|“The Collapse of Civilization” by Steve Thomas|
Thursday, November 17, 2016
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.