Maybe it’s a function of who I follow on Twitter, but I didn’t see much in the way of “ring in the new year” chipperness. Seeing Australia go up in flames might have something to do with that, but even those who seemed awfully domestically focused also seemed subdued. I also noticed comparatively few “Year in review” or “Best of 2019/the past ten years” but that could just as well be due to the gutting of news rooms. Nevertheless, I thought I might be so bold as to offer a theory.
It’s not hard to see plenty of reasons why all save a select few (which includes the deluded and End of Days fans) have reason to be downbeat. Climate change. Mass species dieoff. Poisoning of the planet, particularly with plastics (that overlaps with dieoff but also creates day to day health and diet worries). Student debt. Short job tenures combined with mainly McJobs on offer. Often unaffordable and crapified health care. Having kids who ought to be able to go to college but need to be talked out of it since the debt load would be punitive. Fear over one’s likely inability to retire with the real risk of not being able to work. And that’s before getting to personal tragedies, like suffering a foreclosure or bankruptcy, or death, disability or drug addiction in the family. Shocks like that are even harder to take when so many things seem precarious.
To add to that long list, there’s more anxiety. Bizarrely fearful parenting even though the overwhelming majority of kids are safer than their free-range parents were at a similar age….and the riskiest thing kids do today on a regular basis is ride in a car. Anger and frustration over seemingly more and more Kafka-eque bureaucracies wreaking havoc. Surprisingly widespread diet fesithism. Anger about Trump. I’m sure readers could add to these lists.
None of these are news, but what seems to deepen the general gloom is a lack of confidence that anything will get better, a sense both of sorely limited personal power and lack of trust in those nominally in charge to do the right thing. And that is made more intense by concerns about pending collapse. When the very richest people in the world are acting like preppers, there’s reason to be worried.
I am personally upset at being part of the problem. I now live in a freestanding house, which means energy inefficient. I use a car to get about. Public transportation here is pretty much non-existent, and please don’t advise walking or biking. Both are physically impossible.
I also despair at my inability to do anything other than take pathetically trivial steps to reduce how much plastic I wind up using. Even with being a Yankee and using things until they are about to or do fall apart, I do wind up buying some things. Even socks are in plastic! And forget about buying food in the US. Eggs? Yogurt? Berries? You’d be surprised at how few egg vendors use cardboard cartons. It’s even gotten hard to to buy loose lettuce down here (although oddly loose kale is a different story). Admittedly not everything is this way….but way too much is.
So why are we so stuck on a bad trajectory? Simple explanations are always simplistic, but I hazard that humans have seldom been good at working out how to manage competing levels of responsibility, and the tensions and contradictions get greater as societies become more complex. Let me turn the mike over to that great philosopher, Jamie Lannister:
So many vows…they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.
More specifically, one’s most pressing duties are to immediate family. Neoliberalism has somewhat weakened that; even Japan now sees young people regularly neglecting their parents, something that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. But people. But in many societies, those ties are extremely strong, to the degree that some countries are run on a tribal/clientelist basis.
Traditionally, religion as well as settled systems of obligation (like feudalism) provided something of a framework for working to serve broader social/community interests as well as personal/family ones.
Neoliberalism has weakened community ties while religion has come to play a much less powerful role in organizing society than it once did. Western society, even down to marketing, fosters individualism, yet individuals have little power. And people who are struggling to survive or substantially occupied with earning an income and doing their best with their spouse and kids in a society that keeps them leisure and even sleep deprived barely have the slack to think about the looming problems bearing down on all of us, let alone do much about them.
I hate taking issue with Caitlin Johnstone, who I greatly admire for her penetrating analysis and acid writing style, but her deep immersion in fighting propaganda looks to have blinkered her thinking on bigger picture issues. Her theory of why we are all screwed is that it’s the result of being fed a lot of bad ideas by our parents:
We all slid out of the womb an itty bitty helpless information sponge into a world full of mentally ill giants who couldn’t wait to fill our tiny skulls with all of their inner demons. And now everything, understandably, is fucked.
That’s basically our whole entire situation in a nutshell. You can add on as many extra details as you like — plutocracy, corruption, mass media propaganda, billionaire wine cave fundraisers, whatever — but ultimately our plight is due to the fact that every single human showed up on this planet completely helpless and knowing nothing, forced to trust crazy giants to give them the grand introductory tour.
Now quite a few people actually do have mentally ill parents. But putting that subset aside, most parents bring up their kids to function in their world, get married, and find a measure of happiness. That could be, say, 300 years ago, subsistence farming and fishing, or maybe having a craft, like being a blacksmith. Religious observance would be seen as essential, mainly for one’s soul but also because the price of apostasy would be ostracism.
Johnstone wants people to operate more freely and think more independently. But as much as I believe in that too, it’s not as if everyone can afford to do that. Lambert recently linked to an older piece by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in which he recounted with some satisfaction about how an academic criticized him for doing teaching and research as a sideline. Taleb ventured the reverse, that people are free only if they don’t have to worry about the opinions of their putative peers:
I have had most of my, sort of, academic career no more than a quarter position. A quarter is enough to have somewhere to go, particularly when it rains in New York, without being emotionally socialized by a group of people and lose intellectual independence. But one (now sacked) department head, one day came to me and emitted the warning: “As a businessman and author you are judged by other businessmen and authors, here as an academic you are judged by other academics. Life is about peer assessment.”
It took me a while to overcome my disgust –I am still not fully familiar with the way non-risk takers work; they actually don’t realize that others are not like them, what makes people in the real world tick. No, businessmen as risk takers are not subjected to the judgment of other businessmen, only that of their personal accountant –unless they are peons in a hierarchy, the type of servants judged by their masters, about whom later. They just need to avoid having a documented record of ethical violations. Furthermore, not only you didn’t want peer approval, but you wanted disapproval: an old fellow once came to me in the pit where I was trading and told me: “if people over here like you, you are doing something wrong”.
You can define a free person precisely as someone whose fate is not centrally or directly dependent on his peer assessment
How many people can actually live like that? How many of you, for instance, have to treat very carefully when various orthodox beliefs, like the trustworthiness o the mainstream media or that Russia really stole the 2016 election for Trump, are the subject of long discussions? Or if you are in a more conservative community, say that opposing our wars is disrespectful to our men and women in uniform? In other words, going too far down the path of having independent views is often hazardous to being able to fulfill your duties to your family. Making yourself controversial is generally not a career-boosting strategy.
So the inertial forces, of continuing to do what works or seems to work for you to provide for yourself and those important to you swamps anything other than too-small efforts to be more responsible. For instance, I imagine the overwhelming majority of poachers of endangered species would take other work, particularly steadily-paid work, if it were to be had. Some environmental groups have successfully stopped some type of poaching by hiring former poachers to work in conservation roles. But they couldn’t get out of that box on their own.
Again, I can’t prove it, but my belief is societies can cope better with competing levels of obligation when there is more slack, or in Tainter terms, when energy costs are affordable. It’s easier to make modest sacrifices if they don’t put you in a state of deprivation or if you are confident there will be some reward or acknowledgment of your contribution. That is one reason the idea of the Green New Deal is so appealing: it promises personal betterment, or at least a basic level of employment, while holding the promise of Doing Something Serious about the environment. We gloomy types worry this idea has come thirty years too late, and the best prospect for collective survival is radical conservation, which means radical lifestyle changes. Unfortunately, it’s not hard to see given the primacy of family that that won’t happen voluntarily.
At least in the US, with corruption and cheating widespread, there’s no reason to be trusting save in particular individuals who have proven themselves. That’s a terrible basis for collective action.
It would be better if concerns like these were wrong, but unless we have a decent definition of the problem, we aren’t likely to get anywhere. And we need to recognize that we, meaning our social organization and values, are a big and potentially insurmountable part of the problem.