We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.Albert Einstein
We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are.Talmudic Proverb
Many thinkers…have argued that studying philosophy is learning how to die. If that’s true, then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.Roy Scranton
In the last ten years or so, many natural scientists have come to identify nine global life support systems that are in various stages of disrepair or collapse: ocean acidification, biodiversity, global warming, ozone depletion, declining fresh water supplies, land use/deforestation, nitrogen/phosphorus cycles, chemical pollution, and aerosol loading. Of the nine, only ozone depletion seems to be somewhat under control, due to the global outlawing of the primary offending chemicals. The other eight systems, which I remind you are life-supporting, are all failing, all heading in the wrong direction. Global warming, cozily rebranded as ‘climate change’ by the various factions of disbelief, gets the lion’s share of the attention nowadays. But virtually everything else on the planet is also in dire condition.
This should be the overriding discussion on all of our lips, from halls of parliament to TV talk shows to our salon and barbershop chairs. We are, after all, natural beings, living in a natural world. You don’t need to be a drum-circle, geodesic yurt dweller to understand that we are enmeshed in the various forms and functions of all organic and inorganic matter on the planet. What we do affects the natural world around us, which then in turn affects us, our families, and our communities. And when virtually all of our support systems are on the ropes, it becomes undeniable that our activity and impact on the planet are just too big. Period.
It really doesn’t matter, at this point, whether the problem is too many people, or the wrong technologies, or inefficient economic incentives. It’s all of those things, and a lot more. And it also doesn’t matter who’s more to blame. Obviously, the industrialized countries are far more impactful than the non-industrialized countries. But inside that ‘first world’ club, it doesn’t matter if China is worse than India, or the US is worse than Japan. If we had 200 years to figure all that out, maybe we could have a nice big blame-game extravaganza, and dole out exact penalties and all that.
But we don’t have 200 years to mince, parse, stall, and engage in careful studies about which carbon tax would work the best, or who should donate more to global fuel-cell development. We likely don’t even have 20 years to turn things around, let alone 200. When the ecological situation is as alarming as it is right now, we need to alter the direction of civilization a lot, and fast.
So that’s our situation: we need to drastically reduce human impact on the planet, and we need to do it really quickly. And since I live in the United States, I am approaching this from my perspective. What can the US do right now, to massively and quickly slash the damage we’re doing to the natural world? I realize that international cooperation is the fashionable way to talk about this, engaging with China, India, and Europe to cut carbon emissions and all that. But there are two problems with international political and economic approaches to ecological collapse. First: it won’t happen fast enough, especially if Republicans take back the House in 2022 and perhaps the presidency in 2024 (if Trump is still alive and takes over again, forget it). Second, international bodies are focused mainly on the global warming issue, which is of course important, but is only one of the nine systems that needs immediate, urgent attention. We need massive and rapid reduction in virtually all of our spheres of human impact, all at once. No international treaty or series of treaties can come close to doing that heavy lifting in the limited time frame we have.
Instead, a radically different approach is needed, and from my particular vantage point, I am suggesting an action plan for the United States only, since that is what I know, in hopes that other countries would develop parallel and similar plans of their own.
But first, let’s talk about the current political and cultural condition of the United States. It’s not good. As with many other countries, Covid-19 has exposed our vulnerability as a species, as a society, and as an economy. But in the US, the pandemic was heaped on top of an already-flaming sociopolitical and cultural civil war, what is usually described in the somewhat innocuous, middle-school sounding language of ‘polarization.’ But the magnetic metaphor of polarization really does not capture what is happening in the US right now. It is better thought of as a system of dueling delusions over the future, delusions cultivated and energized by the idea-laundering organs of conservative and liberal media, along with the water-carriers for the wealthy and powerful, the political class. I won’t belabor here how this system works. You can read more about it earlier posts on this blog (you obviously should read them all anyway, of course, for their unparalleled brilliance – wink). Suffice it to say, our electoral mechanics (winner take all), campaign finance laws, and the free access of money to the entire political process make our current state of affairs almost unavoidable.
What do I mean by dueling delusions? On the conservative side, it is a little more obvious, especially since Stop the Steal, the Capitol Insurrection, the expanding slate of state proposals to limit voting, and the move (just today!) by the House GOP to strip Liz Cheney of her leadership role. Republicans are now all-in on the fantasy of a return to a mythical America: whiter, straighter, flag wavier, and Trumpier. But beyond the undoubtedly-ominous strains of fascism that come with the lusted-after Trump restoration, what do conservatives actually think the world would change into? Despite all of the sound and fury of the first Trump term, what was actually delivered for rank and file Republicans? There were tax cuts for their bosses, and a super-high stock market, which probably netted the average Joe a few hundred to a few thousand bucks. But the massive, cosmic reset that they so wished for did not happen. Factories didn’t suddenly spring up in every small town, spreading the fairy dust of great jobs with great benefits, for people of all educational levels. And people of color and alternative sexual orientations didn’t slink back into the shadowy margins and keep their traps shut. The Trumpian promise was like all things Trump: ephemeral, self-serving, and above all, for show. In other words, fantasy, delusion. No matter how much the conservatives might try, even with a Trump restoration, the United States, the third largest country in the world, will not materially change into a version of the Handmaid’s Tale. This is misunderstanding of the specific function of the Polarized America complex. This complex exists to keep people preoccupied with other stuff, so that the wealthy and the powerful (the Capitalists) can continue to keep the good times rolling….for them. Any actual attempt to re-marginalize huge swaths of the (largely urban) population will not be abided by the actually powerful, who need maximum freedom for maximum consumer purchasing. I am not trying to minimize the very-real threat of Trumpian fascists trying to take control of the country again. What I’m saying is that, even if they do take some measure of power, they will not deliver the kind of uber-nostaligic paradise that most of their regular supporters want. The world is a very different place now, no matter how much they don’t want it to be.
While the conservatives busy themselves with owning the libs and preparing for a fantasyland of Thomas Kinkade villages (with guns), liberals are also engaged in their own slice of delusion-ville. Now, being a liberal myself, it somewhat pains me to have to categorize their efforts as delusional, because many of their goals are noble and well-meaning. And the liberal style of delusion is of a much different flavor than the conservative one. It is less nostalgic, and more aspirational. The best liberalism draws on the true stories of those who fought long and hard for every inch of progress. Civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, unionization rights. All the gains in these areas are the result of countless millions of people risking their lives and livelihoods, sometime losing their lives, and always fighting oppressive power to fulfill the true promise of America: freedom, equality, and dignity.
So when I talk about liberal delusion, I am in no way making light of these achievements, or suggesting that they are anything less than real and momentous. What I am saying is very specific: the dreamed-for future of most liberals cannot happen in the current societal format. That is, full liberation and equality will not be possible as long as we’re in the one-person/one-job, one-family/one-dwelling domestic arrangement, because that configuration of life is the very source of our ecological, economic, and psychological distress. The world of work, especially, is going to continue to atrophy as a source of personal meaning and social progress, as automation and de-skilling render human effort and labor marginal in their economic value. The liberal fantasy, where the lower-skilled workers either get big pay raises from higher minimum wages, or get retrained to have the ‘skills of the future,” will not come to pass. See my earlier post for more detail on this.
Again, I have great admiration for many of the Left’s goals, in principle: free day care, free college, higher minimum wages, Green New Deal, affordable housing, etc. And if we had a few decades to put all of these things in place, and somehow all of the ecological problems were solved through these changes themselves, I would be 100% on board. But I don’t think that can happen. First, it is likely impossible, given the political climate. The system is too entrenched to allow for long-term liberal changes like these to happen. And even if they could happen politically, there is an assumption in the liberal delusion that our problems are really just of two types: systemic moral problems — like racism, sexism, and greed — and technological problems, which can be solved by swapping out dirty stuff for clean and green stuff. So if our challenges are only moral and technological, we just need to bend the arcs of justice and technical change towards the right place, and we’re good to go. The liberal vision of the physical future looks a lot like today, just with smart cars, smart houses, bullet trains, a lot more web designers and solar panel installers, and a lot less bigots and chauvinists. But the nuts and bolts look the same: lots and lots of small dwellings with just a few residents each, lots of workplaces, albeit with more diversity and more flexibility for virtual jobs, and lots of crowded roads with electric cars and maybe self-driving trucks. I don’t see this happening, but I understand the desire to wish it to be so. After all, many liberal groups have worked for a long time to force open the doors of opportunity to the marginalized. It’s hard to acknowledge that the way of life so long denied, and now just coming into view, is actually unsustainable and doomed to collapse.
So we’re in a very unusual spot. What I’ve called ‘delusions’ in the sections above might be more accurately described as unrealistic visions of the future. Roughly, each side of polarized America is envisioning a state of affairs that has no realistic chance of coming into existence, due to the multiple swinging axes of ecological collapse. As Jim Kunstler would put it, they are longing for ‘a way of life with no future.’ But the realm of acceptable discourse, in both politics and economics, does not acknowledge the unreality of these visions, and that results in each ‘side’ seeing the millions of people on the other side as their societal enemies, blocking the way to the fulfillment of their dreams. But it’s not the other side that is blocking our way to the future; it’s the fantastical nature of the delusions themselves. They are not coming to be, because they cannot be.
Whither a way out? Well, my own proposals will probably sounds delusional to many, but that is really because the information systems in which we are enmeshed are pervasive, pursuasive, and powerful. The mechanisms of control in today’s world are far-reaching and hyper-centralized. One of the most insidious but invisible effects of extreme inequality is just how much control the wealthy and powerful have over everything we see, hear, and read. So we are just not exposed to things that stray too far from the delusional narratives that set the boundaries for what is considered important and relevant. But as Albert Einstein said, noted at the opening of this piece, we can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
In the interest of space (too late, I know), I’ll zip through my proposal, which is covered in a little more detail here. In order to change things substantially and rapidly, we have to harness two potent tools: the fiat currency power of the federal government, and the power of the modern media to provoke viral emulation. Using the power of fiat currency, the US government should institute a Universal Basic Income, with the goal of stabilizing people’s lives and giving them a secure home base from which to tackle the massive lifestyle shift needed to stave off multifaceted ecological devastation. And to demonstrate what that lifestyle shift should look like, a group of wealthy private investors should establish a network of new model communities around the country, to create a workable vision of the future that people could actually see in action. These communities, which I would label as BHBs (Bigger Home Bases), would have the equivalent of a UBI, to replicate what a national UBI would look like — but no other direct financial support. The managers of the overall project would provide logistical consulting, hooking up communities with resources to make the communities operational, but the UBI equivalent would be the only explicit monetary aid. These BHBs should then be splashed all over the media landscape: TV shows, YouTube channels, Podcasts, social media, the works.
Here’s how I see the whole thing fitting together. Establishing the BHBs comes first, to create public awareness and to generate a popular groundswell of demand for support mechanisms on a national scale. The communities themselves, of course, need to ‘succeed,’ but on the terms laid out in the main charter for the whole project. That charter would include goals like reduced energy consumption, reduced participation in the outside labor market, increased physical and mental health of the residents, increased self-sufficiency in food production and preparation, increased economic security and savings for retirement, etc. As the communities thrive and demonstrate the desirability of larger-group living, the possibility opens up of using the federal government to incubate and facilitate this new domestic format, and there would be a real possibility then to wheel in the Transparent Trojan Horse of UBI. There could be a real shot at actually shrinking the size of the federal government bureaucracy while simultaneously increasing its direct monetary support for citizens. This would then open up the possibility of completely redefining our understanding of money, labor, production, and morality. This is a change that really has to happen for us to get to critical mass on ratcheting down our impact on the planet.
So that’s it for now. That’s the scheme. The Bigger Home Base project, with a UBI equivalent, funded by wealthy private investors, creates a highly-visible network of model communities, where larger groups of people (100-150) thrive, increasing their well-being while drastically reducing their ecological impact. Lots of people see that working model, and demand that the government make it possible for everyone. The government puts in a UBI and a resource-information clearinghouse to facilitate the BHB format at the national level, and we start to get real momentum for a radical lifestyle shift. As the entire new social structure takes shape, new discussions can be opened up domestically and internationally, so that we can reach some new understanding of how societies and economies can fit into the natural world in a sustainable way. And then, eventually, of course, utopia.
Yah, I know, sounds delusional. But I’ll flesh out the particulars in some future posts. What I wanted to do here was at least explain how a mechanism like this could, theoretically, spark big change in a short period of time, something that our current approaches cannot do. And we will absolutely need fast, momentous change, if we’re to head off the cascading waves of ecological collapse.
(Cover painting: Thomas Cole, “The Course of Empire:The Arcadian or Pastoral State,” 1834)