This is the Way the World Ends: Not With a Bang but a Whimper – TS Eliot
(Trigger warning – this essay is a downer without much uplifting balance. It is an attempt to summarize the longer-term trends we are facing. It will not be pretty. This is a copy of my essay that was first published in my newsletter, Green Growth is an Oxymoron. This essay does not incorporate one other major thread of disruption, which will be the collapse of the dollar - a topic for another time, but a significant contributor to your future discomfort.)
The good news is that we are at the top of human, material existence.
The bad news is that when you are on the top, there is nowhere to go but down.
A slow, never-ending, grinding process. That’s where we are and where we are heading.
There may be a nuclear war, but the way to bet is just continued, increasing discomfort and loss of quality of life.
For a while, we might not even notice. The old, boiling frogs, thing. You know - you throw a frog into boiling water and he will jump out. You put him in tepid water and slowly turn up the heat and the frog happily boils.
And, with wealth, you can insulate yourself from a lot of reality for some period of time.
Education, healthcare, crime, homelessness, feces on the sidewalk. No matter what your age, think back 20 years and compare society then and now. And that is before we get into our culture of perpetual outrage and anger and loathing of our neighbors. Before we think about a debt-to-GDP of more than 100% and trillion-dollar deficits that have mortgaged our future. Before we think about the government’s energy policy that will undermine essentially everything. Before we think about central bank digital currencies that will be the ultimate tool for authoritarianism and social control. Before we think about the rise of AI and the rise of the robots.
Whether we are talking global warming or sustainability, your life will consist of a never-ending series of laws, peer pressures and lack of availability of resources that will make your life increasingly uncomfortable, inconvenient and expensive. Arguably, your convenient, prosperous life, on average, peaked just before the Great Financial Crisis - when you could find things on grocery shelves, get good service at a restaurant, were not threatened by lack of water or brownouts, did not have human feces in the street, were able to go downtown without being accosted, could get police to respond quickly, and if you were a business owner, not be subject to wholesale, punishment-less theft.
Or be canceled for misgendering somebody.
Of course, a significant amount of this good life was a result of spending too much money – essentially borrowing it from the future. A great deal of our privileged behavior comes from being spoiled.
But it was a hell of a ride.
However, as I described in my book, things have, on net, been going downhill for decades.
Some researchers have tried to quantify quality of life. They came up with the Genuine Progress Indicator, which measures the good things (eg, wealth) and the bad things (eg, pollution, crime) and nets them out to see how quality of life is doing. The result was that quality of life in the US peaked in 1977.
Researchers also attempt to measure happiness. By one indicator, happiness in the US peaked in the late 1950s.
Trust in government peaked in the middle 60s and is now some 20% of its peak.
In my book, I placed the peaking of capitalism as a process that began with LBJ’s guns and butter, was confirmed by Nixon’s taking the US off the gold standard, and sealed into place by the orgy of debt and deficits over the past few decades.
And we are just at the beginning of our descent to sustainability from an unnatural peak of irresponsible consumption.
As an increasing number of people have to sacrifice in an increasing number of dimensions, they will become surly. Arguments over pronouns will morph into arguments about safety and sanitation. People will look for solutions wherever they can find them.
Alas, although there are many incompetent political clowns in the mix, the underlying problems are real.
Global warming is real.
Unsustainability is real.
Your life necessarily has to become more difficult, less prosperous and more expensive.
And, we will inevitably make things more difficult than they have to be.
Let’s back up and gain some perspective by looking at the big picture.
Whether you are talking about the Paris Accords for global warming or my book’s discussion on sustainability, the cure is to reduce either greenhouse gasses in the first case or consumption x population in the second case by some 70-90% in the US. Since I assert that global warming is a symptom of unsustainability, we are ultimately talking about the same thing. However, given that there is a mass movement devoted to stopping global warming and only a few discussing sustainability, I will continue to talk about the two as if they are separate, when, in fact, they are joined at the hip.
Don’t just read past that statement. Stop and think about it. 70-90%! I once estimated that this was the equivalent of the carbon dioxide emissions / standard of living in the 1890s. You would use your entire annual allotment of greenhouse gas consumption by taking one of today’s flights cross country. Just one flight.
If we don’t take action, the Earth’s atmosphere will continue to warm (global warming) or nature will be unable to supply the resources we need, slowly taking away the energy and material bases for our quality of life (sustainability).
President Biden, by shutting down fossil fuels before replacing them with green energy (which can’t be done, unless you include nuclear fission in the mix, and even then, it will be difficult) is creating significant inconvenience and expense through a coming, (at least) decade-long energy crisis.
However, everyone is getting in on the act, wanting to address global warming. Several examples of what will be an intensifying trend:
The Oxfordshire (England) County Council approved plans to lock residents into one of six zones to ‘save the planet’ from global warming. The latest stage in the ’15 minute city’ agenda is to place electronic gates on key roads in and out of the city, confining residents to their own neighbourhoods. Under the new scheme if residents want to leave their zone they will need permission from the Council who gets to decide who is worthy of freedom and who isn’t. Under the new scheme residents will be allowed to leave their zone a maximum of 100 days per year, but in order to even gain this every resident will have to register their car details with the council who will then track their movements via smart cameras round the city.
The European Commission (EC) has given French officials the green light to ban select domestic flights if the route in question can be completed via train in under two and a half hours. The plan was first proposed in 2021 as a means to reduce carbon emissions. It originally called for a ban on eight short-haul flights, but the EC has only agreed to nix three that have quick, easy rail alternatives with several direct connections each way every day.
Dutch farmers protesting for months over the government's radical 'green' plan to slash nitrogen emissions by 50% - 95% could soon face forced buyouts of their land. The Dutch government plans to purchase 3,000 "peak polluter" farms via a €24.3 billion ($25.6 billion) fund. Van der Wal said farmers would be offered 100% value for their land, but if voluntary efforts fail, farmers will face forced buyouts.
California regulators voted unanimously last week to develop new rules that would effectively ban the sale of natural gas-powered heating and hot water systems, a first-in-the-nation commitment. The California Air Resources Board, or CARB, an agency that oversees the state’s climate targets and regulates pollution, passed the measure on Thursday as part of a larger plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions and comply with federal air quality targets. There are about a hundred and forty million homes in the United States. Two-thirds, or about eighty-five million, of them are detached single-family houses; the rest are apartment units or trailer homes. That’s what American prosperity looks like: since the end of the Second World War, our extraordinary wealth has been devoted, above all, to the project of building bigger houses farther apart from one another. The great majority of them are heated with natural gas or oil, and parked in their garages and driveways or on nearby streets are some two hundred and ninety million vehicles, an estimated ninety-nine per cent of which, as of August, run on gasoline. It took centuries to build all those homes from wood and brick and steel and concrete, but, if we’re to seriously address the climate crisis, we have only a few years to remake them.”
The final rule in a set of regulations adopted 15 years ago takes effect this week, banning some 70,000 big rigs from California roads. A set of clean air regulations implemented by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in 2008, and later signed into law as Senate Bill 1, states that any diesel vehicles weighing over 14,000 pounds and built before 2010 are banned from operating on California roads as of Jan. 1, 2023. The agency estimates that around 200,000 vehicles, including 70,000 big rig trucks, do not comply with the rule and will be prohibited from operating in the state, according to KCRA. Exceptions to the rule will be made for vehicles that have replaced their engine with one manufactured after 2010, and vehicles that travel less than 1,000 miles a year. The law will be enforced by DMV denying registrations to non-compliant trucks and buses, and CARB's enforcement unit will conduct audits of commercial fleets that may result in citations.
These laws are not necessarily wrong or stupid, but are only the beginning of a tidal wave of laws and regulations that will increasingly restrict the way you, or the businesses that serve you, can do things and get things done.
Peer pressure will increase.
If you thought word usage was a challenge, wait until we have a culture that watches everybody, all the time, for any infraction of consumption and recycling rules.
Much more effectively, digital currency will watch everything you do and will be able to judge whether it is within allowed limits – whether those limits concern acceptable behavior, supporting acceptable vendors, consuming an acceptable amount of calories or causing the emission of an acceptable amount of greenhouse gas.
Again, although we will do unnecessary things and make things worse, this future is all but inevitable, given global warming and unsustainability. Just like the hangover from a night of bingeing is inevitable. But just because they are the correct things to do or just because they are inevitable, just like the hangover, they will not be fun.
It was a great, great ride.
We are all frogs, now.