Sunday, November 27, 2016
Ten Long Years, What Will the Next Ten Hold?
Who could have foreseen the changes our species, our civilization and our planet have undergone over just the last 10 years? It was 10 years ago that I started this blog and today I glanced through some posts from that first year.
2006, the year Saddam Hussein went to the gallows. It was the year of the Stern Report that warned of the massive economic costs we would face if we refused a rapid transition to alternative, clean energy. Iraq and Afghanistan were still in the grip of chaotic violence (some things never change). Jeb Bush got it right when, replying to reporters asking about his political plans for the future, said, "no tengo, futuro," which translates as "I have no future." Unintentionally prescient. The now "late" Fidel Castro stepped down handing power to his brother, Raoul. Jack Kevorkian got out of prison just as Enron's Jeffrey Skilling was going in. Myron Thompson, remember him? Augusto Pinochet, gone. The Times of London caused a stir with a story claiming the Arctic could be open for navigation as soon as 2040. We thought, nay believed, that America never had a worse president than George w. Bush and could never have one worse in the future. The Globe's mastermind, Marcus Gee, wrote, "the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not predate the 9/11 terrorist outrage against U.S. civilians, but were a response to it" as though the Bush/Cheney gang didn't already have Iraq in Washington's crosshairs from the day they took office. I began referring to The Globe as "the toolbox."
But that was then. This is now, a full decade later. Some things haven't changed such as the breathtaking stupidity of many of our leaders. Still, last week let us know that some things have changed, dangerously so.
The Guardian's George Monbiot brought us "The 13 Impossible Crises that Humanity Now Faces," warning that "this multi-headed crisis presages collapse." Then the Stockholm Environment Institute, in conjunction with the Arctic Council, released the Arctic Resilience Report that carried the shocking news that dramatic environmental change across the Arctic were triggering no fewer than 19 climate "tipping points" that could lead to imminent, runaway global warming.
By sheer happenstance I came across Thomas Homer-Dixon's 2006 book, "The Upside of Down," yesterday as I made another ill-fated attempt to clear the clutter from my office. I was planning to shelve it along with the other books stacked all over my desk when I spied a protruding bookmark that I thought I should scavenge for my next read. Looking at the page it was a commentary on what Homer-Dixon referred to as "contingency" that, in light of those two reports from last week, seemed chilling:
"A moment of contingency is a moment of choice, like the fork in the pathway encountered by the traveler in Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken." Frost's traveler had an advantage: he could see ahead where a road 'bent in the undergrowth.' ...in the aftermath of a globe-shaking social earthquake ...we'll have trouble seeing anything at all. The comfortable old road behind us will have vanished, but the new ones in front of us will be barely visible in a fog of fear and uncertainty.
"In moments of contingency, nothing is definite, and everything is tentative. Choices made by societies, groups, and individuals may be less constrained than previously, but the consequences of choices are far more opaque. Social reality loosens its grip on us. It becomes more fluid. Long-standing relations of authority between people, groups, and institutions weaken, while deeply ingrained patterns of social behavior lose purpose and meaning. Actions and futures that were once unthinkable - because they were too wonderful or too horrible - are suddenly possible. In moments of contingency, surprise and bewilderment create mental polarities; anticipation alternates with fear, and hope with despair. And these polarities evoke the best and worst attributes of human character - courage and cowardice, generosity and greed, kindness and malice, and integrity and deceit.
"Moments of contingency are thus easily exploited for good or ill. Fear, hope, and greed are unleashed at the same time that social reality becomes fluid. This means that people's motivation to change their circumstances soars just as their opportunities to accomplish change multiply. Whether the outcome of this powerful confluence is turmoil or renewal hinges - in large measure - on how the situation is framed.
"People will want reassurance. They will want an explanation of the disorder that has engulfed them - an explanation that makes their world seem, once more, coherent and predictable, if not safe. Ruthless leaders can satisfy these desires and build their political power by prying open existing cleavages between ethnic and religious groups, classes, races, nations, or cultures. First they define what it means to be a good person and in so doing identify the members of the we group. Then they define and identify the bad people who are members of the they group. These are enemies such as immigrants, Jews, Muslims, Westerners, the rich, the poor, the nonwhite, who are the perceived cause of all problems and who can serve as an easy focus of fear and anger.
"Particularly receptive to such stereotypes are people who already feel humiliated or victimized; so too are those who feel alienated or marginalized and who believe, as a result, that they have no stake in society and no peaceful means to express their unhappiness. These people are not necessarily the destitute; rather, they're people who see a rapidly widening gulf between what they're getting and what they think they rightfully deserve. "
In the context of the Arctic Resilience Report and Monbiot's "13 impossible crises," Homer-Dixon's discussion of "contingency" in his now 10 year old book sounds as if it could have been written today. Some of it seems to be straight out of Donald Trump's campaign playbook. We live in an era where wedge politics works for those who turn this weapon against us, those who reap immeasurable gains from the dismantling of social cohesion.
Homer-Dixon's point is that we need to be able to identify what societal collapse will look like. We need to grasp the pitfalls and be ready for them. It's our ability to roll with the punches and bounce back, just as often as necessary, that will determine how, even if, we can renew our civilization.