As I've explored issues from globalism to climate change, one aspect that stands out is our concept of "normal." What is normal?
It's curious how quickly and resolutely we embrace ideas as orthodoxy, imbuing them with the status of some law of nature. Take GDP growth. Western leaders (and most others) see steady, constant GDP growth as a measure of their nation's economic health and a testament to their own prowess at governance. It's as though GDP growth was inscribed on tablets someone brought back from a stroll up some mountain. That's bollocks.
GDP growth is a concept hatched in the wake of WWII. It wasn't "a thing" when the Wright brothers took to the skies or when Dillinger terrorized the mid-west. No, it was a post-war idea. That's a good thing. Why? Because our enshrined goal of 3% annual GDP growth is lethally exponential. 3% annual GDP growth over 50 years expands the economy by a factor of 4.4. After a century your economy has swelled by a factor of more than 19 times. A century and a half and your overall production and consumption is 84 times greater than your GDP in Year One. Two centuries and it's 369 times greater. You, your society, your economy - it's all going to implode and it's not going to be pretty.
We think this concept of continual GDP growth is normal but it's not. It's self-defeating, self-destructive but you won't find a leader in the western world who is not committed to growth as the solution to all problems. You can't blame them all. It was a fine idea back when there was a huge surplus of resources and demand never exceeded supply. We didn't know it at the time but we passed that point somewhere in the early to mid-70s. Since then our idea of normal has been steering us into trouble.
Our leaders continue to cling to globalism as normal. Even Trudeau is toying with the Trans Pacific Partnership. He'll do whatever the Americans do. You, you're just a pawn, inconsequential. These are solemn deals between world leaders to surrender elements of national sovereignty to the globalized corporate sec tor for supposed benefits that do not materialize where they're promised. These deals were supposed to benefit the general public - more jobs, better wages. Instead they delivered fewer jobs, lower wages, economic stagnation for most, massive wealth redistribution for the benefit of the few and yet our leaders failed to act. Even as the International Monetary Fund rebukes globalism as a rotten system that stagnates economies and fuels inequality, our leaders keep their pens at the ready to ink the next toxic deal. It is, after all, their "normal."
The Weather Network has a story today about a NASA report on Arctic sea ice that speaks to an emerging term, a "new normal."
“A decade ago, this year’s sea ice extent would have set a new record low and by a fair amount. Now, we’re kind of used to these low levels of sea ice – it’s the new normal.”
Surely it robs "normal" of all useful meaning if it doesn't reflect elements of equilibrium, permanence. Merriam-Webster suggests as much with this definition:
a : according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle b : conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern.
What's going on in the Arctic isn't a matter of conformity to any norm, rule, or principle. It is a process of deviation from normal, a small component of a far greater, all-encompassing deviation from what we ever knew as normal.
Exponential GDP growth isn't normal. There's no equilibrium or permanence to it. We're running out of stuff, running into walls. That can't be normal. Nothing that's inherently self-destructive, including globalism, can be considered normal. To the contrary, it's the foundation of chaos, now and to come.
How perverse is it that our political caste should treat as normal models that are so inherently chaotic and self-defeating? To me they resemble nothing so much as these sailors who failed to let go of the mooring lines of the USS Akron.
Needless to say, hanging on too long was a death sentence for those sailors. Hanging on too long to outdated and failed models of trade and other "normal" policies by our leaders will have different consequences but they'll be visited upon the population as a whole.
There is no normal to climate change either. We are transitioning from one geological epoch, the Holocene, to a man-made geological epoch, the Anthropocene. We have gone from one steady-state that lasted an abbreviated 11,000 years but it will take centuries, if not millennia, before we reach the next steady-state. Even as we toy with ideas for reclaiming control of our environment, through geo-engineering perhaps, it races further beyond our reach.
Humans like certainty, I understand that. Yet, when you're in an indefinite era of chaos, what good can come of even trying to define normal?
Like a person swept away in the torrent of a flash flood and grasping for tree branches, you can try to cling to normalcy but it's an illusion abetted by our tendency to ignore the past. We cease to connect conditions 20, 30 or 50 years in the past with our notion of normal. In the process, normal loses most of its meaning and nearly all of its utility.
Politicians use the term "creeping normalcy" to refer to slow trends concealed within noisy fluctuations. If the economy, schools, traffic congestion, or anything else is deteriorating only slowly, it's difficult to recognize that each successive year is on the average slightly worse than the year before, so one's baseline standard for what constitutes "normalcy" shifts gradually and imperceptibly.
If the embrace of normalcy has indeed become a potentially dangerous and disruptive illusion, perhaps it is time to adopt more agile frameworks better suited to conditions of chaos. This calls for taking a hard look and identifying what has outlived its usefulness. This would extend into all our modes of organization - political, social, economic, industrial and environmental. In each there are feet of clay - globalism, neoliberalism, consumerism and such that prevent us from responding quickly and effectively to sometimes rapid and dramatic change. Identify what doesn't work and why and then acknowledge that for ignoring it or kicking it down the road can be disastrous.
With enough time societies would move past globalism, neoliberalism and consumerism whether by choice or by necessity or both. The problem is that time was a luxury that may have been part of the Holocene but is in scarce supply in this transition to the Anthropocene. Time in the Anthropocene has become as precious as access to clean drinking water or clean air. We can't afford to waste it.