Thursday, November 17, 2016

Forgotten Warning


“The Collapse of Civilization” by Steve Thomas


Predicting the future is truthfully a fool's errand. Recent societal changes have taken the most astute observers of culture by surprise and technological advancement over the last sixty years would probably seem like magic to those born at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, I remember a report published when I was a kid that was scary accurate in how the future unfolded.

Back during the last year of the Carter Administration a report came out painting a dim view of the future stretching from the last two decades of the twentieth century and well into the twenty-first. I forget the author of the report, some government agency I believe, but it made the case that the coming years would see countries across the globe dealing with increasing pressures from worsen pollution and swelling populations exacerbated by basic resources becoming scarce. This would lead to an increasing of international tensions, terrorism, and outright war. This report went as far as to state that this would ultimately lead to the introduction of authoritarian governments in normally democratic countries. That last item was something that both puzzled and worried me since this report came out before the end of the Cold War. At the time I just couldn't imagine Western countries willingly surrendering the principles that made them special enough to stand against the communist nations.

The main reason I remember this report was that it ran counter to the general optimism inherent to the late 60's and early 70's, the years that, for a lack of a better term, I essentially became conscious. To my young mind, after having been tainted with the philosophy of Star Trek and being influenced by the Civil Rights struggle, the future was supposed to be one where things got progressively better. Yes, during the late 1970's I was a serious science and science fiction nerd who ate up any literature attempting to describe what the lives of human beings would be like in the coming decades. Sure, there would be setbacks, but the view of the futurists I read in magazines like Analog and the now dead Omni said we were on the road to far better things for everyone on the planet.

While I have forgotten most of the details, I do vaguely remember this report spelled out the reasons why things were going to get bad and they mainly centered around far too many people basically wanting the American lifestyle. To meet this desire already threatened resources would be stripped further increasing their costs, which would push the poorer among us down the socioeconomic ladder straining civil society. Authoritarian leaders would then appear to quell the uprising of the poor, denied masses and protect those of property or conversely, to overthrow the existing unfair status quo.

It was an exceedingly dark and dystopic future whose only meager silver lining was the vague suggestion that technology might remedy the situation by the middle of the twenty-first century. The last thing I remember about this report was that it made enough of an impact that the Reagan Administration instantly countered it as soon as they came into the White House with their own pollyannaish version. It claimed everything in the future was going to be hunky-dory and anyone that said different was a lying commie.

The troubling aspect of that forgotten, pessimistic report for me was even at that young age it clearly spelled out the troubles we were to face. As opposed to the Reagan version that gave vague assurances that everyone should just buy sunglasses because the future was going to be so bright.

As fate would have it the intervening years were seemingly not as dire as first predicted. The looming Soviet Empire collapsed almost overnight freeing dozens of nation from its oppressive grip. Democracy and free market capitalism were proclaimed by nearly all as the natural state of human affairs. And finally, the United States became the sole global superpower whose destiny was to expand its way of life to every person on the planet. Then there was the unparalleled expansion of electronic technology that took the computer from a device the size of a room to one that could fit in a pant's pocket and act as your telephone, high quality camera, universal information almanac, personal assistant, and thousands of other things. Among all this unbridled freedom and pursuit of new markets and technology things were slowing going to shit.

The first thing that has to be mentioned was the growing web of free trade treaties that on the surface are a great idea. That being rising global trade and open markets promote higher living standards which in turn increase stability and prosperity for everyone taking part. The problem with this good idea was that international corporations decided the economic bottom line dictated that manufacturing-- i.e. good paying jobs—had to migrate to countries where the pay was far less than what the average worker got in the United States or any other First World country. Now this was fine for the Elite and those running the corporations, their wealth not only stayed the same but grew almost exponentially since workers in China only got paid cents on the dollar compared to their American counterparts.

As for middle class American workers this has meant a long slide downward as jobs that allowed a newly married couple to buy a house, raise kids and put them through college, while saving for retirement began dissolving like smoke caught in a breeze. With good jobs disappearing credit cards became the way the middle class kept up the facade of a prosperous lifestyle. During my grandparents' time debt was a shame and something that was taken on only with great reluctance. I remember one occasion when my grandparents television had a permanent and irreversible meltdown requiring that they go out and buy a replacement.

Today such a shopping trip can be executed in one afternoon, but for them that meant waiting for several weeks as paychecks built up and a few other bills were paid off. Then there was the shopping around trying to get the best deal since back then the purchase of a television was much the same as buying a car. Once the new television was delivered, I remember my grandfather working overtime at the local paper mill so it could be paid off as quickly as possible.

Today it is nothing for the average family to make a similar purchase on a whim all the while having no tangible monetary savings. Sure they “own” a house that over time should increase in value and some sort of retirement savings account that takes the place of the long dead workplace pension. But these folks are permanent riders on the credit merry-go-round and subject to the shifting temperament of those that manage the stock markets and banks.

Needless to say, since the 1970's economic equality in the United States and around the world has suffered terribly with a tiny percentage of the super-rich controlling the vast majority of global wealth. To the modern wealthy Elites, their status is as natural as eighteenth-century aristocrats thought their own position was during that that era of hereditary kings and dukes. However, like the peasants that eventually wised up and killed off many of those aristocrats, there are those of us that have become aware very little of the post-Cold War expansion of wealth is trickling down to those of us on the bottom half of the economic ladder. But instead of forming coherent groups to address this equality, populist leaders have stepped forward who appeal to the worst in our nature. They promise utopia but upon closer examination are only spewing hate-filled rhetoric while scapegoating people and institutions and that while flawed, are not the true source of their problems.

There is absolutely no doubt that capitalism, when compared to the command and control economies of the post-WW 2 communist nations is both more efficient and takes into consideration the basic human right that someone should be able to reap the benefits of their idea or invention. That being said, capitalism has similar tendencies like communism in that it eats the unfortunate and poor. The simple fact that corporations almost daily abandon longtime and loyal employees and relocate to countries that pay significantly less and do not have troublesome institutions like labor unions shows a contempt for the individual that I frankly find psychotic.

One of the central parts of the pessimistic Carter report was how pollution in the coming years was going to become worse. This was another aspect that puzzled me since the 1970's was the decade that the Clean Air and Water Acts passed by the United States Congress had gone along way to reducing and reversing industries affects on the environment. Of course, Ronny Reagan wasn't long in the White House when his administration began reversing as much of those vital reforms as it could get away with. Later administrations would go even further all in the name of slicing through “Red Tape” that hampered economic development.

Since the end of the Cold War massive industrialization along capitalistic principles by former-communist and third world countries have assaulted the global environment all in the supposed name of raising living standards for the less fortunate. That does occur in a limited fashion, some places more than others, but in actuality the level of environmental destruction, climate destabilization, and worker abuse at the hands of monolithic corporations is so bad you could debate whether or not any positive short term gains are equal to the long term negatives. In short, while working in some third world sweatshop does provide a narrow avenue for some to escape grinding poverty, if that person and his or her family have to drink polluted water, eat tainted food and then suffer through a drought one year and unprecedented and destructive floods the next are they truly any better off? This ignores the possibility that these sweatshop workers are near slaves being forced to endure soul crushing hours while working in dangerous conditions.

This being the late 1970's, I don't remember anything about climate change being mentioned in that pessimistic report. However, I learned recently of a 1950ish video that shows two science types talking about how industrialization was spewing untold amounts of pollution into the atmosphere and how that it could, and would eventually alter the global climate for the worse. The fact that huge numbers of people absolutely refuse to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence that human actions have severely damaged the planetary climate does not say anything good about the chances of our species long term survival.

In all the years that have passed since I became aware of this report, the one aspect that I took some relief in was that the Western nations hadn't succumbed to the siren call of authoritarian demagogues, now even that has come true. At first it was newly freed Eastern European countries like Hungary and Poland electing individuals who have no dedication to the principles of freedom their nations dreamed about while under Soviet domination. Then this contagion spread to Western countries rightly worried about the power of uncontrollable multinational corporations, fears over economic globalization, and outright racism spawned by uncomfortable changes in internal demographics. Sorry Brits, while you guys and gals have every right to worry about how globalization is effecting your country, your recent vote to leave the European Union was packaged in ways less than honorable given your country's traditions.

Now even the United States has succumbed to the trends that long forgotten report predicted. The American public has just elected a man who has never held public office and whose temperament and behavior suggests the absolute last job he should hold is one where the lives of literally billions of people are in his hands. Furthermore, his admitted admiration of authoritarian tyrants in other countries as well as his reluctance to steadfastly condemn racist supporters frankly scares the hell out of many Americans. Trump's criticism of the American free press and threats to curtail its ability to do its Constitutionally mandated job by all rights would have immediately eliminated from presidential consideration if a majority of the American public were true to the principles the United States was founded upon.

Personally I believe these trends go beyond the report saying all this would be brought on by dwindling resources. While capitalism is a better economic system than the one used by the now dead Soviet Union, it nonetheless has its own inherent flaws. Namely that expansion must be constant and that efficiency and profit must come before people and the environment. These flaws, for the most part, could be overlooked in a world with far less people but that is simply the not the case anymore. Ignoring economic globalization alone for the moment, just having over seven billion people on a small planet all demanding access to food, water, and something more that makes life worth living would strain resources beyond the breaking point.

I absolutely hate sounding like a New Age guru, but I can't escape the conclusion that our current global structure of competing nation-states and massive corporations that answer to no regulating body is unsustainable. As for the report's suggestion that technology might ultimatly save us from the mess we have created, that is the one aspect I believe it will get wrong. The only thing that will save not only our global civilization, and maybe our species itself, is the realization that no nation, religion, corporation, or ethnic group can continue to look to the past as some sort of lost golden age of greatness. Simply put, our numbers and demands on the planet and each other will not allow it. It's a tired cliche but there is in reality no great savior that will solve all our problems, only fools believe such a thing. What will save us is the awareness that the ideas, superstitions, and institutions that divide into conflicted and selfish groups are foolish and worn out relics from previous ages that we best discard, not just for the betterment of ourselves but for the very lives of our children.

Author's note: If anyone can direct me to a link or even an article to that report published during the Carter Administration I would greatly appreciate it. I'm probably not phrasing my internet searches correctly so I'm not finding any mention of it even through I know it was real. 

5 comments:

Pixel Peeper said...

I'm not aware of such a report, but I do remember reading an article in a magazine when I was in high school, probably 17 or 18 years old. I can't recall the details, but I remember it painted a bleak picture of the future. It was less about politics, but more about how technology and damage to the environment would severely affect our lifestyle.

I remember it was quite depressing. I think of this magazine article every time when things seem to go bad. Like after 9/11, or after this election. I'm usually an optimistic person, always hoping for the best, but something like this always rattles me. I want someone to have a plan, know how to fix this, tell us what we can do about it.

Nasreen Iqbal said...

I've been thinking about this lately. "Global free trade" was inevitable because capitalism - in order to keep the smiling happy illusion of capitalism - requires somebody to be really, really abused and exploited in a way that depirives them of basic dignity and even life.

And if that's not going to be us - if even the lower middle class demands to live a little bit like the haves - then the abuse and depravity is going to have to happen elsewhere. We can't have listeral slavery here, and we can't do what Belgium did in the Congo, so we rely on slavery elsewhere and the ugly stuff that needs to be done here we have done by undocumented people in a hidden underground economy.

So what happens when everyone in the world demands to share in the basics, rather than just everybody here demanding it? What happens when the world runs out of people to exploit?

I don't know.

I believe we might be entering an end phase, but I've seen enough End-of-Days preachers to know not to pin an exact date to it.

MigratingSpirit said...

Major shifts in thinking, philosophies in society and continued growth in material realities are always met with aggression. I do not know where you can follow be that report but I well remember similar info from back then along with concerns that welled up inside myself as I worked within several scientific venues back then that left me disenchanted with overall motivations. Great write.

Ranch Chimp said...

Thank You for the interesting read Bum, I cant say I know anything about sci- fi or prophecies, etc ... just never took much time to read and view most of it at any time in my life. I think that things will get better in the future, but only because I feel the way we are going is going to bring a collapse of what we have, and a new sort of start will happen ... historically empires come and go, the human animal has done a good job at self preservation. On these so called "elites", I understand how people use the term/ word to describe a certain breed or whatever, so I will us elite for this, however, I dont view these that people view as elite as being elite, people like yourself for instance who volunteered to serve this nation and contribute monetarily and otherwise to sustain our quality of of living and passion for freedom are elite (so, I would rather call you elite) ... elites should be "leaders" and the best of the best, this parasitic vermin that we look up to are scum, period, and are good for nothing but hustling, ripping off the most vulnerable, and frankly, nothing more than bullies at that. Most of these people dont give a rats ass about global warming, fellow humans (that are not in their circles or monetary level), they own both these polarizing political parties, and both are evil ("evil" being used here as what people identify I guess as what is against them ... I personally dont believe in good and evil, I feel they are the same), both these sides depend on and embrace this neoliberalism, and are not necessarily corrupt, as much as they are caught up in systematic corruption, so they have to embrace corruption to play their game of chess with each other. These so called elites and their pop culture they created needs to be taken down, and if the masses dont, they will take themselves down ... in time. The objective of these parasites? ... to create a Utopia basically, they feel that the technologies and science we have will give them the longevity, and that those at lower levels need to die off ... yes, they want to push austerity, hunger, war or whatever is needed to decrease the populations over time, most of what they needed human slaves for, wont be needed in the future, nor do they look at having capitalism in the future as we know it, that is why they are ratholing all the wealth and resources now, to build their "individual" environments and personal empires, I could go on ... but the bottom line here is, people are starting to wake up and see that these folks their enemy ... and people need to think of them, the same way they think of the people, not make excuses for them, protect them ... but strike back and focus on destroying it ... and violence, force are in order and justified by natural law, after all, they are nothing without us, basically only good for fertilizer ... I dont believe in loving my enemies, feeding them or protecting them ... they would never for us, even as basic laws of the jungle it's insane ... nor can they even lead us, if it wasnt for money took and use for controlling power, I see them as worthless as they see us. I'll shut up now.

Beach Bum said...

Pixel: While I am sure the report I mentioned is a real thing. Given my fruitless searches, I'm starting to think there is a piece of that puzzle I've forgotten.

Nasreen: The real fun is when automation technology starts hitting jobs that were once thought completely safe. I wrote about this is my post called, "Falling Down Short of the Singularity." Something called universal minimum income is starting to be talked about in that it would guarantee funds to those left totally jobless.

Yeah, civilization is moving into a totally different and unprecedented new phase. But given that Trump got elected clearly shows very understand that fact.

Migrating Spirit: Humans are such short term thinkers it's no wonder aliens don't visit us.

Ranch: Hopefully our species will make the transition to a higher level of thinking.