Optimism

Two teenagers are in a car at night, racing down the highway with the lights off. Beer bottles rattle every time they hit a bump.

“Hey, man,” says the boy in the passenger seat. “Slow down, that’s a cliff coming up!”

“That’s what I hate about you,” says the driver, as he upshifts and steps on the accelerator. “You’re so fucking negative.”

I’ve rarely been accused of being an optimist, but for some reason, I generally have a sunny disposition. When people ask me in the store, “So how’s your day going?” I usually answer, “It’s fabulous!” And I mean it. I smile a lot. I leave good tips. I almost never snap at a customer service person on the phone.

Yes, I have my bad-hair days, like the other day when I wrote Capitalism and Corruption, but day-to-day, I’m not a particularly gloomy person.

In the big picture, I have only a small doubt that homo sapiens will be around for the next hundred thousand years or so (all of recorded history is less than six thousand), and will slowly evolve over that time period into something else at the appropriate rate: I’m guessing homo sapiens will be entirely gone in another half-million years, succeeded by something — perhaps genus homo, perhaps not — that fits the world of that time better than we would. But in the meantime, people and their societies will be around — for a very, very long time.

In the mid-term, however, I see big changes coming down the road: cliffs, if you will. I’m sure that even talking about those cliffs will get me branded as “so fucking negative,” because they run across the grain of the fantasies that most people want to believe in.

What am I talking about?

Well, I’m talking about the Big Four issues that face the modern US that only “fringe elements” like myself want to think or talk about. I think it’s high time to talk openly about these, because while the Big Four are terrifying, they’re no worse than things people have faced before, and will face again.

I’m also of the opinion that little can be done about them until the time is right. But to do the right thing when the time is right requires that we spend a little time thinking and talking about them beforehand.

It’s like this: when you’re skiing moguls — snow-bumps — the trick, as I learned it, is to ski into the troughs between the bumps to gain momentum, then go straight to the top of one of the bumps. Two things happen when you reach the top, if you’ve done it properly: you slow to what feels like a complete stop, and you become momentarily weightless. In that fraction of a second, you can pivot on your skis almost without effort: you can easily turn ninety degrees in either direction, and choose the next trough you want to use, and the next bump you want to conquer.

Now if you try this pivoting maneuver while you’re moving fast in the trough, and your skis are good and the bindings tight, and you’re young and strong and have resilient tendons and bones, you may succeed. But more likely, the ski patrol is going to have to bring you down the hill, and you’ll spend the evening in the clinic and the next year or two getting to know a physical therapist. Trying to fight gravity and momentum at the same time is a bitch.

Watch good mogul-skiers sometime: there’s a rhythm to the way they come down the mountain. It’s graceful, even if they’re skiing through a field of jagged rocks.

The language surrounding the Big Four Issues tends to be apocalyptic, and ignores this basic fact of society’s momentum and rhythm — it says that we have to do X right now, or all is lost and we’ll end up eating our own children. Switch to electric cars. Put iron in the oceans. Raise chickens. Eat organic. There are a million ways to Save The World, and all of them are screaming for attention and dramatic action right now.

Well, if we aren’t at the top of the mogul right now, then trying too hard to turn is going to put us in the hospital. We need to keep our rhythm.

So with that caution in mind, let’s broach the topic of the field of moguls coming up.

Big Issue One is the economy. It’s first by virtue of the fact that it’s approaching in the nearest time-frame. The root problem is capitalism itself; more broadly, it’s the way we’ve come to think about wealth, property, and privilege, and how they are related. The prediction — which is rapidly becoming the observation — is that the whole Titanic of the global capitalist economy is beginning to tip up on end, and when it goes down, it will sink fast.

I’m not going to argue this in detail here, because it’s a complex subject. Let’s just leave it as a prediction: our global economy is headed for a major collapse, on the order of what happened to Communism in the former Soviet Union. If it doesn’t hit the wall, I’m completely wrong about it, and I’ll eat my words with little more than a request for some salt. If it does hit the wall, well, told you so.

I think this one might actually happen within my (expected) lifetime, meaning before, say, 2050. Perhaps.

A collapsing economy is NOT the End Of The World, even if it’s a global economy. Economies collapse all the time: large economies, small economies, tiny local economies. In history, far more economies have collapsed than empires. Modern major collapses, such as Argentina’s in 2001, seem to take about a decade before stability returns. If the whole shebang goes down, as in the Soviet Union, it takes longer to recover stability, but local replacement economies will crop up almost overnight. I’m not going to say that any economic collapse is trivial, but people get through them. When global capitalism goes under, it will be very ugly, and very hard, but most people will get through it.

The thing to understand right now is that while the Big Issue of collapse is perhaps another four or five decades out, economic instability is going to be in our faces constantly until then: the tremors that come before the whole system starts to sink. The “fundamentals” of our economy are anything but sound, and we’ll see 2008 all over again within as little as a decade, whether Obama puts Larry Summers or Donald Duck in charge of the Federal Reserve.

Big Issue Two is peak oil, second by virtue of being a bit further out on the timeline: it will be one of the big contributors to Big Issue One over the next century as oil prices rise and rise and rise.

The age of oil is ending. The sudden widespread popularity of fracking was predictable: it’s the result of oil prices reaching a specific point right at the peak plateau, which is where we are right now. A little further down the road will be hot renewals of the cry to “Drill, Baby, Drill” in inaccessible reserves, like ANWR (which will make no sense at all, but the cries will go up and money will be spent), and increases in government subsidies to oil companies to keep pump prices low. Expect government to start exercising eminent domain over private property that might have oil under it. We’ll see a few more oil wars. We may see whipsaw pricing of oil instead of a steady rise: we’ve been seeing that in the oil futures markets for decades, and it could become severe.

These are the short-term consequences, and no one can really predict them in any detail. But what’s clear is that by 2100 (probably much sooner), the internal combustion automobile will be unaffordable to ordinary citizens, and within two centuries, we will no longer burn oil for fuel, at all. We’ll have something else in its place, or we’ll be back to horse-and-buggy.

There are plenty of alternatives to oil, but NONE of the current alternatives — not even all of them together — can supply energy at the rate we’re using it in the US. So this means that US Americans will use less energy in the future. Our US American lifestyle, which was so “non-negotiable” to the Bush administration, will be unrecognizably different within a century.

However, “different” doesn’t mean we’ll be eating our children. The internal combustion engine didn’t exist in 1800, and the steam engine didn’t exist in 1700. They didn’t have the technology then, and didn’t need it. We won’t, either.

Big Issue Three is global warming, third by virtue of being a big further out on the timeline than even declining oil usage. One of the big problems with global warming is a rise in sea level. It’s one thing for New Orleans to go under during a hurricane. It’s another thing entirely to lose Boston, New York, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle to flooding, all at the same time, while simultaneously watching crops fail every year in the “breadbasket” states. Those will be hard times indeed.

All three of these Big Issues contribute to Big Issue Four, which is a radical — and perhaps extremely rapid — governmental change.

I can’t even begin to guess when our current government will break. It’s the least predictable of these four issues, because while the other three are driven by some fairly simple natural processes with well-understood mathematics, government is … capricious. It exhibits what a mathematician would call “highly non-linear behavior.”

My personal guess — and it is only a guess — is that the United States will break apart at some point into fifty independent states that will almost immediately coalesce into something like a half-dozen independent confederacies, all of which will arm themselves (for “security”) and start warring with each other. The individual states will probably range from some kind of representative democracy, to full-on repressive totalitarian theocracies: you can already see those trends taking shape.

Will this happen by 2050? By 2150? By 2500? I have no idea. Nor can I guess whether it will swing the other way for a time, into a monolithic totalitarian military state.

I feel fairly confident in saying, however, that our current Federal government is going to be stressed to the breaking point by the Big Three Issues above, and it will likely respond by tightening its jock strap and going to war against its own citizens, or by falling apart at the seams (which happen to be state lines).

It all sounds quite horrible, doesn’t it? Downright apocalyptic!

Well, although I think it is all quite inevitable, I don’t see apocalypse in it at all. It’s happening far too slowly to think of it as apocalypse. Even the earliest of these problems are two to five generations out, and people are clever, and persistent. They’ll figure out methods to slow the collapses, develop alternatives when collapse is inevitable, find ways around the worst-case scenarios. And if they fail, the survivors will pick themselves up and go on.

But I think we’ll all be more successful if we’re paying attention, watching the bumps as they come. It isn’t being “too fucking negative” to pay attention to the contours of the snow. It’s part of the joy of skiing.

In light of all this, I’m going to close with some of the advice I’ve been giving my own boys for years, advice that makes me ultimately optimistic about even this chaotic future.

There is no social problem that is not merely the dark side of a social opportunity. You just have to be mentally flexible enough to see the opportunity, and bold enough to step up and do something about it.

Life is not about making money, it’s about living. Making money is the old game. It never worked that well, and now it’s starting to disintegrate. Don’t cling to the old game as it falls apart; be ready to let go and move on, because there will be a new game.

Don’t try to go it alone. We have a pathological “loner’s syndrome” in the US, often disguised as “self-sufficiency.” In times of chaos and change, you need partners, friends, and people who benefit from what you do. Cultivate your friendships. Cultivation also implies weeding.

Be useful. Whether you are running a corporation, or working for a wage, or minding livestock on a cooperative farm, or traveling by foot from town to town with a fiddle on your back, if you are useful, people will want you around. They’ll reciprocate with you: they’ll be useful to you in turn.

Be honest, especially with yourself. It’s always best if you can trust the people you are living with, and you have to live with yourself for the rest of your days.

And here’s one I read just the other day. I like it a lot, and I think it will be especially useful as the great game of capitalist employment goes increasingly wonky: Obey the laws, ignore the rules.

This entry was posted in General.

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