, and my father and I both slot in. Beyond that fortuitous window, well, them’s the shakes.

/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

Watched Soylent Green (1973) a few days ago for the first time since boyhood. The movie is based on a book by Richard Fleischer (which I haven’t read) and oddly enough has not yet been remade. How to categorize the film within familiar genres is tricky. Science fiction? Disaster? Dystopia? Police procedural? It checks all those boxes. Chief messages, considering its early 70s origin, are pollution and overpopulation, though global warming is also mentioned less pressingly. The opening montage looks surprisingly like what Godfrey Reggio did much better with Koyaanisqatsi (1982).

Soylent Green is set in 2022 — only a few months away now but a relatively remote future in 1973 — and the Earth is badly overpopulated, environmentally degraded, overheated, and struggling to support teeming billions mostly jammed into cities. Details are sketchy, and only old people can remember a time when the biosphere remained intact; whatever disaster had occurred was already long ago. Science fiction and futuristic films are often judged improperly by how correct prophecies turn out in reality, as though enjoyment were based on fidelity to reality. Soylent Green fares well in that respect despite its clunky, dated, 70s production design. Vehicles, computer screens, phones, wardrobe, and décor are all, shall we say, quaintly vintage. But consider this: had collapse occurred in the 70s, who’s to say that cellphones, flat screens, and the Internet would ever have been developed? Maybe the U.S. (and the world) would have been stalled in the 70s much the way Cuba is stuck in the 50s (when the monumentally dumb, ongoing U.S. embargo commenced).

The film’s star is Charlton Heston, who had established himself as a handsomely bankable lead in science fiction, disaster, and dystopian films (e.g., The Omega Man and The Planet of the Apes series). Though serviceable, his portrayal is remarkably plain, revealing Heston as a poor man’s Sean Connery or John Wayne (both far more charismatic contemporaries of Heston’s even in lousy films). In Soylent Green, Heston plays Detective Robert Thorn, though he’s mostly called “Thorn” onscreen. Other characters below the age of 65 or so also go by only one name. They all grew up after real foodstuffs (the titular Soylent Green being a synthetic wafer reputedly made out of plankton — the most palatable of three colors) and creature comforts became exceedingly scarce and expensive. Oldsters are given the respect of first and last names. Thorn investigates the assassination of a high-ranking industrialist to its well-known conspiratorial conclusion (hardly a spoiler anymore) in that iconic line at the very end of the film: “Soylent Green is people!” Seems industrialists, to keep people fed, are making food of human corpses. That eventual revelation drives the investigation and the film forward, a device far tamer than today’s amped up action thrillers where, for instance, a mere snap of the fingers can magically wipe out or restore half of the universe. Once the truth is proclaimed by Thorn (after first being teased whispered into a couple ears), the movie ends rather abruptly. That’s also what makes it a police procedural set in a disastrous, dystopic, science-fiction future stuck distinctively in the past: once the crime/riddle is solved, the story and film are over with no dénouement whatsoever.

Some of the details of the film, entirely pedestrian to modern audiences, are modestly enjoyable throwbacks. For instance, today’s penchant for memes and slang renaming of commonplace things is employed in Soylent Green. The catchphrase “Tuesday is Soylent Green Day” appears but is not overdriven. A jar of strawberries costs “150D,” which I first thought might be future currency in the form of debits or demerits but is probably just short for dollars. Front end loaders used for crowd control are called “scoops.” High-end apartment building rentals come furnished with live-in girls (prostitutes or gold-diggers, really) known as Furniture Girls. OTOH, decidedly 70s-era trash trucks (design hasn’t really changed much) are not emblazoned with the corporate name or logo of the Soylent Corporation (why not?). Similarly, (1) dressing the proles in dull, gray work clothes and brimless caps, (2) having them sleep on stairways or church refuges piled on top of each other so that characters have to step gingerly through them, (3) being so crammed together in protest when the Tuesday ration of Soylent Green runs short that they can’t avoid the scoops, (4) dripped blood clearly made of thick, oversaturated paint (at least on the DVD), and (5) a sepia haze covering daytime outdoor scenes are fairly lazy nods to world building on a low budget. None of this is particularly high-concept filmmaking, though the restraint is appreciated. The sole meme (entirely unprepared) that should have been better deployed is “going home,” a euphemism for reporting voluntarily to a processing plant (into Soylent Green, of course) at the end of one’s suffering life. Those who volunteer are shown 30 minutes of scenes, projected on a 360-degree theater that envelops the viewer, depicting the beauty and grandeur of nature before it had disappeared. This final grace offered to people (rather needlessly) serves the environmental message of the film well and could have been “driven home” a bit harder.

Like other aspects of the film’s back story, how agriculture systems collapsed is largely omitted. Perhaps such details (conjecture) are in the book. The film suggests persistent heat (no seasons), and accordingly, character are made to look like they never stop sweating. Scientific projections of how global warming will manifest do in fact point to hothouse Earth, though seasons will still occur in temperate latitudes. Because such changes normally occur in geological time, it’s an exceedingly slow process compared to human history and activity. Expert inquiry into the subject prophesied long ago that human activity would trigger and accelerate the transition. How long it will take is still unknown, but industrial civilization is definitely on that trajectory and human have done little since the 70s to curb self-destructive appetites or behaviors — except of course talk, which in the end is just more hot air. Moreover, dystopian science fiction has shifted over the decades away from self-recrimination to a long, seemingly endless stream of superheros fighting crime (and sometimes aliens). Considering film is entertainment meant to be enjoyed, the self-serious messages embedded in so many 70s-era disaster films warning us of human hubris are out of fashion. Instead, superpowers and supersuits rule cinema, transforming formerly uplifting science-fiction properties such as Star Trek into hypermilitaristic stories of interstellar social collapse. Soylent Green is a grim reminder that we once knew better, even in our entertainments.